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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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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Breaching the fourth wall

High Street, Oxford in the mid-20th century

Edmund Crispin: The Moving Toyshop
Heron Books Library of Crime 1981 (1946)

Imagine a locked-room mystery in which everybody seems to have a cast-iron alibi and access to the murder victim appears impossible. Now imagine a scenario with the fourth wall torn away, or at least the veil between the actors on the stage and the theatre audience being occasionally parted. That is the premise of this novel, an intermittently metafictional take on the murder of a middle-aged woman. But where is the body, and where’s the evidence of any violence having taken place?

The Moving Toyshop has garnered much praise from those who ought to know about classic whodunits but it’s still disconcerting for a relative newcomer like myself to find characters imagining titles for the book they’re appearing in and referring to the book’s author by name. Bearing in mind the title (taken from Pope’s parody The Rape of the Lock) we have always to be aware that the author is trifling with us.

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Light on a crime

Postcard of former lighthouse, Delfzijl, Holland: built 1888, set on fire May 1940 by Dutch troops, rebuilt 1949, then demolished (1981) for a harbour extension

Georges Simenon: Maigret in Holland
Un Crime en Hollande (1931) translated (1940) by Geoffrey Sainsbury
Harvest / Harcourt Brace 1994

A tale that features the beam from a lighthouse, a young woman who eventually marries a lightbulb salesman and Jules Maigret, a police inspector who is expected to throw light on crimes, is — paradoxically — full of shadows and dark corners. Knowing a little about the Chief Inspector’s reputation we can expect him to deliver the goods in his steady methodical way, but the investigation will be hampered, first by his not being able to speak Dutch, and secondly by a small cast of characters who as expected have their own secrets to hide from him and from the close community they all live in.

Maigret travels to the northern end of Holland to assist a French criminology lecturer, Professor Jean Duclos, who has been caught up with the murder of a teacher in the Dutch port of Delfzijl. Duclos was found in possession of the revolver that killed Conrad Popinga, but there soon emerges a houseful of suspects and bystanders who could have had a motive for murder. And one common denominator among these motives turns out to be unrequited love.

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Hell hath no fury

Rural uplands somewhere in Mid Wales

Jan Newton: Remember No More
Honno Press 2017

Detective Sergeant Julie Kite has upped sticks from Manchester to rural Mid Wales, her transfer determined by her husband Adam accepting a post in a local school, teaching history. Not unexpectedly, she’s already conflicted about the prospect, not least because Adam has strayed down the path of dalliance in the recent past.

And on her first day in her new job she finds she’s landed slap bang in the middle of a murder investigation.

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Somewhere at the edge of Europe

Cretan-labyrinth

China Miéville The City and the City
Pan 2010 (2009)

Can cities really
co-exist in the same place?
Beware the frontier!

China Miéville’s preferred genre is ‘weird fiction’, and a sub-genre within that is urban fantasy. Kraken, for example, is set is a barely recognisable London, and the earlier The City and the City is set in the twin cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma, “somewhere at the edge of Europe”. Besźel and Ul Qoma aren’t quite like Buda and Pest, or Istanbul spread between Europe and Asia Minor, though they do share that sense of liminality, of neither-nor. And the dividing line between the two isn’t as physically evident as, say, the Danube or the Bosphorus: individuals who stray across (let alone stare across) that metaphysical divide, who literally “breach” (particularly in so-called “cross-hatched” areas), are likely to fall foul of a shadowy force called Breach.

Into this knife-edge world strides the Besz police inspector Borlú, investigating the murder of an unknown young woman.

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