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Sunday, 2 May 2021

The Secret House of Death by Ruth Rendell

Apologies for the longer and more autobiographical post than usual this time.

Ruth Rendell!


I didn’t red Ruth Rendell until I was 19. There was a reason for this. Growing up with a fervent devotion to Agatha Christie, I would often come across critiques from other crime writers (these were very fashionable up to the 2000s, and some of the big names now claiming her as their greatest inspiration started out saying she was awful, or pretending they hadn’t even heard of her). Rendell seemed particularly virulent, and I also read that she never planned her novels. So, child-me figured, if she didn’t understand the master and her own books took that little effort to write, I wouldn’t bother reading them.


This is of course a childish and petty attitude to take, and alarmingly some Christie enthusiasts who are adults still take it. Obviously, I had no understanding then about the mechanics of writing, and less still did I understand that the Toryistic fan scholarship I was reading took extra efforts to make Rendell look bad or jealous because she was a left-wing peer. It never occurred to me that P.D. James, for example, said worse, less-informed things about Christie, and managed to share a fan-base – because she was a Tory.


I had a few of Rendell’s books lying around from an early age. When I got my first serious romantic partner, who was a big fan of hers, I gifted him a copy of The Rottweiler I’d had since I was fourteen (it was a signed first edition). Before wrapping it up – wrapping up gifts is something that should always be done – I flicked through the first chapter and ended up reading the whole thing in a night. I was annoyed with myself that I loved it, and confused when I went online and read that it was considered one of her worst.


A few months later, our wonderful, incredible, fantastic university lecturer Dr Sally West made us read A Dark-Adapted Eye, Rendell’s most famous work as Barbara Vine, which left me speechless. It’s a haunting and bitterly true psychological novel. I went straight to a library and found A Judgement in Stone, the first line of which has been widely quoted in crime fiction studies, and at that point I grew up. I was a fan, and there was no use denying it.


Since I seem to have forgotten that this is a review blog, here is another diversion. The University of Chester, where I was an undergraduate, gave me the kind of social education, woven into academic betterment, that is not managed elsewhere. My two departments, Theology & Religious Studies and English, were communities and the staff’s accessibility was a vital part of that. I’ve named Sally West specifically but each lecturer there was a vital part of my personal and professional growth. I’ve been angered to hear about the threats of redundancies in these departments, and the cruel ways these threats are being communicated. For more information, follow the hashtag #NoRedundanciesChester and the University of Chester UCU on social media.


On to The Secret House of Death (1968). How I got hold of this book is a long story, the full details of which make it one for a tell-all memoir rather than fodder for a blog post. The short version is that some years ago I had to write a magazine article, under a famous name, about books. The credited author gave me notes including one to the effect that The Secret House of Death contains one of the greatest twists of any novel ever. I dutifully wrote the piece and then bought all the books they/I had recommended because they all sounded so good. I read two, which I thought were awful, and forgot about it, so the rest gathered dust.


Fast-forward to April 2021 and I’d just submitted a monstrously long manuscript on Christie which had occupied my every waking (and sleeping) non-day-job hour for some time. I saw The Secret House of Death with its silly Shakespearean title, remembered the warm words I’d had for its twist, and dug in.


First things first. There is no twist. Unless you count the revelation that you’ve been seeing things in the wrong light – surely the bare minimum for good crime fiction – as a twist. It is a straightforward, but excellent, psychological mystery. It’s clued, it’s solvable, it’s surprising, and it’s insightful. It does not contain the greatest twist in literature. It does not contain the greatest twist in crime fiction. It does not even contain the greatest twist in Rendell. Check out her short stories for superb examples of what I call the ‘double twist’: the twist you’re kind of expecting followed by an absolute blind-sider, often in the last line.


There is a 1980s TV adaptation, which I haven’t seen, and that may well be twisty. The blurb for that sounds more like a domestic noir type thing – think Love from a Stranger – so maybe that’s what this famous person was thinking of. It’s a good reminder that a lot of people who recommend books in magazines etc. haven’t read them and have at best seen the adaptations.


But this is about the book. Our main protagonist is Susan Townsend (not Sue Townsend – nowhere near as humorous for one thing). A recently-divorced mother, she tries to keep herself to herself and doesn’t get involved in gossip about the affair going on between her neighbour Louise and Bernard, a handyman/salesman. One day, Susan is forced into the midst of things when she discovers Louise and Bernard in bed together. They are fully clothed but also fully dead. It looks like murder-suicide.


The police are not convinced but the narrative oscillates between efforts to unravel what really happened and Susan’s emotional reaction to the scene. She soon becomes close to Bob, Louise’s widower, who asks her to burn Bernard’s romantic letters, which he’s recovered.


Since it’s obvious to any crime fiction reader by now that something’s up, I don’t need to tell you to be suspicious of letters which begin ‘My dearest one’ and never mention specific names.


Rendell here is on absolutely top form, getting into the sprawling absurdity of human psychology beneath polite interactions. A traumatic event like a murder-suicide makes polite small talk both necessary – for continuity – and impossible, and Rendell captures this brilliantly:


‘Were you busy? Am I interrupting something?’


‘Of course not.’ His loss made him different from other men, a. pariah, someone you had to treat warily, yet appear to be no different. She wanted to behave both as if the tragedy had never happened and at the same time as if he were deserving of the most solicitous consideration. An odd reflection came to her, that it was impossible to feel much pity for anyone a good-looking as bob. […] If the tragedy hadn’t happened and he had called her like this, she would have felt ill-at ease alone with him.


A fantastically complex but concise look at the bizarre, ridiculous mental leaps behind three words.


Sometimes, though, Rendell goes a bit O.T.T., tries too hard:


‘Well?’ It could be a warm word, a word denoting health or things excellently done, but she made it the coldest in the world. On her lips it was onomatopoeic, a well indeed, a place of deep, dark and icy waters.


I don’t know. I think, ‘“Well?” she said coldly’ would have done.


The language is more dated that you might expect. Although sixties slang, the kind that Christie or James would never have entertained, is peppered throughout, a rough bartender still cries ‘good gracious!’ and Susan feels sorry for women in their forties because they don’t get catcalled by builders as much as teenaged girls do. Rendell was writing impossibly old-fashioned prose by the 1990s and her fiction has always been fundamentally, though self-awarely, middle class.


However, isolating this last incident belies the social commentary in the novel. When read in its totality, and accepting that being the protagonist does not make Susan automatically right or virtuous (Rendell takes ‘think the worst about everyone’ to extremes), the book’s message is a profound one about how ready we are to blame women for men’s shortcomings. How easily we believe narratives about women’s disgrace. How willingly we let men manipulate us and what we see.


In homage to child-me, I feel the need to point out, cheekily, that when The Secret House of Death was published, another novel, featuring a similar solution with identical moral commentary, was hiding in a vault to be published after it’s author’s death. That book was Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie.

Sunday, 11 April 2021

I’ll Never Like Friday Again by Stephen Maddock

When my grandfather died in January, I inherited his collection of 1940s and 1950s crime fiction, and am
reading through them. I started with this from Stephen Maddock, an unknown name to me, but my grandfather had three of his books. Maddock was a pseudonym for Australian-born James Morgan Walsh (1897-1952), a prolific author of breezy spy novels. I’ll Never Like Friday Again (1945) features one of his hero-narrators, Terrel of the Secret Service, whom readers are supposed to know, love, and recognize, as he takes a good few chapters to introduce himself.
The opening chapter reminded me strongly of Agatha Christie’s The Clocks: the narrator has been summoned to a certain flat, without knowing why. He turns up and finds two things: a dead man and a beautiful woman, who swears she had nothing to do with it. He helps her concoct a story to explain her presence at a crime scene to the police, reminds us several times that he’s very attractive to women, then gets to work throwing the police of his and her tracks while trying to work out what happened and why.
This will always be a treasured book for me, because it belonged to my beloved grandfather, but I doubt it’s a title or author I’ll read again. Nonetheless, the descriptions of going about one’s daily business – ordinary or covert – to the backdrop of normalized bombs and air raids is fascinating and worth checking out.

Sunday, 14 March 2021

Mini reviews #35

 Surprise! I warned you this blog would be sporadic. COVID-19 and associated problems have wrought havoc on people close to me and on me, as they have on so many. While I have been reading a lot (a LOT) of crime fiction, I’ve barely been writing anything not required by my day job or my publisher. Luckily, the manuscript for my next book has been submitted and normality – albeit a new normality with many people and pleasures lost – is returning. Anyway, here are some mini-reviews.

Emma (1815) by Jane Austen
I always feel guilty that Emma is not my favourite Austen book. It is the one that anyone interested in crime fiction of LGBTQ+ concerns cites. And it’s my second-favourite, but, honestly, I prefer Northanger Abbey and think there may be an element of over-reading involved in claiming Emma as a queer text. Certainly, Emma Woodhouse is an amazing, strong character who rewards queer analysis but I think it does a disservice to her, to her creator, and to queer readers to claim her as a queer figure. The plot of Emma is engaging and its execution biting and, sometimes, laugh-out-loud funny, but overall the feeling one gets reading it is, “Thank God someone is thinking like this”. I include it here because it is often cited as the first detective novel, but really I think that, too, is a stretch. Emma does investigate, and see new ways of reading situations, clues, and people, and I can see why people are keen to link a line of female detectives back to her, but I’m not convinced.
Giant’s Bread (1930) by Mary Westmacott
Agatha Christie’s first pseudonymous novel, Giant’s Bread is an ambitious literary effort with a mega three-book structure. It centres on Vernon Deyre, a brilliant, troubled musician for whom music is less a passion than an obsession. It follows him from childhood through a troubled adulthood, presumed death, and resurrection, as a Jewish friend, Sebastian Levinne, takes up the role of protagonist. With Levinne, Christie shows an awareness of antisemitism as a social evil, but also reveals her own limits as a social commentator as there is an essential difference in how he is presented compared to his friends. In all, Giant’s Bread is almost a masterpiece, and it makes perfect sense that it garnered critical praise upon its anonymous first publication.
The Lincoln Lawyer (2005) by Michael Connelly
Connelly is one of those authors I’ve been meaning to read for a while. A lot of people have recommended him to me, but I’ve always shied away because it’s always been in the context of “You wouldn’t like this blokey author, but how about Michael Connelly?” And, being half-straight, there are a fair few blokey authors I do enjoy. So, Connelly has always felt like an afterthought, although I’ve acquired a decent stack of his books. I figured I’d start with The Lincoln Lawyer, the first in a series about Mickey Haller, a defense attorney (barrister) who only represents clients he believes to be innocent. The story is decent and highly readable, and I did go on to read two more. One thing that niggled – in this, the two subsequent books, and the highly-influenced-by-Connelly prose of Steve Cavanagh, is that characters are nodding at one another all the time. I think this is some sort of macho thing.
The Thursday Murder Club (2020) by Richard Osman
A group of retirees in a small village meet on Thursdays to talk about mysteries: they end up embroiled in a murder case. Like a lot of people, I avoided The Thursday Murder Club at first because I’m not generally a fan of celebrity-authored novels, and prime time intellectuals tend to be the worst kind of celebrity novelist. However, also like a lot of people, once I’d read The Thursday Murder Club, I was enchanted. It’s not flawless – I found the central figure, Joyce, overly caricatured and had expected a better mastery of the conditional past tense – but it is fun. More fun than funny, it’s an entertaining tribute to the kind of mysteries that end up on ITV 3.
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World (2020) by Mark Aldridge
In this extensive, highly illustrated and archivally informed book, Mark Aldridge presents a full story of Hercule Poirot, with particular attention to adaptations and behind-the-scenes elements, although he also summarises the novels, the plays, and several of the stories. An essential resource for any Agatha Christie fan, it’s also of use to scholars and researchers, containing some previously unreleased material. This is partly down to the benefit of the Christie estate’s heavy involvement and partly down to the author’s conscientious research ethic. Presentationally, Aldridge strikes a delicate balance between the informality of Charles Osborne’s The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie and the scholarly rigour of Julius Green’s Curtain Up. It is not surprising that this book has become a bestseller, and I look forward to Aldridge’s next offering.

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Agatha and the Curse of Ishtar directed by Sam Yates.

Oh, my God. I quite enjoyed Agatha and the Truth of Murder in 2018, which most people hated. So, when everyone said Agatha and the Curse of Ishtar (2019) was awful too, I took that with a pinch of salt. Well, everyone was right.

Agatha Christie (Lyndsey Marshal) travels to Iraq in 1929, meets her future husband Max Mallowan (Jonah Hauer-King), and solves a murder involving a curse.

Agatha’s first line is a joke about penises. Max is a hunky cockney. The Murder at the Vicarage is apparently a Poirot novel. The Mary Westmacott novels are “about romance” (aaaargh!!!). There’s a massive missed opportunity in the decision to turn Katherine Woolley (look her up) into a sex-mad degenerate (this is a shame because she is played by the superb Katherine Kingsley; if you ever get a chance to see her on stage, do it).

And then there’s the plot – suffice to say that, two days after watching it, I can’t remember who died, who did it, or why. Yes, of course I’ll be watching the third instalment, Agatha and the Midnight Murders, this Christmas.

But If you want a better-researched and more compelling mystery starring Agatha Christie on a dig with the Woolleys in 1929, check out Andrew Wilson’s Death in a Desert Land, also released in 2019. 

Saturday, 18 July 2020

The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall

A fun tribute to the Sherlock Holmes canon, The Affair of the Mysterious Letter (2019) is set in a fantasy world of magic, steampunk, and LGBTQ equality, within the straits of Victorian social mores.

Captain John Wyndham returns from war to his homeland and takes up rooms with an eccentric consulting sorceress, Shaharazad Hass, only to be confronted with a case involving an old flame of hers.

I came to this after reading Hall’s forthcoming gay rom com, Boyfriend Material, which is cute if upsetting in its honesty at times. The Affair of the Mysterious Letter is well worth the time of any queer Sherlockian.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Who Killed Robert Prentice? by Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links

Another mystery dossier by Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links – you get the physical clues and sift through them to solve the crime – Who Killed Robert Prentice (1937) is huge fun as

Reading as I did the bound printed 1980s edition, I unfortunately missed out on some of the clues/experience (scented paper!) but it was nonetheless a great afternoon diversion. The solution to the mystery bears a striking resemblance to that in an early Agatha Christie novel but (is this heresy?) I think it’s done better here.

Wheatley, it turns out, is not averse to self-promotion. Whenever a newspaper clipping appears, on the back or in the corner is some form of advertisement for his work, and there’s even an “interview with a local writer” that is basically his CV followed by “Mr Wheatly thought it unwise to comment on the case”!

It was interesting to learn from these materials, though, that “arranged by J.G. Links” means that Links comes up with the stories and decides on the clues, and Wheatley just writes them up.

Monday, 22 June 2020

The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher

Subtitled “A Harlam Mystery”, The Conjure-Man Dies was first published in 1932, just two years before its author’s early death. It is the first example of a detective novel with an African American author, and explores in a unique way the black American experience in the early 1930s. The detective is Perry Dart, one of the ten black police detectives in Harlam, who is called to investigate the murder of a conjure-man (fortune teller and witch doctor), N’Gana Frimbo, who appears at one point to have brought himself back from the dead. In his investigation, he is assisted by the capable Dr John Archer and constantly has to deal with two over-enthusiastic young men, Bubber Brown and Jinx Jenkins who provide a great deal of comic relief.

It’s a complex and character-driven mystery with plenty of surreal-but-illuminating moments, which tell audiences about traditions they may not be familiar with in the format of a popular puzzle entertainment. The crime itself is sufficiently theatrical to delight the most seasoned mystery reader. And, perhaps uniquely in golden age crime novels, all the characters are black.

Fisher once said in an interview that Harlem “itself is mystery – outsiders know nothing of Harlem life as it really is … what goes on behind the scenes and beneath the dark skins of Harlem folk – fiction has not found much of that yet. And much of it is perfectly in tune with the best of the mystery tradition – variety, color, mysticism, superstition, malice and violence.” This understanding, and the wish to communicate, are why The Conjure-Man Dies worked at the time as both a novel and a popular entertainment and why it still works on both counts.

This was not the author’s first novel – that was The Walls of Jericho (1928) – but it was his first, and sadly last, murder mystery. He also wrote a short story featuring Dart and Archer, “John Archer’s Nose”, which is included in the edition I have. This 2017 reprint is part of the Collins Detective Club vintage-style hardback series, and is a treat – although the book has never been published by Collins before.

The edition also reprints a 1971 introduction by Stanley Ellin which is, if anything, more of its time than the actual novel. Ellin acknowledges the writers who inspired Fisher’s foray into detective fiction – notably SS Van Dine and Dashiell Hammett – and concludes that while Van Dine may have influenced plotting decisions, the majority of influence goes to Hammett, something demonstrated by the fine and nuanced characterisation. I’d suggest that Van Dine and the Golden Age are much bigger influences here, as both the plot and the light-but-thorough approach to character, the clever balance of comedy and pathos, are hallmarks of both a broad education in the puzzle form and Rudolph Fisher’s own skill.