Monthly Archives: July 2017

A Murder of Quality

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This week I’ve been back through the mists of time to the early 1960s, and John Le Carre’s second mystery, A Murder of Quality. It features George Smiley, who has gone down to visit an English public school in the south west of England, where a schoolmaster’s wife, Stella Rode, has been murdered.

Margot Kinsberg, in a recent blog post, spoke of whether characters in crime fiction fitted in or not, and what that said about them, or the author, or the reader’s expectations. In Murder of Quality, everyone is clear that Stella Rode does not fit in, that she and her husband are of a lower class than the other schoolmasters, but that Stella has committed the cardinal sin of not even trying to fit in. The wives are catty: “She does such clever things with the same dress.” Because of the snobbery of the school’s staff, the reader is inclined to believe the best of Stella, and it is only near the end that the real character of Stella begins to emerge.

Smiley is encouraged to investigate by the local police, as Inspector Riley realises that the school will close ranks against him, whereas Smiley is of the same class. Fielding, one of the other masters, is related to a former colleague of Smiley, and knows that Smiley had “a very bad war”, so Smiley is admitted to the tightly confined social circles of Carne – which may or may not resemble the public school which Le Carre himself once attended.

It is an entirely conventional mystery, but already the closely observed mannerisms and tricks of speech are there, the sense of undercurrents and suppressed emotion that fill George Smiley’s world. It was more than 50 years ago that Smiley first wandered into fiction, but he hasn’t aged a bit.

PS My cover was a pink Bantam version, half falling off, the pages yellowed, but I’m too embarrassed to take a photo of it, it looks so scruffy, so I’m using the modern Penguin version as an illustration instead.

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Nature of the Beast

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This week I’ve made a return to the mysterious Canadian village of Three Pines, which is not found on any map or satnav, for Louise Penny’s eleventh in the Chief Inspector Gamache series. I’m a couple of volumes behind, and this one makes few concessions to readers who have not been following the plot. The former Chief Inspector of the Surete has retired, or so he thinks, until a young boy is found murdered. Young Laurent had an active imagination, so no one believed him when he said he had found something extraordinary in the woods – apart from one person, who killed him.

The book is an extended examination of how the threats of one era continue to dominate the present. At what point does history render a person or an issue harmless? At the same time as Gamache is lending a hand to his successor, an inhabitant of Three Pines is trying to stage a play written by an author of some notoriety. Does his past have any bearing on the case? Gamache is being tempted back to the police – has he been superseded, is his day over, is he past it? Or does his knowledge still have some value? Three Pines may not seem entirely real, but the issues facing a man whose career may be coming to a close most certainly are.

The plot strays into spy/ thriller territory, and is perhaps not the best place to begin an acquaintance with the series, but I found it enjoyable, with odd echoes of Margery Alingham’s The Mind Readers, a much earlier look at the threat posed by rogue scientists.

Mablethorpe

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This week, a chance discovery in my local library – Mablethorpe by W.S. Barton. The author and indeed the publisher, Rudling House, were new to me, but I have at least been to the beach at the eponymous east coast resort. The novel could have done with more stringent editing, but captures well the precarious and isolated feel of an out-of-season caravan park. The plot revolves round the lives of a number of park owners and their children, and when the first child goes missing, suspicion falls on one of them, Mark Smith. The police are convinced they’ve got the right man, even if the proof is inconclusive. However, as spring returns, the disappearances begin again. What if the prime suspect is innocent?

Many people like to pretend that class distinctions barely exist, but one of the last great divides is the caravan park. Those whose holidays consist of a week in a static caravan (aka trailer in the US) are considered, erm, less advantaged, which means that Mablethorpe, with its in-depth dissection of caravan-park mores, holds some of the fascination of an anthropology textbook revealing the forbidden rites of distant tribes for the uninitiated. The detection element is weak, but Barton is a man who knows about caravans, and for that alone, plus the east coast atmosphere, it was worth giving this a go.

 

His Bloody Project

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This week, it’s a book that I’ve been putting off reading since Christmas because I was afraid it would be too gloomy – His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, so I knew it would be well-written, but in the short dark days of January and February, I needed something lighter. Set in rural Aberdeenshire in the 19th century, it tells the story of a remote crofting community and how one young man was driven to murder. The tale is told partly in the young man’s  own words, written while awaiting trial, and partly in those of a lawyer who is looking into the case.

This is bleak reading, and does much to explain why people left the countryside in the first place. Abuses of power in a small place have a disproportionate effect on the poverty-stricken inhabitants, and grievances fester for decades. The murder, when it comes, is an inevitable outcome of a generation’s worth of oppression, and it is a tribute to Burnet’s skill that the reader retains sympathy for the murderer throughout. The brutality of his neighbours is revenged, but there is no satisfaction in the end, only a sense of lives wasted by poverty. An excellent book, but one that holds no nostalgia for the Scotland of days past.