This week I’ve been reading the first of Mike Ripley’s reanimation of Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion. This is not so much a continuation of Margery Allingham’s work as a continuation of her husband’s, Pip Youngman Carter. It’s very obviously written from a male point of view. However, I come to praise Caesar, not to bury him, and I found this highly enjoyable, from the map of the fictional Lindsay Carfax (which is oddly reminiscent of Lavenham) at the front, complete with a Blyton-esque diagram of secret passages, to the final recognition by Campion that “both of us have had our day”. (Not that that’s prevented a couple of sequels.) It has the full array of rustic/ artistic/ threatening characters, although very little Lugg. There’s the Sherlockian “dog in the night-time” clue, when Superintendent Luke says there’s too little crime in Lindsay, with none ever reported. It’s never good news when locals take matters into their own hands, not in a crime novel.
Campion has to survive attacks on his car, being shot in the legs, and the driving of his niece, Eliza Jane Fitton, who is making a living painting local scenes. Nothing must get in the way of the local tourist trade, and a secret group, known as the Carders, have the town sewn up. Anyone who comes between them and their financial interests will be stopped, or at least made to disappear for nine days. But who are the nine Carders? Could one of them be Campion’s own Great Aunt Prunella, now living the high life in Monte Carlo? This is perfect 1960s radio serial territory, and none the worse for it. It may not be entirely Allingham, but it is genuinely entertaining.
Much like Mrs Peabody, I’m reading some of the best books of 2016 (according to Crimetime). However, even without their helpful list, it would be hard to miss Jessie Burton’s “The Muse” which is everywhere at the moment; I can’t even go to the supermarket without falling over huge piles of the decoratively flowered cover with a crowning motif of crossed revolvers.
I’m not sure I would have categorised this as crime fiction, although it does contain a mystery and a murder, set partly in rural Andalusia at the time of the Spanish Civil War. I think my misgivings come from the extensive reading list at the back. It’s not genre fiction if it comes with homework. An authorial nod to one or two key influences as an afterword, fine, but much beyond that and I start to have that uneasy feeling that my essay is due in by Friday.
However, it seems ungracious to carp when the story has an original set-up, in two time-zones – 1960s London, seen through the eyes of a young girl from Trinidad, Odelle, who wants to be a writer, but takes a job at an art gallery. Her story is contrasted with that of Olive, an English/Austrian girl from 1936, whose Jewish art dealer father has taken his family from Vienna to Spain just as war breaks out. A painting links the two eras, and the central mystery of the book is: what happened to the painter, and how did the painting end up in London? With the hindsight of our own era, knowing the unhappy histories of the 1930s, there is a growing sense of dread as the older tale unfolds.
It’s also a discourse on the role of women as artists, and how they begin, how much the cards are stacked against them by the expectations of society, and the undermining effects of racism, colonialism and poverty. Burton can hold the pace and tension well, and manages not to swamp her characters with worthiness. Her first novel was a big hit, and I’m sure this one will sell by the supermarket trolley-load. Good storytelling, but I won’t be filing it between Allingham and Christie.
Last week’s book (“The Malice of Waves”, Mark Douglas-Home) sent me back to a forerunner, Ann Cleeves’ “Raven Black” which has a number of similarities, right down to the walk-on part for ravens. It was the first of her Shetland novels to be published, more than 10 years ago now, and, like “The Malice of Waves” deals with the death of a teenager and the impact this has on a small island community. The communities are portrayed in a different way – here, the predominant viewpoint is that of the insider, and the reader is taken into the heart of a community that fears it has a murderer in its midst.
In this case, the suspect/ scapegoat is an isolated elderly man whose name is linked with the previous disappearance of a young girl. However, as DI Jimmy Perez, an islander himself, discovers, there are more secrets being held, in particular the whereabouts of the film that the victim, Catriona, was making of the people around her.
The ending, for me, was not unexpected, but the skill with which Cleeves handles both the setting and the pace is exemplary. It has since been successfully filmed (as “Shetland”, starring Douglas Henshall – very unlike the Spanish-heritage Perez of the books). This was an award-winning book in its own right, and deservedly so.
(And on a completely unrelated note, I’m a huge fan of the wool-and-wildlife oriented Shetland magazine, 60 Degrees North. With this and an Ann Cleeves, I’m all set for January.)
This week I’ve been reading another hang-over from 2016, “The Malice of Waves”, by Mark Douglas-Home. Whereas Peter May’s “The Coffin Road” was set on the real island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, this is set on a fictional island just south of Harris, Eilean Dubh. There’s a whole sub-genre of crime fiction set on Scottish islands, which seems to form a kind of half-way house between Scandinavian and UK crime fiction – i.e. remote (to the point of being exotic), with terrible weather, and a recognisably dour detective staring gloomily at the landscape/ corpse/ alienated relative but without the high body count of more urban areas.
That’s not to detract from “The Malice of Waves”, which features perhaps the first crime-solving oceanographer (though not the first in a series of Highly Specialised Scientists (HSS) who turn to detection – it started with pathologists (Cornwell) , then forensic anthropologists (Reichs), but has spread out to include archaeologists (Griffiths) and even forensic geologists (Andrews). Cal McGill, aka the “sea detective”, has been called in to track the likely path of the body of a teenager who went missing five years ago, but whose father continues to blame the local community. He bought a smaller island off the coast of Eilean Dubh, and felt sure that a resentful community was covering up the identity of the murderer.
Douglas-Home is excellent in creating a sense of claustrophobia and clannishness among the local inhabitants, whilst acknowledging the strengths of a small community. The issue of Scottish land rights is never far away, against a backdrop of the Highland Clearances, and the fear of landowners with the ability to turn out entire villages. The ending had both the simplicity and inevitability of a Greek tragedy, and augurs well for the future of this series.
I’ve been whiling away the festive season reading Kathryn Harkup’s “The Poisons of Agatha Christie”. Perhaps not the wisest choice in some families, but for a scientifically-orientated group of people, it was full of amusing dinner-time trivia – did you know that the greater bamboo lemur is immune to cyanide poisoning? Now you do, and so do my nearest and dearest. They will thank me later. (Or not, unless they happen to be responsible for performing an autopsy on a greater bamboo lemur, in which case they will at least be able to rule out cyanide poisoning.)
In other unlikely events, I’ve actually been planning some reading for 2017. Normally I go with the flow and read whatever comes my way, but thanks to the good folks at Crimetime, I have been reminded of everything I missed during 2016. It wasn’t a good year for me, but may have been a very good year for crime fiction, if this list of the top 100 reads is anything to go by. Of the 100, fewer than 20 are rural (spookily similar to the rural population of England, at 17%), but I’ve made my own catch-up list for 2017, and it’s a New Year’s Resolution to work my way through them.
Towards the tail end of this year, I’ve been impressed by Peter May’s “The Coffin Road”, set on a Hebridean island. It starts with an intriguing premise – you’ve been washed up ashore with no memory of who you are. Fortunately a neighbour finds you, walks you home, and soon you’re rediscovering your own life with the eyes of a stranger. You have a dog, a car, and a mistress. A locked shed. And the overwhelming sense that you may have killed someone. I get a warm glow when I’m carried along in the wake of competence – this gave me the warmth of a large mug of cocoa and a spare Labrador on my lap. It’s been perfect indoors reading, when the wind is roaring down the chimney and rooks are being blown sideways out of trees. Must go put some another log on the fire – Happy New Year.