I didn’t know where to begin. But an article in the Guardian helped. It listed five key works by this author. They are as follows:
1. From Doon with Death (1964). Ruth Rendell’s first published novel. In it, she introduces her policeman protagonist Reginald Wexford.
2. A Judgement in Stone (1977). A standalone containing one of the best known opening sentences in modern crime fiction.
3. A Dark-Adapted Eye (1986). Winner of the 1987 Edgar Award for best mystery, this is the first work that Rendell published using the pseudonym (alternate identity?) of Barbara Vine. A book I’ve always meant to read and still haven’t.
4. Adam and Eve and Pinch Me (2001). This choice, another standalone, threw me. I know I read it, but I remember nothing about it. Time to revisit, I suppose.
5. Not in the Flesh (2007). A later Wexford, and one of the best in the series, in my view.
I think by “five key works,” authors Alison Flood and Vanessa Thorpe mean to suggest good entry points into Ruth Rendell’s large and varied body of work. Looking at this list, the one choice they made that I totally agree with is A Judgement in Stone. I’ve led book discussions on it, and I’ve read it three times. And every single time I’m filled with dread and awe, despite already knowing what the shattering climax will be. The build-up of tension over the course of the narrative is simply incredible.
For me, the Wexford novels, good from the very beginning, became increasingly compelling from the mid-1980s to the present. From An Unkindness of Ravens (1985) to No Man’s Nightingale (2013), I’ve loved them all. Somehow, when I’m reading them, my critical faculties are suspended. I’m held in the thrall by the writing, the story, the characters, Wexford and his utterly ordinary yet fascinating family life, his second in command Mike Burden, whose starchy, conservative exterior serves to protect the vulnerable man within.
I thought The Vault was an especially cunning work. It’s a sequel to A Sight for Sore Eyes, in which Rendell gave us one of the most uniquely frightening characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction: Teddy Brex. The Vault is a Wexford novel; A Sight for Sore Eyes was a standalone. In The Vault, Rendell brings in a retired Wexford to help investigate an extremely strange discovery: the remains of four bodies found in the sealed off basement of a house. If you’ve read A Sight for Eyes, you the reader have some recollection of who these people are. Wexford and company lack that advantage.
Houses are often fateful places in Rendell’s fiction; so it is with this one, named Orcadia Cottage.
The Girl Next Door, a standalone that came out last year, stands as a kind of summation of Rendell’s art. The vagaries and the irony of the human condition find rich embodiment in the cast of characters that people this narrative. I thought it was outstanding.
I’ll save my final words of praise for novel written in 1987 but not read by me until 2012: A Fatal Inversion. This is probably the most riveting and haunting work of psychological suspense that I’ve ever read. Read my review to find out why.
Ruth Rendell was an outstanding & hugely popular figure in British literature & served in the House of Lords with great loyalty & passion.
Oh – and the famous first line of A Judgement in Stone?
Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.
The first Adam Dalgliesh novel I read was A Taste for Death, published in 1986. I remember little of the actual plot except for the crime described early on in the book. The author’s depiction is both shockingly out of place and totally bewildering. I was later to learn that James makes frequent use of this kind of scenario, to wit:
I think it was W.H. Auden who said that there is the potential for more horror in that one single body on the drawing room floor than there is in a dozen bullet-riddled bodies down Raymond Chandler’s mean streets. That one body is out of place: It’s shocking because it’s in the wrong place. We don’t associate murder with the vicarage drawing room. I use that quite a lot, that contrast between the awfulness of the deed and perhaps the beauty of what’s surrounding it. We get it with the murder in Cambridge in high summer, in “An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.” We get the bodies in the church in “A Taste for Death,” brutally murdered in what is, after all, a holy place.
(from a 1998 Salon Magazine interview )
Here is the actual quote from W.H. Auden’s 1948 essay, “The Guilty Vicarage:”
In the detective story, as in its mirror image, the Quest for the Grail, maps (the ritual of space) and timetables (the ritual of time) are desirable. Nature should reflect its human inhabitants, i.e., it should be the Great Good Place; for the more Eden-like it is, the greater the contradiction of murder. The country is preferable to the town, a well-to-do neighborhood (but not too well-to-do-or there will be a suspicion of ill-gotten gains) better than a slum. The corpse must shock not only because it is a corpse but also because, even for a corpse, it is shockingly out of place, as when a dog makes a mess on a drawing room carpet.
In a 2012 interview with The Guardian, mention is made of the possibility of W. H. Auden writing some verse especially for James to insert into one of her novels, attributing it to her poet/detective Adam Dalgliesh. The idea never bore fruit, though James notes with justifiable pride that “Auden loved detective stories – he always read my books.”
The other thing I remember from that reading of A Taste for Death is more subtle. I’d describe it as the sense of something more elemental at work in the pages of the novel, a deeper quest into the very essence of human nature. In other words, the mystery was eventually solved, but not the Mystery. (I encountered similar elements in The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie. In Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, Christie scholar John Curran says of this novel that it evokes “……a genuine feeling of menace over and above the usual whodunit element.”)
At any rate, we who love crime fiction owe a debt of gratitude to P.D. James, a writer whose elegant style, masterful storytelling, and singular characters have for decades kept us engrossed, entertained, and edified. It was a life well lived, and a body of work that will stand the test of time.
A mist lay over the valley, so that the rounded hilltops looked like islands in a pale-silver sea. It had been a clear and cold night. The grass on the narrow stretch of lawn under her windows was pale and stiffened by frost, but already the misty sun was beginning to green and soften it. On the high twigs of a leaf-denuded oak three rooks were perched, unusually silent and motionless, like carefully placed black portents. Below stretched a lime avenue which led to a stone wall, and beyond it a small circle of stones. At first only the tops of the stones were visible, but as she watched, the mist rose and the circle became complete. At this distance, and with the ring partly obscured by the wall, she could see only that the stones were of different sizes, crude misshapen lumps around a central, taller stone.
(from The Private Patient)
Among my favorites:
Ave atque vale, Baroness James . You will be sorely missed.
“She had come alive for him, a recognizable human being from seven centuries ago.” – The Stone Wife, by Peter Lovesey
I finished this a while ago, but the pleasure of Peter Lovesey’s ingenious plotting and witty dialog has stayed with me. As is frequently the case with books in this series, the opening scene delivers a palpable shock, with sudden violence erupting in an ultra civilized venue.
The novel is enriched with the lore and legend of Geoffrey Chaucer. The eponymous stone wife is, in fact, a sculpted figure purportedly of the Wife of Bath, one of the more memorable, one could say more colorful, of the pilgrims who inhabit The Canterbury Tales. As Peter Diamond’s investigation progresses, one of the more important witnesses to emerge is the murder victim’s ex-wife. She proves to be a multiply married woman who, as she approaches late middle age, is yet possessed of a healthy libido. She is, in other words, something of a modern day Wife of Bath.
For me, one of the special pleasures of this book was the fact that although most of it takes place in Bath, excursions are made to Bristol. At least one scene takes place at he Clifton Suspension Bridge. I was privileged to see this engineering marvel for myself in 2011. The day was windy, so I declined the guide’s invitation to walk across, but my game husband and several others in our group made the trek.
With every new entry, this series just gets better and better. Skeleton Hill, Stagestruck, Cop To Corpse, The Tooth Tattoo – all were excellent. With The Stone Wife, Peter Lovesey has once again surpassed himself. As if you hadn’t guessed by now – highly recommended!
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!
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.
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.) 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Somehow I’ve managed to do a fair amount of writing about Josephine Tey without mentioning the novel for which she is most famous. 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.
The manuscript for The Singing Sands was found among Tey’s papers after her death, and was published posthumously.
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.
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!
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.
Please click here for additional information on Josephine Tey.
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.
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?”
“And to me it sounded just as a fugue should.”
“It was too fast.”
“A shade quick, I’ll give you.”
Here it is:
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.
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:
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.
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:
Outstanding entries in two favorite crime fiction series (by authors who themselves are something of a mystery) Part Two: Peter Turnbull
[Link to Part One: Bill James]
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.
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 Unturned, Chill Factor, Once a Biker, Turning Point, Deliver Us From Evil, and The Altered Case in this space.
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.
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.
Outstanding entries in two favorite crime fiction series (by authors who themselves are something of a mystery) Part One: Bill James
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.
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.
In Addition to Undercover, I’ve reviewed Girls, Pix, In the Absence of Iles, and Hotbed in this space. In addition, I wrote a retrospective of the Harpur & Iles novels in 2007.
This is the only photograph I’ve managed to find of Bill James:
Coming soon: Part Two: Peter Turnbull.
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:
In 2003, the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain awarded the Cartier Diamond Dagger to Robert Barnard for lifetime achievement in crime writing.
“In ancient times, had people believed this misty, twilit land was on the very edge of the world?” – The Frozen Shroud by Martin Edwards
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.
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.’
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?
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.
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.