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Sunday, 7 April 2019

Footsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer

Several years ago, I read Georgette Heyer’s A Blunt Instrument and found it highly entertaining for all the wrong reasons. It struck me as everything detractors claim the Golden Age was: snobbish, dashed off, poorly written and proofed (even in a twenty-first century reissue), and ephemeral. I identified the murderer on page 2, found the humour funny only insofar as it was alarmingly antiquated even at the time it was written, and laughed for about ten minutes at a statement along the lines of: ‘The deceased made no response, because he was dead.’

Several of you have told me to give Heyer another chance, and I do in fact own copies of four more of her crime novels. Of these, I selected Footsteps in the Dark (1932), purely because I have a recent edition and am happier giving away new books than old books after reading them. As you can imagine, then, I came to the book with low expectations. I enjoyed the book more than I expected to. I do keep a reading journal — notwithstanding a well-known writer recently published a scathing critique of all their friends’ habits, wherein the idea of journalling one’s reading habits was roundly dismissed with ableist language — and in that journal I ended up giving the book a rating of 4 out of 6 (the 1-6 rating is preprinted; I don’t understand it but it works).

The plot can be summarised as The Hound of the Baskervilles meets Scooby Doo. A group of bright young things moves into a converted priory, which all the simple (of course they’re simple) locals avoid like the plague because it is haunted by the ghost of a ‘mad Monk’. Upon arrival, the new inhabitants start to notice apparently poltergeist activity, unearth secret passages and priest holes, and even get assaulted with a flying human skeleton. They even see the monk! Eventually - although not until p. 208 - there is a murder. The tale concludes with a damsel-in-distress scenario in an underground lair, and with the ghost himself being literally unmasked.

Heyer’s comedy is 90% ‘haha, look at how stupid the working class people are’, 9% ‘haha, look at how stupid foreigners [or, as servants call them, “furrinors”] are’, and 1% situational/slapstick/good. There is an entertaining scene in which the clueless residents decide to conduct a seance of sorts, only to have it interrupted by a policeman; the sitters and the sergeant exchange dialogue t cross purposes to great comic effect. Unintentional comedy comes in what I now think of as typical Heyer style: ‘the two men were accosted by a gentleman in clerical attire, who was buying stamps. He introduced himself as the Vicar’.

One thing that Heyer does well is educate modern readers about the workings of the upper classes — unlike Sayers, she wasn’t writing aspirationally but reflecting her own reality — and especially the prejudices within them. The thing that really struck me here, though, was the presence of a vacuum cleaner salesman. I had no idea that electric vacuum cleaners were around before the Second World War! So, I ended up doing some Googling and found out that they’d been around since the late nineteenth century. As with any rabbit hole, there are some fascinating stories in the history of vacuum cleaners and a good place to start is the Wikipedia page.


In terms of mystery, my prejudice blinded me completely. After my experience with A Blunt Instrument, I was so convinced that Heyer was not up to crafting puzzles that I didn’t give it much attention at all beside spotting a red herring and fixing on one suspicious non-suspect with the arrogance of certainty (for reasons explained below). The actual murderer was a character I’d almost forgotten by the time they were unmasked. All in all, a much more interesting read than A Blunt Instrument. I will try Heyer again, and I will not be throwing Footsteps in the Dark away just yet.

META MATTERS

The plot owes a great deal to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles — even down to talk of ‘luminous paint’. This is why, when a slight, nervy butterfly-collector called Mr Titmarsh appeared on the scene, I was convinced that I’d solved the case. My belief was bolstered when his some-time companion issued a cryptic warning to one of our protagonists to ‘get out, as fast as you can’. But, as mentioned, I was wrong. Apologies, Mr Titmarsh.


The crime revolves around a printing press and a book in the British Library, which tells the ancient legends of the house and is being used to control present events. When a plucky pair of bright young things are captured in a secret lair, they pass the time by playing inconsequential games — very redolent for interwar readers of inferior detective fiction.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Report for Murder by Val McDermid

Report for Murder (1987) introduces the self-described ‘cynical socialist lesbian feminist journalist’ Lindsay Gordon. This description occurs in the first paragraph, making her impossible to dislike. Val McDermid’s debut novel, published under the Paretsky-evoking name V.I. McDermid, is much more in the Agatha Christie tradition than the police procedural model that made its author famous. However, in some ways – not least the detective – it’s more sociologically interesting. The themes are much simpler and more traditional than in McDermid’s Hill and Jordan books: we’re looking here at the class system, lies, and relationships.

As a journalist, Lindsay is commissioned to write a puff piece on a charity fundraiser at an exclusive boarding school for girls. She turns up and walks into various rows between the staff, while trying to reconcile her socialist views with her interest in various posh women. The set-up certainly reminded me of Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons (I see the influence of this book much more than the influence of Nancy Spain’s Poison for Teacher), and the plot is more of a light, straightforward mystery than one might expect from this author.

I understand why McDermid moved away from writing conventional mysteries whose USP is the detective’s sexuality and into more contemporary, commercial – and, notably, straight – blockbuster novels. But I hope that subsequent entries to the Lindsay Gordon canon, which ran up to 2003, don’t lose the lightness of touch that makes Report for Murder a strong, diverting read.


META MATTERS

Lindsay Gordon is an avid reader of detective fiction. We meet her reading a detective novel on a train. As soon as a body is discovered, Lindsay is encouraged to investigate when one character asks, ‘Don’t you ever read any Agatha Christie?’ and another christens the event ‘Murder in the Music Room’.  Later, investigating, and consistently using language like ‘red herring’, Lindsay regrets that ‘It always seems so easy for the Hercule Poirots and the Lord Peter Wimseys’. There are many other meta moments like this.

My favourite such moment occurs roughly midway through, when Lindsay's love interest says that, if Lindsay were Hercule Poirot, she would have solved it by now. The response? 'If I were Hercule Poirot, you wouldn't fancy me.'

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Mini reviews #27

A Ladder to the Sky (2018) by John Boyne. I feel awkward liking a novel by John Boyne, given that he’s the author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. But A Ladder to the Sky is, quite simply, really, really good. It’s less a novel than a fable for our times. Given some of the hooh-hah in the press about plagiarism in crime fiction and romantic fiction at the moment, its publication in paperback is timely. A beautiful young man with no conscience uses his charms to get a former child-Nazi’s story, which he publishes. He struggles to write a decent second book, so ends up killing people (people who are, noticeably, not straight white men) and stealing their stories. Even after everything’s come out, he’s able to carry on exactly as before and becomes known as a great novelist.

The Chalk Man (2018) by C.J. Tudor. Tudor’s second novel is out now so I wanted to read her debut. It baffles and confuses me that the praise quote being used by publishers is from the Daily Mail, describing the author as ‘Britain’s female Stephen King’. The Chalk Man, narrated by a bloke, is in no way a gendered story and certainly not a ‘female’ one (any more than, in my opinion, Stephen King’s work is ‘male’ in tone). It just seems odd to mention the author’s sex at all. A much better piece of praise comes from King himself: ‘If you like my stuff, you’ll love this.’ Anyway, the novel itself is a great, escapist read. It’s not revolutionary and I don’t think it will change your life, but it’s a good, atmospheric, creepy read.

A Hidden Life (2019) by Mia Emilie. Mia Emilie’s debut is a great read for fans of historical mysteries, blending fact and fiction alongside science and superstition.  The story concerns the murder of Amy Dudley in 1560. Sam Banks, a former spy and death doctor, is asked to look into it. But he starts to suspect he’s been charged with covering something up, and that the web leads all the way to Queen Elizabeth.

The Silent Patient (2019) by Alex Michaelides. This debut has been massively hyped and has met with universal adulation. So, guess who didn’t think it was all that great… A psychotherapist sets out to find the truth from an artist who murdered her husband and will not speak. The whole book feels to me like a sixth former decided to rewrite Atwood’s Alias Grace, the first steps being to get rid of that pesky historical backdrop and to remedy the lack of a plot twist. It just doesn’t work. And the insights into psychoanalysis are inconsistent, outdated truisms. I’d bet good money that the author has no professional experience of that field. Sadly, I can’t recommend this book.


The Suspect (2019) by Fiona Barton. Fiona Barton is on top form in her third psychological thriller. The Suspect has it all. Kate Waters, investigative journalist, is back, and this time she has the first person ‘slot’ because she is the woman at the heart of the story (Barton, like Sophie Hannah, writes the investigation in the third person and the psychological heart in the first person). Kate’s son Jake is a major suspect in the deaths of two British tourists in Thailand. In this case, the plot is labyrinthine and sophisticated. Barton’s writing style has also evolved (no more ‘Bob said’ or ‘Kate said’ breaking up every piece of dialogue) and it’s nice to see Jean Taylor, the narrator of The Widow, make a reappearance.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Blood Orange by Harriet Tyce

Harriet Tyce’s debut, Blood Orange (2019) is a visceral, slow-burning stunner of domestic suspense.
Criminal defence barrister Alison is, like most people living a perfect life, barely holding it together. She has a drink problem and she’s having an affair — and she can’t believe her clients, even when they’re confessing to murder. She’s also receiving anonymous messages.

The characters in Blood Orange are not glamorous, or sugar-coated. They are, like the food they eat, oozing, deceptively-dressed-up messes. And they’re very true to life. In fact, and this is a tiny point but something that is very telling, this is the only contemporary London thriller I’ve read in which the central character smokes without it being a huge guilty secret. It’s a fact of life that so many writers ignore, that people in high-pressure environments, especially in cities, smoke.

That’s not to say it’s bleak; it’s not. The realism is tense, the twists compelling, and the characters’ believability makes the first person narrative all the more urgent. You have to read on, just as Alison has to keep making the wrong choices.

I know that Blood Orange has been optioned for a TV series, and I can see it doing really well in that format. As a debut, it’s remarkable and Harriet Tyce is certainly one to watch.

META MATTERS

This is a new feature I’m going to include in every full review, because I’m starting to think that the one thing crime fiction has in common is intertextuality. In this section of all subsequent reviews, I will be highlighting key moments in which the text reflects its own fictional status, or refers to crime fiction in some way.


In happier times, Alison and her husband used to watch The Wire. They try to rekindle some love and trust watching a ‘Scandi Noir’ boxset.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Second Life by SJ Watson

SJ Watson is, as we all know, the author of Before I Go to Sleep, which is impossible to dislike. His third novel is taking a while to surface but, based on the absolutely gripping, page-turning rollercoaster that is Second Life (2015), I reckon it will be worth the wait. Regular readers of this blog (if they exist) will know that I think the demand for one book a year from genre writers is ridiculous, stifling, and bad for everyone except booksellers.


This novel is narrated by middle-aged Julia, a wife and mother whose younger sister, Kate, apparently committed suicide. Convinced there’s more to the story, Julia starts investigating and finds out that Kate was a regular on dating websites. Julia sets up a profile and starts chatting to the men in her sister’s life. Before long, she becomes obsessed by one of them. And, more damagingly, the stranger becomes obsessed with her.

There is no neat solution to this story, which is a masterstroke, making the whole thing immediate and real. Not being a woman, I can’t be sure, but my impression is that Watson does a superb job at writing from a range of women’s perspectives. There’s also a really intriguing subplot, which is totally unexplored. I am 100% certain, based on how the characters speak and behave, that Julia’s teenage son is gay. But it’s never discussed; indeed, the parents (including the narrator) frequently talk about his ‘girlfriend’ (who turns out not to be a girlfriend). I’d love to know the author’s perspective on all of this.

And my sole go-to irk: the novel is written in the present tense, but it’s clear to me that the author wants to be writing in the past tense, betrayed through the use of ‘had been’ instead of ‘was’, and so on. At least 50% of contemporary thriller writers do this, and it barely detracts from a masterful second novel.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Mini reviews #26

The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944) by Edmund Crispin. Crispin’s debut is a good place to start. A marvellous meta locked room mystery  featuring the eccentric academic sleuth Gervase Fen and revolving around the death of a promiscuous actress in an Oxford college.

The Mousetrap (1952) by Agatha Christie. There’s a reason Christie’s play is the longest-running in West End (and theatre) history: it’s bloody brilliant. I’m pretty much unique in thinking it is Christie’s best play, but I just think it’s perfect. And it features at least two LGBT characters, which is always a plus. A perfect balance of suspense, humour, familiarity, and fresh, contemporary horror, this story of a snowed-in post-war guest house visited by a murderer out for revenge remains relevant in most contexts. I must have seen at least a dozen productions (the West End cast changes each November) and it never gets old. The current incarnation is the best yet, so go and see it if you’re in London. If not, catch the UK tour or one of the regular amateur productions done in other countries. You won’t regret it.

Lord John and the Private Matter (2003) by Diana Gabaldon. Outlander, the TV series based on Diana Gabaldon’s time travel romances, is one of my guilty pleasures (and pretty much confirms me as a middle-aged woman in a dashing young buck’s body). This historical spy novel takes one of the supporting character from the Outlander universe, the gay-or-possibly-bi Lord John Grey who is a spy. I’m not generally a fan of historical fiction but found this engaging, and the research not too overwhelming or besides the point. It’s a surprisingly fun novel, too. You probably need to care about the characters to enjoy it, though.

The Widow (2016) by Fiona Barton. A stunning debut psychological thriller. Barton seamlessly inhabits a range of different voices, with the most effective being that of the journalist, Kate Waters, determined to solve an old case.


The Child (2017) by Fiona Barton. A very good second novel. Barton’s writing style is as engaging as ever. However, there is a big twist which I saw coming from the midway point, and it became increasingly difficult to believe that none of the characters could see it coming or at least think of it. It was a disappointment to have this twist be the big reveal and the end of the book.

Friday, 1 February 2019

Mini reviews #25

Today’s mini-reviews, the twenty-fifth set brining the total number of this pithy summaries to 100, are all television productions!

Case Closed (YTV, 1996-present). Also known as Detective Conan and based on the manga series of the same name, this is a fun, long-running murder mystery anime with a ragged bunch of child detectives and plenty of allusions to Golden Age detective fiction. If you like anime or classic crime, if you’re a child or an adult, Case Closed is worth a watch.

How to Get Away with Murder (ABC, 2014-present). Overblown, preposterous, and compulsively watchable series about illogically sexy postgraduate law student and their intense relationships with barrister-cum-law professor Annalise Keating (played by Viola Davies, who singlehandedly elevates the programme from utter rubbish to must-see television).

You Get Me (Netflix, 2017). Frothy, silly teen psychological thriller from Netflix. You Get Me owes a great deal of its plot to Swimfan (2002) following a young couple whose relationship descends into bloodshed with the arrival of an obsessive Other Woman. Interestingly, I recently read an upcoming novel by a bestseller (not to be reviewed on this blog), which routinely rips off this rip-off TV film. Half the cast are Youtubers, which should tell you enough.

You (Netflix, 2018). Engrossing ten-part Netflix adaptation of the novel by Caroline Kepnes, charting a bookseller’s obsession with a young writer, as it descends through social media stalking into very dark places.


Agatha and the Truth of Murder (Channel 5, 2018). In my December post, I mentioned that I thought this drama was not terrible and some of my friends let me know that I was wrong. But I stand by what I said: while the budget is clearly not great, Tom Dalton’s script mishmashes real events in a bizarre way, and Ruth Bradley’s performance as Christie is underwhelming, I thought the whole thing was fine. Agatha Christie as detective — especially in those missing days in 1926 — has been done to death, and this Channel 5 drama doesn’t offer anything particularly new. But it’s relatively inoffensive, and the plot is structured along the lines of an Agatha Christie novel of the period. That is a first for one of these projects, and makes it worth watching. Bradley has indicated that she might reprise the role. With Andrew Wilson’s series along similar lines expecting a TV home soon, that would be interesting.