Monthly Archives: January 2014

Week 4 – The Luck of the Vails

 

My history with this book is much like the Luck itself, a supposed great treasure that brought ill luck with it. At first I was thrilled to have found an early EF Benson, a pre-Mapp and Lucia era Benson, reissued in the Vintage Classics series – if there’s one thing I love, it’s a rediscovered, long lost gem. An attractive cover, a handsome young hero who has recently inherited an ancient estate, a family heirloom, a family curse – what could possibly go wrong?
This seems to have been miscategorised as crime fiction – it’s more of a high Victorian Gothic romance, with all the floweriness of language of the 1860s. I was surprised to see it was written in 1901, when contemporaries such as Conan Doyle were writing fast-moving concise prose. This didn’t so much meander as dribble along in a tiny trickle, compared to the full-force waterfall of a Conan Doyle. Yes, there was some crime, a creeping suspicion that all was not well, but far too slowly for there to be any suspense for the modern reader. This is the kind of book Stephen Leacock satirised in “Gertrude the Governess”, the best part of a century ago, and it was in a style that was considered dated even then. One for curio cabinet rather than the bookshelf, I fear.

The Norfolk Mystery

This week I’ve been reading Ian Sansom’s “The Norfolk Mystery“, the first in a new series intended to cover all the counties of England. Set in the 1930s, our hero is a young man newly returned from the Spanish Civil War. His life is on a downward trajectory until he sees an advertisement for an assistant to the “People’s Professor”, Swanton Morley.

Morley, a polymath and autodidact, is possibly the most irritating character in English fiction, which allows for plenty of comedy but also for moments when you have to grit your teeth in order to be able to finish the book. The murder itself is overshadowed by Morley – everything is. A well-written detective story, but I can’t help worrying about Mr Sansom, and whether his new creation will overpower him entirely.

Week 2: Rack, Ruin and Murder

The second week of my year-long challenge to read a country crime book a week has me back with Ann Granger for the second in her series of Campbell and Carter mysteries, “Rack, Ruin and Murder”. Much better than its predecessor, and the author has created a comic gem in her character of Monty Bickerstaffe (of Bickerstaffe’s Boiled Puddings), who is slowly decaying, along with the house he can no longer afford to maintain. When he goes out one morning to buy a bottle of whisky, and comes back to find a corpse seated in his usual chair, he is incensed (don’t you just hate it when that happens?) The slow uncovering of facts, and the relationship between Monty and his neighbours, progresses to a logical conclusion, with not a clue out of place. There is a sense of remorseless logic, and all the loose ends are neatly tidied away.

I’m still struggling to warm to either Campbell or Carter however. Monty lives and breathes , and could warrant an entire series of him grumpily finding corpses in annoying places, but if I replaced Jess Campbell with Ian Rankin’s Siobhan Clarke, would anyone notice? For me, the best detective is the one that’s irreplaceable (e.g. Reg Hill’s Andy Dalziel). Oh well, you can’t have everything. Good plot, good pacing, an unforgettable character. 75% right is better than most.

New Year, New Resolutions

Happy New Year! My resolution for this year is to read at least one country crime book a week. This may not sound like much, but when you have a full-time job, and a long commute by car, there’s not a lot of time left over, and I want to read the occasional non-fiction book as well, so there you have it: one a week.

For this week, it’s a carry-over from the end of 2013 – “The Death of Lucy Kyte“, by Nicola Upson. It starts with all the beginnings of a romantic novel, when the heroine, author Josephine Tey, is left a cottage in Suffolk in her godmother’s will. A provision in the will means she has to go visit the cottage to clear it out, and once there, she finds that the cottage is central to an old murder mystery that pre-occupied her godmother. Tey is also trying to write a biography, so decides to stay in the cottage both to write her own work and to discover more about her godmother and the murder.

From early on, there is a creeping sense of unease, particularly as certain events seem to contain elements of downright malevolence, and the author skilfully ratchets up the pressure, to the point where I felt uncomfortable enough to want to give up reading. This is a well written blend of fact (with elements of the life of the real Josephine Tey, as well as the real Red Barn Murder) and fiction, but with none of the cosiness of the Golden Age of crime fiction in which it is set. If there were a symbol for “non-cosy”, such as a teacosy in a circle with a red diagonal bar across it, it should be added to the cover. Cleverly done, but too uncomfortable.

On a different note, on the subject of tea things – kudos to Janet Rudolph for finding these