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Friday, 17 September 2021

Mini reviews #36

 ‘The Lemesurier Inheritance’ (1923) by Agatha Christie

Christie’s (and Hercule Poirot’s) take on The Hound of the Baskervilles. Like the Sherlock Holmes case, this short story concerns a family curse preventing certain heirs to a baronetcy from living to assume the title. Of course, the solution is different – and more psychologically interesting – and it ends with a very cheeky joke. Highly recommended.

Herewith the Clues! (1939) by Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links

The fourth and final Links/Wheatley crime dossier is extremely dull and boring. See my reviews of Murder Off Miami and Who Killed Robert Prentice? for overviews of the format and more successful examples.  However, it is fund to see photos of Wheatley and his friends, including many peers and famous writers, posing a scallywags of various ilks.


The Crocodile Bird (1993) by Ruth Rendell

In this breathtaking novel, young Liza Beck has lived her whole life cloistered away with her mother, Eve, who is intensely attached to their home. When Eve is arrested for murder, Liza goes to live with her secret boyfriend, their gardener, and tells him, Scheherazade-style, stories of Eve’s many crimes. Unable to see her mother, who has killed several men, as a monster, Liza is able to view with fresh eyes the horrors of patriarchy and the brainwashing that comes, not from a sequestered life, but from a mainstream one. This is Rendell at her misanthropic best.


Unsolved Case Files: Banks, Jamie (2019)

A wonderfully thoughtful birthday present from Alan, who has many times been forced to hear all about how much I enjoyed the Usborne Mystery Files as a child. This is a similar thing: pieces of evidence presented as a cold case, which you work through to solve. We both enjoyed it thoroughly. Of course it’s very easy to crack, and the storytelling isn’t exactly stellar – but I assume it’s aimed at children, families, or drunk people house-partying. We loved going through newspaper clippings, photographs, and transcripts with a magnifying glass. Perhaps it’s just as well we didn’t discover this series during lockdown – nothing else would have got done!


Five Strangers (2021) by E.V. Adamson

There is a strong Patricia Highsmith influence in Andrew Wilson’s first psychological thriller written as E.V. Adamson. We follow Jen, a likeable but oblivious young professional with an unnaturally attentive best friend, who witnesses a murder-suicide in central London. As she starts to appear more and more paranoid, and we learn more about her past, the secrets behind the deaths she witnessed emerge.

Friday, 23 July 2021

The Moor by Laurie R. King

Set in late 1923, The Moor (1998) is the fourth in Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell series. It sees married couple Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes called to Dartmoor, famously the site of The Hound of the Baskervilles, to investigate a murder. In fact, the murder has some echoes of Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1901 novel, as it seems to involve yet another phosphorescent hound.

There have been sitings around the moor of a ghostly luminous carriage, along with a demonic hound. This is a real Dartmoor legend – the story of Lady Howard’s coach – which may well have inspired the Baskerville backstory.

The ghost of Lady Howard is said to ride at night in a coach made of the bones of her dead husbands. There is even a (real) song about it, dating back centuries:
My ladye hath a sable coach,
And horses two and four;
My ladye hath a black blood-hound
That runneth on before.
My ladye’s coach hath nodding plumes,
The driver hath no head;
My ladye is an ashen white,
As one that long is dead.
‘Now pray step in, my ladye saith,
‘Now pray step in and ride.’
I thank thee, I had rather walk
Than gather by thy side.
The wheels go round without a sound
Or tramp or turn of wheels;
As cloud at night, in pale moonlight,
Along the carriage steals.
I’d rather walk a hundred miles
And run by night and day
Than have the carriage halt for me
And hear the ladye say:
‘Now pray step in, and make no din,
Step in with me and ride;
There’s room I trow, by me for you,
And all the world beside.’
Investigating the legend and the murder, Holmes and Russell end up at Baskerville Hall, speaking to its owner, the last of the Baskerville line, and recalling the events of Holmes’s most famous case. Russell finally learns that the two legends – Howard and Baskerville – are being used by the guilty party to exploit local superstitions.
King clearly had fun writing in the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould as a kind of guide to the moor. Baring-Gould (1834-1924) was a real historical figure, author of hundreds of novels, memoirs, and miscellany, including several books on Dartmoor. You can also blame him for 'Onward! Christian Soldiers', and he was the grandfather of William S. Baring-Gould, whose 1962 biography of Sherlock Holmes mingled canon and fancy in a manner that continues to influence how the character is understood.

Mary Russell uses these books to navigate the geography and mythologies surrounding her case, and occasionally meets with the near-nonagenarian who, in reality, died in January 1924, not long after The Moor’s setting.

Russell critiques as she reads, and grows frustrated at Baring-Gould’s wandering mind. Here, King is clearly indulging in literary – and researcher’s – criticism of her own, and the result is entertaining.
After finding (and block-quoting) a relevant anecdote from Baring-Gould’s memoirs, Russell reflects:
All my nerves tingled […] I knew something [discussed in this passage] was the key. […] I devoured the rest of the book, but again, Baring-Gould had finished playing with that shiny idea and did not return to it, not within those covers. […] I felt like throwing the volume across the room.
But herein lies a question. Why doesn’t Russell simply ask her friend, living handily nearby and apparently just waiting to turn up awkwardly at a party? Why does she need to read his published work, rather than just talking to him, and asking follow up questions?
Of course, it’s because King is working with the published work, and not with the man – so too, therefore, is Russell. But it kind of begs another question: why include him as a character in the first place?
Nonetheless, this is an entertaining, well-told story, I also want to give a final shout out to King’s/Russell’s snark. Who else could write, within just a few paragraphs, that one person ‘did not suffer from brevity of speech, although he [made up for it with] a considerable brevity of both wit and learning’ and another ‘did not seem overly gifted with subtlety of mind’? Fans of the Russell/Holmes series are bound to enjoy The Moor.

Sunday, 2 May 2021

The Secret House of Death by Ruth Rendell

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

Ruth Rendell!


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


‘Were you busy? Am I interrupting something?’


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Sunday, 11 April 2021

I’ll Never Like Friday Again by Stephen Maddock

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

Sunday, 14 March 2021

Mini reviews #35

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

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

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Agatha and the Curse of Ishtar directed by Sam Yates.

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 18 July 2020

The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall

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

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

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