The Devil’s Cave

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For a long time, I have resisted the charms of Martin Walker’s series featuring Bruno, Chief of Police, set in the Perigord region of France. I already had my French detectives, thanks to Messrs Simenon, Freeling and Hebden. There was no need to add one that was obviously designed to appeal to trapped English office workers, with a heavy emphasis on food and wine and better weather than at home.

Then I finally read one. I picked up The Devil’s Cave (no. 5 in the series) with my sternest I’m-Not-Going-To-Like-This expression. If it were possible to read a book with folded arms, I would have. And I was wrong wrong wrong – I was enchantee. Yes, there was every French cliché in the book, but it was charming. Bruno himself is a more sophisticated Hamish Macbeth, torn between two women, and eschewing all ambition so that he can stay in the place he loves, with his hens and his kitchen and his basset hound puppy.

The story opens with a naked dead woman floating down the river in a punt, like the Lady of Shalott. Tracing the boat back upstream leads Bruno to an old French family with a complicated family tree and even more complex land dealings. They also own, and lease out, a famous local cave which forms the centre point of the investigations. Bruno, needless to say, cooks and drinks his way through a series of escapades, including a comic set-piece in which someone tries to frame him. I learned some new French slang, and am now an official convert to the cause.

Orkney Twilight

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It’s the turn of the “country spy” story again. In Clare Carson’s Orkney Twilight, the first in the Sam Coyle trilogy, our heroine is a teenager in 1984, and has volunteered to go to the Orkneys with her father, an undercover cop, and her friend Tom, who plans on becoming a journalist. It turns into an awkward holiday: her father Jim has brought his gun, and is intent on dead-letter drops at scenic Orkney sites. Someone is watching their holiday cottage. Sam is worried she’s given away too much of her father’s past to Tom, who can’t help himself from ferreting into the past. She is torn between wanting to know more, yet wanting to protect her father, but at the same time mistrusting everything he has told her.

This reminds me of other unreliable fathers, such as John Le Carre’s own father, fictionalised in A Perfect Spy, or the grandfather of River Cartwright in Mick Herron’s Spook Street. It turns out that the author’s own father was an undercover policeman in the 1970s, and far from being a cunning plot device, this has an element of autobiography. Carson captures the confusion of the teen years, the suspicion of the adult world while wanting to join it, but has also overlaid it with an emotional flatness that made it hard to feel genuine sympathy for Sam. The international element seemed tangential rather than intrinsic, but the next volume may change that. (The third volume in the series, The Dark Isle, has just been published.)

There were plenty of knowing references to the significance of the south bank of the Thames at Vauxhall – which would become the home of MI6 some years after this novel was set – and to authentic south London settings as well as the Orkneys. The author resists the trap of name-checking 1980s brands and music to set the scene, and I found plenty to admire in the writing. However, I failed to warm to the characters and this may mean I leave the series here.

 

A Fall from Grace

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This week it’s been a visit to one of my favourite authors, Robert Barnard, and A Fall from Grace. It’s set in the fictional Yorkshire town of Slepton, where “Charlie” Peace and his wife have just bought a new house, with financing from his father-in-law, who moves in just up the road. It’s only later that Charlie thinks to enquire why his father-in-law, Rupert, was so keen to move away from Devon. Perhaps it has something to do with his penchant for finding and exploiting women to do his housework? Or is there something more sinister afoot?

Barnard breaks every “rule” of modern crime writing – the murder happens late in the book, there are few cliff-hangers, few suspects, and yet his work draws you in and pulls you along like a toy train on little rubber wheels. Charlie is an amiable character, as is his wife Felicity, currently expecting the Foetus, whose sex has yet to be revealed, and their attempts to settle into a new home ring true. The other characters are largely sympathetic, though the book has reminded me once again why I would never want to teach teenagers, or run for Mayor (amongst the many things I wouldn’t want to do. Instead of a bucket list, I have a list of things I intend never to do. It’s going really well so far.)

Perhaps not one of Barnard’s strongest plots, but even a mid-range Barnard is highly enjoyable, and well-suited to the particularly dank summer that’s currently hovering over us.

A Murder of Quality

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This week I’ve been back through the mists of time to the early 1960s, and John Le Carre’s second mystery, A Murder of Quality. It features George Smiley, who has gone down to visit an English public school in the south west of England, where a schoolmaster’s wife, Stella Rode, has been murdered.

Margot Kinsberg, in a recent blog post, spoke of whether characters in crime fiction fitted in or not, and what that said about them, or the author, or the reader’s expectations. In Murder of Quality, everyone is clear that Stella Rode does not fit in, that she and her husband are of a lower class than the other schoolmasters, but that Stella has committed the cardinal sin of not even trying to fit in. The wives are catty: “She does such clever things with the same dress.” Because of the snobbery of the school’s staff, the reader is inclined to believe the best of Stella, and it is only near the end that the real character of Stella begins to emerge.

Smiley is encouraged to investigate by the local police, as Inspector Riley realises that the school will close ranks against him, whereas Smiley is of the same class. Fielding, one of the other masters, is related to a former colleague of Smiley, and knows that Smiley had “a very bad war”, so Smiley is admitted to the tightly confined social circles of Carne – which may or may not resemble the public school which Le Carre himself once attended.

It is an entirely conventional mystery, but already the closely observed mannerisms and tricks of speech are there, the sense of undercurrents and suppressed emotion that fill George Smiley’s world. It was more than 50 years ago that Smiley first wandered into fiction, but he hasn’t aged a bit.

PS My cover was a pink Bantam version, half falling off, the pages yellowed, but I’m too embarrassed to take a photo of it, it looks so scruffy, so I’m using the modern Penguin version as an illustration instead.

Nature of the Beast

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This week I’ve made a return to the mysterious Canadian village of Three Pines, which is not found on any map or satnav, for Louise Penny’s eleventh in the Chief Inspector Gamache series. I’m a couple of volumes behind, and this one makes few concessions to readers who have not been following the plot. The former Chief Inspector of the Surete has retired, or so he thinks, until a young boy is found murdered. Young Laurent had an active imagination, so no one believed him when he said he had found something extraordinary in the woods – apart from one person, who killed him.

The book is an extended examination of how the threats of one era continue to dominate the present. At what point does history render a person or an issue harmless? At the same time as Gamache is lending a hand to his successor, an inhabitant of Three Pines is trying to stage a play written by an author of some notoriety. Does his past have any bearing on the case? Gamache is being tempted back to the police – has he been superseded, is his day over, is he past it? Or does his knowledge still have some value? Three Pines may not seem entirely real, but the issues facing a man whose career may be coming to a close most certainly are.

The plot strays into spy/ thriller territory, and is perhaps not the best place to begin an acquaintance with the series, but I found it enjoyable, with odd echoes of Margery Alingham’s The Mind Readers, a much earlier look at the threat posed by rogue scientists.

Mablethorpe

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This week, a chance discovery in my local library – Mablethorpe by W.S. Barton. The author and indeed the publisher, Rudling House, were new to me, but I have at least been to the beach at the eponymous east coast resort. The novel could have done with more stringent editing, but captures well the precarious and isolated feel of an out-of-season caravan park. The plot revolves round the lives of a number of park owners and their children, and when the first child goes missing, suspicion falls on one of them, Mark Smith. The police are convinced they’ve got the right man, even if the proof is inconclusive. However, as spring returns, the disappearances begin again. What if the prime suspect is innocent?

Many people like to pretend that class distinctions barely exist, but one of the last great divides is the caravan park. Those whose holidays consist of a week in a static caravan (aka trailer in the US) are considered, erm, less advantaged, which means that Mablethorpe, with its in-depth dissection of caravan-park mores, holds some of the fascination of an anthropology textbook revealing the forbidden rites of distant tribes for the uninitiated. The detection element is weak, but Barton is a man who knows about caravans, and for that alone, plus the east coast atmosphere, it was worth giving this a go.

 

His Bloody Project

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This week, it’s a book that I’ve been putting off reading since Christmas because I was afraid it would be too gloomy – His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, so I knew it would be well-written, but in the short dark days of January and February, I needed something lighter. Set in rural Aberdeenshire in the 19th century, it tells the story of a remote crofting community and how one young man was driven to murder. The tale is told partly in the young man’s  own words, written while awaiting trial, and partly in those of a lawyer who is looking into the case.

This is bleak reading, and does much to explain why people left the countryside in the first place. Abuses of power in a small place have a disproportionate effect on the poverty-stricken inhabitants, and grievances fester for decades. The murder, when it comes, is an inevitable outcome of a generation’s worth of oppression, and it is a tribute to Burnet’s skill that the reader retains sympathy for the murderer throughout. The brutality of his neighbours is revenged, but there is no satisfaction in the end, only a sense of lives wasted by poverty. An excellent book, but one that holds no nostalgia for the Scotland of days past.