Vicarious voyeurs

Kate Atkinson: Case Histories
Black Swan 2005 (2004)

A wonderfully intricate novel — my paperback edition has a gold interlace pattern on the cover, as if to underline to interplay of characters and destinies — Case Histories is the first in a series featuring the brooding figure of ‘investigative consultant’ Jackson Brodie. (I’ve already read the second, One Good Turn — out of order, as it happens — and reviewed it favourably.) The title references detailed notes and records about individuals’ medical or social backgrounds and, true to this description, Atkinson’s novel introduces us to a missing child, a young woman murdered on her first day at work, a husband killed with an axe in his home and, lastly, Jackson’s own tragic family life. How the lives of the surviving relatives intersect is the stuff of Case Histories, and it proves a real page-turner.

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Utterly charming

Still from Emil und die Detektive (1931) showing the man in the bowler hat being shadowed by the 'detectives'
Still from Emil und die Detektive (1931) showing the man in the bowler hat being shadowed

Erich Kästner: Emil and the Detectives
Translated from the German by Eileen Hall
Illustrated by Walter Trier

Vintage Classics 2012
(English translation 1959; Emil und die Detektive was first published in 1929)

 It’s wonderful that this slight novel, nearly ninety years old now, is still a delight and a joy to read. Firstly, it goes clean against most of the highly didactic juvenile fiction of the day: the moral, such as it is, is directed to the grown-ups and not the young:

‘So you don’t think there’s anything to be learnt from all that’s happened?’ said Aunt Martha. ‘Money should always be sent through the post!’ said Grandma, with a merry, tinkling laugh.

Secondly, the pace and all the details are perfect. Things are described, things happen, they lead on to the next bit of action and so on; the suspense is maintained but is never unbearable; and there are no tricksy denouements as pretty much all the clues have been clearly and carefully signposted. The protagonist is both polite and likeable but not without mischief, and thus easy to identify with. While this is ostensibly a boy’s story, the adult females are strong characters, and the one girl to appear is especially proactive. I defy anyone not to be utterly charmed by this tale, its humour and its evocation of what it is to be young.

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Return of the gentleman sleuth

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Kathryn L Ramage
The Abrupt Disappearance of Cousin Wilfrid
Storylandia, The Wapshott Journal of Fiction Issue 16
The Wapshott Press, Summer 2015

When the Great War began in the summer of 1914, I was a boy of eighteen. Like so many boys of my age, I was eager to go and fight. We saw it as a grand opportunity for adventure, as well as a chance to do a fine and noble thing. Dulce et decorum est … but none of us believed we would be the ones to die for our country. We couldn’t possibly imagine how many of our number would die. We couldn’t foresee that we would return to —

Kathryn Ramage’s Death Among the Marshes introduced us to Frederick Babington, gentleman sleuth with a twist. Traumatised by the war (as the beginning of his memoir hints) he had no doubt hoped to find a return to normality — or at least sanity — but tragedy still dogged him when deaths among his landed gentry family threw suspicion on all and sundry. In a bid to escape the guilt that had resulted from his ‘bungled’ attempts to solve mysteries he goes to Abbotshill between Ipswich and Stowmarket to reassure his Aunt Dorothea: she is being pestered by Freddie’s cousin Wilfrid and his mother Lydia who dispute she has a right to Abbotshill House.

When Wilfrid quarrels with Freddie too, and it subsequently turns out that he has had altercations with others in the extended family, things look increasingly suspicious when the black sheep of the family then disappears. Has he simply gone away in high dudgeon or has he been done away with? Enquiries by the local police and by Freddie seem to highlight plenty of individuals with possible motives for seeing Wilfrid out of the picture, but until a body turns up no answers can be arrived at. Then a body does turn up, but it isn’t Wilfrid’s.

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Uncomfortable cozy

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Charlie Lovett First Impressions Alma Books 2014

Murder is not nice, ever. And yet cozy mysteries — a popular sub-genre of crime fiction, often termed cosy crime in the UK — absolutely thrive on murder — their life-blood, as it were. Cozies are where violent death can be regarded with a polite shudder from the comfort of an armchair, perhaps curled up by a cheerful fire. Details are rarely visceral; the sleuth is usually a talented amateur; and the malefaction has a purely parochial significance. First Impressions certainly partakes of these aspects, but it also shares elements of the academic mystery: here the amateur detective is often a scholar, or the crime takes place in collegiate surroundings or some such bookish environment. In Lovett’s novel the deed is done close by the well-stocked library of a bibliophile.

But First Impressions includes yet another genre, the historical novel, because alternate chapters are set at the turn of the 19th century, focusing on the just-out-of-her-teens Jane Austen. But this is not a now fashionable mashup of Regency heroics and zombie apocalypse either: no, this is the follow-up to Lovett’s The Bookman’s Tale, his first whodunit with a literary theme.

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Treading the labyrinth

Reconstruction of part of Knossos complex (Wikipedia Commons)
Reconstruction of part of the Knossos complex (Wikipedia Commons)

Patricia Highsmith The Two Faces of January Sphere 2014 (1964)

With the action mostly set in Athens, Crete and Marseille — the French port an ancient Greek colony — it’s hardly surprising that Highsmith’s crime novel has the feel of a classical legend. From the title (The Two Faces of January is a nod to the Roman two-headed god Janus whose month opened the year) to a crucial scene in Knossos (reputedly the inspiration for the Cretan labyrinth) we can’t help but be aware that this very 20th-century tragedy has its affinities, its roots even, in the ancient world; for all its modern trappings the story turns on eternal human failings like hubris, that pride that can bring down both the guilty and the innocent.

This novel is a play with just three leading characters and a small cast of bit players. Chester MacFarlane is an American conman hiding out in Europe with his young wife Colette. Rydal Keener is an intelligent young American avoiding confrontation with his critical father before feeling guilty for having not attended his funeral. Chester survives under numerous aliases but has little facility with modern foreign languages like Greek; Rydal is fluent in French, Italian and Greek and so is in a position to help Chester and Colette when a Greek detective is inadvertently killed. Why does Rydal help the couple? Is it just because Chester reminds him of his father and Colette of his first love?

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Truth revealed by time

Title page of Richard Greene's Pandosto (public domain: https://archive.org/details/dorastusfawnia00thomuoft
Title page of Richard Greene’s Pandosto (public domain: https://archive.org/details/dorastusfawnia00thomuoft

Charlie Lovett The Bookman’s Tale Alma Books 2013

What bibliophile could resist the allure of a title such as The Bookman’s Tale? And what lover of Elizabethan literature, or history, or whodunits, or ghost stories, or romance, could fail to be intrigued by a novel that promises to combine all these genres? Certainly not this reader, and I’m glad to report that — even with one or two caveats — I was not disappointed. In addition, we’re informed that the author is both writer and successful playwright, a former antiquarian bookseller and an ‘avid’ book collector who, with his wife, splits his time between North Carolina and Oxfordshire; so, with a novel that involves all these elements we naturally expect a novel that fully convinces us in terms of supporting details.

Peter Byerly is the antiquarian bookseller from North Carolina who retreats to his cottage in Kingham, Oxfordshire after the tragic death of his wife Amanda in the mid-nineties of the last century. When he finally emerges from his seclusion Continue reading “Truth revealed by time”

Breezing through Roman ruins

Excavations at Uriconium (Wroxeter) by Francis Bedford (photo: public domain)
Excavations at Uriconium by Francis Bedford (photo of hypocaust and Old Work public domain)

Ellis Peters City of Gold and Shadows Heron Books 1982 (1973)

Take an assortment of singular characters, one missing person and a generous helping of archaeology; when you blend them together you’ll likely get something like this, a whodunit by Ellis Peters set in her favourite area — the Welsh Marches — and based on the ruins of a fictional Roman city that is rather reminiscent of Wroxeter in Shropshire. Though I’ve not knowingly read any of her work before (certainly before I was aware that this was the twelfth in a series) I wasn’t disappointed in this offering — what would be known in North America as a cozy mystery — especially as it worked very well as a standalone novel.

An essential aspect of a ‘cozy’ is that it often features a strong, intelligent woman as amateur sleuth; and here it is Charlotte Rossignol. Half-French, a classical musician at what one hopes is the start of a successful career, she is drawn by the concerns that a lawyer (“like a very well-turned-out troll from under some Scandinavian mountain”) has over her missing archaeologist uncle, Alan Morris. Visiting the subject of his latest (or last?) monograph, the ruins of Aurae Phiala near Moulden village in Midshire, she makes the acquaintance of a number of very distinctive characters, any of whom could be responsible for some of the odd incidents that start to occur. Who is Gus Hambro, and why is he behaving suspiciously? What is schoolboy Gerry Boden up to? What’s the nature of the relationship between site custodian Steve Paviour and his young wife Lesley? Is gardener Orlando Benyon all that he seems to be? What does graduate student Bill Lawrence know? How does DCI George Felse deal with the strange events that closely follow one another? And do we ever find out what happened to Charlotte’s missing uncle?

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