Someone at the Daily Mail is deploring the lack of old-style crime fiction – the type without a serial killer. I share your pain, unnamed journalist. The villages that resembled Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead still exist, and I expect the occasional person is still murdered in one, though perhaps not by the long-lost identical twin, or rare poison picked up abroad. However, we are not supposed to want to read about things. I think the lines between crime and horror fiction have become blurred, and much of what is published today as thrillers would have been classified as horror (or psychiatric text-book) only a few years ago.
Last night was the SpecSavers annual crime awards on TV – congratulations to the winners. There may be one or two serial killers in there, though.
An unexpected recent pleasure was Edmund Crispin’s 8th Gervase Fen mystery, “The Long Divorce”, a poison pen mystery set in the Cotswolds (I’m guessing). An American publisher, Felony and Mayhem, has revived the Crispin backlist – although the cover blurb does make it sound as though the book is largely about a cat called Lavender (not that there’s anything wrong with cat mysteries – but this isn’t really one of them.)
I’ve resisted reading the later Gervase Fen stories, after Crispin made it clear in one of the early ones that he disliked dogs. I hurled the volume aside, and have made it a point of principle not to read him. I’m now making it a principle to re-test my principles. I’d forgotten how smoothly Crispin writes, and while the language does seem donnish, the whole effect was magisterial rather than off-putting. He captures the nuances of village life well – though I suspect no one nowadays would hand their case over to a bus driver and ask him to set it down for them at the next town – not if they ever wanted to see their case again. This is competent fiction, and I’m surprised it has vanished for so long.
Over at the Agatha Christie website, there’s an intriguing challenge: to write a new Agatha Christie novel in instalments over the next 10 months, starting with the opening premise of “A Murder is Announced”. The rules seem a bit fiddly, and I’m not sure I’ve quite got the hang of them, but basically you have to come up with a first chapter, the murderer has to feature in the first couple of chapters, you have to know whodunnit when you start, and there’s a big entry form to download. I’ll be very interested to see what people come up with.
“A Murder is Announced” was the first Miss Marple novel to be filmed, and one of my favourites in the Christie canon. There’s a certain amount of humour to leaven the shock of the opening scene, and while Miss Marple doesn’t feature as heavily as she does in some of the other volumes, the “bone structure”, if you will, is all there.
The best of luck to all those who enter, and may Dame Agatha herself smile down on you.
I’ve just spent the last day or two reading G M Malliet’s “Wicked Autumn” set in the fictional village of Nether Monkslip, somewhere on the south western coast of England (though it sounds remarkably Cotswold-y in the book). Max Tudor, the ex-MI5 vicar (splendid elevator pitch there) is asked to investigate when the chairwoman of the local Women’s Institute is murdered at the annual village “Fayre”. Since she was one of those gratuitously bossy old trouts who managed to offend everyone, the vicar is not exactly short of suspects.
I enjoyed this but – and it’s a huge BUT – it’s written by an American for Americans, which is fine but there’s something lost in terms of authenticity. If Monarch butterflies did end up in England, they’d be at least 3,000 miles off course, and would probably be followed by a BBC Naturewatch camera crew hoping to capture a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. English children rarely have peanut butter and jam smears on their fingers – one or the other, not both. There are numerous references to American popular culture that simply don’t work in an English context, and some of the invented names, such as Mrs Hooser, Max’s housekeeper, sound plain wrong.
After a while, it began to seem like an American version of “Went the Day Well?”, and I was expecting the real villagers, who’d been locked up in a cellar somewhere, to emerge blinking into the light of day, and the impostors to be rounded up and arrested. The book stayed American to the (slightly hurried) end. I know this because I kept on reading – so I’m filing under “Guilty Pleasures”, on the basis that I know it’s bad for me but I enjoyed it anyway.
Sad to hear that Robert Barnard has passed on to the great library in the sky. He was a prolific crime author, and while he was perhaps not as well known as he deserved to be, he wrote some excellent country crime novels among all his other works.
His obituary in the Daily Telegraph gives an idea of his range. He was a master of the pastiche, and he leaves a sad gap in the ranks of crime authors.