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Friday, 23 February 2018

Mini reviews #14

Tea for Three (1939) by Margery Vosper. Isn't the internet wonderful? The very day I published my review of Murder on the Second Floor, mentioning Vosper's 8-page adaptation of an Agatha Christie short story, not one but two friends very kindly offered to send me a copy. I'm happy to report that this is a wonderful vignette, fully maintaining the spirit of Christie's 'Accident'.  I'd love to see a performance of Vosper's script as part of a larger entertainment event. It's fun and twisty and typical Agatha Christie.

'Lamb to the Slaughter' (1953) by Roald Dahl. If you know any of Dahl's adult short stories, you probably know this one. An exemplum of black comedy, it's the one about a woman who whacks her husband over the head with a frozen leg of lamb. I didn't think of it as crime fiction until, last year, I found myself recommending it to one of my creative writing students who wanted to pen quirky crime. It's definitely useful for authors of crime, comedy, suspense, and psychological fiction to study. And it's bloody good fun to read.

The Secret Seven Short Story Collection (2007) by Enid Blyton. Not my cup of ginger beer.

Gallowglass (2018) by Middle Ground Theatre. Barbara Vine's (Ruth Rendell's) 1990 novel has been newly dramatised by Margaret May Hobbs for this touring production. I thoroughly enjoyed the show, which was largely down to the excellent, fabulously twisty and psychologically nuanced plot, centred on a kidnapping operation. The lead character, a typically Vinean troubled youth, is played flawlessly by Joe Eyre. The other actors vary in quality from outstanding (Paul Opacic) to frustrating, and I wasn't convinced about the direction. I also wasn't sure when it was supposed to be set, as we're in a pre-internet world of landlines and newspapers but the backdrops show contemporary billboards etc. If anything, seeing Gallowglass on stage made me long to read the book.

Money in the Morgue (2018) by Ngaio Marsh and Stella Duffy. There could be no better choice than Stella Duffy to complete Ngaio Marsh's unfinished Roderick Alleyn novel, and she doesn't disappoint.  It's a shockingly brilliant act of ventriloquism, and Duffy does a better Marsh than Marsh herself. Starting from a less-than-ideal premise (in a military hospital, some money goes missing), Duffy weaves an ingenious plot in entertaining style. The solution bamboozled me but it's totally fair. Alleyn is in fine form, and his adventures are peppered with theatrical allusions and society secrets. New Zealand itself is a living, breathing character, and the absent presence of the Second World War is felt with chilling immediacy. Money in the Morgue is a book to cherish and a masterpiece within its genre.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

The Daughter of Time (1951) is one of the most famous detective novels of the twentieth century and it remains the volume for which Josephine Tey is best known. In 1990, the Crime Writers’ Association voted it the number one top crime novel of all time, and it was in the news again recently when the body of its subject, Richard III, was recovered from beneath a car park in Leicester. I know I wasn’t the first nor the last person to have their understanding of that man completely reconfigured by reading this novel.

I first read The Daughter of Time as a sixth-former. It wasn’t my first Tey but it was the first one that made an impression. The central conceit is bizarre enough to be iconic. Inspector Alan Grant, confined to a hospital bed, is looking for something to pass the time. He ends up applying his keen policeman’s mind to a problem surrounding the historical figure of Richard III. Suspecting that Richard might not be the monster we all know him as, Grant uncovers a web of lies and propaganda, configuring Richard as a victim of political machinations and
even absolving him of responsibility for the infamous case of the princes in the tower.

A couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to hear that a serialised and apparently unabridged reading of the whole novel was being aired on BBC Radio 4 Extra. If you’re based in the UK, you can still listen to all episodes here. This review is based on listening to the reading, rather than an a close rereading of the text – although I have, of course, read it a few times.

One thing, beyond the obvious, that makes the story so special is Grant himself. He’s a great and understated detective; a poetry loving policemen before they were ten-a-penny, he also lives with a constant mental crisis, splitting his mind into distinct personalities and haunted by the fact that he will never be a manly man. Nearly all of Grant’s cases spring from his own fascination with the victim. He develops an unhealthy and uncanny obsession with the deceased – usually a beautiful man – and the case of Richard III is no different. Grant gets lost staring into the eyes of etchings and finds himself unable to reconcile such a hypnotic face with the horrible stories attached to it. That’s his starting point.

Treating the historical mystery as a contemporary psychological criminal investigation, Grant sees everything from a fresh angle, allowing his creator to gently satirise the naiveté of traditional historians, who unwittingly tow the line of archaic propaganda. There are frequent allusions to ‘the Sainted Moore’, referencing the authoritative but factually flawed writings of Thomas Moore. As one of Grant’s helpers, the excellent Marta Hallard states, with cutting diplomacy: ‘Perhaps when you’re grubbing about with tattered records, you don’t have time to learn about people. I don’t mean the people in records, but real-life people — flesh and blood’.

Of course, Grant can’t do everything by himself from a hospital bed. Not only would that be impractical in the pre-internet age, it would also be incredibly boring for the reader. One of his helpers is the actor Marta Hallard, whom Tey’s readers will already know, and another is an American student who develops a love of research purely by accident whilst helping him out. This student, Brent Carradine, provides our policeman with his fill of original documents found in the British Museum. He (Brent) is planning to write a book about Richard. When he asks if Grant would prefer to do the honours – since this is his case – Grant responds that he would never write a book. ‘It’s my considered opinion that too many books are written as it is’, he adds. And, glancing up for a moment from a detective novel that really pushes the boundaries of what a detective novel can do, the reader agrees.

There is an element of artifice in this novel, and I’m not just talking about the rather wonderful parodies of historical fiction in and out of which the author dips (Tey herself was, of course, also an historical novelist and playwright, under a second pseudonym, Gordon Daviot). No, the whole thing, the five century-long puzzle, must be tied up and resolved by the time Alan Grant gets out of hospital. And, of course, it is. When he emerges from hospital, having found out the truth, Grant makes perhaps my favourite comment in all of Tey’s work: ‘How small and queer the world looks viewed the right way up.’

Grant’s/Tey’s version of the Richard III is not quite the story we have now, but it is closer to it than the traditional Shakespearean line. It is frankly remarkable that a genre novel has been so influential. It’s not my favourite crime novel – it’s not even my favourite Tey – but the fact that it exists, and in such an entertaining and accessible form, is brilliant.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

I must know the opening scene to The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-2) by heart. Of course, I’ve read the book at least half a dozen times, and the opening is the kind of scene that sticks in the mind. It’s also the opening after which so many Sherlock Holmes pastiche openings are modelled. The number of stage and screen adaptations of  Baskervilles I’ve seen must be well into double figures, and from what I remember not one has deviated from this scene, with Holmes and Watson discussing a yet-to-appear guest, deducing his character from a walking stick he left in their flat.

It’s the most famous Sherlock Holmes novel, and one of the best-known detective stories – at least by title – of all time. I recently reread Baskervilles as part of a research project and found myself, as always, amazed by how funny the writing style can be.  The humour kicks off in that opening scene, when Watson tries to apply Holmes’s methods of deduction and thinks he’s done well, only to be put in his place by a beautifully condescending Holmes. It’s sometimes hard to remember – and Arthur Conan Doyle himself didn’t believe it to be true – that Holmes is a very funny character. He’s acerbic and dismissive and it’s fun to see him put down everyone around him. I always want his deductions to be wrong but, of course, they never are.

The other thing that surprised me on this reading was how much like a golden age murder mystery Baskervilles is. It’s certainly a gothic story, replete with fog, moors on a which a man can lose his life, a house without electricity, creepy siblings, even creepier servants, and a family heritage of degeneracy. And, true, the murderer’s identity is revealed just over half-way through. But there are clues and deductions and the narrative is not finally resolved until all the loose ends have been tied up.

Doyle got the idea for The Hound of the Baskervilles on a golfing holiday in Norfolk (my home county). In the first printing of the story as a serial in the strand, he thanked ‘my friend Mr Fletcher Robinson’ for telling him about a legend in Dartmoor concerning a ghostly hound. After a few field trips with Robinson, Doyle planned and wrote his most famous work.

I probably don’t need to tell you the story, but it involves a legend surrounding Baskerville Hall in Dartmoor and the ancient Baskerville family. The legend concerns a giant, spectral dog, and the latest baronet, Sir Charles Baskerville, is said to have been scared to death by the legend. Holmes is called in when Baskerville’s doctor feels uneasy about footprints found near the body.
‘A man’s or a woman’s?’ 
[…] ‘Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!’
Holmes sends Watson to Baskerville Hall with the new baronet, Sir Henry, and a plot soon emerges – a plot concerning ‘refined, cold-blooded deliberate murder.’ There are deep-rooted family secrets to be uncovered, and it turns out that this part of the world is a hotbed of sexual impropriety. Doyle offers his readers a cynical look at heritage and a surprisingly honest take on marriage.

Formally, The Hound of the Baskervilles is like a long short story with elements of the mid-nineteenth century epistolary novel. If I was teaching a course on the development of the crime novel, I’d place this one between The Moonstone and Trent’s Last Case on the syllabus.

This hasn’t been an immensely detailed review because I am assuming that most people at least know the story. What I’ve tried to highlight are the things that excited me on the umpteenth reading. I’m sure I’ll get something else out of it on the umpteen-and-first. If you haven’t read The Hound of the Baskervilles, I would strongly recommend it – as if it needed my recommendation.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Model for Murder by Peter Campion

Who was Peter Campion? We have very little information and nobody, to my knowledge, has tried to find out. But I would bet money that Peter Campion was not Peter Campion.

Today's review concerns Campion's Model For Murder (1955). To my mind, this novel bears all the hallmarks of something written under a pseudonym. The book, touted as 'Peter Campion's first published book [bearing] the unmistakable "feel" that it has been written by a master' was published at the exact same time as Campion's only other novel, Diamonds Worth a Death or Two. That in itself should raise suspicions: clearly the author had two manuscripts ready and, clearly, the publisher felt comfortable taking a chance and publishing two books at once.

There is no blurb on this, the only edition. It simply hypes up the fact that we're reading a debut, and there is a small biographical line: 'Peter Campion is a young New Zealander at present living in London.' Note that there is no reference here to Peter Campion's sex. It's also such a vague biography that it almost seems pointless. It reminds me of the noncommittal info about Robert Galbraith on the first edition of The Cuckoo's Calling. If the publishers were so keen to promote this exciting debut novelist, surely they'd tell us a bit about them? If the author was too retiring to offer biographical insights, it would have been perfectly acceptable to leave them out altogether. No, this one-line bio has the unmistakable whiff of a red herring.

The prose itself provides further evidence that Peter Campion is not Peter Campion. This is not evidence that could be admitted in court, but one of the central characters is called Peter Barrett. Out of all the fiction I've read in any genre, I've hardly ever known an author give their own first name to a central character unless they are making a specific point. The only exception I can think of is Ian Rankin who has created, I think, two rapist/murderers called Ian.

Edit: I'm grateful to Twitter user Andrea Mullaney (@Pandrea100) for pointing out that 'Peter Campion' could be an elision of Sayers' Peter Wimsey and Allingham's Albert Campion.

My initial thought was that Peter Campion must be a mask for a reputable 'literary' novelist branching out into genre fiction because the writing is unusually good. I do not believe for one second that this author had never written or published anything before Model for Murder. It's polished, pared down, and calculated prose. The plotting is less expert. The narrative style owes a lot to 1930s American crime fiction, and the plot is a very, very well-disguised take on Agatha Christie's Murder is Easy. As I read on, I revised this opinion: my best guess is that 'Peter Campion' worked in the movies.

The setting is London in 1955. A wonderfully ahead-of-its time prologue in the present tense (like a treatment, or screen directions?) shows us a bustling street. Some women stop outside a clothes shop and look in at the lifeless wooden mannequins. And then, one of the mannequins falls forward, smashing the glass so that only 'a jagged continent' remains in the window-frame.

They look at the dummy, at the wreckage of the chair [on which it had rested]. They see that the dummy's hair is matted and tangled. How did it get like that? You know, it almost looks like... 
A woman screams.
Campion abandons the present tense at this point and we fall back into more familiar territory. It's an ambitious novel which is in equal parts a straightforward whodunit (a handful of suspects might have caused the model's death) and social commentary (the police are keen to 'scapegoat' the IRA, as this is an 'approved' response to a mounting body-count). Our two intrepid policemen, Inspector Saunders and Peter Barrett have a tendency towards pith:
'Wonderful, isn't it, [...] the number of completely different stories you can get from one set of facts.'
He had the elaborate poise of a third-rate actor.
Campion does not waste the word-count in excess verbiage. There is a nice point in chapter seven, when a woman tries to fight the effect of sleeping pills -- it brings to mind that scene in The Lady Vanishes -- and, while a lesser writer would have spent pages and pages on the process, Campion does not. The whole routine is done in eight words: 'Walk and walk again. Coffee and more coffee.'

About half-way through, in the necessary let's-put-all-the-facts-in-order scene, Peter Barrett has a revelation, sitting in a cinema and not paying attention to the film. Despite the fact that he  is 'neither listening nor watching', the author describes the film in such intense and specific detail that I am convinced this, and not fashion houses or anything else, is familiar territory.

There is a final suitably tense showdown in an office suite at night time, and the murderer is revealed. I was not hugely impressed by the way it all resolved because for such an edgy-feeling novel, the complete absence of psychology feels rather limp. The murderer's motive is 'insanity' and the police/the author leave it at that.

Model For Murder is a short and easy read. Buy a copy for yourself -- they're super-cheap, even with dustjackets (question: would an unknown author have such a wide debut distribution...?) -- and do let me know if you have any theories on the author's true identity! Perhaps I'm barking up wrong tree. Perhaps I'm barking up something altogether different.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

A Different Kind of Evil by Andrew Wilson

Last year, Andrew Wilson, biographer and author of The Lying Tongue, published his first crime novel featuring Agatha Christie as a central character, A Talent To Murder. He’s not the first to have fictionalised the author’s 1926 disappearance, and there have been some seriously zany explanations proposed. However, even the Doctor Who episode, which put the whole thing down to a giant alien wasp, stuck in familiar Christie territory — the wasp was disguised as a vicar and hanging out in a country house — so I was intrigued by Wilson’s decision to go ‘dark’ in his first Christie book. In A Talent for Murder, Christie is blackmailed by a truly evil man, and forced to commit a murder of her own… It all resolves, though, without a stain on our favourite author’s character, and the result is that she takes on a top secret role with Intelligence.

A Different Kind of Evil (2018) will be published in May. It is set a few months after the annus horribilis, with Agatha (as I shall now call her) struggling to write her next book and voyaging to Gran Canaria. She’s there at the bequest of Intelligence, to look into a mysterious death involving partial mummification. The trip really happened, although it was a straightforward holiday; she went with her secretary Carlo Fisher and her daughter Rosalind, who both appear in Wilson’s version, to get away from England in the aftermath of all the unpleasantness in December. However (back in the world of fiction), early on in the trip, Agatha witnesses a young woman jump off the SS Gelria to her watery grave. Why did she jump? And could this mystery somehow be connected to the partially-mummified corpse?

Agatha teams up with Mr Davison, who was also her mentor in the last book, and discovers that the case has a personal connection to him. As she digs deeper, she learns about a tangled web of unrequited passions, incest, and, and black magic. Agatha’s experience of poison helps her out more than a little, and she draws on her mother’s interest in the supernatural to enter an isolated gothic world.

The mystery itself is complex. I worked out about half of the solution, so I’m happy with that. There was one element which I wasn’t sure about; which I felt could have been explained a bit more, but overall it was a satisfying read. Wilson’s Agatha Christie is not the real Agatha Christie. She can’t be. For one thing, I doubt that the real writer would ever have gathered together the suspects and explained the solution to the case — she was painfully shy — and, much as it pains me to say, she was much too conservative to have had a gay best friend. However, that doesn’t matter.

Inevitably, I want to compare Wilson’s Agatha Christie to Josephine Tey in the books by Nicola Upson. Both women were extremely reticent and didn’t like talking about their private lives. As a result, we tend to create both of these people in whatever image suits us best: a popular one for Christie is the Kindly Grandmother. This is something Wilson does not descend to; he simply makes her a nice, shy person who can’t really offend anyone, and that’s smart. Upson does something similar with Tey, although her Josephine ends up so drastically unlike the real Elizabeth MacKintosh that one wonders why she didn’t just give her a new name. Wilson’s Agatha is grounded in research. Not only do her memories, experiences, and friends line up with history, but so too do her interests and attitudes. For instance, her childhood love of music and her tastes in drink (a cup of cream when other people drank alcohol, if you’re interested) are all woven into the characterisation.

I like the fact that Wilson is making Agatha’s shyness the impetus for investigation — because underneath shyness are two things: a cynicism that sees social life as a performance, and a desperate desire to get involved in the play. I understand that, Agatha Christie understood it, and Wilson gets it, too. It’s nice to be reunited some of the people we met in A Talent For Murder, and to get to know them a little better. There’s also an interesting mystery, with more than a few nods to stories and novels Christie would go on to write, including ‘The Man from the Sea’ and, most conspicuously, Death on the Nile. The literary style, the plotting, and the execution of ideas are not in Christie’s ballpark; this is a different kind of mystery.

The novel is, finally, eminently readable. It’s a page-turner. The prose isn’t sparkling but it does draw you in. I read A Different Kind of Evil in three 130-page-sittings, and look forward to the next one.

Source: Advance review copy from the author

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Murder on the Second Floor by Frank Vosper

Most Agatha Christie fans know of Frank Vosper (1899-1937) as the colourful character who adapted 'Philomel Cottage' into the Suspicion-esque play, and later movie(s), Love From a Stranger (from an original draft by Christie herself, which not many people know). Really, really keen Agatha Christie fans know that his sister Margery adapted the story 'Accident' as a one-act play, Tea for Three, in the 1930s. But did you know that he also wrote several detective stories and a novel?

Murder on the Second Floor (1929) was probably Vosper's most successful play before  Love From a Stranger. It ran in London and on Broadway and has been filmed a few times, although I've not seen any of these. What I do have is Vosper's own novelisation of the play. I'm not sure when it was published, but the edition I have, from the Daily Express Fiction Library, must have been printed in 1938 because it refers to the author's sad death the previous year. He fell from an ocean liner, the SS Paris, although the foreword in my edition identifies this as the SS Normandie. As Martin Edwards points out on his own recent post on this novel (pure coincidence, I promise!), he talks about Vosper's death in The Golden Age of Murder.

This is a short novel, at 190 small pages with very large text. I opened it up, not knowing what to expect (in fact, I had thought I was buying the play script). The opening paragraph is promising enough:
Meet Sylvia Armitage. She is the heroine of this story. Sylvia is not reclining gracefully in a hammock, attired in a simple gown of flowered muslin, beneath a cherry-laden tree in a quaint, old-world garden. Neither is she sitting on a table, swinging her long, slim, graceful legs, with a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in a long holder in the other, saying shocking things about biological urges to a horrified aunt. She is not even in a notorious night-club in New York, standing on a table attired in less than half a bathing-dress, with a gentleman's silk hat at a rakish angle on her wicked little head, drinking her own health -- in such liberal potations as must seriously impair it -- surrounded by fifty intoxicated lovers in paper hats, carrying a dozen balloons apiece. No; at the risk of opening our story in a drab and disappointing manner, the truth must be told. Sylvia Armitage is washing-up.
Aha! I thought. Here we have an errant wit. Alas, the paragraph continues, and Vosper so thoroughly milks this clever device that one wonders if the whole idea is to bolster the word count. I'd guess this was a promotional tie-in for the 1932 movie, and such hastily written 'novels' were -- and remain -- a popular gimmick.

Soon, we are introduced to other characters including a suspicious Indian student who may or may not be a dope smuggler and a maid with 'an inferiority complex' who speaks more impossibly like a maid than any maid in the history of ever. This Lucy 'knew her place [...] and her place, poor little soul, seemed such a dull, obscure sort of place as scarcely to be worth knowing at all.' You get the idea.

Sylvia's love interest takes the form of a 'high-brow' playwright, Hugh, who 'looks down on' other people, especially the authors of thrillers. This snobbery dissolves when, at some point during the action, Hugh resolves to write a low-brow murder mystery play.

Once we've got to know these characters, we are introduced to some sinister goings on, involving affairs, an unwanted pregnancy, and drug smuggling, and before long the man at the centre of the whole thing is murdered.  With appropriate comic interludes, the body count mounts, and then a final double-twist makes us see the whole thing in a new, lighter light.

I wasn't sure the comedy or the tension work as well with Vosper's slapdash prose style as I'm sure they do on the stage. Notwithstanding occasional flowery passages, Vosper seems to have taken a similar approach to novelising his own script as Charles Osborne took when he turned three Christie plays into novels. That is to say, he's put the dialogue in speech marks and the stage directions into the past tense and sat back, thinking 'job done'. Job not done. One scene in which a suspect returns from church surreptitiously, trying not to be seen because she has forgotten her false teeth, must be riotous acted out. In prose, it's just bizarre.

There is also a moment quite early on when Vosper tries -- and, to my mind, manifestly, hilariously, fails -- to make a poignant and emotional point out of a rendition of the song 'How do you feel when you marry your ideal?' (you know, the one with the chorus of 'Ever so goosey, goosey, goosey, gooooosey.') 'How does one feel when one marries one's ideal?' Sylvia sighs, wistfully. 'Does he exist. Now if  only Hugh...' Similarly entertaining is the description of the corpse, with more melodrama than a day with my family.  The blood spurts from the victim's neck 'like finest threads of hardened sealing-wax, or the "feelers" of a lobster.'

To solve the mystery -- something I forgot to attempt -- just look for the least likely suspect and you can't go wrong. At the end of the novel, for various reasons I shan't go into here, everyone agrees that the story would make a marvellous play.

Maybe it would. Maybe it did. It did not, however, make a marvellous novel. That said, I'm delighted to have come across this and I got a great deal of pleasure from reading it. Just not the kind of pleasure the author intended.