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Saturday, 27 January 2018

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

Party time! It's my 100th review!

This special post concerns an acknowledged classic of crime and detective fiction. Agatha Christie's sixth novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, was published in 1926. The first book under a new contract with Collins -- who still publish her work today -- the legendary twist in this novel, combined with a good publicity campaign and an unfortunate media sensation around the author, launched her into genre-writing stardom. Her light has not yet dimmed.


It's impossible to discuss The Murder of Roger Ackroyd without discussing the twist, for reasons that will become apparent. Okay, so: the narrator did it. I've lectured on this novel a few times, and I always begin my lectures with those four words. They serve as evidence that students need to do the advance reading before each class, and also set the stage for any careful consideration of the text and its contribution to crime writing.

Laura Thompson has written that 'Roger Ackroyd is all genre: not an atom of authorial personality comes between the writing and the reader.' As I argue in my book, Queering Agatha Christie, there is something very significant in the fact that it reads this way: up until the final revelation, the book is supremely conventional. It is, in fact, a more stereotypical Agatha Christie book than anything else she ever wrote. The setting is a country house, the victim in a nouveau riche type ('more impossibly like a country squire than any real country squire'), the suspects are stock figures, and the narrator is -- well, a country doctor. So, not only is he a doctor, like Holmes's Watson, but he is a country doctor; he's a local, reassuring, and reliable presence in every sense.

The plot: Hercule Poirot has retired to grow vegetable marrows (nothing unique here -- Sherlock Holmes retired to keep bees). However, when his old friend Roger Ackroyd is murdered, he is forced to investigate. The body is discovered by Dr James Sheppard, our narrator, who follows Poirot around until Poirot gathers together all the suspects.

In the final chapters, the profound conventionality ends. Poirot reprimands the suspects, tells them he knows the truth, and dismisses them. Then he takes Sheppard aside, and explains in private the truth of the matter: only one person could have committed the crime. 'In fact -- Dr Sheppard.' He then hints to Sheppard that the best thing to do in the context is to commit suicide. The truth, says Poirot, should not be revealed, for the sake of the murderer's devoted spinster sister. Sheppard goes home and writes an 'apologia' to the reader, gloating over his cleverness, and explaining that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was intended as a chronicle 'of Poirot's great failure.' On the verge of suicide, he leaves us.

Thank you to Chris Chan for pointing out
this cartoon's source: the New York Times
All throughout the novel, there are references to genre fiction, especially to Sherlock Holmes. Sheppard frequently tells the reader he is 'playing Watson to Poirot's Sherlock', and Poirot even compares him to Hastings. Although early reviews of Ackroyd tended to be glowing ('[few detective novels] provide greater analytical stimulation', wrote the New York Times critic), a light-hearted charge of foul play -- dismissed by Dorothy L Sayers as sour eggs over readers' having been successfully 'bamboozled' -- is often elevated by modern critics to the status of national outrage. To read contemporary scholarship on The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, you'd think that daily life ground to a stop when the Watsonian figure was proved to have 'dunnit'. However, these commentators are reading too literally on two levels.

First, they are not appreciating the great fun and artifice that characterised the writing and reading of detective fiction in the late 1920s. Second, they are wrong about the murderer's identity. Yes, the Watson figure never 'dunnit' -- and let me tell you why!

Sheppard is an unreliable narrator. We know this -- he gloats about it in the final chapter, referring back to the preceding text and to the act of writing itself; the trick that he -- and therefore the author -- has played. In chapter 4, Christie glosses over the murder without so much as a paragraph break:

the letters were brought in at twenty minutes to nine.  It was just on ten minutes to nine when I left him, the letter still unread.  I hesitated with my hand on the door handle, looking back and wondering if there was anything I had left undone.
And gloating over the fairness of the mystery, the narrator of course refers back to this in chapter 27: 'supposing I had put a row of stars after the first sentence!' he says.  'Would someone then have wondered exactly what  happened in those blank ten minutes?'

When Sheppard says he has been 'playing Watson' he is misleading us again. He might be playing the part, but Poirot never joins in. Poirot never actually tells our narrator anything he wouldn't make public knowledge. The person he confides in -- the person he treats as a sidekick -- the person he shows affection for at the end of the book -- is James Sheppard's gossipy sister, Caroline. So, is it a foul? No, it's ingenious.

As most Christie fans know, Christie loved the character of Caroline, and eventually elevated her to detective status, creating Miss Marple in a set of short stories in 1928. Marple, an elderly spinster who relies on gossip to find out clues, is a direct literary descendent of Caroline -- and Christie felt so strongly about the original's narrative function that she objected when a playwright tried to turn her into a sexy love interest for Poirot, called Caryl. Christie knew exactly what she was doing.

Gossip is the key to everything in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. My favourite scene fills a chapter, which is entitled 'A Game of Mah Jong'. It's absolutely one of the best and most ingenious scenes in the history of twentieth century crime fiction. The chapter is almost entirely made up of dialogue between four game-players. The Sheppards are, of course, among them. As the play their hands, they discuss the murder and the various suspects. Clues emerge, but so do psychological insights, both through the gossip and through the greed or restraint that characterises each player's contribution to the game. To my mind, this scene is much more elegant, concise, and interesting in execution than any variation of the 'Let's all look at the crime board and conveniently summarise the case' scene that occurs half way through most books and dramas.
'I'm a common, vulgar little thief!'

Poirot processes the gossip with a kind of popularised version of Fre
udian psychoanalysis. He has a surprisingly powerful speech in Chapter 17 about the corrupting power of money, and the socially-constructed nature of 'moral fibre'. In a 1926 context, the book is not quite as old-fashioned as it first appears, even before we get the 'twist'. Awareness that the world imagined -- the familiar, formulaic crime novel territory -- is a false one is spread throughout the book. One of Sheppard's tricks involves using a dictaphone to fake the time of death. So, after he's been killed, Roger Ackroyd is heard through the study door saying 'the calls on my purse have been so frequent of late...'

Of all the characters, it is only Thoroughly Modern Hercule who realises that nobody actually speaks like that; that what people heard was the recorded voice of Ackroyd reciting a letter.  What is so marvellous about this is that the novel doesn't just twist the old conventions and any nostalgia we might associate with the crime fiction genre. It tells us that (a) we can trust no one, however reassuring their presence might be, (b) tradition is artifice and conservatism simply doesn't work in real life, and, devastatingly, (c) we are no judges of the world we live in.

It is great that Roger Ackroyd is acknowledged as a classic and innovative crime novel. It's wonderful that it's taught at schools and universities, that it's used by narratologists discussing concealment and creative writers discussing revelation. However, as a novel, it is so much more than a stock puzzle with a shock solution. It is a stylised, self-referential tour de force.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Little People, Big Dreams: Agatha Christie by Isabel Sanchez Vegara and Elisa Munso

This is the 99th review to appear on A Sign of the Crimes, if we count each batch of mini-reviews as 5. So the next post will be a bit special. There is a small clue as to the subject of Review #100 in today's post.

As a member of an Agatha Christie group on Facebook (okay, as a member of about ten), I have heard a lot about this quirky book for children. Part of the 'Little People, Big Dreams' series, Agatha Christie was first published in Spanish, with words by Isabel Sanchez Vegara and drawings by Elisa Munso, in 2017. The series has a great and noble aim of introducing strong female role models for 5 to 8 year olds. Other figures considered in the series include Frida Kahlo, Maya Angelou, Amelia Earhart, Audrey Hepburn, Rosa Parks, Marie Curie, and Coco Chanel.

The story is a very basic, thirty-two page one. It begins with the young Agatha teaching herself to read and making up stories. It continues through her VAD service during the First World War and her acquisition of knowledge about poisons. Then, we see Agatha starting to write, encounter her books, plays, and characters, and learn about their extraordinarily broad appeal. The easy-to-follow words are accompanied by entertaining illustrations, mostly black and white but with nice splashes of colour.

I was impressed by the inclusion of small, little known details. For instance, when Agatha starts writing, there is a manuscript beside her titled 'The House of Dreams'; that was one of her first short stories, written well before 1920 but revised and published in 1926. The book also has her inventing Miss Marple whilst holidaying in Egypt and writing Death on the Nile. Of course, this didn't happen; the first Marple story was published in 1928 (and its provenance provides a second clue to Review #100...). However, as John Curran revealed in his publication of the author's notebooks, Death on the Nile was originally going to be a Marple novel. So that's kind of cool.

It's good that this series does not shy away from subjects that are traditionally sugar-coated children; war, revolution, and murder, for instance. If you read my review of Kenneth Illington's Conjuror's Alibi you'll know that I'm all for introducing young people to a few basic realities as early as possible. The mystery of who accidentally ate the pink teddy's strawberry cupcake just won't cut the mustard. However, while I think Agatha Christie is one of the greatest people in the world, ever -- naturally -- I am a little confused as to why she's in this series. I would have thought the rags to riches story of JK Rowling a little more interesting, because, amazing as Agatha Christie is, she never faced massive hostility in the way that Angelou, Kahlo, and others did. I suppose there is the significant fact that JK isn't dead.

And of course I'm delighted to see the Queen of Crime being introduced as a feminist role model in a world where role models are so sorely lacking.

Monday, 22 January 2018

The Comedy About a Bank Robbery by Mischief Theatre

On Saturday, Alan and I had a marvellous day in the West End, seeing not one but two shows, and enjoying the Lumiere festival in between.

The first play was saw was The Comedy About a Bank Robbery at the Criterion Theatre – and it was hysterically funny. This is not the kind of thing I usually review on here, but I wanted to share all the splendour, and, besides, a bank robbery is a crime, so it’s all good, right?

The play has been running since 2016 and is one of three productions by Mischief Theatre currently playing in the West End. The group, formed by a handful of LAMDA graduates, is probably best-known for The Play That Goes Wrong (an absolute masterpiece of physical comedy, which it’s impossible not to enjoy). The conceit behind The Play That Goes Wrong is that we are watching amateur actors butcher a murder mystery; predictably enough, everything goes wrong … and it’s wonderful. The same people did Peter Pan Goes Wrong for the BBC in 2016, and that too was hilarious. When they tweaked the format a little for A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong, broadcast on BBC One on Christmas Day last year, the result was diabolical – quite possibly the biggest disappointment since Cadburys announced they were improving their recipe. So I was slightly wary about going to see The Comedy About A Bank Robbery. What if, somewhere along the line, Mischief Theatre had lost its touch?

Well, I needn’t have bothered. The Comedy About a Bank Robbery does not tweak the successful formula. Instead, it ventures into different territory. It is straightforward old-school farce, and it’s very well done. The story concerns an escape from prison in 1950s America, and the planned robbery of massive diamond from a secret bank vault. At the centre of all this is a romantic triangle involving one of the prisoners, the bank manager’s daughter, and a small-time grafter.

None of the jokes are new (that should be ‘is new’, I think, but it doesn’t feel right).  A running gag concerns the banker, Robin Freeboys, and one of the criminals assuming his identity in order to go robbing three boys – which owes a debt to the ‘don’t call me Shirley’ school of laughs. At one point, the gag gets tweaked with the introduction of a certain Roger Freeboys. There’s also a marvellous routine in which our young hero – the petty grafter – pretends to be the same man, his girlfriend’s father, while she mimes visual clues – reminiscent of a scene in in Fawlty Towers in which Basil Fawlty tries to tell the hapless Polly which horse she’s supposed to have backed. The authors of this production – Henry Lewis, Henry Shields, and Jonathan Sayer, who were among the original cast but are now off doing improv – have mixed their comic clichés in just the right doses. From two minutes in until long after the final curtain, the audience was in paroxysms of mirth.

One thing I really admire about Mischief Theatre productions is the way they use the whole stage, including the lighting box. This production has actors crawling up a vent over the front row of the audience’s heads. It also has a technically impressive and visually hilarious scene which takes place at a ninety-degree angle (sadly, I can’t find any images of this scene online). There’s also a great deal of singing, which neither of us was expecting and which helped keep the spirit light and kitschy.

At the performance we saw, one of the parts was played by an understudy (which means that the ensemble cast must have mixed around quite a few roles, as everyone plays two or three people). Honestly, I wouldn’t have known. We saw a very high-profile musical in the evening, also with an understudy, who has been understudying the role for two years, and that production didn’t run entirely smoothly. And, while Mischief Theatre doesn’t do dance numbers, it does a hell of a lot of physical comedy and choreographed stunts as well as intricate wordplay. So it needs good understudies, and it has them.

I would absolutely recommend going to see The Comedy about a Bank Robbery if you’re able to get to the West End, or if it ends up on tour, as I’m positive it will.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Frequent Hearses by Edmund Crispin

I love Edmund Crispin (aka Bruce Montgomery) and have loved him since I read Love Lies Bleeding in my school library at a tender age. I loved that book so much that I made a deal with the librarian -- I slipped her some money for wine and she marked the book as 'lost'. It was a mystery why it was in the library at all; certainly nobody had checked it out in over twenty years. Slowly, with the internet in its infancy and golden age revivals a good few years off, I pieced together a collection of Crispin's nine crime novels (I only got the short story collections recently), and decided to ration them out over my lifetime. I haven't read a Crispin for ages, so I picked one at random, and dug in. The one I picked was Frequent Hearses (1950).

I'm sorry to say that novel showcases Crispin and his brilliant donnish detective, Gervase Fen, at their weakest. The opening is glorious: a young actress, known professionally as Gloria Scott (surely a Sherlock Holmes reference), sits in a taxi, making her way through Piccadilly. When the car reaches Waterloo bridge, she alights. She walks to the edge of the bridge, and jumps to her death. A clear suicide -- but why? The young woman had just obtained her dream role in movies.

Meanwhile, Fen has been called to a film studio to advise on a new biopic of Alexander Pope. He learns of Gloria's death and sets out to investigate. Before long, there is a murder... and then another one...

The puzzle element is more pronounced than in some other books, but it is also less well integrated than anything of Crispin's I've ever read. In fact, when the solution to the mystery is revealed, it feels very much like a Sherlock Holmes story updated to fit the mid-twentieth century. I get the impression that this is an idea that should have remained firmly in a notebook; a nice and ingenious story, not fabulously realised. It should have been developed into more of a homage to the genre's heritage.

The prose is wonderfully overblown, especially when Crispin sets a scene, and it's deliciously pithy in places. For example, I love the initial description of David Crane as 'a young, thick-set man, going prematurely bald, of a type that emanates social uncertainty like ectoplasm.' The pith has its down side, however, especially when Crispin introduces working class types and women. I have not noticed this problem to any great degree in my other reading of the same author.

While I would recommend Crispin to nearly every reader, I would not recommend starting with Frequent Hearses. It is dated in all the wrong ways, and is a snivelling shadow of the author's rapier wit at its best.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths

The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths

Recently, I met the crime writer Elly Griffiths, who is an awesome person. I was guest-speaking on a creative writing programme she runs at Cambridge, and to my surprise and delight she joined in with the writing exercises I set. Because I was going to meet this successful author, I thought it might be a good idea to get to know her books, so I bought one and read it.

The Crossing Places (2009) introduces Dr Ruth Galloway, a forensic archaeologist based at the (fictional) University of North Norfolk, which is rather in the shadow of UEA. As an academic originally from Norfolk, I was especially keen to read a Galloway mystery, and made the sensible decision to start with the first. And I fell in love with Ruth from the very first chapter. She is likeable, awkward, shy, and she keeps cats. She is, in short, believable and sympathetic. There’s nothing of the clichéd detective about Ruth, who occupies a marshy hinterland between the amateur and the professional: after all, she is a bone specialist, legitimately working with the police, but she also finds herself leading them in their investigations. Over the course of the case, she grows increasingly close to the unrefined and slightly chippy Detective Inspector Harry Nelson (Norfolk, Nelson, see what Griffiths did there?).

The plot: Ruth is summoned by the police when they discover human bones on a saltmarsh in remote Norfolk. Arriving at the scene, she determines that the bones are 2,000 years old. They are not, as DI Harry Nelson feared, the bones of a young girl who went missing ten years ago. And that is that. Until another girl goes missing. Nelson asks Ruth to look, additionally, at some anonymous letters the police have received, taunting the police with cryptic literary and classical clues as to the locations of the girls. Before long, Ruth finds herself tragically embroiled in the investigation and in danger of death …

I love that, over the course of the narrative, Ruth finds herself. She starts out keeping herself to herself, but by the end she is comfortable with her role in the world, and open to the company of friends. When she has a breakdown, half-way through, about how she is perceived – ‘Only concerned with bones, a dull specialisation, useful but ultimately marginal. She is not a heroine type […], she does not belong centre-stage’ – every reader is on her side and rooting for her.

My only problem with this novel is the tense. It’s told in the present tense, but I am 99% sure the author must have written it in the past tense, been advised that crime thrillers happen in the present tense, and edited accordingly. As a result, we have sentences that don’t sit quite right, especially when someone is remembering something (‘She had known what she would find’, which works with a ‘she remembered’ sentence but not with a ‘she remembers’ sentence, if that makes sense). I flicked through some of the later novels in the series, and none of them seems to have this problem. It does seem to be a common theme in a lot of debut crime novels of the last ten years.

The pace is consistent and gripping. When the murderer is revealed, it isn’t really a surprise so much as a slow unravelling of the inevitable. I was so into the book by the end that, as I frantically turned the pages of the final showdown on the saltmarsh, when my phone went off, I screamed at it to shut up. I am certainly looking forward to reading the rest of the series, and I will do so in order. I can’t wait to see how Ruth’s and Harry’s realistic dynamic develops.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Agatha Raisin and the Wellspring of Death by M.C. Beaton

In 2014, I co-organised a conference in London: Queens of Crime, which focused on crime fiction and women. An astonishing number of delegates were middle-aged men, and they tended to tow a similar line: Agatha Christie was the Queen of Crime, PD James was just about acceptable, and Jessica Fletcher was a saint. On the first day, one gent -- a friend whose scholarly work I like and respect, but with whom I disagree on a couple of key points -- made a joke about M.C. Beaton, author of the Agatha Raisin mysteries, 'which are, of course, a waste of paper.' The room erupted with approval.

For the remainder of the conference, the idea that Beaton or Raisin could be considered crime queens, or even worthy of comment, became a running joke. An awful lot of energy was expelled on not giving these books the time of day.

I was a little confused. As I stated at the time, I didn't have a problem with the Agatha Raisin books; I quite liked them. There are a lot and I haven't read them all. I have also never tried Beaton's other series, Hamish Macbeth, or her romances written under the name Marion Chesney -- so, clearly, this series isn't engraved upon my heart, but it's okay. True, the books are not brilliantly written (okay, they are badly written), but these people were the kind who insisted that Agatha Christie just wrote puzzles, that literary quality was the last thing worth noting. So why all the hate? It was a mystery.

After checking Google to make sure that Beaton was not in fact a member of Britain First, I decided to just accept that lots of people didn't like the books, but that I wasn't one of them. After all, as an academic I'm used to being the only person in the room defending genre fiction of any kind, let alone a specific author. The hate continued at subsequent events; marvellous events with brilliant scholars, nearly all of whom I disagreed with on at least this one point.

When Sky announced an Agatha Raisin television pilot, and then a whole series, I was delighted. I came to the books through the radio adaptations with Penelope Keith, which change the tone considerably, so I wasn't surprised or disappointed to find the whole thing softened for TV. The other day, it was announced that Agatha Raisin would return for a second series. To honour this exciting news, I decided to review one of the books, and picked up an unread one at random from my bookshelf: Agatha Raisin and the Wellspring of Death (1998). Then, my eye fell on a publicity quote emblazoned on the back cover:
Agatha is like Miss Marple with a drinking problem, a pack-a-day habit and major man lust. In fact, I think she could be living my dream life (Entertainment Weekly).
And, just like that, all was clear. The hostility to the Agatha Raisin books has nothing to do with slap-dash writing. It's hostility towards Agatha Raisin herself. As an overweight, chain-smoking drinker solving twee English village mysteries, and actually taking the name Agatha (her maiden name is 'Styles', btw), she is desecrating the image of Miss Marple. Now, in my opinion, Miss Marple is a horrible person -- a great, loveable character, but an unkind person who uses gentility as a facade. That's my opinion and it's not a popular one. People like their older women detectives to be grandmotherly.

I, on the other hand, love Agatha Raisin. In the opening pages of The Wellspring of Death, she is lighting up her fifth cigarette of the morning when an uninvited houseguest asks her to put out her cigarette:
'Tough,' said Agatha. 'This is my house and my cigarette. What do you want?'
'Don't you know you are killing yourself?' 
Agatha looked at her cigarette and then at Mrs Darry.  'As long as I am killing myself, I am not killing you. Out with it. What do you want?'
Trust me, this is exactly how most smokers want to talk to helpful friends. So it's delightful to read about a fictional superhero who actually says the words.  Raisin, a retired PR manager, has moved to the Cotswolds for a slower pace of life. But she doesn't fit in and the locals have a nasty habit of bumping each other off when she's around. This is the seventh book in the series, so she has mellowed a little, but the city rudeness is still there.

However, as each book progresses, we learn that Agatha is in fact the most humane person in the village. She is naturally kind, while the polite and proper locals are cruel and out for themselves. At one point, a furious Agatha lets rip at the parish council, telling them: 'You're always like this, murder or no murder -- nasty, carping, vicious and bitchy.'

The plot here isn't really important, because the books are much of a muchness.  It all starts when the village next to Agatha's catches the eye of a high-falluting water company, which is planning to destroy the village spring for corporate ends. With hostility from the villagers brewing, a bored Agatha signs up as the company's PR spokesperson, but as soon as she has delivered her maiden polemic she stumbles over a corpse.

Agatha is reluctant to investigate, because she is busy with the PR job and her latest sexual conquest. Sleeping with a man half her age means she feels she has to pay more attention to her physical appearance than usual, and to shield herself from increasingly bitter village gossip. The relationship doesn't work out, as we know from the start that it won't. Meanwhile, Agatha's will-they-won't-they friend Colonel James Lacey flits in and out, getting jealous and saying nothing.

The whole tone is a bit smug and right-of-centre. Most village mysteries are, because most villages are. This is a world where the murderer can wrong-foot the detective by calling them 'a liberal', presumably the worst insult imaginable. Agatha herself is a bit right wing. There is a frankly hilarious description of evil left-wing environmental activists, clearly written by someone who has never met a left-wing environmental activist.

But underneath everything, as stated, the lead character is sympathetic and humane. She can register distaste and hurl insults (my favourite one from the radio is 'your imagination is as garish as your lipstick') but she understands that even bad people don't deserve to die. When the plot demands, she grows emotional. The first thing that puts her off her toy boy is when, upon discovering a second corpse, he decides to call the papers -- to make sure it's reported in a way that reflects his company well -- before calling the police. Agatha is outraged, and channels her energies appropriately.

The writing style is simple and straightforward. The author's mind seems always to be on other things, and she seems to be rushing to type 'The End.' The book was probably written in less time than it takes to read, and it took me one afternoon. But it does what it needs to do: it entertains, inoffensively.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Behind the Screen by the Detection Club

BBC Radio 4 Extra has just finished a rather exciting serial rebroadcast. The production in question, Behind the Screen, is an abridgement of an eccentric novella co-written by members of the Detection Club in 1930, and I thought this was the perfect opportunity to revisit the original.

The novella (not a novel, as it's only 70 pages long) was first published as a six-part serial in The Listener, at the same time as it was broadcast over the radio. The round-robin project was a deliberate fundraiser, followed by many other efforts of a similar ilk, most notably The Floating Admiral (1931). A much longer, and better-known, book, The Floating Admiral would feature several crime-writing heavyweights, each contributing a chapter towards an un-plotted murder mystery, and nearly all of them preferring their own solutions in sealed envelopes, to be published at the end of the book.

Behind the Screen, later published with a similar effort called The Scoop, was written differently. The six contributors planned in advance what would happen when, and who would write what. The result is a more conclusive, but sadly also a more conventional, mystery, reading very much like the minor effort of a middling star of the age.

The Ellises are having a quiet evening in, with a few guests, the housekeeper Mrs Hulk, and their hated lodger, Paul Dudden.  Young Amy Ellis is with her fiancé, a medical student  called Wilfred, who senses a sinister atmosphere in the house. His thoughts take shape when he discovers, behind a Japanese screen, 'Dudden dead [...] Dead Dudden!' Moreover, Dudden has been killed up to three times. Soon, the local police inspector arrives and buggers everything up, so it falls to Wilfred to get to the bottom of things.

The contributors to Behind the Screen are, in order: Hugh Walpole, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, E.C. Bentley, and Ronald Knox.

All six writers keep the tone light, though some are lighter than others. Walpole's opening is inevitably melodramatic, and Christie's second chapter, introducing a few more characters including one of her own trademark busybody spinster men (these remind me so much of so many of her fans), makes the whole thing readable. Sayers and Berkeley are reliable, but neither is in their element. Bentley is demonstrably outside of his comfort zone. One of the reasons it took me so long to read Trent's Last Case -- a pioneering masterpiece of golden age crime -- was an aversion to his chapter in Behind the Screen.  In the final chapter, Knox trips over himself a little in an attempt to explain the complicated solution whilst retaining his trademark moralistic levity.

Back in 1930, each part was broadcast on the BBC, with the author reading her or his own chapter. This was quite a common feature of the genre at the time, and has to do with a number of things: a now-alien celebrity culture, crime fiction's quest for legitimacy, and the national spirit of game-playing that accompanied the genre's success. Fun fact: the first person to play Miss Marple was in fact Agatha Christie, who read out the character's monologue, 'Miss Marple Tells a Story', on the radio in 1934. Not for the first time, I'm dreadfully irritated that no one has recordings of the older BBC broadcasts.

The serial in The Listener was published as a competition: readers were given key questions and invited to send in their ideas by post. There were 170 entries, and Miss E.M. Jones of Birmingham won the top prize of ten guineas. In my edition (a standard 1980s American paperback), all the competition-y bits appear as appendices.

A while ago now, HarperCollins reissued The Floating Admiral, resetting the text of an American reprint inside the first edition cover, with a new retro dust-jacket. It did very well, and was followed up with a string of other round-robin reissues. Most of them were published with 'forewords' by Agatha Christie, because she didn't actually take part in many, and this enabled her name to be huge on the dust-jackets (these 'forewords' would take the form of a newspaper column, a private letter, a shopping list ... well, not quite, but more or less). The project culminated in the production of a new round-robin novel, The Sinking Admiral, by some of the Detection Club's current crop. I must get a copy. If you've read it, what did you think?

Why there hasn't been a reissue of Behind the Screen is something of a mystery. I wonder if it's because The Scoop, with which it has traditionally been published, and to which Christie also contributed, is decidedly politically incorrect in places. However, that hasn't stopped revivalists before. Maybe it's because neither novel is massively brilliant -- and, certainly, both lack the fun spontaneity, the sense of maliciously tying the next writer up in knots, that makes The Floating Admiral so unique. But if not being very good was a bar to big-scale publication, our bookshelves would be considerably barer.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

The Madman of Bergerac by Georges Simenon

A short while ago, I did some last-minute cover teaching for a university course on crime fiction. Glancing through the syllabus, I noticed a good selection of novels, but one entry particularly caught my eye. ‘Any Agatha Christie novel’. Eyes widening in horror, I huffed my disapproval. They’re not all the same! Agatha Christie was the finest crime novelist of all time, each of her best books a masterpiece on its own merits. And so on. I sternly put the class right on this point, and that was that.

Now, this week, I’m guest lecturing on another crime fiction programme at a different university. After glancing at the handbook, I had a chat with the module convenor and found myself asking, ‘So, they’ve read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and a Georges Simenon so far?’ The convenor replied in the affirmative, politely naming the Simenon, The Madman of Bergerac (1932), in the process. In that moment, I realised that I was as bad a hypocrite as anyone in the House of Commons (okay, my hypocrisy doesn’t actually kill people, but it was pretty devastating). I was thinking of Simenon’s entire output – famously written in haste – as homogeneous; every title as interchangeable.

I’ve never quite gotten on with Simenon. People say he has a commanding psychological intensity; that his prose is laconic and insightful. I’ve always thought it felt poorly-plotted and unlovingly executed. I’ve read about five over the years, and not enjoyed any before. Nonetheless, determined to check my prejudice, I gave The Madman of Bergerac (first published in French as Les trois morts de Bergerac) a read. And I decided to examine it with fresh, objective eyes.

It was enjoyable enough. I liked Maigret very much, with his quirky subterfuges and bloody-minded curiosity. He has a very clever trick in interrogations of
 jumping from one subject to another and suddenly talking about things that have nothing to do with the conversation. […] The other person, fearing a trap, tries to guess at an ulterior motive when there isn’t one.

The idea is that they slowly grow frustrated and bored, and then answer the real questions truthfully by rote. And I liked the long-suffering, hen-pecking Madame Maigret, too. Going by the titles of later books in the series, she seems to feature a lot, which makes me happy. Their dynamic reminds me a tiny, tiny bit of Rumpole and Hilda, but Frenchified.

The novel begins with Maigret travelling on a train, determined to get a break after a particularly unpleasant case. But when a passenger jumps from the moving train not far off the railway station, Maigret’s curiosity is peaked to such an extent that he also jumps. Then he (Maigret) is shot. He wakes up in hospital and finds himself under official suspicion of being ‘the Madman of Bergerac’, a homicidal maniac terrorising young women in that seemingly respectable commune.

The locals remain suspicious of Maigret, because he comes from outside of Bergerac, and they cannot face the idea that the killer could be an insider. After all, as one character puts it, ‘[o]ne would understand if it had happened in Paris, where vice is endemic … but here!’  But all is not as it seems: one of the first things Maigret notices is a complete lack of prostitution. So, of course, he asks the Chief Prosecutor, ‘what do you do around here for love?’, because he believes – correctly, as it turns out – that it’s impossible to have a place, however serene, without a sex industry.

Simenon’s Bergerac, then, is no St Mary’s Mead, and while the locals are busy suspecting Maigret, he, in his turn, casts a suspicious eye on citizens in positions of power. He only starts to make progress in his case when he asks a pretty obvious question: ‘suppose [the police] stopped looking for a madman? Suppose they simply looked for a logical explanation of the chain of events?’

There are some fabulous turns of phrases that give us lovely insights into character and circumstance. For example, when Maigret exhales a lungful of cigar smoke, it rises above his head ‘in the shape of a halo’; a ‘very petty bourgeois’ woman wears ‘clothes […] made by a local seamstress, or, if they did come from a good fashion house, she didn’t know how to wear them.’

One thing that was particularly – umm – noticeable was the overuse! of! exclamation! marks! I’m not sure if this is the translator’s initiative, because I don’t remember it from other Simenon titles, but I found it highly distracting. There are about eight on each page! I also didn’t care much for Simenon’s plotting. I’ve heard that he just dashed these off with a pipe and a bottle, and perhaps that shows. There’s an element of throwing things into a pot and moulding them together. But it’s fine. I did find the story interesting. I am, however, glad it wasn’t longer.

The novel is, in all, a nice take-down of rural respectability. I enjoyed it more than I expected to, but I’ll have forgotten all about it in a month.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

The Taxidermist's Daughter by Kate Mosse

For 2018, I made about a hundred resolutions. One week in, and I’ve broken nearly all of them, but decided that the first week was a blip and that, next week, I will magically stick to a demanding pattern for self-improvement. One of the resolutions which I broke a few days ago was the decision to read a chapter for pleasure every night in bed.

My mistake here was picking up Kate Mosse’s splendid gothic murder story, The Taxidermist’s Daughter (2014).  For one thing, her chapters are incredibly short – there are 49, plus a prologue and an epilogue – in around 400 pages. So, obviously, I thought, ‘three or four chapters for this one.’ Then I started reading, and before long it had become, ‘just twelve or thirteen chapters … just a couple of hundred pages…’ The writing is gripping and the atmosphere compulsive.

The Taxidermist’s Daughter concerns Connie Gifford, a 22 year-old taxidermist’s daughter (shocking, right?) who is a skilled taxidermist herself, in an isolated house in Sussex in 1912. Except it’s not really 1912 – Mosse uses the year as the nebulous olden days, where rich people were benevolent, their fathers were corrupt, and each plucky servant knew her or his place and apologised for saying ‘heck’. Despite this, the novel builds up so much atmosphere and suspense that the clichés don’t matter. Slowly, warily, we feel a huge amount of sympathy for Connie and her friends from a range of social classes.

Connie has lost a huge chunk of her history: ‘the vanished years’ account for all her experiences up to the age of twelve but, recently, she’s been having flashbacks. Small scenes, they grow longer and more intense as the narrative progresses. At Blackthorn House, she cares for her widowed father, who has fallen victim to alcoholism, powerless to stop his past skill and precision from fading away.

One day, a body washes up at the foot of the estate: a beautiful woman with coppery hair. Connie sees incisions in the skin and knows that the woman has been strangled with fishing wire. Helped by a handsome stranger, Harry, who also provides a bulk of the POV, Connie and her maid inform the authorities – but the death is recorded as an accident. Meanwhile, both Connie’s and Harry’s fathers go missing.

Before long, it becomes clear that a serial killer is stalking the quiet rural area. Clear to the reader, who accesses the murderer’s thoughts, but not to anyone else. As the crimes become more dramatic, connections to an asylum and to the craft of taxidermy become explicit. Since the stormy weather is such a huge part of The Taxidermist’s Daughter, I did wonder if the time-setting – April 1912, the month the Titanic sank – was significant. However, no reference is made to that disaster, nor to the great social changes it has come to emblematize.

Mosse’s writing style reminds me of the stuff we studied at school and university. There’s something off-putting about it at first. Not a word is out of place, not a device is misapplied, but it’s so perfect that it almost feels sterile. Like, this is correct writing. Writing to be admired, not to be read. However, this feeling only lingered briefly, and after the prologue I was no mentally writing essays on Mosse’s prose; I was supping it.

So compelling is the prologue that, by the time we get to Chapter 1 and read this opening paragraph, it doesn’t feel overwritten:

Connie looked down at the scalpel in her hand. Quicksilver-thin blade, ivory handle. To the untrained eye, it looked like a stiletto. In other houses, it would be mistaken for a paring knife for vegetables or fruit.
 Not flesh.
Like all good historical novelists, Mosse does her research and knows when and how to deviate from strict authenticity in the service of a good narrative. I appreciated the historical details, although I found them jarring in places. Whole passages seem to exist only to remind us that the author has researched the period. Take this, for example, when Connie gets a flashback to her time on a train as a girl:
 They bought a lunch basket at one of the stations along the line. Connie could remember how greasy the chicken leg was between her fingers. Some cold beef too, and a little bread and butter. Remembered laughing and playing word games like ‘Cupid’s Coming’ and ‘Taboo’. It was a dull day, she remembered that too. The guard came to light the lamps in their carriage.

Such a paragraph could serve to show us the sensory intensity with which Connie’s memories are returning. But it doesn’t. It just chucks a load of details at us. Mosse is far from the worst culprit in this sense – and at least the passage is elegant. Too many historical novelists open each chapter with a handy list of things they’ve Googled. Mosse doesn’t do that, but in such moments as this, I didn’t feel wholly transported into the world of 2012 – or, more importantly, into the mind of Connie Gifford.

There aren’t twists and turns or shocks in Mosse’s novel – that’s not her stock in trade (although she does pull a sweet trick in the epilogue, which made me smile). There is, instead, a slow burn. The climax comes with gathering inevitability, as Mosse describes the storm clouds taking hold over the marshes, getting ready to reap historic levels of havoc. The final confrontation between goodies and baddies results in a neatly messy watery resolution.

If you want to escape into a moody and thought-provoking landscape, I’d certainly recommend The Taxidermist’s Daughter. Escape is the key word here; get lost in Mosse’s captivating prose and try not to§ think about the problems. I can picture this story as a BBC miniseries; one of those period pieces that capitalises on the nostalgia and manages to make the whole thing boring. So if it does get filmed -- and I have no idea if anything's in the pipeline -- I'd still recommend reading the book.
I only have one caveat: don’t pick it up if you have anywhere to be in the next five hours.