In Ngaio Marsh’s Death at the Bar, Inspector Roderick Alleyn is called to a small Devon fishing village, where a well-known barrister has been murdered over a game of darts. The village is remote, separated from the outside world by a tunnel through the cliff, and only those staying at the village inn, the Plume and Feathers, would have had the means to launch an attack on Luke Watchman, taking his annual holiday with friends.
The crime is carefully set up, with plenty of motives established in the first fifty pages. The rest of the novel is a painstaking dissection of who stood where, who said what, and in what time-frame. Was it one of the two men that Watchman had named as his heirs, the painter Cubitt or the actor? The mysterious fat Irishwoman who also painted? Or the pub landlord’s sulky son Will? This is as close to a police procedural or an episode of CSI as the 1930s gets, both detailed and with plenty of twists, causing readers to double back on themselves more than once. Cleverly done, and still enjoyable to this day.
As a side note, the Guardian had an enjoyable article at the weekend on the gulf between town and country life as portrayed in television. Just the thing for people who have been snowed in for much of the week.
George Mann’s Wychwood is billed as a cross between horror and crime fiction, with supernatural elements, which might lead one to believe that this would be closer to a work by Phil Rickman, or perhaps James Oswald. In fact, this is almost cosy in comparison, which could be due to its setting in the Cotswolds, which exert their own rose-filled influence over everything, in the same way that PG Wodehouse’s Honeysuckle Cottage turned a writer of lean muscular prose into something more winsome.
The newly divorced reporter Elspeth Reeves has returned to her childhood home, only to find that a murder has been committed in the woods behind her house, part of the eponymous Wychwood. She teams up with local policeman Peter Shaw, and together they discover the murders (plural, and rapidly increasing) are linked to the local legend of the Carrion King. I have one or two quibbles with the likelihood that any policeman would be allowed to take a friend with him to interview suspects, but fiction generally depends on the suspension of disbelief, so if you disregard the finer points of a police procedural, this keeps up the pace, and comes to a satisfying conclusion at the end. The supernatural element is vanishingly slight, the horror muted, and the overall effect is very Home Counties. A readable traditional cozy, no matter what the marketing would have you believe.
A bleak novel, this week – Brian McGilloway’s Borderlands, set on the borders between Northern Ireland and the Republic, the “soft” border that may be about to become a “hard”, or controlled, border again as Brexit looms. The past, including the pre-cooperation days of the controlled borders, casts a long shadow over this area, and Inspector Benedict Devlin of the Garda travels backwards and forwards over the border as he attempts to track the killer of a young girl, found almost naked in woodland, just before Christmas. She had been seen with a young traveller boy, and suspicion falls on him and his family. At the same time, Devlin is asked to investigate a break-in at an old people’s home, witnessed by the father-in-law of his ex-girlfriend.
The plot is as intricately enmeshed as the branches on a winter tree, and confidently handled, but this is a harsh world full of violence, with little in the way of likeable characters or any leaven of humour. McGilloway was shortlisted for a Debut Dagger for this, and deservedly so. And yet – pulls out soapbox and stands on it – I wouldn’t trust a detective that couldn’t be trusted with a dog, and Devlin is simply Too Irresponsible for Dog Ownership (TIDO). He leaves a basset hound (short-coated dog) in a shed each night, in the snow, at Christmas, and when the dog escapes and is accused of sheep-worrying, does he defend the dog, or take him into the house? Does he heck. I began by assuming this was the author’s way of telling us that Devlin was a villain (Hollywood code these days for a bad guy involves violence towards dogs) but no, it turns he was simply TIDO. Violence, swearing, goes with the genre – total irresponsibility doesn’t, and annoys me no end. Other dog people may feel the same.
Julia Chapman’s Date with Death is the first in a series set in the Yorkshire Dales, in the fictional village/small town of Bruncliffe. Delia Metcalfe, recently divorced, is struggling to make ends meet with her dating business, and has rented out part of her building to an unknown stranger – who turns out to be the black sheep of the village, Samson O’Brien, who has returned to the Dales after a career in the police. No one is glad to see him return, except perhaps his feckless ex-alcoholic father, now in an old people’s home.
When one of Delia’s friends is found dead, the grieving widow asks Samson to investigate. However, more men in the area are winding up dead, and the one thing they had in common was attendance at one of Delia’s speed-dating events. Delia and Samson are forced to join up in order to catch the killer, despite their differences.
This is obviously intended to be the first in a series, with hints thrown out about Samson’s previous career that are never resolved (pet hate of mine). I also struggled to differentiate between some of the characters. That aside, Chapman has an engaging style of writing, and although the Cathy/Heathcliff sparring between the fell-running Delia and the darkly brooding Samson may pall without strong plotlines, this was a creditable first outing.
A read from the 1980s this week – Peter Dickinson’s The Last Houseparty. I was a big fan of his works for children, in particular the Changes trilogy, set in an England that had gone backwards, when the machines were smashed and the population took up the lives of medieval peasants, with only a handful of children somehow immune, and able to remember a time when there were machines.
I found echoes of this in The Last Houseparty, which flits between eras, from 1937, when the eponymous houseparty took place, an encounter in the North African desert in 1941, up to the early 1980s (the mention of Laker Airways dates this). In the present day, the young daughter of Lady Snailwood’s secretary is an adult, showing visitors round the house, which is falling apart, the famous mechanical clock and its rotating figures now still. In the past, the two Quintain cousins have been invited by their aunt Zena to entertain at her political salon. Zena was meddling in affairs of state, and seems to be trying to settle the Middle East, but the talk is largely of how to prevent the coming war.
During the weekend, a number of terrible things happen, initially only mentioned obliquely in the present day, so that the reader has to act as detective, slowly revealing more and more of the picture, but the truth is only made clear in the final paragraph. This left a rather bitter taste, and I wanted to like this more. It is perhaps more of a literary novel than crime fiction, despite the crime. The author has obviously carried out extensive research into clock workings, cars of the 1930s, and croquet, amongst other things, but somehow the characters never quite spring to life. One for the “interesting but tastes have changed” pile.
Nora is taking the train to Oxfordshire, to stay at her sister Rachel’s farmhouse for the weekend. When her sister fails to show up at the station Nora sets off on foot, only to discover that something terrible has happened to her sister. Under the Harrow, by Flynn Berry, tells the story of Nora’s grief and the slow uncovering of her sister’s past, as she comes to learn that we never really know the people we love.
Some years previously, as teenagers in East Yorkshire, Rachel was attacked and left for dead. Since then, she has feared that the same could happen again. Nora has to retrace her sister’s steps, and her sister’s past, to find the truth. It’s one of those stories which it would be a shame to spoil by giving away too much, so I won’t. The author’s sharp, well-observed prose leads the reader to ask, what if it were me? What would I do in that situation? It falls into the category of “domestic noir” but unlike some recent best-selling works, Nora is a reliable narrator, and the shock comes from the understanding how one act of violence can both ripple outwards and rebound. This isn’t my favourite sub-genre, but it is a skilful example and deserves to be better known.
Set in the fictional English county of Calleshire, Catherine Aird’s Dead Heading features the police duo of DI Sloan and DC Crosby. On a frosty night in March, two separate orchid growers have their greenhouses sabotaged, and the orchids inside are killed. Is there someone out there with a grudge against the growers – a business rival, perhaps – or with a grudge against the customers expecting the plants? (Strange how orchids attract both crime and detectives in a way that, say, marigolds, do not. Nero Wolfe grew orchids.)
At the same time, an elderly woman, Enid Osgathorp, has gone missing, and as DI Sloan investigates, it becomes clear she was involved in blackmail. But there may be more than one blackmailer around Berebury. And what is Benedict Feakins hiding in his bonfire?
This is a lively read, with a complex series of characters with overlapping lives, and plenty of gardening talk. I was a little thrown by some seemingly random upper-casing of common plant names, but apart from minor editorial glitches it is a well-plotted tale by an author with a strong track record.