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Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Mini reviews #20

Verdict of Twelve (1940) by Raymond Postgate. An excellent psychological mystery, with two strands: the puzzle of a child's murder, and an exploration of the private lives of the twelve jurors at his aunt's trial. The very first juror we meet has gleefully gotten away with murder in the past, making the whole thing an interesting take on the justice system at an increasingly frantic point in British history. The book is also worth reading for Postgate's ironic self-portrait in the figure of a self-important socialist intellectual, and for his thinly-veiled depiction of his brother-in-law, G.D.H. Cole, as a monstrous gay academic, Dr Holmes. Notwithstanding the presence of three distinct Edwards, it's an engaging and memorable novel.

The Secret Vanguard (1940) by Michael Innes. Unpopularity, I really enjoy Innes' adventure novels. They are so escapist: undeniable page-turners which draw you into a fantasy Britain in which everyone is wonderfully well-read and erudite. The Secret Vanguard is a kind of cross between a detective-mystery and an adventure thriller. There are vaguely-defined German spies and mad scientists who mostly swan around inhabiting John Buchan via the Romantic poets. And Inspector Appleby plays a big role but is, as usual, quite forgettable. The really memorable part is the protagonist, Sheila Grant. Described in the blurb to my edition as 'a most attractive heroine,' she is one of the more interesting, believable, and funny lead figures I've come across in earnest fiction of the late 1930s/early 1940s. I could have done without her love interest, Dick, who doesn't do much but, by virtue of his name alone, leads to some unintentionally hilarious passages.

The Hound of the D'urbervilles (2011) by Kim Newman. Sherlock Holmes's nemesis Professor Moriarty and his own sidekick Colonel Sebastian Moran take the lead in this extravagance of seedy Victoriana. Will appeal to fans of Neil Gaiman, Tape Five, etc.

The Husband's Secret (2012) by Liane Moriarty. The mixed reviews for this book baffled me initially, until I saw the original book cover and realised that many people had expected it to be a love story. Also, being published in 2012, it was slightly ahead of the 'husband' craze in crime thrillers.  That's my best guess: the narrative itself is utterly compelling and praiseworthy.  Our starting point is a relatively normal Australian wife discovering an envelope, addressed by her husband to her, 'to be opened in the event of my death.' The husband is still alive -- can she resist? What follows is a labyrinthine and very human psychological thriller following three sets of people whose lives and deaths intersect. I can't wait to read more by Moriarty.

Holmes Entangled (2018) by Gordon McAlpine. Gloriously accessible Sherlockian postmodernism. During the Second World War, Jorge Luis Borges visits a private detective with what he claims is a manuscript written by Sherlock Holmes himself. Holmes, we learn, was a well-known detective, occassionally helped by a 'middling scribbler' called Arthur Conan Doyle (who has pretty much gone mad, after becoming obsessed with fairies and speaking to the dead). The manuscript reveals Holmes' investigation of claims by Doyle that he was visited  during a seance by the spirit of the still-living Prime Minister. Cracking the case also involves solving the murder of Edgar Allen Poe. The solution lies in poststructuralism and quantum physics. Oh, and Holmes comes up with Schroedinger's cat all by himself.

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith

One problem with neoliberalism is that it seeks to combine two largely incompatible things: human empathy and satisfaction with the status quo. In the new Cormoran Strike novel, Lethal White (2018), some attention is paid to a group of socialist activists, who are caricatured as lazy, stupid, violent, aggressive, paranoid, rabidly anti-Semitic, secretly rich, and on a scale from narcissistic to misguided to mentally ill. It’s a sketch that could appear in the Daily Telegraph (if not quite the Daily Mail) and it illustrates Robert Galbraith’s shortcomings as an author of social commentary; an inability to grasp nuance in a demographic to which she doesn’t belong.

Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) has been particularly vituperative towards the left on social media in recent years, and that is her prerogative (although her Twitter attacks on some fans got tacky last year). I personally appreciate it greatly when an author does put their understanding of groups they disagree with into prose because it is usually done, as it is here, elegantly and methodically – enabling us to weigh up their perspective.

The first three Strike novels have another tension at their core: they are straightforward, conventional whodunits wrapped up in characters, settings, and adjectives that might be called ‘hardboiled’. In Lethal White, Galbraith seizes a concept that has been slowly gathering strength in the first three books: the idea that the crime novel should be a novel of social commentary, and one of ideas.  As a result, the plot is more labyrinthine and more grounded in character than those of The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Silkworm, and Career of Evil.

What has not developed, though, is the worldview. In a Strike novel, you can be reasonably sure that the rich are evil, the poor are honest and wise but stupid, and the characters designed for our sympathy are those who’ve been forced by ‘the system’ to use, gasp!, their other money. Cormoran Strike is a troubled, unfit, but brilliant middle-aged man, and his sidekick, Robin (ho ho), is a young, beautiful, ‘feisty’ woman who comes to realise she’s in love with him.

For a long time, the Harry Potter books have been critiqued for being white-centric. Criticism has also centred on Rowling’s decision to retroactively label certain characters gay or transgender – as if these are not issues that should properly be discussed in texts that would, given the author’s platform, have received instant guaranteed bestseller status. Was she playing it safe? That was the consensus around much of the middle-class-white-straightness in the Potter universe. But, as Lethal White demonstrates, it might just be that the author doesn’t have a problem with dominant ethical models in contemporary Britain. Considering this, it isn’t massively surprising that Rowling was able to say, after all seven Potter books were out, that such-and-such a character is gay, black, or trans: to her mind, it doesn’t actually make a difference to their personalities and therefore isn’t the point of the stories. Many of us would disagree and say that, since the model of normalityin the books is white, male, cis, and heterosexual, then classifying social minorities as blending in seamlessly into a world structured along those lines is implicitly erasing difference and therefore identity.

That’s a criticism Rowling/Galbraith has never addressed. Like the fourth Potter book, the fourth Strike book took longer than its predecessors to write. Like the fourth Potter book, it is longer and more ambitious – and it depends on a loyal readership to make sense as a standalone novel. You have to care about the central characters and know where they’re up to. No one entering the series here would bother starting their journey with a novella-length account of a perfectly average wedding ceremony. But because it’s Robin Ellacott, who has provided our main POV so far in the series, and because we know that of courseshe shouldn’t be marrying this man, we do not look up from the page. Fortunately, the author has an unparalleled gift for creative compelling, hypnotic characters through dialogue and free indirect discourse. The book is masterfully written and an addictive page turner; something almost impossible to achieve.

It’s disappointing, however, that the main drive for the plot is the sexual tension between Strike and Ellacott. What, exactly, is the point?  We’ve seen the same dynamic play out on a million television shows. The rest of the plot, not quite integrated, unfolds slowly. Very slowly. Whether that makes reading a boring chore or a rare chance to bask in the wordsmithery of a once-in-a-generation storyteller is up to you.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Double Death by Dorothy L. Sayers, Freeman Wills Crofts, and others

A few years ago, I was doing some private research in estates and came across a title that was wholly unfamiliar to me: Double Death (1939) by Dorothy L. Sayers, Freeman Wills Crofts, Valentine Williams, F. Tennyson Jesse, Anthony Armstrong, and David Hume. Wow! I thought. This is a must-read! So I quickly bought a copy, and over a year later, finally got round to reading it.

The Detection Club’s round-robin novels have received renewed attention since HarperCollins reprinted the most famous one, The Floating Admiral, nearly a decade ago. But many still languish in obscurity: The Scoop (not very good, but containing an Agatha Christie contribution), Behind the Screen (very good, and again featuring pre-Dame Agatha), Crime on the CoastNo Flowers by Request, and more. All of these are items I got hold of in my teens and enjoyed, but, somehow, Double Death passed me by.

There are six chapters to this novel, each written by a different distinguished crime writer. The story was written as a newspaper serial and later tidied up with a fresh prologue by John Chancellor before its original publication. In 1939, it was reprinted in book form, along with each author’s notes on how the story should continue, which appear – fascinatingly – at the end of their respective chapters (rather than in an appendix). This aspect, the inclusion of the notes, is by far the book’s most interesting feature.

The story concerns Mrs Farland, a wealthy hypochondriac who might, for the first time in her life, be truly ill. She believes that she is being poisoned and keeps changing her will to inherit, then disinherit, various relatives and hangers-on, including her soon-to-be-married nephew John. When a nurse, who has experience of poisons, is sent for, someone decides to act. The nurse is drugged and killed in the railway station.

Dorothy L. Sayers, who needs no introduction, sets the scene in her chapter. She introduces various characters, each of whom, she explains in her methodical notes, could be the murderer, and gets slightly caught up in the topography and railway timetables of the imagined village of Creepe. She also introduces a real, over-the-counter and quite lethal sleeping draught, which the editor wisely fictionalises as Sleepine, and kills off Nurse Ponting.

Freeman Wills Crofts has Chapter Two, which is largely devoted to reproducing Sayers’ notes on poison in the mouth of a police doctor, and which culminates in a second death. I’ve always found Crofts quite boring but in a single chapter format, where he’s clearly annoyed at having to beboring, he shines and I found his contribution highly entertaining.

The third chapter is by Valentine Williams, the only contributor I’d never heard of, and, based on this contribution, I’m not keen to check him out. However, I did find hugely exciting the politics of his chapter.  To set the scene, Williams has decided that John, the romantic hero, will be the murderer, so he sets up a secondary love interest for John’s fiancĂ© (more on this later).  Of this other chap, John says: ‘he hates me. He’s hated me ever since we blackballed him at the Conservative Club as an out and out Bolshie.’ In his notes, Williams explains that the aim of this is to make the rival appear ‘honest-minded’ and in touch with ‘the plight of the poor’ on a subconscious level, and to make John appear (again subconsciously) as a bully so that the reader is prepared, if still surprised, when he is unmasked.

F. Tennyson Jesse, author of the fourth chapter, displays such bitterness towards her peers and the whole task in general in her notes that I’ve gone off her for life! In her chapter, she decides that it would be cool and totally unexpected to make the young beautiful woman the murderer (yeah, that’s never been done before), so everything she writes is devoted to blackening this character’s name. So much so that, if anyone had taken up her suggestion, the reader would have felt hugely cheated at such an obvious outcome. While the three-quarter point is probably the easiest part to write in a collaborative mystery (you need suspense and action, you already have the characters and the big clues should have been dropped by now), Jesse insists that it’s the hardest – and her chapter makes it look that way.

The penultimate chapter is by Anthony Armstrong, an author I’d heard of but never read, and it aims to move everything towards the solution that Armstrong has devised. This is probably the most skilful chapter in the entire book and I do hope one day to check out more of Armstrong’s work.

As stated, though, the notes are really the interesting thing here. I love seeing the petty egos, the thinly-veiled contempt for other writers, and the sense that everyone is slightly afraid of Sayers. Everyone refers to each other with initials – FWC, FTJ, etc. – but Sayers is always ‘Miss Sayers.’ In the preface, John Chancellor can’t resist a swipe at ‘one or two of the authors’ who ‘would not permit their manuscript to be altered’ or who were ‘ignorant of, or indifferent to, the peculiar needs of newspapers.’ Several of the contributors express their ardent hope for a very good copyeditor, who is eventually named ‘The All-Seeing Eye of God (ASEOG).’

Each writer approaches not only the text but also the explanation of process and ideas differently: Armstrong highlights all his clues with page references. Sayers gives an essay on poison and a map. Crofts draws the map to scale and goes through each character methodically. Williams and Jesse state outright that that’s too much to get their head around and that maps and timetables can be red herrings, best ignored.

The romance angle is what struck me most. Over a decade earlier, Sayers herself had decried the need for romance in crime fiction as a ‘fettering convention’. In her notes, though, she explains that she has introduced a young couple purely in case John or his fiancĂ© Penelope turn out to be guilty – the couple ‘may supply the love-interest (since the murderer obviously can’t have the love-interest)’. It seems that all her hopes of reinvigorating the genre retired with Lord Peter Wimsey. When Williams identifies John as the murderer, he introduces another young man for Penelope, as stated. Jesse goes for Penelope, writing: ‘I admit that if Penelope is the guilty one we are left without a love interest (which is not a thing that interests me personally in a detective story).’ However, she introduces another young woman (late on and unnecessarily sharing a Christian name with Sayers’ alterna-interest) for John, and spends a great deal of this chapter comparing that woman’s ‘natural beauty’ to Penelope’s obvious ‘golden’ sexiness. If all these writers felt so fettered by the convention, I just wish they’d had the guts to spice it up a bit!

A final point of interest in the notes is each writer’s proposed solution to the case, and how they’ve tried to present clues towards it; also how they’ve manipulated the previous information to serve it.  Recently, on a Facebook page where I lurk more than I post, someone asked the question: have you ever read a Golden Age book and come up with a better solution than the author, which still fits all the clues? Several replies to the question came from writers who had been convinced they’d solved a mystery, found themselves proved wrong, and then determined to write a new story along the lines they’d thought of. Often when I read crime fiction from the 1920s and 1930s I feel like Agatha Christie might have had a similar idea. And here, I think, one of the solutions Armstrong proposes is almost certainly the basis for the solution to Sad Cypress, Christie’s 1940 novel. 

David Hume’s final chapter is supposed to tie everything together. Instead, Hume picks a character no one else has suggested as the murderer, and then introduces a load of new evidence to incriminate them! This is not at all a satisfactory ending to the story as a story – and necessitates a fresh prologue by John Chancellor so that there is at least some basis for such an ending.

Written on the verge of war, Double Death comes at the end of crime fiction’s playful Golden Age and its publication with private notes shows some of the magic wearing off the genre. As a story, it’s frankly a mess, but as a curiosity and an insight into the workings of these writers’ minds, it’s of greater value than all the other round-robin novels put together.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

The Actor's Guide to Greed by Rick Copp

As you may know, I don’t tend to enjoy gay detective fiction. I find the wish-fulfilment, the nostalgia, the cliquiness, and the attempts to imitate and seek approval from ‘straight’ crime fiction at best disappointing and at worst painful. Well, I’m happy to report that I’ve found a series of three American gay detective novels I don’t hate.

A couple of weeks ago, at a spiritual festival (of all things) in Norwich Library, I noticed a copy of Rick Copp’s The Actor’s Guide to Greed (2003). It looked so camp and colourful and bloody American that I thought I’d look it up. So I did, and learnt about Copp’s series featuring Jarrod Jarvis, a former child-star in Hollywood. Copp is a screenwriter, so I figured that there’d be a bit more nuance than usual to the actor-hero trope. Besides, I have always thought that a former child star would make a great detective: it solves the problem of them needing to be young and rich enough to go anywhere, but also without having the obstruction of a day job and with access to closed communities and enough of a chequered past to be interesting.

Thinking, ‘why not?’, I ordered all three books in the series, of which The Actor’s Guide to Murder is the first and The Actor’s Guide to Greed is the last. I read them all quickly and enjoyed the escapism. The writing is slightly cynical but mostly very gentle and not technically very good. It sounds odd, but sometimes, if I’m after sheer escapism, I don’t want good writing. I don’t want to be sticking post-it notes on pithy phrases or rereading immersive passages, I just want to rattle along with the story. So shoot me: I’m middlebrow.

The plot in this third book sees Copp’s bag of tricks starting to wear thin, and I understand why he turned to other things at this point. It’s a kind of fusion of the first two plots with some ambitious elements underpinning the story. Jarrod and his LAPD boyfriend Charlie find themselves drawn to London’s West End, as Jarrod’s latest hope for a comeback rests on a supporting role in a new murder mystery drama. There is camp humour in abundance here, but the thing that really tickled me was how completely and utterly bizarre the atuhor’s idea of England is. The idea that the West End would be jumping at the chance to stage a play called Murder Can Be Civilised, the first line of which is ‘More tea and crumpets, sir?’; that they could assemble a cast full of Hollywood a-listers, Bollywood a-listers, a thinly-veiled Judi Dench, a thinly-veiled Emma Thompson, and a thinly-veiled Ian McKellan; that they would then put up every single cast member in a private suite at the Savoy for the whole three month run … it’s just hilarious!

Before long, of course, one of the cast is murdered. On stage (how else?), and Jarrod finds himself falling under suspicion.  A strange thing follows. In Britain, we view American media coverage of crimes with horror – in the name of ‘free speech’, people spew their hot takes on whatever crime is in the news, regardless of facts or defamation. My boss, Sophie Hannah, was so affected by this in the case of the kidnapping of Casey Anthony that she wrote a book about it (Did You See Melody?). But, apparently, at least some Americans think that we do it worse in Britain?! I think based on all the stuff that appeared after Diana, Princess of Wales’ death, Copp has the British tabloid relentlessly pursuing our intrepid hero, splashing about direct accusations of murder on their front pages – something that’s not only never done, but is also completely illegal.

Anyway, he survives it and uncovers the truth. Now – I solved the first two Copp/Jarvis mysteries simply by fixing on the least likely suspect, rather than looking for evidence. Since that method had served me well, I tried it again here… and got it wrong. In this book, Copp does something that Ruth Rendell mastered: the double-twist. By this, I mean, he gives us a big twist that we have probably seen coming, and then, while we’re patting ourselves on the back for having got one up on the author, he throws another twist at us, catching us completely off-guard. In fact, the least-likely-suspect  theory wouldhave served me well, if I hadn’t committed the cardinal sin of completely overlooking someone as a suspect.

Gayness is woven into every fibre of the plot here and in Copp’s other two books. However, they do not explore or engage with gay communities. Not at all; in fact, it’s a very homonormative set-up: Jarrod is in a monogamous long-term relationship, living comfortably with a dog (child-substitute). His best friend is a straight woman who talks through boy troubles with him. These books are never going to rally the queer revolution. One thing that interests me about the detective’s domestic arrangement, though, is that – for no apparent reason – he lives in an inverted house. That is to say, the living area is upstairs and the sleeping area is downstairs. I’m not overly sure of the point of this, but it’s almost as if there’s something self-consciously imitative about this actor’s straight-American-dream aspirations.

This book (and the two that came before) were just what I needed at a stressful time. They made me smile, not always for the right reasons, and I enjoyed them very much. However, it is the gayness that makes them interesting, so I will not be rushing out to buy Rick Copp’s straight mysteries, written under the name Lee Hollis.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

The Mayfair Mystery by Frank Richardson

I regret having listened to this as an audiobook, as I wish I’d noted down some of the one-liners, and I’d love to have a copy I can keep and consult (luckily, under its original title, 2835 Mayfair, it is available online here). I’m grateful to those of my friends who recommended Frank Richardson’s The Mayfair Mystery (1906) to me.

An eminent Harley Street doctor has been murdered – or has he? A valet discovers his master dead and summons the authorities – but, when he returns to the scene, the body has gone …

The Mayfair Mystery was the first title republished in those gorgeous Collins Crime Club editions in 2015. It’s an interesting choice, as the original publication predates the traditional parameters of the Golden Age, and the puzzle aspect (with which the renaissance seems outwardly obsessed) is not strong. Indeed, supernatural explanations for the crime are routinely flirted with and – arguably – not wholly abandoned.

It’s also not well-served by HarperCollins’ blurb, which makes it sound like a straightforward brain-teaser. In fact, the prose is absorbingly witty and satirical – as is the story architecture. Almost every other line is some loaded throwaway comment about the hypocrisies of the well-to-do, particularly those in pursuit of marriage.

I still might buy myself a copy because I am keen to read David Brawn’s introduction to the text. In particular, I’d like to find out more about Frank Richardson, who committed suicide in 1917. He was well-known as a satirist with, bizarelly, an obsession with facial hair (he is said to have coined the term ‘face fungus’), and it does not take a supersleuth to understand the moustache-obsessed hack novelist Frederick Robinson within these pages as a self-portrait.

As I listened to this book (you may have gathered, audiobooks are relatively new and not quite comfortable territory for me), I was struck by a feeling of pleasure: normally, when I ask people for recommendations, they just fish about in their favourite canons and recollect one with a gay character or LGBTQ themes.  Often these are great, but often they’re not the most enjoyable part of the canon, and I get a bit peeved that people just think, ‘oh, yeah, Jamie likes gay stuff, so the gay stuff is for him’ (I was nearly put off Kerry Greenwood by being told I’d love to start with Murder and Mendelsohn, one of her worst). So, I was delighted that people seemed to have grasped that I’m interested in society satire etc etc etc…. until I got to the ending. Oh, well! Still, it’s very interesting and put me in mind of Dorothy Bowers, who wrote some 30-40 years later.

There's one mystery I cannot solve. At the end of the audiobook, the narrator announced that authorial copyright for this novel is held by none other than David Brawn, and Google tells me it was registered in 2015. Surely, 101 years after an author's death, their work cannot be copyrighted by anyone. Now, is this simply a muddle -- i.e., is it merely David's introduction that has been copyrighted? Or has he adapted the text?