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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Disintegration and deception

A Paris street in the 1930s

Eric Ambler: The Mask of Dimitrios
Introduction by Mark Mazower
Penguin Modern Classics 2009 (1939)

Charles Latimer is a full-time writer of what we might now called ‘cosies’, detective novels set in English country houses and the like, with lurid titles such as A Bloody Shovel, Murder’s Arms and No Doornail This. Having given up a post in academia to dedicate himself to his new métier he is travelling around Europe contemplating a new plot when he unexpectedly meets up with a fan in Istanbul.

It turns out Colonel Haki is a police inspector, who happens to mention that a body has just been retrieved from the Bosphorus, identified as a man called Dimitrios. Latimer is intrigued and, while surreptitiously investigating further, finds himself embroiled in a complex web of drug smuggling, human trafficking, political intrigue, financial corruption and murder. Too late he finds himself liable to become another murder victim as his amateur investigations take him around the Balkans and then back across the continent via Geneva to Paris.

Europe between the wars was volatile, to say the least. Whether on the margins — in Turkey, say, or Bulgaria — or nearer the west there was in the late 1930s an undercurrent of dark doings under the deceptively still surface of everyday affairs. That undertow had been evident for some time: in the third chapter, entitled 1922, Ambler actually gives a synopsis of the bloody events in Smyrna (modern Izmir) involving Turkish and Greek soldiers in massacres and reprisals. Out of this turmoil appeared the character known as Dimitrios. He left behind an interrupted trail of murder and assassination before the watery emergence of the body viewed by the Englishman on a Turkish mortuary slab in 1938. Latimer decides to try to fill in those gaps, seeking the dubious help of a Polish agent, a Danish colleague of Dimitrios and others whose affiliations should have put a more sensible man off the whole enterprise.

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