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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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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Distressed damsels

Cyfarthfa Castle, Merthyr Tydfil

Rosemary Craddock: Avalon Castle
Robert Hale 2015

1867. It’s almost halfway through Victoria’s reign, the American Civil War has not long finished and nouveau-riche industrialists are creating castellated Gothic residences to suggest spurious ancient heritages. From Cyfarthfa Castle (1840) in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales to King Arthur’s Castle Hotel (1899, now the Camelot Castle Hotel) near Tintagel, Cornwall these bastardised edifices stand as monuments to limited imaginations and dubious tastes.

Avalon Castle in Worcestershire is just such an edifice in this mystery romance laced with murder and intrigue by Staffordshire author Rosemary Craddock. Along with family secrets, suspicious deaths, concealed rooms and hidden drawers we have faint Arthurian echoes: damsels in distress and a lady in the lake, for example.

As suits this genre there are also stereotypes out of the pages of Jane Austen, the Brontës and Georgette Heyer, even fairytales such as ‘Bluebeard’, rubbing shoulders with railways, the telegraph and the arms industry.

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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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Uncomfortable cozy

window reflection

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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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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Murder, they wrote

graveyard

I’ve been outlining the creative writing classes I’ve been attending in which we’ve looked at different genres such as Gothick horror and, more recently, Horror Fiction. The next in line was Thriller and Detective Fiction, a genre with close on two centuries of development. Conan Doyle acknowledged Edgar Allan Poe as the “father of the detective tale”; for Sherlock’s creator Poe “covered its limits so completely I fail to see how his followers can find ground to call their own.” In fact over those two hundred years Poe’s detective tales — beginning with The Murders on the Rue Morgue (1841) — led to a vast range of crossovers, cross-pollinations and sub-genres (many focusing on at least one murder) which did indeed try to find ground to call their own.

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Locked room cozy is a page-turner

hanged manC S Challinor Phi Beta Murder  Midnight Ink 2010

C S Challinor’s sojourns in Scotland and England and residency in Florida, her academic background, ear for language and love of the classic age of whodunits all contribute greatly to the authority of this novel. She writes sympathetically about individuals from one culture adapting to another, about the struggles and stresses of students coping away from home and the bemusement of their elders trying to get to grips with modern mores. And, for the mystery aficionado, she sprinkles the text with clues and red herrings in equal measure in best whodunit tradition. Phi Beta Murder is a fine page-turner given a sense of urgency by predetermined time-constraints and the cloistered and claustrophobic atmosphere of a second-rate Florida college where a student is found hanged. Add to that a list of dramatis personae and a taster for a sequel and you have a hugely enjoyable piece of bedtime fiction.

A confession: I’m not a great fan of mysteries,  Continue reading “Locked room cozy is a page-turner”