It is perhaps a little embarrassing to be reading the final volume in a series, without having read the preceding 20, but this week I’ve been reading Hazel Holt’s “Death is a Word”, the final Mrs Malory mystery. It is set in the fictional town of Taviscombe (a blending of Tavistock and Wiveliscombe?) in Devon, and Sheila Malory is a retired lady who lives with her dog and cat. (Though only the cat gets a look-in on the cover – wasn’t the dog photogenic enough?)
Sheila’s old friend Eva Jackson has recently retired to live close to her, yet her efforts to put her husband’s old papers in order seemed marred by bad luck. Despite the interest shown in Eva by another recent arrival to the area, Donald Webster, Eva is more concerned with her son and his partner, Patrick. Sheila, and her old friend Inspector Morris, turn to detection one last time to find out why tragedy has followed Eva.
This trips off the page like some fleet-footed insect, beetling on to the next food source – it’s a light read, but there’s a sense of lived experience (in particular, I’d lay money on Mrs Holt having served on a village hall committee or equivalent). It takes a long time to get going, and the first murder is delayed until almost the halfway point, which lessens the suspense rather than increasing it. It seems churlish, however, to quibble, as it was the author’s final book before her death in 2015. I now have the previous 20 to read, as well as her biography of Barbara Pym.
This week, I’ve been reading Jacqueline Winspear’s seventh Maisie Dobbs novel, “The Mapping of Love and Death“. Despite the attractive Andrew Davidson illustration on the cover, the story has very little to do with Kent, and everything to do with London, and an American couple trying to trace survivors of the Somme who had known their son, whose remains had recently been found.
Maisie, an independent investigator who has risen from the servant classes to the lower middle class, was herself a nurse in France during the war, which gives her access to others who knew the cartography unit in which the dead American, Michael Clifton, served. To add to the complications, he had surveyed some potential oil land in California prior to enlisting, revealing only that he had purchased it, but not the location, and now his brother-in-law is particularly keen to find out happened to Michael, and whether the letters he wrote to an unidentified “English Nurse” can shed some light on the affair.
Maisie is struggling to make her way in the world, a world in which the old certainties are breaking down in the aftermath of a world war, in a London in the grip of a recession. There are times when this feels like a history lesson, but mostly Winspear manages to keep the plot moving along without the handbrake of didacticism, that risks turning a smooth journey into a lurching one. It will no doubt play well to all those who enjoy watching Foyle’s War, or other wartime nostalgia. Pleasant enough, but I’d need to read more of the series to give this some proper context.
“Murder of a Lady: a Scottish Mystery” by Anthony Wynne was published in 1931, but in many ways reads as if it were written fifty years earlier. It feels more of a contemporary piece with Wilkie Collins’ “The Moonstone” than with Agatha Christie or other Golden Age writers. Miss Gregor, the Lady of the title, is said to have preferred candles to oil lamps, having never got the hang of modern technology, and I was left wondering if the author preferred some of the language and phrasing of his Victorian forebears, even though he has adopted the pace of his contemporaries.
The story is set in Argyllshire, on the shores of Loch Fyne. The laird of Duchlan finds his sister dead at her bedside, in a locked room. He calls the police, but Dr Hailey, staying with a friend locally, has also had some experience in these matters, and is drawn in to the mysterious events at Duchlan Castle. The old lady is far from being the saint she was trying to be, instead taking a malicious interest in the lives of others, in particular that of her nephew and his wife Oonagh, and their young son.
There are plenty of twists in the tale, and Wynne is not afraid to let the body count rack up. There are decidedly modern parallels with the current crop of psychological thrillers, in that the psychology of the victim is investigated thoroughly, for, as Dr Hailey believes, if you fully understand the victim, you fully understand the murderer. There are plenty of digs against the Lowland Scots and the perception of the Highlanders as being prone to belief in the supernatural. And why is there a fish scale at the scene of the crime?
This is an admirable and skilful work of fiction. I hadn’t expected how much enjoyment I would extract from it, and provided one is feeling up to the Victorian turns of phrase, an excellent wet-weather read.
This is an Easter read from the list of seasonal reading on Janet Rudolph’s site. “The Quarry” by Johan Theorin is set on a Swedish island, and as the spring sea-ice is melting, people return to the island for the summer. Among them is Per Morner, whose father Jerry is sinking into dementia, and whose daughter is in hospital on the mainland. When Jerry’s former studio burns down, Per comes to the realisation that his father’s past is more dubious than he had expected. His neighbours have troubles, and histories, of their own, including Vendela, who grew up on the island and has returned with her husband Max to write his latest cookbook.
The novel sets out many of the classic country crime features: the tension between incomers and long-standing residents, the fear of development, the long-held secrets of the residents, and their sense of shared history, together with an appreciation of nature, in this case the alvar and the sea. Theorin is good at creating dislikeable characters, with Max the self-absorbed egotist a prime example. However, I found it harder to work out which characters I was supposed to empathise with, since he presented a good number of points of view to begin with, and no murder until well into the book. I feel guilty for not loving it, like someone ending a bad relationship, saying “It’s not you, it’s me”. This is well-written, and intricately plotted, and the pace never sagged, and yet… it’s not Theorin, it’s definitely me that’s at fault.
PS In case anyone was wondering, the “alvar” is an area of limestone pavement, such as that found in the Yorkshire Dales, but the name sounds as though it should be elf-related. The characters spend a lot of time trotting about on it.
This week has seen the demise of writer Nicholas Rhea, aka Peter Walker, who wrote the books that formed the basis for the long-running Sunday night TV serial Heartbeat. Set on the North Yorkshire Moors in the 1960s, it was a nostalgic look at a bygone era of policing and community service that lasted for a generation (18 series). In addition to writing over 130 books, Walker was also a prolific columnist, and had a weekly page in my local paper (the Ryedale Gazette and Herald), which was syndicated widely . He was born and brought up on the moors, and had an unrivalled knowledge of their history and folk customs, as well as bringing a detailed perspective on natural history. Locally, he is simply irreplaceable.
He was also a long-serving member of the CWA, and the interweb is full of warm memories of him. Other tributes here and here.