Recently discussed by the Usual Suspects: Dissolution by C.J. Sansom, and In a Dark House by Deborah Crombie

May 8, 2011 at 2:34 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

I’m currently planning for two upcoming trips, as a result of which I have fallen behind in regard to the composing of blog entries. I did want to make note of two recent meetings of the Usual Suspects.

C.J. Sansom

In February, Carol led us in a discussion of Dissolution by C.J. Sansom. This is the first novel in what has gone on to become an acclaimed series set in the reign of Henry VIII. In Dissolution, we are introduced to Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer with a spinal deformity who becomes the preferred emissary of Thomas Cromwell. I read Dissolution when it came out in 2003, and like other readers and reviewers, found myself riveted by this vivid recreation of a turbulent time in English history.

The selection of a work of historical crime fiction places a special burden on a discussion leader. In the case of Dissolution, many of us have a general knowledge of the Tudor period, especially as regards the reign of Elizabeth I and her famous – or infamous – father. We can recite the drill regarding the six wives of Henry VIII: divorced (Catherine of Aragon), beheaded (Anne Boleyn), died (Jane Seymour), divorced (Anne of Cleves), beheaded (Katherine Howard). survived (Catherine Parr). But the story is far more complicated than that, particularly as regards the religious upheavals. Carol did a great job providing background for the novel.

I had planned to skim Dissolution in order to refresh my memory, but I became so absorbed in the story that I ended up reading it word for word, and therefore not finishing it, as I hadn’t allowed sufficient time to do so. I found myself thinking, Now I remember why I was so mesmerized  by this book! (I look forward to reading the latest in this series, Heartstone. It has received outstanding reviews.)

Inevitably, the subject of Wolf Hall came up. Hilary Mantel’s vivid evocation of the same era is one of the best historical novels I’ve ever read. But Sansom’s work is likewise persuasive and engaging. It was fun comparing the two novels.

I love both of these cover images:


The second of these features St. Francis in Meditation, painted in 1635 by the great Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbaran:


  In a Dark House by Deborah Crombie was the April selection for the Suspects. This was the third novel I’d read in Crombie’s series featuring Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid. Many people consider Dreaming of the Bones to be in the way of becoming a modern classic of crime literature. I read it shortly after its 1997 publication, and while I don’t remember the specifics, I do recall Crombie’s evocation of Rupert Brooke, one of the great poets of the First World War. I also read and enjoyed Like Water for Stone. So I was pleased to be returning to the works of this author, and indeed, In a Dark House, a tale of arson, intrigue, kidnapping, and murder, did not disappoint.

A quick word about Like Water for Stone: it’s set in Cheshire, childhood home of Duncan Kincaid. The novel features much fascinating lore about canals and canal boats, also called narrow boats. I’d  not been aware that there exists a means whereby these boats navigate from one side of a river to another while suspended more than a hundred feet above the river valley! The structure that allows them to perform this seemingly impossible feat is called the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct; it carries the Llangollen Canal over the River Dee. Here’s a video essay:

Mike, our discussion leader, provided background on the author. Deborah Crombie is a Texan with a lifelong passion for all things English (and some of us can definitely empathize with that!). I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Ms Crombie in person twice: once at Bouchercon in 2008 and also at the National Book Festival in 2007. Both times she was artless and completely engaging.

With Washington Post crime fiction reviewer at the National Book Festival in 2007

At Bouchercon 2008 in Baltimore, standing between Rhys Bowen, left, and Louise Penny

Crombie is one of several American writers who set their crime fiction in the UK. The question inevitably arises as to whether the characters and their context seem authentically British. In particular, I look for small linguistic indicators. I don’t mean “boot” instead of trunk or “lift” instead of elevator. Rather, I refer to the use of “cheers” to sign off on a phone conversation, the tendency to conclude a sentence with the interrogative “yeah?” instead of “okay?” and use of  the expression “straight away” in place of “right away.”

For this reader, Crombie’s books have a distinctly British feel to them – more so than do the works of Elizabeth George, who, for my money, tries too hard and too earnestly to achieve the same effect. Likewise, Crombie’s characters have a more real and immediate appeal. I really enjoyed the child care issues that kept popping up in the midst of the action. Kincaid and James, devoted parents of Kit and Toby, are not yet married but are nonetheless in a deeply committed relationship. Their children’s situation is somewhat convoluted and was the cause of my only complaint, albeit a mild one. You would have to have been following the series pretty faithfully to  be fully cognizant of the niceties involved here.

The title ‘In a Dark House’ comes from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “Why have you suffer’d me to be imprison’d, / Kept in a dark house…” As with so many lines from Shakespeare, these disturb, even if one is ignorant of the context. Crombie also placed quotations at the head of each chapter. Most are from Dickens. I particularly liked this one from Martin Chuzzlewit:

‘But we never knows wot’s hidden in each other’s hearts; and if we had  glass winders there, we’d need keep the shetters up, some on us, I do assure you!’

Marge, my “partner in crime,” is a great fan of the Duncan Kincaid / Gemma James series. Her favorite is A Finer End, with its evocative Glastonbury setting. This will be my next Crombie “read.”

Deborah Crombie, sporting a stylish new "do" of which we Suspects heartily aprroved!


  1. Yvette said,

    Wonderful post. I’ve just recently learned about the books of Deborah Crombie. My fellow blogger Nan, over at LETTERS FROM HILL FARM, is a big Crombie fan. I”Ve just begun little by little reading the books.

    I loved this post. I love the way you include videos and pix and comments together so coherently. No matter what subject or book you’re concentrating on.

    I wish I had more command of blogging ‘how-to’s. You do amazing work, Roberta.

    Just beautiful work.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      This is a high praise coming from one whose own blog is such a lovely work of art – Thanks, Yvette!

  2. Nan said,

    That aqueduct totally creeped me out in the book. I don’t think I could walk it, let alone be in a boat way up there! I was so interested in the whole canal boat thing, and have dreamed about renting one for ages. I loved reading this post, since I am so enjoying this series. I am on the last published one right now.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks, Nan, and thanks once again for Letters From a Hill Farm!

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