The Blackhouse is a big, ambitious novel. Its chief protagonist is Finlay MacLeod is a police officer in Edinburgh. As the novel begins, Fin is investigating a homicide that took place in that city when DCI Black, his boss, suddenly informs him that he’s being sent to the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. It seems that a murder there closely resembles MacLeod’s Edinburgh case as regards the killer’s MO. One other important point: Fin MacLeod was born and raised on the Isle of Lewis.
Fin has not been back to Lewis for a long time. There are reasons for his lengthy absence. He has no living family members still on the island. But he does have friends, a former lover, and other associations still there. The woman he had loved, and known from childhood, was called Marjorie – Marsaili in Gaelic, pronounced Marshally in that language. Fin’s best friend had been Artair Macinnes. Artair and Marsaili were now married; they had a son named Fionnlagh, which is Fin’s own Gaelic name. If this sounds like a complex and potentially fraught situation – it is.
Nevertheless, Fin must follow orders and return to Lewis, to look into the murder of Angus Macritchie. In times past, Macritchie had been the archetypal schoolyard bully, disliked by Fin and pretty much everyone else on the island. Now he was dead, and it’s up to Fin to find out who killed him and why.
Meanwhile, Fin’s personal life in Edinburgh has been slowly and painfully disintegrating. He has suffered a terrible bereavement, and his marriage is on the rocks. It’s a good time to get away from Edinburgh. But Fin is apprehensive about returning to the Isle of Lewis – and it turns out, he has good reason to feel that way.
Peter May’s depiction of life on this remote outpost is meticulous and vivid. Here, Fin recalls a moment from his childhood on the island:
The northern part of Lewis was flat and unbroken by hills or mountains, and the weather swept across it from the Atlantic to the Minch, always in a hurry. And so it was always changing. Light and dark in ever-shifting patterns, one set against the other – rain, sunshine, black sky, blue sky. And rainbows. My childhood seemed filled with them. Usually doublers. We watched one that day, forming fast over the peatbog, vivid against the blackest of blue-black skies. It took away the need for words
In a later scene, Fin and a fellow officer are driving up the west coast of the island:
He watched the villages drift by, like moving images in an old family album, every building, every fencepost and blade of grass picked out in painfully sharp relief by the sun behind them. There was not a soul to be seen anywhere….The tiny village primary schools, too, were empty, still shut for the summer holidays. Fin wondered where all the children were. To their right, the peatbog drifted into a hazy infinity, punctuated only by stoic sheep standing firm against the Atlantic gales. To their left, the ocean itself swept in timeless cycles on to beaches and into rocky inlets, , creamy white foam crashing over darkly obdurate gneiss, the oldest rock on earth. The outline of a tanker, like a distant mirage, was just discernible on the horizon.
Peter May’s writing is powerful and persuasive, at times ascending to the poetic. This gift serves him well when he comes to describe an event of supreme importance to the people of Lewis: the guga harvest. Every year, a limited number of men are invited to be a part of this unique island tradition. It begins with a boat trip across treacherous waters to a rocky island called An Sgeir, where thousands of birds arrive during the summer months to nest and procreate. The guga, or gannets, are considered delicacies by the people of Lewis. The job of the guga hunters is to capture some two thousand birds within a two week period. The young chicks are plucked from their nests while the frantic parents flap their wings and screech in protest. The necks of the chicks are quickly broken; then they are plucked clean, slit open to receive sea salt as a preservative, and otherwise made ready for the return trip. Ultimately they will be presented to the islanders of Lewis, perfectly preserved and ready to eat.
It is considered an honor to be selected as a participant in the yearly guga harvest. Fin received just such an honor during his last summer before leaving the island to attend university in Glasgow. It is a distinction he could have well done without. He has no desire to go, but once chosen, it is virtually impossible to decline. And so, with a heavy, heart, he joins the team of hunters. After the inevitable rough crossing Fin catches sight of An Sger for the first time:
Three hundred feet of sheer black cliff streaked with white, rising straight out of the ocean in front of us….I saw what looked like snow blowing in a steady stream from the peak before I realized that the snowflakes were birds. Fabulous white birds with blue-black wingtips and yellow heads, a wingspan of nearly two metres. Gannets. Thousands of them, filling the sky, turning in the light, riding turbulent currents of air.
(The white streaks are actually bird guano. Fin had smelled An Sgeir before he’d seen it.)
An Sgeir was barely half a mile long, its vertebral column little more than a hundred yards across. There was no soil here, no grassy banks or level land, no beaches. Just shit-covered rock rising straight out of the sea.
Fin adds that he couldn’t imagine a more inhospitable place. But this is just the beginning. While engaged in the arduous labor of unloading two weeks’ worth of supplies, Fin discovers how hard it is to maintain your footing on the island. The rock is made slick not just by the guano but by the slimy green vomit produced by petrel chicks terrified by this sudden human invasion. Add to that the unceasing racket generated by the avian multitudes, and you have a sort of Hell on Earth. And there they will stay for two full weeks, carrying out the multifaceted operation of catching, killing, and preparing the birds.
There is only one place to shelter on An Sgeir. It is a blackhouse.
Although Fin can’t help but admire the ingenuity, resourcefulness, and just plain toughness of the guga hunters, he finds the two weeks on An Sgeir an awful experience, an endurance test that can’t end soon enough. And at the end of two weeks it does end. But not without two momentous occurrences, the full import of which Fin does not grasp until many years after the event.
Peter May’s evocation of life on the Isle of Lewis is deeply resonant. The geography of the place, the social order, the dominance of the church, the entire way of life – all are presented here in minute detail. There were times when I thought it might be too minute. The anthropology threatens to overwhelm the mystery. The actual crime was, for this reader, the least memorable aspect of the book. The cast of characters is fairly large; moreover, the complex narrative alternates between the present and the past. This brings up a certain aspect of the narrative style employed by May in this novel: the events of the present time are set forth in the third person, while the sections dealing with Fin’s boyhood on the island are recounted by him in the first person. It took me a while to get comfortable with this method of advancing the story.
Until I read The Blackhouse, the only knowledge I had of the Isle of Lewis had to do with the famous Chessmen, almost certainly carved by Norsemen in the early Middle Ages and discovered on the island in 1831. (In the novel, Fin recalls a bit of island legend to the effect that the crofter who found the tiny carvings, mistaking them for the “…elves and gnomes, the pygmy sprites of Celtic folklore,” fled the scene in fear for his life.)
Peter May’s description of the guga harvest is riveting and bizarre to the point of almost seeming hallucinatory. Off hand, as regards its affect on the reader – this reader, anyway – the only recent fiction I can readily compare it to is Karen Russell’s astonishing story “St. Lucy’s School for Girls Raised by Wolves.” So - is there actually such a thing as the guga harvest? Indeed there is, as you will see if you click here.
There are actual blackhouses remaining in the Outer Hebrides, although few if any still serve as dwelling places. Here is Fin’s description:
The Blackhouses had dry-stone walls with thatched roofs and gave shelter to both man and beast. A peat fire burend day and night in the centre of the stone floor of the main room. It was called the fire room. There were no chimneys, and smoke was supposed to escape through a hole in the roof. Of course, it wasn’t very efficient, and the houses were always full of the stuff.
He adds: “It was little wonder that life expectancy was short.” (Wikipedia has an interesting entry on the blackhouses.)
The Blackhouse presents some structural challenges for the reader, and there were times when the plot seemed somewhat labored, if not downright irrelevant, given the fascination of the setting.. But Peter May writes beautifully, and he’s created an enormously likable protagonist in Fin MacLeod. This is the first novel in the Lewis Trilogy, and I look forward to the next one.
It’s an assignment that Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles hates and will have nothing to do with. He has his reasons. Some years back, he’d inserted Ray Street, an avid young policeman, into the heart of a ruthless gang of drug dealers. Long story short: Ray Street did not live to become an avid old policeman. (These events are recounted in Halo Parade, from 1987.)
Iles wrought a no-holds-barred vengeance on those responsible for the murder of Ray Street. But he remains angry and embittered. Nor does it soften his demeanor at all to be working with Colin Harpur, one-time lover of his wife Sarah. (James describes a police force in which merry and indiscriminate copulation is the rule rather than the exception. This, despite the fact that the practice is fraught with danger and can lead to the kind of barely restrained fury displayed without warning by Iles.)
In Undercover, Iles and Detective Chief Superintendent Colin Harpur are seconded to another police force in order to investigate a more recent undercover operation that has resulted, once again, in an officer’s death. Scenes of the two men being briefed after the fact by a comely and very savvy Home Office agent named Maud Logan Clatworthy – Bill James has a flair for names and nicknames – alternate with scenes of Sergeant Tom Mallen inserting himself, as Tom Parry, into the drug running gang. Tom has a wife and kids; he must distance himself from them as he prepares to navigate these extremely treacherous waters.
Bill James is a versatile and highly original writer. He has a way of describing people that’s- well, I’ll let him do it. Here’s Leo, a head man in the illicit drugs operation:
It was an unscarred face which could have been genial. But his features lacked sufficient room and looked cluttered, crammed into a paltry space and competing with one another for position, like too many survivors on a lifeboat.
James can be savagely funny, or just plain savage; the black humor can be very, very dark. Dialogue is often laced with profanity, something I ordinarily dislike but don’t mind in these novels because it seems to belong where he puts it. Literary allusions are all over the map; in Undercover, they range from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt. Here’s yet another; I found this one especially resonant:
Not long ago, he’d read an old Cold War espionage story The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, lately reprinted. In it, an agent is trying to get out of East Berlin and into the West on a bike, pedalling fast. And while he was pedalling fast the bike seemed a brilliant, basic escape machine. But then an East German sentry takes aim and shoots the agent. He and the cycle, of course, clatter to the ground and lie there, a spent heap. That word from the book – “clatter” – had got itself fixed in Tom’s memory. It was so right for a bike.
In this succinct summing up of the brilliance of John LeCarre’s masterpiece, we are reminded, should we need reminding, of the terrible risk being run, every minute of every day, by Tom Mallen/Parry. (One of the trickiest parts of the process is the need to assume a new identity while holding on to the old. Tom is in essence two persons inhabiting one body. Constant vigilance is required to prevent a fatal slip-up.)
Iles kicks off an excoriating exchange on the topic of undercover work with this paraphrase: “‘I have measured out my life with carrier bags.’” References to T.S. Eliot’s ‘Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ carry through the (increasingly heated) discussion between Iles, Harpur, and Maud, with the latter commenting on the cover story that an agent doing this dangerous work must adopt, keep straight, and make convincing:
‘For an officer to kit himself out with something very innocent and run-of-the-mill,….It helps him or her look as though he or she has some purpose – some purpose other than the clandestine get-together, that is. To sort of prepare a face to meet the faces that he or she will meet. A social background.’
She terms this the essential methodology of undercover work. Iles isn’t having any of it: “‘The methodology is a farce, a placebo, a pretence that the danger can be countered and seen off.’” Harpur goes on to enlighten Maud concerning the fate of Ray Street, and Iles’s sense of complicity in that fate. While acknowledging the traumatic nature of this experience, Maud refuses to give Iles a pass because of it. She accuses him of “”Sentimentalizing one past event, allowing it to control the present and the future.” Her final judgment of this mindset: “‘Irrational, half-bakes, death-obsessed.’”
Now at this juncture, I expected Iles to leap out of his seat and punch Maud in the face. But he does not do that – does not, in fact, do anything for several minutes. Eventually he summons the strength to pronounce a rejoinder fairly dripping with sarcasm:
‘Grand words for his gravestone. He’s going to be killed as a spy only a few months after this wonderfully confident and positive start.’
One of the many aspects of these novels that I treasure is that as soon as you think you know how a character will react, you are proved wrong, in a way that can be disconcerting, even shocking, but for all that still believable.
Begun in 1985 with You’d Better Believe It, the Harpur and Iles series now consists of twenty-nine novels and one short story collection. The novels are tightly wound, usually clocking in at around two hundred pages (in my view, the ideal length for a procedural). Individuals in law enforcement are vividly portrayed; their counterparts in the criminal underworld, equally so. Concerning the lives of the characters, there’s a great deal of carry over from one book to the next. Indeed, there’s an overarching sensibility that informs the entire series, much like the ten novels of the Martin Beck series by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. The question invariably arises: must you the reader begin at the beginning? The answer is that it depends on your own preference. The first one I read was Take from 1990. I then went back and picked up several of the earlier titles. From 1999 on (Lovely Mover), I’ve pretty much read them all. I’ve reviewed the following in this space: Hotbed, In the Absence of Iles, Pix, Girls, The Girl with the Long Back, and Wolves of Memory. I’ve enjoyed all of them, though to my mind, In the Absence of Iles was not as entertaining as the others. On the other hand, Wolves of Memory, a finalist for the 2006 Gold Dagger Award, was exceptionally fine and as a good a place to jump into the series as any.
Finding information on Bill James is challenging and made more difficult by his use of the rather bland pseudonym. He’s written two books under his real name, James Tucker (actually Allan James Tucker). Additionally, he has utilized the pseudonyms David Craig and Judith Jones. He needs all of them, I suppose, as he’s quite prolific. (See his Wikipedia entry for the full list.) Born in Cardiff, Wales, Bill James earned his B.A. and M.A. degrees at University College, Cardiff. He went on to serve two years in the Royal Air Force. Finally, like so many of his fellow crime writers, he began his literary career as a journalist. In the St. James Guide To Crime and Mystery Writers, James says this:
I began writing “straight” (i.e., non-crime) novels in the late 1950s. Then moved into espionage when it became modish after le Carré and Deighton. Then crime in the 1980s.
I am interested in the criminal as much as the police. My Harpur and Iles books are about the impossibility of controlling crime by strictly legitimate methods. Assistant Chief Constable Iles is suspected of murders in “a noble cause.” Harpur–the ostensible hero of the books–tries to keep Iles reasonably decent.
The main influence on my work is George V. Higgins–though I don’t know if he would be pleased to hear it. I admire the ability to mimic crook vocabulary; and the skill at making a fink sympathetic in The Friends of Eddie Coyle, possibly the greatest crime novel I’ve read.
I’ve recently revived my David Craig pseudonym for a new series of crime novels set in the modernised and modernising Cardiff dockland.
A look at James’s bibliography shows a group of novels written as David Craig dating from 1995 to 2006. This would indicate that the above remarks date from time in the mid 1990s. And it’s interesting that James is an admirer of George V. Higgins. The film Killing Them Softly, released this year and starring Brad Pitt, Scott McNairy, and James Gandolfini, is based on Higgins’s novel Cogan’s Trade. Reviewing the movie has given critics a chance to praise the work of this author. Here’s A.O. Scott of the New York Times: “Higgins, who died in 1999 and whose book “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” was adapted into a first-rate movie starring Robert Mitchum, was a master of hard-boiled, world-weary macho dialogue.’
Regarding the paucity of information, Bill James reminds me of Peter Turnbull, another excellent British writer of police procedurals who keeps an extremely low profile and for whom an image search yields very meager results:
Born in 1929, Mr. James still resides in his native Wales – at least, I’m led to believe that he does, from my numerous and often fruitless searches.
The truth ultimately uncovered by Harpur and Iles concerning the failed undercover operation is genuinely shocking – at least, it was to me. Meanwhile, the antic diversions of other characters continue unimpeded. I venture to say that only in a Harpur and Iles novel would the reader encounter a crook known as Empathy Abidan who, when in a car with his mates on the way to administer a corrective beating to a wayward member of the firm, likes nothing better than to fire up the sound system so they can all listen to German lieder by Schumann, Webern, and on occasion, Mahler.
I meant to include a fourth title in the post immediately preceding this one:
An accident involving multiple vehicles results in the death of a university student, and Detective Superintendent Roy Grace of the Sussex constabulary catches the case. Carly Chase, a busy single mother on her way to work, had swerved to avoid hitting the youth, who was then struck by another vehicle. Carly’s quick thinking maneuver had succeeded, if only momentarily. But in the process, her car was badly damaged. She emerges from the wreck, rattled but with only minor injuries.
At first, Carly’s role in the accident seems like little more than a mighty nuisance. But there is more to this complicated roadway crack-up than at first meets the eye, and Carly is soon to discover the true meaning of terror….
The plot of Dead Man’s Grip becomes increasingly convoluted, but it is marked by a clarity of purpose and an almost unrelenting suspense. Roy Grace is an enormously appealing protagonist. He’s a dauntless, resourceful investigator with an intriguing and complex personal life. His wife having unaccountably disappeared some years ago, Roy is now deeply in love with Cleo Morey, who is soon to give birth to their child.
Surprises, largely of the unpleasant variety, await Roy Grace in both the domestic and professional spheres of his (overcrowded) life.
I like the way Peter James writes. Here’s a sample:
He tipped the can of gun oil on to a piece of rag and wiped along the barrel. He liked the smell of the oil the way some folk, he imagined, liked the smell of a fine wine. He’d seen wine experts on television talk about hints of cedar, cigar, pepper and cinnamon, or about gooseberries, and citrus. This oil had a metallic tang to it, a hint of linseed, copper and rotten apples. It was every bit as fine to him as the finest wine.
This is easily one of the most evocative – in an olfactory sense – prose passages I’ve come across in some time.
In addition to Roy Grace, this novel is crowded with fascinating characters. I’m thinking especially of Tooth, an improbably named hit man with a number of unique attributes.
Dead Simple was very good, but Dead Man’s Grip was even better. It seems to me that Peter James has crafted a rare blend of traditional police procedural and fast-paced thriller. The reader is gifted with the best of both crime fiction genres: a story that grabs you and doesn’t let go, and fully developed characters that spring to life and keep you caring about the outcome.
…such as the one he describes in The Altered Case. It consists of five sets of skeletonized remains found in the Vale of York, buried in a remote field belonging to a local farmer. Even the story of their discovery is strange and haunting, a case of delayed reaction if there ever was one.
The investigation into these strange circumstances is to be conducted by the York Constabulary, which is headed up by DCI George Hennessey. Hennessey’s right hand man is DS Somerled Yellich. (That name is pronounced “Sorley,” by the way.)
Other members of the investigative team headed by these two are on hand, as they have been in previous entries in this series: Reginald Webster, Carmen Pharoah, and Thomson Ventnor. Louise D’Acre is once again on hand as the forensic pathologist. One of the positive aspects of following a series like this one is that the characters that populate the novels come to seem like old friends. The reader is pleased to encounter them yet gain – for the most part, that is. With regard to the Hennessey and Yellich novels, each of the ‘regulars’ has his or her cross to bear, either in the present or from the past. And then, of course, there’s George Hennessey’s secret lover….
I’ve said before that I like a mystery in which there’s and element of what I call ‘added value’ in the story. A good example would be the role played by the Pre-Raphaelite painters in Barry Maitland’s Dark Mirror. In The Altered Case, a mysterious family is likened to the equally mysterious disappearance of the Roman Ninth Legion, If this reference sounds faintly familiar to you. it’s probably because it’s the subject of last year’s film, The Eagle. (The film was based on The Eagle of the Ninth, a novel by Rosemary Sutcliff.)
In one scene, in connection the current inquiry, Carmen Pharoah interviews a retired officer named Adrian Clough. It is he who likens the disappearance of the Parr family to the unknown fate of the Roman Ninth Legion. He begins the tale thus: “The Ninth Legion left Eboracum to go north to Caledonia….” Eboracum was the Roman name for the City of York; Caledonia was what the Romans called Scotland.
Peter Turnbull previously wrote a series set in Glasgow and is now also writing one set in London. In this space, I’ve reviewed several other novels in the Hennessey and Yellich series: Chill Factor, Once a Biker, No Stone Unturned, Deliver Us From Evil, and Turning Point. In my write-up of Chill Factor I spoke about what a thrill it was to be reading one of these novels while I was actually in York. (Please forgive me for quoting myself):
This series by Turnbull benefits greatly by its setting: York, the cathedral city that dates back to Roman times…. For sure, this ancient place is a veritable treasure house. You roam the narrow streets of “the Shambles,” where many of the low structures (kept low by law, I’m told) date from the Middle Ages; then look up! You see the astonishing Minster, the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe, towering above everything. All passionate readers know the special joy of reading a book set in a place you happen to be in. I had that pleasure with regard to York in the fall of 2005. I don’t remember which book in this series I was reading at the time, but I do remember my delight in reading about “walking the walls” and heading into snickelways (narrow alleys between buildings) while I was actually doing those very things myself.
One of my chief pleasures in reading Peter Turnbull resides in the fact that his prose style is quite unique – wholly his own, I would venture to say. It has a somewhat antique flair, as when, instead of saying he doesn’t like winter, a character articulates the sentiment thus: ‘I care not for winter….’ And there are the delightful introductions to each new chapter. Here’s the one for Chapter Four:
…in which Somerled Yellich and and Reginald Webster travel south, Thomson Ventnor meets a lady who is much befitted by means of upward social mobility and George Hennessey is at home to the too kind reader.
Commenting on my review of Turning Point, Martin Edwards says the following:
Peter Turnbull, whom I’ve known for fifteen years or more, is a very self-effacing individual, but a writer (in my opinion) of real quality. I’ve been familiar with his books since I was a student, and the P Division stories were quite prominent in their day. But he never ‘broke out’ and is now relatively little known. But he is a crime writer who deserves more recognition.
I was most grateful for this observation, from this most generous of writers whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. And yes, Peter Turnbull is as elusive as ever. Each time I review one of his books, I start the search anew: perhaps there’s now a website? Maybe even a Wikipedia entry! (There’s a Wikipedia entry for a Peter Turnbull, but alas, it refers to Scottish football player born in 1875.) Peter Turnbull was born in Rotherham, in South Yorkshire, in 1950. In his entry in Contemporary Authors online, a Gale database accessible through the library’s website, he is quoted as follows: “‘I would like my books to be an accurate historical record of UK society at the cusp of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.’”
From that same article, we learn that Peter Turnbull has had a most varied work life: trained as a social worker, he pursued that profession from 1978 to 1995, at which time he decided to become a writer full time. He has also been a steelworker and a crematorium assistant. Also, at some point, he did a stint as a social worker in Brooklyn, New York. (I would really like to know more about that particular experience.)
I was delighted to learn that this author won an Edgar this year for his short story “The Man Who Took His Hat Off to the Driver of the Train.” Not sure how to get my hands on this, but will let you know when I do. Meanwhile, do pick up this or one of the other Hennessey and Yellich novels. You’ll enjoy the best in British police procedural writing.
Hero to zero.
Cop to corpse.
While on foot patrol, a young beat cop named Harry Tasker is picked off by a sniper. This would be awful enough if it were an isolated instance. But it is not: Tasker is the third member of the Avon and Somerset force to be killed in this manner in the past twelve weeks.
Located in the South West of England, the police force known as The Avon and Somerset Constabulary covers the county of Somerset as well as the cities of Bath, Bristol, Wells, and several other jurisdictions. The Peter Diamond series is set primarily in Bath, where Peter Diamond makes his home – less of a home to him, sadly, since the loss of his wife Steph. (See Diamond Dust, 2002.)
One of the many joys of this series is the sense of place with which Lovesey endows his narratives. History is ever present, as here when an ambulance and police cars rush to the scene of Harry Tasker’s murder. As the emergency vehicles converge on Walcot Street, time stops for a moment, as we learn just what this place is:
Walcot street was created by the Romans. It is believed to have formed a small section of the Fosse Way, the unswerving road that linked the West Country to the Midlands. It runs north to south for a third of a mile, parallel to the River Avon, from St. Swithin’s Church – where Jane Austen’s parents were married in 1764 – to St. Michael’s, where it morphs into Northgate Street.
There’s more, but you get the general idea. Later, as Diamond and others are attempting to track a suspect, this happens:
The static alerted him again. ‘Sierra Three at Barton Bridge, repeat, Barton Bridge. We have a sighting.’
Barton Bridge, another of Bradford’s ancient structures, seven hundred years old, spanned the Avon only a few hundred yards from where Diamond was.
As Diamond and one of his team approach yet another bridge over the Avon, they find themselves approaching “…one of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s oddest indulgences, his railway viaduct disguised as a castle wall.”
(Maybe I’m a hopeless romantic, but to me it seems that dwellng in a landscape so rich in literary and historical associations would be very heaven!)
Cop To Corpse is not merely a travelogue; on the contrary, it’s a terrifically plotted mystery, a veritable page turner, with all the suspense one could desire from such a novel. There are some truly memorable set pieces, too. One involves Peter Diamond deep in a wood where the suspect has been sighted. What happens to him there is so sudden and bizarre – it had me gasping!
Lovesey writes great dialog, much of it spiked with sharp observation and wit. On one occasion, because both of his good suits are at the cleaners, Peter Diamond shows up for work in a rather quaintly rural get-up. Turning toward him to make a comment, one of his fellow investigators takes one look and asks in astonishment if he’s auditioning for a part in Midsomer Murders.
Since its inception, with The Last Detective in 1991, the Peter Diamond series has gotten better and better. If memory serves (which it doesn’t always), I’ve read all of them, plus two excellent standalones, The Reaper and Rough Cider. I’ve reviewed the following in this space: The Secret Hangman, The Headhunters, Skeleton Hill, and Stagestruck.
Crime Writing Month is a promotional initiative from the The Crime Writers’ Association, (The CWA presides over the prestigious Dagger Awards.) A site entitled Celebrating Reginald Hill is one of the many activities feeding into the CWA’s initiative. I was asked to contribute to this site.
I was deeply gratified to be asked to contribute to this initiative.
‘He looked at her, knowing that the sand was running rapidly out of her glass….’ – Kill My Darling, by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles
Melanie Hunter has gone missing. This is a strange happenstance in and of itself, but what is even stranger is the identity of the person who reported her disappearance, one Ronald Fitton. Fitton lives in the basement unit of the condominium complex where Melanie lives with her boyfriend Scott Hibbert. Hibbert is a real estate agent, clean on the surface but with something not quite wholesome lurking just beneath that surface. Or at least, that’s how it appears to DI Bill Slider and his team at the Shepherds’s Bush Borough Constabulary in London. As for Ronald Fitton, police and the public know only too well that he is capable of violence.
There were plenty of twists and turns in Kill My Darling, but not so many that I got lost. In fact, I was equal parts mesmerized and baffled, right alongside the investigators themselves. They’d seize upon a suspect, sure that they’d got hold of the solution to the puzzle, only to be proved wrong and left no closer to the truth.
A deft and clever writer, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles has a marked penchant for puns, as her chapter titles will attest:
I Only Have Pies for You
Thirst Among Equals
Deliver Us From Elvis
Well, you get the idea….This propensity can at times be groan-inducing, but those times are few and far between. Mostly the puns are good clean fun. (As are the rhymes – at least, most of the time! Sorry – I just couldn’t help it…..)
There’s a new member of the team in this novel; at least, I don’t remember her from previous Slider books. Her name’s Connolly. She speaks with an Irish inflection and she’s a no nonsense investigator who saves her sympathy for those who deserve it. I like her enormously and hope that she will become a fixture in this series. Chief Inspector Porson, Bill Slider’s boss, already has that status. He’s a man who regularly mangles the English language, always with great conviction, as in this spirited exchange with Slider:
‘Like it or not, we’re engaged in a public relations exercise every time we stick our noses out of doors. Nothing and nobody’s sacrospect these days. You got to be seen to be doing something, and if that something is Ronnie Fitton – well, you can’t bake bricks without eggs. If we can’t keep the press busy they’ll be muddying the waters so we can’t see the wood for the pile anyway. I got more people on my back than a donkey at the beach, and a bird in the hand’s as good as a wink to a blind horse any day.’
Slider has a deep understanding of his boss: “When Porson was agitated, his grasp on language became even more random than usual. You could tell how riled he was by the degree of dislocation.”
Atherton, Slider’s second in command, is not only a shrewd policeman but also an urbane and debonair person who’s a master of the witty riposte. As for Bill Slider himself, he is one of my all time favorite stars of the British police procedural genre. Having managed to extricate himself from an unhappy marriage with a minimum of unpleasantness, he’s now happily married to Joanna, a violinist. They have a small son, George. Slider’s widowed father makes up the rest of the household.
Bill Slider is such a sensitive soul, you wonder he’s able to withstand the rigors of his job. Here, he has just left a particularly harrowing interview, ostensibly in order to make tea:
Slider went into the kitchen part, took the kettle to the tap, and leaned against the sink for a moment, his eyes closed. He found his hands were shaking. Emotional draining didn’t only happen to the narrator, he discovered, but to the interlocutor too.
Much is conveyed in the simple, direct language of that passage. (I love the author’s use of the word “interlocutor,” so reminiscent of Henry James.) But Bill Slider reserves his deepest empathy for the missing woman. Early on in the case, the team obtains a recently taken studio portrait of Melanie to be used in their investigation and distributed to the media. In the picture, “…she looked pretty and smiley and good, a nice girl with a good school record and a fine career ahead of her.” Gazing on this image, Slider experiences a mixture of sensations:
He felt horribly, guiltily, as though they had sealed her fate by taking over that photograph. He had no hope now that she would wander back home or they would find her alive, and he felt ashamed of his defeatism.
In a recent review of The Hanging Wood by Martin Edwards, I spoke of my appreciation of what I call added value in a mystery. In Kill My Darling, I got it from the description of a weather related phenomenon: “…an unbroken grey cover of cloud, too high for real rain, but dispensing the sort of fine mizzle you don’t even realize is there until you turn your face upwards and feel it pricking your skin like tiny insect feet.” Slider reflects that his mother had called this “haar.” Sure enough, Wikipedia defines haar as “…a coastal fog along certain lands bordering the North Sea.” There’s also a piece on haar and other terms for sea fog on the BBC’s site. (As it happens, Ron and I just got back from Plymouth Massachusetts and Cape Cod, where we encountered plenty of haar, accompanied at times by strong winds and temperatures in the fifties. Needless to say, the term ‘haar’ is now firmly entrenched in our mutual vocabulary.)
Before I conclude, I’d like to mention that I love the way Cynthia Harrod-Eagles writes about dogs and cats. She’s affectionate and realistic without giving way to sentiment. Here, for instance, are Atherton’s two cats in a mischief making mood:
Tig was trying to get his head up Atherton’s trouser leg, while Vash appeared to be calculating whether he could jump straight from the floor to the top of Atherton’s head. He’d done it before. It wasn’t the process that hurt but the arrival. Heads were slippery and required landing gear to be down.
Kill My Darling is the fourteenth entry in the Bill Slider series. It is my ardent hope that there are more to come. I always know that I’ll derive great pleasure from these novels. Their wit, incisive writing, and inventive plotting all put me in mind of the Dalziel and Pascoe series by the late Reginald Hill. I can offer no higher compliment to a work of crime fiction.
The Hanging Wood is the fifth entry in the Lake District series of novels by Martin Edwards. This ongoing narrative features two exceptionally attractive protagonists, DCI Hannah Scarlett and Daniel Kind. Hannah heads up the Cold Case Team for the Cumbria Constabulary. Daniel is an historian, formerly at Oxford; he has also gained a measure of fame as a television personality. When their story begins in The Coffin Trail (one of my all time favorite series openers), Daniel, having suffered a tragedy in his personal life, has turned his back both on celebrity and on Oxford. With his new girlfriend Amanda, he’s relocated to the Lake District in search of a more serene and less complicated way of life. This being a crime fiction series, however, he doesn’t quite achieve that goal.
Hannah is also in a relationship, a long term one. Her partner Marc is a bookstore owner. As it happens, there is a prior link between Daniel and Hannah: Daniel’s father Ben Kind was a policeman in Cumbria and had acted as Hannah’s mentor when she first joined the force. As the series progresses, we perceive that additional forces are working to create a bond between these two complex, deeply interesting yet fundamentally reserved people.
There are two mysteries at the center of The Hanging Wood. One involves a missing fourteen-year-old named Callum Hinds. Callum has not been seen or heard from for twenty years. The decision of Hannah’s boss Lauren Self to re-open the inquiry into his disappearance causes this cold case to land squarely in Hannah’s lap. Meanwhile, Callum’s sister Orla Payne has been conducting her own investigation. Unfortunately, her actions in this matter lead to tragic consequences. Someone has secrets regarding this matter and will clearly stop at nothing to prevent their exposure.
Meanwhile, we learn that Daniel Kind is researching yet another mystery, one that stretches back into the past: “He was writing a study of Thomas De Quincey’s influence upon the history of murder.” ( Thomas De Quincey wrote the essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.”) Daniel is conducting the bulk of his research in St. Herbert’s Residential Library. It so happened that this august institution had also been the scene of Orla Payne’s recent employment.
Here I will pause for a moment to expound briefly on the subject of a residential library. Upon first seeing that locution, I assumed that it referred to a library housed in a larger domicile of some sort. But no: the library and the residence are one in the same, a sort of combined research facility and bed and breakfast.
I was delighted by the notion of such an entity. I had visions of my info-hungry self flying downstairs or through large, spacious hallways in my pajamas and fuzzy slippers toward the stacks in order to verify some point of fact or other.
In his Author’s Note, Martin Edwards informs us that St. Herbert’s as described in the novel does not actually exist. However, there is in North Wales a similar establishment that served as its model: St. Deiniol’s, currently known as Gladstone’s Library at St. Deiniol’s.
I love mysteries that have what I call “added value,” and The Hanging Wood had plenty of that. First, there was the pleasure of discovering the residential library. Then, there’s the encounter with Thomas De Quincey. Finally, there’s the delight of returning to the Lake District, a place of serene beauty which I have not visited for many years. In particular, we get to visit Derwent Water in company with Hannah and Daniel. The latter remarks: “Ruskin said this was one of the three most beautiful scenes in Europe….” It’s not hard to see why:
Be sure and click to enlarge this gorgeous vista.
( Effie is an excellent new book about John Ruskin, Effie Gray, and John Everett Millais. A film is also forthcoming.)
I very much enjoyed The Hanging Wood, and I look forward with happy anticipation to the next book in this fine series. (Click here for a review of the novel just previous to this one, The Serpent Pool. And you might also enjoy, as I did, Waterloo Sunset, which is set in Liverpool and features a different series character, solicitor Harry Devlin.)
I’d like to take this opportunity to remind lovers of crime fiction of Martin Edwards’s terrific blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name. Here you will find reviews and news of the mystery world. (I especially enjoy the recurring feature called ‘Forgotten Book.’)
One of my favorite authors of crime fiction has passed away.
Reginald Hill was the author of the Dalziel and Pascoe procedurals as well as a number of standalones, and as of 1993, a series featuring private investigator Joe Sixsmith. He also wrote seven thrillers under the name Patrick Ruell. Here’s the complete list.
It’s a large body of work, and its quality was consistently high. I’ve always looked to Hill’s novels for elegant prose, prodigious erudition, ingenious plots, and that wry, biting wit that we Anglophiles so cherish in British writers.
My reading of Reginald Hill’s oeuvre has been pretty much confined to the Dalziel and Pascoe novels. My favorites among them are The Wood Beyond, On Beulah Height, Dialogues of the Dead, Death’s Jest Book, Good morning, Midnight…well, as you can see, I’m having trouble choosing. If I had to pick a masterpiece from the lot, I’d choose On Beulah Height, a crime story which possesses an added dimension of urgency because of a dire situation involving one of the main characters in the series. The psychological acuity at work in this novel took my breath away. In her New York Times review of On Beulah Height, Marilyn Stasio called Reginald Hill “ever the master of form and sorcerer of style.” Click here for an appreciation of Hill’s work that I wrote in 2008.
For the 2007 Smithsonian Tour “Mystery Lovers’ England and Scotland,” Recalled To Life was on our list of suggested reading. This is my brief review, including a lengthy quoted passage:
I had deliberately saved Recalled To Life, a nicely compact mass market paperback, to read on the plane. What I didn’t anticipate was that I would still be reading it on the way back! I am a dedicated reader of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe novels, but I found this one, published here in 1992 and located about half way through the series, to be exceptionally dense and complex. It’s a country house murder, all right, but with an enormous cast of characters; I had trouble keeping track of who was who. Nevertheless, it has all the trademarks of Hill’s wonderful writing. Dalziel in particular is in exceptionally fine fettle here: pushy, coarse, low class – sometimes rather deliberately so – but also capable of compassion and insight. He’s a real brawler, too when the occasion calls for it, which it does several times in this book.
Recalled to Life is named for the title of the first chapter of A Tale of Two Cities. Quotes at the head of each chapter are taken from the Dickens work. Hill’s novel is indeed about people being “recalled to life” in various ways: released from prison after over two decades, in the case of one character; given a new, if brief, lease on life as in the case of Ellie Pascoe’s aging mother. Towards the conclusion, as Dalziel and Peter Pascoe are heading north on the A 1, Hill treats us to this poignant, eloquent paragraph, as good an illustration as any of the way in which the British are never very far from an awareness of their rich, extraordinary, and sometimes brutal history:
“This was the Great North Road, or had been before modern traffic made it necessary for roads to miss the townships they had once joined. Hatfield they passed, where Elizabeth the First learned of her accession, and Hitchin, where George Chapman translated Homer into English and John Keats into the realms of gold; Biggleswade where the Romans, driving their own road north, forded a river and founded a town; Norman Cross, near which a bronze eagle broods over the memory of eighteen hundred of Napoleon’s dead, not on a field of battle but in a British prison camp; then into what had been Rutland before it was destroyed by little men whose power outstripped their vision by a Scotch mile; and now began the long flat acres of Lincolnshire, and the road ran by Stamford, once the busy capital of the Fens and later badly damaged during the Wars of the Roses; and Grantham, where God said, ‘let Newton be,’ and there was light, though in a later century the same town ushered in some of the country’s most twilit years…”
Dwelling in his Cumbrian fastness, Mr. Hill has always avoided the limelight. (This short, lively bio has been on the Random House site for as long as I can remember.) His books will stand as a fitting monument to a life well lived in the realm of literature.
A Sight for Sore Eyes came out in 1999. It is a novel of psychological suspense, not a police procedural – Reg Wexford does not appear in the narrative. Sight features one of the most genuinely frightening characters I’ve ever encountered in a work of fiction. In the more than ten years since I read it, I have not forgotten his name: Teddy Brex.
The Vault opens with Franklin Merton commenting that although he could afford to buy a particular house, he could not afford to purchase a painting of it. The painting he’s referring to is entitled Marc and Harriet in Orcadia Place. The painter was Simon Alpheton, an artist of considerable note at the time, that time being 1973.
A Sight for Sore Eyes opens with Simon Alpheton in the act of painting Marc Syre, star of the rock band Come Hither, and his girlfriend Harriet Oxenholme as they stand before a house – their house, Orcadia Cottage.
The house they stood in front of was described by those who knew about such things as a Georgian cottage and built of the kind of red bricks usually called mellow. But at this time of year, midsummer, almost all the brickwork was hidden under a dense drapery of Virginia creeper, its leaves green, glossy and quivering in the light breeze. The whole surface of the house seemed to shiver and rustle, a vertical sea of green ruffled into wavelets by the wind.
I often feel that Ruth Rendell is not given sufficient credit for the vivid beauty of her writing. One is particularly likely to encounter prose of this caliber when she is describing dwelling places. Orcadia Cottage is of central importance in A Sight for Sore Eyes, just as it is in The Vault.
While Marc and Harriet are posing for him, Simon tells them about a painting by Rembrandt called The Jewish Bride:
‘It’s a very tender painting, it expresses the protective love of the man for his young submissive bride. They’re obviously wealthy, they’re very richly dressed, but you can see that they’re sensitive, thoughtful people and they’re in love.’
The graceful image, not to mention the subtle implication conjured by these words is well nigh lost on the rock musician and his preening girlfriend. Her response to Simon’s words is to crow: “Like us. Rich and in love.”
No, not much like them at all, actually….
The action of The Vault takes place in the present, almost forty years after Simon Alpheton created his iconic image. Marc Syre is dead. Franklin Merton has recently passed away. No one knows what’s become of Harriet Oxenholme. Meanwhile, a terrible secret concealed in the bowels of Orcadia cottage has just come to light.
At the time of these events, Reg Wexford, newly retired, is living with his wife Dora in London, in accommodation provided by their loving (and happily very well to do) daughter Sheila. Wexford is just starting to adjust to his new life when Superintendent Tom Ede of the Met asks for his help. A gruesome discovery has been made in a house in Orcadia Place. Could Wexford assist with the investigation, as a civilian consultant? Wexford could. And does, although working for law enforcement in this singular capacity makes him somewhat uneasy. In conversation with Dora, he can’t help likening himself to some of the great fictional consulting detectives of the past:
‘Every detective-story writer had an amateur detective who was cleverer than the police. Sherlock Holmes, of course. Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey…’
‘Who on earth was he?’
‘Josephine Tey’s detective. But no, Reg, I forgot. He was a bona fide policeman.’
(In fact, Roderick Alleyn was also a law enforcement professional. His creator Ngaio Marsh was among the pioneers of the British police procedural, beginning with the first Roderick Alleyn novel called A Man Lay Dead, published in 1934.)
Wexford’s peregrinations throughout London are recounted in fascinating detail. I felt as though I were walking along side him. At one point in the investigation, as he checks in via cell phone with Tom Ede, the latter asks if he is anywhere near the West Hampstead cemetery. If so, he should seek out the tomb of Grand Duke Michael of Russia. In 1891, the Grand Duke made a marriage that not only displeased his cousin Czar Alexander III but was also illegal according to Imperial Law. He was sent to live in exile, and after some wandering on the continent chose England as the new dwelling place for his family. That’s where they were – the Grand Duke, his wife Countess Sophie of Merenberg, and their three children – when revolution overtook Russia in 1917. One wonders how they felt, watching from a safe distance, as the imperial regime that had spurned them was annihilated.
This story has nothing to do with the main narrative of the novel. It is yet another instance of Ruth Rendell in digressive mode. As a lesson in the vagaries of history, the story of the Grand Duke and his family is worth pondering.
I love Rendell’s digressions, and as you’ve probably already gathered, I loved this book.