A fictive Principality

Somewhere in the Brecon Beacons, Wales

Continuing the theme of Reading Wales during March, this Dewithon post focuses on a selection of Principality-related fiction that I’ve reviewed over the years.

To make it marginally more manageable I’ve deliberately excluded the following categories:

  • Non-fiction titles (obvs) like Roald Dahl’s Boy
  • Fiction that’s set in a non-specific area of what could be the Welsh Marches, as with Jill Rowan’s cross-genre novel The Legacy, being neither Wales nor England (I covered an aspect of this in a previous post, ‘At the margins’, though I might return to this theme at some stage)
  • Reviews and related posts about Wales concerned with works by Tolkien and Joan Aiken (as I’ve already gone on and on and on at length about them)

The titles cross a surprising number of genres: fantasy, speculative fiction, police procedural, historical, alternate history and supernatural horror. Feel free to explore the links to the reviews—or not, as the case may be!

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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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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

window

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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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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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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That’s the way to do it

Edinburgh sees the final weekend of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2009 (Wikipedia image)
Edinburgh Fringe turn, 2009 (Wikipedia image)

Kate Atkinson One Good Turn
A Jolly Murder Mystery

Black Swan 2007 (2006)

Kate Atkinson’s novel reminds me of the customary list, the dramatis personae, that appeared in printed copies of plays from the Elizabethan period onward announcing the characters one would expect to strut their stuff on the stage.

SO-AND-SO, King of Such-and-Such
THINGUMAJIG, heir to the throne of Such-and-Such
A gravedigger
FLIBBERTIGIBBET, Queen of Somewhere Else
A nurse
Attendants, courtiers, peasants etc.

For practical purposes — read-throughs, programme notes, students — that’s all very helpful, but from a dramatic point of view it makes little sense: an audience would want the characters, like the play’s narrative, to unfold before their very eyes, and a bald roster of who appears doesn’t normally tell you an awful lot.

So, what if I were to present the principal players in One Good Turn in a similar manner — would that be any different? Continue reading “That’s the way to do it”