The Usual Suspects discuss Reginald Hill’s Bones and Silence

April 14, 2014 at 10:31 am (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

bonesandsilence  On Tuesday of last week, the Usual Suspects took on Reginald Hill’s Gold Dagger winning novel  Bones and Silence. This book is not an easy read, but it is the work of an author whose verbal pyrotechnics and witty asides never fail to delight. At least, they never fail to delight Your Faithful Blogger. But it quickly became clear that a good number of the Suspects were rather less than delighted.

The three principal motifs of this novel are set forth in its opening chapters. Chapter One consists entirely of a letter to Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel. In it, the writer declares his (her?) intention of committing suicide. No name is given, and no reason, either for the intention or for making Dalziel the recipient of  this disconcerting information. The tone is oddly upbeat, even cheerful.

There are more of these mysterious missives to come.

The second motif concerns the plans of local theater impresario Eileen Chung to stage the York Cycle of mystery plays on mobile stages that will roll through the streets of the city. The aim is to recreate as closely as possible the the way in which the plays were originally experienced by their medieval audience:

…through her mind’s eye…ran pictures brimming with colour and excitement of the great pageant wagons rumbling over the cobbles, harbinged by music and dancers and trailing a long wash of jugglers, tumblers, fire-eaters, fools, flagellants, giants, dwarves, dancing bears, merry monks, cut-price pardoners, knights on horseback, Saracens in chains, nubile Nubians….

Chung, a woman with a vivid personality and an  imagination to match, has gone a bit wild here, but the vision is no less enticing for it.

The third motif is kicked off by a bizarre homicide that takes place in a house in Dalziel’s own neighborhood. Dalziel himself comes crashing into a bedroom in the dwelling right after the ear shattering sound of gunshot. He finds a man holding a gun, another man cowering in terror on the floor, and a naked woman sprawled on the bed, dead, with most of her face blown away.

Murder, of course. But was it, really? As so often is the case in Reginald Hill’s cunningly spun narratives, nothing is quite what it seems.

As the plot of the novel gained in complexity, so did the frustration of some of the Suspects. And there were other problems, chief among them being the antipathy aroused by Andy Dalziel.  Rather than being amusing, his crude behavior and irreverent speech were perceived as annoying and  even offensive. Pauline made no bones about her dislike of the book, criticizing among other flaws its messy structure. (I respectfully disagreed with her on this point!) Someone else said that she disliked not only  Dalziel, but Peter Pascoe and Ellie as well. (I, on the other hand, find them quite appealing, both as individuals and as a couple.)

Susan mentioned that characters would suddenly turn up dead with no prior intimation that this was likely to occur and no explanation why.  Just about everyone agreed that the book was too long, resulting in a periodically sluggish reading experience (that dreaded slogging sensation, feared by all readers).

No one, even ardent Hill fans like Yours Truly, argued with this last assertion. The novel was not a page turner. Yet even the dissenters among us had to admire this author’s sly and irreverent wit. At a point early in the story, Sergeant Wield, a resourceful and intelligent officer, is sent to interview a witness (suspect?) in the hospital. That would be Waterson the cowering fellow in the above described murder scenario. Upon entering the hospital room, Wield gets more than he bargained for:

It occurred to him instantly that Waterson must have private medical insurance. A nurse in a ward sister’s uniform was leaning over him. Their mouths were locked together and his hands were inside her starched blouse, roaming freely. No way did you get this on the National Health.

The nurse turns out to be Waterson’s estranged wife – estranged, that is, until that memorable encounter!
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Mike was our discussion leader for Bones and Silence. Like me, she loves British mysteries in general and Reginald Hill in particular. This title is a particular favorite of hers, which is why she selected it for the group. In my view, she presented a persuasive case for the book, but one of the great lessons you learn in book groups is that you can’t predict how people are going to react to your choice. I admit that it pained me somewhat to hear such negative comments about a writer whom I hold in such high esteem, but that’s how these things go some times, and you have to be philosophical about it.There’s little point in having these discussions if participants don’t feel that they can express themselves directly and honestly.

While I do like Bones and Silence, it’s not my favorite in the Dalziel and Pascoe series. That designation would have to go to On Beulah Height. (Several others in last Tuesday’s group felt the same way.) I also have to say that as the series was reaching its (regrettable) conclusion, I felt that Hill’s writing was getting better and better.  Dialogues of the Dead, Death’s Jest Book, Midnight Fugue – I loved all of them.

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Quite a few in our group had watched the Dalziel & Pascoe series on DVD. I recommend them highly, especially series one through four, which contain episodes drawn directly from the novels. (Inspector Morse fans will recognize the soundtrack as being by the inimitable Barrington Pheloung.) 590913 In Bones and Silence, The role of Philip Swain, he who held the gun in the above described homicide scene, is played – beautifully underplayed I should say – by veteran British actor Michael Kitchen, whose portrayal of Christopher Foyle in the series Foyle’s War has been admired and enjoyed by many of us. (Dalziel’s relentless pursuit of Swain puts one in mind of Inspector Javert and Jean Valjean in Hugo’s Les Miserables.)

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Reginald Hill passed away in January of 2012. A site was organized that summer, with the purpose of celebrating Hill both as a writer and a friend to other writers.

Reginald Hill

Reginald Hill

 

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The Enduring Mystery of Josephine Tey

November 10, 2013 at 9:04 pm (Anglophilia, Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

bfarrarcover  While preparing background material for a discussion of Brat Farrar with AAUW Readers, I found myself falling once again under the spell of the author. For Josephine Tey, possessor of not one but two pseudonyms, an almost phantom presence on the literary scene, author of eight superbly crafted crime novels, was herself something of an enigma.

In her book Women of Mystery: The Lives and Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists, Martha Hailey DuBose observes:

Of all the Women of Mystery, Elizabeth MacKintosh is the most deserving of the title. She never published under her own name, hiding her identity behind first the male pseudonym Gordon Daviot and then the pen name by which she is recognized today, Josephine Tey. She never submitted to press interviews, shunned all forms of personal publicity, and was guarded even with close colleagues. No one has yet collected her letters or edited her papers, if there are any around, and she never, so far as we know, chronicled her life beyond the most basic details. She left behind only the bare outline of a mystery whose clues must be extracted from her fiction.

(DuBose’s book came out in 2000; as far as I know, this assessment remains accurate.)

Elizabeth MacKintosh/Josephine Tey was born in Inverness, Scotland. The year of her birth has been disputed in the past, but it’s now generally accepted as being 1896. The eldest of three girls, she appears to have had a happy childhood. She attended Inverness Royal Academy and later, during the years of the First World War, traveled south to matriculate in the Anstey Physical Training College in Birmingham. She enjoyed athletics and was able to put this academic background to use as a teacher in secondary level schools. But all this time, ever since her girlhood, she had been writing, mainly short stories and poetry. Some of her early work was published in Scottish newspapers and in the English Review.

(At this point I’d like to interpose some intriguing information concerning the future so-called “Grande Dames’ of British crime fiction’s first Golden Age. Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Josephine Tey were all four born between 1890 and 1897. Talk about an auspicious decade! Margery Allingham lagged behind somewhat, the year of her birth  being 1904.)

Using the pseudonym Gordon Daviot,  Josephine Tey published her first crime novel in 1929. Written as a contest entry, it was called The Man in the Queue and featured Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard.

Tey also wrote plays, also under the name Gordon Daviot. The first and most memorable of these efforts was entitled Richard of Bordeaux. Premiering on stage in 1932, this drama about King Richard II provided John Gielgud with his first starring stage role. The play was a hit, thus launching Gielgud on what eventually became one of the most illustrious acting careers of  the twentieth century.

John Gielgud as Richard II in Richard of Bordeaux

John Gielgud as Richard II in Richard of Bordeaux

Meanwhile, under the name Josephine Tey, seven more novels of crime appeared, starting with A Shilling for Candles in 1937. Tey published nothing during the war years; then came more plays and the remaining six crime novels, starting with Miss Pym Disposes in 1946 and ending with The Singing Sands in 1952. Alan Grant appears in six of the eight novels, being entirely absent only in Brat Farrar and Miss Pym Disposes.

At some point in late 1950 or early 1951, Tey learned that she was seriously ill. She kept her condition a secret from all but those closest to her. When she died in February of 1952, probably of cancer, many who knew her were shocked. Her memorial service was attended by Sir John Gielgud and Dame Edith Evans. At the time, the papers were full of news of the passing of King George VI, father of Queen Elizabeth II. He had died just days earlier.

In his memoir, Sir John Gielgud hints that the playwright whom he esteemed and admired might have suffered a bereavement as a result of World War One. If so, then Tey was one of many women who suffered a similar loss.

At the time of her death, Elizabeth MacKintosh, aka Gordon Daviot, aka Josephine Tey, was 55 years of age. She willed her entire estate to England’s National Trust.

Since 1926, Josephine Tey had been keeping house for her father in Inverness, her mother having died a few years previous. Colin Mackintosh died in 1950 at the age of 86, predeceasing his gifted and intensely private daughter by a mere two years.

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Thursday’s discussion of Brat Farrar was both edifying and stimulating. I’ve now read this novel four times, and yet points were brought forth and questions raised that I’d not heretofore considered. How could the young Brat have traveled so freely during the war years? When exactly are the events of the novel supposed to have occurred? It was published in 1949, so one supposes the time frame to be postwar. Yet there is barely  any mention of the seismic, six year long agony that had ended so recently. One reads of the bleak impoverishment of British life during this period, yet Latchetts (the country seat of the Ashby family) and its surroundings seem bathed in fruitful prosperity. (One thinks of the novels of Jane Austen, with their sense of the wider world kept almost completely at bay while their author examines the niceties of provincial country life.) Emma observed that Tey seemed to have deliberately evoked a timeless setting in which her characters could work out their respective fates.

Rita was the most seriously critical of the novel, especially of the ending. Too much happened too quickly, she averred. Many of us agreed with her. We found ourselves having to thrash out some of the plot points, such as how Simon knew that Brat was going to try to descend that fatal cliff face where Patrick Ashby had met his end. We also tried to clarify the issue of the consanguinity of Brat and Eleanor. First cousins? Second? After all, the assumption is that they intend to marry; Eleanor declares her intention in no uncertain terms.

Finally, someone commented on the loveliness of the scene, earlier in the novel, in which Brat takes Timber out for a run. I think it’s worth quoting at some length:

Timber seemed as well acquainted with gates and their uses as a cow pony was with a rope, but never before had Brat had so delicate and so well-oiled a mechanism under him. Timber obeyed the slightest indication of hand or heel with a lack of questioning and a confidence that was new in Brat’s experience. Surprised and delighted Brat experimented with this new adaptability. And Timber, even with  the turf in front of him, with the turf practically under his feet, moved sweetly and obediently under his hands.
“You wonder!” said Brat softly.
The ears flicked at him.
“You perishing marvel,” he said, and closed his knees as he turned to face the down. Timber broke into a slow canter, headed for the clumps of gorse and juniper bushes that marked the skyline.
So this was what riding a good English horse was like, he thought. This communion, this being one half of a whole. This effortlessness. This magic.
The close, fine turf slipped by under them, and it was odd to see no little spurt of dust coming up as the shoes struck. England, England, England, said the shoes as they struck. A soft drum on the English turf.
I don’t care, he thought, I don’t care. I’m a criminal, and a heel, but I’ve got what I wanted, and it’s worth it. By God, it’s worth it. If I died tomorrow, it’s worth it.

Brat is soon to find out that Timber’s docility is a sometime thing. But how beautifully Tey conveys this moment of ecstatic communion between man and horse!

I think that among those who were present at Thursday’s discussion, the general feeling was that although Brat Farrar has its flaws, these are far outweighed by the many qualities that make it shine. In his introduction to the Scribner paperback edition of 1997, Robert Barnard extolls “…Josephine Tey’s brilliant storytelling: her varied, loving characterisation; above all, her control of reader sympathies.” This last is especially evident in Brat Farrar, as the reader comes to share in Brat’s life and death struggle with his conscience, his obligations, his very soul.

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Somehow I’ve managed to do a fair amount of writing about Josephine Tey without mentioning the novel for which she is most famous. the-daughter-of-time In The Daughter of Time, Alan Grant finds himself laid up in hospital with a broken leg. In desperate need of mental stimulus, he takes it upon himself to investigate the case against King Richard III, a man who’d been reviled for centuries as the murderer of the Princes in the Tower. They were the true heirs to the throne, and he is supposed to have done away with them so that he might be the sole unopposed ruler of England.

I read The Daughter of Time many years ago. In fact, for a long time, it was the only work of detective fiction I’d ever read. (Hard to believe, I know! You can see, I’ve had lots of catching up to do.) In some quarters it’s considered to be Tey’s masterpiece. I really do need to reread it, but for now, in my view, that designation belongs either to Brat Farrar or The Franchise Affair – or to both, jointly.

(Colin Dexter paid homage to The Daughter of Time in his novel The Wench Is Dead. Like Alan Grant before him, Inspector Morse finds himself immobilized in a hospital and in need of diversion of an intellectual nature. He finds it by investigating the real life murder  of one Christina Collins in 1839. The Wench Is Dead, long one of my favorites among Dexter’s oeuvre, won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award in 1989.)

The only other crime novel I’ve read by Tey is the last one, The Singing Sands. Again, it’s not fresh in my mind, although I do recall enjoying the vividness of the Scottish setting. As it has finally occurred to me that some of the best exemplars of the British police procedural, my favorite genre, have been right under my nose for quite some time, I’ve just begun reading A Shilling for Candles and am already enjoying the lucid prose and engaging characters.

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The manuscript for The Singing Sands was found among Tey’s papers after her death, and was published posthumously.

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As far as I can determine, the best online source of information on Josephine Tey resides on a site called Josephine Tey – A Very Private Person. Not only is the biographical article quite enlightening, but if you work your way down the buttons on the left, you’ll find video of Brat Farrar, The Franchise Affair – two versions, no less – and some delightful photos like this one taken at the Anstey Physical Training College, Elizabeth MacKintosh’s alma mater.  Josephine_tey_anstey_physical_training_college_1

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I’d forgotten that the urbane Vincent Price hosted Mystery! in the 1980s. Click here to see him introduce a Josephine Tey segment to the television audience. I love the way he casually mentions the fact that he actually saw the original 1933 production of Richard of Bordeaux, starring John Gielgud!

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Finally, my heartfelt thanks go out to the seventeen or eighteen Readers – a great turnout!  – for one of the most exhilarating book discussions I’ve ever been lucky enough to be part of.

Elizabeth MacKintosh, aka Gordon Daviot, aka Josephine Tey  1896 - 1952

Elizabeth MacKintosh, aka Gordon Daviot, aka Josephine Tey: 1896 – 1952

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Please click here for additional information on Josephine Tey.

 

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On the subject of the string quartet: a stellar performance by Peter Lovesey

October 27, 2013 at 1:10 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

When I finished Cop To Corpse by Peter Lovesey, I thought to myself, It doesn’t get any better than this. I was wrong; it does.

LOVTOOT01-2

The Tooth Tattoo is the story of a highly regarded quartet of stringed instrument players. The sudden loss of their violist has for a time taken them out of the game. Now they want back in and are actively seeking a new violist. They’ve heard Mel Farran play, and they like what they’ve heard. They’re more and more certain that he’ll be a  good fit for their small elite ensemble.

They call themselves The Staccati, and Peter Lovesey lays bare the inner workings of this  foursome in a way both fascinating and completely believable.

Mel is deeply grateful to be part of the quartet, and he feels challenged to get his playing up to their high standard while at the same time achieving a perfect blend with the group:

He’d need to fit in more practice. In spite of the praise from the others, he knew Ivan was right. His intonation – accuracy of pitch – could be improved. With such latitude possible in their creation of sound, string players had a huge advantage over anyone else in an orchestra, yet there were phases, say in a long legato line with open strings, when the pitch should be suppressed. He’d noted a couple of passages in the Beethoven when he needed to adapt better to  the violins.

The pitch should be suppressed? I admit, I don’t entirely understand what’s being said here, but I do get the point about  the unique capabilities of stringed instruments.

You wouldn’t think that the lives of these intense and dedicated artists could intersect with a criminal investigation, but  that’s exactly what happens. For a limited period, the Staccati take up residence at Bath Spa University. It’s an arrangement that benefits them, the university community, and local music lovers. This last is not a cohort with which Peter Diamond, head of the Bath CID, would ordinarily be associated. But he comes to a cautious appreciation of the music itself and of those who bring it so exquisitely to life.

Although Peter would be the first to admit that he’s no ‘culture vulture,’ he can nevertheless shoot the breeze with the best of them:

“Beethoven, wasn’t it?” Diamond ventured.
Anthony was supposed to get the idea that Diamond was a fellow lover of music. He didn’t show a glimmer of appreciation.
“I couldn’t place the piece,” Diamond added, which was true. He was about as capable of placing a piece of Beethoven as he was of riding a Derby winner. “Do you mind telling me what it was?”
Opus 59, Number 3,” Anthony said.
“Silly me. I’m a duffer with numbers.”
“In C major.”
“C major.” Diamond raised his thumb as if all had been made clear. “Any particular part?”
“The fugue.”
“And to me it sounded just as a fugue should.”
“It was too fast.”
“A shade quick, I’ll give you.”

Here is that piece, played by the Alban Berg Quartet:

Peter does in fact he does have a passion for certain works of art. In fact, the only way his lady friend Paloma could get him to take a vacation in one of the capitals of continental Europe was by choosing Vienna, the setting of Peter’s favorite film, The Third Man.

The Third Man is terrific. It’s hard to see how it could be anything but, with stars like Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten and Trevor Howard, and a screenplay by Graham Greene.

The 'Wiener Riesenrad' (Viennese Giant Wheel in the Prater amusement park, where Harry Lime/Orson Welles makes his famous Cuckoo Clock speech

The ‘Wiener Riesenrad’ (Viennese Giant Wheel) in the Prater amusement park, where Harry Lime/Orson Welles makes his famous Cuckoo Clock speech

Inevitably in a Peter Diamond novel, we’re treated to a disquisition on some notable feature of the City of Bath. This time it’s Sydney Gardens, “a haven of quiet in a busy city” and, during her sojourns in Bath, one of Jane Austen’s favorite haunts: sydney-gardens

Literate, entertaining, and wide-ranging, The Tooth Tattoo is a triumph, one of the best novels by one of the greatest procedural writers currently at work.

Peter Lovesey

Peter Lovesey

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The Staccati also perform one of my favorite pieces: String Quartet No.14 in D minor, known as Death And the Maiden, by Franz Schubert. Her it is, performed by the Alban Berg Quartet:

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Outstanding entries in two favorite crime fiction series (by authors who themselves are something of a mystery) Part Two: Peter Turnbull

October 6, 2013 at 11:14 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

[Link to Part One: Bill James]

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9781780104089_p0_v1_s260x420

Monday, 5 June, 10.00 hours – 19.45 hours

In which Reginald Webster acts upon a whim and by this doing causes an interesting development, and the courteous reader is privy to another demon in George Hennessy’s life, but also to the joys therein.

A superscription in this style appears at the start of each chapter of a Hennessy and Yellich novel. The reader may be ‘courteous.’ ‘gracious.’ or ‘dear’; the plot developments hinted at are expounded on and clarified as the chapter unfolds.

In Gift Wrapped, a series of cryptic postcards lead police to the unhallowed site of a burial. The body unearthed there belongs to one who has been dead for quite some time. Who is this person? And how did he/she end up beneath the soil at the edge of a field? From this strange discovery, many mysteries commence to flow….

Peter Turnbull is a somewhat elusive – reclusive? – -presence on the crime fiction scene. From the  Gale Database Biography in Context (accessible online  through the library’s website), we learn that he was born in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, in 1950. He was educated at Richmond College of Fine Arts, Cambridge College of Arts and Technology, the University of Huddersfield,  Cardiff University, where he received his certificate in social work. He was then variously employed as a steelworker and crematorium assistant in Sheffield and London, and as a social worker in Brooklyn, NY. (I am curious to know how this last came about, its duration, etc.)

The writing in this series is distinguished by its curiously antique style. I can readily accept that it might not be to everyone’s taste. (The same can be said of Bill James’s prose style in the Harpur and Iles series.) Here, for instance, is Detective Chief Inspector George Hennessey:

“Warthill and Gate Helmsley…it does sound like the rural north of England, which will now be in all its summer bounty and splendour.”

Do real people – never mind real police officers – actually express themselves in this somewhat flowery manner? Well, probably not, at least not any more, although I confess I rather wish they did!

Peter Turnbull is good at concocting ingenious plots, and in my opinion, this is one of the best that he’s ever come up with. As the story moves forward, all sorts of  twists and turns materialize, evoking those “Aha!” moments that are meat and drink to crime fiction fans. I certainly recommend Gift Wrapped – in  fact, I recommend any and all the books in this series. And you can jump in at any point, because in each novel, Turnbull briefly recapitulates the history of the main and supporting characters. One reviewer complained of this practice, calling it needlessly repetitious. I like it very much. You get a sense that the officers’ personal lives exist in a kind of eternal present, while they do battle with the ever changing face of evil in the world outside.

Here’s an example of Turnbull’s method. In this scene, George Hennessey is standing in his back garden of his home, seeming to converse with someone. But in fact, he is completely alone. What is going on?

The gentle and most gracious reader will, however, be saddened to learn that our  hero speaking to, apparently, no one at all is not the symptom of harmless eccentricity in a a man in his late middle years; rather he is fully sane and his practice of telling the rear garden of his day is the consequence of a dreadful tragedy and the second significant loss in his life.

We are apprised of this tragedy anew in each of the novels in the series.
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As always, we can thank Stop! You’re Killing Me for a comprehensive list of the works of Peter Turnbull. In addition to Gift Wrapped, I’ve reviewed No Stone UnturnedChill FactorOnce a BikerTurning PointDeliver Us From Evil, and The Altered Case  in this space.

In  his comments on my review of Turning PointMartin Edwards, who blogs at Do You Write Under Your Own Name, had this to say:

Peter Turnbull, whom I’ve known for fifteen years or more, is a very self-effacing individual, but a writer (in my opinion) of real quality. I’ve been familiar with his books since I was a student, and the P Division stories were quite prominent in their day. But he never ‘broke out’ and is now relatively little known. But he is a crime writer who deserves more recognition.

The P Division novels, an earlier series by Turnbull, are set in Glasgow, where the author lived from 1978 to 1995, at which time he decided to become a full time writer. I read several of them before getting into the Hennessey and Yellich series, and if memory serves, I greatly enjoyed them. Their titles and publication dates can be found at the Stop! You’re Killing Me link above.  crisp2  41S3D0IoVaL

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If you’d like a taste of Turnbull’s writing, read “The Man Who Took His Hat Off to the Driver of the Train.” This nicely crafted little tale won the short story Edgar Award for 2012. Its mention of ‘walking the walls’ in York brought back happy memories of my visit to  that magical city in 2005.

Yorkwalls

Yorkwalls2

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Here is the only photograph I’ve ever been able to find of Peter Turnbull: 53811

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Outstanding entries in two favorite crime fiction series (by authors who themselves are something of a mystery) Part One: Bill James

October 4, 2013 at 3:49 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

9781780290430_p0_v1_s260x420  Play Dead is the thirtieth Harpur & Iles novel. I’ve read about twenty books in this series. They’re a really fast read – too fast, because I’m always left wanting more (as opposed to weightier tomes that lumber along at a snail’s pace until you want to yell “Get on with it already!). Play Dead clocks in at 220 pages – pages filled with James’s signature mix of frivolity, wit, savagery, profanity, and literary allusions. The prose style is so distinctive, it could belong to no other writer that I know of. (‘Col’ is what Iles calls his second in command, Colin Harpur.)

Apparently, in one of the local papers Iles had noticed a theatre advertisement for a play called The Revenger’s Tragedy, by somebody centuries ago he had heard of, or by somebody else he’d also heard of. One of the things about Iles was he’d heard of quite a few people from the past, not just  the obvious like Nelson or Moses, but less familiar folk. This play was on at the King’s theatre in the city centre. He said: “As you’ll know, Col, some give the authorship to Tourneur, spelled with two U’s, not just the one as in “turner and fitter,” but many claim it for Thomas Middleton, and others say others. There are scholars who earn a fair screw by saying, “I’d bet on Cyril Tourneur with two U’s” or “I’d bet on Thomas Middleton,” or “I think X or Y or Z because of the unique way he uses the word ‘and’.” The piece has killings, rape, seduction, procurement by the hero of his sister – really zestful, joyous, lip-smacking evil. The hero talks to his very dead mistress, calling her “the bony lady,” meaning not that she’s anorexic but a skeleton.”

Among other things, this passage reminded me just why, all those years ago, I found my graduate school course in Elizabethan drama excluding Shakespeare so mind-boggling….

So, what’s this impromptu bit of literary criticism doing in the middle of a murder mystery? You have to read the novel to find out, and further, to get a handle on one of the strangest and most volatile working relationships in crime fiction.
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Bill James – one of several pseudonyms used by James Allan Tucker -  was born in 1929 in South Wales, where he still resides. Having served as a Royal Air Force pilot in the Second World War, he began his writing career as a journalist. A brief biography of Bill James can be found at the Severn House site. (I am most  grateful to Severn House for publishing the work of so many fine crime fiction authors.)

I was delighted to find this (relatively recent) in depth interview with Bill James at the Detectives Beyond Borders site. And I am in complete agreement with Alex Grant’s assessment, made in 2002, of James’s place in the pantheon of crime writers.

In Play Dead, Harpur and Iles are tasked with looking into possible corruption in another police force. The first phase of their investigation is described in the previous novel, Undercover. (It so happens that Iles has a particular animus against undercover operations. He has good reason for feeling that way.) In point of fact, over the course of this series, a long story arc unfolds. You don’t necessarily have to start reading at the very beginning, but the farther back you go, the more enjoyment you’ll get from the series.
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In Addition to Undercover, I’ve reviewed Girls, PixIn the Absence of Iles, and Hotbed in this space.  In addition, I wrote a retrospective of the Harpur & Iles novels in 2007.
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This is the only photograph I’ve managed to find of Bill James:

BillJames

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Coming soon: Part Two: Peter Turnbull.

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Robert Barnard

September 28, 2013 at 12:38 am (books, Mystery fiction, Remembrance, The British police procedural)

Robert Barnard

Robert Barnard

I just learned from Martin Edwards’s blog that Robert Barnard has passed away. Barnard has long been one of my favorite writers of crime fiction. He was a master of the cozy style of British mystery writing; as Mike Ripley says in his appreciation, “It was a term he [Barnard] never denied or disparaged as he felt strongly that the goal of the crime writer was simply to entertain.” It’s something he did wonderfully well.

In addition to mysteries, Robert Barnard authored studies of Agatha Christie and Charles Dickens. He was also a stalwart of  the Bronte Society. We had the great good fortune to hear him speak in 2007, at the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth. I wrote about this memorable occasion in a post entitled Haworth and the Brontes.  I included several snapshots of Barnard and others in this post. Click on the thumbnails and they become full size. (This event was part of a Smithsonian Journeys Mystery Lovers Tour.)

In addition to numerous standalone novels, Robert Barnard authored several series. Most recently his police procedurals have featured Charlie Peace, who first worked out of Scotland Yard and subsequently moved north to Leeds. The novel on the reading list for the Smithsonian trip was from an earlier series featuring Perry Trethowen of Scotland Yard. It was called Death by Sheer Torture, and I found it wonderfully entertaining. Click here for a complete list of Barnard’s crime fiction. (Please note that four novels were written under the name Bernard Bastable.)

Martin Edwards has written a fine piece on Barnard’s life and work for Mystery Scene Magazine. The article is already posted on his site.

In addition to Death by Sheer Torture, I’ve written up several other Barnard’s titles in this  space: A Fall from Grace, Last Post, and A Stranger in the Family. Other favorites of mine from among his works are:

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In 2003, the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain awarded the Cartier Diamond Dagger to Robert Barnard for lifetime achievement in crime writing.  bobbarnard

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“In ancient times, had people believed this misty, twilit land was on the very edge of the world?” – The Frozen Shroud by Martin Edwards

September 2, 2013 at 11:04 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

The Frozen Shroud  It’s been quite some time since I read this sixth entry in Martin Edwards‘s Lake District series of mysteries. So, while the particulars of the plot of The Frozen Shroud are no longer fresh in my mind, my overall satisfaction with the book is still very much with me. One of its particular pleasures is that it serves as a virtual Baedeker with which to explore the historical and cultural riches of the Lake District.

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Our chief guide for this exploration is the genial scholar Daniel Kind. He makes his first appearance in this novel as a lecturer at Literary Lakeland, a conference being held in Grasmere. His topic: Thomas De Quincey, local legend, notorious opium-eater, and connoisseur of murder.

Now I must digress for a moment to observe that I have lately been having a sort of Thomas De Quincey immersion experience. For one thing, I’m about half way through David Morrell’s Murder as a Fine Art, a novel in which De Quincey figures as a main character. And I’ve just read the first essay entitled “Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” (an experience I can’t wait to write about, but wait I shall, at least for the time being). Finally, upon opening Judith Flanders’s The Invention of Murder I encountered this pithy quote from the above mentioned essay by De Quincey:

‘Pleasant it is, no doubt, to drink tea with your sweetheart, but most disagreeable to find her bubbling in the tea-urn.’

(I’m here to tell you, the entire essay is like that! But more on this in a later post.)  9780199539048_p0_v1_s260x420

Like Judith Flanders, Daniel Kind studies the history of murder. He’s especially intrigued by a killing that took place in the neighborhood of Ravenbank shortly before the outbreak of World War One. The victim was a young woman, and it is said that her ghost walks abroad in the Lakes….

Daniel Kind’s opposite number in this series is Hannah Scarlett. She’d been trained up in police work by Daniel’s father DCI Ben Kind of the Cumbria Constabulary. Now a Detective Chief Inspector herself, Hannah’s first order of business is to fend off the efforts of her boss Lauren Self to drastically downsize the cold case squad of which Hannah is the proud leader.

Because of Ben Kind (now deceased), there has been a connection between Hannah and Daniel ever since the latter retired from Oxford and moved up to the Lakes. He initially arrived with a Significant Other, and at the time, Hannah had a long term live-in boyfriend, bookstore owner Marc Amos. Since then, both have become unattached. We patient readers await developments.

Meanwhile, we can enjoy evocative descriptions like this one:

Tiny and remote Martindale might be, but it boasted two churches. They stopped to look at the ancient chapel of St. Martin’s. The font had once been part of a Roman altar, a wayside shrine; the gnarled yew outside was supposed to date back to Saxon times. People had worshipped on this site for a thousand years. Had they prayed for protection from the dark forces of the nearby headland?

And this:

In ancient times, had people believed this misty, twilit land was on the very edge of the world? The Roman legionnaires who strode along the road high above Martindale believed the country to be infested with spirits. But apparitions were untouchable, tantalising those who sought them out. However close they seemed, whatever form and shape they took, they remained forever out of reach.

I really loved this book. For my money, it’s the best Lake District novel so far.
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Don’t miss Martin Edwards’s blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name? It’s filled with mysterious happenings and reviews of both books and tv shows. I particularly enjoy the “Forgotten books” feature. All is set forth in Edwards’s lively and accessible style.

Martin Edwards

Martin Edwards

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Cop to Corpse discussion, Part Two: the city of Bath and the county of Somerset

July 26, 2013 at 3:54 pm (Anglophilia, Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

Located 97 miles to the west of London, Bath is a very old city. Reference to Bath causes most Americans think of Jane Austen, who lived there for a time with her family in the early 1800s. Yet there is scant mention of her in Cop To Corpse. Instead, Peter Lovesey brings a wealth of other fascinating facts and associations regarding Bath and the surrounding area into his narrative.

Lovesey sticks very close to the facts of the actual city. In this paragraph, he describes Walcot Street, where PC Harry Tasker was patrolling when he was shot:

Walcot Street was created by the Romans. It is believed to have formed a small section of the Fosse Way, the unswerving road that linked the West Country to the Midlands. It runs north to south for a third of a mile, parallel to the River Avon, from St. Swithin’s Church – where Jane Austen’s parents were married in 1764 – to St. Michael’s, where it morphs into Northgate Street. Located outside the old city walls, Walcot was once a village independent of Bath and still has the feel of a place apart. It was always the city’s lumber room, housing in its time, tram sheds, a flea market, slaughterhouses, a foundry, a women’s prison and an isolation hospital for venereal diseases. Now it goes in for shops of character and variable charm such as Jack and Danny’s Fancy Dress Hire; Bath Sewing Machine Service; Yummy House; Bath Aqua Theatre of Glass; and Appy Daze, Bath’s Premium Hemporium.

I googled that last one and yes, it does exist7045512129_f50cc72d0d_z

Here is a map of Bath City Center:

Bath Centre Web

Click twice, and it enlarges nicely. Walcot Street is clearly visible, as is the Manvers Street ‘Nick,’ where Peter Diamond and his team have their headquarters.

The gas holder is a crucial landmark in Cop To Corpse. Most of us had no idea what that was; the exception was our British-born member Pauline, who recalled having seen many of them in the UK.  Wikipedia defines a gas holder as “…a large container in which natural gas or town gas is stored near atmospheric pressure at ambient temperatures.”

Bath's last gas holder

Bath’s last gas holder

As of last year, to the dismay of some, this structure was scheduled for demolition.

One of the smartest, most resourceful members of Peter Diamond’s team is former police reporter Ingeborg Smith. At one point, she and her boss are driving across the Avon River when one of Bath’s more arresting sights comes into view. It’s a railway viaduct built to resemble a castle -  “one of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s oddest indulgences.”

turreted-viaduct2

It seems to me that the famous epitaph crafted for the great architect Sir Christopher Wren by his son could serve equally for Isambard Kingdom Brunel: “Reader, if you seek his monument – look around you.”

The Hobby Horse Celebration, a feature of the May Day festivities, also plays a part in this narrative.

Minehead is located to the west of Bath. Here is a schematic showing the principal cities and towns in the county of Somerset:

somerset_map_472x326Ass you can see, there are many famous places in this county besides Bath: the city of Wells with its incomparable cathedral, the village of Cheddar with its incomparable cheese, fabled Glastonbury…. And then there’s Porlock. When the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was living in the village of Nether Stowey, in Somerset, a knock on the door interrupted him while he was composing one of his greatest masterpieces, Kubla Khan. Coleridge claimed that the poem had come to him in a dream, possibly aided by opium use.

At any rate, his visitor had come from nearby Porlock to ask a quite ordinary favor him. When the business had been transacted, the poet returned to his labors, only to find that the vision had fled. The poem, never completed, is usually referred to as a fragment. It should be noted that not everyone gives credence to Coleridge’s version of events. Still, “the person from Porlock” has come to stand for any unwelcome interruption, especially of someone’s thought processes. I thought I recalled Morse using the expression in one of the TV episodes. Jeanne Matthews recounts the incident in her lively blog Buried Under Books.

Here’s a map of Bath and the surrounding area:

Area Map of Bath 2012

The village of Rode is southeast of Bath. Formerly called Road, the Usual Suspects remembered that place, for it was there that an infamous murder took place at Road Hill House in 1860. In The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Kate Summerscale tells the story, which is both fascinating and heartbreaking. This book was our discussion selection in October of 2009.

The investigations in Cop To Corpse are fraught with jurisdictional disputes. Per reports of the sighting of a likely suspect in the shootings of police officers, Diamond and members of his team join Jack Gull and his Serious Crimes Unit in a stake out in a place called Becky Addy Wood in neighboring Wiltshire. In this forested area, Peter Diamond pays for his propensity to ignore orders issued by others. What happens to him in Becky Addy Wood comes completely without warning; he is injured but could easily have been killed. It’s one of the most spectacular, originally conceived scenes I’ve encountered in a work of crime fiction.

As a result of this incident, Peter Diamond hobbles through the rest of the book with the aid of crutches he’s “borrowed” from a local hospital. At one point, angered by the actions of DI Polehampton, a subordinate of Jack Gull’s, Diamond grabs a crutch and prepares to unleash his formidable temper. At that moment, he’s described as having “a limp almost as menacing as Anthony Sher playing Richard III.” A google image search yielded this photograph of the actor in that role:  Sheras Richard  ‘Menacing’ does seem an apt descriptor….

At one point, a member of the Wiltshire police force is described as “a moonraker, Wiltshire through and through.”. My curiosity was piqued; to me, that word signified a James Bond film and nothing more. But there is more. The nickname of moonraker originates with a legend, recounted on the Haunted Wiltshire site.

The legend is illustrated on a postcard from 1903:  Wiltshire_Moorakers_postcard_1903

For me, the novels of Peter Lovesey are greatly enriched by allusions such as these. And wouldn’t you know it, in all my travels to Britain, I’ve never yet been to Bath, nor seen any of the other worthy sites in Somerset. With luck, that will change, before long.

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Cop To Corpse by Peter Lovesey: a book discussion: Part One

July 14, 2013 at 1:49 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

corpselovesey2  Wednesday morning of last week, I found myself dwelling in the pleasant afterglow of the previous day’s Usual Suspects discussion, which I had led. At first, I was not disposed to do much of anything – anything, that is, that would tax my poor brain….

And yet – I kept reviewing various aspects of our session: facts that came to light as well as those that were never expressed, and items that got lost in the shuffle as we went along. Ergo, this post.

I’ve read twelve novels by Peter Lovesey and not been disappointed by any of them. As indicated by the review I posted in this space in August of last year, I thought that Cop To Corpse was among his best.  Well, submitting what’s essentially a beloved object to the scrutiny of the Usual Suspects can be, shall we say,  a bracing experience. I’m happy to say that in general, the discussion went well. But flaws in the novel that I’d not noticed – or had not necessarily thought of as flaws – were exposed to light. This is always done with shrewd and intelligent analysis. I remain in awe of the Suspects’ powers of detection!

We had quite a few laughs, a welcome and desirable component of any social or intellectual gathering. Most of the humor was supplied by the author, both in his novel and in remarks and interviews. Lovesey’s website is a goldmine of information. His autobiographical essay, a real treasure, starts out thus:

I was born at home, a suburban semi in Whitton, Middlesex, in 1936, “with instruments”, as my mother used to say, and it didn’t mean violins playing. In midwife-speak, I was turned down, a salutary experience for a future writer.

I actually began my presentation by recounting an experience I’d had recently while subbing at the Central Library. A patron came in grumbling about the poor quality of recent fiction and asking for a recommendation. “I want,” she declared forcefully, “a book with genuine literary merit and a plot that’s really tight and engaging.”  As this happened during the run-up to my book discussion, I had Peter Lovesey on the brain. When I asked my interlocutor if she’d read that author’s work, she exclaimed, “Oh yes – I think he’s excellent!” She added that in general she preferred the British writers because of the way they handled the language and their wit and sense of the ironic. Then the fun actually began. It consisted of me rattling off the names of my favorite Brits and the patron responding in the affirmative, every time. Big names -  P.D. James, Dick Francis, Colin  Dexter, Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson, Reginald Hill – and lesser known – Peter Turnbull, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, W.J. Burley, M.C. Beaton, John Harvey – she’d read them all. (You’ll note the absence of two of my favorites: Ruth Rendell, who she deemed “too cynical,” and Barry Maitland, whom she disliked for no specific reason.) Now this does not happen very often when I’m doing Readers’ Advisory, and so chalk up yet another humbling experience for Your Faithful Blogger.

Finally she threw me a lifeline in the form of C.J. Sansom’s superlative Matthew Shardlake novels. Not only had I read several of them, starting with the first, Dissolution – I had handy what seemed to me the exact right recommendation: a marvelous new historical mystery by Robin Blake entitled A Dark Anatomy. a-dark-anatomy-by-robin-blake-98-p  Aha: a “gotcha moment!” She’d never heard of it. And naturally, I couldn’t find it. The customer chose not to reserve the book, but she was intrigued – I could tell. I’d been consulting a printout of my recently assembled annotated list of “Best Books so far of 2013,” and when she asked if she could have it, I handed it over. She has some great reading in store – at least, I hope so….

But I digress. (Did I ever!) My opening remarks passed from Lovesey’s quite interesting life on to his body of work. Peter Lovesey entered the field of crime writing quite simply, for the money. In 1969, he and his wife Jax spotted a newspaper ad offering a thousand pound prize for a first work of crime fiction. Now Lovesey was an avid sports buff with a particular interest in track and field. In fact, the previous year he’d published The Kings of Distance: A Study of Five Great Runners (published in this country as Five Kings of Distance). 81QzVUmNLYL._SL1500_ In  the course of his research, he’d developed an interest in athletics in the Victorian era. Jax encouraged her husband to enter this writing contest and he did so, setting his story in 1879. At that time, race walking competitions called “wobbles” were all the rage. Lovesey made one of these events the centerpiece of his novel, which he called Wobble To Death. He states the outcome succinctly: “Off-beat, with a catchy title, it won.” wobbletodeath

The investigating officers in Wobble To Death were Sergeant Cribb and Constable Thackeray. There followed seven more novels featuring this crime fighting duo. They were made into films, as well.  cribb_

(The DVD’s are owned by our local library; the novels; alas, are not. They are, however, in print, courtesy of  Soho Constable, an imprint of Soho Press.)

In the years that followed, Peter Lovesey has proved an inventive and prolific writer. He’s written numerous short stories, eight standalone novels, three books featuring Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, and has recently published The Tooth Tattoo, the thirteenth entry in the Peter Diamond series. In addition to Cop To Corpse, I’ve reviewed three other novels from this series: Stagestruck, Skeleton Hill,  and The Secret Hangman; also Headhunters, one of the two novels featuring DI Henrietta “Hen” Mallin.

(The best place to examine Lovesey’s body of work is on Stop! You’re Killing Me. The way that information is displayed on that site is wonderfully helpful and informative. In addition to a list of titles, you’re given the name and profession of the chief protagonist, the date of publication, alternate titles if there are any, and information concerning awards. In Lovesey’s case, these last are quite numerous.)

The fact that Peter Lovesey published his first mystery in 1969 places him firmly within the range of what may be called the Second Golden Age of British crime fiction. You’ll recall that the First Golden Age is usually located between the two world wars. This fertile period of creativity saw the debut efforts of such stellar talents as Dorothy L. Sayers. Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey, and of course, Agatha Christie.

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By my reckoning, the Second Golden Age began in 1962. In that year, Dick Francis hit the ground running with Dead Cert, while P.D. James weighed in with the first Adam Dalgliesh title, Cover Her Face. Although firmly ensconced in the country house mystery tradition, Cover Her Face stood out for its superior writing, plotting, and character creation. As for Dead Cert, I first read it several years ago and was amazed by the assured writing and the compelling storytelling. It was on the reading list for the Smithsonian’s Mystery Lover’s England Tour,  which we had the great good luck to take in 2006. Although we didn’t actually meet Dick Francis, we did visit a race track in Yorkshire. This proved a memorable and worthwhile experience. (It was on this same tour that we had the great pleasure of meeting Colin Dexter – at the Randolph hotel in Oxford, no less.)

Colin Dexter signs my book - Randolph Hotel, Oxford, 2006

Colin Dexter signs my book – Randolph Hotel, Oxford, 2006

Agatha Christie was all set to use the title Cover Her Face for one of the Miss Marple novels when P.D. James unexpectedly beat her to the punch. Christie eventually settled on the title Sleeping Murder instead. There’s actually more to this story, a full recounting of which  can be found in the “Murder in Retrospect” section of John Curran’s book Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks.    The phrase itself comes from The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster: “Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young.”

From-Doon-with-Death-9780345498458  9781933397931_p0_v1_s260x420

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In 1964, Ruth Rendell’s From Doon With Death appeared. This procedural marked the debut of Inspector Reginald Wexford, my personal all time favorite fictional British police officer.. Then, in A Clubbable Woman, Reginald Hill sprang the cheerfully coarse Andy Dalziel and his cerebral second in command Peter Pascoe upon unsuspecting but delighted readers. This burst creativity and innovation is nicely bracketed at the other end in 1975 by the first novel in a series held in deep reverence by many of us: in Last Bus To Woodstock, Colin Dexter gifted crime fiction aficionados with the inimitable Inspector Morse, portrayed so superbly on television by John Thaw, of blessed memory.

We Suspects noted that nearly all of these books, including Peter Lovesey’s Wobble To Death, are police procedurals. The notable exception is Dead Cert. Dick Francis had such a rich fund of material from his racing and sports writing days that he was able to fashion one engaging narrative after another without the benefit of the procedural’s  structure or of the presence of a continuing character (although occasionally a character does crop up more than one novel)

It would seem that Peter Lovesey’s muse is now firmly centered in the here and now. When asked if he intended to set any more novels in the Victorian era, he replied that this was unlikely. Although he’d become deeply knowledgeable about the period, by 1990 he felt in need of a new challenge. Besides, there was an additional problem:

Television is a powerful medium. I was delighted by the casting of Alan Dobie as my detective, Sergeant Cribb, but in a strange way he inhabited the character so powerfully that when I came to think about further books all I could see was Alan’s face. I’d lost my original character somewhere in the process…. The cupboard was bare.

Sue Grafton interviewed Peter Lovesey in February of 2011. At the time, she’d read novels from the Peter Diamond and Sergeant Cribb series, as well as one featuring “Hen” Mallin. Here’s what she has to say on the subject of television and film adaptations of an author’s work:

Since I only have the one series, I can’t afford to sell the film or television rights. In this country, a producer buys the rights to the character, not the book itself, which gives him the right to do anything he pleases. When Lawrence Block sold the rights to his Bernie Rodenbarr series … the role of Bernie … a white, male Jewish burglar…was given to Whoopee Goldberg. So, of course, I worry that the part of Kinsey Millhone would go to Eddie Murphy. Please believe me, even when I get to “Z” I won’t sell the rights. I’ve made my children and grandchildren take a blood oath to that effect. I’ve sworn if they ever go up against my wishes in that regard, I’ll come back from the grave. They know I can do it, too!

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The Blackhouse, by Peter May

April 11, 2013 at 9:11 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Scotland, The British police procedural)

BlackhouseCover  The Blackhouse is a big, ambitious novel. Its chief protagonist is Finlay MacLeod is a police officer in Edinburgh. As the novel begins, Fin is investigating a homicide that took place in that city when DCI Black, his boss, suddenly informs him that he’s being sent to the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. It seems that a murder there closely resembles MacLeod’s Edinburgh case as regards the killer’s MO. One other important point: Fin MacLeod was born and raised on the Isle of Lewis.

Fin has not been back to Lewis for a long time. There are reasons for his lengthy absence. He has no living family members still on the island. But he does have friends, a former lover, and other associations still there. The woman he had loved, and known from childhood, was called Marjorie – Marsaili in Gaelic, pronounced Marshally in that language. Fin’s best friend had been Artair Macinnes. Artair and Marsaili were now married; they had a son named Fionnlagh, which is Fin’s own Gaelic name. If this sounds like a complex and potentially fraught situation – it is.

Nevertheless, Fin must follow orders and return to Lewis, to look into the murder of Angus Macritchie. In times past, Macritchie had been the archetypal schoolyard bully, disliked by Fin and pretty much everyone else on the island. Now he was dead, and it’s up to Fin to find out who killed him and why.

Meanwhile, Fin’s personal life in Edinburgh has been slowly and painfully disintegrating.  He has suffered a terrible bereavement, and his marriage is on the rocks. It’s a good time to get away from Edinburgh. But Fin is apprehensive about returning to the Isle of Lewis – and it turns out, he has good reason to feel that way.

Peter May’s depiction of life on this remote outpost is meticulous and vivid. Here, Fin recalls a moment from his childhood on the island:

The northern part of Lewis was flat and unbroken by hills or mountains, and the weather swept across it from the Atlantic to the Minch, always in a hurry. And so it was always changing. Light and dark in ever-shifting patterns, one set against the other – rain, sunshine, black sky, blue sky. And rainbows. My childhood seemed filled with them. Usually doublers. We watched one that day, forming fast over the peatbog, vivid against  the blackest of blue-black skies. It took away the need for words

In a later scene, Fin and a fellow officer are driving up the west coast of the island:

He watched the villages drift by, like moving images in an old family album, every building, every fencepost and blade of grass picked out in painfully sharp relief by the sun behind them. There was not a soul to be seen anywhere….The tiny village primary schools, too, were empty, still shut for the summer holidays. Fin wondered  where all the children were. To their right, the peatbog drifted into a hazy infinity, punctuated only by stoic sheep standing firm against the Atlantic gales. To their left, the ocean itself swept in timeless cycles on to beaches and into rocky inlets, , creamy white foam crashing over darkly obdurate gneiss, the oldest rock on earth. The outline of a tanker, like a distant mirage, was just discernible on the horizon.

Peter May’s writing is powerful and persuasive, at times ascending to the poetic. This gift serves him well when he comes to describe an event of supreme importance to the people of Lewis: the guga harvest. Every year, a limited number of men are invited to be a part of this unique island tradition. It begins with a boat trip across treacherous waters to a rocky island called An Sgeir, where thousands of birds arrive during the summer months to nest and procreate. The guga, or gannets, are considered delicacies by the people of Lewis. The job of the guga hunters is to capture some two thousand birds within a two week period. The young chicks are plucked from their nests while the frantic parents flap their wings and screech in protest. The necks of the chicks are quickly broken; then they are plucked clean, slit open to receive sea salt as a preservative, and otherwise made ready for the return trip. Ultimately they will be presented to the islanders of Lewis, perfectly preserved and ready to eat.

It is considered an honor to be selected as a participant in the yearly guga harvest. Fin received just such an honor during his last summer before leaving the island to attend university in Glasgow. It is a distinction he could have well done without. He has no desire to go, but once chosen, it is virtually impossible to decline. And so, with  a heavy, heart, he joins the team of hunters. After the inevitable rough crossing Fin catches sight of An Sger for the first time:

Three hundred feet of sheer black cliff streaked with white, rising straight out of the ocean in front of us….I saw what looked like snow blowing in a steady stream from the peak before I realized  that the snowflakes were birds. Fabulous white birds with blue-black wingtips and yellow heads, a wingspan of nearly two metres. Gannets. Thousands of them, filling the sky, turning in the light, riding turbulent currents of air.

(The white streaks are actually bird guano. Fin had smelled An Sgeir before he’d seen it.)

An Sgeir was barely half a mile long, its vertebral column little more than a hundred yards across. There was no soil here, no grassy banks or level land, no beaches. Just shit-covered rock rising straight out of the sea.

Fin adds that he couldn’t imagine a more inhospitable place. But this is just the beginning. While engaged in the arduous labor of unloading two weeks’ worth of supplies, Fin discovers how hard it is to maintain your footing on the island. The rock is made slick not just by the guano but by the slimy green vomit produced by petrel chicks terrified by this sudden human invasion. Add to that the unceasing racket generated by the avian multitudes, and you have a sort of Hell on Earth. And there they will stay for two full weeks, carrying out the multifaceted operation of catching, killing, and preparing the birds.

There is only one place to shelter on An Sgeir. It is a blackhouse.

Although Fin can’t help but admire the ingenuity, resourcefulness, and just plain toughness of the guga hunters, he finds the two weeks on An Sgeir an awful experience, an endurance test that can’t end soon enough. And at the end of two weeks it does end. But not without two momentous occurrences, the full import of which Fin does not grasp until many years after the event.

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Peter May’s evocation of life on the Isle of Lewis is deeply resonant. The geography of the place, the social order, the dominance of the church, the entire way of life – all are presented here in minute detail. There were times when I thought it might be too minute. The anthropology threatens to overwhelm the mystery. The actual crime was, for this reader, the least memorable aspect of the book. The cast of characters is fairly large; moreover, the complex narrative alternates between the  present and the past. This brings up a certain  aspect of the narrative style employed by May in this novel: the events of the present time are set forth in the third person, while the sections dealing with Fin’s boyhood on the island are recounted by him in the first person. It took me a while to get comfortable with this method of advancing the story.

the-lewis-chessmen.-print-poster-or-canvas.-ffpd000800--10785-p  Until I read The Blackhouse, the only knowledge I had of the Isle of Lewis had to do with the famous Chessmen, almost certainly carved by Norsemen in the early Middle Ages and discovered on the island in 1831. (In  the novel, Fin recalls a bit of island legend to the effect that the crofter who found the tiny carvings, mistaking them for the “…elves and gnomes, the pygmy sprites of Celtic folklore,” fled the scene in fear for his life.)

Peter May’s description of the guga harvest is riveting and bizarre to the point of almost seeming hallucinatory. Off hand,  as regards its affect on the reader – this reader, anyway – the only recent fiction I can readily compare it to is Karen Russell’s astonishing story “St. Lucy’s School for Girls Raised by Wolves.” So -  is there actually such a thing as the guga harvest? Indeed there is, as you will see if you click here.

There are actual blackhouses remaining in the Outer Hebrides, although few if any still serve as dwelling places. Here is Fin’s description:

The Blackhouses had dry-stone walls with thatched roofs and gave shelter to both man and beast. A peat fire burend day and night in the centre of the stone floor of the main room. It was  called the fire room. There were no chimneys, and smoke was supposed to escape through a hole in the roof. Of course, it wasn’t very efficient, and the houses were always full of the stuff.

He adds: “It was little wonder that life expectancy was  short.” (Wikipedia has an interesting entry on the blackhouses.)

Restored blackhouse in a museum on Trotternish, Skye

Restored blackhouse in a museum on Trotternish, Skye

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The Blackhouse presents some structural challenges for the reader, and there were times when the plot seemed somewhat labored, if not downright irrelevant, given the fascination of the setting.. But Peter May writes beautifully, and he’s created an enormously likable protagonist in Fin MacLeod. This is the first novel in the Lewis Trilogy, and I look forward to the next one.

Peter May

Peter May

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