Category Archives: Crime and thrillers
Posted by Edward Colley
With no reading material before a long flight I picked up a John Grisham potboiler in the San Francisco airport without much enthusiasm. It was the mid 1990s, the book was The Pelican Brief and, to my surprise – because Grisham was being hyped all over the place then– I thoroughly enjoyed it, while being aware that possessing such a novel would cause several noses to be looked down.
As with wine and antiques’ circles, there are many snobs around in the book-reading world, though they would perhaps say they are simply more discerning readers. Each to his or her own; there’s no cause to sneer at Mills and Boon fans, for example – at least they’re reading.
And weren’t the majority of contemporary readers of Austen, Dickens, Doyle and Hardy simply popular fiction readers who liked a good tale well told?
After I devoured The Pelican Brief, I proceeded to gobble up all of JG’s wordy legal thrillers. The Painted House ended the run; I hadn’t read the jacket notes. It was a rambling sentimental tale of bygone Americana. Where were the hotshot lawyers? Where were the big showcase trials?
Something changed with Grisham at that point. Maybe his publishers urged him to go in other directions, maybe he urged himself.
Leaving the legal world behind – his specialist area – may have won a few fans but must have lost many more. And then even his courtroom-based output began to take a twee moralistic tone with humble downhome country folk fighting those ugly, hard-hearted corporations. I bailed out.
But a recent unexpected hospital stay in New Zealand brought me back. I had nothing but a dull Maigret novel with me when the mobile hospital library (a trolley loaded with about 80 books, about half by Dick Francis) made a welcome visit.
Two Grishams presented themselves – The Pelican Brief (natch) and The King of Torts. I chose Torts. I couldn’t remember if I’d read it before. Having completed it, I still can’t remember.
But one thing I did learn – after an interval of about 10 years, I’m over JG.
The King of Torts is an entertaining tale but it’s flabby and overwritten. Grisham writes well in his genre but he suffers from verbosity. Back in the 90s I was entertained by the detailed descriptions of luxury yachts, fast cars, lavish dinners and private planes. This time round I found myself skimming bits. Millions and billions of dollars piled up in various tort actions until the figures became simply symbolic.
And those tort cases were essentially like Hitchcock’s McGuffins – devices to drive an otherwise simple story, in this case a moral tale about greed and consequences, pride before a fall – a very old theme.
Grisham has legions of loyal fans. Anything with his name on it will sell. I’ll pass for a while but maybe one day, while idling in airport bookshop, I might pick up his latest paperback and feel the magical pull once again.
First came Tartan Noir – a gritty form of crime fiction said to be particular to Scotland and Scottish writers but which borrows from American crime writes of the second half the twentieth century. Then Nordic Noir was born, taking us into bleak landscapes, dark moods and moral complexity with authors like Henning Mankell, Steig Larsson and Arnaldur Indriðason. There’s even Irish Noir which covers a broad range of crime writing by Irish authors, from historical crime fiction set in Belfast to modern procedurals engaging with first world problems and psychological thrillers.
Even if you subscribe to the view held by a number of authors and critics that these terms are meaningless and little more than marketing gimmicks, the reality is that they sell books. And in doing so they’ve helped raise the profile of many authors.
But so far there’s no sign of Welsh noir. In fact about Welsh crime writing in general there’s been hardly a peep.
And yet there’s a growing number of crime fiction authors based in Wales or who choose to set their work in the country.
Why haven’t you heard of them?
Partly I suspect because many of these authors have associations with small, independent publishers who don’t have as much sway with the purchasing teams in large bookstore chains. Nor do they have the kinds of budgets necessary for national ( UK-wide) promotion. Even trying to get attention within Wales is tough when the so called national newspaper of Wales The Western Mail, pays scant attention to arts coverage and still less to book reviews.
But there is a group of writers resolved to change how Welsh crime fiction and non fiction is perceived.
Crime Cymru was formed in 2017 to promote Welsh crime fiction with a mission to challenge the perceived belief that that ‘nobody who wants to be read sets their books in Wales’.
Crime Cymru started with just three members: Alis Hawkins, Rosie Claverton and Matt Johnson. But it’s grown to become a consortium of more than 25 authors. Some were born in Wales. Others have chosen to settle here. Some members live in the UK or further afield in North America but chose to set their work in Wales. What unites them is their feeling that Welsh crime fiction has a unique dimension that deserves more attention.
“We believe that Wales is under sold: by publishers, by booksellers, even by authors and readers,” said Alis. “And we’re determined to change that. Crime Cymru authors are proud to set our fiction in Wales. We don’t feel the need to move our characters to London, or to make up fictitious cities to police.”
In support of their objective of promoting Wales and Welsh crime writing, Crime Cymru members have carried their message direct to readers via appearances at a number of literary festivals and a Coffee and Crime Weekend partnership with the county library service in the capital city of Cardiff. They’ve even taken the battle across the border, to Bloody Scotland – Scotland’s premier crime fiction festival.
Future plans include the establishment of a crime writing competition in line with another of the group’s other objectives – to help nurture new writing talent.
“You could argue that until now we’ve been our own worst enemies: falling into a trap of assuming that anything coming from Wales is somehow less noteworthy than the output from England or Scotland,” said Alis. “It’s time we changed this attitude. We’re determined that Crime Cymru will play a real and tangible part, alongside higher education and cultural bodies, in raising the profile of Welsh writing in general and crime fiction in particular. “
Alis herself is suiting her actions to Crime Cymru’s words this May. To celebrate National Crime Reading Month and to publicise both Crime Cymru and the publication of the second in her Teifi Valley Coroner series, Alis – supported by local Crime Cymru members – will be visiting every independent bookshop in Wales – 32 at the last count.
The Crime Cymru authors cover a wide variety of styles and interests. They range from Cathy Ace whose Cait Morgan Mysteries feature a globetrotting sleuth who is a professor of criminal psychology to Philip Gwynne Jones who writes thrillers from his home in Venice. I’ve read a few of the group’s members although I wasn’t aware that Crime Cymru’s existence at the time.
My reviews are via these links:
Thorne Moore: A Time for Silence
Following shortly will be my review of None So Blind, the first book in Alis Hawkins’ series featuring a coroner in nineteenth century Wales.
Learn more about Crime Cymru and its authors via their website http://crime.cymru. You can also follow on Twitter @CRIMECYMRU
Emma Kavanagh’s training as a psychologist is very much in evidence in her most recently published novel: To Catch a Killer.
This is a taut thriller which features Detective Sergeant Alice Parr, newly returned to duty after a traumatic incident in which she almost lost her life in when her apartment caught fire. Seven months later she still bears the scars both physically and emotionally. The scars on her face she can try and hide with concealer. The emotional turmoil is not so easy to disguise though she makes a good attempt in front of her colleagues on the murder squad.
Her latest case threatens to tip her over the edge.
She is the first officer on the scene when an attractive woman found in a local park with her throat cut and multiple stab wounds. Alice holds her hands, trying to comfort the woman until emergency medical aid arrives. The woman can barely speak but Alice thinks she hears her utter one word: wolf.
The search begins to identify this victim and her killer. They have few clues. No-one saw the attack although it happened in daylight and the killer must have been covered in blood. Why hasn’t anyone report her missing? Why did she have children’s toys in her pocket? They have more questions than answers the more the dig into the attack. Every time the police think they are closing in on the potential killer, he is one step ahead.
For Alice, the hunt for the killer is more than just another case. It’s personal. The killer is taunting her, sending her direct messages in which he reveals he knows a lot about her. She needs to find him before there are other deaths. Her boss and some of her colleagues, particularly her closest friend Poppy, are afraid she is taking this case too personally and allowing her judgement to be affected. But Alice cannot stop now.
When I started reading To Catch a Killer I did wonder how effective Alice’s personal problems would be as a device. But the more I got into the book the more reassured I became that this wasn’t just a trick. Emma Kavanagh has years of experience working with police and the armed services as a psychologist. She knows how people react in extreme situations – and how traumatic incidents impact them long after the incident itself is over. So there was an authenticity when she writes about Alice’s inability to sleep and her guilt that she is letting the victim down if she gives up her quest to find the killer.
To Catch a Killer proved to be a novel that kept me guessing. Unusually I did manage to identify the killer before the end but that wasn’t an issue because Emma Kavanagh avoids the temptation to wrap everything up neatly. Instead she leaves us with a cliff hanger that could well lead into a sequel…
About the author
Emma Kavanagh was born in Wales and trained as a psychologist. As a psychology consultant, she has provided consultation and training services for the police force military personnel and NATO. Her first novel Falling was published in 2014 since when she has published six further titles including To Catch a Killer. She currently lives in Wales.
Hear an extract from To Catch a Killer by clicking on this link
My thanks go to Orion Publishing Group for providing me with an advance copy of this book
Best selling authors Lisa Jewell and Peter James both had new books out this year. Since I’m running way behind with my reviews and I don’t have a lot to say about either of these books, I’m just going for a short
Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell
I’d never read anything by Lisa Jewell until this year. I know she has a large fan club but she never appealed to me. I read this only after significant badgering from a friend who is a devotee….
Then She Was Gone is set ten years after a teenage girl goes missing one day when she was on her way to the local library. Ellie’s disappearance led to a divorce and the break up of her family. Her mum Laurel is living a half life, never feeling she can move on while the mystery of her daughter’s disappearance is unresolved.
Then she meets a charming man who makes her feel there is hope. He has a nine year old girl who has a remarkable resemblance to her missing daughter. It proves to be the first in a sequence of coincidences. Questions come flooding back to Laurel. She has to know the truth no matter how painful this may be.
I’ve seen this book described as gripping and heart-breaking. I didn’t experience either of those emotions myself. I’m afraid I guessed the secret at the heart of the book a long way before its ending though it was interesting to observe how Lisa Jewell manipulated the plot to send her readers down several blind alleys. Then She Was Gone was a perfectly acceptable story and told cleverly through different narrators (the identity of one only becomes apparent a long way into the novel). It just wasn’t that special.
Dead If You Don’t by Peter James
This is the latest in a long running series featuring Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, based in the seaside town of Brighton. I’ve not read all of them so I rely on my dad to fill in the blanks about Roy Grace’s personal life (his wife disappeared on the day of their wedding anniversary).
What always impresses me with these novels is the insight into police procedure that James provides. He does extensive research to ensure his story lines are feasible and the actions of Grace and his team are accurate. Roy Grace himself is based on a real life former Detective Chief Superintendent in Sussex Police, David Gaylor, who works closely with James on his books. But James also does the rounds with police officers, attends conferences and has lunch with ex convicts.
In Dead if You Don’t I was fascinated to learn how emergency calls from the public are handled when they come into the operations centre. But the biggest eye opener was that patrol car teams on night shift duty like to play jokes on other drivers by deliberately driving below the speed limit and and seeing who is afraid to overtake.
As is always the case with Peter James, this book has a multi-stranded plot. There’s a suspect device planted at the local football ground during the home team’s biggest match of the season. Then the teenage son of a local big shot financial advisor is kidnapped; a drugs mule dies at Gatwick airport from an overdose and body parts are discovered at another location in Brighton. Somehow they are all connected to a fight for control between the members of a large and powerful criminal network.
If you like high octane drama filled novels, this will definitely fit the bill.
How long can a series endure before it runs out of steam?
Louise Penny’s crime series set in Quebec has long been one of my favourite crime writers. Her central character, Armand Gamache, chief of police, is a superbly conceived character; he’s surrounded by some equally well-executed personalities among his friends and family and he lives in the delightful (fictional) village of Three Pines. Penny’s
When we reached book ten of this series however I did wonder how much further Penny could go with this set up. She settled all my doubts with book eleven A Great Reckoning (my review is here).
But she’s just published book number 14 and it saddens me to say that my earlier doubts have resurfaced. I so wish that wasn’t the case because the fact that Kingdom of the Blind was written at all is a testament to Penny’s resilience and courage.
Penny’s husband Michael, who was the inspiration for Armand Gamache, died in September 2016. In the introduction to Kingdom of the Blind, Louise Penny says she didn’t feel she could write again after his death. “How could I go on when half of me was missing? I could barely get out of bed,” she said.
But one day she found herself at the dining table where she always did her writing. The first day she wrote just two words — the name of her protagonist. The next day the word count trebled and kept on increasing day by day.
Kingdom of the Blind was begun. Not with sadness. Not because I had to but with joy. … Even as I wrote about some very dark themes, it was with gladness. With relief. That I get to keep doing this.
The darkness she mentions relates to one of the two major plots in the novel.
A new ultra powerful, ultra dangerous, opioid drug is about to hit the streets of Montreal. The finger of blame is pointed at Gamache who allowed a large cache of the drug to escape seizure during a major drugs raid. As a result he’s been suspended from his role as Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec, pending an internal investigation. Then one of his proteges at the police academy, the rebellious cadet Amelia Choquet, is discovered with drugs in her possession.
Against this background Gamache receives a letter summoning him to a dilapidated house in a small rural village. There he discovers he is one of three people named as executors in the will of a woman who called herself The Baroness. Gamache has never met her, has no idea why she should have entrusted her last wishes to him, a retired psychologist (his friend Myrna Landers from Three Pines) and a young accident-prone builder from Montreal. It’s not long before a body is found and Gamache’s suspicions are aroused.
Penny hasn’t lost her gift for evoking the spirit of the Quebec countryside and its fierce winters. Early in the novel a winter storm descends upon Gamache and the village of Three Pines; a metaphor for the turmoil that threatens to engulf the police chief. But these villagers take the weather in their stride; it’s just an excuse to indulge in their favourite foods (a word of warning – reading this book will get you salivating for tarte tatin and cafe au lait) or to head to the village bistro for a gossip. All the usual people are in evidence in Kingdom of the Blind: Gamache’s wife Reine-Marie, his son-in-law and assistant Jean-Guy Beaulieu, the artist Clara Morrow, bistro owners Gabri Dubeau and the poet Ruth Zardo.
Gamache is more introspective in this novel than in all the previous titles. He’s always been conscious of his failings, following a code of conduct based on the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. He advises his junior officers to take on board four statements: I don’t know. I need help. I was wrong. I’m sorry.
In Kingdom of the Blind he seems more vulnerable, more weighed down by ghosts from the past.
… he remembered … all the raids, the assaults, the arrests. The investigations over the yers. The victims. All the sightless, staring eyes. Of men, women, children whose murder he’d investigated. Over the years. Whose murderers he’d hunted down. All the agents he’d sent, often led, into the gun smoke.
There’s a sense in Gamache’s mood — which is reflected in some scenes at the end of the book — that he is facing significant changes in his life and his career. Without giving the game away for people who have yet to read this book, the nature of those changes make me wonder how it’s going to be feasible for Penny to continue this series. The inheritance plot of Kingdom of the Blind wasn’t one of her best, another indication for me that the series is reaching a natural conclusion. Even so it is still superior to many of the crime novels currently in circulation.
I could be wrong. Louise Penny surprised me once before. She could do it again.
I’m slowly making my way through a backlog of crime fiction novels that have occupied my bookshelves for a few months. It’s not a genre I read that regularly because although I enjoy them at the time, they are the books I never remember after I finish them.
I’m going to forsake new purchases but I still have a few on the shelves for those times when crime novels fit the need perfectly (like when I have a heavy cold and the brain can’t deal with anything deep and meaningful). It’s unlikely I will ever find myself with unable to satisfy a sudden desire for crime – my local library is wall to wall with these kinds of novels.
Here are two of my most recent reads.
Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude (British Library Crime Classics)
This is the second of Bude’s novels to feature the modest but highly effective Superintendent Meredith. The tightly-plotted tale begins with the disappearance of a Sussex farmer and the discovery of his abandoned car. Initially it appears he might have been kidnapped but when human bones are found in the Sussex Downs, police quickly realise they have a murderer on the loose.
Superintendent Meredith is called to investigate and painstakingly unravels the mystery of the bones. His is a very civilised form of detection, relying on systematic evaluation of evidence and oodles of double checking of facts. In between chasing down details about a cloaked man seen striding the downs on the night of the farmer’s disappearance, a fake telegram and a butterfly catcher who wears sunglasses at night, the Super is able to pop home for a sustaining lunch with his wife.
John Bude has a good eye for locational details and an ability to plot meticulously. In keeping with the spirit of the Golden Age of Fiction, we get the very helpful explanation at the end of the book of how the crime was committed. Without this I admit I was struggling to keep all the different clues straight in my head.
This probably isn’t the kind of crime novel for people who love the gritty Nordic Noir style, but it’s still highly enjoyable. I warn you though, it does require focused concentration to follow the trail of clues.
The Beautiful Dead by Belinda Bauer
This is a dark and intense psychological novel that does a brilliant job of getting inside the head of a serial killer. Eve Singer is an ambitious young TV crime reporter who is accustomed to getting close to the scenes of murder so she can be first with the news. But she has never before been the target of a killer.
She needs death in order to keep her job. The killer needs her to broadcast to the world how beautiful death can be. What Eve realises too late is that his obsession for public exhibitions of death will involve her own.
Usually I find the portraits of journalists in novels are highly unrealistic but Bauer, has a former reporter, writes convincingly about the world of television news and the pressure to get the story, no matter what. Eve is caught between the demands of her bully news editor and the obsessive killer, forcing her to make uncomfortable moral decisions.
I don’t understand why Bauer hasn’t had the attention enjoyed by other thriller writers. Every book I’ve read by her has been first class, well written and well plotted with fleshed out characters and taut storylines. The Beautiful Dead is no exception.
A Death in the Night is the fourth book in the Hampstead Murders series which focus on the activities of the detectives based at Hampstead Heath police station in London. They are police procedurals that seek to pay homage to the spirit of the Golden Age of detective writing, particularly the principle that everything the reader needs to know to solve the crime themselves, is contained within the text.
The crime with which the detective team have to wrestle in A Death in the Night is the murder of Professor Fuller, mistress of a prominent barrister, who is found dead in her room at The Athena, an exclusive women’s club in Mayfair. By coincidence Detective Sergeants Bob Metcalfe and Karen Willis, together with psychologist Peter Collins, were all attending a vintage-themed dinner dance in the club at the time the woman is believed to have met her killer.
There are a multitude of suspects but very few clues. Added to the problem is that initially the initial identification of the body is incorrect. By the time the real identity is confirmed, the hotel room has been cleaned and vital evidence lost. To get at the truth the team, under the direction of their Golden Boy boss, Detective Superintendent Simon Collinson, have to meticulously dissect every statement from staff and guests as well as her lothario husband. Was Professor Angela Bowen killed by her lover or by his wife or perhaps by another of his mistresses? For a time the team are not sure if she was even the intended victim. Nor are they clear on how the murderer managed to obtain a spare key to the room unnoticed by all the people milling around the reception area. By the time they find the answers, reputations have been damaged irrevocably.
As with the other novel in the series I’ve read, Miss Christie Regrets (book 2 in the series), A Death in the Night is strong on procedure and on the setting. The atmosphere of the Mayfair club is captured particularly well. Amid the private equity firms and luxurious hotels frequented by Russian billionaires and “exotic creatures wearing handmade suits, bright waistcoats and permanent suntans” it is a reminder of Mayfair’s more dignified past.
Tucked into an unassuming corner position in Audley Square, its membership continues to be drawn from exactly the same sort of intelligent, well educated woman as it was back in its earliest days when Dorothy L Sayers used to write her books in its library and take tea and anchovy toast afterwards in one of its famously comfortable armchairs.
Designed to be a comfortable bolt hole for professional women who find themselves in the city, The Athena offers discretion for those who want a place to discreetly entertain male friends and companionship for those who dislike eating alone at restaurants.
As much as I admired the nod towards the Golden Age (Peter Collins is a devotee of Dorothy L Sayers and loves to drop her name into conversation) I felt the novel would have benefited from a lighter touch on the procedural aspects. The team meets every day to review progress which means there is a fair amount of repetition of key facts (presumably these reminders were give readers a good chance of spotting the clues). More problematic for me however was an early chapter where the Metropolitan Police Commissioner chairs a meeting to review a report recommending a reorganisation of the force’s detective resources. The intent was presumably to show that Superintendent Collison, the report’s author, is gaining respect among his superiors, but to me it was an overlong and unnecessarily detailed interlude that didn’t strongly connect with the narrative.
Don’t let this comment put you off the novel however. If you enjoy well constructed crime fiction and are happy with a measured pace, then this will certainly be a series to consider.
The Book: A Death in the Night was published in November 2017 by Urbane Publications UK. My review of Miss Christie Regrets is here.
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.
Agatha Christie can always be relied upon to keep me reading long after I should have switched off the bedside light. Even when she’s not at her best (which she sadly isn’t in By the Pricking of My Thumbs), her novels contain so many complexities, clues and red herrings that I’m compelled to read on and on and on just to find out who did what and how. I long ago gave up trying to piece together the clues myself however, preferring to leave the hard graft to the sleuths, whether that is the flamboyant professional Hercule Poirot or the quietly razor-sharp amateur, Miss Jane Marple.
It was years before I realised via a BBC series that Christie had created two other sleuths; Tommy Beresford and his wife Tuppence. By the Pricking of My Thumbs is the fourth novel to feature this pair though the first I’ve read. Unlike her other sleuths, Christie advanced the ages of this page with each novel according to real time, so in By the Pricking of My Thumbs we find them as grandparents rather than the bright young adventurers introduced in the first book published in the 1920s. Advancing age has not however dimmed their interest in adventures or their ability to smell when something isn’t quite right.
Their suspicions are aroused after a visit to Tommy’s Aunt Ada at Sunny Ridge Nursing Home. Tuppence is perturbed by another resident, a Mrs. Lancaster, who, in the midst of a conversation suddenly asks: “Was it your poor child?”and goes on to talk about “something behind the fireplace”. Three weeks later Aunt Ada dies and leaves Tommy a painting given to her by Mrs.Lancaster. Tuppence wants to return the painting to its rightful owner but learns Mrs Lancaster has been removed from Sunny Ridge and all attempts to contact have come to nothing. Tuppence is sure the house featured in the painting is one she has seen before. If she can only find that house she might be able to find Mrs Lancaster, she reasons. With Tommy off at a conference, she has time on her hands to go in search of the house, and the missing woman. It’s a quest that leads her to a village where multiple children were murdered some 20 years earlier and a house considered haunted by some locals.
The solution is a complex one, involving a doctored painting, diamond smugglers, secret rooms and a woman who Tuppence thinks could pass for a friendly witch. One of the first critics of the novel, Robert Barnard, wasn’t impressed with the way the novel progressed, commenting that it started well but declined rapidly into “a welter of half-realised plots.” I didn’t notice any half-finished plots myself though I did feel the ending was rather rushed. The middle section moved along at a satisfying pace however. This features Tuppence primarily, following her as she uses logic and determination to pinpoint the house in the painting and interview a few of its neighbours before going missing.
I’m glad I encountered Tommy and Tuppence in their advancing years rather than as the “bright young things” of the 1920s as they were portrayed in Partners in Crime and The Secret Adversary. Their age gives them a more reflective edge which Christie plays up in the early chapters when they discuss whether to visit Aunt Ada.
It is regrettably true that in these days there is in nearly every family, the problem of what might be called an “Aunt Ada.” … Arrangements have to be made. Suitable establishments for looking after the elderly have to be inspected and full questions asked about them. … The days are past when [they] lived on happily in the homes where they had lived for many years previously, looked after by devoted if sometimes somewhat tyrannical old servants.
Not that the Beresfords have any illusions about all elderly people being sweet natured and docile. Tuppence takes the stance that some in their eighties are perfect devils and she will feel sorry only for those elderly people who are genuinely nice. When the book begins neither she nor Tommy actually think of themselves as old or realise that other people automatically considered them deadly dull solely on account of their age. But by the time the book reaches its climax, Tuppence, threatened by a killer, comes face to face with her own reality: that she is old and her body is not that of the young girl who put her life in danger while operating on the fringes of the intelligence service.
Miss Marple will always remain my favourite Agatha Christie sleuth but I’d be happy to meet up again with the Beresfords in the next, and final novel Postern of Fate when apparently they are in their seventies and have retired to a rambling old house in a quiet English village.
About this book: By the Pricking of My Thumbs was first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in November 1968. The title of the book comes from one of the witches’ speeches in Act 4, of Macbeth.
Why I read this book: I found this in a list of books published in 1968 when I was searching for something to read as part of the #1968club hosted by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen at kaggsysbookishramblings. I needed a change of pace after reading Vernon God Little.
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).