‘A few prayers, word of the Book, nod of the head, and into the ground sharp.’ – Skin and Bone by Robin Blake
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.
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.
I especially like the obituary in The Independent.
For his services to literature, Colin Dexter was awarded the OBE in 2000.
From Jane Austen, to Reginald Hill, to Sir Thomas Browne, and back to Reginald Hill, in one easy leap
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.
(You could say that Emma Thompson – writer, actress, and scholar – is another such polymath.)
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(Oh, for a different picture of this seemingly reclusive author…)
[For Part One of this series of posts, click here.]
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.
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.
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.
Latest entries in two of the above series:
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.
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.
If you’re trying to locate crime fiction in particular settings, the incredibly useful StopYoureKillingMe site is the place to go.
Current trends in crime fiction: the books, part one: domestic/psychological suspense, police procedurals by and about women, and classics and reissues
I kicked off the proceedings on Saturday by referring to Terrence Rafferty’s article in last summer’s Atlantic Magazine. It was entitled “Women Are Writing the Best Crime Novels.” One could quibble with such a blanket generalization, but he does a lot to bolster his contention:
Once upon a time, in the smoky, violent neverland of crime fiction, there were seductive creatures we called femmes fatales, hard women who lured sad men to their doom. Now there are girls. It started, of course, with Gillian Flynn, whose 2012 suburban thriller, Gone Girl, told a cruel tale of marriage and murder and sold a zillion copies.
( I like the term “suburban thriller,” but I was, alas, a Gone Girl dissenter. I found both the characters and the writing so irritating that I was unable to finish the book.)
Rafferty is somewhat wistful concerning the prior hegemony of the tough guy private eye:
For those of us who choose to entertain ourselves, from time to time, with made-up stories of murder, mayhem, and deceit, this is actually a welcome development, because the men with guns don’t do their job nearly as well as they used to. They’re old, they’re getting tired of walking through those doors, and the heroes they used to threaten—lone-wolf private eyes like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe—have practically disappeared from the genre.
He confesses, though, that “I do still go back every now and then to the eccentric sleuths inspecting corpses in locked rooms, or to the hard-boiled dicks walking down their mean streets, but only as an exercise in nostalgia.” (As one who is prone to similar attacks of nostalgia and who is currently reading The Moving Target, Ross MacDonald’s first Lew Archer novel, I understand how he feels.)
At any rate, let us proceed with Trend Number One:
You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
What Was Mine by Helen Klein Ross
II. Police procedurals by women (and featuring women as investigators):
The Red Road by Denise Mina
The Trespasser by Tana French
A Man of Some Repute and A Question of Inheritance by Elizabeth Edmondson. These are the first two books in a series called A Very English Mystery. I’ve recently read both and enjoyed them a great deal. Sadly, with only these two entries completed, Edmondson passed away in January of last year. Her son, writer Anselm Audley, has committed to finishing a third book in the series. I’m grateful to him for this. I became very attached to the characters created by Edmondson: the brave yet tenderhearted intelligence operative Hugo Hawksworth, his feisty and precocious little sister Georgia, the snobbish and secretive Lady Sonia, the wise Father Leo, and the beautiful and generous Freya, who has secrets of her own.
British Library Crime Classics
Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story by J Jefferson Farjeon. Farjeon jump starts this gem with one of the best set-ups I’ve ever encountered in crime fiction.
Capital Crimes: London Mysteries, ed. Martin Edwards
Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne features a wonderfully evocative Highland setting, great characters, and a great puzzle plot. Probably my favorite of those that I’ve read so far in this series.
Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton
Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm by Gil North
Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s, edited by Sarah Weinman (Weinman puts out a highly informative newsletter called The Crime Lady. I subscribe to it and recommend it.)
(Felony & Mayhem Press currently has a whopping twenty Allingham titles in its catalog.)
The Clock Strikes Twelve by Patricia Wentworth. If you’re a Miss Marple fan like me, you’ll enjoy Miss Silver novels like this one.
Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham. A delight from beginning to end. No wonder Allingham is A.S. Byatt’s favorite Golden Age writer. Here’s an excerpt:
The room they entered was a typical Cambridge study, aesthetically impeccable, austere, and, save for the two deep arm-chairs before the fire, slightly uncomfortable. As they entered, a wire-haired fox terrier of irreproachable breeding, rose from the hearth-rug and came to meet them with leisurely dignity. Marcus effected an introduction hastily. ‘Foon,’ he said. ‘Written “Featherstonehaugh”.’
Somewhat to his host’s embarrassment Mr Campion shook hands with the dog, who seemed to appreciate the courtesy, for he followed them back to the hearth-rug, waiting for them to be seated before he took up his position on the rug again, where he sat during the rest of the proceedings with the same air of conscious breeding which characterized his master.
Margery Allingham struggled with her weight all her life; my reading informs me that she had thyroid problems. Whatever he cause, she has my complete and total sympathy on that score; moreover, I think she is very pretty, regardless.
The D.A. Calls It Murder is an excellent yarn, well told and bristling with the kind of snappy dialog that characterizes crime fiction of 30s. More than that, it was, at least for this reader, an experience in time travel. We find ourselves in a world where telephones are not always available when and where needed, and sending telegrams is often easier – and cheaper – than making long distance calls The idiosyncrasies of typewriters can provide crucial evidence in a murder case, as can laundry marks found on the victims clothing, including his starched collars.
The D.A, Calls It Murder came out as the noir style in crime fiction was in its ascendancy. Dashiell Hammett’s career as a writer was pretty well over (hard to believe), while Raymond Chandler, who’d been churning out stories and articles at a rapid rate, was about to embark on a stellar career as a novelist, starting with 1939’s fully formed masterpiece, The Big Sleep
The Zebra-Striped Hearse by Ross MacDonald. This is the first Lew Archer I ever read – recommended to me by a close friend, a holder of a doctorate in comparative literature who taught Spanish at Columbia – and it is still my favorite. There’s a scene in this novel that has remained forever etched in my memory:
The striped hearse was standing empty among other cars off the highway above Zuma. I parked behind it and went down to the beach to search for its owner. Bonfires were scattered along the shore, like the bivouacs of nomad tribes or nuclear war survivors. The tide was high and the breakers loomed up marbled black and fell white out of oceanic darkness.
The book cover above puts me in mind of the line from “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats:
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun….
Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality by John le Carre. The first two George Smiley novels were actually mysteries with a touch of espionage. (I particularly liked the latter, with its setting in a private boys’ school and the attendant claustrophobia and mutual knife thrusting among faculty members.) With the third, the justly famous The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, that emphasis shifted dramatically. The novel caused a sensation and le Carre found himself famous, his sudden renown being greatly aided by the terrific film starring Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, and Oskar Werner.
I prepared this list of online resources to accompany my presentation of Current Trends in Crime Fiction.
Articles and blog posts
A teen was kidnapped as a newborn. She knew for more than a year, authorities say. (Relates to the novel What Was Mine by Helen Klein Ross)
Sites of interest
The most useful site on the internet for information on crime fiction. It not only gives the order of books in a series but also provides information about location, ethnicity of protagonists, and loads more. (See the column on the site’s left hand side.) Not to be missed by mystery fans!
I’m currently having a great deal of fun putting together a presentation on mysteries for my AAUW colleagues. The first title I chose was “Hot trends in Crime Fiction!” I then decided to tone it down a bit; it is now “Current Trends in Crime Fiction.”
Having achieved that much, I then sat back, contemplated the general state of things, and asked myself in all seriousness what those trends might be. This list is what I’ve come up with so far:
Domestic (i.e. psychological) suspense
Classics reissues and rediscoveries
International authors and settings
Use of actual historical personages as detectives
Regional mysteries (U.S.)
Increasing presence of women protagonists
Diminishing number of police procedurals
“Crime fiction is finally getting the critical respect it deserves”
This is by no means definitive, but at present, it seems reasonably workable. (I’ve already penned three posts on the subject.)
It then occurred to me to see if this subject had been tackled elsewhere. As expected, the internet came through with “A History of Detective Stories: Current Trends.” This essay begins with a general assessment of the genre and then moves to a discussion of the challenges posed to mystery fiction by rapidly emerging technologies.
The subgenre that most appeals at the moment is listed above as “Classic reissues and rediscoveries.” I recently wrote a review of The D.A. Calls In Murder, the first entry in Erle Stanley Gardner‘s Doug Selby series. I’ve now read the second and the third – The D.A. Holds a Candle and The D.A. Draws a Circle – and my enjoyment has increased with each perusal.
As I mentioned in the review cited above, these books are hard to find. I’ve been getting them via interlibrary loan from the Enoch Pratt Free Library, a wonderful facility which since 1971 has been designated as the (Maryland) State Library Resource Center. Alas, as the series progresses, the volumes themselves are proving to be increasingly fragile. As I was reading in bed the other night, I noticed small pieces of dark brown paper appearing on the blanket. These proved to be escaping from the book’s binding. I prodded the larger piece back into place, but it showed no great inclination to remain there. Now Pratt seems blessedly reluctant to discard books like this, but I can’t help feeling that I might be the last person to borrow this poor decrepit entity.
One of the things I’ve really been enjoying about this series is its artless evocation of a bygone era. In the era between the two World Wars, Southern California was already undergoing some dramatic changes, yet the orange groves, apple orchards, small towns, (like the fictional Madison City where Doug Selby plies his trade) and country roads were still a vivid presence.
The sheriff drove rapidly over the grade, out of the orange lands into the app;e country, and then down a gradual slope between snow-capped mountains to where the country abruptly changed from fertile soil to arid desert.
The dialog is snappy, but Gardner does not overdo the noir lingo. Doug Selby is a very appealing protagonist. Alongside him works Sylvia Martin, intrepid reporter. (Think Lois Lane of Superman fame.) In many noir novels and stories, the only woman on the scene is the perennial femme fatale, so Sylvia’s presence is refreshing, to say the least.
In the climactic scene of The D.A. Draws a Circle, she and Doug, along with the sheriff, become embroiled in a shoot out. Doug is trying to protect her, while she’s quite literally fighting him off. Later she apologizes – after a fashion:
“Gosh, Doug, I’m sorry I kicked at you. But you’re not the only one with a job to do. If I want to take risks, I’ll take them. I had to be in at the finish.”
Selby said, “You’ll stop a slug one of these days, and then what would I do?”
She said indignantly, “I’m just as much entitled to stop slugs as you are.”
“You’re a woman,” Selby said.
Sylvia Martin said, “Well, well. You’re finding that out, are you?”
Oh, yes, he certainly is….
The Selby novels are by and large composed of such dialog exchanges. They move along at a rapid clip; I’m finding them to be excellent escapist reading.
There are moments, though, when Gardner waxes unexpectedly poetical:
Passages like this are welcome, as they’re so rarely encountered in this context.
How is it that I read only one historical mystery this year? I’m a great fan of historical fiction, so I can’t quite figure this out. Anyway, the book in question is The Lady Chapel by Candace Robb, Marge’s choice for our November Suspects discussion. This novel is the second in Robb’s Owen Archer series. I’d read the first, The Apothecary Rose, several years ago, when I needed a Middle Ages “fix.” It did the job admirably. I therefore had high hopes for The Lady Chapel and I”m glad to say those hopes were fulfilled. I’ve already downloaded the next book in the series, The Nun’s Tale. I look forward to reading it.
Elizabeth Edmondson’s two entries in the series A Very English Mystery are a delight, tailor made for the Anglophiles among us. With their setting in the quintessential village of Selchester in the postwar years, the milieu is rife with rumor, scheming and gossip, readily inviting comparison to the world of Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead.
A Man of Some Repute combines the classic murder mystery formula with the intrigue of intelligence work. Thus there are twice as many secrets and intrigues for the varied cast of characters to contend with. What fun! I’m still in the midst of reading A Question of Inheritance, but similar plot elements are already in play.
On the occasion of the 2014 Oxford Literary Festival, Elizabeth Edmondson penned a spirited defense of genre fiction. Unfortunately, we’ve lost this gifted author: she passed away early last year.
I continue to be a one-person Alexander McCall Smith Fan Club. This year I reread The Sunday Philosophy Club, Chris’s pick for the Usual Suspects. Once again, Once again, I reveled in this narrative. Isabel Dalhousie, with her love of art and music, and of the city of Edinburgh, and of deep thought and ethical conundrums – both fascinates and attracts me.
As always, McCall Smith’s writing is beautiful.
Although it was a pleasant spring evening, a stiff breeze had arisen and the clouds were scudding energetically across the sky, towards Norway. This was a northern light, the light of a city that belonged as much to the great, steely plains of the North Sea as it did to the soft hills of its hinterland. This was not Glasgow, with its soft, western light, and its proximity to Ireland and to the Gaeldom of the Highlands. This was a townscape raised in the teeth of cold winds from the east; a city of winding cobbled streets and haughty pillars; a city of dark nights and candlelight, and intellect.
Similar pleasures are to be found in The Novel Habit of Happiness, the latest full length entry in this series:
She looked at Jamie. “It may well be right to say that God doesn’t care. But…” She was not sure what she wanted to say about God. She thought that he might be there— embodied somehow in the perfection of the world, or in the sublime harmonies of a great work of music. Of course, if he was anywhere in music, she felt he was in the grave beauty of the motets of John Tavener, or in the more sublime passages of Bach. The architecture of such music was incompatible, Isabel thought, with a world that was meaningless.
Admittedly, the element of mystery tends to be at best tangential in these novels, but if you wish to spend time in the company of a woman whose restless personality is made up of equal parts intellect and passion – both, I would venture to say in prodigious amounts – then these books are for you.
I started Mick Herron’s Slough House series with the second entry, Dead Lions. Would that I had started at the beginning. Stylishly crafted and hugely entertaining, these novels are part murder mystery, part espionage, and feature fiendishly ingenious plots. Moreover, the cast of characters is…well, read them and find out for yourself. Here are the first three: . The fourth is due out here late next month. Oh, do hurry up; I’m no end impatient!
Finally, there’s my recent quirky predilection for Erle Stanley Gardners’s legal thrillers from the thirties. No, I don’t mean the Perry Mason novels but rather a series featuring District Attorney Doug Selby. As the series commences, Selby has recently been swept into office on the promise of cleansing the office of a recently acquired taint of corruption. He’s young and green, but he’s got fire in the belly. I’m rooting for him – and for his friend, reporter Sylvia Martin.
So far, I’ve read the above two novels in the series. I look forward to reading more. From what I can tell, they’re out of print and not available as ebooks. However, the Bertha Cool and Donald Lam books, written by Gardner under the pseudonym A.A. Fair, have begun to appear courtesy of Hard Case Crime. I’ve already downloaded this one:
Erle Stanley Gardner eventually had to shutter his law practice in order to make room in his life for his writing compulsion. Have a look at his bibliography and you’ll understand why.
I wrote about the newly hot domestic suspense subgenre in a recent post. Admittedly I did not write at great length, the reason being that this is not my favorite area of crime fiction. That said, I really do want to single out these two titles to praise:
What Was Mine seems to have come and gone in obscurity; You Will Know Me, on the other hand, has made quite a few Best of 2016 lists (such as this one from the Washington Post). In my view, both are excellent and provocative novels, good for book discussions – and possible film adaptation.
I had other good reading this year that more or less belongs in this category. Learning To Swim by Sara J. Henry, a book I’d never heard of, was Louise’s selection for the Suspects. Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman was a must-read for all of us who live in this area; it was filled with local references, including one to a street that I myself lived on for several years in the seventies. (Oh good grief; where has the time gone?) I have three – count ’em, three! – book discussions of Wilde Lake coming up this year. Unfortunately, as regards plotting and character development, this novel was not Lippman at her best. At least, that’s how it struck me. (You can read my review here.)
This was the year of saying farewell to the brilliant Ruth Rendell. Dark Corners, her last book, did not feature the now-retired Detective Inspector Reginald Wexford. I found it very satisfying, though not in the same league as A Fatal Inversion and A Judgement on Stone, two of the most devastating works of psychological suspense that I’ve ever read, or probably ever will read.
Some works of crime fiction combine elements of two subgenres in their narratives. I’m thinking in particular of psychological/domestic suspense and police procedural. Clare Macintosh’s I Let You Go is a good example of this. The book begins with an exceptionally tragic hit-and-run accident. The search for the perpetrator uncovers a whole host of secrets that the reader has had scant reason to suspect. And just a bit more than half way though this fairly long (384 pages in hardback) novel, there’s an completely unexpected plot twist that’s nothing short of mind-boggling – or at least, I found it so.
Most readers of I Let You Go were blown away by it. It received numerous rave reviews and won the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award, edging out some pretty stiff competition in the process.
Now, you are probably sensing the approach of a dissenting view. And here it is. Let me say first that after a false start, I found I Let You Go to be very nearly unputdownable. For such a plot-driven novel, the characters were well drawn. I cared what happened to them. This is especially true of Jenna Gray, the woman whose turbulent life is at the center of the narrative. And yet…
It seems to me that the problem with a book like this is that if word gets out prematurely about the plot twists – there were actually several – the element of suspense is compromised. An even more serious concern, for me at least, is that when I finished it, I felt that I’d been manipulated in a way that wasn’t entirely pleasant. Also, I found that in the aftermath of that completion, I was not left with very much. The Kirkus review of I Let You Go – a starred review – concludes with the statement that “Mackintosh has written the kind of book that sticks in the reader’s mind well after the final sentence.” I’m afraid I did not share in that sensation. On the contrary, I felt as though I’d just gorged myself on a large helping of empty calories.
A really good police procedural, on the other hand, rarely leaves me feeling that way. And Peter Lovesey has never left me feeling that way. Instead, I devour his books with a mixture of delight, admiration, and total absorption. The 2016 entry in the Peter Diamond series, Another One Goes Tonight, was no exception. Lovesey was recently honored by his admiring colleagues with anthology produced in honor of his eightieth birthday. The collection was undertaken by the Detection Club and edited by Martin Edwards:
I finally caught up with Peter Robinson’s Children of the Revolution. It was a highly enjoyable read for procedural fans like myself. DCI Alan Banks is up to his old tricks, playing fast and loose with procedure, not to mention the repeated warnings from his superior officer, in order to solve a mystery with roots – as is often the case with this series – in the past. What a pleasure it is to see the Banks novels going from strength to strength, starting with the first, Gallows View, from 1987. After we’d both read it, Marge (my “partner in crime” on the library staff) and I predicted a great future for this series. And we were right.
Up until now, I’ve had a lot of trouble figuring out what it was that people liked so much about Tana French’s Murder Squad series. I read Broken Harbor for the Suspects, and I would never have gotten through it without the aid of the recorded book. But the reviews for French’s latest, The Trespasser, lured me back. I decided to give it another shot. It worked! I loved the feisty protagonist Antoinette Conway, the depiction of her colleagues and her work environment, and above all her dogged determination in following a case in the opposite direction from where everyone else was headed and all the evidence seemed to lead. I also really appreciated the flashes of humor, which were at times rather acidic but welcome nonetheless.
Not done yet but must pause. Part three will cover historical mysteries (in lamentably short supply on my reading list), hard to classify titles, and my picks for the best of the best.