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Monday, 27 August 2018

Mini reviews #19

Poirot Investigates (1924) by Agatha Christie. It's been said that Arthur Conan Doyle should have stuck to writing short stories and Agatha Christie should have stuck to novels. The mysteries are too complex, people claim, to work in a 4,000 word format. Maybe. This was Christie's first collection of stories, originally published in the trendy Sketch magazine and featuring Hercule Poirot, who was becoming a household name. Poirot's on top form here, and the faithful Captain Hastings is wonderfully idiotic. Christie is still trying to write like Doyle, which can be grating. But 'The Mystery of Hunter's lodge' is melodramatic and keyed in, satirically, to debates around psychoanalysis. 'The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb' is full of entrancing period detail.

Raffles' Crime in Gibraltar (1936) by Barry Perowne. Perrowne, a pseudonym for Philip Atkey, was appointed by the estate of E.W. Hornung to write new novels and stories featuring gentleman thief A.J. Raffles. This is one of his two novels pitting Raffles against the ever-popular poor man's Sherlock Holmes, Sexton Blake. Raffles' Crime in Gibraltar is par-for-the course pulp. It's enjoyable enough, with obvious padding in places... and cigarettes are lit whenever dialogue needs breaking up. Full of sinister foreigners and implausible chases, it is forgettable. As it was designed to be.

Endless Night (1967) by Agatha Christie. A masterpiece. A psychological thriller, a literary novel, and everything they say she couldn't write. It's hard to believe Christie was 77 when Endless Night came out. Slap a random name on the cover, change a few details, and release it to day: it would become an instant bestseller and then a classic in its own right.

Monk's Hood (1980) by Ellis Peters. 'It was now imperative to find the murderer, otherwise the boy could not emerge from hiding and take up his disrupted life.' The third Brother Cadfael novel features a mysterious poisoning. Try as I might, I cannot get into these books. The writing style fails to engage me, although I have enjoyed some of Peters' short stories, historical or otherwise. However, I shan't be giving Cadfael another chance any time soon.

The Actor's Guide to Murder (2003) by Rick Copp. A mostly fun, campy crime novel about a former child star in Hollywood and his police detective boyfriend solving another former child star's murder. They are put onto the case by the main character's personal psychic warning that someone close to him will die. Reading it, I developed two theories as to whodunit: one was based on logic and the other on the least-likely-suspect theory. The latter was correct. The solution tries to veer into social commentary which is, perhaps, a mistake, as the author is not as informed on the issues as the glamorous setting. Also, a reference to 'an Agatha Christie pot-boiler' irritated me! But I plan to read the second in the series, The Actor's Guide to Adultery.

Saturday, 25 August 2018

A Suspension of Mercy by Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith (1921-95) would not like being featured on this blog, as she strongly resented the label 'crime writer', and, if we interpret crime fiction and detective fiction as roughly synonymous (as Highsmith Certainly did), A Suspension of Mercy (1965) is an anti-crime novel. While the central character, Sydney Bartleby, is responsible for three deaths, only the third is actually a murder, and it's the only one of the deaths for which the authorities don't investigate him. A fantastically tense and unsettling read,   A Suspension of Mercy is Highsmith at her lucid, cynical, and misanthropic best.

The tagline on my paperback edition -- 'Who hasn't imagined killing his wife?' -- cannot fail to draw you in. The fact that the image on the cover shows a woman's legs in a rolled up rug only piqued my curiosity; just the other week, my own spouse returned home with an unexplained new rug. It's also set in Suffolk, the English county where Highsmith lived for a while and where I currently live. So, yeah.

Sydney is a struggling writer, unhappily married to Alicia and more fulfilled by his creative partnership with a young man, Alex. While he struggles with creative block -- or, with channeling his creative vision to fit commercial demands for clear plot and structure -- Sydney spends every spare moment fantasising about murdering Alicia. He has it all planned out: the push down the stairs, the disposal of the body, and the cover story. One day, Alicia disappears without a satisfactory explanation, and Sydney sees his private fantasies playing out in the minds of everyone he meets.

One big theme throughout the novel is the problem of trying to narrate and give shape to real life. It doesn't fit. Sydney is proposing a new television series about an antihero called The Whip, who is more AJ Raffles than Tom Ripley. The Whip robs, maims, and kills, but in the service of justice. However, network after network rejects it, repeating that there is too much unfettered immorality on TV and that what the stories really need is a crime-solving detective hero. As Highsmith points out, in various voices, crime-solving heroes are ten-a-penny and real antiheroes are hard to come by.

As Sydney finds his imagined life becoming a reality without his direct agency, his writing takes off and -- although he never realises it -- he starts to sell out; to write in market-ready stencils.  At the end, with fame, riches, and no wife, he's able to separate his work from his unfettered and partway realised fantasies. As the novel concludes, 'everything [i]s a matter of attitudes.'

There is nothing I dislike about this book, and if you haven't read any Highsmith, I'd recommend it as an excellent introduction to her twisted, unique, and vital prose.

Saturday, 18 August 2018

Mini reviews #18

The Allegations (2016) by Mark Lawson. Lawson’s novel provides an inevitable response to what the author considers the age of trial-by-public opinion. It’s exactly what you’d expect, and, if you agree philosophically with Lawson, you’ll probably enjoy it. He is a satirist for those who don’t wish to challenge the status quo. They might as well have one.

Fallet (STV, 2017). This 8-part Swedish television is the inevitable parody of Nordic Noir, and, while there are some missed opportunities, the overall result is inspired. An incompetent Swedish detective, the tortured, introspect Sophie Borg (Lisa Henni) teams up with an even more incompetent English policeman, the overly polite and reticent DCI Tom Brown (Adam Godley) to solve a ritualised and apparently religious murder with links in their own disparate pasts. There are a great many English and Swedish puns (some of which I certainly didn’t get, as my Swedish is poor), in the title sequence and throughout – the police chief is called Klas Wall, for instance, and a chunk of the plot is spent chasing around after a product called McGuffin. There’s also a great set of characters, my favourite of which is a dark, death-obsessed forensic scientist from Finland. A strong supporting cast includes Dag Malmberg of The Bridge fame. I hope there will be another series; I know that the Americans are planning to remake it although I can’t imagine that will end well. ‘Fallet’, by the way, means ‘The Case’. Which is perfect.

100 Greatest Literary Detectives (2018) edited by Eric Sandberg. I was thrilled to contribute to this volume, the title of which is pretty self-explanatory, and can’t do better than linking to fellow contributor (and superior blogger) Kate Jackson’s review. 

The Death of Mrs Westaway (2018) by Ruth Ware. Ruth Ware evokes Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier in this excellent fourth novel, proving herself the heir to both. The plot concerns an unscrupulous tarot-card reader who comes into an unexpected inheritance – unexpected because it seems to have been meant for someone else. The Westaway family at the heart of this novel is full of secrets and dilemmas, unravelling as quickly as one turns the pages. A highly recommended mystery thriller.

Social Creatureby Tara Isabella Burton (2018). Marketed as ‘[t]he missing link between Bret Easton Ellis and The Secret History’ (Emma Flint) and ‘[a] Ripley story for the Instagram age’, the influences on Burton’s debut are plain for all to see. The plotting is highly indebted to Patricia Highsmith, the characterisation to Bret Easton Ellis, and the graceful unfurling of the story to Donna Tartt. There’s also a very deliberate Gatsby vibe. Take four pastiches and mix in a truly unique social media-influenced type of language (everything is ‘so’ something and/or introduced with ‘Here’s the thing’) and you have Social Creature. It’s very good (but not original enough to be great), and it sticks with you. The central character is excellent. I can imagine this being filmed. I have no idea what the author will do for her second novel, because she can’t really repeat the tone here. But, as a debut, Social Creatureis hugely promising.