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Thursday, 28 December 2017

Conjuror's Alibi by Kenneth Lillington

Many crime fiction fans talk about graduating from Nancy Drew to Hercule Poirot, around the age of ten or twelve. I didn’t. When I was eight, I went straight from Dahl to Christie — I’d say this was ‘like that’, with a click of the fingers, but I couldn’t click my fingers, and was one of those sad kids who clapped in all the finger-clicking activities at school.

Hardly any children’s fiction appealed to me, and one of my earliest memories is complaining to my grandparents that children’s authors, with the exception of Roald Dahl (JKR was a year off), patronised their readers something rotten. I didn’t like being patronised in literature, because that happens enough in real life when you’re young.

This is probably why Nancy Drew and Scooby Doo never did anything for me. They felt like crappy imitations of something else, sanitised and stripped of interest so as not to challenge their target audience. Who dressed up as a ghost? Who the hell cares? When I started reading murder mysteries, the whodunit format started making sense — because murder is an impetus for a puzzle, emotional investment, and inconsistent, eccentric behaviour.  So I was and remain perfectly happy to have bypassed the bulk of mysteries-for-young-readers.

However, nowadays we’re in something of a golden age of children’s and young adult literature, and much of it I love reading. There’s something wonderful about the best examples of the genre, which can pack the complexities of the human condition into a short and accessible read. I’m particularly excited when I come across anything about gender and sexuality for young readers, or any actual murder stories, of which there are, now, many.

But the subject of today’s post was written nearly sixty years ago. Conjuror’s Alibi (1960) is part of a series of murder mysteries for children, written by Kenneth Lillington and featuring his schoolboy detective, known as Soapy. Three things drew me to this book in that marvellous Oxfam in Cambridge: 1) the cover art by George Adamson, 2) the fabulously low price, and 3) the fact that it’s a proper murder mystery with all the hallmarks of a golden age novel, but specifically geared towards children.

Certainly, if we replaced the child-narrator, John, with a country doctor, and the band of school children with two or three adults, and excised some of the more look-we’re-learning moments (‘I work for the Paris Surete — that’s the CID of France’), it could actually be an adult crime novel.

The investigation starts when John, with his friend Soapy and some other friends who just provide decoration and open up the possibility of female readership — Sally, Helen, and Phil — are a the theatre, watching a magic show. The magician, Prince Khalid, asks for a volunteer, and the local MP goes up on stage. In the course of a trick, the MP apparently has a heart attack and, by the time he has been given medical attention, a knife has found its way into his heart.

The police are baffled and they seem happy to call the whole thing a tragic accident(!), so it’s up to Soapy and co to get to the bottom of things. They know they’re on the right track when their new slightly older friend, Arthur French (who can’t speak French — a joke that is done to death) is kidnapped. Oh, and then there’s another murder, and then somebody tries to blow everyone up in what I can only imagine is a very roomy car. Before long, the children uncover an international conspiracy and there is a thrilling showdown when Arthur French enters the network in disguise and wearing a wire.

Conjuror’s Alibi rattles through the cliches with a refreshingly self-conscious air — it’s as if this book is preparing readers for the playfulness of the adult genre at its best. There are identical twins whose circus act might have some bearing on the crime (‘doubles are in fashion in crime circles this season’), conscientious sciency bits (‘“Mysterious dope that leaves no trace?” muttered Soapy. “No, it won’t do. Can’t get round it that way”’), and regular denigrations of police officers as ‘stupid’ and cumbersome, more concerned with being seen to do ‘real Sherlock Holmes stuff’ with their magnifying glasses and callipers than with thinking any of the problems through.

John, the narrator, is a fairly blank slate, but Soapy is well-characterised: immodest, verging on arrogant, vain, know-it-all-ish, and obviously gay, he acts like he’s middle-aged. He is the friend that John admires so much and so mysteriously that it never occurs to dislike him. At the end of the novel, when the heroes pop off to school, it becomes clear that Soapy thrives under the attention of others, when he has a mystery to solve. He grows board and peevish, and the closes the narrative in the middle of an explanation of his own cleverness that no one really asked for.

Soapy isn’t the only one who talks like an older man: everyone is ‘frightful’ this and ‘chap’ that, and ‘it was all rather amazing’ the other. Everything is very insouciant and very glib. Take this exchange, for example:
‘Phil’, said Soapy, ‘do the chaps at your school normally carry guns? 
Phil smiled. ‘[…] Arthur could have got the gun from his father’s room or something. Wherever, he got it from,’ added Phil, with unusual feeling, ‘I take a dim view of his taking a potshot at me with it. I don’t think I deserved that.’ 
‘Perhaps he was shooting at the policeman, dear,’ said Mrs Dawson, trying — rather foolishly, I’m afraid — to sound consoling. 
‘Ah, yes,'  said Phil, still bitterly, That’ll make it all all right.’
The adults are all rather stupid in this book — including the criminals — but I think that Illington’s way of showing it is rather subtle and classy.  He doesn’t just throw in those twee one liners that so many children’s authors do, about grown-ups not understanding.

Also, in the best generic tradition, the children (even, briefly, the girls, who don’t really do much), find that their low social standing can work to their advantage in the field of detection. At one point, trying to find a motive for the MP’s murder, Sally is able to just step into the party’s HQ, ‘smile sweetly’, and say she’s ‘studying the British Constitution at school’ in order to get access to all kinds of materials that would never be shown to adults. The children also find that, because they don’t understand or care about politics, they can focus on the mechanics of the crime rather than getting emotionally invested, as an investigating sergeant does:
It did not take us long to realise that the sergeant was not of the same political opinion as [the murdered] Madison-Wayne. He began talking to us on Madison-Wayne’s views; and, once started on the subject, he was difficult to stop. […] We did not, however, much want to stop him. [From an illustration of the deceased’s greed, we discovered] a lot about how the M.P. found out about the diamond-smuggling in Amberstone […]
If I’d read this as an eight year-old, I would have loved it, and would have wished that I too had a circle of like-minded friends. Of course, the whole thing is very much of its time, although the only thing that wouldn’t go down well today is the presentation of the Indian prince. It’s not exactly racist but the language is archaic and, and one point, a character uses black-face in a disguise. There is a whiff of the oriental menace. But if anyone saw fit to re-issue these books, such things would be easy to edit.

That’s not to say I think Conjuror’s Alibi should be reissued. It wouldn’t be a success, but it was enough to pique my interest and I’m certainly glad I read it. An interesting curiosity.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Mini reviews #11

A festive-themed look at five short stories!

‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’ (1892) by Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes is at his best and his worst in this story, which involves a mysterious stone being smuggled in a Christmas goose. There is an element of Dickensian goodwill in the resolution, which is more satisfying than usual.

‘A Christmas Tragedy’ (1930) by Agatha Christie. On holiday, Miss Marple suspects that a man is planning to murder his wife — because that’s the natural conclusion to draw from other people’s marital disputes. Part of The Thirteen Problems, ‘A Christmas Tragedy’ isn’t very Christmassy but it’s a decent, substantial story with a surprising emotional punch.

‘The Murder of Santa Claus’ (1984) by P.D. James. A gloriously self-referential, if annoyingly conservative, country house mystery featuring Adam Dalgliesh, with a bit of reflection on the death penalty thrown in.

‘Saint Nicked’ (2002) by Ian Rankin. A fun, festive, and insubstantial Rebus story, written for the Radio Times. The reader should not exert too much energy on this one, and I strongly doubt the author did.

‘The Tennis Church’ (2015) by Sophie Hannah. Charlie Zailer and her past are at the centre of this psychological mystery story. It bears all of Hannah’s signature wit and pith. You can read it, nicely illustrated, here.

Friday, 22 December 2017

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

After reading a lot of hype about The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (2018), I was delighted to get hold of an ARC. Admittedly, I follow a lot of agents, publicists, publishers, and authors on Twitter, so it’s not that surprising that I read a lot of hype. But the central concept seemed so interesting that I couldn’t wait to read the book in all its 505-page glory.

At the heart of this truly unique novel is the narrator, who wakes up one morning, unable to remember who he is, where he is, or why he’s there. All he can remember is a name: Anna. That’s the opening, but it’s not the hook. The hook is altogether weirder. I quote the blurb:
Evelyn Hardcastle will die. Every day until Aiden Bishop can identify her killer and break the cycle. 
 But every time the day begins again, Aiden wakes up in the body of a different guest. 
 And some of his hosts are more helpful than others…
Irresistible, right? The novel, originally titled The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, is being marketed as ‘Gosford Park meets Inception by way of Agatha Christie’ and I think that the skew to the visual is significant: it’s already been optioned for television and feels like something that should and will be filmed. It’s a debut novel from Stuart Turton, who is a travel journalist – and I have no idea if or how he’s going to follo such a stand-out.

This novel’s chief virtue is its high concept, executed through immaculate and mind-bogglingly complicated plotting. Aiden lives through the same day seven times, each time in the body of another character, and sometimes he dips in and out of ‘hosts’; but every time he tries to change what has happened, he finds himself making it happen. It’s that time-travelly paradoxy stuff you get on TV all the time. And how the author managed to plot this all so expertly, with a rather complex murder mystery on top of it, is truly beyond me. It must have taken ages.

The story is set non-specifically. Technically, the action could be taking place any time between the nineteenth and the twenty-first centuries, although it feels kind of 1930s-ish, and the end casts everything in a new light. Aiden is a relatively blank character – he’s the kind of scrupulous conscientious man that is essential in fiction and wouldn’t be allowed in real life – and every time he wakes up in a new host, he takes on elements of their personality: at first this is simply a case of knowing how to play chess, but it develops into helpful traits like a policeman’s peripheral vision, or obstructive ones like a rapist’s violent aggression. As he fights the influence of his hosts, he learns more about himself – and why he’s in this loop.

As for the mystery: the Hardcastle family is hosting a lavish masquerade ball to mark the return of their estranged daughter, Evelyn, after twenty years. There’s a sinister assortment of guests, whose greed and avarice glitter like the freshly-dusted chandeliers (Turton very nearly veers into that sort of description, but mostly reins it in). Everyone is hiding something, much of it connected to who sired whom and a long-unmentioned family tragedy.

In the evening, after a ground-shaking announcement, Evelyn appears to commit suicide. But we know that, contrary to all appearances, it is murder. Sifting through suspects – at the same time trying to work out which ones are actually him in future incarnations – Aiden soon discovers that he isn’t the only one trying to solve the mystery: he has competition from fellow intruders-in-disguise. In the meantime, getting to the bottom of his own identity and purpose, Aiden has to find this mysterious ‘Anna’, and work out if she is friend or foe. Although we learn a lot about our hero in the course of the investigation, we never actually get to ‘see’ the real him: which I think is a marvellous touch, adding to a haunting ambiguity after the resolution has been delivered.

The solution to the mystery is in three parts and, contrary to appearances, it isn’t overly complex. It takes over 100 pages to unfold, but at the core are three very simple steps (all of which seemed familiar from television, but not in combination). The author also plays fair: you know how, reading a mystery novel, you have several half-thoughts about the solution, which you quickly abandon as new information comes to light? Take all those thoughts and put them together, and you’ve probably solved the whole thing. So, although I saw all but one twist coming at some point, as a collective whole it bamboozled me.

Depending on execution, an idea like the one at the heart of Seven Deaths could prove to be a bestseller, or it could win the Booker. Turton has gone for the former, and the result is extremely readable. I read it in three 150-170-page sittings. The prose is not seamless, the switch from past to present tense seems to have happened late in the order of things, and the author has invented a truly unique approach to the comma – but, as I mentioned at the outset, Turton’s plotting skills are unparalleled. As a piece of craftsmanship, Seven Deaths is majestic.

It’s such a weird and wonderful novel that it will appeal to nearly everyone.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Striding Folly by Dorothy L. Sayers

Lately, I’ve not had much time to read crime fiction. My two jobs – lecturing at a university and doing admin for a novelist – have meant reading a hell of a lot of books in completely different genres. That’s why my last two posts have been – cringe – recycled versions of reviews that are nearly five years old. I have, however, been getting my criminal fix by regularly checking my favourite blogs and also by dipping in and out of books. Today, I’ll be looking again at Dorothy L. Sayers; this time at a short story.

The three stories collected in Striding Folly (1972) are among the only pieces of Sayers’ ‘detectivism’ (her word) that I still had left to read. So I had a go at the title story, originally published in a 1939 anthology. Technically, this is a Lord Peter Wimsey tale, although His Lordship only appears three quarters of the way through, and doesn’t do much except polish his monocle and reference the classics. Then he identifies some hitherto unintroduced culprit, despite never having been given any details of the case, and disappears – a deus ex machina created by someone who no longer believes in that particular god.

We follow an evening in the life of Mr Mellilow, who is waiting for his friend to arrive for a game of chess. While he waits, a stranger pays a visit – a man called Mr Moses who endures that smarmy middle-class condescending antisemitism (on the parts of both the protagonist and the author) that certain other minorities experience today. The two men play chess for a couple of hours. Realising that his expected guest is a no-show, Mellilow goes to bed. He wakes up, prompted by a violent dream, and rushes out to a folly, where he finds that his friend is not just late for chess, but late as late can be.

When he tells the police about his alibi – he can’t have killed the man because of Mr Moses – nobody believes that Mr Moses exists … until Wimsey rolls up and sets everything right. The solution Wimsey expounds is amazingly flimsy. You know how, when you read a murder mystery, you can spot some bits but generally not work out a whole conclusive solution? Well, Sayers gives us the bits we can easily work out and anticipate and does nothing with them. It literally goes no further.

Personally, I had a much more elaborate solution in mind when I read this story, and I am fairly sure that Sayers was thinking of something along those lines. I wonder if she got bored writing ‘Striding Folly’ and just dashed off the ending, from Wimsey’s entrance onwards? I’m not sure of the circumstances of commission and publication, but I would be genuinely shocked if she wrote this story for anything but stone-cold cash.
As you might have gathered, I wasn’t wildly keen on this story, finding it a little pointless. Sure, there is something going on with chess: the self-conscious presentation of a strategy game in a genre that Sayers perceived to be reprehensibly fixated on puzzles at the expense of social and literary imperatives. However, she did something along these lines but with crosswords much more effectively in ‘Uncle Meleager’s Will’. All in all, ‘Striding Folly’ strikes me as uninspired, and little more than a Golden Age zombie.

Only read this final bit if youve already read the story, or dont care how it ends:

If you would like to know the solution I think Sayers might have planned:  I think that Mr Moses had some kind of remote control device hidden in his left glove – hence keeping his gloves on and only using his right hand to play chess – which he triggered at ten minutes to nine (the exact time he fell into his first trap in the chess game, because his mind was elsewhere).  I think this set off some kind of electrical charge in a chess piece that the victim was holding, or which was in his boot, and which was later found by the body, or possibly switched with an identical piece by Moses after the event. There is precedence for this kind ending with Sayers; 'The Cave of Ali Baba' (1929) hinges on voice recognition software. Anyway, just a theory!

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Fires of London by Janice Law

Francis Bacon was one of the most powerful surrealist painters of the twentieth century and Janice Law imagines him on the track of a murderer in London's gay underworld during the Blitz.

Law paints Bacon as a likeable, cheeky, self-deprecating but starlingly intelligent and sincere young man, troubled by his sexuality but unlikely to renounce it. Bacon, who narrates, is an ARP warden in London. It's 1939. During a blackout, he walks into a dead body and promptly becomes the prime suspect for murder. A detective on his back has a suspiciously specific agenda, and with old friends and old conquests going missing, things start to get personal.

This short adventure-mystery culminates in a predictable but thrilling manner. While Bacon has been exploring the darkest parts of London and the darkest corners of the human soul, it all ends with a huge flash of light. If you know what I mean. This is London; this is the war.

An immaculately-researched and evocative novel, Fires of London (2013) had me turning e-pages like there was no tomorrow (and `tomorrow' was far from certain for these characters). It does not surprise me one jot that its author is herself a painter: the artistic temperment, and the narrator's tendency to see everything in terms of which paint he would use to capture it, are authentic.

However, I will eat my hat if Janice Law is British. Slang such as `copper' is over-used and often used jarringly. Very few natives of London in the 1930s and 1940s will have used this and only this word to refer to a police officer. Then, as now, and there, as the world over, language was more fluid, more dynamic. Slang is a tricky thing to get the hang of, and only the strongest writers can pull it off. Passages like this were genuinely distracting: `Oh, there were all manner of deviants [...] and a good many pleasant chaps who wanted to buy me drinks and fondle my bum, so to speak.' Brian Sewell aside, I defy you to find anyone who has ever spoken like that.

Writing about corruption, networking, light and dark (on all levels), and secrets, though, Janice Law is in her element. I have a suspicion that Francis Bacon will be thrown into more exploits. And people will want to read all about them.

This review originally appeared on Amazon UK in 2013.

Disclaimer: I was given a review copy by the Mysterious Press.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Hats Off to Murder by D.S. Nelson

Hats Off to Murder is an easy read, and a rewarding one. Milliner Blake Hetherington has worked in his family-owned hat shop for years and got used to watching people and learning. Hats, he claims, become maps of their wearers. When two of his customers die, he becomes suspicious and investigates the deaths to see if he can find a link.

D.S. Nelson does everything a mystery writer should do: she entertains and informs. I read it because I like murder mysteries but now I know a bit about hats too! D.S. Nelson writes very simply and it's like having a conversation with Blake. Every now and then, we're treated to a paragraph about the history of various hats: the bowler, the beret, even the Breton.

Agatha Christie is an obvious influence (Christie's Miss Marple, after all, sat back and watched people, noting that "One begins to class people, quite definitely, just as though they were birds or flowers, group so-and-so, genus that, species that"). Another obvious influence is Arthur Conan Doyle, whose iconic detective made deductions based on objects like hats (ie. "The Blue Carbuncle"). This makes Blake's snooty dismissal of the deerstalker funny: "we are all familiar with the famous Sherlock Holmes and one can hardly fail to see a deerstalker [and think of him]. Made from checked fabric with faux fur lined side flaps, this hat was the sort of mass-produced nonsense I would not sell". Lol.

There are typos, and this would not win a creative writing competition. But neither would anything Agatha Christie wrote. There is the odd brilliant turn of phrase; for example, an exotic French lady "immersing me in a gaze that would have had the Saints confessing". One quibble I have is the length: longer than a story and not quite a novella.

Reading Hats Off to Murder, I felt like I was reading an interesting blog post. And in these contemporary times that is exactly what a traditional story should do. I'm looking forward to the next Blake Hetherington adventure, One For the Rook.

This review originally appeared on Amazon UK in 2013.

Disclaimer: I was given a review copy by D.S. Nelson.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Mini reviews #10

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson. Ian Rankin considers this a detective novel -- and the best one ever written -- so it belongs here. I would call it a gothic novel, and rather old-fashioned for its time, although incredibly accessible. It's a beautifully crafted and blatantly important novel. We all know the story but, I think, 99% of readers will stay engaged from beginning to end.

The Bar on the Seine (1931) by Georges Simenon. An extremely enjoyable and astute novel which begins with a conversation between Maigret and a man he has captured, who is facing the death penalty. It's the kind of book you read quickly, forget quickly, and remember bit by bit.

Rogue Male (1939) by Geoffrey Household. My goodness, some men need to get over themselves.

And Then There Was No One (2009) by Gilbert Adair. Without a doubt, objectively and unquestionably, the best postmodern detective novel of all time. But don't just read this one -- read the whole Evadne Mount trilogy.

A Study in Lavender: Queering Sherlock Holmes (2011) edited by Joseph R.G. DeMarco. This is a collection of short stories, focussing on the central Sherlock Holmes characters from a variety of LGBTQIA perspectives. The stories range in quality quite dramatically, and I think the best is Katie Raynes' 'The Kidnapping of Alice Braddon'.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

An April Shroud by Reginald Hill

I’ve not seen a single episode of the BBC’s long-running series Dalziel and Pascoe and, I must admit, I’ve never wanted to. There’s something about TV police procedurals that irritates me: I don’t know what it is, but I can’t get into them in the same way I can get into police procedural books. However, I’m glad to have finally read a Dalziel and Pascoe novel, although An April Shroud (1975) is more of a Dalziel-featuring-Pascoe novel.

Reginald Hill died in 2012, and, scanning his obituaries and tributes for a small academic project, I was struck by the fact that fellow crime writers talked about him in a specific and unusual way. They didn’t mention his prose – it’s almost as if they hadn’t read his books – but talked instead about him as a person: in an incredibly affectionate and very slightly condescending way. A similar thing happened when Colin Dexter died earlier this year.

All of this piqued my curiosity, and, when I saw An April Shroud in a charity shop, I bought it and read it. Before anything else, I was fascinated by the cover, because it includes three praiseful quotes. One from the Times describing Hill as ‘consistently excellent’ (the word ‘consistent’ always makes me want to read the whole review), one from the Observer calling him the best purveyor of ‘homebred crime fiction’, and one from Val McDermid which strikes me as praise so fully qualified that it’s rather faint: ‘The finest male English contemporary crime writer’ (McDermid being, of course, Scottish).

Inspector Pascoe is on his honeymoon, leaving Superintendent Andy Dalziel alone, on a lakeside holiday. Dalziel is large and gregarious, with a deliberately unrefined manner and an obsessively indulgent attitude to everything in life – including police work. He forces himself to enjoy his holiday in the first few pages of An April Shroud, while standing on a bridge and watching the river beneath:
No! Sod it! This wouldn’t do at all. The holiday was the thing. Fresh air, commune with nature, bathe in beauty, pay homage to history. An English holiday, tired policeman, for the revitalization of.
Any corpse comes floating this way, I’ll say Hello sailor, and goodbye, avowed Dalziel and as an act of both symbol and necessity he descended to the water-lapped limit of the bridge, unzipped his flies and began to pee in the flood.
He is, of course, interrupted by the arrival of a corpse in a boat (okay, it’s in a coffin in a boat; he witnesses a funeral procession). Before long, a combination of harsh weather and greedy curiosity means that Dalziel not only gets to know the entire funeral party, but also ends up staying under their roof.

The family is hardly in mourning, Dalziel notices – they are aloof and uncomplicated toffs. Moreover, the deceased’s widow, Bonnie, causes numerous stirrings in his trousers. When he finds out that that Bonnie is buried two husbands – and the circumstances under this one died – the Superintendent embarks on a busman’s holiday.

Although I’d hate to meet him in real life, I really enjoyed reading about Andy Dalziel. He’s a totally gross human being, but presented so skilfully that when we laugh at him it’s with an appreciation for what’s going through his mind: we appreciate how ridiculous the world around him is, and his refusal to go along with social niceties is almost laudible. I have previously read that Dalziel and his hard-working subordinate Pascoe are a kind of rip-off of Joyce Porter’s Inspector Dover and Sergeant Wilson – and, although I haven’t read any Porter, I’ve always enjoyed them on the radio. However, Dalziel is much more interesting than Dover – who is grotesque and lazy and pretty much hates the idea of work of any kind – because Dalziel has to do police work, even on holiday. Hill explains:
time had to be passed and the habit of professional curiosity was as hard to change as the habits of smoking or drinking or taking three helpings of potatoes and steamed pudding.
So, the character is more considered and therefore more interesting. I also enjoyed his/Hill’s pithy insights into character: one man is introduced as ‘unrepentantly Liverpudlian’, another man’s idea of tasteful d├ęcor is likened to ‘a bourgeois Taj Mahal’, and when some Americans roll up we are told that ‘they might have been gang leaders, astronauts, presidential aides or Mormon PR men, but they were unmistakably American.’

To my mind, the novel drags on a bit. It’s 326 pages long, which I think is 100 too many. The story itself isn’t substantial and, by around p. 150, the observational humour and Dalziel being Dalziel starts to get repetitive. That said, the ending is very nice, with everything tightly resolved but enough ambiguity and human emotion in dialogue with legal justice to be genuinely interesting.

I’m willing to accept that An April Shroud is not the best novel in the Dalziel and Pascoe series, and I’m sure I’ll read another one, one day, but I shan’t be rushing out and stocking up any time soon. Perhaps if I’d already been invested in the two policemen – had actually cared about who Pascoe marries or how Dalziel spends his down-time – I’d have loved it. As it is, I found the book fun and forgettable.