Monthly Archives: March 2017

Another Country House in the Snow

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This week, it’s James Anderson’s “The Affair of the Mutilated Mink”. Set in the 1930s, just as the talking pictures were taking over from the silent, the Earl of Burford is a recent convert to the cinematograph, and is thrilled (in an understated, aristocratic way) to welcome a film producer and one of his favourite film stars, Rex Ransom, to his country seat at Alderley. The Countess of Burford, Lavinia, is a little less excited, but hopes they will be company for her long-lost cousin Cicely and husband Sebastian, recently returned from the Antipodes. The Burfords’ daughter, Lady Geraldine, has mischievously invited both her suitors down for the weekend, so she can decide which one to marry. But who invited the Italian filmstar, Laura Lorenzo?

This is very much Lord Emsworth territory, Blandings with murders. It was written in 1981, so the language flits through the decades (note to self: when were burglar alarms invented?) but it’s all so cheerfully done it’s hard to bear any ill will. Inspector Wilkins is a basset-hound of a detective, droopy and doleful, a complete contrast to the old Etonian Chief Superintendant Allgood of the Yard. This is an affectionate tribute both to Golden Age crime fiction and to P G Wodehouse, which is a difficult trick to pull off. To be enjoyed with a large sherry and a wind-up gramophone for background music. A perfect weekend read.

Unseasonal Reading

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I know it’s almost Easter, but I’ve been reading “Another Little Christmas Murder” by Lorna Nicholl Morgan. It was originally published in 1947, but was revived last Christmas with a suitably ornamental cover. A young career woman, Dilys Hughes, is driving across the Yorkshire Dales in a snowstorm, when she comes off the road at a dangerous spot. Another motorist, Inigo Brown, stops and offers to take her to his uncle’s house, Wintry Wold, for the night. ( I know the roads north of Reeth, and they’re not a good place to be stuck in your car, but Wintry Wold? Too southern, too twee.)

On arrival, though, the much-younger and recently married Aunt Theresa, an annoyingly teeny and delicate woman (I’m guessing the author was taller), is not pleased to see them, and prevents Inigo from seeing his uncle. As the snow builds up, it traps more and more people at the house, and when murder is done, everyone is under suspicion. Morgan has a comic touch, but is adept at ratcheting up the tension as people die or disappear.

This is a classic country house mystery, minus the aristocracy; the servants have at least as much a role to play as the owners of the house, although it can be hard to distinguish between them – I found myself leafing back on several occasions. It’s a light and enjoyable read, and I’m glad it was rescued from the snowdrift of obscurity.

Speaking of snow, guess what’s due tonight? This book is probably more appropriate than anything featuring poisoned Easter eggs or homicidal bunnies. (Not that I could find any. Big gap in my collection. The nearest was Louise Penny’s “The Cruellest Month”, meaning April.( If T.S. Eliot had lived in the north, he’d wouldn’t have seen lilacs until May, and there goes the whole poem.) Or G M Malliet’s “Pagan Spring”. I’ll be having my own Easter egg hunt for springlike mystery novels.)

With Our Blessing

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This week it’s been a bit of a doorstop detective story, to make up for last week’s slim volume. “With Our Blessing” by Jo Spain is set largely in rural Limerick, apart from a sequence in Dublin at the beginning that establishes Detective Inspector Tom Reynolds as the hero in the first volume of a series. The plot centres around the death of a nun, and her links to an infamous Magdalene Laundry, where young pregnant women were sent to have their babies as recently as the 1980s. Strangely enough the day I started reading this, I found an article in the Guardian on a related issue. It’s not history until it stops being current affairs – and this issue is still in the process of being uncovered.

The novel has a large cast of police men and women, to the point where I started to find it difficult to distinguish between them. However, the pace is good, with the tension kept up over the 500+ pages.There was a neat subplot which relied on one of them being a bit useless, and another setting up an unrequited romance, but the author also looked at maternity from a number of angles through various characters. The enclosed setting of a nunnery, as the snow closes in and cuts the investigating detectives off from their colleagues, is reminiscent both of the traditional country house murder and Louise Penny’s volume set in a Canadian monastery.

The author, who is an Irish journalist, is new to me, but the second volume came out in Ireland last autumn so I hope we’ll see it soon over here. I haven’t read much in the way of Irish crime, but “With Our Blessing” has left me wanting more.

 

 

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories

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This week I’ve been snuffling my way through a box of tissues thanks to a horrible cold, and my ability to focus has been compromised, so I picked up some short stories which have been staring at me reproachfully from the reading pile, PD James’ posthumous Christmas offering, “The Mistletoe Murder”. The title story is a brief masterclass in plotting, a wartime country house almost deserted, with only a few family members gathered as the snow falls. In her recent longer fiction, I’ve found it takes a very long time for the murder to happen, with the first hundred pages given over to scene setting. I’ve become conditioned to expect a death in the first 20 pages or so, in line with modern conventions, and anything else seems slow. Here, with the abbreviated length, the attention to scene feels justified, and I can allow for the atmosphere of a wintry country house to take on a greater role than the death itself.

The four short stories that make up this collection are varied, with only two having a connection to Christmas. “A Very Commonplace Murder” is depressing enough to be stamped “Not Safe For Christmas”. The final story, “The Twelve Clues of Christmas”, perhaps stretches some of its clues to make a point, which is that the story is “pure Agatha Christie”, an affectionate homage to James’s predecessor, and an early adventure for Adam Dalgliesh.

Baroness James uses language so skilfully in capturing the past that the stories glide like swans on a winter lake. The world of these tales, in the 1940s to 1960s, seems a long way away now, and not far removed from Christie herself. The foreword from Val McDermid sets James in context. Beautifully produced. I hope there’ll be another one of these next Christmas.