Archive for British – Page 3

Tana French: The Secret Place & Josephine Tey: Miss Pym Disposes

thesecretplaceBoth Tana French and Josephine Tey have books that are among my favorites as well as books I can’t slog my way through (confession: I can’t read Tey’s The Singing Sands).  I love Tana French’s Broken Harbor so much it’s one of my favorite contemporary mysteries; but there are other times when her books are a tad too long and a tad too over determined.  This is one of those times.

French’s prose skills are among the most beautiful of all contemporary mystery writers.  She catches an atmosphere, she has an ability to make you feel a place in your bones, like no other writer.  That’s no small skill, and in her new book the place she is out to capture is a Catholic girl’s school in Ireland.  French has always been interested in the otherworldly nature of the woods, or the forest, the ones that you might encounter in a fairy tale.  The woods in fairy tales may hold enchantment or danger; in this novel, the woods surround the school and supply both elements.

As Detective Stephen Moran arrives on the campus of St. Kilda’s all he can say is “it’s beautiful.”  But as with all beautiful places there’s another side, and Moran is there to see if he can catch a ride on the murder squad after he hands over a clue to the lead detective, Antoinette Conway, on a year old case, the murder of a boarding school boy on St. Kilda’s campus.  The detectives, working class, are the outsiders among the privileged girls who board there.  One of them, the one who has brought Moran his clue, is a boarder whose father is a detective, higher ranked than both Moran and Conway.  Treading lightly is on their minds; to them the school is a beautiful minefield.

What French is very, very good at is explicating relationships.  She’s like a writing microscope, examining her subjects delicately and completely,  So her portrayal of two sets of friends – Julia, Holly, Selena and Becca – and their counterpart, “mean girl” set headed by the dastardly Joanna, is the best thing about this novel.  Holly is the detective’s daughter and it’s she who has brought Stephen the clue, a photo of the dead boy with cut out letters saying “I know who killed him.”  Thus, Holly is also the one who brings intruders into their particular Eden.

As a graduate of a girl’s boarding school myself I can attest that the friendships I made there were the most intense of my life, friendships that have now become lifelong. It’s an intense time and that may be what makes the bonds so strong.  Even today, more than 30 years on (almost 40 now) at class reunions we all feel as though we met up five minutes ago.  The relationships still hold, though now changed by time and the events of long lives.  French has that part of her story absolutely right.

French’s concern is the moment when the girls realize that their friendships are about to change, even end, as they prepare to graduate from school and enter the big, real world.  Delicately, she goes back in time to when the murder victim, Chris Harper, was still alive and traces his connections to the girls in the story forward, interspersing her backward look with the questioning of the Detectives, who are eager to solve a high profile case but are often flummoxed by the girls who are misleading, who lie, and whose loyalty is mostly to one another.

That’s all well and good.  Her portrait is absolutely complete, to the point where she made me wonder why I kept reading and why the book was so, so long.  As with many of her novels I felt it could have benefitted by trimming a hundred or more pages.  And while she’s writing a novel that involves police and let’s face it, a brutal and baffling murder, she often lets go of her actual plot to meander through the girls’ psyches.  And their psyches are the point but I felt the balance was off, and I didn’t completely buy her resolution.

Miss-Pym-DisposesTey’s examination, in Miss Pym, of a girl’s school is also intense and memorable but told in a much briefer space.  Perhaps it’s the difference between the efficient Scot – Tey – and the romantic Irish woman – French.  In any case, while the reasons for the behavior of the girls are similar, Tey gets to it much faster.  She says a lot in a sentence as brief and to the point as “The only difference was that Desterro saw the insult, and Beau the injury.”  And Tey, with her conciseness, actually makes the crime, when it occurs, very shocking.  I’m even shocked on a re-read, and I’ve read Miss Pym five or six times.  French belabors her crime in a way, making it almost a part of the landscape and therefore without as much impact to the reader.

Can a mystery be “literary”?  Absolutely, and French has worn this appellation since the publication of her first novel, because of her spectacular prose and characterization.  In that way they are literary.  But she is also writing a mystery; in this novel, the plot goes a bit by the wayside, but more importantly, the emotional “truth” at the heart of her crime isn’t quite right.  In Tey’s novel, maybe it’s not authentic, but it feels right in relation to the story, and moreover, the ending of Pym still makes me think.  Tey leaves space between her words for the reader to consider, to figure things out; French leaves no such space, and it’s a little exhausting.

Michael Robertson: The Baker Street Translation

baker-street-translationThis charming book is one of those told by a natural storyteller. Someone who just plain wants to tell you a story – other examples of this art form would be Donald E. Westlake, Lawrence Block, Michael Bond, and Elizabeth Peters. Robertson has no agenda other than giving your brain a nice workout as you figure out the puzzle along with his characters and relating a good yarn. Success on all fronts, as far as I’m concerned.

This is the third in Robertson’s series of Holmes embroideries set in the late 90’s. I can’t call this a pastiche, really, as only Sherlock’s address and letters to him are part of the equation, though the cases are solved by good old deductive reasoning. The central characters are Nigel and Reggie Heath, whose law firm happens to occupy 221B Baker Street. Letters addressed to Sherlock Holmes are delivered there, and a condition of Reggie’s lease is that he answer them.

In this installment, Nigel is in America trying to pass the U.S. Bar exam, and Reggie is home in London. Sherlock’s letters are forwarded to Nigel to be answered. While Robertson introduces all the threads of his story in the first few chapters, the one that seems to be the central thread concerns a Mr. Liu who shows up at Reggie’s office to consult him about a non-payment of a debt.

Mr. Liu, it turns out, has come all the way from China in search of Sherlock Holmes. He is sure Reggie is the actual great detective and is surprised by how well he’s preserved. Reggie has a hard time convincing him he’s not Sherlock but Mr. Liu presses ahead and tells him he must be as he received an answer to a letter he’d written.

He also reveals that he’d been contracted as a translator for some nursery rhymes that accompany a toy duck whose beak, when pressed, recites the nursery rhyme that begins “One, Two, Buckle my shoe.” His translation had been rejected as incorrect and he has not been paid; he knows he’s done a good job. It doesn’t seem right to him.

After it evolves that Reggie is unable to help him he sends Mr. Liu on his way with a recommendation that he see “The Mousetrap” on his one London evening. Of course Mr. Liu is later found dead in an alley. Meanwhile we’re also there when the ultra wealthy Robert Buxton is kidnapped, and present when someone tries to return one of the ducks because the instructions are wrong.

Reggie and his team – who turn out to be his perhaps girlfriend, Laura (he’s planning to propose) and his brother, Nigel – pull together when a ransom demand for Lord Buxton is delivered to Laura, and Reggie is disturbed enough about Mr. Liu’s death to try and figure it out.

Robertson seemingly effortlessly juggles the different parts of his story in a way that the further on you read, the more they make sense and fit together. The fun is in the fizzy, frothy, delightful journey. I knew everything would turn out OK; I turned the pages to find out how and because I liked every single character, good guy or bad guy. This book is a pure joy.

Cath Staincliffe: Dead to Me

Dead to MeMinotaur does a good job picking up and publishing British police procedurals and this is one of their latest finds – a genuine, no-holds-barred procedural with not one central female character, but three, which makes it a bit different.  The men in the book are either villains, eye candy, present or ex husbands, or sidebar co-workers.  It’s the women Staincliffe is interested in and that sets this novel apart.

It’s labeled on the cover a “Scott and Bailey” novel which gives things away a bit as the two main characters, Janet Scott and Rachel Bailey, are immediately front and center.  Janet’s boss, Gill, encounters Rachel on a crime scene and likes her enough to ask her to join her elite homicide team, which is Rachel’s dream job.  Janet is older, seasoned, experienced and irritated with Rachel, who is like an overeager puppy, charging in and acting without thinking.  Part of the novel is definitely concerned with Janet and Gill’s efforts to “train” her to act like a grown up police officer.

The case the two catch is the murder of a young heroin addict, found stabbed in her apartment by her boyfriend and dealer, who was so distressed when he found the body he’s covered it with the duvet from her bed.  This is a genuine procedural as you follow the entire detective team as they carefully go through evidence and suspects to hit the right one.

If you’re a fan of Prime Suspect you should enjoy this novel, which follows the same formula.  Luckily it’s an iron-clad and fascinating one, and the layers of poverty, abuse, and drug use the women uncover are heartbreaking.  Part of Rachel’s training is learning to detach her emotions so she can function on the job.  It’s a hard and believable battle as portrayed by Staincliffe.

There’s some humor and Staincliffe portrays the home lives of all three women vividly, so that you remember each one distinctly.  I’m sure there’s much more to discover about Rachel’s boyfriend, but it just makes me want to read the next novel even more.  The story wrap-up was both unexpected and well founded, and all in all, this was a completely enjoyable read.

Kate Rhodes: A Killing of Angels

A killing of AngelsKate Rhodes joins a new crop of British writers featuring feisty young female heroines – either police themselves or police consultants.  I’d compare her books to those by authors like Jane Casey and S.J. Bolton, both of whom highlight young female cops as their central characters.  Rhodes writes about a psychologist who consults for the police.  Both her first novel, Crossbones Yard, and this one, A Killing of Angels, are about serial killer cases.

Rhodes’ detective is one Alice Quentin who has a troubled backstory and family but whose police cases take her into a whole other dark realm, as she profiles “serials” for the cops.  All three women write about the tricky maneuvering women have to do to function in the very male atmosphere of a police station.  It’s feminism 2.0.  These women are accomplished and willing to figure out how to function within the system but often at the cost, at the suggestion of these authors at least, of a functional personal life.

Alice is asked to consult when the body of a murdered banker who has been pushed under a train turns out to have a picture of an angel in his pocket, as well as being scattered with a few white feathers.  The dead man worked for a big London private bank, the Angel bank.  When another Angel banker turns up dead with similar markers Alice’s profiling is ratcheted up and she gets drawn into the highly moneyed world of the bankers as she meets and begins to date a former Angel banker herself.  It gives her some insight into the culture surrounding the bank.  Alice’s “friend” became disenchanted with the consumer, cutthroat culture where so much money was spent on frivolities.  He’s now a charity fundraiser – with dynamite connections.

Rhodes has a very good and interesting central concept.  She keeps the violence more minimal – the first one was a tad over the top – and, unusually, targets male victims rather than females. Alice herself is so fraught with anxiety and resistance to intimacy that she’s sometimes very frustrating, but it makes her both memorable and, I think, believable.  I do think Rhodes’ focus isn’t quite a razor sharp as someone like Val McDermid, and she also puts her heroine into some silly don’t-go-into-that dark-room-alone situations.  She has all the skills to be really good, and they haven’t quite completely gelled.  However, this is a compelling and gripping read, and if you enjoy British police procedurals at all I’d recommend this one highly.  This is a new writer to watch.

Pamela Branch: The Wooden Overcoat

“Cor! What a bit o’ fat! I got away with it!” – Benji Cann, on his release from prison

woodenovercoatLeave it to Rue Morgue to provide me with my read of the month; when modern mysteries aren’t grabbing me, it’s delightful to read one of the gems of the past unearthed by the Rue Morgue Press, in this case this very funny novel by Pamela Branch, written in 1951. The tone is very similar to those hilarious British comedies of the 50’s – The Lavender Hill Mob,Tight Little IslandKind Hearts and Coronets, and more recently A Fish Called Wanda, that take place in the most ordinary sorts of places but thanks to dry humor and a generous dollop of improbable plot, build the laughs until they bubble up on every page as you read (or watch, in the case of the movies) along. This book has a great starting point – a house full of murderers takes in one of their own, to give him more or less a fresh start in life. The unwary Benji Cann finds himself lodging and dining with a group of people who make him uneasy, especially after he figures out who they are. Especially delicious is the “Creaker” and his repulsive cat; so called because of his creaky wooden leg. His crimes are too disgusting to be revealed (which certainly sets the wheels of the brain turning). Benji actually lives next door in a house full of artists, and unfortunately, rats.

The rats aren’t all that unfortunate, because they require the services of the hilarious Alfred L. Beesum, retired rodent officer, who has a system for dealing with “rets”. Anytime he appeared and began to talk about the “rets” I was completely captivated. As the corpses begin to mount up and the residents aren’t sure who is responsible but suspect one another, they decide to dispose of the bodies. Unbeknownst to them they are observed in everything they do by the “professional” killers next door who are horrified at the mess the “amateurs” are going to create. The extended sequence where the various artists and fellow lodgers attempt to dispose of their unsightly cargo is so funny I had to pace myself – I didn’t want it to end too soon. I even sold a copy I was reading to a customer before I was finished with it because I was sure she would love it too. Happily, The Wooden Overcoat has a worthy ending and the secret of the title – which I can’t possible reveal – only comes up at the very end. You may be sad when you finish this but as luck would have it, Rue Morgue is planning to release the other three Branch books in quick order. This book is a truly delicious treat that shouldn’t be missed by any lover of plain old humor.

Alan Bradley: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and Patricia Wentworth: Anna, Where Are You? (also known as Death at Deep End)

sweetnessatthebottomofpieSince I grew up in a place filled with rambling old houses that had decaying and mysterious corners, and this place (Mackinac Island) is also filled with the various kinds of enchanted, woodsy paths and clearings that are found in many an English detective novel, these books have never felt a bit foreign to me. Classic British detective stories, set in rambling old houses apart from the rest of the world, feel like reading about home. As Flavia, the heroine in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, thinks as she looks out into her family’s garden early one morning: “Sparkling dew lay upon everything, and I should not have been at all surprised if a unicorn had stepped from behind a rose bush and laid its head in my lap.” Of course into this heaven a dead body is usually discovered, but somehow the enchanted spell is still difficult to break.

annawhereareyouPatricia Wentworth, writing at a time when old country houses were authentically filled with the shabby or disreputable gentry (the 1940’s and 50’s) doesn’t have the self consciousness of Alan Bradley, who is taking up an old form and imposing his own will on it. Wentworth’s and Bradley’s books are fair comparisons, because in this particular outing Wentworth’s Miss Silver (retired governess, now a private detective) has gone out to the aptly named Deepe House to see if there is anything to Anna Ball’s disappearance. Anna had been an unsatisfactory governess for the Craddock family, a post Miss Silver now (and much more capably) takes up. Deepe House—now re-christened “Harmony”—though none of the villagers will call it that, is surrounded with its own sort of artist’s colony. There’s a weaver; a man who embroiders and wears peculiar trousers; a woman who goes (scandalously) only by the name “Miranda” and nothing else; and a few other spinster types. The whole is underwritten by the Craddocks—the money actually belongs to the overworked wife, who is a slave to her mending basket, her ill behaved children, her decaying house and her tyrant of a husband, Peveril Craddock, who makes pronouncements and then vanishes to his impenetrable study to undertake a “great work”. Here he must not be disturbed, which is handy for him and more or less leaves Mrs. Craddock to fend for herself.

Flavia, age 11, is also the member of an odd and dysfunctional family. There are her older sisters, Ophelia (“Feely”) and Daphne; her eccentric father, who keeps to his study and his stamps, and who is still grieving the loss of his wife, Harriet, many years ago. There’s Dogger, who works in the garden (but who has held every other household post, he just likes the garden best) and Mrs. Mullet, the cook, who produces inedible custard pies. Flavia’s dearest companions are not her sisters but her chemistry lab—she’s a budding chemist with a passion for poisons—and her bike, which she has christened Gladys. She may be the most preternaturally aware 11 year old who ever existed. She has her limits but they appear to be very few.

The story opens when Flavia and Dogger discover a dead man in the garden—he is dying just as Flavia reaches him, and he utters only the word “vale”. In fairly short order Flavia’s father is arrested for the murder, and she feels it’s up to her to set things straight.

There are differences between the two books, however. There’s a certain sincerity and downright emotional engagement to the Miss Silver stories (serving through 32 installments) that grab me, as a reader, right away. As I was reading Bradley’s highly original book I was charmed by his language and his unusual characters, but the emotional engagement, for me, didn’t kick in until half way through the book. Miss Silver is the voice of sanity and reason, often the oasis for people who are severely stressed and always dealing with some kind of sudden death. Her ability to carry on a sensible dinner table conversation while (or “whilst” as Wentworth is fond of saying) the other guests are under the stresses of various uncomfortable family situations is one that I envy.

Miss Flavia de Luce, while a sensible 11 year old, is still only 11, and she gets some things wrong. This, of course, is to be expected, but I felt the book needed a stronger emotional tentpole to hang this very clever and well done story upon. This isn’t a strict historical novel though it’s set in 1950, and the time frame doesn’t seem to have an actual purpose. It’s interesting to hear the family talk about the king’s stamp collection (and stamps are in fact a major plot point) but this story could have as easily been set in the present, though it probably would have lost some of its charm in the transposition.

Those caveats aside, Bradley has a wonderful voice and turn of phrase, and he proves himself to be an extremely ingenious plotter. Flavia gets herself into some dangerous situations which seem more forgivable as she’s only 11—she doesn’t know any better. While she figures out much of what has happened, she’s still surprised at the just as capable (and far more direct) methods of the police at the denouement. Like many another celebrated child heroine, Flavia operates more or less on her own, and as she is in fact motherless, there’s no one to question it when she disappears on her bike for hours at a time. The pure delight which this author takes in his creation is obvious, and it makes me more than willing to revisit Flavia again, should she make another appearance. In the meantime, you can enjoy this nice addition to the traditional British mystery genre, a field that can never be full enough. Or if you crave a little knitting and those special shoes with the beaded toes (not to mention the hair net), you can turn back to Miss Silver. Both are extremely satisfactory.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon: Lady Audley’s Secret

ladyaudleyssecretAll I can say is – delicious. Mary Elizabeth Braddon was disdained by her contemporaries as a sensationalist – but she was lapped up and read by the public. Today’s public should find her tale of the devious and complicated Lady Audley no less fascinating. In true Victorian fashion, this is a novel rife with coincidence and conspiracy, and with the fiendish but seemingly angelic Lady Audley at its center, the story is one you may not be able to put down. It opens with the proposal of Lord Audley to his neighbor’s governess – she agrees, telling him that it exceeds her wildest dreams – and thus the tale begins.

No story of a second marriage (for Lord Audley is many years older than Lady Audley) is complete without a disgruntled stepdaughter, devoted to her father and suspicious of her stepmother; nor is it complete without a narrator who, while part of the family, still exists outside of it, and with her portrayal of Robert Audley, Lord Audley’s layabout nephew (though he is qualified to practice law, he doesn’t choose to) she shows her real skill as a novelist. The character of Robert Audley is one of the more memorable in all literature – he is vividly portrayed as a lazy but contented man who is too lazy even for deep emotional attachment – but then, through a chance encounter with an old friend, who is grieving the loss of his wife and who disappears mysteriously, we see Robert mature and change before our eyes. The change is all the more believeable because when you reach the end of the novel it’s not entirely clear that Robert’s essential lazy nature is changed – but his heart is engaged, and in turn, it engages the reader as he begins a quest to find his friend, and to discover Lady Audley’s secret.

The labyrinthine turns of the plot are too various and surprising to reveal here – let us just say that this is a wonderful story, well told, that should leave you perhaps casting about for more wonderful books of this same era. If Wilkie Collins is still a stranger to you as a reader, giveThe Moonstone or The Woman in White a try. Yesterday’s novelists are every bit as fascinating as the page turning authors of today.

Margery Allingham: Sweet Danger

sweetdangerMargery Allingham is one of the authors I think of as the “Big Five” – Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers and Josephine Tey being the other four – and of the five, she is easily the most original and eccentric, Sweet Danger being a case in point. Like contemporary writer Christopher Fowler, Allingham was hewing to a traditional detective storytelling mode while at the same time pushing and twisting all the boundaries as far as she could, and few of her books show this effort more beautifully than Sweet Danger.

Albert Campion is the most eccentric of all the classic detectives ( and so is his mansevant, Magersfontein Lugg). He is sometimes so inaccessible to the reader that it’s only after repeated or multiple readings that you begin to get a feel for his character. He’s frequently described as “vacant” by his creator, a man retreating behind his glasses and fantastic lineage (hinted at, but never fully divulged) to become an observer of any proceeding. When he snaps into action, you know things must be dire. And here, of course, he varies from every other classic detective – he’s not handsome and titled like Wimsey, or handsome, brilliant and high up in the police department like Alleyn, or brilliant like Poirot – he just is and the reader must accept Campion as he is presented or not at all. There’s usually never even a moment where someone concerned in the proceedings turns to him and suddenly realizes like a bolt of lightening that they’re dealing with a brilliant mind (as frequently happens with Wentworth’s Miss Silver). But he does make things happen and work out though it’s never totally clear to the reader (often a personage, myself definitely included, of far less intelligence than Campion himself) how that happens.

In Sweet Danger the action begins in a very high rent hotel where the manager is disturbed – he can’t figure out if his guests are royalty or con men – and he turns to a frequent customer for his advice. His customer, recognizing his old friend Albert Campion, wonders what Campion is doing playing at being royalty, and he, like the reader, is immediately sucked into Campion’s scheme to impersonate the potentate of the lost state of Averna. As we learn the story we discover that Campion is searching for the authentication papers of the Earl of Pontisbright – it’s not totally clear why, though it seems to be related to both averting war and oil revenues – and what he is trying to do is flush out the other fortune hunters to see if he is one the right track. Of course he is, and his quest takes him to a tiny village where he meets up with the remarkable Fitton family, Mary, Amanda, Hal and the indomitable Aunt Hat (Miss Huntingforest to you). Any Allingham devotee is aware that Amanda is the future Mrs. Campion, though in this encounter, she’s a mere youth of seventeen, though already more than a match for Campion. The Fittons of course are the rightful heirs and it’s Campion’s quest to find proof before one or another of them is done in along the way.

Allingham has so much fun telling her stories (and it’s what makes me think Christopher Fowler must be a contemporary fan). She manages to work in the workings of the mill, an ancient crown, a crazy doctor, some lore on witchcraft, a villain with a widow’s peak (Peaky), several brilliant cons on the part of Campion and a final scene as packed with action as any you could ever hope to read. It’s all done with such a light touch – this packed full of action story is actually very concisely told – and at the end, remarkably, Campion doesn’t turn out to be a cardboard detective but a man of flesh and feeling. As a pure prose stylist, she has few equals, and though some of her phrasing now seems antique it also is interesting. I find, in my university town, that brilliant professors and mathematicians who won’t admit to reading mysteries will still admit to a devotion to Margery Allingham. All these many years later, she’s still an irresistible Queen of Crime.

Elizabeth George: Careless in Red and Agatha Christie: Hallowe’en Party

carelessinredTwo of my favorite crime writers across the spectrum of time are Agatha Christie (we even named our store after her) and Elizabeth George. I feel my juvenile reading tastes were formed by Agatha – I had finished all of her available books half way through high school, and my adult tastes have been formed by George, an author I discovered after I opened the store. Business our first winter wasn’t so brisk and so many customers had told me how great George was that I began to read one after the other. I think like many readers of contemporary crime fiction, reading A Great Deliverance, George’s first novel, remains a signature experience. Now I await the publication of a new Lynley novel with great anticipation. It’s no secret that many of her fans found her last book (which I thought was spectacular) heavy going. Titled What Came Before He Shot Her, it’s the explication of the life of the boy that shot and killed Lynley’s beloved wife, Lady Helen Clyde. Many more readers have been eagerly awaiting Lynley’s return, an appearance he finally makes in Careless in Red. This is a late in the series book – a series George has kept fresh by various methods, one of them being her last daring novel. This one is more a return to form.

halloweenpartyI am reviewing it concurrently with Christie’s Hallowe’en Party because this was also a late in the series book for Christie – in 1969, Poirot seems very much an antique, but there’s still something almost magical about him. The way his brain works – much like Nero Wolfe’s – is not always apparent to the reader though this far along we as readers know he’s a genius and trust him when he’s making deductive leaps. A concise writer, Christie keeps the workings of the plot under wraps – it simply unfolds, seemingly effortlessly, as you read it. Barbara D’Amato once told me she herself loved Agatha because her plots were so “organic” and I think I finally get what she meant. George is not a concise writer, something I have always actually enjoyed, but in this book there’s some magic missing that old Agatha still possessed so late in the game. If George was a watchmaker, the inner workings of this novel would be laid bare for all to see and to admire, and I think therein lies the difficulty. She’s a gifted watchmaker, no doubt about it, but in this case I think she’s too pleased with the gears. The way the characters interact with each other are brilliant – I can’t help but admire her skill – but at the same time she’s left off what made many, many of her books truly memorable, and that’s a compelling portrait of the victim. In this story, the victim is overshadowed by the rest of the cast, and when I was finished, I wasn’t sure I knew him as well as I should. It made me less invested, emotionally, in the outcome of the story.

What did capture me was the return to the canvas of Thomas Lynley, a character I think I can safely assume is as beloved by readers as the dapper Poirot himself. But it was the appearance of Barbara Havers about half way through the story that really made my heart sing – high top sneakers, stained, ugly jacket, awful haircut and all. Barbara brings a welcome breath of vitality to the affair, and when she arrives in her horrible car, things really began to pick up. The set up is a fairly simple one, from a situational point of view – Lynley, working through his grief by walking alone along the coast of Cornwall, stumbles across a body. When the locals find out who he is they find a reason to make him stick around and help; and as it turns out, he’s not officially off the force. His cop instincts in fact snap into place (huge sigh of relief, everyone?) as he begins to piece together the death of the teenaged Santo Kerne in a climbing accident. Because Lynley investigates Santo’s death on his terms, not on the terms of the detective in charge, Bea Hannaford, he drives her crazy but as readers we know he’s crazy like a fox and surely following the right lead.

In Hallowe’en Party Poirot is asked to look into the death of a 13 year old girl at a party – she’s been held underwater in the apple bobbing bucket and drowned. He’s called in by Christie’s stand in, Ariadne Oliver, the famous crime novelist. As he begins to assemble the various threads of the story – he works in his own way, just like Lynley – they begin (organically) to pull together and make sense. In Careless in Red George assembles her usual huge cast of characters, mostly the residents of the tiny Cornwall town where Santo was killed, a community known for its surfing, oddly enough. The surfing is a sub theme but mostly this is a book about both sex and about the relationships between parents and children. And I will say George appears to be mellowing a bit – not every relationship is trashed at the end of the book, including the one between Havers and Lynley (another huge sigh of relief, everyone?). George’s brilliance surfaces as she’s able to paint a full picture of the characters in the story and show how they have changed as they have matured and aged, though obviously not always in a good way. That’s the work of a master.

Of course reading a book published in 1969 is a different and less visceral experience than reading one published in the year it was written. Christie long ago claimed her place in the crime pantheon; but reading a brisk novel like Hallowe’en Party, written so late in her career, is a reminder of why that place is so secure. This is the work of a master as well. It remains to be seen what Elizabeth George will do with the rest of her career – one way or another I am invested enough in her classic characters to keep reading. Happily, this is a journey that is hopefully very far from over.

Agatha Christie: The Boomerang Clue (also known as Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?)

Reviewing several contemporary cozies at the same time led me back to the original “cozy” writer, Agatha herself, whose novels and characters have proved an inspiration for generations of writers to follow.  This one, published in 1933, is an especially crisp and clever stand alone, a pleasure to read as well as delivering a memorable story. It opens with young Robert “Bobby” Jones coming across a man who has fallen over a cliff – (or has he?) – and he sits with the man while his companion goes for help.  He’s with the unknown man as he takes his last breath, and as he utters his final phrase, “Why didn’t they ask Evans?”  Bobby feels he’s done his duty after testifying at the inquest, though he’s unsettled by the sister and brother who turn up to identify the man’s body.  They feel “off” to him.

boomerangclueComplicating matters is Lady Frances “Frankie” Derwent; Bobby is the son of the vicar, and Lady Frances is wealthy and titled; Bobby’s sure there’s no chance for their future as they are on such unequal footing.  But they’ve known each other since they were children and there’s a certain level of comfort and understanding between them.

It was at this point that I started to wonder what make Christie’s novels different from contemporary cozies.  One commonality is her use of middle-aged or older characters as her detectives.  That’s a decidedly contemporary approach – many mystery writers of today don’t choose a younger person as their narrator or main character.  People who solve mysteries have been around and have some understanding of human beings and some life experience.

There are some differences, too.  Christie was pretty unconcerned with aftermath – a crime is committed and then the rest of the novel is the unraveling of the puzzle pieces needed to arrive at a solution.  If two characters meet romantically, they are often young people, like Bobby and Frankie in this novel, who are just getting together.  She’s absolutely brilliant at point of view from the perspective of clues.  She can take a seemingly baffling clue like “Why didn’t they ask Evans?”, which seems meaningless and impossible to understand, and then with a quick flick of the switch, she can turn her clue in another direction so it suddenly makes perfect sense.  She also is able to use people in the same way; a character perceived one way, when looked at from a different perspective, is entirely different from your first impression.  I guess that’s what people mean when they say Agatha Christie “tricks” you, but in truth, she’s so far ahead of the reader that it’s not a trick, it’s just her way of readjusting the landscape.

In contemporary cozies, it’s the aftermath that’s important.  All of them deal with what people who were close to the victim may have felt, and how they’ve dealt with what’s happening.  If someone dreadful is killed off, that’s one thing, but in other cases there are family members to consider.  The deaths often affect the detectives as well.  In a Christie novel, while death is not taken lightly, it’s viewed as a moral wrong that needs to be set right.  There’s not the up close and personal look that today’s writers take.

There’s also the matter of romance.  Many of today’s cozy writers have characters who form long term relationships that take many books to become permanent.  Denise Swanson took fifteen books to get Skye and Wally together; and I’m not sure how many Elaine Viets took to get Helen and Phil together, but it was quite a few.  Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot have no such complications; and Tommy and Tuppence are presented as a unit from the beginning.

Times change, and books change along with them.  I’m not sure how successful a straight up puzzle mystery would be today – as readers, we’ve come to enjoy our involvement in the characters’ lives; and we know there are messy consequences to murder.  Agatha’s stories are still a breath of crisp fresh air, however – her intelligent mind behind the scenes is always welcome.  Vive la difference.