No smoke without fire

Antique Corona typewriter, Book-ish, Crickhowell © C A Lovegrove

The Moving Finger
by Agatha Christie.
Miss Marple No 4.
Fontana / HarperCollinsPublishers 1961 (1942)

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

From ‘The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayaam’, translated by Edward Fitzgerald.

Our narrator, Jerry Burton, has arrived in Lymstock to recuperate after an aircraft accident, accompanied by his not unattractive sister Johanna. However, instead of the countryside tranquillity he has been prescribed by his surgeon he finds the village a hotbed of wagging tongues after poison pen letters have been delivered to selected individuals — including, in next to no time, his sister.

Then a solicitor’s wife apparently commits suicide as a result of receiving one of these notes. A week later a maid in the same household is found brutally murdered and her body hidden; despite the police investigating nobody seems very close to finding out who the killer is and how the murder might be related to the anonymous letters.

That is until, finally, the vicar’s wife decides to call in someone whom she describes as an expert, someone who knows the ins and outs of village life in all its labyrinthine ways. It’s Jerry who unexpectedly provides the clues he has been unconsciously sifting through, and which lead to the correct solution the expert arrives at; also unexpectedly, he discovers the true love he has, unknown to himself, been seeking for a while.

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Two-faced

Blood-red moon: WordPress Free Photo Library

Double Indemnity
by James M Cain.
Foreword by James Lee Burke.
Orion Books 2005 (1936).

The moon.

The final words we’re left with in this classic thriller gives us the image of Earth’s satellite. As a metaphor it is particularly apt: the lunar body is two-faced, always presenting the same side to us, and Cain’s novella deliberately gives us a one-sided account of what is happening.

But what we’re told, however dark it is, is not as dark as the side we don’t see. The narrator thinks he has all the facts, holds all the cards, is the prime mover in what transpires, and we go along with that. But the far side of the moon has its own secrets; and when at one point its disc seems to rise in the west over the Pacific Ocean we are alerted to the fact that not all is as it seems.

In the US insurance companies sometimes provide double indemnity, in other words they may pay double the face value of an insurance policy in certain circumstances such as when accidental death can be proved. Double indemnity is what the main protagonists are counting on when they plan the perfect murder; but will their plot be bedevilled by two-timing and double-cross?

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A seasonal frisson

© C A Lovegrove

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories
by P D James,
foreword by Val McDermid (2016).
Faber & Faber 2017 (2016)

[W]hen it happened to the newly promoted Sergeant Adam Dalgliesh his first thought was that he had somehow become involved in one of those Christmas short stories written to provide a seasonal frisson for the readers of an upmarket weekly magazine.

‘The Twelve Clues of Christmas’

This collection of four short stories, some almost novelettes, can be read any time of year even if three of the pieces are set around a Christmas gone wrong. Spanning three decades of the author’s creativity, they were first published in newspapers (the Daily Mail and the Sunday Times), in a collection (Detection Club Anthology) or independently (by a certain Clive Irving, who I assume is the journalist and author of that name).

Though ‘The Mistletoe Murder’ had already been in the author’s 2001 Murder in Triplicate collection, having the quartet of tales brought together in one volume — and thus no longer ephemeral — is as much a treat as it’s to have a masterclass in the variety of ways classic crime fiction can be proffered up. While each is very individual the tales as a whole exhibit some commonalities, such as either being based in a country house, or having cases investigated by Adam Dalgliesh, or describing victims being murdered in novel ways.

We have, as introductions to the quartet, two additional treats, a Foreword by fellow crime writer Val McDermid and, from 2001, a Preface by James herself. While not essential to an enjoyment of the main courses they do serve as welcome apéritifs (or, if one prefers, later digestifs); and the collection as a whole gains extra piquancy from being a posthumous publication, the author having died in 2014.

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When it becomes personal

© C A Lovegrove

Too Good to be True
by Ann Cleeves.
Pan Books, 2016.

“Do you think Anna Blackwell committed suicide?”

Maggie answered straightaway. “Not in a thousand years. She adored her daughter. There was no way she would have killed herself and left Lucy without a mother.”

Chapter 7, ‘The School’

Shetland detective Jimmy Perez is urgently invited down to the Scottish Borders village of Stonebridge by his ex-wife Sarah, who wants to get to the bottom of the circumstances surrounding a young teacher’s death. Was the prescription drug overdose fatally administered by Anna herself, unable to cope with gossip about her supposed relationship with Sarah’s second husband, or by persons unknown? The local police think there are no suspicious circumstances but what could Jimmy discover with a bit of judicious sleuthing over a couple of days?

Taking care not to step on the toes of a colleague in the local police force, Jimmy begins a methodical but quiet investigation, witnessing the rumours, half-truths and intrigues common to small communities. A number of suspects suggest themselves to him, but it isn’t until an attempt is made on his life that he gets a real inkling of what really happened on the night Anna died.

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Brains as well as brawn

Corner of Post Street and Market Street, San Francisco, 1920s

The Maltese Falcon
by Dashiell Hammett.
Orion Books 2002 (1930)

San Francisco, 1929. A woman arrives at the offices of Spade and Archer, private detectives, and reveals she fears for her sister’s safety in the company of a man called Floyd Thursby. Her affecting performance sets Sam Spade off on an investigation in which the body count rises to four, bluff is countered by double bluff, and more alcohol and tobacco is consumed than can be good for one’s health.

While remaining in one small corner of California we hear about incidents in London, Constantinople and Hong Kong, and learn of historical events in the Mediterranean. How is everything linked, how does Sam Spade go about his investigations, and how is it that he nearly always seems one step ahead of everybody when by all accounts he should be behind them?

Hammet’s classic crime mystery is as good as its reputation makes it, and while The Maltese Falcon is possibly better known in its incarnation as a 1941 film noir starring Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre I shall always have the immediacy of this text from nearly a century ago paramount whenever I think of the story.

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It’s curtains

Vintage photograph of St John’s College, Oxford.

The Case of the Gilded Fly
by Edmund Crispin;
A Gervase Fen Mystery.
Vintage 2009 (1944)

“I pardon that man’s life. What was thy cause? Adultery?
Thou shalt not die: die for adultery! No:
The wren goes to ‘t, and the small gilded fly
Does lecher in my sight.
Let copulation thrive…”
— ‘King Lear’, Act IV, Scene 6

In this crime mystery abounding in literary references the reader’s attention is of course arrested by the titular gilded fly, a clear reference (as the closing chapter confirms) to Lear’s conversation with the blinded Duke of Gloucester. Superficially the Gilded Fly is a detail on a finger ring found on the first victim, but the author knew — as did Shakespeare — that the iridescent insect has a reputation for wantonness. (In folklore the diminutive wren, incidentally, also became King of the Birds through trickery).

While the ring itself turns out to be a red herring the theme of extramarital sex runs throughout the plot, especially when we are asked to consider motive, means and opportunity. But, as suits a novel from the Golden Age of crime fiction, it is the tricky nature of the storytelling which elicits appreciation more than any attempt at realism, for this is as preposterous a tale of coincidence and opportunism as any ghost story or Jacobean tragedy.

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Everyone dumbfounded

Agatha Christie:
The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Introduction by John Curran
HarperCollins 2013 (1920)

“It is always wise to suspect everybody until you can prove logically, and to your own satisfaction, that they are innocent.” — Hercule Poirot, Chapter 8

Styles Court, Essex, July 1917. Captain Hastings, invalided from the front, is given a month’s sick leave from his convalescent home. He is invited by an old friend John Cavendish to stay at a country house a few miles from the sea, not guessing that it will be more eventful than he anticipated: in less than a fortnight after Hastings’ arrival at Styles Court Cavendish’s mother is fatally poisoned by strychnine.

Thus begins Christie’s first published novel, introducing retired Belgian detective Hercule Poirot to the world and initiating what would be known as the ‘cosy’ mystery. As Dr John Curran explains in his introduction here is the stereotypical mystery, set in a country mansion or village and involving a cast of extended family members, friends and acquaintances, often ending with a gathering in a drawing room for the revelation of ‘who done it’.

As the brusque Evelyn Howard puts it at the very beginning, “Like a good story myself. Lots of nonsense written, though. Criminal discovered in the last chapter. Everyone dumbfounded. Real crime–you’d know it at once!” As an arch metafictional device this is as good as it gets.

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A circuitous tale

Godstow nunnery ruins 1784 (credit: http://thames.me.uk/s01860.htm)

Ariana Franklin: The Death Maze
(published as The Serpent’s Tale in the US)
Bantam Books 2008

With a first name reminiscent of Ariadne it’s hardly surprising that the author penned a novel about a labyrinth, nor that the figure at the centre of intricate paths should sit there like a bloated spider (aranea is Latin for this arthropod). As is appropriate for a medieval whodunit Franklin’s novel ensnares characters and readers in a web of lies and false leads as it draws towards its close and the final trap.

Based on a popular medieval legend, The Death Maze is set in the late 12th century and involves Henry II’s mistress, Rosamund Clifford. She was said to have been housed in a labyrinth at Woodstock, where reputedly she was poisoned on the orders of Queen Eleanor (herself captive in France) and later buried at the nearby nunnery of Godstow.

Franklin takes the bare bones of this story and weaves a circuitous tale of detection and deceit around and through it. But our principal concern is not for Fair Rosamund (not as fair as we might think) but for Adelia Aguilar, a Sicilian anatomist who is drawn against her will into investigating the crime for the King himself.

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Pattern seeking

WordPress Free Photo Library

Every so often I put up a post drawing together themes, or characters, or places. As we approach a turning point in the year — in this case, the end of 2019 — it is tempting to start a summative series of posts. But I shall resist that impulse, reserving such an approach for December.

This time I shall merely attempt to summarise what the last few books I’ve read have, or indeed don’t have, in common. Why? Because, like all of us, I am a pattern-seeking animal and like to check that life isn’t just a random sequence of events, with no meaning or significance at all.

Or so I’d like to believe!

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Anomalous conventions

John le Carré:
A Murder of Quality
Penguin Books 2011 (1962)

‘Carne isn’t a school. It’s a sanatorium for intellectual lepers.’

George Smiley, ‘retired’ from the secret service, is asked to discreetly investigate a crime at a boarding school of ancient foundation in Dorset, a murder seemingly predicted by the victim herself in a letter to a Nonconformist Christian periodical.

What he finds at Carne School is an establishment “compressed into a mould of anomalous conventions,” one that — hidebound by a veneer of religiosity — is “blind, Pharisaical but real.” It is, furthermore, part of a larger Dorset community that is composed of inimical groupings: town and gown, North versus South, class snobbery, different educational opportunities, differing religious traditions, even hypocritical sexual mores.

Smiley (down from London) is the outsider who has not only to negotiate social traps but also delicately sidestep probing questions about himself if he is to assist the local police in identifying the killer.

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Seesaw sympathies

Brighton Front (postcard image: Old UK photos)

E F Benson:
The Blotting Book
Vintage Classics 2013 (1908)

Set partly in Brighton and partly in Falmer (on the road east to Lewes, East Sussex) this crime novel — less a whodunit, more a courtroom drama — is a stylish period piece, an Edwardian mystery with just a hint of the supernatural in the guise of a prophetic dream. In a way this novella doesn’t quite make up its mind what kind of genre it intends to be so includes a bit of everything, even including a bit of financial advice along the lines of *the value of your investments may go down as well as up*.

The essential plot is so simple that to do more than recount the basic set-up would be to give the game away. Let me introduce the two lawyer partnership based in Brighton of Edward Taynton and Godfrey Mills. Then let’s meet two of their clients, the widow Mrs Assheton and her son Morris, a young man soon to be of age, a ‘racey’ chap who likes fast cars. Morris hopes to be engaged to Madge Templeton, daughter of Sir Richard and Lady Templeton.

When one of these individuals disappears an Inspector Figgis gets involved, and when matters eventually come to court we finally learn not so much who-did-what as how-it-all-happened, amidst all the to and fro of legal proceedings and timely revelations. Fraud, gambling, blackmail, slander, forgery, murder — it’s all here, but as this involves the upper middle classes rest assured that it’s mostly quite genteel, there’s little or no gratuitous violence and the lower classes know their place.

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A clever apparatus

Burgh Island, Bigbury-on-Sea, South Devon

Agatha Christie:
And Then There Were None
HarperCollinsPublishers 2003 (1939)

“Ought to ferret out the mystery before we go. Whole thing’s like a detective novel. Positively thrilling.” — Tony Marston, not long before he becomes a victim.

Positively thrilling, maybe, but definitely chilling: quite possibly the Grande Dame’s most renowned whodunit, And Then There Were None is justly famous as a puzzler to end all puzzlers. Contrived? Yes. Gripping? Undoubtedly. Keeping you guessing till the end? In my case, absolutely, even though I knew the premise.

Eight decades on one can still appreciate the plot intricacies of how several unwitting people can be invited to an isolated rock and then be bumped off, one by one, according to the sequence determined by lyrics of a popular song. Their crime? To each be responsible for the deaths of one or more people and yet to have avoided justice for the part they played in cutting short those lives, whether from abandonment, reckless driving, wilful manslaughter, drunkenness or perjury.

As we discover, none are totally innocent; but do they deserve to die their gruesome deaths? As the tally rises towards its predicted end we have to admire the perverse dedication of whoever is responsible for judging, sentencing and executing this random set of individuals with such clinical efficiency — much as we of course condemn it.

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Not so jolly

Burgh Island, Bigbury-on-Sea, South Devon

Agatha Christie: Evil Under the Sun
HarperCollinsPublishers 2014 (1941)

The Jolly Roger Hotel on Smugglers’ Island is run by the ‘refayned’ Mrs Castle. Not unnaturally she is extremely anxious when a murder in high season threatens the establishment’s reputation as a place for relaxation, clearly unaware that in future years murder mystery weekends may enhance its attraction and increase visitor footfall.

Luckily, famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is in residence, ready to help the local police inspector and Chief Constable when perpetrator and motivation elude their investigation.

An island setting of course increases the chances of the murderer being one of the select company on holiday at the hotel, and this being an Agatha Christie novel we have the usual panoply of colourful characters on display as potential suspects.

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Smugglers’ Island

I’m nearing the end of a seaside holiday in Devon, reading, lazing, reading, sightseeing and reading.

Now I thought that I’d share a few images with you, specifically of the resort where Agatha Christie set her 1941 novel Evil Under the Sun which, not uncoincidentally, I’ve been chugging through while soaking up the local ambience.

Burgh Island, facing Bigbury-on-Sea, is thinly disguised as Smugglers’ Island, Leathercombe Bay, while the Burgh Island Hotel stars as The Jolly Roger Hotel.

Here is where Hercule Poirot and an assortment of guests are vacationing towards the end of August in the late 1930s. Strange to relate, murder seems to follow the Belgian like a faithful hound.

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A real page-turner

M R Hall: The Coroner
Pan Books 2013 (2009)

When one woman has to contend not only with conspiracy, obfuscation and corruption in high places but also antagonism and intimidation from colleagues and opponents alike, you would think that it’s too much for one individual to manage. If you add in personal difficulties arising from divorce and psychiatric problems stretching out of childhood trauma you can be sure the odds are stacked against her.

And yet this is what Jenny Cooper, the newly appointed coroner to the fictional Severn Vale Dictrict in Bristol, has to face when she discovers that the suspicious deaths of two young offenders have not apparently been properly investigated by her deceased predecessor.

You might think that the flawed individual trying to right wrongs is a cliché in crime fiction, and you’d be right; but in this instance the conflicts Jenny has with both inner demons and corporate villains are entirely believable and gripping. The Coroner emerges, for all its 400-plus pages, as a real page-turner.

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