Archive for Oldies But Goodies

Mike Lawson: The Inside Ring

The Inside RingIt’s always been a puzzle to me why the talented Mike Lawson isn’t a superstar, and his first book, The Inside Ring, is so good it really begs the question. I’m always in the mood for a thriller this time of year, and went to the Lawson part of the alphabet and grabbed this one on Christmas Eve. I’ve read others in the series but never the first, and it joins my ongoing mental list of terrific first novels that hit every mark out of the gate.

Lawson’s series character, Joe DeMarco, is a “fixer” for the Speaker of the House and works very much under the radar. His office is even in the basement of the House of Representatives alongside the janitorial staff. Whenever the speaker – long-time pol Mahoney – needs a task done that can’t see the light of day, it’s DeMarco he puts into motion. This gives DeMarco a lot of power and not quite enough as his official title and credentials are slightly nebulous. Because of DeMarco’s family background – his father was in the mob – he doesn’t carry a gun and tries to avoid violence. It often finds him anyway, though.

This novel begins with an assassination attempt on the President, who was on a weekend with his best friend, a well known writer. The writer is killed and the President is wounded. After a confession from the killer, things seem to be wrapped up, but the Secretary of Homeland Security isn’t happy and Mahoney asks DeMarco to look into it. As DeMarco zeroes in on one of the Secret Service agents who were surrounding the President, his investigation takes off in all kinds of unexpected ways. I figured out only one twist of the story, but the final one is a doozy that truly surprised me.

As a first novel, Lawson does introduce a couple characters who re-appear in the rest of the series, especially DeMarco’s powerful, lethal buddy Emma, a beautiful woman who has connections seemingly everywhere. While much of this set up sounds off-the-charts absurd, Lawson tells his stories in such a matter of fact, nicely detailed way that it never seems over the top. DeMarco is very likable – you’re rooting for him to get some furniture in his empty townhouse (his ex has taken everything) but even more, you’re rooting for him to get the bad guy.

Lawson utilizes all of my own “thriller rules”: he has a situation with interesting specifics (Washington DC, the secret service); he has a reliable main character, and he starts with a story where you as the reader know what happened but you don’t know why. As with any good thriller, the “why” is the journey. Lawson’s straightforward storytelling gets you there every time.

David Bell: The Forgotten Girl & J. Sheridan Le Fanu: Wylder’s Hand

WyldersHandI generally read one book at home and a different one at work. Recently the home book was an old one, Wylder’s Hand, the 1864 “sensation novel” by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, and the store book was brand new, David Bell’s The Forgotten Girl. Strangely enough, I didn’t get very far in either of them before I realized that despite a span of 150 years, they had the same basic plot. I call it “the mysterious disappearance,” and even though it’s an ancient story, going back at least as far as Persephone, perhaps the original Gone Girl, it’s very much in the air these days, especially since we’re all about to ask where the heck the warm weather went to.

Le Fanu is best known today as the author of many classic ghost stories (if you haven’t checked out “Green Tea,” you really ought to), but he also was a popular novelist, including Uncle Silas, which showcases his peculiar ability to make the skin crawl. His creepy and eerie qualities are in abundant evidence in Wylder’s Hand, but they’re in the service of a plot which today would be classified as a mystery. The tale begins with the titular Mark Wylder about to marry the enigmatic beauty Dorcas Brandon, in a union that’s more the re-grafting of two powerful, entwined family trees than a love match. After a few unsettling comments about how he’d prefer pretty blond neighbor Rachel Lake, Wylder suddenly decamps to London, and from there to the Continent, sending letters that cryptically hint at vague difficulties and eventual return. The main beneficiary of his flight is Rachel’s brother, the shady Captain Stanley Lake, who himself marries the beautiful heiress (who has had a secret crush on him the whole time) and assumes the life of the manor born. Of his character Le Fanu says: Captain Lake was a gentleman and an officer, and of course an honourable man; but somehow I should not have liked to buy a horse from him.

You can catch something of Le Fanu’s tone here – ironic, clever and with a definite Dickensian flavor. Like much writing of the time, there are a lot of coincidences, a wobbly point of view and more than a few plot holes – but the point is not credibility but entertainment, and in this he richly succeeds, sneaking a good dose of class commentary in along the way.

forgottengirlNeither the plot nor the prose of The Forgotten Girl is as rococo, but it is just as compelling, briskly proceeding with its suspenseful storyline in the manner of modern stalwarts like Harlan Coben and Chevy Stevens. I picked it up after several other new books couldn’t hold me beyond the first few paragraphs, and once I did I couldn’t put it down. In it, Jason Danvers and his wife Nora, caught both in an economic malaise and a relationship one, have returned to his old home town of Ednaville  in order to simplify their lives and stabilize their marriage, which had grown wobbly in high pressure New York City.

One night Jason’s sister Hayden, the family black sheep and former addict, out of touch for many years, appears at his door, teenage daughter in tow, and asks Jason and Nora to watch over the girl. Hayden claims she has cleaned up her act, has amends to make and will return in 48 hours at the latest. She does not, and the investigation that follows stirs up the embers of the other great conflagration of Jason’s life, the disappearance of his high school best buddy, Logan Shaw, the rich kid, who, following their fight on graduation night, apparently hit the road, confirming his peripatetic existence, like Mark Wylder, with the occasional letter. Jason’s nosing around after Hayden also seems to stir up her former running mates, the bad boys of high school days, grown even badder and scarier over time, one of whom is her ex-husband and the father of her daughter.

Then there’s that looming figure of the American imagination, “The Girl from High School,” Regan Maines Kreider, whose relationship with Jason was very close to becoming romantic when he and Logan fought over her that last night. She still lives in Ednaville, has been married and divorced, and she and Jason resume a not quite adulterous relationship over coffee and memories, though as events unfold it seems as though she knows more about the double disappearances than she’s revealing.

In Le Fanu’s world characters may be mysterious, but at some point they drop their masks to reveal their true nature. In the modern understanding human nature is much more fluid – the Danvers find that their growing attachment to Hayden’s daughter makes them question their decision to forgo children, and even the baddest of the bad guys can commit a good act. There is a lawyer figure in both books, however, and I’m afraid in terms of their character there hasn’t been much improvement over the years.

The “mysterious disappearance” plot, on the other hand, has remained extremely admirable, both in its durability and the thrills it provides. I heartily enjoyed both Wylder’s Hand and The Forgotten Girl, the former a charming yet creepy iteration from the past and the latter a crackling, suspenseful example of the best of today. (Jamie)

Gwendoline Butler: A Dark Coffin

Gwendoline Butler had a long and prolific career, writing 32 John Coffin novels, 19 Charmian Daniels novels under the pseudonym of Jennie Melville, as well having a successful career as a romance novelist.  I’ve always been aware of her and we usually have some of her series under both her names on our shelves, but recently I was searching for a new (to me) British Detective Inspector and I thought I’d give a Coffin novel a try.

A Dark CoffinThis one, published in 1995, is 26th in the series, so the characters and setting are well established.  I found that I didn’t feel any need to have read any of the other books though I was a bit curious about the relationship between Coffin and his well known actress wife, Stella Pinero.  Butler is definitely of the “old school” of crime writing – i.e., she’s done telling her brisk tale in a mere 250 pages – so this is a novel, like an Agatha Christie and a Ngaio Marsh, that with the right comfy chair you could finish in an evening.  Sometimes there’s nothing better.

Butler is really good at setting a scene and creating a cast of characters who all fit into her narrative, which in this case is a fairly original one.  Though she draws on the Jekyll and Hyde trope, the ending was a well earned surprise.  She briskly sets the scene in Stella’s theater – it’s her own company with a new show opening, much riding on the outcome.  She and Coffin live “above the shop” so to speak, in a nifty tower where many steps are involved to get to the different parts of their apartment.  As quickly as Butler lays down this fascinating setting and living arrangement (something a contemporary writer like Peter Robinson or P.D. James would have lingered over), she’s on to her story.

It’s a captivating tale – on opening night a couple is found dead in one of the theater boxes, with no one sitting anywhere near them any the wiser.  Assisting Coffin in his investigation is Harry Trent, a reliable officer who seems to have a connection to the dead couple as well as a troubling twin brother who is always just off canvas.  This is the Jekyll and Hyde portion, with the reader not sure which is which. Stella is understandably upset as her new show has to be shut down in the service of a police investigation, not to mention the bad publicity from two corpses inside the theater.

Stella’s able assistant Alfreda is often front and center in the narrative, even to giving Harry a place to stay while he’s in town.  Improbably, she appears to be a woman on the prowl, despite the fact that she lives with her adult son.  With a cast of interesting characters and a well drawn city setting that isn’t London, the story has some different as well as creepy elements – but never too creepy.  Butler is too brisk a storyteller to linger.  She’s first and foremost a storyteller.

I think a more modern crime novelist – Elizabeth George, Peter Robinson, Deborah Crombie – (just to name a few) would give the reader a complete sense of the setting, of the detective’s every turn of thought, of every creepy ramification of the Jekyll and Hyde character created.  To me, Butler is a “bridge” novelist.  She began her career in 1959 while several of the Golden Age authors (Christie and Marsh specifically) were still at work.  She uses their brisk playbook as her template.  In this late in the series novel she’s bringing a bit of psychological depth to both her villain and her main character, but she’s stuck to the storytelling parameters set down by the Golden Age ladies.

Just a few years after Butler started writing, P.D. James (1962) and Ruth Rendell (1964) began their careers.  They too began writing within the golden age parameters – early books by both ladies are much shorter than their later efforts – but the psychological depth both women bring to their writing is already present in their first novels.  Both James and Rendell continued to develop and in doing so (I feel) kicked off a second golden age of crime fiction, where much of the emphasis is centered on the aftermath of crime rather than the mechanics of the act of murder.   Butler, while hewing to the first golden age, still created satisfying, enjoyable stories – the very kind of novels I prefer to read last thing at night.  She’s a bit forgotten now but well worth a look if you enjoy your Detectives British and to the point.

(Used, various editions, $3.50)

Patricia D. Cornwell: Postmortem

postmortemMy 13 year old son was spending lots of time reading graphic novels – he’s a bit past the YA novels available – and wondering how to get him into reading actual books, I gave him a copy of Mystic River for Christmas. He devoured it, even going into his room and shutting the door to read in peace. Since then he’s also become a giant Harlan Coben fan (he’s reading The Woods right now), but he seems to like serial killer novels, having also enjoyed Connelly’s The Poet. So, bad mother that I am (what kind of mom gives her 13 year old a copy of a Dennis Lehane novel, after all?) I of course thought he might as well read one of the true classics of the serial killer genre, Patricia Cornwell’s Postmortem. Well, that was another close the door and leave me alone read for him, and when he had finished it, it was of course lying around the house, so I thought I would re-read it, wondering if I would enjoy it as much as I did in 1990, when it was first published.

Lately the Scarpetta series has worn very thin for me – Scarpetta has become kind of annoying and crazy – but I remember feverishly reading the first 5 or 6 novels as they came out and enjoying them immensely. And Postmortem, a book I read when we first opened our store, was so scary to me at the time I hesitated to sell it to women living alone (I actually did caution a few to only read it during the day). Because this novel is based on a real case Cornwell worked on when she was working in the coroner’s office in Richmond, Virginia, I think it has a real resonance. Not only does it seem like something that could happen, it’s something that more or less did happen, though I am assuming the motives assigned to the killer in Cornwell’s book are entirely fictional.

This book has two schools of thought on the ending – did she pull the killer out of nowhere? Or not? – but there are no two schools of thought on the extraordinary narrative gift that Cornwell undoubtedly possesses in spades. There are few writers who tell a story in such an absolutely compelling way, and that makes Postmortem such a classic of its kind. As this is the first book in the series, Scarpetta, though somewhat beleaguered by the higher ups, has not attained the full blown paranoia of the later novels; her niece, Lucy, is still a pretty cute, precocious 10 year old genius, and the family details are kept to the rear of the story.

This series is of course responsible for all kinds of things like CSI on television and other writers who came later, like Kathy Reichs, Karin Slaughter and Val McDermid. And the reasons for this sincerest form of flattery are evident. Deftly weaving in the tools of the coroner’s trade in telling the story – Scarpetta works with very tiny pieces of evidence (and one of the big clues in this book is actually a smell) – she combines it with the story of seemingly randomly murdered women in the Richmond area, women murdered when they were home alone, asleep in bed. This is indeed a terrifying novel, and this early in the game, I still trust Scarpetta to get me thought the terror to the other side. If you haven’t read this book in a few years, it’s well worth another visit. Interestingly, the vital DNA evidence was still, in 1990, somewhat discounted as too new and too scientific for a jury to understand. And the ending? Since this seems like a ripped from the headlines kind of story, I had no problems with the killer’s identity, but that’s the kind of thing that will probably be debated by mystery readers for years to come.

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.