Category Archives: Crime and thrillers
The Hog’s Back Mystery is a gem of a book for readers who enjoy crime fiction, prefer it to come sans details of bloody corpses, tortured victims or nasty things lurking in the woodshed but don’t want it to veer too much towards “cosy”.
It’s one of the titles republished in the British Library Classic Crime series and comes from what’s been labelled as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction (a term coined by the writer John Strachey in 1939 to describe crime novels written between the world wars). These authors followed certain conventions, chief of which was that readers shouldn’t be cheated by sudden revelations or surprises. No-one to whom the reader hadn’t already been introduced should be revealed as the murderer for example.
In The Hog’s Back Mystery author Freeman Wills Crofts this plays scrupulously fair with his readers. Every detail the armchair sleuth could possibly need to make their own deduction is provided. His detective in charge of the investigation, Inspector Joseph French of Scotland Yard, helpfully recaps and reviews his findings every few days. To play even more fair with his readers, when the crime is finally solved he provides the page numbers for every clue in the trail, a detailed timetable of events and a little sketch map. It still took me three quarters of the book to get an inkling of the identity of the perpetrator but I never got close to working out how the crime was committed.
I say crime but in fact this book has four. It begins with the disappearance of a semi-retired doctor from his home in the vicinity of The Hog’s Back, a ridge on the North Downs in Surrey. Doctor Earle left the house in slippers and minus hat one evening. Had he been abducted or murdered? Or was his disappearance planned? The mystery deepens when a nurse who he had met secretly in London also disappears. One theory holds that they had run off together but then a house guest of the doctor and his wife also vanishes.
Solving this puzzle requires all of French’s skills in getting people’s confidence so they open up to him and disclose seemingly small and inconsequential details about their movements at the time of the disappearances. They build a picture of an era and a way of life that most of us wouldn’t recognise today. The buses run so punctually that an alibi can be built around them and telegrams popped into a rural postbox will reach its city destination promptly. The families and individuals in this novel dress for dinner; eat a substantial lunch as well as dinner except for Sunday’s when it’s their cook’s day off so they take a cold collation and the men smoke a lot. French has a healthy appetite himself and is concerned that the quality of his work will fall away if he is hungry. Fortunately in this investigation he gets to do a lot of cycling between different houses, borrowing a lowly constable’s bike to do so. Could you imagine Inspector Morse’s reaction if told to forgo his beloved Jag for a two-wheeler?
There are a plethora of suspects, a multitude of dead ends to navigate and some complex alibis for him to evaluate before he can wrap everything up and help bring the guilty to justice. In the introduction to the British Library edition, the crime fiction expert Martin Edwards, indicates that Freeman Wills Crofts wrote an essay in which he described his method for constructing his plots. Apparently he first prepared a synopsis of the “facts” and the chronology of events then sketch maps of key locations and character biographies. Finally he developed a summary of how and when the facts are revealed to his investigator. I have to believe such meticulous attention to detail is linked with his training as a civil engineer, an occupation which requires precision and logic. It meant that by the time I got to the end of The Hog’s Back Mystery I didn’t have that feeling I so often experience with crime novels, that I’d been cheated and led up a garden path.
About this book: The Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts was first published in 1933. It was his fourteenth novel and the fifth to feature Inspector French.
About the author: Freeman Wills Crofts was born in Dublin in 1879. At seventeen he began studying civil engineering and developed a passion for railway engineering. He began writing to amuse himself while recovering from an illness, initially combining his new career with his work as chief engineer for an Irish railway company. Such was the success and esteem of his novels that he gave up the railway work.
Why I read this book: I learned of this book via Ali at HeavenAli (her review is here) and she kindly donated her copy to me. I added it to my #20booksofsummer reading list for 2017. It was ideal reading for my period of enforced leisure after my broken humerus adventure.
The town of Cheltenham has a reputation for being the rather genteel, upmarket part of Gloucestershire. With its Roman provenance and tradition as a spa town it likes to think of itself as the cultural capital of the Cotswolds. Michelin starred restaurants, classy boutiques and Regency-style buildings, give it an ambiance that you wouldn’t think would harbour murderers. But it’s surprising what tensions and hostilities can fester behind those classic facades as John Bude points out at the beginning of The Cheltenham Square Mystery:
… as in so many cases, the outward suggestions of the square are by no means compatible with the inward life lived by the people inhabiting it. … though for the most part the community live in amity, the very fact that they live in an enclosed intimacy not to be found in an ordinary road is sufficient to exaggerate such small annoyances and dissensions which from time to time arise.
The underlying rancour between some of the occupants of the square over an old elm-tree, yapping dogs and noisy telephones escalates to physical violence when one of their number is found in his chair with an arrow in the back of his head. The question of course is who killed him. There are plenty of suspects because many of the residents of Regency Square are members of an archery club and are pretty darn good shots. Some of them also have good reason to want the Captain dead since he wasn’t exactly a man who endeared himself. He’d seduced the wife of one of resident, the banker Arthur West, was blackmailing another and had recently come into rather a large sum of money. Oh and he rides a very noisy motorbike which regularly disturbs the peace of this square, a place where:
The general effect is of a quiet residential backwater in which old people can grow becomingly older, undisturbed by the rush and clatter of a generation which has left them nothing but the memories of a past epoch.
For local police the challenge is to how to break through the alibis that most of the residents conveniently seem to possess. There’s another question that perplexes them – how could the perpetrator have walked unnoticed around the Square with a six-foot bow in his (or her) arms? Fortunately reinforcements are to hand in the form of Superintendent Meredith, detective par-excellence with Sussex County Constabulary, who just happens to be staying in the square as the guest of a friend. His bosses give him leave to partner up with Inspector Long, the man in charge of the case. The pair hit it off and have a good old time in clambering over the rooftops and questioning various suspects. Just when they think they’ve nailed it, another resident gets bumped off in almost identical circumstances.
Bude provides a set of potential murderers many of whom are fairly typical of Golden Age crime. We get the respected local doctor and a vicar, a banker, two spinster sisters and a dog-obsessed woman. No butler though there is Alfred who acts as general factotum to one of the residents. This is a tale that has plenty of various red herrings and blind alleys before reaching the inevitable revelation of the culprit’s identity. There were a few points where I thought the police investigators were a bit slow to grasp the significance of the evidence (even I worked out the identity of the murderer before they did who and I’m no great shakes at this detective lark). I wouldn’t class this as a page turner or a compelling read but it was enjoyable enough for the most part.
The one aspect that did irritate me was the dialogue. Meredith gets to speak in ‘proper’ English whereas Inspector Long’s dialogue is full of more cheery plebian utterances (Crikey seems to be a favourite) and dropped aitches and Alfred the servant comes with a full-blown rendition of Cockney. Was this Bude’s attempt to differentiate his characters or at attempt at humour (if so, it failed with me). Or was it a reflection of the class consciousness of his era? Either way it was a blot on the reading experience. The Cheltenham Square Murder isn’t a page turner or a compelling read but it was workmanlike and a reasonably pleasant novel that did a good job of evoking the spirit of Cheltenham’s ‘leisure, culture and tranquility.’
I’ve seen some comments that this isn’t the best of Bude’s work by far – The Cornish Coast Murder and Death on the Riviera are apparently superior in terms of both plot and characterisation. I’ll look out for them next time I’m in the mood for a bit of crime that isn’t sensational or violent but isn’t necessarily ‘cosy’ either.
About the book: The Cheltenham Square Murder was published initially in 1937. It was re-issued in 2016 as part of the British Library Crime Classics series, an imprint of the Poisoned Pen Press.
About the author: John Bude is the pen-name of a theatrical producer, stage director and playwright, who abandoned the stage to become a prolific writer of detective stories. Over the course of twenty-five years he wrote some thirty mystery novels, the last of which came out in 1958. The Cheltenham Square Murder is Bude’s fourth mystery novel, but only the third one to feature his series character: Superintendent Meredith of the Sussex County Police.
Why I read this book: I bought this as a gift for my sister who works in Cheltenham and is also a fan of Golden Age Crime. Unfortunately she already had a copy so I got to keep it. I too it off my shelves when I was looking for something to read that was a completely different pace to the novel I had just finished (Hell’s Gate by Laurent Gaudé).
The discovery of skeletal remains under a public car park in Leicester a couple of years ago re-awakened interest in King Richard III, the man forever lodged in the public imagination as a murderous hunchback with withered arm. Archaeological and forensic evidence of the skeleton revealed a spinal deformity but established unquestionably that both the withered arm and the hunchback were myths. What about that other accusation that Richard was a murderer? Did he actually have his two young nephews, the real heirs to the throne, killed in the Tower of London in order to clear the way for his own ascent to the throne? Or is that an invention of Tudor-era historians keen to separate the new dynasty from the past?
Richard’s role and culpability has long been a subject of fascination but most of the debate took place in the narrow confines of historical academia. In 1951 however, the question became popularised with the publication of The Daughter of Time by the Scottish novelist Josephine Tey.
It’s rather an odd book; a mash-up of historical novel and detective story; in which a modern-day detective ‘investigates’ the crimes of which Richard has stood accused for centuries. All the investigation takes place from the confines of a hospital bed where Inspector Alan Grant (the central figure in Tey’s crime fiction series) lies flat on his back having broken his leg by falling through a trap door. He’s desperately bored. He knows every crack on the ceiling and has zero interest in the pile of books brought by well-meaning visitors. He perks up when his actress friend brings him a collection of portraits attached to historical controversies. After years in the police force Grant thinks he can tell a villain from an innocent just by their face so when his eye falls on a portrait of Richard III, his curiosity is aroused. What he sees is not the face of a murderer but a man “used to great responsibility, and responsible in his authority. Someone too conscientious. A worrier; perhaps a perfectionist.” The more Grant reads about Richard, the more convinced he becomes that there is a mystery waiting to be uncovered. He quizzes hospital staff about their knowledge of the Princes in the Tower and reads whatever he can get his hands on – fortunately for him, one of his nurses has kept her old school history book.
All good detectives in fiction need a side kick to do the running around on their behalf, digging out the info from which the great brain will make his deductions. In The Daughter of Time the side kick role is allocated to Brent Carradine, a young American researcher at the British Museum. Together the pair read chronicles from Richard’s time and the Tudor era; delve into assessments by more contemporary historians and track down original documents. Grant dismisses the assessments of chroniclers like Thomas More (whose History of Richard III is the primary source for the conventional story of the murders) as “back-stair gossip and servants’ spying.” More after all was just five years old when Richard seized the throne so couldn’t possibly have written his account based on personal knowledge.
Nor does Grant have much faith in latter-day historians. “They see history like a peep show, with two-dimensional figures against a distant background” he tells his actress friend. Instead Grant relies on his ability to judge a man’s character by the cut of his jib and to spot the gaps in evidentiary documents – skills honed from his years at Scotland Yard. On the eve of Grant’s departure for home, he summarises the case for Richard’s defence and the case for seeing a wholly different culprit – his successor on the English throne, King Henry VII.
This is a novel that was immediately popular upon its publication. It took a subject seen by many as ‘dry’ and made it into a quest for justice and the truth. It caused many readers to burrow in their attics for their dusty school history books and re-acquaint themselves with the fifteenth-century equivalent of Who’s Who. A radio program based on the book followed in 1952 and then a spate of novels, plays, and biographies sympathetic to Richard throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
If Tey’s intent was to rehabilitate the reputation of a man best known as the villain of Shakespearian drama, she certainly succeeds in creating doubt about the veracity of that portrayal. But as a work of literature it has its faults. By necessity a lot of background information needs to be provided and explained so we get large chunks of narrative along these lines:
Do you know about Morton?
He was a lawyer turned churchman, and the greatest pluralist on record. He chose the Lancastrian side and stayed with it until it was made clear that Edward IV was home and dried. Then he made his peace with the York side and Edward made him Bishop of Ely. And vicar of God knows how many parishes besides. but after Richard’s accession he backed first the Woodvilles and then Henry Tudor and ended up with a cardinal’s hat….
Then we get multiple conversations between Grant and Carradine which go along the lines of
I’ll tell you something even odder. You know we thought that XYZ……… Well, it turns out that …….
Yes you may well look startled.
Are you sure?
Not exactly riveting dialogue is it? I know a certain amount of exposition is required for the benefit of readers who are not familiar with the period or the key figures but Tey goes over-board on this. I didn’t feel I needed to have everything spelled out and it deadened what would otherwise be some fascinating insights into the machinations of the times. The shame is that it marred an otherwise fascinating book. My knowledge of the period isn’t deep enough to judge for myself whether it’s Henry we should consider to be the instigator of what happened more than 500 years ago. But Tey does make a persuasive case for re-evaluating Richard’s reputation. She’s also re-awakened my interest in the period – tonight I’ll be watching the BBC version of the Shakespeare’s play (the final episode in the Hollow Crown series). Then tomorrow I plan to head for the library hoping they might have a history of Richard’s reign.
The Book: The Daughter of Time was published in 1951, the year before the death of its author. In 1990 it was voted number one in The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list compiled by the British Crime Writers’ Association.
The Author: Jospehine Tey was one of the pen-names of Elizabeth MacKintosh, a teacher from Inverness, Scotland. She started publishing novels in 1929 under the name Gordon Daviot, using that pseudonym also for some historical plays. A Daughter of Time was her final novel. She left her copyrights to the National Trust.
Why I read this: I tried reading another of Tey’s novels – Brat Farrar – but found it rather dull so gave up. I found a copy of The Daughter of Time in a second hand shop at very low cost and since I’m a sucker for the Wars of the Roses period in history, my curiousity was awakened. The 1951 Club, the latest in a series of events hosted by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, gave me the impetus to take it out of the bookcase.
It’s risky to begin reading a series part way through its run. I knew when I opted for The Chalk Pit, the ninth in the Dr Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths, that I’d be missing a lot of the background details about the characters and their relationships. But the premise of a crime/mystery series whose central character is a forensic archaeologist, seemed rather different so I was willing to take the chance that I could get up to speed fairly quickly without having to go right back to book one.
The publishers Quercus are clearly aware that this could be an issue since they provided a handy ‘who’s who’ at the back of the book. This wasn’t of much help to me however since, by the time I discovered the guide, I had already finished reading the novel. Not that it proved a problem because within the first few chapters Elly Griffiths succinctly provided everything I needed to know about Dr Galloway and her tangled relationship with Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson. The two have worked together on several cases but they have an even closer connection – they have a six-year-old daughter though Harry still lives with his wife.
In The Chalk Pit, the two are thrown together once more when Ruth is called in when some bones are discovered in a tunnel under the city of Norwich. They look as if they’ve been there for hundreds of years but there’s something odd about them – they might have been boiled, a practice Ruth knows is associated with cannibalism. Harry meanwhile is wrestling with his own mystery – who has killed two homeless men who live on the streets of Norwich? And is this somehow connected with the disappearance of a female rough sleeper? His team don’t have a lot to go on other than the rather strange remark that she had ‘gone underground’. Progress is slow which doesn’t please the new (female) Superintendent who wants Harry focused on higher priority matters instead of wasting time on this investigation. The pressure mounts further when two other women go missing.
Two elements of this book were disappointing. One was the pace at which the plot progressed. Books are like cheese in my view – they need time to mature. This one felt rather rushed. Just when I was having my imagination fired up with the idea of homeless people forming a new community to live in old chalk pits underneath the city of Norwich, Ruth announces she knows the identity of the killer. From there we get a bit of rushing around the city and then the killer is in custody and it was all over. I could happily have spent more time exploring the underground world. The second disappointment was that
we didn’t get to experience Ruth at work as much as I would have expected. Yes she examines the bones and sends them off for various types of analysis and has a few conversations about the history of chalk pits and different underground societies around the world. But I wanted more of this – and less about her daughter and their life together in a remote seaside cottage.
Where The Chalk Pit really scored highly for me was in the way it treats the issue of homelessness. Elly Griffiths avoids the easy option of portraying the street dwellers as ‘salt-of-the-earth’ type figures who are ranged against a society that doesn’t care. Instead she shows them as people who have sadness in their lives but also character flaws that led them to nights in doorways.
This nuanced handling comes through also in the way that the police officers respond to these homeless people. Early on in the novel one of the street dwellers, a guy nicknamed “Aftershave Eddy’ by police who have experienced his less than fragrant body odour, is found dead on the steps of the police station. Harry castigates officers who had walked passed the man, assuming he was asleep though he had a knife in his chest. The deliberate disregard is however modified once the investigation is underway however and officers come fact to face with the reality of the world of the homeless. One female detective, visiting a day shelter remarks:
The homeless are like the remnants of a long-forgotten army, still dressed in their ragged uniforms reminding their more-fortunate neighbours that there is a battlefield out there, a place of violence and fear and dread.
Through their investigations the officers come to see these figures as human beings who had a life before they took to the streets. They learn how small gestures such as talking about football or playing a game of chess can make a difference in helping a homeless person feel part of society. Unfortunately the majority attitude is to treat street dwellers as an inconvenience. “Nobody cares about the homeless,” one man tells a detective. “They just want us to go away so they don’t have to see us and feel guilty.” Faced with that reaction, it’s understandable why, for some of the characters in this novel, life underground is far more attractive than an existence above.
The Book: The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths was published in February 2017 by Quercus . itis the ninth in the Dr Ruth Galloway series which began in 2010 with The Crossing Places.
The Author: Elly Griffiths is the pen name of Domenica de Rosa. She was inspired to write the Dr Ruth Galloway series by her husband who swapped his career in the City for a job as an archaeologist. Discover more about Elly Griffiths on her website.
Why I read this book: Although I don’t read a huge amount of crime, I’m often on the look out for a novel in the genre that is slightly different from the usual fare. I’ve never read anything featuring a forensic archaeologist and in fact had little idea what that job could entail – I thought this book could enlighten me. Seems like I will need to read some of the earlier titles in order to be further enlightened. I received a copy from the publishers via Net Galley in return for an honest review
The revival of interest in crime classics from the Golden Age of (the 1920s and 30s) continues unabated it seems. The British Library decision to publish hitherto neglected titles from that era was a smart move, coming just as book pundits began to detect a desire by readers to move away from dark modern thrillers. Whether the interest in the Classic Crime series (now 20 titles and growing) was really a reaction to the complexity of modern life and a yearning for the ‘simpler’ life of the past, is debatable. It may be that the interest in the Golden Age will be short lived but for now, it’s definitely on the rise.
Miss Christie Regrets by Guy Fraser-Sampson harks back to that era but also brings it up to date with a whodunnit trail involving espionage and a threat to national security. It doesn’t slavishly follow the conventions of the Golden Era detective story (no locked room mystery here for example or English country house setting) but it acknowledges its heritage with multiple references to the leading practitioners of the genre like Marjorie Allingham and of course Agatha Christie.
This is the second title in a series set in the Hampstead area of London and the police station serving that suburb. It features some of the same characters of the earlier novel Death in Profile; in particular Detective Superintendent Simon Collinson, the psychologist Peter Collins and Detective Sergeants Bob Metcalfe and Karen Willis. It begins with the discovery of a body at an art gallery/museum, with our old friend the blunt instrument soon identified as the murder weapon. There are a few obvious suspects including the caretakers of the building though the security system was so lax anyone could have walked in from the street and done the evil deed. The police team are already struggling to make much progress when a second murder victim is discovered in the basement of an iconic apartment block which boasted illustrious tenants including Miss Agatha Christie herself. Collinson is convinced the two cases are connected even though they happened some 60 years apart. He’s also convinced Miss Christie somehow holds the key to the mystery. He’s not able to make much progress however until Special Branch begin to reveal some of their secrets. I won’t give the game away much further other than to say the trail uncovers connections that the intelligence service have sat on for decades.
It’s a plot that’s not fiendishly difficult but has enough complexity to keep me guessing until the final stages. Miss Christie Regrets has a satisfying quota of dead bodies though they happen off stage as it were and are not described in any gory detail and plenty of red herrings. Ultimately it’s a straight forward police procedural murder mystery in which the detectives reach a solution not through sudden ‘light bulb’ moments but by meticulous attention to detail and protocol. Good old fashioned detective work I suppose one could call this.
My enjoyment would have been even greater if there had been less of the police procedural element and more depth to the setting. I enjoyed learning about the history of the Isokon building which was intended as an experiment in communal living and designed in the style of the Bauhaus movement. But given that the series is named Hampstead Murders I would have expected more of a sense we were in this particular part of London. There are some occasional references to pubs or buildings like Burgh House where the first murder victim is found:
Burgh House sits rather smugly in New End Square, as if well aware of the fact that it is both one of the largest and also one of the finest houses in Hampstead.
These glimpses were tantalising. I’d hope that as this series progresses and the characters are given more depth that more emphasis is also given to portraying the unique character of Hampstead. I would have welcomed more of that element and less of the daily recaps of the investigation. Police work does involve a higher degree of routine work than TV dramas suggest but I don’t necessarily need to see that mapped out in such detail as in this novel. It made the book feel longer than it needed to be.
Overall however this was a highly readable novel and one I can see having a strong appeal to people who enjoy being challenged by the mystery of death but don’t need all the gruesome details.
The Book: Miss Christie Regrets is published January 2016 by Urbane Publications UK
The Author: Guy Fraser-Sampson has a list of writing credits to his name including works on finance, investment and economic history. He is best known as the author of three novels in the Mapp and Lucia series created by E.F.Benson.
Why I read this book: I received a review copy from the author in exchange for an honest review (which I hope this is).
By the time they’ve reached the end of the novel, most readers of crime fiction expect to find the author has answered the key questions: who , committed the crime, how and why.
The Murder of Halland doesn’t turn those expectations of the genre completely on their head but it certainly shakes them out. This is novel that starts with a murder. It features a detective and various suspects. It also includes a mystery about the dead man’s life. But that’s the extent of any resemblance between your typical Nordic thriller and this short novel by the Danish author Pia Juul. The pace is slower; the detective in charge of the case doesn’t have any of the personal flaws or family issues that so many of his literary profession seem to labour under. There isn’t any sense of urgency exhibited by the forces of law and order in fact and there is no revelatory scene at the end which draws all the threads together. One thing this novel does have in abundance is the feeling that like the dead man’s wife, we too are crawling our way towards understanding what happened and why.
The dead man’s wife is Bess, a writer who lives in a small Danish town with her second husband Halland. One morning she wakes to discover he is not in the house – she’s not particularly alarmed but shortly afterwards learns that he is lying dead in the market square not far away. In the absence of other ideas, she becomes the prime suspect. In the course of 167 her life is opened up to examination and not just by the reader. The experience causes her to re-evaluate her marriage, her relationship with friends and with her estranged daughter from her first marriage. In the process she uncovers some mysteries about Halland – why was he visiting Bess’s pregnant niece and keeping paperwork and his laptop there? Why did he agree to pay the rental for this girl’s apartment ? Why did he transfer a substantial amount of money into Bess’s bank account shortly before his death?
Bess uncovers these mysteries through a series of chance encounters with neighbours, with her ex husband who turns up announced on the doorstep and declares he wants to sleep with her Bess moves as in a dream through these encounters. Getting drunk on aquavit and ending up at a party kissing a neighbour doesnt get her any further towards the truth. Nor does watching any of the detective programs on television:
All I needed for happiness was a detective series. And there were lots to choose from. Simplicity was a virtue. First a murder, nothing too bestial. Then a police inspector. Insights into his or her personal problems, perhaps. Details about the victim. Puzzles and anomalies. Lines of investigation. Clues. Detours. Breakthrough. Case solved. Nothing like real life. I watched one thriller, then another. But as soon as the penny dropped I lost interest. The puzzle attracted me – the solution left me cold. Nothing like real life.
We are no nearer an answer to making sense of all of this by the time the book ends. The mysteries are not solved, the culprit is not uncovered though there are hints as to who it might have been. But that isn’t really the point for this isn’t a novel about a crime or the hunt for a killer. It’s about bereavement and the feeling of loss and regret about failed relationships and the way that, while we can live with someone daily sharing a house with them, there are still parts of their lives that can remain a closed book.
This was a book that was hard to put down. The writing style was short and direct with an enigmatic overtone and a strong sense of the bewilderment that is recognisable to anyone who has suffered the bereavement of a close relative or friend and keeps asking Why…..
The Book: The Murder of Halland was published by Pereine Press in 2012 as part The Small Epic series. Translated from the Danish original by Martin Aitken.
The Author: Pereine describes Pia Juul as one of Denmark’s foremost writers. Not knowing very much (if anything) about the Danish literary scene I can’t really judge if that’s true or a little bit of marketing hype. According to a website on the history of Nordic women’s writing I see that she is described as a poet, prose writer and translator. She has received several prizes for literature in Denmark. This is the first of her works to be translated into English
Why I read this: In the Chutes and Ladders challenge run by the Readers’ Room blog I ended up on a square which required me to read a debut novel. A trawl through my TBR uncovered this one – it had the added advantage I could add another country to my world literature reading list.
Other reviews: A number of other bloggers have read The Murder of Halland. Here a few I’ve come across.
Reading Matters review can be found here,
For Winstons Dad blog’s review click here
David H’s blog’s review is here
HeavenAli reviewed the novel here
Strong Poison is the fifth book to feature Dorothy L Sayers’ aristocratic private sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t read any of the earlier novels for this book can stand on its own. It’s a wonderful introduction to Wimsey and his methods which seem to involve a lot of thinking and casual conversations with witnesses and potential perpetrators. He has one ace up his sleeve – the group of women known as ‘The Cattery’, members of a fictitious typing bureau who are deployed to infiltrate houses and offices and nose about on his behalf.
These were spinsters with small fixed incomes or o comes at all, widows without family; women deserted by peripatetic husbands and living on a restricted alimony, who previous to their engagement ….had had no resources but bridge and boarding house gossip.
It’s a brilliant device because it gives scope for some wonderful characterisations and amusing episodes. In Strong Poison we benefit from two highly amusing scenes in which one woman takes part in a seance and pretends to be a medium and another where a man takes lessons from a master thief on how to pick locks.
The plot revolves Harriet Vane who is on trial for the murder by arsenic powder of her former lover. Whimsy attends the trial and is convinced that Harriet Vane is not guilty of murder but can he prove this in time to save her from the gallows? He’s up against it since the police are equally convinced they have the right culprit and even the judge at her trial seems to be against her. Finding the real poisoner isn’t just a case of exerting true justice – Wimsey has another motivation for solving the mystery – he has decided he wants to marry Harriet even though all he knows about her is what was revealed at the trial. She understandably demures at this proposal since she knows even less about him, but Wimsey is not a man to take no for an answer.
The plot is reasonably straight forward – surprisingly I guessed who the culprit was long before the revelation (as I suspect many other readers will). Less evident than the answer to the question whodunnit? was the answer to the question of how the murder was accomplished. That one kept me perplexed right to the end.
The plot is less important than the characters and the setting however. This is novel dating from the 1930s, an era often labelled as the “golden age of crime” because it also saw the rise of two authors who became synonymous with crime fiction: Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. It’s an era wonderfully evoked by Sayers who of course was writing about her contemporary world. Equally masterful is her creation of Lord Wimsey. One moment you’re thinking that despite his elegant clothes and foppish language he is a bit of an idiot and the next thinking how astute a judge of character he is. A most unusual private eye .
All together an entertaining novel that did the job perfectly when I needed an antidote so some of my darker reading materials. I know where to turn when I’m next in that mood.
The Book: Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers was published in 1930. According to Wikipedia the relationship between Harriet and her lover was inspired by Sayers’ own fraught relationship with fellow-author John Cournos. Cournos wanted her to ignore social mores and live with him without marriage, but she wanted to marry and have children. After a year of agony between 1921 and 1922, she learned that Cournos had claimed to be against marriage only to test her devotion, and she broke off with him.
My edition: Published by Hodder and Stoughton’s New English Library. It has an introduction by Elizabeth George which pays tribute to Sayers’ ability to conjure up compelling characters.
Why I read this: it was in a second hand book shop and in excellent condition so of course I had to buy it but then left it lingering on the shelf for a while. I had just read Little Women and after so much saccharine I needed a complete change of pace .
Jason at We Need to Talk About Books hit on a great idea with his “books read but not reviewed” posts. Such a great idea that I’ve borrowed it to deal with a backlog of reviews that I never seem to be able to get through. I’ll start with which was the first year of this blog. Luckily I had a few notes scribbled on a document to help me recall the books.
Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell . This became a much talked about book when it was turned into a highly successful television series in the UK. Broadcast in three series from 2007, it featured some class actors like Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins and Imelda Staunton. The story is set in the early 1840s in the fictional village of Cranford in the county of Cheshire in North West England, and focuses mainly on the town’s single and widowed middle class female inhabitants who are comfortable with their traditional way of life and place great store in propriety and maintaining an appearance of gentility.
There is clearly an opportunity to reflect changes in the world around them but that never came across to me in the first few episodes I watched. It felt too whimsical amd cosy for my tastes. The book, when I got around to reading it left me with the same impression (just to be clear I read book one of what is series in effect). I was missing the depth of social understanding that I’d found in Gaskell’s North and South (reviewed here).
Woman in Black by Susan Hill. The play of this book was one of my best theatre experiences of the late 1980s. It’s still doing the rounds so I won’t give any details away thet will spoil the surprise and shock. It’s far superior to the later film adaptation starring Daniel Radcliffe by the way. The book upon which both versions were based was published in 1983. It’s a relatively slim volume written in the style of a traditional Gothic novel about The Woman in Black is a 1983 horror novella by Susan Hill, written in the style of a traditional Gothic novel about a mysterious spectre that haunts a small English town, heralding the death of children. The suspense is handled well and it kept me engaged theiughout a red eyed flight when I couldn’t sleep. But I wouldn’t give it many marks for quality of writing. Susan Hill seemed to think stuffing the narrative with lots of adjectives was the best way to conjure up the atmosphere. It didn’t. It just left me feeling irritated.
The Witch Hunter by Bernard Knight. This is part of his Crowner John series which revolves around the figure of a coroner based in Exeter, England in the twelfth century. I’ve read or listened to audio versions of about half of them and they are all excellent at conjuring up the spirit of those times. I dont recall the plots usually, preferring the way Bernard Knight in eyes the uncertainties of life in those times, the struggles of a monarch trying to extort his power across the whole country in the face of opposition by the powerful barons and vested interests. Knight shows the coroner as a man of principle, determined to fulfill the responsibilities for this newly established role even if thet means he comes head to head with the county sheriff who happen so be his brother in law. In The Witch Hunter he has to contend with a community that views the death of a prominent burgess as a signof witchcraft. Personal interests intervene when the coroners beloved mistress Nesta is implicated. I’m surprised this series doesn’t have more visibility because it’s highly readable. I’ve posted about the series in general here.
I’ve always been able to rely on Ruth Rendell in the past when I wanted a good crime yarn on audio; one that wasn’t too complicated that I lost attention on my driving and was rather topical. But its clear that the early novels in the series that feature her ace detective Chief Inspector Wexford and his work in Kingsmarkham area were as skilful accomplished as the later titles.
Wolf to the Slaughter is the third in the series. I’m so glad that I read many of the later titles before this one because if this had been my first experience of the series, I wouldn’t have gone back for me.
It’s about a woman who has vanished. She’s a bit of an odd flighty character living with her avant grade painter brother, both of them forgetful and not much use at domestic activities. Their life revolves around parties. There’s no body and as far as Wexford can discern initially no real crime. But he does have an anonymous letter which is hinting that there is something about this disappearance that warrants his attention. Off he goes with Inspector Burden and a young copper who lets his powers of observation collapse when he falls in love with a young shop girl. There are the inevitable red herrings before Wexford comes up trumps as we know he always will.
It might sound ok but it was really missing the edginess that I’ve found in her later work. This Wexford is a pale imitation of this older self and it shows. I was happy to get to the end.
I turned instead to an audio recording from another stalwart of the crime genre – Margery Allingham – someone whose name I’ve heard for many years but never read. On the basis of More Work for the Undertaker I won’t be disturbing her again and the two books I have in print on my bookshelves can be dispensed to a charity shop. Published in 1948, this features her suave amateur detective Albert Campion who, just before he is about to take up a diplomatic post overseas, agrees to investigate the mysterious goings on at the Palinodes household. These turn into death for two people. Campion takes rooms in the household in order to identify the culprit, working alongside the official police investigation. I hate books with a lot of ‘wacky’ characters. I suppose we were meant to find these delightful in examples of eccentric English figures. I just found them tedious and the story dull. So gave it up as a bad job.
Louise Penny has for a few years now been one of my favourite crime writers with her series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, Head of Homicide at the Sûreté du Québec. When we got to book number 10 I was worried she was about to bring the series to an end since this saw the denouement of a long running theme of the Chief’s battle against the forces of evil that lay at the heart of the judicial and political establishment. But in book 11, The Long Way Home, she came up with a plot to keep him occupied in his retirement to the delightful small village of Three Pines, where so many of his investigations had led. As nifty as a device this was, it had limited scope I thought – this is a village so small it doesn’t even appear on a map so it would stretch credulity too far to keep conjuring up crime incidents for Gamache to investigate. I needn’t have been concerned however for Penny has devised a far more credible new role for the Chief in her newest episode in the series A Great Reckoning.
This novel sees Gamache start a new job as head of the Sûreté academy, the body that trains new officers for the force. Gamache is determined to clean up some of its less desirable practices which have resulted in a bunch of new recruits who are overly aggressive and below the standards Gamache expects from Sûreté officers. His clean-up campaign will see him go head to head with some of the established leaders of the academy who are none too pleased with the changes. It also re-unites him with one of his oldest friends, a now-disgraced former head of the Sûreté, a man who has good reason to dislike Gamache as the man who brought about his demise. When one of the Professors at the Academy is found murdered, the spotlight turns on several of the staff, including Gamache. Questions are raised about just how far would he go to eradicate corruption and what exactly is his relationship with Amelia Choquet, one of the new cadets who with her tattooed limbs and pierced nostrils and lips looks more like one of the people a Sûreté officer would question as a suspect than recruit to their ranks.
There is another mystery that requires Gamache’s attention. An intricate old map is found hidden in the walls of the bistro in Three Pines. The villagers become more and more intrigued by this artefact. Who was the mapmaker and what was the purpose? Why did the mapmaker include a pyramid, a snowman and a cow and why was does the stained glass window in he village church feature the a soldier carrying the map? Challenges and questions Gamache gives to four of the cadets as an exercise in the investigation skills they will require once on active duty. Along the way he gives them an object lesson in how to be a skilled – and compassionate investigator, quoting from Jonathan Swift and Marcus Aurelius in what seems to be one of the tenets guiding his own life:
The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane
And thats one of the things I admire most about the Gamache series. The plots are generally good (the one in he Great Reckoning isn’t as compelling as previous titles but is still executed flawlessly) and the characterisation superb. But what lifts this above the ordinary crime novel is the investment made to show Gamache as a rounded man capable of great depth of understanding, humanity and humility. Qualities which he tries to pass onto his family, friends and those under his wing as he does in his end of year address to the Academy staff and students:
We are all of us marred and scarred and imperfect. We make mistakes. We do things we deeply regret. We are tempted and sometimes we give into that temptation. Not because we are bad or weak but because we are human. We are a crowd of faults. But know this… There is always a road back. If we have the courage to look for it and to take it.
Wise words from a man who is often accused of arrogance, of thinking he knows better than anyone else what to do in a crisis situation. But essentially he is a man who recognises he makes mistakes in his quest to root out wrong doing and isn’t afraid to admit it to others when the time is right.
You could do worse than read The Great Reckoning not just as an example of quality, thoughtful crime fiction but as a study in humanity and true leadership. The extra good news is that towards the end of the book there is a hint he is going to move on to a new role. My guess he will become head honcho of the Quebec Sûreté but Louise Penny could have another surprise up her sleeve.
Author: The Great Reckoning is book 11 in the series by Louise Penny
Published: 2016 by Little, Brown Book Group UK
Length: 400 pages
My copy: Provided by the publishers via NetGalley in return for an honest review.