Category Archives: Crime fiction
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.
Harm Done by Ruth Rendell
Rendell can always be relied upon for a meticulously plotted crime within the context of a contemporary social issue. Harm Done is no exception. It finds Chief inspector Wexford confronted by three crimes – the abduction of two young girls by an odd couple who make the girls do their housework; mob violence targeted at a child molester recently released from prison and the disappearance of a three-year-old girl. Other novelists would have somehow connected these crimes, often in a highly implausible way but Rendell is too canny a writer to take that predictable approach. Instead she opts for thematic linkage by showing that beneath the idyllic façade that Kingsmarkham shows to the world is a darker world of abuse towards women.
Rendell’s tendency to contextualise her crime with current social issues is one of the most enjoyable aspects of her work. No Harm shows us the perspective of the victims of domestic violence, their children and the people who try to help by running refuges and helplines. It pushes the Inspector to confront his assumptions about abuse and to learn more from the one member of his family who has hands-on knowledge, his daughter who works at one of the women’s shelters.
The novel works well as an audio version.
Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indriðason
I’m indebted to Sarah at HardBooksHabit for introducing me to Indridasonand his Reykjavik Murder Mysteries series. Her review of Jar City got me scurrying in search of anything in our library service catalogue that featured Detective Inspector Erlendur and his team. Silence of the Grave , translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder is book number 4 in the series.
This finds Erlendur called in when a skeleton is discovered half-buried in a construction site outside of Reykjavík. As archaeologists unearth the body inch by inch Erlendur’s team painstakingly try to piece together the history of families who might have lived in the area decades earlier. They are not sure even if they’re dealing with the victim of a murder or a simple case of a missing person who got lost in one of Iceland’s winter storms.Few people are alive who can help him unravel this cold case and even those who are, seem reluctant to tell the truth.
Compounding the problem is that, like many other fictional detectives Erlendur has a troubled personal life which threatens to erupt at the most incovenient moment. When his estranged daughter makes a dramatic call for his help Erlendur desperately goes in search of her through the streets of Reykjavik, questioning drug addicts and previous known associates to understand how she has ended up in a coma from which she may never recover. As Erlendur struggles to hold together the crumbling fragments of his family, his case unearths many other tales of family pain in the hills around Reykjaik: of domestic violence; family shame and loyalty.
This was a highly satisfying read; well paced with plenty of red herrings and false trails to keep me guessing plus of course it had the benefit of a strong sense of the Icelandic mentality and landscape. I also liked the fact this was constructed as a dual narrative – in parallel with the detection story we also have a dreadful, yet engrossing back story of a woman trapped by domestic abuse.
Well worth reading/listening to. I shall be on the look out for more of this series soon.
Rembrandt’s Mirror by Kim Deveraux
This is Deveraux’s debut novel. Like Tracy Chevalier’s hugely successful Girl with a Pearl Earring Rembrandt’s Mirror features a servant girl who enters the home of a leading Dutch painter and becomes their muse. The girl in question here is Henrickje, a young and innocent lass brought up in a strict Calvinist home in the provinces. Entering Rembrandt’s house (which also operates as his studio), she is shocked by his unconventionality and his carnal goings on with another servant. But she can’t stop herself watching – or imagining – and gradually she is drawn closer and closer into his world.
This is a novel set during Rembrandt’s later years which were marked by personal tragedy and financial difficulties. His adored wife Saskia who was a model for many of his paintings has died and he is struggling to regain his artistic inspiration. His housekeeper Geertje becomes his lover but Rembrandt finds her rather too much of a handful and sends her packing. It proves rather a costly move since she sues him for breach of promise and wins. But Geertje’s departure paves the way for the relationship between Henrickje and Rembrandt to flourish. I should add here that this novel is based on fact – these three women did exist and were key figures in Rembrandt’s life.
Naturally the novel is steeped in Rembrandt’s art with each chapter named after one of his paintings and several passages which give us a window into Rembrandt’s way of working.
If I’d been reading a print version, I could have looked up the paintings as they were introduced but it was impossible to do that with an audio version that I listened to while on the treadmill. Another problem I experienced was that the narrative point of view switched between Rembrandt and Henrickje but because I heard only one voice coming through my headphones I was often tripped up by the changes. That wouldn’t have happened with a print or electronic version of course. Overall I enjoyed this and I learned something new about Rembrandt. If it interests you I recommend you skip the audio option.
Ever had one of those days where you can’t seem to settle on anything? After some enjoyable summery days its back to grey skies and rain here in Wales today so the garden is out of bounds. Maybe that’s affected my mood or it could be the signs I might have a cold coming on (I hate summer colds more than winter ones) but I can’t seem to settle to anything this morning.
It’s not like I don’t have plenty of things to do. I have a backlog of about eight reviews to write so I thought I’d give this some concentrated effort but after false starts on two of them I’ve abandoned that. I don’t know how you all approach writing your reviews/thoughts on books but I have to strike the right note from the first paragraph otherwise it becomes a painful exercise. And today my muse has deserted me.
So then I thought I’d make some progress with one of the short story collections on my 20booksofsummer list but although I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read so far of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around My Neck, the next story in the sequence didn’t grab me as much. Another abandoned activity.
Right I thought, time for a change of tack. Crime fiction I find is wonderful escapist reading and I’ve been eying the British Library crime classics series ever since they started to be re-released in 2014. The success of these releases has been astonishing when you think none of the authors are around to help promote the titles in the way we’ve become used to with contemporary novels – perhaps our appetite for nostalgia and the gloriously painterly covers tell us something about the mood of the country right now? I’d had been hoping someone in the family would think to buy me a few to beautify my bookshelves but no such luck. A recent post over on HeavenAli about The Hog’s Back Mystery – which sounded wonderful – reminded me that indeed I did have have one of the titles in the series via NetGalley.
Ugh is all I can say about The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester.
Originally published in 1864 it is reputedly the first novel in British fiction to feature a professional female detective. in the firm of Miss Gladden, also known as ‘G’. The new edition includes an introduction by Mike Ashley and a foreword by Alexander McCall Smith in which he positions Miss Gladden as the forerunner of more modern-day female detectives like his own character Mma Ramotswe. Ashley’s introduction provides interesting context for the significance of this book – apparently there were no female police officers let alone detectives in the British force in 1864 and indeed they wouldn’t materialise for another 50 years. The Metropolitan Police Force was still rather in its infancy having been established only in 1829, Scotland Yard (the plain clothes detective branch wasn’t created until 1842) and the term detective didn’t actually pass into common usage until 1843. So by creating a protagonist with such an unusual role , Forrester was truly pushing the boundaries.
I wish he’d spent more time creating some compelling stories in which she is the investigator. I’e now read three and they’r rather dull, not helped by the dan-pan, colourless nature of the prose. I’ll give it another 30 minutes but if it’s failed to ignite by then it’s going to get abandoned and become the second book this year I couldn’t finish.
Hm, I could always tidy up the sock drawer I suppose…..
I don’t read a lot of crime fiction but now and again I get a hankering for something in that line. I am clearly not destined to be a detective however because I invariably pick the wrong person as the perpetrator and miss the significant clues along the way to their exposure. It doesn’t really matter as long as the writing is of a good standard and the plot doesn’t stretch credulity too much. What appeals to me about these books is they give me a chance to turn the dial down on the brain for a while. I’m not yearning for cosiness or the kind of book where it goes in one eye and out the other without touching the sides but I definitely want to be entertained.
All three of the crime novels I’ve read this year have had something about them that lifted them above the ordinary though their styles couldn’t be more different.
My love affair with Chief Inspector Gamache continues unabated. A Fatal Grace is book number two in the series by Louise Penny but the fourth I’ve read (I’ve not been reading in order).
She takes us back to the Three Pines village, a Canadian community so small it can barely be found on the map. It’s a close knit community but there’s one person that the village has never taken to their heart: CC de Poitiers. This is a woman who alienated everyone from her husband and her sad, cowed daughter to her lover so there are not many tears shed when she is electrocuted during the annual curling event. But Armand Gamache is a man full of compassion and an understanding of human nature, skills which ably equip him to understand the undercurrents as he searches for the truth. A well written novel which kept me guessing (almost) to the end and entertained with its wonderful scenes set in the village’s cosy bistro. I admire the way Penny has developed these characters, giving them little quirks and tics but never descending to the level of caricature. She has also cleverly set up a storyline that is expanded in later novels about a threat from unknown forces to our beloved Chief Inspector. If you’ve not been introduced to Gamache, I recommend you remedy that soon.
It’s taken me long enough to get around to reading The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the first novel to be published by Agatha Christie. It’s the novel that introduces Hercule Poirot to the world as a man with eccentric habits and a razor sharp mind.
The story of The Mysterious Affair at Styles is rather simple by contemporary standards – just one death and that happens off stage so sparing us any ghoulish details. But it’s the way the novel evokes a particular time and place that I found more interesting. It’s written in 1916 when the world of the Edwardian landed family seems to be in its last stages. The multi-generational family living at the country house of Styles try to keep up their old way of life but the reality of World War 1 with its talk of war work, rumours of spies and shortages of essentials impinge on their comforts. Poirot himself has been displaced by the war raging in his native Belgium, finding refuge with a few of his countryman in a house owned by Emily Inglethorp, the matriarch of Styles manor house. It puts him in pole position when his benefactor is found dead inside her locked bedroom. Not a book that lovers of highbrow literary fiction will enjoy very much it was interesting to see where the legend of Poirot began.
Both Penny and Christie give us professional detectives who possess an extraordinary ability to understand the forces that drive people to murder, maim and prey on the weak and defenceless. It’s often not the crime itself that intrigues them, but the character that lies behind it.
The protagonist in my third novel isn’t a detective nor does he have any interest in the criminal mind. He doesn’t easily understand emotions in fact because Asperger’s Syndrome severely limits his emotional response to situations and makes it difficult for him to interpret other people’s behaviour. Patrick Fort is however fascinated by death, a fascination triggered when as a young boy he witnessed his father’s sudden demise in a road accident. His obsessive desire to know why someone dies takes him to a university anatomy course in Cardiff where he he looks for answers by dissecting cadavers donated in the interests of furthering medical understanding. After weeks of working on Corpse 19, the body of a middle-aged man, he is convinced the diagnosis given on the death certificate is incorrect. Few believe his claim that Corpse 19 did not die naturally but was murdered in a hospital high-dependency ward for coma patients.
The introduction of a ‘detective’ with Asperger’s Syndrome has of course obvious parallels with Mark Haddon’s hugely successful The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night Time. Rubbernecker uses a similarly emotionally disconnected voice but was rather more successful for me than Haddon’s protagonist. There are times when Patrick Fort’s lack of social skills result in some unintentionally funny scenes but we also empathise with his mother whose patience at her son’s behaviour has been tested to despair.
There is a lot to appreciate in this novel though Bauer’s ambition seems to have led her to intersperse the narrative of Patrick’s quest with several other strands which don’t work as well. The most prominent is the narrative of a middle-aged car accident victim man who is trying to recover his voice and the use of his body after lying in a coma for many years. Then there is a story line of a nurse working in the same coma unit who sets out to snare the wealthy husband of a patient. The connection between these strands does eventually come together though it makes for some confusing reading initially. I’ll give credit to Bauer however for attempting to break new ground in the realm of psychological crime fiction. The shame is that we won’t get another chance to meet Patrick in any further novels.
C. S Forester isn’t a name I associate with crime fiction. I know him mainly in connection with naval and historical novels, in particular the Hornblower series. But it seemed at early in his career when he was struggling to make his name, he wrote a few crime novels that were darker than the usual fare presented to British readers in between the two world wars.
One of these was not discovered for seventy years but was published by Penguin Modern Classics in 2011 when they also reissued Payment Deferred (1926) and Plain Murder (1930). The Pursued, which he wrote in 1935, is a domestic drama entered on Marjorie, an ordinary housewife in a London suburb whose love for her husband Ted has degenerated so much she can barely tolerate him. Returning home one evening she discovers the babysitter, her young sister Dot, dead in the kitchen, her head inside the gas oven. The death is marked down as a suicide. But Marjorie and her mother, Mrs Clair, a resolute and quick-witted woman, are not convinced. Dot they discover was pregnant yet she’d never hinted to anyone she was seeing a man. Then Marjorie’s four year old son makes an innocent remark that gets the two women thinking and soon convinces them that the loathsome Ted is a murderer. While Mrs Clair plots revenge Marjorie falls in love with George, a gentle and naive young man who is discovering passion for the first time in his life. Can Marjorie escape Ted’s domineering, abusive ways and escape to a new life with George?
The domestic drudgery of Marjorie’s everyday life is imagined in minute detail – the washing, cooking, shopping, – in contrast to the flash of bloody violence which happens in the final quarter of the novel. Forester gives us a fascinating piece of social history. It’s an era when independent career minded women like Marjorie’s spinster friends, are beginning to emerge, providing a sharp contrast to her own world of domestic duties and male dominance. Some of the narrative does sound a little dated – terms of endearment like dear and darling sound oddly unconvincing to our modern ears. But there are many reminders of the difficulties faced by women at this time – always under the scrutiny of neighbours alert to any signs of slipping standards, expected to have a hot lunch on the table every day even if money is short and expected to dress in a particular way befitting their age (no decent woman should be seen walking hatless down the street). More telling is that without independent means of income, Marjorie is trapped in her marriage to Ted however demanding and abusive he is. This is a novel whose impact is enhanced by Forester’s portrayal of a claustrophic world and sexual politics.
It’s a reasonable enough crime story (though you have to read it with a large suspension of disbelief) but works excellently as a piece of social history.