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Archive for the ‘Crime/Detective’ Category

I’m usually quite thrilled by detective novels set in academia. Something about dons and scholars and professors bumping each other off and stealing each other’s work and nursing grudges against each other, while holding forth on philosophy, literature, social sciences, and so on, pleases me to my bloodthirsty, pretentious core. A hit is a very palpable hit (witness my intense love for Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night); a miss, like this novel by Nicholas Blake, makes me downright gloomy.

To be fair, it has quite a serviceable plot. Blake’s detective, Nigel Strangeways, is staying at Cabot University near Boston (a thinly disguised Harvard), where he has become acquainted with the Ahlberg brothers, Chester of the business school, Mark of English literature, and Josiah of classics; Charles Reilly, an Irish poet; and Sukie Tate, Mark’s student and fiancée. Then, Josiah disappears and Strangeways ends up investigating his murder, assisting the police. Josiah wasn’t well-liked, not even by his brothers, so there are several suspects, including Sukie’s brother John, who was forced to drop his classical studies for a year after accusing Josiah of stealing his work. But something just doesn’t work for Blake here; everything seems tired and bit hackneyed, none of the characters are engaging, and the conversation is truly dull. Eventually, after Strangeways enjoys a strange gratuitous sexual interlude that comes completely out of left field, the book climaxes in an ill-advised chase and attack scene that fails to be at all exciting. But you know, by then, I honestly didn’t care. Very disappointing. I’m hoping that this one was a poor piece of work only because it was one of the last two Blake wrote.

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Another Ruth Rendell beach read from last week, and it was a very good one. This sees Inspector Wexford on his home ground in Kingsmarkham, where Sergeant Caleb Martin is shot dead during a bank robbery. Then, six months later, a ghastly tragedy unfolds — at isolated Tancred House, home of novelist Davina Flory,  five bullets murder Flory, her husband, and her daughter, spilling blood everywhere. Only Daisy, Davina’s 17-year-old grand-daughter, survives injured, but her memories of the massacre are far from clear. Wexford is convinced that the two cases are linked, but how could they possibly be? And as he tries to get to the bottom of the Tancred House massacre, he finds himself also trying to cope with estrangement from his beloved daughter, Sheila; he disapproves of her engagement to pompous novelist Augustine Casey and this angers her.

There are a large number of characters and Rendell, as usual, throws us a few red herrings, though it must be admitted that after a point, these are weak and transparent. This wasn’t, in all honesty, a difficult murderer to guess; I had part of the solution figured out fairly soon. But it is, in terms of psychologically believable character behaviour, a very fine book. Rendell sets up a world in which a particular sort of morality prevails, motivating her characters to act the way they do. This is verging on a sort of social commentary, though to say that would be to agree that Rendell’s dark vision is our reality; I’m not convinced it is, though it is a plausible organic whole. Particularly fascinating is the insight into Wexford’s own family relationships, as we are reminded that even policemen, who must objectively enforce the law, are not free of their own particular quirks and biases.

Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter‘s prose creates an appropriately brooding, creepy atmosphere around Tancred House, mostly because of Rendell’s descriptions of the thick woods that form part of the estate. The woods and their trees are with us right through the book, mute witnesses to much of importance in this tale, their shadows perhaps inspiring much of it. Rendell is, in some sense, indicting the society she’s created, and it’s not pleasant to watch as it reveals itself deserving of that indictment. Reading this, I was terribly, terribly chilled.

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I must admit it; I’m madly envious of Ruth Rendell. Not because she’s a best-selling and critically acclaimed author, not because she’s a Member of Parliament, not even because she’s a good buddy of P.D. James. My envy is rather directed at one of her skills as a writer; I just wish I could come up with great titles the way she does. This is one talent I most definitely lack; witness my boring “booktitle-author” post headings here. Rendell, on the other hand — I haven’t read much of her work and was not overly thrilled by what I did, but there is no doubt that if ever there was an author whose very titles dragged you into their world and intrigued the pants off you, it is her. The Copper Peacocks, Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter, A Guilty Thing Surprised, A New Lease of Death, Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, and my favourite, Shake Hands Forever, from the lovely poem by Drayton — they’ve all got irresistable titles. I love the aforementioned P. D. James, but I’m afraid nobody could ever say that The Black Tower or Original Sin had inspired titles.

Of course, all of this is just leading up to saying that The Speaker of Mandarin has a marvellous title. Which isn’t to say it isn’t a good book, but this particular good book definitely begins with its title — exotic and strange and demanding you pull it off the shelf. As it does suggest, this is a book with a Chinese connection. Rendell’s detective, Inspector Reg Wexford, starts out the book  touring parts of China along with a persistent local guide, and, during the tour, encounters a large tour group of people who have spent six weeks crossing Eurasia by rail. Definitely cause for some stress, even for train-lovers. Things aren’t going that well; Wexford is being followed round by a mysterious old Chinese woman with bound feet, and then, on a river cruise, one of the local men on the boat falls overboard and drowns. Still, it’s not until some months later, and back in Britain, that murder comes into the picture — one of the people on the tour is shot in the head, and Wexford is in charge of the police investigation.

I may not be very fond of Rendell’s psychological thrillers, acclaimed as they are, but I do like her detective stories, and this one manifests some of her best skills. She’s adept at working with plots that hinge on coincidental connections and intuitive unravelling of them and does a truly excellent job of throwing in an appropriate red herring at just the right time. I’m not entirely sure Rendell plays fair on giving us enough information to figure out the solution, but she does give us enough to tantalize and keep us guessing. It’s a clever plot for certain, not an easy one to get to the bottom of.

This is a book that starts out slowly and needs some patience, with Wexford wandering through China, before going on to the core murder investigation. But, not only is China very important to the plot, Rendell also does a fine job of evoking the tourist experience of a strange country. Half of the time Wexford spent in China, I desperately wanted to travel there; the rest of the time, I decided it was just too odd! In the end, it turned out that more hinged on that title phrase than I could have imagined.

It’s testimony enough to Rendell’s skills at play in the Wexford novels to say that after reading this, I decided I had to get hold of some of the others in the series. However, I also decided I didn’t want to get into drinking green tea. Puzzled? Read the book. I’m not telling.

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Cover of 'Swan Song'Well, well, well. So what do you say to a detective novel in which, in response to a telegram saying that his brother has been found dead, a character says “DELIGHTED HOPING FOR THIS FOR MONTHS SUICIDE EH QUERY DONT BOTHER ME NOW CHARLES SHORTHOUSE”? The telegram reply is mad, quite mad; so is the character that sends it; and so, you might think, the man who invented this, Edmund Crispin. Mad, and deliciously so.

And this book is a bit of delicious madness. Crispin’s forte tends to be sheer farce, laced with wicked, clever witticisms and obscure literary allusions. His characters are extremes, for the greater part–extreme eccentrics, extreme geniuses, extreme philosophers, extreme all sorts of things–and this larger-than-life scale on which they operate often results in hilarity.  Gervase Fen, Crispin’s English professor of English Lit. and detective, is rather reminiscent, in approach, of the very silly Lord Peter Wimsey of Dorothy Sayers’ Whose Body, but, if anything, Fen is actually nutty where Wimsey seemed to affect nuttiness (and other novels in which  Wimsey features show us that the silliness masks a troubled mind). To Fen, a nice murder is a puzzle to be solved—there are no moral concerns here. He  seems, in fact, determined to enjoy himself as much as possible, even to the point of indulging in some completely off-kilter deception to get things done and to get information he wants. And of course, Crispin permits such deception for the purpose not of showing anyone what a genius at disguise Fen is—he decidedly isn’t, since he doesn’t bother with it—but simply because the result is good-natured, rollicking comedy.

In this case, Fen is called in to investigate the mysterious death of Edwin Shorthouse, a much-disliked opera singer.  We are in Oxford, where rehearsals are on for the first post-war production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. Shorthouse has been found, hanged, in his dressing room, with the door locked. Suicide, eh? That’s what his brother says in the telegram quoted above. As it turns out, this is not suicide, but murder—but how do you murder somebody by hanging in a closed room, with a witness around to testify that nobody entered or left at the time of death? Somebody from among the opera’s cast and production members has been clever enough to do so, and it is Fen’s job to find out whodunit and how.

Suffice it to say that, as well as being a grand comic turn of a book, this is also a deviously plotted one. The investigation is complicated and the identity of the murderer a genuine surprise. It has the signature Crispin (and also John Dickson Carr) flaw of being a little too elaborate to be soved so neatly, but no matter; as it is for Fen, it is supposed to be a puzzle. Right through, Crispin treats us to pithy observations on each of the characters, on Wagner, on singers in general, on composers, and on whatever catches his fancy, really. The only false note is struck, I find, at a point when there is another death and tremendous sorrow for one of the characters. The black-comedic tone doesn’t wear very well all the time. It is murder and death and extreme hatred that we’re dealing with, after all; at times, a certain gravity we feel robs us of any enjoyment.

Still, I forgive a lot for the moment in the book when a little man says, reproachfully, to somebody just rescued from  an apparent suicide attempt: “Think of the nice birds, and the nice trees, and the nice bloody atom bombs, and all the things what make life worth living.” Now that is, most certainly, a worthy sentiment. But give me a nice bird and a nice tree and a nice bloody Edmund Crispin, and keep the atom bomb, dear sir.

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Cover of 'The Case of the Late Pig'Most of the novels that feature Margery Allingham’s detective, the mild-mannered, harmless-looking Albert Campion, feature him in the third person. This one departs most drastically from that custom; it is, I think, the only one of the Campion novels in which Campion himself is permitted to tell the story. And a fine, funny story it is too, because of his amused, tongue-in-cheek view of the mayhem around him; Allingham really should have given him the pen more often.

The plot centres on Campion in the village of Kepesake, where the much-disliked “Pig” Peters has been found dead, brained with a flower-pot pushed off the terrace of a country house. This is enough of a mystery for any detective, but Campion has something rather more complicated on his hands–he knows he’s been to Peters’ funeral five months previously, in which case, whose body is this one anyway? And what on earth does the strange anonymous letter that took Campion to Peters’ funeral mean?

Campion sails through the action with a voice that deftly treads a fine line between P. G. Wodehouse and all of the best proponents of the country house mystery, Allingham definitely among them, while the action and characters also hover between these two regions of literary imagination. There’s a lovelorn vicar, a slicked-down man of the City who’s also Campion’s junior at school, the deceased’s rather impulsive inamorata, whose pretence of familiarity with Campion manages to rub his own favourite girl in the story entirely the wrong way, and, of course, the stupendous, completely irrepressible Lugg, Campion’s “man,” who is (consciously, I think) presented as a contrast to Wodehouse’s impeccable Jeeves and, indeed, anyone’s idea of a butler or valet. Where we’re accustomed to Allingham’s dry wit and more literary prose, we have Campion’s sense of the absurd and a flippant, rather whimsical way of putting things. This is earlier “silly” Campion (as opposed to later Campion, who is a much more nuanced character) at his most charming. It works, and how. It may not be Allingham’s longest mystery—this can, at best, be called a novella—but it certainly is one of her most enjoyable.

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Sometimes a book cover can really draw you in. I know my Ngaio Marsh–when I read something by her, I expect the urbane gentleman-policeman Roderick Alleyn, his artist wife Troy (if I’m lucky) and a bit of insight into how she works, Fox, his assistant, maybe an excellently drawn setting in the theatre world (nobody does that quite like Marsh), maybe a dab of New Zealand, maybe an English country house, and, of course, a murder or two for Alleyn to solve … it’s a set of fairly predictable elements. Which is why this cover was so dramatic– “the cat with eyne of burning coal” staring out… it’s almost hypnotic. And it hints at a theme or a setting not typically Ngaio. I grabbed the book.

And it did deliver on the cover’s promise.  An assassination takes place at a party at the Ng’ombwanan embassy in London—the lights go out, a woman screams, and when they come up again, our host, the Ambassador from Ng’ombwana (a fictional African country), is found dead in the middle of the Ng’ombwanan president’s pavilion, with a ceremonial spear sticking out of his back. It’s a complex investigation for Alleyn, not least because the president, his old school chum, also known as “the Boomer”, is determined to get the wheels of Ng’ombwanan justice moving, alongside and in fact overtaking those of British justice. How could a policeman tell a head of state that a tribal court would be a nuisance?

But ultimately, neither Alleyn nor the Boomer get to the first major clue. This is where one — oh, actually, two — of Marsh’s most endearing creations come in. Around the corner from the embassy lives the retired diplomat, Mr. Whipplestone, and his little stray cat, Lucy Lockett. And it’s Lucy who really kickstarts this investigation…

Mind you, it’s  not Marsh’s most finely plotted or characterized novel–it actually feels a bit slapdash. But both Mr. Whipplestone and Lucy are irresistable. Marsh lets us watch as Mr. Whipplestone, recently retired, strolls into a street, falls in love with a cottage, and impulsively decides to buy it; and then, again, as he repeatedly encounters a half-starved stray cat and decides that she will share his new home. It’s very cosy, almost twee, and yet, rather touching–it takes a real love of cats to write about human and animal bonding the way Marsh has here, even if she’s done it with a sense of amusement.

I loved, also, the Boomer. Oh, how he booms. He’s a madly memorable character, and Marsh does him the honour of having her artistic genius Troy wish to paint him and get the chance to, because the Boomer also wishes to be painted by her. And yet, he’s not entirely benign; old school chum he may be, but there’s a sense of enormous authority that he carries on every page. He both is and isn’t a caricature; he slips out of the African leader in the west mould in subtle ways, and you can see him as a human being as well as a symbol, albeit a human being rather larger than life.

Marsh, unlike Agatha Christie, is not overtly racist. Where Christie allowed favoured characters to subscribe to and express negative stereotypes about other races and nationalities, Marsh is actually very careful to make her Alleyn and Troy comfortable with the black characters. They acknowledge difference, they’re to some extent fascinated by it, but they’re able to look beyond it too. Racism is, in fact, a major plot point. It’s a different sort of tension in this Marsh—and an exciting one. This is, ultimately, uneven and Marsh doesn’t quite succeed in tying everything together neatly. But, if nothing else, I now do want a cat.

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Cover of 'The Devil's Novice' I have grumbled a bit about Ellis Peters recently and said that I am not sure why I bother reading her novels. Yesterday told me why. It’s because they’re not taxing. You don’t have to think too much. You could fall off to sleep somewhere and still continue reading. Perfect for reading when feeling under the weather, as I was.

That said, though this was an easy read, it is a more impressive outing than The Heretic’s Apprentice. The mystery centres on the connection between Brother Meriet, a new entrant to the monastery, who is deeply troubled by nightmares, and the disappearance of Peter Clemence, a cleric with friends in high places. One gripe is that it was too easy to figure out why Clemence had disappeared; Peters’ red herrings didn’t work on me. But who had done it and exactly how Meriet came into the picture–that was deviously plotted. And a nicely delineated prime suspect; Brother Meriet is given at least a tint of grey and allowed some interesting interaction with the other monks. A stimulating and simultaneously relaxing mystery–the freshly scrubbed cleanliness of Peters’ medieval world is a little more open to sullying than it normally is in her books.

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