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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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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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”