Killing with Confetti by Peter Lovesey

August 18, 2019 at 12:35 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

To begin with, this title required some patience on my part. Peter Diamond doesn’t appear until page 77. I wasn’t sure I was all that fascinated by what was going on while I awaited his entrance into the narrative.

Well – O ye of little faith! The story took off like a race horse. And I was so glad once again to be among the usual cast of characters. Peter’s team consists of Keith Halliwell, his second in command, Ingeborg Smith,  and John Leaman. All three are distinct individuals with a wide array of skills; in addition, they are excellent investigators. Other officers are available for support and assistance. I enjoy spending time with all of them.

Peter occasionally locks horns with his immediate superior, Assistant Chief Constable Georgina Dallymore. For her part, ACC Dallymore has a way of toadying in the presence of Deputy Chief Constable George Brace, her own superior, that is positively revolting!  DCC Brace’s son is in the midst of planning his wedding, and there are issues with this event, to put it mildly. Unfortunately for Peter, DCC Dallymore has volunteered him for chief of security in regard to the upcoming nuptials. It’s an assignmemt that he’d do anything to avoid, but alas, there’s no way out.

As usual, this latest Peter Diamond outing is a mix of humor and suspense. And Lovesey takes full advantage of the wonderful setting of Bath. This time, the action centers on Bath Abbey and the Roman Baths.

Bath Abbey

Roman Baths

Peter Lovesey is surely one of the wittiest, most adept, most literary practitioners of crime fiction writing today. He’s had a long and deservedly successful run; I am already looking forward to the next Peter Diamond adventure!

Peter Lovesey

 

 

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Mystery news and views: the Dagger Award nominations

August 5, 2019 at 8:46 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, True crime)

Here are the shortlisted nominees for the 2019 Dagger Award, given by the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain:

Diamond Dagger Recipient: Robert Goddard

CWA Gold Dagger:
All the Hidden Truths, by Claire Askew (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Puppet Show, by M.W. Craven: (Constable)
What We Did, by Christobel Kent (Sphere)
Unto Us a Son Is Given, by Donna Leon (Heinemann)
American by Day, by Derek B Miller (Doubleday)
A Station on the Path to Somewhere Better, by Benjamin Wood (Scribner)

CWA John Creasey (New Blood):
All the Hidden Truths, by Claire Askew (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Boy at the Door, by Alex Dahl (Head of Zeus)
Scrublands, by Chris Hammer (Wildfire)
Turn a Blind Eye, by Vicky Newham (HQ)
Blood & Sugar, by Laura Shepherd-Robinson (Mantle)
Overkill, by Vanda Symon (Orenda)

CWA ALCS Gold Dagger for Non-fiction:
All That Remains: A Life in Death, by Sue Black (Doubleday)
Murder by the Book: A Sensational Chapter in Victorian Crime,
by Claire Harman (Viking)
The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century, by Kirk Wallace Johnson (Hutchinson)
 An Unexplained Death: The True Story of a Body at the Belvedere,
by Mikita Brottman (Viking)
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold (Doubleday)
The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, by Ben Macintyre (Viking)

CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger:
Give Me Your Hand, by Megan Abbott (Picador)
Safe Houses, by Dan Fesperman (Head of Zeus)
Killing Eve: No Tomorrow, by Luke Jennings (John Murray)
Lives Laid Away, by Stephen Mack Jones (Soho Crime)
To the Lions, by Holly Watt (Bloomsbury)
Memo from Turner, by Tim Willocks (Jonathan Cape)

CWA Sapere Books Historical Dagger:
The Quaker, by Liam McIlvanney (Harper Fiction)
Destroying Angel, by S.G. MacLean: (Quercus)
Smoke and Ashes, by Abir Mukherjee (Harvill Secker)
The House on Half Moon Street, by Alex Reeve (Raven)
Tombland, by C.J. Sansom: (Mantle)
Blood & Sugar, by Laura Shepherd-Robinson (Mantle)

CWA International Dagger:
A Long Night in Paris, by Dov Alfon;
translated by Daniella Zamir (Maclehose Press)
Weeping Waters, by Karin Brynard;
translated by Maya Fowler and Isobel Dixon (World Noir)
The Cold Summer, by Gianrico Carofiglio;
translated by Howard Curtis (Bitter Lemon Press)
Newcomer, by Keigo Higashino;
translated by Giles Murray (Little, Brown)
The Root of Evil, by Håkan Nesser;
translated by Sarah Death (Mantle)
The Forger, by Cay Rademacher;
translated by Peter Millar (Arcadia)

CWA Short Story Dagger:
“Strangers in a Pub,” by Martin Edwards (from Ten Year Stretch, edited by Martin Edwards and Adrian Muller; No Exit Press)
“Death Becomes Her,” by Syd Moore (from The Strange Casebook,
by Syd Moore; Point Blank Books)
“The Dummies’ Guide to Serial Killing,” by Danuta Reah (from The Dummies’ Guide to Serial Killing and Other Fantastic Female Fables,
by Danuta Reah [aka Danuta Kot]; Fantastic)
“I Detest Mozart,” by Teresa Solana (from The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories, by Teresa Solana; Bitter Lemon Press)
“Bag Man,” by Lavie Tidhar (from The Outcast Hours,
edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin; Solaris)

Dagger in the Library:
M.C. Beaton
Mark Billingham
John Connolly
Kate Ellis
C.J. Sansom
Cath Staincliffe

Debut Dagger
(for the opening of a crime novel by an uncontracted writer):
Wake, by Shelley Burr
The Mourning Light, by Jerry Krause
Hardways, by Catherine Hendricks
The Firefly, by David Smith
A Thin Sharp Blade, by Fran Smith

Let me say right off the bat that I’m delighted to see Robert Goddard being honored in this way. I read his first novel, Past Caring, when it came out here in 1986 and recognized at once that he was an excellent new talent. Since then, he’s written twenty-six more novels, of which I’ve read some twelve or thirteen.

Goddard’s books are not conventional mysteries; rather, they’re a blend of some of the elements of crime fiction and those of espionage, novels, international intrigue, and often historical fiction as well. They’re gracefully written and not fiendishly complicated or stuffed with extraneous characters. There’s often a love story, either incipient or well under way.

Goddard’s oeuvre constitutes a mix a mix of stand-alones and limited series. Into the Blue, one of three novels featuring Harry Barnett, was filmed with John Thaw in the starring role.

Of the titles I’ve read, I’d especially recommend these:

For a complete list, click here.

I’ve read just a few of the fiction titles on this list. The Donna Leon – Well, I love every one of the Guido Brunetti novels, and as for as I’m concerned,  Unto Us a Son Is Given is just as good as its predecessors. Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott and Safe Houses by Dan Fesperman are both excellent. And a special shout out for C.J. Sansom’s Tombland, a marvelous, sprawling historical novel that had me so absorbed that I fairly flew through its 880 pages – no problem.

Finally, the category of non-fiction is where I’ve read the most. Murder by the Book: A Sensational Chapter in Victorian Crime by Claire Harman was interesting, though for me, it fell short of being truly gripping. I was intrigued, though by the description of  the public’s fevered obsession with the crime – the murder of an elderly aristocrat by one of his servants. It showed that today’s intense absorption in true crime is really nothing new, although on this particular morning, after a horrible bloody weekend in this country, people might be more inclined to turn away from the subject.

I know that The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson got excellent reviews, but for whatever reason it did not work for me. I got about fifty pages in and then gave up. All That Remains: A Life in Death, by Sue Black looks really good. I hadn’t heard of it before; at present, it resides on my already groaning night stand.

An Unexplained Death: The True Story of a Body at the Belvedere by Mikita Brottman. I was really pleased to see that this book made the cut. The unexplained death in the title refers to the body of a young man, inexplicably found on a section of roofing of Brottman’s own apartment complex in Baltimore. Her investigation takes some strange turns until she reaches a conclusion. The book was riveting.

The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, by Ben Macintyre. Yet another terrific read. I’m not sure how or when I became so interested in  espionage, both fictional and actual, but I’ve had some excellent reading in the field in recent years. One of the best was also written by Macintyre: A Spy Among Friends, the story of the perpetually notorious traitor Kim Philby. The Spy and the Traitor is Philby in reverse: it’s the story of Oleg Gordievsky, who, during the Cold War, repeatedly risked his life to inform on his Russian spymasters for the benefit of British intelligence. The story of his exfiltration is as suspenseful as anything Le Carre ever dreamed up. (Charlotte Philby, granddaughter of Kim, has just published a novel entitled The Most Difficult Thing.)

  Finally, there is Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five, in which the lives of each of Jack the Ripper’s five victims are explored and revealed in detail. This book to my mind is a triumph. These women are worth knowing about as distinct individuals who struggled constantly with poverty, displacement, and an uncaring environment. While reading this saga, I had to keep reminding myself that this was Victoria’s England, where royalty and aristocrats lived in splendor and had their every want and need catered to.

What a prodigious feat of research this book is! For my money, it should win every award in the book, and then some.

And before I close, I want to recommend Michael Dirda’s recent piece in the Washington Post on Somerset Maugham‘s Ashenden stories. Dirda says this about Maugham’s style:

While no one denies Maugham’s gifts as a storyteller, his prose has regularly been dismissed as pedestrian. Not so. It is plain, direct, natural, the language of a well-educated, civilized Englishman. If you would write perfectly, Maugham once declared, you should write as clearly, as urbanely as Voltaire, which is just what he himself tries to do.

When I read that, I wanted to stand up and cheer! (In fact, I may have actually done so. Husband Ron is  indulgent of such occasional outbursts; the last one occurred when Alice Munro won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature.)

  Ever since reading the 2009 biography of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings – reviewed and recommended by Michael Dirda in the Post – I’ve been delving into his novels and stories at regular intervals. I have to say, though, that  Ashenden: or the British Agent is well overdue a definitive new edition by a major publishing house. Knopf, New York Review Books, are you listening?

Click here to read “‘Ashenden’: the Perfect Late Summer Escape Read, and a Classic.”
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Dead Man’s Mistress by David Housewright

August 3, 2019 at 2:38 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  This is a nifty little caper novel in which an unlicensed private eye goes in search of three valuable paintings. The art works were boosted from the home of one Louise Wykoff, usually referred to as “that Wykoff Woman.” Now Louise was a sometime model and sometime lover of the artist, Randolph McInnis. Also in the picture is Mary Ann McInnis, widow of Randolph and enthusiastic hater of Louise.

Louise however, had no documentation as to their provenance of the paintings; and nor were they insured. Add to that, Louise, a painter herself, is a dab hand at mimicking Randolph’s style. So: who actually made this art? And to whom does it belong, stolen or not?

Enter the rather uniquely named Rushmore McKenzie, described in the jacket copy as “an occasional unlicensed private investigator.” Called simply McKenzie by just about everyone, he’s been asked to look into  the theft.  Soon he finds himself looking into a murder as well, one in which he himself is initially implicated.

Anyway, the cast of characters keeps getting larger, thus providing both McKenzie and the local police with plenty of suspects. Although cleared of involvement in the homicide, McKenzie is not necessarily cleared of suspicion. Why, you might ask, is McKenzie not licensed? The reason is that he’s been made independently wealthy by a generous legal settlement. He detects out of a genuine desire to help people and also for the sheer pleasure of it, not for the money. (This reminded me of Andy Carpenter the lawyer in the David Rosenfelt series, although in Andy’s case, his comfortable situation has been facilitated by a hefty inheritance.)

Dead Man’s Mistress has lots of snappy dialog in the tried and true gumshoe tradition. (I invariably come back to the classic line, spoken by Sam Spade, from The Maltese Falcon: “The cheaper  the crook, the gaudier the patter.”) The novel is lightweight and breezy and zips right along. And unexpectedly, it has a nicely realized sense of place. Most of the action takes place in and around Grand Marais, Minnesota. This is a recreational area that caters primarily to tourists. (That’s during the summer, of course – we are, after all, speaking of Minnesota.) I even learned of an actual yearly event that sounds rather wonderful:

Every August, reenactors from across the country dress in period attire and gather at the post for what is called the Grand Rendezvouz and pretend for three days to be living in the late eighteenth century.

This is just the kind of thing I love.

I liked McKenzie,  and as I was reading, I kept trying to recall who he reminded me of. Then I remembered: Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, of blessed memory.

 

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Joe Country, being the sixth entry in the Slough House series written by Mick Herron

July 29, 2019 at 10:45 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  The action in Joe Country takes place primarily in Wales during a ferocious blizzard. And there is plenty of action, what with the disgraced spies of Slough House chasing, and being chased by, a host of bad actors. The trigger for all this mayhem is Louisa Guy’s determination to find Lucas Harper, the teen-aged son of Min Harper, her former and now deceased lover. Almost as soon as she arrives in Wales, Louisa goes dark, prompting her Slough House colleagues to mount a search mission. Things quickly become confused and dangerous. As always in this series, the dialog is arch, the plot is convoluted, and the mood is shot through with dark humor and bitter irony.

A glossary on the site Intelligence Search defines joe as ‘a deep-cover agent.’

Joe Country is the fifth full length novel in the Slough House series that I’ve read. I liked them all up until London Rules, which I didn’t especially care for. I thought it contained too much description of  the revolting comportment of Jackson Lamb, who’s head of the outfit. (I’ve seen him compared to Andy Dalziel of Reginald Hill‘s Dalziel and Pascoe series. I think Hill’s characterization is somewhat more subtle.) In this latest entry, Lamb is still pretty disgusting, but being as he’s monitoring events from London and not directly involved in the Welsh scrum, I found his presence in the narrative less of an annoyance.

As you can see from the Stop! You’re Killing Me entry, the Slough House novels have been a hit with critics and with many readers as well. But they don’t work for everyone. As of now, I’d say they definitely work for me. I fairly raced through Joe Country.

Mick Herron

 

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The Body in Question by Jill Ciment

July 21, 2019 at 6:39 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  The jury selected for a murder trial is sequestered. In this close quartered isolation, two members – at first, known to us only as C-2 and F-17 – are strongly attracted to each other and begin a clandestine affair. C-2, a woman in her early fifties, is married to a man some thirty years her senior. She loves her husband deeply; he still possesses more than his quotient of robust physical energy and his mind remains questing and alert. (And yes, sex, too, is still in the mix.) yet C-2 feels powerless in the grip of this unsought after passion.

Admittedly, it was somewhat disconcerting reading about characters identified solely by a letter and a number. I felt at times as though I were reading about robots. But if so, this was a whole new take on robots. (This puts me in mind of Ian McEwan’s brilliant Machines Like Me.) I’ve rarely read a crime novel in which the feelings ran so high and so close to the surface.

The crime itself is especially horrendous; I wish it were less so. The burgeoning relationship distracts from it, which in this case is a blessing.

I was unsure from one minute to the next what the outcome would be. The writing was terrific.

You must steel yourself concerning the crime, but fortunately, the author does not dwell on particulars.

Recommended, but with the above mentioned caveat.

 

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Big Sky – My, oh My! or, Kate Atkinson does it again

July 14, 2019 at 7:44 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Many readers of crime fiction have  been impatiently awaiting the return of Jackson Brodie. Brodie last appeared in Started Early, Took My Dog, a 2010 novel  by Kate Atkinson, published in 2010. I never read that book. I read its predecessor, When Will There Be Good News, and found it somewhat disappointing. This was no doubt due to having absolutely loved Case Histories. Loved it enough, that is, to nominate it for future classic status.

For my money, Big Sky is a welcome return to form. Its excellence is due not especially to the presence of Jackson Brodie – though that in itself is  a  definite plus – but to the elegant plot structure, the masterful building of suspense, the strategic deployment of an irreverent and delightful wit, and above all, the concatenation of fascinating characters. Several ruthless yet charming men are involved in a singularly evil enterprise; their wives/partners are either clueless or have secrets of their own – or, somehow, both. There are children in the mix as well, including two teenage boys: Harry, a truly wonderful person, and Nathan, whose  overweening and sullen demeanor would have earned him, in former times, the back of someone’s hand across his smug countenance. (Nathan is Jackson Brodie’s son.)

The story is set in and around Scarborough, on England’s North Sea Coast.

He could see Whitby from here, two miles south along the beach, the skeleton of the abbey standing on top of the cliff.

In 2007, my husband and I were there:

I love the way that Atkinson’s characters pull in quotations seemingly from left field. Here’s DC Reggie Chase, observing an especially vivid sunset:

“‘See where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament.'” [From Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe]

I like this one too:

“Well, you know what the song says….You can check out but you can’t leave.” [The exact lines are: “You can check out any time you like / But you can never leave!” From the song Hotel California by The Eagles]

You wouldn’t know it from the stern countenance in this photo, but Kate Atkinson has a marvelous sense of humor.

Big Sky is vastly entertaining; however, I don’t think it’s Atkinson at her absolute best. That accolade, in my view, goes to Life After Life, a true tour de force.

 

 

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Two short but sincerely enthusiastic crime fiction recommendations

July 11, 2019 at 9:29 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Having greatly enjoyed The Word Is Murder, first in the Anthony Horowitz/Daniel Hawthorne series, I was eager to read The Sentence Is Death. I’m happy to report that it was just as much fun to read as its predecessor. I impatiently await the third entry in the series.

In a post from 2017, I said that if  there was an Anthony Horowitz fan club, I would gladly join. Offer still stands.

(Also don’t forget the standalone Magpie Murders.)
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  I also recommend The Scholar by Dervla McTiernan. This is the second mystery by McTiernan, who’s originally from Ireland but now lives in Australia. Like her first book, The Ruin, The Scholar is set in Ireland. I enjoyed The Ruin and knew I wanted to read The Scholar. As you might have guessed from the title, this novel has an academic setting. (I’m always on the lookout for crime fiction set in a school or college anyway.)

McTiernan shrewdly depicts the infighting, snobbery, and secretiveness that can be characteristic of  the upper eschelons of certain academic institutions. She writes extremely well. I look forward to her next mystery, and I hope that at some future time, she will set one in her new home Down Under.

 

 

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Three quick crime fiction reviews

June 27, 2019 at 1:14 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Booklist Magazine:

The voice that emerges from Josef’s diary  is one of a man struggling with the enduring issue that surfaces and resurfaces throughout espionage fiction, from Graham Greene to John LeCarre and Alan Furst: loyalty to country versus loyalty to the individual.

The setting is pre-World-War-Two Germany, in Hamm, to be specific, in the far north of the country. Josef Hoffmann has  come there in order to do work on behalf of international Communism. But he becomes involved in the life of Walter, the young son of the woman who runs his boarding house. Gradually he becomes like a substitute father to the boy.

As Josef’s emotional commitment to Walter grows, his commitment to “the cause” recedes. Eventually he must make a crucial decision.

What could be better than espionage with a beating heart at its center? I loved this book and would definitely read another by this author, David Downing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dan Fesperman was foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun before turning novelist. Having enjoyed The Small Boat of Great Sorrows -such an evocative title – and The Warlord’s Son, I have long wanted to get back to this writer. In the main, Safe Houses did not disappoint. It was, however, in my estimation, too long and filled with such a large number of characters that I had trouble keeping track of  them all. On the plus side, Helen Abell, the aptly named protagonist, is someone you want to root for. Her resourcefulness is deeply impressive; at the same time, she’s all too human, and vulnerable along with it.

Safe Houses opens in Berlin in the late 1970s. Additionally, the action takes place in Paris and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. (That last is a place we know fairly well, so that was kind of a bonus for this reader.) This is one of the hallmarks of espionage literature; there’s a great deal of restless movement from place to place. In this particular instance, Helen is trying to elude capture by a very sinister foe. The situation is full of irony; they both work for the same service.

The level of suspense would have been higher had the action been less attenuated. Still, on balance, I enjoyed Safe Houses and hope to read more books by Dan Fesperman.

  It’s mid-Victorian England, and there’s a madcap race on to catch a killer – to stop a dangerous conspiracy among people who believe that Darwin’s theories are nothing less than heretical.  Meanwhile, a true life policeman – Charles Field –  features in this fictional tale, while the fictional Field gets conflated with yet another policeman: Inspector Bucket, who issued forth from the fertile imagination of no less an author than Charles Dickens:

“That’s enough out of you, Brass Buttons, this man here is Detective Field!” Kilvert grew indignant. “Mr. Charles Dickens called him Bucket!”

“Shut up, Kilvert!” said Field. “Inspector Bucket of the Detective!”

“Kilvert, you ass,” said Field, “just get me out of this!”

As the inspector was released, there was renewed scrutiny from the crowd. It was clear that many of them had heard of Dickens’ fictional detective. For a person who did not in fact exist, Mr. Bucket was quite the celebrity, and so was his model.

I haven’t had this much just plain reading fun in a long time. This novel is a treasure!

 

 

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I’ve written about Ngaio Marsh before. It’s my pleasure to be writing about her again.

June 18, 2019 at 8:01 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  A week ago last Tuesday, on an exceptionally lovely day, we Suspects gathered on Hilda’s screened porch to discuss Overture to Death by Ngaio Marsh.

This was Mike’s selection, and she did an excellent job presenting background for the life of Dame Ngaio. (“My Damery,” she called it; it was bestowed in honor of her work in theater in her native New Zealand.)

Overture To Death is a classic English village mystery. In some ways it’s amazing to think how insular such places still were on the eve of the Second World War. Not that you would know from this narrative that catastrophe was looming so nearly. On the contrary: in Pen Cuckoo, plans are afoot for an amateur play production. Theatrics and all the concomitant confusion dominate everyone’s thoughts. A suitable play must be selected and cast, purely by the locals, of course. Competition is fierce; comments are snide.

There’s Jocelyn Jernigham, Lord of the Manor, which is also named Pen Cuckoo. Against his wishes, his son Henry is in love with Dinah Copeland, the rector’s daughter, and means to marry her. For her part, Dinah has acted professionally and takes it upon herself to help direct the thespian undertaking of the denizens of Pen Cuckoo. So: into the mix throw William Templett, the village doctor; Selia Ross, a comely, scheming widow; Miss Eleanor Prentice, a nosy busybody who also happens to be cousin to Jocelyn Jerningham; Miss Idris Campanula – a couple of invidious spinsters both in hot pursuit of the widoewed rector  – and several others, and we’re off and running!

Overture To Death, then, is a story of loving, loathing, resentment, and all manner of other emotions let loose in a dangerous way. It’s s roiling brew, and of course, it all culminates in murder. And what a murder! You’ll probably agree that it’s one of the more ingenious methods of causing death that you’ve encountered in crime fiction. This book cover hints at what’s involved: . Believe me, it’s much more subtle – fiendish, even – than it appears to be here.

Somehow, in the course of our discussion, the subject of red sacristy lamps in churches came up. This was something of which – unsurprisingly – I’d never heard. Frank introduced us to the storytelling term “lampshading.”  (Truth to tell, I don’t quite understand this.)  All in all, this was a discussion in which the digressions were as much fun as  the main topic!

Mike reminded us that in creating the character of Detective Roderick Alleyn, Marsh became a pioneer in the field of police procedurals. (Someone pointed out that Poirot had been a policeman in his native Belgium. While this is in fact part of his back story, he was never technically a member of the force in Britain. He acted solely in a private capacity, always ready to assist Inspector Japp by using the prodigious power of his “leetle gray cells.”)

The reader will no doubt delight in the finely wrought prose passages that distinguish the work of Dame Ngaio.

Henry uttered an impatient noise and moved away from the fireplace. He joined his father in the window and he too looked down into the darkling vale of Pen Cuckoo. He saw an austere landscape, adamant beneath drifts of winter mist. The naked trees slept soundly, the fields were dumb with cold; the few stone cottages, with their comfortable signals of blue smoke, were the only waking things in all the valley.
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The hall rang with Miss Campanula’s conversation. She was a large arrogant spinster with a firm bust, a high-coloured complexion, coarse grey hair, and enormous bony hands. Her clothes were hideous but expensive, for Miss Campanula was extremely wealthy. She was supposed to be Eleanor Prentice’s great friend. Their alliance was based on mutual antipathies and interests. Each adored scandal and each cloaked her passion in a mantle of conscious rectitude. Neither trusted the other an inch, but there was no doubt that they enjoyed each other’s company.
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It did not matter to them that they were unable to speak to each other, for their thoughts went forward to the morning, and their hearts trembled with happiness. They were isolated by their youth, two scathless figures. It would have seemed impossible to them that their love for each other could hold any reflection, however faint, of the emotions that drew Dr. Templett to Selia Ross, or those two ageing women to the rector. They would not have believed that there was a reverse side to love, or that the twin-opposites of love lay dormant in their own hearts. Nor were they to guess that never again, as long as they lived, would they know the rapturous expectancy that now pressed them.

I’ve read several Roderick Alleyn novels and led discussions of two: Death in a White Tie and The Nursing Home Murder. My favorite of all of them is Death in a White Tie, for two reasons. First of all, that book depicts the London “season” in all its vivid glory – the endless round of parties and the blatant husband hunting carried on by the young debs and their mothers; it is as much a novel of manners as a murder mystery. Secondly, the murder victim is someone who moves in those circles and is known and liked by Rory (Roderick), Troy, and numerous others. The grief at his untimely passing is thus genuine and heartfelt.

I don’t understand why more crime fiction authors don’t create a known and sympathetic victim. To my mind, it causes the reader to be more emotionally invested in the story. That’s certainly what happened to me as I was reading Death in a White Tie.

A word about the BBC series filmed in 1993 and 1994. The BBC changed the order of the episodes – in some cases altering the content of certain episodes – so as to to create a story arc that would smoothly accommodate the love story of  Roderick Alleyn and Agatha Troy. Not to worry: it works beautifully. The mysteries are entirely engrossing. Having them undergirded by  the somewhat tumultuous relationship between ‘Rory’ and ‘Troy’ adds to the drama without overwhelming it.

Patrick Malahide as Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn, backed up, as always, by Detective Inspector Fox, affectionately called ‘Brer Fox’, played by William Simons

Patrick Malahide with Belinda Lang as Agatha Troy

(Fun fact: Belinda Lang is married to Hugh Fraser, who plays Captain Arthur Hastings in the Poirot series starring David Suchet.)

It’s  been noted that the character of Roderick Alleyn bears some similarities to  that of Lord Peter Wimsey. Both are the younger sons of a titled aristocrats; both have carried out some secret intelligence missions in service to their country; both are in love with accomplished women that they desire to wed. For their part, both of these women – Agatha Troy and Harriet Vane, respectively – evince a marked reluctance to get married, a reluctance which is at length overcome, to the satisfaction of all, not least the reader.

The Inspector Alleyn books of Ngaio Marsh are among the most pleasurable relics of the Golden Age of British crime.

Barry Forshaw, in The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction

Ngaio Marsh in 1947

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Loved it, as I figured I would: The Department of Sensitive Crimes, by Alexander McCall Smith

June 9, 2019 at 5:55 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  Scandi Blanc. Thus has Alexander McCall Smith named his new series. This is how he describes his latest undertaking in The Scotsman:

“I’ve started a new series set in Sweden. I call it ‘Scandi blanc’ as opposed to Scandi noir.

“My central character is a Swedish detective called Ulf Varg – Ulf means ‘wolf’ in Danish and Varg means ‘wolf’ in Swedish so he’s Wolf Wolf.

“He lives in Malmo and works in this department which deals with unusual crimes.

“He has a dog called Marten, and he’s hearing impaired. He’s the only dog in Sweden who can lip-read, but only in Swedish.

“He also has various sidekicks, but all his cases are really peculiar.

“The whole thing is just having great fun. My books never involve any serious crimes. Nobody is ever killed in any of my books, so there’s no murder there.

“There is a case of lycanthropy, though – somebody who is possibly a werewolf. It’s good Scandinavian stuff and I’ve had tremendous fun.

There is also a case of multiple missing persons. But is it actually a case if one of those reported missing never actually existed in the first place?

One of the reasons I love police procedurals is that you have a team of investigators. The individuals who make up that team are often very interesting in and of themselves. And there interactions can also be quite memorable.

From the jacket copy for The Department of Sensitive Crimes:

Ulf “the Wolf” Varg, the top dog, thoughtful and diligent; Anna Bengstdotter, who’s in love with Varg’s car (and possibly Varg too); Carl Holgersson, who likes nothing ,ore than filling out paperwork; and Erik Nykvist, who is deeply committed to fly fishing.

Throw in a local beat cop who is amiable but talks nonstop, and you have an entirely winning (if, at times, exasperating) ensemble.

Alexander McCall Smith is also great on the subject of dogs. Martin (variable spelling ‘Marten’) is an entirely lovable canine. Freddy de la Haye is my all time favorite fictional dog.

I admit I’ve been made slightly anxious by the appearance of this new series. I see there’s a new Precious Ramotswe novel in the offing, but what about the Isabel Dalhousie series? I love both and don’t want to see either of them supplanted. But McCall Smith is such a prolific writer – just have a look at his Wikipedia entry and you can see for yourself. I probably don’t need to worry.

I’m an Alexander McCall Smith junkie; I don’t deny it. I still have the fondest memory of his appearance at the library several years ago.

Long may he write!

Alexander McCall Smith

 

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