There’s no stopping Your Faithful Blogger as she polishes off yet another Doug Selby DA novel:

May 26, 2017 at 9:10 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

This time it’s The D.A. Cooks a Goose.

Who are these fools anyway, who think they can escape the relentless justice, meted out against steep odds, by the young and fearless Doug Selby?

I’ve decided that what most attracts me to this series is its vivid evocation of a time gone by, in this country in general and in California in particular. Often it’s the small gestures that tell: the lighting of cigarettes anywhere and any time; uninsured  cars having the freedom of the road, with predictable consequences.

Each time I’ve read one of these books, I’ve been struck by the brief and unexpected beauty of various descriptive passages:

Selby found the atmosphere in San Francisco was a sharp change from the desert-tanged, dry air of Madison City.Cold fog which had swept in from the ocean surrounded the street lights with a golden aura of suspended globules.The clanging bells of cable cars, the monotonous whine of mechanical fog signals and the deep booming of whistles from steamboats drifted upward through the fog mantle, muffled into a soft medley of sound by the thick white blanket which lay over the city.

At the other end of the spectrum,  Gardner rarely misses an opportunity to dish up a nice helping of noir lingo:

“I was a pen-pusher once, and a  good one. I did my time in stir and got a clean bill of health – as much as  they can give you when you get out of the big house. But with that record of mine, all they need is just a little evidence, and  they could frame a murder  rap on me. I’ve seen those things done lost of times.”

In small Madison City, Doug has a lot to contend with: an ambitious sheriff, a hostile press, a scheming defense lawyer, and the general intransigence of the state’s legal machinery. And then there are the women in his life: Sylvia Martin and Inez Stapleton, one a reporter and the other a lawyer. There’s a hint of the femme fatale in Inez; nevertheless, she’s a thoroughgoing professional. The same may be said of Sylvia, whose unswerving loyalty to Doug is never allowed to interfere with her getting the scoop ahead of everyone else.

Now it’s on to the sixth in the series: The DA Calls a Turn. This title and the seventh, The DA Breaks a Seal, are in print, courtesy of House of Stratus.

On the back of The DA Calls a Turn, readers are informed that Erle Stanley Gardner “…wrote 146 books, 88 of which feature Perry Mason.” Alack, he only wrote nine in the Doug Selby series. For this reader, it will probably be on to the enormous Perry Mason oeuvre after that.

This has been escapist reading of the first order, especially welcome right now.

(For the complete list, see the entry at Stop! YoureKillingMe.Com.)

 

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The Mystery of a Hansom Cab by Fergus Hume

May 22, 2017 at 11:21 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

I had already heard of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab when I chanced upon a short story written by that novel’s author, Fergus Hume. The story, entitled, “The Ghost’s Touch,” is the lead piece in Crimson Snow, an anthology in the British Library Crime Classics series. Editor Martin Edwards says of it:

This highly traditional mystery is a period piece, yes, but also offers a reminder that Hume was a capable storyteller; he deserves more than to be remembered solely on the strength of a single book.

I liked “The Ghost’s Touch” so much that I decided to dive right into the ‘single book’ upon which Fergus Hume’s somewhat elusive fame rests:

I would call this novel a locked room mystery, except for the fact that the murder happened in the middle of  the night, in the open air. In order to fully comprehend what took place, it’s necessary to know just what a hansom cab is. The Wikipedia entry offers a succinct description of  the vehicle’s design (and  features some excellent visuals as well):

The cab, a type of fly, sat two passengers (three if squeezed in) and a driver who sat on a sprung seat behind the vehicle. The passengers could give their instructions to the driver through a trap door near the rear of the roof. They could pay the driver through this hatch and he would then operate a lever to release the doors so they could alight. In some cabs, the driver could operate a device that balanced the cab and reduced strain on the horse. The passengers were protected from the elements by the cab, and by folding wooden doors that enclosed their feet and legs, protecting their clothes from splashing mud. Later versions also had an up-and-over glass window above the doors to complete the enclosure of the passengers. Additionally, a curved fender mounted forward of the doors protected passengers from the stones thrown up by the flying hooves of the horse.

It’s easy to see that at night, a criminal act could take place within the close confines of the carriage, without being observed by the driver, or by anyone else for that matter. And that is exactly what happens right at the outset of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. The deceased was found to have no identification on him; thus, the police  are left with two perplexing questions: What is the identity of the victim? Who killed him?

Hume gradually fills in the picture with the relevant dramatis personae: among them are Brian Fitzgerald, a young man about town who knew the victim; Madge Frettlby, Brian’s fiancee, a woman of uncommon grit and determination; Madge’s father Mark Frettlby, and Mr. Gorby, the police inspector. (There are many more supporting characters.) Gorby goes after Brian Fitzgerald like Javert pursuing Jean Valjean. He’s the very avatar of the investigator who, the more wrongheaded his theory of the crime, the more relentlessly he pursues its fanciful dictates.

While this conundrum is being set forth, the city of Melbourne, Australia comes vividly to life. I freely admit that the only things I know about this locale have been gleaned from watching the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries. Whereas these delightful productions are set in the 1920s, Fergus Hume’s novel was published several decades earlier. So the setting reaches further back in time, becoming even more exotic and intriguing in the process. Here, Hume describes one Melbourne’s more elegant venues:

It was Saturday morning, and of course all fashionable Melbourne was doing the Block. With regard to its ‘Block,’ Collins Street corresponds to New York’s Broadway, London’s Regent Street sand Rotten Row, and to the Boulevards of Paris. It is on the Block that people show off their new dresses, bow to their friends, cut their enemies, and chatter small talk.

When we venture away from Collins Street toward Burke Street, though, we encounter an altogether different, far less salubrious scene:

The restless crowd which jostles and pushes along the pavements is grimy in the main, but the grimyness is lightened in many places by the presence of the ladies of the demi-monde,who flaunt about in gorgeous robes of the  brightest colours. These gay-plumaged birds of ill omen collect at the corners of the street, and converse loudly with their male acquaintances, till desired by some white-helmeted policeman to move on, which they do, after a good deal of unnecessary chatter.

In other words, Melbourne in the 1880s resembles in some ways London of the same period.

Hume’s writing is sprightly and inventive and filled with literary allusions, from the classics of the ancient world to contemporaneous crime literature – and that includes both detective fiction and true crime. I was pleased to see Thomas De Quincey referenced more than once; likewise Mary Elizabeth Braddon, whose Lady Audley’s Secret was so fearfully entertaining, not to mention compulsively readable.

Hume knows how to render characters vividly. Here’s his description of Brian’s landlady Mrs.Sampson:

She was a small, dried-up little woman with a wrinkled yellow face, and looked so parched and brittle that strangers could not help thinking it would do her good if she were soaked in water for a year, in order to soften her a little. Whenever she moved she crackled, and one was in constant dread of seeing one of her wizen-looking limbs break off short, like the branch of a dead tree.

There’s more, but doubtless you get the idea.

Fergus Hume and Arthur Conan Doyle were both born in 1859. The Mystery of a Hansom Cab came out in 1886; A Study in Scarlet, the work that first introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes, appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887.   Scarlet barely created a ripple of interest in the reading public, whereas Hansom Cab created a sensation, first in Australia and then in Britain. The Sign of the Four, Conan Doyle’s second novel featuring Sherlock Holmes, came out in 1890. Like Scarlet, it did not make much of an impression on the reading public, although this delightful story of how it came to be written is recounted in the Wikipedia entry:

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described how he was commissioned to write the story over a dinner with Joseph M. Stoddart, managing editor of an American publication Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, at the Langham Hotel in London on 30 August 1889. Stoddart wanted to produce an English version of Lippincott’s with a British editor and British contributors. The dinner was also attended by Oscar Wilde, who eventually contributed The Picture of Dorian Gray to the July 1890 issue. Doyle discussed what he called this “golden evening” in his 1924 autobiography Memories and Adventures.

(Oh, to have  been a fly on the wall at that dinner party!)

“A Scandal in Bohemia,” the first short story featuring Holmes, appeared in The Strand Magazine in 1891. This was the work that kick started the mania for Conan Doyle’s brilliant eccentric creation. That fascination is with us still; if anything, it has grown in stature and intensity, spawning innumerable spin-offs and being handily adapted to modern media .  

Fergus Hume’s literary fortunes followed an opposite course. After Hansom Cab, he penned numerous novels and short stories, but none grabbed readers as his first novel had done, so widely and so unexpectedly.

If I have a criticism of The Mystery of  Hansom Cab, it’s that it is rather longer than necessary. The pace flags somewhat toward the end, and the plot becomes unnecessarily tangled. But for the most part it was a terrific read, filled with colorful characters and featuring a compelling love story.. I highly recommend  it.

Fergus Hume 1859-1932

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The Dungeon House by Martin Edwards

April 30, 2017 at 1:52 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  I was happy to return to the Lake District Series of crime novels written by Martin Edwards. In The Dungeon House, a cold case casts a sinister shadow over the lives of those who still feel its effects. Meanwhile, the relationship between Hannah Scarlett and historian Daniel Kind is getting warmer, albeit rather cautiously.

Twenty years prior to the novel’s main action, Malcolm Whiteley hosted a barbecue for friends and family at his residence, the rather ominously named Dungeon House. This seemingly celebratory occasion ended in terrible violence, but the question of exactly who was responsible has never been resolved in a manner that satisfied everyone. This is the cold case that DCI Hannah Scarlett inherits. As her investigation proceeds, troubling new events occur: disappearances, and even deaths, darken the beautiful Lake District landscape which forms the novel’s setting.

Meanwhile Daniel Kind, a gifted and sought after lecturer, is preparing to give a talk on the history of murder. Daniel has a penchant for choosing provocative topics. In The Serpent Pool (2010), his subject is the mercurial Thomas De Quincey. (I’ve read The Serpent Pool, but I may return to it, my interest in De Quincey having recently been stimulated by Grevel Lindop’s fascinating biography.)

In the words of the Kirkus review of Dungeon House, Martin Edwards “works exceptionally close to his characters.” Because of this, Hannah, Daniel and company are vivid and true to life. The plot is extremely complex – I admit that I lost the thread at several points – but as is invariably the case when I read crime fiction, my connection with the characters more than compensated.

Both Grevel Lindop and Martin Edwards are scheduled to meet with us on our British Mystery Trip in July.

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The D.A. Goes To Trial: another Doug Selby novel by Erle Stanley Gardner

April 16, 2017 at 1:16 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

I continue to enjoy Erle Stanley Gardner’s Doug Selby novels. There are nine in total; The D.A. Goes To Trial, published in 1940, is the fourth in the series.

Unsurprisingly, this novel is quite plot driven. But there are also descriptive passages like the one with which the story commences:

Streaks of eastern color appeared behind the mountains separating the rich orchard land from the desert. The night had been cold, although not cold enough for smudging. A light layer of frost coated the lower levels where the railroad trestled its way across the dry, sandy wash.

Out on the mesa land could be heard the hoarse bark of tractors as ranchers, bundled against the cold, pulled plows across the fertile soil.

Gardner says a lot with a little, I think. (And how I love all things California, both past and present….)

At any rate, as I said, the Selby novels are primarily plot driven, this one especially so. I have to admit, I got lost around the far turn several times. But it didn’t matter; I was so enjoying the company I was in.

Reminders abounded of how times have changed between now and then. In one scene Sylvia Martin, who is accompanying Doug on a chartered flight to Arizona, makes the following suggestion: “Let’s switch out the lights while we have our cigarettes….”

In addition, there are the old fashioned dial telephones without so much as a voicemail service, the cigarettes rolled on the spot with papers and loose tobacco, and the hobos – defined by Wikipedia as  “a migratory worker or homeless vagabond, especially one who is impoverished.” –  Such individuals are still a presence on the landscape, even as the Depression gives way to the industrial boom brought on by the Second World War.

The publisher provides this handy come-on at the front of the book:

   Here you will find a battered body under a railroad trestle…a vanished bookkeeper…a wire from a man who wasn’t there…a girl who fought Doug because she couldn’t have him…a political game with Doug as the goat. And a set of fingerprints that simply had to be where they weren’t–and couldn’t be where they were!
Doug’s on his way again, with the able assistance of Sylvia Martin, the lovely young reporter with a nose for news and an eye for Doug.

Regrettably,  in the course of  this narrative, Gardner occasionally refers to Mexican laborers in derogatory terms. This kind of heedless denigration is something one encounters from time to time in crime fiction from the 1930s and 1940s. On the other hand, Sylvia Martin, “the lovely young reporter” alluded to above, is a woman whose brains are more than equal to her looks. She’s a welcome contrast to the female characters who frequently populate works in this genre, in the same period. These tend to be either poor broken flowers wholly dependent on a man – or several men – to fix their lives, or else they are dangerous sirens who use their sexual allure to tame and trap the men in their lives.

That said, there is another continuing female character in this series who treads a somewhat odd middle ground. Her name is Inez Stapleton; she’s connected to Doug via common experiences shared in years past. Read the books and try to figure out for yourself what her game is.

Here’s the complete list of  novels in this series::

Doug Selby, the district attorney in fictional Madison County, California:
The D.A. Calls It Murder (1937)

The D.A. Holds a Candle (1938)

The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939)

The D.A. Goes to Trial (1940)

The D.A. Cooks a Goose (1942)

The D.A. Calls a Turn (1944)

The D.A. Breaks a Seal (1946)

The D.A. Takes a Chance (1948)

The D.A. Breaks an Egg (1949)

(Thanks to StopYoureKillingMe.com for this information.)

I’ve recently discovered  that two of these books are currently in print courtesy of a small press called House of Stratus:

Why just these two? No idea. However, I’m grateful, anyway.

My copy of The D.A. Goes To Trial, obtained through interlibrary loan, is in a gray library binding. But I had fun looking on line for something more colorful. Here are several that I found:

 

And now: on to The D.A. Cooks a Goose!

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‘Metta Fuller Victor was the first writer, male or female, to produce full-length detective novels in the United States….’

April 3, 2017 at 8:36 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

There is something unearthly in the scream of the “steam-eagle,” especially when heard at night.

Indeed: a train roars into Peekskill, New York, and with it comes heartbreak.

Metta Fuller Victor evokes fear, anxiety, and above all, compulsive curiosity in The Dead Letter. Right at this remarkable novel’s outset, a blameless young man is  found brutally murdered. Lives are upended; one in particular, devoured by grief, will never recover. It is left to others to solve this baffling crime.

Here the mansion lay, bathed in the rich sunshine; the garden sparkled with flowers as the river with ripples, so full, as it were, of conscious, joyous life, while the master of all lay in a darkened room awaiting his narrow coffin. Never had the uncertainty of human purposes so impressed me as when I looked abroad over that stately residence and thought of the prosperous future which had come to so awful a standstill.

I am much drawn to the loveliness and grace of this writing, and it is here present in abundance. If at times it shades into melodrama, no matter. The core sentiments are real and moving.

The edition pictured above comes from the Duke University Press; as you can see, it includes a second work by Victor, The Figure Eight. This I have not read yet but am greatly looking forward to doing so. I  strongly recommend Catherine Ross Nickerson’s highly informative and enlightening introduction to this volume, from which the title of this post is taken. She offers this pithy summation of Victor’s life:

We do not have a great deal of information on the life of Metta Fuller Victor, though we do have her prolific legacy of fiction. Born in 1831, she grew up in Pennsylvania and Ohio and attended a female seminary. She began to write poetry as a teenager, often with her sister Frances Fuller, and the two published a volume of poetry when Metta Fuller was twenty.

She went on to a remarkable career in the dime novel and was successful in several genres for both children and adults: the western, the romance, temperance novels, and rags-to-riches tales. She wrote relatively little under her own name and chose different pseudonyms for different genres, a practice that allowed her to develop a following among several sectors of readers. When she was twenty-five, she married Orville Victor, editor of Beadle and Adams, and it seems fair to say that she built the Beadle empire of publications with him. She was editor of Beadle’s Home and Beadle’s Monthly, in which The Dead Letter first appeared in serial form in 1866. Victor was best known for an abolitionist dime novel (which she published under her own name) called Maum Guinea and Her Plantation “Children” (1861). Alongside this highly productive career in letters, she raised nine children.

As for Victor’s work, Nickerson is of the opinion that Victor was instrumental in

…creating an identifiable tradition of women’s detective fiction that extends well into the twentieth century. The close association of that tradition with an earlier body of popular women’s writing, the domestic novel of the 1850s, produced a style we can call domestic detective fiction because of its distinctive interest in moral questions regarding family, home, and women’s experience.

The Dead Letter held me from beginning to end. The characters were believable and sympathetic; the plot was elegantly constructed and at the same time gripping. As a window on a past world, it was particularly appealing.

Hard to believe that this eminently readable novel was published in 1867.

Metta Victoria Fuller Victor
1931-1885

 

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‘A few prayers, word of the Book, nod of the head, and into the ground sharp.’ – Skin and Bone by Robin Blake

March 23, 2017 at 1:08 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)

 

Titus Cragg is Coroner to the town of Preston, in Lancashire, in the 1740s. I do not give the exact date because this series advances one year per entry. Skin and Bone is the fourth such.

In the first, A Dark Anatomy, we meet Titus and his close friend, the physician Luke Fidelis. From time to time, Luke lends his assistance in Titus’s death investigations. His expertise often proves invaluable.

In Skin and Bone, the mystery commences with the discovery of the body of an infant. Neither the child’s identity nor the cause of death are known. Pursuing the answer to these questions lands Titus in a world of trouble he could not have anticipated.

Blake’s plots are well wrought, but the real joy of this series lies in his meticulous evocation of mid-eighteenth century England. Details describing the workings of the coroner’s office are particularly fascinating. The characters are eminently real. believable, and appealing, for the most part. A particular pleasure is the depiction of the marriage of Titus Cragg and his wife Elizabeth. With their steadfast devotion to one another, and in particular her staunch loyalty to her often beleaguered husband, we witness first hand the source of their strength.

Titus and Elizabeth eagerly await the coming of a child into their lives. Elizabeth in particular has to fight impatience and anxiety on this score. Titus is well aware of her struggle. Early in the novel, this exchange occurs:

Her mocking tone had long gone and, now, tears were glinting in her eyes.

‘My dearest wife,’ I said, kneeling by her chair and clasping her hands. ‘You are not yet thirty and God is merciful. It is not too late for you–for us–I am sure of it.’

A simple yet moving statement of faith.

I am somewhat perplexed that this series is not better known. I would rate it without hesitation among the very best of the  historical mysteries. One thinks of the Brother Cadfael novels of Ellis Peters and C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series.

Do yourself a  favor and  start with the first, so that the novels’ cumulative effect can work freely on your imagination. For myself, I eagerly await the fifth.

 

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We bid farewell to Colin Dexter

March 22, 2017 at 12:06 am (Mystery fiction, Remembrance, The British police procedural)

I’ve been trying to brace myself for this news, but it hurts all the same.

Colin Dexter autographing my copy of The Jewel That Was Ours  at the Randolph Hotel in Oxford in 2006. Our tour group had the impression that he was enjoying himself hugely. Someone asked him why he had to kill Morse, and he responded, sounding – and looking – somewhat injured: “But I didn’t kill him – He died of natural causes!”

Few English families living in England have much direct contact with the English Breakfast. It is therefore fortunate that such an endangered institution is perpetuated by the efforts of the kitchen staff in guest houses B & B’s, transport cafes, and other no-starred and variously starred hotels. This breakfast comprises (at it  best): a milkily-opaque fried egg; two rashers of non-brittle, rindless bacon; a tomato grilled to a point where the core is no longer a hard white nodule to be operated upon by the knife;  a  sturdy sausage, deeply and evenly browned; and a slice of fried bread, golden-brown, and only just crisp, with sufficient  fat not excessively to dismay and meddlesome dietitian.

Our tour group met Dexter at the Randolph hotel in downtown Oxford. A room was set aside where he could wax expansive and witty, chatting with us agreeably and holding us spellbound.

I felt very lucky that day. I’d met my favorite author and enjoyed some precious time in his company.

Lewis smiled in spite of himself. Why he ever enjoyed working with this strange, often unsympathetic, superficially quite humorless man, well, he never quite knew. He didn’t even know if he did enjoy it.

Dexter wrote thirteen Morse novels and also some short stories. He was not especially prolific (though the filmmakers were: There are thirty-three episodes in all). Dexter closed out the series in 1999 with The Remorseful Day. Although I’ve read the novel, I was never able to bring myself to watch the tv episode. The death of 60-year-old  John Thaw, three years after the demise of his fictional counterpart, was especially poignant.

Morse thought it must be the splendid grandfather clock he’d seen somewhere that he  heard chiming the three-quarters (10:45 a.m.) as he and Lewis sat beside each other in a deep settee in the Lancaster Room. Drinking coffee.

“We’re getting plenty of suspects, sir.”

“Mm. We’re getting pretty  high on content but very low on analysis, wouldn’t you say? I’ll be all right though once the bar opens.”

“Is is open–opened half-past ten.”

“Why are  we drinking this stuff, then?”

One of the most memorable book discussions I led while still at the library was of The Jewel That Was Ours. The quoted passages  above are all from that novel. Somewhat confusingly, the tv  version is title The Wolvercote Tongue. (The tv script apparently preceded the novel in order of composition.) At the end of that episode, divers are shown making  desperate effort recover the jewel from the river. When one of them finds it, he holds it aloft in a manner that instantly puts one in mind of the Lady of the Lake clutching Excalibur.

As we were leaving, Oxford, Colin Dexter joined us as our bus proceeded through ‘leafy North Oxford.’ He graciously offered to point out the sights along the way. My husband recorded his commentary.

John Thaw, Colin Dexter, and Kevin Whately (Sergeant Lewis)

I especially like the obituary in The Independent.

For his services to literature, Colin Dexter was awarded the OBE in 2000.

Norman Colin Dexter September 29, 1930-March 21, 2017

 

 

 

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From Jane Austen, to Reginald Hill, to Sir Thomas Browne, and back to Reginald Hill, in one easy leap

March 19, 2017 at 3:28 pm (Anglophilia, books, Mystery fiction)

  The March 13 issue of The New Yorker featured a delightful piece by Anthony Lane about Sanditon,  Jane Austen’s final unfinished novel. By the time I finished reading it, I was scrambling to find a downloadable version. I’ve read all the other Austen novels – more than once, in some cases – but like many, I’ve always assumed that ‘unfinished’ meant ‘not worthwhile.’ Not so, avers Mr. Lane:

Although—or precisely because—“Sanditon” was composed by a dying woman, the result is robust, unsparing, and alert to all the latest fashions in human foolishness. It brims with life.

This encomium put me in mind of Reginald Hill’s novel The Price of Butcher’s Meat, in which Dalziel goes to a seaside resort called Sandytown, ostensibly to recover from wounds received in a recent attempt on his life. The place name is an homage to the fictional Sanditon of Austen’s invention. Hill says he got the idea when he had the pleasure of attending a conference of the Jane Austen Society of North America. Here are his prefatory notes to the novel:

To Janeites everywhere

and in particular to those who ten years ago in San Francisco made me so very welcome at the Jane Austen Society of North America’s AGM, of which the theme was “Sanditon–A New Direction?” and during which the seeds of this present novel were sown. I hope that my fellow Janeites will approve the direction in which I have moved her unfinished story; or, if they hesitate approval, that they will perhaps recall the advice printed on a sweatshirt presented to me (with what pertinence I never quite grasped) after my address to the AGM

–Run mad as often as you chuse, but do not faint–

and at least agree that, though from time to time I may have run a little mad, so far I have not fainted!

(AGM stands for Annual General Meeting.)

Reginald Hill passed away in January of 2012 at the age of 75. Later that year, the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain posted a memorial page in his honor on their site. I was deeply honored to be asked to contribute to this project. Click here to read what I wrote.

This might be a good time to revisit one of my favorite YouTube clips: Emma Thompson’s acceptance speech at the 1995 Golden Globe Awards for best screenplay for Sense and Sensibility:

The Price of Butcher’s Meat is the penultimate Dalziel and Pascoe novel, and this bit of reminiscence reminds me how much I loved those novels and how much I miss the presence on the mystery scene of the erudite and witty Reginald Hill.

The novel’s title is taken from a passage in Sanditon:

Aye–that young Lady smiles I see–but she will come to care about such matters herself in time. Yes, Yes, my Dear, depend upon it, you will be thinking of the price of Butcher’s meat in time.

But  the British edition has a far more euphonious title: A Cure for All Diseases. The phrase originates in this apt and wry comment from Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici:

We all labour against our own cure, for death is the cure of all diseases.

Thomas Browne (1605-1682) was a physician and author of works in a variety of fields. He was one of those admirable polymaths who frequently spring up in the course of British scientific and literary history.

Statue of Sir Thomas Browne in Norwich City Center

(You could say that Emma Thompson – writer, actress, and scholar – is another such polymath.)

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The Price of Butcher’s Meat is followed by Midnight Fugue, the last novel the Dalziel and Pascoe series. Here is rare footage of Reginald Hill discussing that book:

 

 

 

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Three Mysteries and a Scandal

March 16, 2017 at 12:01 am (Anglophilia, Book review, books, California, Mystery fiction)

First, the scandal:

If Jeremy Thorpe were a character in a novel of political intrigue, reviewers and readers alike would cry out, “Oh, that’s so over the top!” For an excellent summing up of the intricacy and sheer weirdness of this story, read this write-up in the Guardian.

At the time that I picked this book up, I was in need of something that would hold my interest – with little or no effort on my part –  from first to last. A Very English Scandal – sometimes sordid but never dull –  proved to be just the ticket.

Jeremy Thorpe: A politician to his marrow (and several other things, besides)

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Now, the mysteries:
  In his informative and entertaining Rough Guide to Crime Fiction, Barry Forshaw describes Ross MacDonald’s The Moving Target as “…vintage MacDonald and one of the best post-Chandler private eye novels, with a palpable sense of evil.”

So that naturally sent me back to one of my favorite writers of crime fiction. The Moving Target was one of the few Lew Archer novels I’d never read. Published in 1949, it’s the first in the series. I thought it might be too obviously a journeyman effort. As I began reading, I thought my fears were  confirmed. He’s toiling too much, I thought, in the dark, dark shade of Raymond Chandler.

And yet, and yet…as the narrative developed, the prose took flight, out from behind the Chandler shadow and into the brilliant sun of southern California:

The light-blue haze in the lower canyon was like a thin smoke from slowly burning money. Even the sea looked precious through it, a solid wedge held in the canyon’s mouth, bright blue and polished like a stone. Private property: color guaranteed fast; will not shrink egos. I had never seen the Pacific look so small.

There is an element of bitterness, even at times self-loathing, that emerges from time to time in the character of Lew Archer. We don’t know where it comes from; we’re told very little, if anything, about his background and personal life. I would have liked to know more. I was in a state of heightened intrigue as I read this novel, and the others. I’ve always wanted him to fall in love, but the women that he meets in the course of his investigations are either unworthy of him or unavailable, for one reason or another.

The Moving Target has its moments, but I think for those new to the oeuvre, it can be safely passed over in favor of later works, in particular The Doomsters, The Far Side of the Dollar, The Galton Case, The Underground Man, The Chill, and of course, The Zebra-Striped Hearse. Then, of course, you can do as I’ve done and  go back and read them all.

‘Ross MacDonald at 100,’http://www.independent.com/news/2015/nov/19/ross-macdonald-100/ from the Santa Barbara Independent on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth in 1915

Sue Grafton on Ross MacDonald:

If Dashiell Hammett can be said to have injected the hard-boiled detective novel with its primitive force, and Raymond Chandler gave shape to its prevailing tone, it was Ken Millar, writing as Ross Macdonald, who gave the genre its current respectability, generating a worldwide readership that has paved the way for those of us following in his footsteps.

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This next is going to be a very short review of a very long book – well, maybe not very long, but in my view, rather longer than it needed to be. In regard to my current reading life, the chief virtue of The Grave Tattoo (2006) is its setting in the Lake District, an area of preternatural beauty in the far north of England. God willing, and I fervently hope that He will be, we are set to go there in July, and to York as well.

This trip comes accompanied by a marvelous reading list. Those of us who love to travel and love to read know well that combining these two activities is one of life’s great pleasures. (Thanks are due for the trip’s literary component to Kathy of British Mystery Trips.)

The plot of Val McDermid’s novel concerns the doings of a Wordsworth scholar, a forensic anthropologist, a dealer in rare documents, a precocious and endangered adolescent girl, various law enforcement personnel, and others. It’s a densely woven narrative. At  the outset, we are treated to a lengthy disquisition on the life and mystery surrounding Fletcher Christian, of all people. I almost gave up at that point, but I persevered, and actually I am glad that I did. Val McDermid has woven rather a fabulous tapestry here – if you can stick with it.  And once the Fletcher Christian connection becomes clear, we’re treated to a very intriguing historical mystery. And I’m grateful to McDermid for her depiction of this special landscape:

[River] loved the place names too, with their echoes of another wave of invaders. The Vikings had left their mark on the places they occupied with suffixes–Ireby, Branthwaite, Whitrigg. And there were other wonderful names whose origins she knew nothing of–Blennerhasset, Dubwath and Bewaldeth. Driving from Carlisle to Keswick wasn’t just pretty, it was poetry in motion.

I have to say, though, that so far the most wonderful discovery gleaned from that reading list is The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks.

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Peter Turnbull writes like himself and nobody else.

George Hennessy knocked reverentially on the blue-and-green painted door of the modest bungalow on the outskirts of Fridaythorpe. He had never been to the village and found the name as pleasing as the appearance. “Thorpe” he knew to be an ancient Norse word for settlement but ‘Friday’ was unexplained. There was, he thought, probably a interesting story to the name.

(If you’re wondering whether there actually is such a place as Fridaythorpe – there is.)

Novels comprising the Hennessy and Yellich series used to arrive fairly regularly each year, Gift Wrapped having been the entry for 2013. When none arrived in 2014 or 2015 I became concerned…Was one of my favorite series now discontinued? Ergo, I was especially pleased to greet the appearance of 2016’s A Dreadful Past.

Crime solving is very much a group effort in these novels; George Hennessy’s team is comprised of a fairly stable cast of characters – stable both in their regular reappearance and their conduct. Their back stories are reiterated in each new novel. Some readers have complained about this, but I like it very much. It’s a sort of reaffirmation. Somerled Yellich is Hennessy’s second in command. Then there is Carmen Pharoah, a striking woman of West Indian heritage whose husband, also in law enforcement, was killed in action before she joined Hennessy’s team. Rounding out this tight knit group are Detective Constables Reginald Webster and Thompson Ventnor. They work together like the proverbial well oiled machine.

(From time to time, the reader will come upon a  chapter heading like this:

In which a man becomes a woman, a name is mentioned and Carmen Pharoah and Somerled Yellich are severally at home to the most charitable reader.)

The particular case treated in this narrative is a cold one, twenty years of cold having accrued on the case of a triple homicide that nearly wiped out an entire family.. The only surviving member had been away at university at the time of the killings, and it is he, one Noel Middleton, who arrives at the police station with a very telling piece of evidence in the form of a Wedgwood vase. The piece had been stolen from his home at the time of the murders and has now turned up in an antique shop.  While idly browsing some shop windows, Middleton had spotted it and known it for what it was.

I was amazed by what then happened as a result of this singular discovery. Read the book; I think you will be likewise astonished.

As they are set in the great and ancient city of York, these novels are also featured on the reading list for the trip. I was there for a day in 2005, and of course it was not nearly long enough. I was reading a book from this series, though I’m not sure which, at the time of my visit.

The mighty York Minster, second largest (or largest? – depending on whom you ask) Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe

 

Peter Turnbull

(Oh, for a different picture of this seemingly reclusive author…)

 

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Current trends in crime fiction, the books, part two: international authors and settings

February 20, 2017 at 9:08 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

[For Part One of this series of posts, click here.]

IV. International authors and settings

The Laughing Policeman and the other nine Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (Sweden)

Here is what the Salomonsson Agency says on its website about Sjowall and Wahloo:

“If any crime novels deserve to be called modern classics, it must be the ten police procedure novels about Martin Beck and his colleagues: with them, the Swedish writer’s duo Maj Sjöwall (1935-) and Per Wahlöö (1926-1975) virtually created the modern police procedure novel, their imitators count by thousands. The Decalogue of Sjöwall-Wahlöö, written in the sixties and seventies, is nothing less than the Holy Grail of modern Scandinavian crime fiction, a chronicle of the painful creation of modern society.

Their story is poignant. Per Wahloo died of cancer in 1975 at the age of 48, when Maj Sjowall was 40.  They had been together for thirteen years, sharing their lives and writing their books. Maj Sjowall is now 81, and has been coaxed out of retirement on occasion so that she might appear at certain mystery conferences to speak and to receive homage, on behalf of herself and her late partner, from appreciative readers.

beckfest

This series of ten novels is sometimes referred to collectively as The Story of a Crime. In this space I’ve written about The Terrorists and The Fire Engine That Disappeared. In addition I highly recommend Roseanna (first in the series) and The Laughing Policeman.

Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

Worthy successors:

Don’t Look Back, and Black Seconds by Karin Fossum (Norway)
The Demon of Dakar and Open Grave by Kjell Eriksson (Sweden)
Temporary Perfections by Gianrico Carofiglio (Italy)
Fossum’s star would seem to be on the rise; however, neither Eriksson nor Carofiglio have received the recognition that is their due. At least, that’s how I see it. In my own small way, in this space, I try to correct that grievous oversight.

The Waters of Eternal Youth by Donna Leon (Italy) I’ve reviewed a number of Leon’s Guido Brunetti novels in this space. I feel that with this one, her gift for evoking compassion and empathy is at its pinnacle.
The Possibility of Violence by D.A. Mishani (Israel)
The Dark Vineyard and The Patriarch by Martin Walker (France). Love this series; it just keeps getting better and better. (See the link provided at the top of this post.)
The Bookseller by Mark Pryor (France)
The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan (India)
This is a book to turn to when you need something on the light side. But it’s not frivolous; on the contrary, it is full of incident and vivid local color, and characters that one cares about. Here’s
Vaseem Khan‘s explanation of how he came to embark upon this series:

I first saw an elephant lumbering down the middle of the road in 1997 when I arrived in the city of Mumbai, India to work as a management consultant. It was the most unusual sight I had ever encountered and served as the inspiration behind my Baby Ganesh series of light-hearted crime novels. I was born in London in 1973, went on to gain a Bachelors degree in Accounting and Finance from the London School of Economics, before spending a decade on the subcontinent helping one of India’s premier hotel groups establish a chain of five-star environmentally friendly ‘ecotels’ around the country. I returned to the UK in 2006 and have since worked at University College London for the Department of Security and Crime Science where I am continually amazed at the way modern science is being used to tackle crime. Elephants are third on my list of passions, first and second being great literature and cricket, not always in that order.

Vaseem Khan

Vaseem Khan

Latest entries in two of the above series:

stonecoffin This novel is  outstanding. I find Eriksson’s mixture of tenderness and violence (thankfully not dwelt upon) strangely compelling. But be aware: Stone Coffin, translated into English  (meticulously and gracefully by Ebba Segerberg) and published here in 2016, is actually the third entry in this series and was initially published in Sweden in 2001. (The first two have yet to be translated into English, according to the entry in Stop! You’re Killing Me.) Nowhere in Stone Coffin could I find an explanation of this fact. The result was some confusion on my part. I’d already read The Princess of Burundi (#4, 2006),  The Demon of Dakar (#7, 2008), Black Lies, Red Blood (#9, 2014), and Open Grave (#10, 2015). I was already following Lead Detective Ann Lindell’s progress through the adventure of motherhood! Imagine my confusion when I came upon this same character in Stone Coffin as she’s first coming to terms with being pregnant. This conundrum teased at the back of my mind throughout my reading of this otherwise wonderful book. Of course, if I’d scrutinized the copyright information at the front, I would have gotten a clue. But I didn’t do that, so the matter didn’t come clear to me until I’d finished the novel and checked Eriksson’s Stop! You’re Killing Me entry. No matter; I loved the book anyway, just as I have all the others that I’ve read so far.

fineline There may have been a bit more in the way of legalistic jargon in this novel than was strictly necessary, but I very much enjoyed it anyway. This is largely due to the presence of Avvocato Guido Guerrieri, a character of whom I’ve become inordinately fond.

A Fine Line has recently received mention in both Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine and Mystery Scene Magazine:

What a  fabulous novel, the fifth in this series. This Italian author writes like a dream. While telling a wonderful story, he expresses some profound truths about life, “justice” and personal character….This  book transcends any form of legal thriller to  become a thoroughly engaging novel on many levels. Kudos also to the translator for doing such a superb job.

Steele Curry in Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine, Summer/Fall 2016

Courtroom novels from outside the USA, Britain, or other English speaking jurisdictions are are rare, but one of the best such series comes from Italian author Gianrico Carofiglio, whose quirky and likable advocate Guido Guerrrieri, a lifetime boxer who has conversations with his punching bag returns in A Fine Line….The novel thoughtfully and unsparingly dramatizes dilemmas in legal ethics that cross  cultural and national lines. All the books in this series are worthwhile.

Jon L. Breen in Mystery Scene, Winter 2017

I’d like to add that Carofliglio also writes standalone novels; I can recommend The Silence of the Wave.

 Kjell Eriksson

Kjell Eriksson

 

Gianrico Carofiglio

Gianrico Carofiglio

If you’re trying to locate crime fiction in particular settings, the incredibly useful StopYoureKillingMe site is the place to go.

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