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Saturday, 26 January 2019

Mini reviews #24

Northanger Abbey (1817) by Jane Austen. Arguably the first metatextual detective novel, Austen’s witty satire is ostensibly a romance story centred on the young, headstrong Catherine Morland, whose ‘unimproving’ appetite for gothic adventure novels (specifically Udolpho) leads her to view her suitor’s family with intense and amusing suspicion. Most of the ingredients of playful twentieth century crime fiction are pre-empted here, and I’d hold Northanger Abbey, rather than Emma, up as Austen’s work-of-greatest-influence on the mystery genre. Remarkably, it was also her first completed novel, although it was published after her death.

Grey Mask (1928) by Patricia Wentworth. A super-fun mystery introducing the elderly spinster PI Maud Silver, although she barely appears in this one. The plot is beautifully far-fetched and entertainingly told, centring around  troubled bright young things stumbling onto a conspiracy of masked men and women who are trying to manipulate inheritance law. Not for the last time, Wentworth manages to pre-empt Agatha Christie’s next plot (in this case, that of 1929’s The Seven Dials Mystery) remarkably.

Rough Justice (2016) by Adam Croft. This short novel is fast-paced with enough hooks and pithy cynicism to keep you hooked. It will appeal to fans of modern crime thrillers without alienating traditionalists who value engaging plots.

Shedunnit (2018-present) hosted by Caroline Crampton. This exciting feminist podcast focusses on key issues in Golden Age crime fiction. Every other week, Crampton is joined by experts to discuss such matters as the Thompson-Bywaters case, the role of food, and queer codes and characters. If you find yourself with half an hour to spare, check it out. If you don’t find yourself with half an hour to spare, try to make the time, because it’s very, very worth it.

The Bible in Crime Fiction and Drama: Murderous Texts (2019) edited by Caroline Blythe and Alison Jack. I’m thrilled and humbled to have a chapter on Agatha Christie’s later fiction in this stunning volume from T&T Clark. Considering the little-discussed but widely-acknowledged links between crime fiction and the Bible, Blythe’s and Jack’s edited collection features a whole range of essays from across biblical and literary studies. An essential volume for anyone interested in the interplay between popular fiction and religion.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

The Double Snare by Rosemary Harris

Rosemary Harris, now in her nineties, is not a particularly well-known name any more but, once upon a time, she was a popular and prolific writer for children. In a reversal of the familiar pattern trod by Gladys Mitchell, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, and others, she earned her bread with children’s literature and also wrote crime novels. Specifically, she wrote a handful of psychological thrillers.

I came across The Double Snare (1974) on a charity book shelf in a high street shop and picked it up because it looked interesting. That night, I dipped in and stayed up until 6AM, when I’d turned the final page. That’s not to say that this is a particularly gripping novel; it probably says more about my current state of mind —  this is my version of late-night Netflix bingeing.

The novel is narrated by a twenty year-old woman with amnesia. Following a car crash, our heroine - named Maria by the nurses in her Italian hospital - wakes up with no memory of who or where she is. All she has is a showy handbag, a raggedy dress, and the memory of a single name: Robert. Before long, a wealthy Italian family claims her as their wayward daughter Guilia, and she is taken away to live with them. However, when Guilia’s secret boyfriend throws stones at her bedroom window, it becomes clear that she is not who they say she is.

A complex plot unfolds involving the theatre, free love, drugs, art theft and forgery, smuggling, and Shakespeare. Lots and lots of Shakespeare. Naming herself Silvia (‘Who is Silvia, what is she?’, geddit?), our heroine hitches around Italy until she runs into someone who recognises her, and then things get more complex and dangerous.

The Double Snare is told in the first person present tense, making it surprisingly contemporary and fresh-feeling. I don’t know why I spent the last pound in my pocket on this book, why I went on to devour it when my TBR pile is almost sky-high, or why I thought staying up til six would be a good idea when I had a 9AM appointment, but I don’t regret it. This is a diverting psychological thriller and it will stay with me in a low-level way.