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Saturday, 18 April 2020

Mini reviews #34

A quick note: I've been trying to respond to comments, but for some reason haven't been able to. I really do appreciate them, and it's nice to think that someone other than me reads this blog!

Laura (1943) by Vera Casparay. Several narrators tell the story of the death and reappearance of the elusive Laura Hunt. Rightly considered a classic of American noir, Laura is an uneven novel but an absorbing one. The first narrator, Waldo Lydecker, is one of the most unlikely and intriguing narrators in the genre. Casparay’s great strength is in characterisation, and she shines showing the effects that one person, or the idea of one person, can have on the individual psyche.

Green for Danger (1946), directed by Sidney Gilliat. A nice old-school whodunit, set in a hospital during the Second World War and starring Alistair Sim. I haven’t read Christianna Brand’s novel (sorry, please don’t exile me) but have been told that this is a great if not entirely faithful adaptation. Adaptations shouldn’t be entirely faithful and, whatever its source, this works well as a classic mystery film.

Dear Murderer (1947), directed by Arthur Crabtree. An example of British noir, based on a play by St. John Legh Clowes. Eric Portman stars as an angry businessman who discovers that his wife (Greta Gynt) is a serial philanderer. He comes up with a plan to get rid of not one but two of her lovers… The film is great fun with a strong albeit reductive plot and no frills or distractions.

The Railway Detective (2004) by Edward Marston. A light read, full but of but not overloaded with information about trains and railways in the 1850s. Although it’s advertised as ‘the first Inspector Colbeck mystery’, it is more a police procedural set in the mid-nineteenth century. There is no question as to who committed the crime(s). It begins with a train robbery and follows through a kidnapping and a criminal conspiracy in the murkier parts of London. No cliché is too tepid for this author, but it works.

Herring in the Smoke (2017) by L.C. Tyler. Reliable fun, as always. Roger Vane, a well-known novelist, missing for twenty years, is officially declared dead. At the memorial service, struggling writer Ethelred Tressider meets a man who introduces himself as Roger Vane. The story ambles along nicely with all the fun and shameless clichés you expect, although I found the ending a bit disappointing. It’s hard to explain why without giving the whole thing away.

Sunday, 12 April 2020

Mortmain Hall by Martin Edwards

I was very excited to get a hold of Martin Edwards’ Mortmain Hall (2020), the sequel to his highly successful Gallows Court, and his second novel featuring amateur criminologist Rachel Savernake and journalist Jacob Flint. The novel was originally sent to me because I was supposed to be interviewing Martin as part of the Golden Age of Crime conference at the University of Chester earlier this month, but unfortunately the national situation has disrupted this and so many other events.

Nonetheless, missing out on the event should not deprive one of associated pleasures, so I dug into this book with eager anticipation, and I was not disappointed. Indeed, I don’t think it is actually possible for Martin Edwards to disappoint: he is the authority on Golden Age crime fiction in addition to being a justly garlanded mystery novelist in his own right – and he’s one of those rare and wonderful people who writes to a consistently high standard while consistently embracing and celebrating the fact that they are working in genre fiction. A brilliantly escapist novel in the Golden Age vein, with a healthy body count, Mortmain Hall contains enough contemporary suspense to keep readers of all stripes interested.

Set in 1930, the action starts with a funeral. One of the attendees is a man who’s supposed to be dead. When Rachel Savernake tells him he’s in danger of dying a second time, he ignores her and boards a train. Then he falls from that train to his death. From this premise, we plunge into a murky world of justice miscarried and high-level conspiracies as the myth of the ‘respectable, middle-class murder’ comes under scrutiny.

An eccentric woman, with a taste for the ‘depraved, exotic’ side of life invites a select party of people who have been accused and acquitted of murder to her decaying country house. Before the party starts, and while it is taking place, the murders keep coming. Night-clubbing, birdwatching, dining, playing cricket, strolling along the clifftop, or visiting a lion enclosure… none of these activities will end well for this excellently drawn and thoroughly unpleasant cast of characters.

There are definite touches of the Gothic here – especially the denouement in the crumbling Mortmain Hall as a storm rages and a villain is unmasked in a manner familiar to readers of Arthur Conan Doyle. There is also a nice nod to the Christie back catalogue, most notably Cards on the Table, which is one of my favourites. There are consistent moments of gentle humour and some great insight into true crime which – without wanting to give too much away – blends seamlessly with fiction. I also enjoyed educational asides, including a reflection on the cadaver of James Hogg, an elderly murderer from the early nineteenth century, whose body was flayed after hanging and attached to a cross to settle an artistic debate about the crucifixion of Christ.

One really nice feature of the book comes as the very end in the form of a ‘cluefinder.’ A cluefinder is a list of clues with page references as they appeared in the preceding text. As the author explains in a Facebook video, the cluefinder was a device to enhance the game-playing aspect of Golden Age crime fiction, and to drive home an element of fair play. It was a popular feature from the late 1920s and was used by such luminaries as J.J. Connington, Freeman Wills Crofts, Elspeth Huxley, Rupert Penny, John Dickson Carr, C. Daly King, and Edmund Crispin, but fizzled out fairly quickly. As someone totally unfamiliar with cluefinders, I’m very grateful for its return in 2020, and think a revival of interest is definitely in order.
If this summary sounds chaotic, that’s misleading, because the whole thing is as neat, polished, and readable as you could ask for. It is a vibrant and complete journey into the escapist world of Golden Age crime fiction with a contemporary edge that enhances rather than labours the enjoyment. I am already looking forward to the next in the series!

Saturday, 11 April 2020

The Clocks by Agatha Christie

There are some Agatha Christie novels I know word for word, by heart. For nearly all of them, I can give you a pretty good summary of the plot, name all the characters, and discuss key themes and quotes without doing any prep. This isn’t a boast: if anything, it’s a confession of severe social ineptitude and an unhealthy obsession. But, until now, my definite stumbling block has been The Clocks. I just read it for the third time (to give an indication, I’ve probably read And Then There Were None 20+ times).

During the Coronavirus lockdown, it felt like everyone was asking me to recommend Agatha Christies to them. Everyone seems to be reading Christie and/or writing a novel – both of these are very good things, and I’m normally doing one or more of these on a given day, but for the first two weeks of lockdown, I did neither. I wanted absolute distraction for a bit and so read a lot of new-to-me books, mostly from new-to-me authors. In the crime sphere, these included Dennis Wheatley & J.G. Links’ murder dossiers, Magdalen Nabb’s Death of an Englishman, Edward Marston’s The Railway Detective, Vera Casparay’s Laura, Peter Swanson’s Rules for Perfect Murders, and others I can’t remember off the cuff, and a load of non-crime stuff. It mostly hit the spot but not quite and I realised that to truly escape I needed the master.

So, I looked at my bookshelf and picked the one Christie I can’t really remember. All I could remember from having read it at 13 and again at 18 was that it was a bit boring, the plot didn’t tie up, there was a really silly visual clue, and the narrator was a spy pretending to be a marine biologist. But, I reasoned: come on, I’m the one person alive who likes Christie’s generally-acknowledged worst novels, Passenger to Frankfurt and The Big Four.  And even people who hate those books always acknowledge that Christie at her worst is better than most writers on a good day. I also figured that this couldn't be as bad as I remembered, because Christie wrote it before some of her strongest work including At Bertram's Hotel (1965), Endless Night (1967), and Hallowe'en Party (1969) - which means she can't have lost her marbles at this point. So, with some trepidation, I pulled out The Clocks and gave it a whirl.

And – I loved it. God knows what was wrong with me before but now I think it’s brilliant. Not her best, no, but miles better than so many other crime novels. The Clocks, published in 1963, is an interesting departure from the whodunit formula. Then again, most late Christie departs from the Golden Age format. If you’ve heard or read my academic work, you’ll know that I think she reinvented the genre throughout the 1960s. It’s a mystery novel combining the spy thriller format, the self-referential detective narrative, and a small-c conservative comedy of social change.

Sheila Webb, a bang-average stenographer, receives a command to visit a house on Wilbraham Crescent, which is owned by the elderly Millicent Pebmarsh. She arrives at the allotted hour and, because Miss Pebmarsh is blind and not at home, lets herself in. In the room, she finds a strange scene: seven clocks, with five of them displaying the wrong time, and a dead man. She screams and runs out into the street, and into the arms of our narrator, who calls himself Colin Lamb.

Colin is – although he scrupulously never tells anyone, not even us his readers – a spy. He’s also the son of a senior policeman, and I’m not sure if this is Superintendent Spence or Superintendent Battle from the Christie back-catalogue. He was looking for another house on the same road where he believes a communist agent is hiding out. And because Sheila is very pretty he decides to solve this murder on the side.

It’s fourteen chapters before Hercule Poirot gets involved, very much in the background. Perhaps this is evidence that Christie was growing tired of Poirot as is commonly supposed. But I wonder if it actually represents Christie’s negotiation of a trope from spy fiction: the all-seeing deus-ex-machina, the M figure, who swoops in and sorts it out.

If so, Poirot’s presentation this time is a masterstroke. He’s mostly squirreled away in Whitehaven Mansions, but when he talks it’s in full Golden Age manner: he quotes childish riddles in lieu of actually explaining things and he’s going through a phase of reading all around the crime genre. So, he sees everything – including this murder plot – through the eyes of fictional detectives (the creations of real authors like John Dickson Carr, Anna Katherine Greene, and A.A. Milne and of authors like Ariadne Oliver and Gary Gregson, who exist only in the Christieverse).

The solution to the crime utterly bamboozled me and I could not be happier because I thought that feeling of getting hoodwinked by Christie was lost forever. It’s a brilliant blend of intricacy and extreme simplicity. I do remember hearing from other readers that the relevance of the clocks fizzles out but I don’t think that’s true. Their relevance is simply not what we expect it to be. And there’s a really nice twist at the end.

Thematically, the novel is ahead of its time in its treatment of disability. My friend Tina Hodgkinson gave an excellent paper on ableism in The Clocks at last year’s Agatha Christie conference, and I’d like to thank her for drawing our attention to this important theme.

Another key theme in the book is change: most of the characters, especially the unsympathetic ones, are afraid of change. They talk of atomic bombs, the EEC, and supermarkets with equal disdain. And they tie themselves up in knots trying to explain what they mean. Nobody challenged nostalgia while fuelling it with quite such brilliance as Agatha Christie.

If you want some fun, absorbing lockdown reading, you can’t go wrong with Agatha Christie. And I recommend The Clocks without hesitation.

Friday, 3 April 2020

Mini reviews #33

The Malinsay Massacre (1938) by Dennis Wheatley

The third of four crime dossiers Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links prepared in the late 1930s, and the second I’ve read. I don’t own the other two and they’re too expensive for me to get hold of, sadly. This wasn’t quite as enjoyable as Murder off Miami, partly because there’s not a great variety in evidence to sift through: it’s mostly letters and everything else feels either contrived (it could have been in a letter) or is plain irrelevant – which is bad form for a red herring. A good red herring is a clue we’ve been steered to misinterpret. This time, there’s a whodunit and a howdunit, as we dig into the massacre of a late Victorian aristocratic family on a small island off Scotland. I got the howdunit but I only got the whodunit by suspecting more or less everyone, and didn’t get any of the clues. The Malinsay Massacre is enjoyable and diverting, but lacks the coherence and sparkle of Murder Off Miami.

Mrs Pym of Scotland Yard (1939) directed by Fred Ellis

This film is huge fun, and stars Mary Clare as a Scotland Yard officer who has to work more or less solo while the male superiors she runs rings round protest her very presence on the grounds of her sex. It stars lots of theatrical types in a range of standard roles – heiress, journalist, shady businessman – and centres around the deaths of two women who visited the same psychic medium. Mrs Pym exposes the bogus seances and uncovers the killer. The film was supposed to be the first of a series by Nigel Morland, who later reused the title for a novel, but the series never materialised, and Mrs Pym survives chiefly in book form.

Death of an Englishman (1981) by Magdalen Nabb

A short, diverting, and forgettable mystery set in Florence, where an Englishman has been shot in the back just before Christmas. The down-to-earth Florentine Police have to overcome their differences with a class-conscious Scotland Yard duo to get to the truth. The author, who is new to me, followed this up with Death of a Dutchman, also set in Florence, and a few more mysteries and seems to have gone on to write children’s literature.

The Hunting Party (2019) by Lucy Foley

I wasn’t sure what to expect of The Hunting Party, mainly because it was aggressively marketed like those vapid mysteries that are being written with more than one eye on Netflix and which don’t stand up to … anything (One of Us is LyingThe Last, etc.). So I didn’t get round to reading it until I needed to, and I was astonished. It’s brilliant – a psychologically nuanced thriller with compelling, relatable characters and a driving, twisty narrative. The more outlandish the action gets, the more believable it becomes.

Rules for Perfect Murders (2020) by Peter Swanson

The concept here is irresistible: a bookseller releases a blog post listing the most ‘perfect murders’ in crime fiction, and, years later, someone seems to be committing murders that correspond to those in the list. The execution is also marvellous. A wonderful combination of the many branches and valences of classic and contemporary crime fiction, Swanson’s novel invites you to read it in one sitting. It is the perfect read for any broad-church crime fiction fan who wants something to escape with and doesn’t take the genre too seriously.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Murder Off Miami by Dennis Wheatley

You might remember that I reviewed the Usborne Mystery Files a couple of years ago. Around that time, I acquired two 1980s ‘facsimile’ editions of Dennis Wheatley’s 1930s interactive murder mysteries, including Murder Off Miami (1936). The concept here is that you go through the physical evidence of a crime and solve the mystery yourself. While original readers had the actual artefacts to play with, the 1986 editions are photocopies, bound in book form.

I thought that lockdown would be a pretty decent time to pull one of these out and give it a go. And on a day I should have been settling down in Chester to lay the ground for our now-postponed Golden Age of Crime conference, my spirits were low. So, I’ve just spent an enjoyable afternoon in the company of Detective Officer Kettering and a shady set of suspects, one of whom committed a murder aboard the Golden Gull Yacht, just off Miami, in 1936.

The story is pretty straightforward: a wealthy businessman has apparently committed suicide, having jumped out of his cabin window on the world’s strangest holiday cruise, at which he is a guest of his arch-nemesis in soap manufacturing. Among his fellow passengers, nearly all of whom had a motive for bumping him off, we find a litany of colourful characters including a dowager battleaxe, a forgetful bishop with a secret past, an Italian nobleman who’s not on the level, and a double-dealing Japanese government official.

This is good, escapist fun at its purest. It’s also very, very golden agey. 1936 has always felt like the archetypical golden age year, for some reason – most of the TV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot reset the action of its diverse source material to that year, and it kind of fits that Murder Off Miami was published and set in that year. We have a nice collection of photographs, handwriting samples, witness reports, and telegrams to sift through – and it is of course all contemporary 1936 stuff which is rather thrilling.

For me, the saddest part was having to break the seal on the solution. If it was a new book, it wouldn’t be a problem, but since even this reissue is older than I am, it felt rather sacrilegious. And then I was a tiny bit disappointed that, as each and every clue was explained, I’d got them all – so it was almost as if I didn’t need to check. Except that it gave me the most wonderful, childish glow of pleasure to have missed nothing. Given how much I talk about the puzzle aspect on this blog, I’m starting to think I’ve been too quick to dismiss it in the past. Sometimes, it’s absolutely the heart and fun of the thing.

This game-cum-book gets a hearty recommendation from me, especially in these times when we need to escape. I think I’ll try The Malinsay Massacre (1938) tomorrow.

Monday, 30 March 2020

Mini reviews #32

Hello from lockdown! Given the gloom and uncertainty of the world around us, I thought that today I'd offer only positive reviews ...

Colour Scheme (1949) by Ngaio Marsh

This enjoyable mystery has all the elements of a good Marsh: waspish characters, colourful setting that bleeds into the plot, a detective in disguise (who really isn’t relevant to the action, but the author hasn’t worked that out), and a really nice concept at its heart. It’s one of those mysteries where everything is relevant, but you only realise that at the end.

An Autobiography (1979) by Agatha Christie

So rich, so funny, so eminently human. Agatha Christie’s autobiography is everything is should be. It’s remarkably candid in so many ways, and if it doesn’t illuminate the writing process, it certainly sheds light on that personal connection an excellent writer cultivates with her readers.

Knives Out (2019) directed by Rhian Johnson

Yes, it is as good as people are saying. How amazing that we can get a blockbuster movie in this day and age directly referencing John Dickson Carr!

Never Have I Ever (2020) by Joshilyn Jackson

A pleasant surprise. Entrancing characters and dialogue meant I read it keenly. This book had been so hyped and offered around so many places for free that I thought it would be … lacking in something. But it’s very, very good. Joshilyn Jackson is not a new author but an established one, turning to crime/suspense for the first time. That probably explains the publicity drive. And the experience pays off. 

The Guest List (2020) by Lucy Foley

The follow up to last year’s The Hunting Party is just as promising. I really enjoyed this, and didn’t guess the ending. The plot revolves around a group of characters and at their heart is Will, a thoroughly horrible person whom all of us can put an irl name (or multiple irl names) to.

Friday, 31 January 2020

Mini reviews #31

Death at Breakfast (1936) by John Rhode

I downloaded this a couple of years ago as part of a commissioned project looking into literary estates but only got around to reading it this year. Let me tell you, tracking Rhode’s estate on Google is a nightmare: his real surname was Street and his descendants are called Green and Park, meaning I ended up with a lot of roadmaps (should that be rhodemaps?). Anyway, Death at Breakfast is enjoyable. It’s very much a puzzle and little more. I didn’t solve it, because I was so convinced I’d spotted something (either a red herring or plain irrelevant) on page 2. So… Rhodes did his job well!

The Pale Horse (1961) by Agatha Christie

One of Agatha Christie’s finest novels and convincing evidence that she was an author, particularly in her last decades, of biting social relevance.  A series of apparently unconnected deaths may have at its heart ancient witchcraft or something much more modern and equally sinister. Shed your preconceptions about Christie as a writer, laser away any television adaptations from your retinas, and enjoy.

The Sixth Window (2017) by Rachel Abbott

The sixth book in the DCI Tom Douglas series, and my introduction to both the character and the author, The Sixth Window is an excellent psychological thriller/police procedural hybrid. A twisty and compelling narrative about a woman discovering her husband’s dark side and feeling she has nowhere to turn. If the twists are predictable, that doesn’t matter: as is so often the case, it’s the journey that compels.

Deadly Scholars (2018) directed by Danny J. Boyle

Quite possibly the worst, most pointless piece of drama ever committed to film. It’s an American high school slasher mystery and I get that I’m not in the target audience but who is…? There’s a real mystery.

Identity Crisis (2019) by Ben Elton

After reading and loving David Nicholls’ The Understudy, I was in the mood for more satire. So, I picked up this book (remembering that Dead Famous by the same author was recommended to me a lot when it came out in 2004 but I never got round to reading it). Well, I was disappointed. It’s probably unfair to compare them, but it does show the difference between the two writers. Nicholls’ satire plays into universal tropes/types/themes, whereas Elton has specific contemporary targets. There is a lot of thin veiling here – Brexit, Boris Johnson, Germaine Greer, Cambridge Analytica, etc. As such, it all becomes a bit gestural and ultimately quickly dated. The concept is that the twin evils of social media and political correctness are stifling a murder investigation that ultimately exposes sinister cabals at the heart of capitalism itself.