One of Martin Edwards’ 100 books was Ethel Lina White’s Some Must Watch, written in 1933, and subsequently filmed as The Spiral Staircase. It is a classic Gothic mystery, with a young woman, friendless and alone in the world, arriving at a large remote house on the Welsh Marches to look after a strange collection of people, one of whom may be trying to kill her. Of course, because this always happens to orphans. Of course there’s a mad old lady in the attic, and a garrulous servant who tells of all the other young women who went missing, and how she must never go out after dark alone…
Needless to say, our heroine, a sparky redhead, is determined to solve the mystery once and for all, despite both the ominous warnings and the ratcheting tension between the characters. Unfortunately to my mind, there was too much foreshadowing of the “little did she know” variety, and many of the author’s idioms sounded archaic or slightly odd, which detracted from the narrative flow. Perhaps it’s because I read this in a large-print version from my local library. The large-print editions are wonderful for giving the reader a sense of achievement, and I can read fifty pages in no time, but it also means that any strangeness in phrasing is magnified and harder to ignore.
Best regarded as of historical interest, but for a more modern take, Mary Stewart did this without the theatricality some forty years later.
This week it’s Andrea Carter’s Treacherous Strand, the second in her Ben (Benedicta) O’Keeffe series, set on the Inishowen Peninsula in Ireland. (This is the northernmost point of Ireland that terminates at Malin Head, well known to lovers of the shipping forecast.) Ben is a lawyer, and when her yoga teacher Marguerite appears one evening wanting to make a will urgently, she is surprised, but is shocked to find the next day that Marguerite is dead, found on the beach in an apparent suicide bid.
Ben is convinced there is more to it, and that the local guards have written off the case too easily. She follows up with visits to the victim’s neighbour, the sculptor Simon Howard who is determined to charm her. In the meantime, she still has to deal with all the variety of cases that fall to a small-town lawyer, such as drink-driving charges and conveyancing deals, and in the course of these she discovers how tangled the inter-relationships of small-town life can be.
Carter writes with fluency and a distinctive voice – I hope there’s an audio-book of this, it needs an Irish accent to do her full justice – and her flawed protagonist rarely judges the people she comes across but takes them all as they are. More please, lots more.
A long way away this week, to Chukchi in Alaska, a remote settlement and State Trooper Nathan Active, an Inupiak brought up by white foster parents. When Nathan is called to the scene of an out-of-doors suicide, there is something that looks wrong to him. A few days later, an experienced hunter dies in the same way. Is there a connection with the nearby mining company, the largest employer in the region? In this, the first of a series, Nathan learns that he can trust no one.
This is a wonderful introduction by Stan Jones to an area most of us will never visit, with the locals explaining to Nathan the nuances of his own culture that he would not have learned with his foster parents, and the local history that he’s missed out on. He is operating in a hostile environment in multiple senses of the word, yet at the same time he has come home. A well-paced mystery, and a window on a strange world.
It’s been a non-fiction week, and Martin Edwards’ compendium of 100 works of classic crime, covering the period 1900 to 1950 (his earlier work on Golden Age crime covered the interwar period, 1918-39). I went to see his talk in York last week, in which he spoke about the genesis of the British Library series of classic crime novels, and how the selection of old railway posters had influenced sales (for the better).
His latest book is divided up into 24 sections, each dealing with either a type of fictional subject matter (e.g. Capital Crimes, set in London) or a category of author (e.g. Singletons, where the author only wrote one mystery, though they may have been prolific in other fields). Fortunately for me, he included a section on rural fiction, entitled “Serpents in Eden”, coincidentally the title of Edwards’ own anthology. The four titles include a John Bude, a CP Snow, and two authors new to me: The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton, and Sinister Crag by Newton Gayle. Other sections include works that could equally well be labelled as country crime, including the sections on “Murder at the Manor” and “Resorting to Murder”. Edwards has, as before, discovered a wide range of books to whet the appetite, and added some judicious snippets of biography – I particularly enjoyed hearing that Rupert Penny had given up crime writing and instead edited the journal of the British Iris Society.
This catalogue of memorable works covers a wide spectrum, from the very well-known (Hound of the Baskervilles) to the intensely obscure, but it should encourage readers to be more adventurous. It’s certainly left me with a new list.
This week, I’ve been even further afield, to the Solomon Islands with G.W. Kent’s Devil-Devil. It’s set in the 1960s, before Independence, and Sergeant Ben Kella has been called on to investigate the death of an islander on his home island of Malaita. At the same time, a schoolboy has disappeared from the local mission school. Sister Conchita, who has recently arrived, becomes involved, but is also at odds with Sergeant Kella, who follows the traditional religion of the islands, and has the hereditary role of peace-maker.
It’s a complex plot, with disreputable ex-pats, mafia-like Chinese business-men, and traditional rivalries between the bush (inland) villages and the saltwater villages, as well as more recent rivalries dating back to the Japanese invasion in the 1940s and the battle of Guadalcanal – my history is rusty, but I recognised that name at least. There are also times when a glossary might have been helpful (I discovered via Wikipedia that a lap-lap is a waist-cloth, i.e. two flaps of material and some string to hold them in place), but this first novel in a series sets the scene admirably for a place that I’m guessing is outside most people’s experience. It has something in common with Tony Hillerman’s tales of the American southwest. The author lived in the Solomon Islands (south of Papua New Guinea) for eight years, working in education. This was an enjoyable and instructive introduction to the Sergeant Kella and Sister Conchita mysteries, and I hope to read more.
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.
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.