Killing with Confetti by Peter Lovesey

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

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

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

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

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

Bath Abbey

Roman Baths

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

Peter Lovesey

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Henry uttered an impatient noise and moved away from the fireplace. He joined his father in the window and he too looked down into the darkling vale of Pen Cuckoo. He saw an austere landscape, adamant beneath drifts of winter mist. The naked trees slept soundly, the fields were dumb with cold; the few stone cottages, with their comfortable signals of blue smoke, were the only waking things in all the valley.
**************

The hall rang with Miss Campanula’s conversation. She was a large arrogant spinster with a firm bust, a high-coloured complexion, coarse grey hair, and enormous bony hands. Her clothes were hideous but expensive, for Miss Campanula was extremely wealthy. She was supposed to be Eleanor Prentice’s great friend. Their alliance was based on mutual antipathies and interests. Each adored scandal and each cloaked her passion in a mantle of conscious rectitude. Neither trusted the other an inch, but there was no doubt that they enjoyed each other’s company.
**********

It did not matter to them that they were unable to speak to each other, for their thoughts went forward to the morning, and their hearts trembled with happiness. They were isolated by their youth, two scathless figures. It would have seemed impossible to them that their love for each other could hold any reflection, however faint, of the emotions that drew Dr. Templett to Selia Ross, or those two ageing women to the rector. They would not have believed that there was a reverse side to love, or that the twin-opposites of love lay dormant in their own hearts. Nor were they to guess that never again, as long as they lived, would they know the rapturous expectancy that now pressed them.

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

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

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

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

Patrick Malahide with Belinda Lang as Agatha Troy

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

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

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

Barry Forshaw, in The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction

Ngaio Marsh in 1947

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the jacket copy for The Department of Sensitive Crimes:

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

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

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

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

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

Long may he write!

Alexander McCall Smith

 

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Two pleasing procedurals

June 5, 2019 at 8:17 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

Having fallen hopelessly behind in the reviewing process – and watching as titles pile up in my home office – I’ve decided to take a stab at remedying the situation.

So, to begin:

Both Jo Bannister and Peter Turnbull are, in my view at least, underappreciated writers, at least on this side side of the Atlantic. Both have a large and solid body of work, chiefly in the subgenre of the police procedural. Jo Bannister has authored several series; the one featuring Constable Hazel Best is her latest. Silent Footsteps is the most recent. It takes place, as do its predecessors, in the fictional region of Norbold.

Bannister has a wry sense of humor that often manifests itself in dialog. In this scene, Hazel is seconding Sergeant Murchison as he attempts to interview a possible witnesses to a crime. They belong to a gang called the Canal Crew. Murchison dives right in with a blunt opener:

“So what have you done with Trucker Watts?”
One of the hairy young men appeared to be senior to the other. ‘We ‘aven’t got ‘im. We never ‘ad ‘im. We ‘aven’t seen ‘im.”
There was something almost Shakespearean about it, Hazel thought. But Sergeant Murchison was harder to impress. ‘You saw him this morning, panhandling outside the off-license in Arkwright Street.’
Yes, they admitted, they had. They’d seen him off–or, to be more accurate, they’d seen him leave.They hadn’t seen him since.
‘Is that the truth?’
‘On my mother’s grave.’
Murchison frowned. ‘Your mother’s still alive, Billy Barnes.’
Yeah–but she’s already bought a plot down the Municipal. Cost her an arm and a leg, it did.’

Hazel has a close friendship with Gabriel Ash and talks to him frequently about the cases she’s working on. The two have a interesting back story. To be thoroughly filled in on that, it’s best to go back to the beginning and read Deadly Virtues. In fact, you could commit  yourself to all six books in this series, read them in order, and be well served.

One of my favorite titles by Jo Bannister is a standalone called The Tinderbox.

***************
Cold Wrath 
is a different story. It’s the twenty-fifth entry in the series featuring Chief Inspector George Hennessey and Detective Sergeant Somerled (pronounced ‘Sorely’) Yellich. In each of these slender novels, Peter Turnbull presents the reader with an intriguing puzzle. A body is discovered in an odd place; sometimes it’s  several bodies. Watching the action unfold as Hennessey, Yellich,  and company pursue various leads is invariably a pleasurable experience – at least, it is for this devoted lover of police procedurals.

Part of the enjoyment of immersing oneself in these novels resides in the fact that  they’re set in York, in the north of England. This is a magical city, steeped in history and  crowned by the presence of York Minster, the largest Gothic cathedral in northern England.

Another thing that distinguishes these novels is the author’s use of somewhat antiquated diction. This is especially evident in the way he begins each new chapter. This, for example, appears above Chapter Three:

In which the reason why Miles Law delayed calling the police upon discovering the body of Anthony Garrett is revealed, and Reginald Webster and Carmen Pharoah and George Hennessey are severally at home to the urbane and always too forgiving reader.

There’s something oddly Victorian about it, n’est-ce pas? Reginald Webster and Carmen Pharoah, by the way, are additional members of Hennessey’s team of investigators. All of these characters have interesting back stories, which are reiterated anew in each book.

I’ve read something like seventeen novels in this series. I never tire of them, and always  look forward to the next one.

Jo Bannister

Peter Turnbull

 

 

 

 

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Best of 2018, Nine: Crime fiction, part two

January 7, 2019 at 2:19 pm (Best of 2018, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Scotland, The British police procedural)

“After the demise of the UK’s queens of crime, P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, only one author could take their place: the Scottish writer Val McDermid….”

The Guardian

I’m aware there are those who would dispute this assertion. But after reading Broken Ground, I’m on board with it. I absolutely loved this book.

I’d previously only read two novels by Val McDermid: A Place of Execution (2000) and The Grave Tattoo (2006). Those are both standalones. Broken Ground, on the other hand, is the fifth novel in the Karen Pirie series.

How I wish I’d begun at the beginning! Karen Pirie, beleaguered but undaunted, is a hero for our times – my times, anyway. She’s having to come to terms with the loss of her lover, also an officer in the Force. (In this sense, as in some others, she reminded me of Erika Foster in Robert Bryndza‘s excellent series.) She’s human but not superhuman. Not always likeable, but almost always admirable.

I love McDermid’s writing. It is always assured, sometimes even poetic, but it can veer abruptly toward hard hitting. For a novel in which action predominates, there is some striking description. Most likely McDermid can’t help including such passages when writing about her native Scotland, whether city or countryside. (If you’ve been there, you’ll understand why.)

In the course of an investigation, Karen finds herself on rural, alien ground, housed in an odd accommodation:

For a woman accustomed to  attacking insomnia by quartering the labyrinthine streets of Edinburgh with its wynds and closes, its pends and yards, its vennels and courts, where buildings crowded close in unexpected configurations, the empty acres of the Highlands offered limited possibilities.
…..
The sky was clear and the light from the half-moon had no competition from the street lights so the pale glow it shed was more than enough to see by. She turned right out of the yurt and followed the track for ten minutes till it ended in a churned-up turning circle by what looked like like the remnants of a small stone bothy. Probably a shepherd’s hut, Karen told herself, based on what she knew was the most rudimentary guess work. The wind had stilled and the sea shimmered in the moonlight, tiny rufflets of waves making the surface shiver. She stood for awhile, absorbing the calm of the night, letting it soothe her restlessness.

I feel deeply grateful that there are still people who can write like this. I’m equally grateful that police procedurals of this caliber are still being written.

While researching Val McDermid, I came upon a gracious memorial she composed on the occasion of the passing of  Colin Dexter, creator of the inimitable Inspector Morse.

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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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