The Glass Room by Ann Cleeves

September 9, 2018 at 3:12 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural, Uncategorized)

  The Writers’ House is designed to be a sanctuary. Within its walls, those who long for literary achievement and eventual recognition can work in a peaceful setting, receive helpful suggestions from fellow aspirants, and be instructed and encouraged by guest writers acting as as tutors and exemplars.

As the novel opens, DI Vera Stanhope has been prowling the environs in search of her neighbor Joanna Tobin. Joanna has suddenly gone missing; her partner Jack thinks she’s at the Writers’ House. Vera hasn’t had any luck so far in finding her and thinks she might be on a fool’s errand.

Suddenly, from an upper balcony of the house, an bloodcurdling scream issues forth. What on earth can have happened in this quiet, remote fastness dedicated to intellectual pursuits? The police have been called, but Vera is already on the scene, ready to intervene in what must certainly be a dire crisis. And so it proves to be. But she and her team of investigators are a long time figuring out the real genesis of that scream.

I love the way this novel unfolds. The situation becomes increasingly complex as new characters emerge onto the scene – everyone in the Writers’ House, to begin with. Vera and her trusty second, Joe Ashworth, remain in charge of the investigation.

It proves a very tough nut to crack. But Vera, exulting in just this kind of chase, thinks:

Deep down, everyone loved a murder almost as much as she did. They loved the drama of it, the frisson of fear, the exhilaration of still being alive. People had been putting together stories of death and the motives for killing since the beginning of time, to thrill and to entertain.

But of course, there could be qualifying circumstances:

It was different of course if you were close to the victim. Or to the killer.

Throughout the novel, Cleeves intersperses clues to Vera’s thought processes and working methods, especially where interviewing a witness or a suspect is concerned. These nuggets tend to be expressed briefly and in pithy language:

Vera had better timing than a stand-up comedian and knew the importance of a pause.

In theory Vera liked strong women; in practice they often irritated her.

Kindness could be a great weapon.

‘There’s a casserole I made a couple of days ago when I was feeling domestic. I get the urge sometimes, but it soon passes.’

It occurred to her that there might be a greater proportion of psychopaths in Parliament than in prison.

Vera had no patience for speculation. Unless she was the one doing the speculating.

Gradually these observations coalesce to form a portrait of a singular personality. Speaking as a person who more or less devours large quantities of crime fiction – not to mention true crime – I find Vera Stanhope utterly unique.

We also learn a lot about Vera from the way she interacts with Joe Ashworth:

Joe had been listening intently. She loved that about him. The way he hung on her every word.

Vera thought Joe was a soft-hearted sod, but she liked him the better for it.

Although it is Vera’s restless intellect with which we’re primarily engaged, Joe is an important character as well, a vital sounding board for her wide-ranging thoughts and speculations. Vera is somewhere in middle age, lives alone, has no children. This in no way hinders her powers of empathy. Joe is somewhat younger, married with three small children.

An interesting thing happens to Joe in this novel: he finds himself attracted to Nina Backworth, a woman involved in the case that he and Vera are investigating. The attraction seems to be mutual. Acting on this attraction would be a bad idea for any number of reasons. Yet so perverse are the wellsprings of human desire that the worse the idea becomes, the more power it exerts. ‘Lust that felt like adultery’ is what Joe is experiencing; it’s causing him to feel desperate and distracting him from the case.

Finally at one point, Joe manages to carve out some time at home for his wife Sal and their ‘bairns:’

When they were alone at last, he sat with his wife on the sofa, his arm around her shoulders, cuddling together like teenagers. Thought there was nobody in the world he would feel so at ease with. He couldn’t imagine Nina Backworth watching old episodes of The Simpsons and laughing with him at the same jokes. Later he took Sal to bed and they made love. Afterwards he lay awake, listening to her breathing, loving her with all his heart and soul and pushing away the feeling that there should be more to life than this.

As you can see, there’s a lot going on in The Glass Room. Questions beget answers, which then beget more questions. I was completely drawn in, and stayed that way till the end.

Thus far I’ve read six of the eight novels in the Vera Stanhope series. I am worried about running out. No pressure, Ann, but could you write faster?

I can’t discuss this series without mentioning the television adaptations. I think they’re excellent. Some of the episodes are based directly on the novels; others use the characters and write new stories for them. As is almost always the case, the casting of the main protagonist is inspired: Brenda Blethyn as Vera Stanhope:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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‘It was just that in her own mind the house itself was tainted by something evil right at its heart.’

July 18, 2018 at 11:59 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  Just a quick word on this one. Although I read this mystery a while ago, I don’t want to miss the chance to recommend it to my fellow crime fiction fans.

On a remote corner of the Isle of Skye, in Scotland, Human Face has its headquarters. This is a charity that provides aid and comfort to Third World Children. For Beatrice Lacey, Human Face represents a passionate and powerful commitment. Co-founded and funded by herself, it takes its name from “The Divine Image,” a poem by William Blake:

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Beatrice’s other great passion is for Adam Carnegie, Human Face’s other founder. Adam is a manipulative user and a guileful charmer, but Beatrice, overweight, ungainly, and filled with thwarted yearning, sees him solely through the eyes of (hopeless) love.

Other forces are at work, both within the house that serves as Human Face’s headquarters and on the larger island itself. An unexplained disappearance occasions police involvement. There’s worse to come.

For its mixture of fully developed and engaging characters along with vividness of setting, I give Human Face high marks. And the writing by Aline Templeton, an author new to me, is excellent:

In the city there was always ambient light and Kelso was uncomfortable in darkness like this: it had an intense, almost physical presence. It seemed to wrap itself about you till the air itself felt thick and smothering. There were no stars, only a greenish pallor that was the moon, heavily veiled by cloud.

The reader will encounter some piquant Scottish locutions. Here are some examples:

The word teuchter is used by those in Lowland areas of Scotland to describe those from the Highlands, specifically those in rural areas who speak Gaelic. More loosely, the term is used for a country-dweller.

From the newspaper The Scotsman

Laldy
 To give it Laldy means to do anything with great gusto or to get laid in to someone big style whether physically or verbally.Ye shooda seen big Effie it the karaoke,she wiz geein it laldy aw night.

From TalkingScot.com

Scunner: The first definition is something that disgusts, or causes dislike, for example his attitude fair scunners me. The second usage describes the actual feeling of disgust or dislike. It’s unclear whether some definitions of this word stem from the word ‘sickener’ or whether the similarities in pronunciation and meaning are coincidental. The final definition is used for someone or something who causes the dislike or disgust, such as It’s a right scunner that the match has been cancelled ‘cause of the weather.’ This particular word is used widely, with the original meaning – to shrink back, or recoil – falling by the wayside somewhat, in preference for the more generic term we know today.

From The Scotsman

Then there’s the strange phenomenon known as a Brocken spectre. This is originally a German term rather than a Scottish one, but one can imagine that it’s a concept that that the Scots, with their rich folkloric tradition, might be receptive to. At one point in the novel, Beatrice is terrified by the sight of this eerie manifestation in the nearby mountains, but her friend Vicky, who has also seen it, explains it to her thus:

‘It’s a sort of light effect when there’s fog and the sun comes up…. It’s your own shadow and you move, it does too.’

Here’s a visual, from the Wikipedia entry:

A semi-artificial Brocken spectre created by standing in front of the headlight of a car, on a foggy night. [Photographed by Bob Blaylock]

I owe thanks to Carol from the Usual Suspects group for this fine recommendation.

 

 

 

 

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Working on A Famine of Horses while finishing the latest Bill Slider novel

June 28, 2018 at 2:05 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  My choice for the next Usual Suspects mystery discussion is A Famine of Horses by P.F. Chisholm. I like this book mainly because of the way it brings a distant time so vividly to life. One way Chisholm does this is by weaving particulars about dress, food, and other specifics into a narrative that has an actual historical personage as its hero. I refer to Sir Robert Carey, cousin to Queen Elizabeth I – His father, Lord Hunsdon, was the son of Mary Boleyn, sister to the ill-fated Anne, Elizabeth’s mother.

Sir Robert Carey, First Earl of Monmouth, circa 1591

The historical Sir Robert Carey’s main claim to fame is his breakneck horseback journey in 1603 from London to Edinburgh. His purpose: To inform King James VI of Scotland that he was now King James I of England:

When the Queen died at Richmond Palace Lady Scrope threw the blue ring from a casement window to her brother. Carey, who had previously told King James that he would be the first man to bring the news, set off immediately for London and from there started his epic ride to Edinburgh. He completed the journey in less than three days, and on his way caused King James to be proclaimed by his brother (the governor) at Berwick upon Tweed, the strongest fortress on the road from Scotland. On arrival at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, he hailed King James as King of England and Scotland.

From The Great North Ride

P.F. Chisholm’s prose style is uniquely suited to the time and place of which she writes. It helps cast a spell; I feel transported to that era. One of my favorite of her locutions occurs when she’s describing Sir Robert’s fast-growing goatee as “invading upland pastures.”

Then there’s the passage in which he strives to convey to Henry Dodd, his second-in-command, the flavor of the language used by those who wish to survive at the Queen’s court:

“Well,” he said consideringly, “a scurvy Scotsman might say she is a wild old bat who knows more of governorship and statecraft than the Privy Councils of both realms put together, but I say she is like Aurora in her beauty, her hair puts the sun in splendour to shame, her face holds the heavens within its compass and her glance is like the falling dew.”

Dodd, astonished by this recitation, asks if all the courtiers are required to speak in this manner. Sir Robert replies with unaccustomed bluntness:

“If they want to keep out of the Tower, they do.”

Queen Elizabeth I, the Darnley portrait, circa 1575

My favorite scene in Famine is one in which the characters move seamlessly from discussing a murder investigation – the killing of one Sweetmilk Graham –  to making music together:

“And then,” continued Carey, as he dug in a canvas bag for the latest madrigal sheets he had carried with him faithfully from London, “there’s where he put the body. After all, Solway field’s a very odd place. The marshes or the sea would give him a better chance of the body never being found. It’s almost as if he couldn’t think of anywhere else. And how did Swanders come by the horse?”

“Killed Sweetmilk?” asked Henry Widdrington, picking up one of the sheets and squinting at it. “

“Not Swanders. He doesn’t own a dag. A knife in the ribs would be more his mark. Can you take the bass part?”

Henry Widdrington whistled at the music. “I can try.”

Meanwhile Lord Scrope, Chief Warden and husband to Sir Robert’s sister Philadelphia, is hard at work tuning the virginals in a corner of the room they’re currently occupying. Scrope may be a lackluster administrator, but he’s a genuine music lover and an excellent keyboardist.

And so, they’re off and singing! The effect they’re striving for would have sounded something like this:

or, more informally, this (‘O Eyes of My Beloved’ by Orlando di Lasso – such a beautiful song!):

(Now in my youth, I sang with a madrigal group, and I can tell you from experience, it’s a fiendishly tricky business for nonprofessionals.)

Another way in which Chisholm strives to achieve authenticity is through liberal use of vocabulary appropriate to the times. Here I must insert a caveat. Words such as Cramoisie and dag do not trip lightly off the tongue of a modern reader. The author does not provide a glossary; I rather wish that she had. Even a few footnotes at the bottom of the page would have been helpful. The degree to which this is a problem will of course vary from reader to reader. (I put together a brief glossary for my fellow Suspects. It’s available upon request!)

A Famine of Horses is the first in a series that at present comprises eight novels. I have read all of them. In the main, they are quite entertaining. I thought A Murder of Crows (2010) rather sub par, to the extent that I had trouble finishing it. On the other hand, I found A Chorus of Innocents (2015), a real triumph and, in my opinion, the best series entry since the series itself began. A Suspicion of Silver, entry number nine, is due out in December of this year. (P.F. Chisholm is a pseudonym used by Patricia Finney, a writer of historical fiction and children’s books.)

Another series of which I’m inordinately fond is the Bill Slider series written by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. These novels have the same sparkling irreverence and wit that I prize in the Sir Robert Carey novels. The latest, which I just finished, is entitled Shadow Play.

The dialog that characterized Slider’s team is often quite delightful. To wit:

“I’ve never been there,” Atherton said. “Don’t need to. It’s a totally justified irrational prejudice based on subliminal impressions gained over a lifetime.”

“I wish you came with subtitles,” Loessop complained.

And I love this description of a top speed race to capture a suspect on the run, so dizzying it’s positively cinematic:

It was a glorious, adrenalin-fueled chase, through the narrow streets of Soho, dodging the evening revellers and the crawling traffic; down Wardour Street, left into Noel, left again into Poland, across Broadwick Street, into Lexington. Onlookers stepped helpfully out of the way, even when LaSalle shouted, ‘Police!’ In the old days someone would have stuck out a foot. Loessup began to fall behind, but LaSalle had long legs. Where were the two men carrying a sheet of glass, the tottering stack of cardboard  boxes, the young mother pushing a pram, when you needed them?

Having just finished the twentieth installment of the adventures of Bill Slider and company, I find myself so enamored of this series that I’m thinking of going back to the beginning and starting it all over again!

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“‘The void, the waste, the black blackness.'” – The Knowledge, by Martha Grimes

June 14, 2018 at 7:25 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  In 1981, Martha Grimes burst onto the mystery scene with The Man with a Load of Mischief. In that novel, we were introduced to DCI Richard Jury and a colorful cast of supporting characters. This has been followed by twenty-three additional novels in the series, the titles all standing for the names of pubs or similar establishments.

The Man with the Load of Mischief – wonderful title, that – was one of the first mysteries pressed eagerly into my hands when I came to work at the library in 1982. It was swiftly followed by The Old Fox Deceiv’d, published that same year. I stayed with the novels for a while, then left off reading them, and came back to it in 2006, intrigued by the reviews of that year’s series entry. In The Old Wine Shades, a mother and  son and their dog mysteriously go missing. Some nine months later, the dog reappears – but only the dog. What is one to make of these strange circumstances? I am reminded that Grimes wrote about this curious canine with especial eloquence and charm. I love this kind of writing! It may be time to reread this book. 

From the Publishers Weekly review:

The author’s gift at melding suspense, logical twists and wry humor makes this one of the stronger entries in this deservedly popular series.

The Old Wine Shades was followed by Dust, a novel to which I am particularly partial because of its references to Henry James, specifically to Lamb House in Rye, East Sussex, where The Master dwelt from 1897 to 1914 (two years prior to his death). 

So: The Knowledge. This, of course, is the name of a pub – but one shrouded in mystery. Rumors of its existence persist, but those who should be most in the know – namely, London cab drivers, deny any knowledge of it. Yet those same men  and women are required to pass an incredibly difficult test known as – what else? – The Knowledge. It is reputedly

…a test which is amongst the hardest to pass in the world, it has been described as like having an atlas of London implanted into your brain.

The Knowledge Taxi – London Knowledge

An appalling crime is committed in front of the Artemis Club, an elite London establishment. Robbie Parsons, a London cab driver, is a witness. What happens next defies expectation – especially on Robbie’s part. From this act there grows a larger mystery, and a fiendishly complex one at that. This is a case  for Superintendent Richard Jury. He’ll need maximum brains and expertise to figure this one out.

At one point, fairly early on, the action switches to Africa, where Melrose Plant, Jury’s longtime unofficial assistant sleuth, is pursuing a crucial line of inquiry. Plant, aka Lord Ardry, is assisted in his endeavors by one Patty Haigh, a ten- (eleven?) -year-old girl of preternatural resourcefulness. She was my favorite character in the novel. Back in London, Patty’s confederates habitually stationed themselves at Heathrow and other key venues. They reminded me of the Baker Street Irregulars in the Sherlock Holmes stories.

In fact, for this reader, the appeal of these novels lies in their characters rather than their plots. This one was especially convoluted; I’d be hard pressed to unravel its complexities. No matter; I enjoyed spending time with this diverse and invariably entertaining dramatis personae. Melrose Plant in particular has a line in pained bewilderment that always makes me smile.

We here in greater Howard County have always had a special pride in Martha Grimes, a resident of Bethesda, one county to the south of us. Grimes also represents a small but significant group of American mystery writers who set their books in Britain. Two others that come to mind are Deborah Crombie and Elizabeth George. I’ve read and enjoyed several titles by Crombie. (If you’re going to read just one, I recommend Dreaming of the Bones.) I fear I must number myself among a small band of Elizabeth George dissenters. She’s hugely popular with readers and critics alike, I know. But for the most part I have found her writing to be ponderous and humorless. I readily concede, though, that the book that I did get through, With No One As Witness, was extraordinarily powerful (not to mention apparently enraging to some of her faithful readers).

At any rate: back to The Knowledge. It did get a bit sluggish in some places, but for the most part I enjoyed it and recommend it.

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Sleeping in the Ground by Peter Robinson

April 4, 2018 at 7:22 pm (Book review, books, Music, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  One of the aspects of Peter Robinson‘s Alan Banks novels that I most enjoy is Banks’s love of music. It’s an extremely eclectic affection – everything from rock to classical. In Sleeping in the Ground, I was especially pleased to encounter not one but two references to Gustav Mahler, a composer for whom my husband and I have a deep and abiding love. Banks mentions that Mahler wanted to hear Schubert’s Quintet in C as he lay on his deathbed. When you hear the Adagio from this work, you will understand this request:

Sleeping in the Ground begins with a horrendous act of violence, followed by an extremely tortuous investigation. Because of the nature of this particular crime, one is all the more appreciative of Banks’s dogged persistence, not to mention his shrewd instincts, honed by his many years on the job. He is a person of deep conviction and steadfast determination.

He is also a reserved and somewhat lonely man, divorced and the father of two adult children who have pretty much gone their own way and check in with him from time to time. Banks’s ex-wife has remarried; he has not. He’s had a few relationships, but none that have lasted. In this novel his old flame Jenny Fuller, psychologist and criminal profiler, re-enters his life, both professionally and personally. She’s been living in Australia, but now she’s back to stay. What will this mean, for the two of them?

After dinner together in the snug of a local pub, they’re still not sure. While not ruling out a renewal of their romance, Jenny nonetheless favors a go slow approach.

Banks didn’t know where his next thought came from, and he had  the good sense and quick enough wits to stop before he spoke it out aloud, but as he leaned back and reached for his beer glass, it flashed through his mind, as clear as anything: I don’t want to grow old alone.

Straight-up, unpretentious writing about straight-up unpretentious people – it’s one of the qualities I most appreciate in Peter Robinson’s wonderful long running series of procedurals.

Peter Robinson

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Girl in the Ice by Robert Bryndza: a book discussion

October 14, 2017 at 9:10 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  Before Chris G. put this on the reading list for Usual Suspects, I had not heard of this author. I read Girl in the Ice some two months ago and was pleasantly surprised by the experience. I was initially daunted by the novel’s length, but it was such a compelling read that I fairly raced through it. Bryndza writes great dialog; his characters were interesting, if not always likeable; he had an intriguing, if complex tale to tell, and he told it well – or so I thought, at the time, at any rate.

As last Tuesday evening’s discussion progressed, it became clear that others did not share my enthusiasm. Several gaps and inconsistencies  in the plot (not to mention a disappearing subplot) were pointed out. Procedural matters were deemed to be flawed. Frank N. felt that due to the paucity of clues, Girl in the Ice did not play fair with the reader.

But the most glaring criticism was reserved for the main protagonist, DCI Erika Foster. She was described by several Suspects as “over the top” and as a result, not likable. By the time our discussion took place, I was too far removed from my actual reading of the novel to be able to clearly recall the plot issues that were brought up, but I did retain a vivid memory of the character of Erika Foster.

I concede that Foster could be strident and blunt to a fault. But she was also a person of firm convictions and great integrity. Even though she was warned to go “softly, softly” with the victim’s upper class and influential parents, she would not let this deter her in the search for the truth about the death of Andrea Douglas-Brown. Fairly early on, we learn that Erika Foster’s life had been shattered not that long ago by a shooting that was both personally and professionally devastating. (This material is related as back story; Girl in the Ice is the first book in the series.) To my mind, this accounts at least partly for her difficult, rather unyielding persona – a brusque facade  that conceals pain that’s still sharp and deep. For this reader, it made her seem more real.

Erika Foster put me in mind of Helen Mirren’s  brilliantly realized portrayal of DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect.

Robert Bryndza himself comments on this here:

(This has to be one of one of the most  self-effacing, downright endearing  promotional videos I’ve ever seen!)

When I first saw the title The Girl in the Ice, I immediately thought of The Virgin in the Ice, a Brother Cadfael novel by the late, lamented Ellis Peters.

Ellis Peters, with Derek Jacobi as Brother Cadfael

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The Usual Suspects are currently making their selections for next year’s discussions. Unlike many book discussion groups which rely on consensus to decide on titles, we have each member choose a title to present to  the group. My choice for next year is A Famine of Horses by P.F. Chisholm, one of my favorite historical novels and first in a series that is, for the most part, both meticulously researched and wonderfully entertaining.   It’s always interesting to see what each of the Suspects selects for the coming year. I feel lucky to be a part of this group, where people can express their views openly in an atmosphere of camaraderie and friendship.
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Before I conclude this post, I have to deliver a shout-out for a terrific mystery that I just finished: Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz. Horowitz has written six episodes of Midsomer Murders; in addition, he created Foyle’s War and wrote twenty-five episodes for that outstanding program. There’s much more.   If there were an Anthony Horowitz fan club, I’d be in it.

There will be more about Magpie Murders in a later post. 

 

 

 

 

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Mysterious Musings

June 10, 2017 at 10:49 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

Slider moved quietly until he could see into the room, and watched for a moment as the cars and plastic marines bounced and jerked to the murmuring narrative. Then George sensed him, turned, and his face lit in a ravishing smile.

No one who has ever been greeted by that ‘ravishing smile’ will ever forget it. In DCI Bill Slider’s case, it’s his second time around – in a second marriage –  with an infant to rear.

A pang of absolute love gripped Slider, making it for a moment hard to breathe. This intensity of feeling and minuteness of observation belonged to second families, and what made it worthwhile while starting all over again in middle age.

I and many of my friends have had a similar experience upon becoming grandparents. My younger grandchild is now three years old – ‘a big boy,’ as he will solemnly remind you – and those same moments, although still vividly recalled, are now consigned to the past. (They are preserved, as never before, in a profusion of photos and videos. I look at them often.)

This passage is yet another example of why I love this series.
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Have just finished Doug Selby novel number six: The D.A. Calls a Turn.The plot was exceptionally convoluted; nevertheless, I enjoyed spending time with Doug and company. I especially like the continuous sparring between reporter Sylvia Martin and Attorney Inez Stapleton, as they vie for Doug’s favor and attention. As usual, Sylvia would seem to have the edge, but in this series, as in life, you cannot be sure of the ultimate outcome. Another interesting feature of The D.A. Calls a Turn is the depiction of forensic investigation as it was done in the 1940s. In particular, the use of “a shaded light which gave a brilliant, slightly bluish illumination” to detect trace evidence on items of clothing brought to mind the use of luminol for a similar purpose.

Series entry number seven, The D.A. Breaks a Seal, is even now on its way to me.

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We bid farewell to Colin Dexter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is is open–opened half-past ten.”

“Why are  we drinking this stuff, then?”

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

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

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

I especially like the obituary in The Independent.

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

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

 

 

 

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Of crime fiction, ye shall never have sufficient…

October 10, 2016 at 5:17 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

51pzwxh1abl  Peter Robinson’s Children of the Revolution more than fulfilled my expectations. Intriguing story, wonderful team of investigators headed up as always by the ever-reliable though sometimes stubborn Alan Banks, nice North Yorkshire atmospherics, and the usual music references. How do I love the British police procedural? Let me count the ways…. (And that goes especially for this long running, very fine series.)
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Leave it to me to start with Book Two, then wish I’d read the first one – well, first. I did it with Alexander McCall Smith’s delightful Corduroy Mansions; now I’ve done it again with Slough House, the highly original series penned by Mick Herron. Having read the second, Dead Lions (and inadvertently skipped the award-winning first, Slow Horses), I proceeded immediately to the third, Real Tigers.

Whoever heard of an espionage series in which the dramatis personae almost never get out of London? Usually we have to struggle to keep up with spies as they ricochet from one exotic locale to the next. Not here. The Slow Horses of Slough House are agents who have messed up big time. For reasons best known to their handlers, it would be imprudent to fire  them outright. So they’re pensioned off and exiled to no man’s land, in the fervent hope that they’ll stay out of trouble. Fat chance! Jackson Lamb and his ill-sorted, gifted but wayward crew want only to prove themselves worthy of reinstatement in the intelligence pantheon. In pursuit of this elusive goal, they manage to stir up all sorts of fresh trouble.

In Literary Review, critic and novelist Jessica Mann – see my review of A Private Inquiry embedded in this post – had this to say about Real Tigers:

Although this is Mick Herron’s ninth book, and despite the fact that he has won the prestigious Gold Dagger award for his crime fiction, Real Tigers is the first of his books to come my way. What a find!…The story, though good, is not the main reason to read this book. Rather, it is its elegant style, original viewpoint, dry wit and spring-to-life characters, some recognisable.

Mick Herron writes great dialog and is a master storyteller with a sly sense of humor and an ironic world view. He might be the best thing that’s happened to spy fiction since the great LeCarre. Jessica Mann’s prediction: “I think Herron’s is the next big name in crime fiction.”
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In the July issue of The Atlantic, Terence Rafferty proclaimed that “Women Are Writing the Best Crime Novels.” (His article also has the variant title, “‘Gone Girl’ and the Rise of Crime Novels by Women.”) Rafferty is alluding to a specific subgenre of crime fiction, what he calls “tortuous, doomy domestic thrillers.” Women writers, he asserts, are uniquely capable of delivering the goods where these kinds of narratives are concerned.

ywkm One of the titles Rafferty mentions is Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me. I decided to read this book during the Summer Olympics primarily because it deals with young female gymnasts. It was also getting excellent reviews.

Normally, on the theory that life is too short, I avoid reading anything about sports, with the exception of “The Sport of Kings,” for which I have a lingering fondness from my childhood. But You Will Know Me seemed worth a shot, for the reasons enumerated above. And the fact is, it was good – very good. The crime forms an intriguing subplot, but the novel is really about these young gymnasts, their fierce dedication to the sport, and the cost of that dedication to their minds, bodies, and families. The writing is excellent.

The particular teenage gymnast – and potential Olympian – around whom  this novel’s events center is called Devon; the story unfolds from the point of view of her mother Katie. Their relationship is close and intense, and prone to sudden bouts of disequilibrium:

It was remarkable, when Katie thought about it. How her daughter, so strong already, her body an air-to-air missile, had metamorphosed into this force. Shoulders now like a ship mast, rope-knot biceps, legs corded, arms sinewed, a straight, hard line from trunk to neck, her hipless torso resting on thighs like oak beams. Sometimes Katie couldn’t believe it was the same girl.

I recommend reading the Rafferty article referenced above. He makes some interesting points about the history of American crime fiction as well as its current state. As for the ascendant status of domestic suspense, he may be right, but it’s not my first choice in this genre and probably never will be. (I’m a dissenter from the ranks of Gone Girl enthusiasts; Gillian Flynn’s writing rubbed me the wrong way for some reason, and I found the “Amazing Amy” trope contrived and irritating.) Call me old fashioned and/or out of touch, but my favorite mystery subgenre remains the police procedural.

By the way, For my money, where You Will Know Me is concerned, I found Devon’s sweet younger brother Drew to be the unsung hero of the whole scenario. Read it and see if you don’t agree with me.

Peter Robinson

Peter Robinson

Mick Herron

Mick Herron

Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott

 

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Crime fiction: three good ones

June 21, 2015 at 1:06 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

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In a recent post on historical fiction, I wrote that I was reading Lamentation, the latest entry in C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series. This series has won critical acclaim, and justly so, for the most part, I think. Yet as much as I was enjoying it, I found that the author’s research was obtruding upon the narrative. I have now finished the book and am happy to report that as the story gathered steam, that particular problem pretty much disappeared. I got caught up in this tale of  court intrigue in the dying days of King Henry VIII’s  reign. The fact that Queen Catherine Parr figures prominently in this story further enlivens the proceedings.

At over six hundred pages, Lamentation is something of  an undertaking. Be patient, though; the immersion in a turbulent and fascinating past is worth the effort. This is the only form of time travel we can aspire to – at least, so far.
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Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’s Bill Slider series is one of the few that I follow without question, and without troubling to read the reviews first. I know I’ll be thoroughly entertained, and thus it was with Star Fall, the seventeenth novel featuring Slider, Atherton, Swilley, and the rest of the Shepherd’s Bush crew. Their task this time around is to solve the murder of Rowland Egerton, a television personality whose program Antiques Galore has a large and enthusiastic following. Egerton is one of those celebrities whose publicly displayed bonhomie conceals a dubious personality rife with nasty proclivities. He’s a hard person to grieve for, but murder is murder and justice must be served. This is the kind of tightly wound contemporary British police procedural that I cherish. It follows a formula with delightful variations.

As usual, Harrod-Eagles’s writing is liberally spiced with irreverent wit and clever asides. Chapter titles feature the inevitable wordplay – “Hairline Pilot” followed by “Men Behaving Baldly” – groan-inducing but fun nonetheless. Then,  at the other end of the spectrum, there’s a sentence in this novel that stopped me in my tracks:

He had the look of a man who had heard the leathery creak of the Erinyes’ wings in the darkness, smelled the chthonic reek of their breath, felt the clammy touch of their lips on the back of his neck.

Well, gosh…Parse that, you grammarians! Although I consider myself one of their number, I admit I was flummoxed. It turns out that the Erinyes are better known as the Furies of ancient Greek mythology; “chthonic” literally means “subterranean.” (Thus saith Wikipedia, at any rate.) I sympathize wholeheartedly with this author’s apparently irresistible urge to show off her erudition.
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10  Appointed To Die by Kate Charles appeared on the reading list for the mystery tour we took in 2011.  Ms Charles is the author of several crime fiction series; this particular novel is third in The Book of Psalms sequence. I very much enjoyed Appointed To Die. It put me in mind of Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, of happy memory. In addition, the author showcased her love and knowledge of British music, something we share, especially regarding the great Ralph Vaughan Williams. (In the course of the above mentioned tour, we had the pleasure of meeting with Ms Charles.)

Kate Charles grew up in the U.S. and was “transplanted,” in her own words, to Great Britain in 1986. She now lives in the Welsh border country, a place of almost unearthly beauty replete with the riches of history. (Not that I”m at all envious….)

Recently I read False Tongues, the latest entry in a different series featuring Callie Anson, identified on Stop!YoureKillingMe – Kate Charles as “a newly ordained Anglican cleric.” Callie is a tenderhearted young woman, empathetic, sensitive, and easily hurt. To a certain degree, she is well suited to minister to the spiritual and emotional needs of others.  At any rate, in False Tongues, she is struggling to recover from a broken heart so that, from both a personal and vocational perspective, she can once again feel whole and complete and ready to give of herself to others.

This novel is enlivened by a host of interesting secondary characters, including Canon John Kingsley, a man of warmth and generous spirit who also appears in Appointed To Die. Like that earlier work, False Tongues is beautifully written and a thoroughly gratifying read.

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