This week, it’s been historical crime fiction: “A Death at Fountains Abbey”, by Antonia Hodgson. I would normally exclude this from “Country Crime” on the basis that prior to the Industrial Revolution, the distinction between rural and city life is less marked, the desire for rural tranquillity less frequently invoked, and much of the city population is recent. Plus I’m not that keen on historical fiction anyway. I’m prepared to make an honourable exception for Lindsay Davies, maybe even Ellis Peters, but my tolerance for gadzookery is remarkably slight.
However, I’m breaking my own rules here for a historical version of the country house party, where Thomas Hawkins (aka “half Hanged Hawkins,”) is sent to Yorkshire by the Queen, to investigate the prime mover behind the South Sea Bubble eight years previously, which sets this firmly in the 1720s. John Aislabie has threatened the Queen with exposure, since he still holds a ledger relating to the financial scandal, and he is asking for help to investigate threats against him. Aislabie now lives close to Fountains Abbey, where he is engaged on an extensive landscaping and rebuilding project. His troubles began when he was joined by his missing daughter, who was believed to have died in a fire as an infant.
Needless to say, everyone has a secret – and almost everyone is a real historical figure, apparently. The pacing is excellent, the resonances with modern banking scandals sufficiently evident that the plot has relevance, and the lively Hawkins and his wife Kitty make sympathetic protagonists. It’s sent me straight off to read the first in the series (this is the third). There were a great number of references to Hawkins’ previous adventures, and I want to see if my opinion changes with greater knowledge of the story so far.
As a side note, there was an interesting debate recently about star ratings for books. I don’t use stars, but have an internal system that goes something like this: Ha! (cry of triumph) means I’ve found a good one. Ho-hum means this is passable. Humph means I’ve just wasted my time. For what it’s worth, I’m looking on this one as a Ha!
This week I felt the need for sunshine, so I’ve been reading Tim Heald’s “Death on the Pueblo”, the last of the Simon Bognor series, written in 2012. Heald died in November, and while I hadn’t read his later work, it saddens me that there will be no more.
This is the classic world of “snobbery with violence”, in Colin Watson’s phrase. Heald writes – wrote – hard to remember the past tense – guides to a certain class that he describes as “not quite top drawer” but still higher up the filing cabinet than the majority, a class with access to the corridors of power. Here, the newly knighted Sir Simon has been called to investigate the disappearance of a former East End villain, Jimmy Trubshawe, living the life of Riley in Spain, who has apparently been poisoned. Simon and his wife Monica, and trusty sidekick Contractor, head off to the countryside near Salamanca to investigate.
There’s an elegiac tone to this, a realisation that the world has changed and crime fiction with it. I find Heald amusing, but at the same time, this now reads like a requiem for a way of life that is vanishing, that of the upper-class amateur investigator. Monica describes Bognor as “an old cosy. An elderly dog with its hair falling out”, which may well be true, but like an old dog, it’s sad to see an empty basket.
This week it’s back to the Golden Age, with one of the British Library
re-issues of Freeman Wills Croft’s works, with a foreword by Martin Edwards. It has the decorative 1930’s transport poster on the cover, this one of the Surrey Hills, that makes you want to buy the book just for its cover. (In stark opposition to the modern crime fiction cover, with a monochrome photo almost entirely overshadowed by title and author’s name in Very Big Letters.) Dr Earle has disappeared from his own study, still in his carpet-slippers, one afternoon, and his relatives are alarmed. But his is only the first disappearance…
Inspector French carefully and painstakingly checks every alibi, every timing, every distance between houses in the wooded hills around the Hog’s Back. It is an exposition of the scientific method of investigation, with each hypothesis tested, then either discarded or continued, and as such, is perhaps too detailed for the modern reader. We’ve become too used to ellipsis, the sliding-over of exposition, to appreciate just how careful police work has to be. It’s also clear that modern forensics have changed the game completely. I was amused by the fact that Inspector French (a) had to use public transport a lot, and (b) his one high-tech piece of equipment was a very bright lamp that he plugged into the overhead light fitting – something I’ve only ever seen in films.
For some reason, it felt as though this is what happens when Dr Watson does his detecting without Holmes – there is a dogged quality to the investigations. However, it is well written, logical, clearly thought out, and for those who need to know howdunnit in minute detail as well as whodunit, this is a masterclass in 1930s police work.
This week I was prompted to read “The Bird Tribunal” by Agnes Ravatn after hearing part of an episode on “Book at Bedtime” on Radio 4. It occupied a week and 2 days’ worth of episodes, with the rest of the second week being filled with Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds”. I’m not sure what’s happening with the book-scheduling on Radio 4, but I’m pretty sure there’s someone with a grudge against humanity, or at least Radio 4 listeners, involved. Or perhaps the purpose of Book at Bedtime has changed, no longer to lull people to sleep, but deliberately designed to keep people sat bolt upright in bed alert to the tiniest sound of impending menace?
Major spoiler alert – if you don’t want to know too much about the plot, click away now. The plot revolves round a young woman, Alliss, who has left her job as a TV presenter, for reasons that become clear later, to work as a housekeeper/ gardener for a man living in a remote part of Norway whose wife is “away”. The truth is revealed sparingly, doled out like a trail of breadcrumbs leading into the forest, to reveal how two damaged characters end up in each other’s orbit, with almost no one else to intervene. The prose is spare and simple, but the tension rarely lets up. The imbalance of power between the two is made obvious from the start, when he insists that she wait while he eats, and then she can eat afterwards. He appears to hold all the power, but as in any domestic noir, the narrator, ostensibly powerless, finds her capacity to act by the end. There are overtones of Bluebeard – she must never go inside his locked workshop – and Norse myths, but there is a reason why the misanthropic Radio 4 scheduler linked this work to one by du Maurier. The parallels with “Rebecca” are strong enough that this could be said to be a modern retelling, with one or two twists.