It’s been a non-fiction week, and Martin Edwards’ compendium of 100 works of classic crime, covering the period 1900 to 1950 (his earlier work on Golden Age crime covered the interwar period, 1918-39). I went to see his talk in York last week, in which he spoke about the genesis of the British Library series of classic crime novels, and how the selection of old railway posters had influenced sales (for the better).
His latest book is divided up into 24 sections, each dealing with either a type of fictional subject matter (e.g. Capital Crimes, set in London) or a category of author (e.g. Singletons, where the author only wrote one mystery, though they may have been prolific in other fields). Fortunately for me, he included a section on rural fiction, entitled “Serpents in Eden”, coincidentally the title of Edwards’ own anthology. The four titles include a John Bude, a CP Snow, and two authors new to me: The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton, and Sinister Crag by Newton Gayle. Other sections include works that could equally well be labelled as country crime, including the sections on “Murder at the Manor” and “Resorting to Murder”. Edwards has, as before, discovered a wide range of books to whet the appetite, and added some judicious snippets of biography – I particularly enjoyed hearing that Rupert Penny had given up crime writing and instead edited the journal of the British Iris Society.
This catalogue of memorable works covers a wide spectrum, from the very well-known (Hound of the Baskervilles) to the intensely obscure, but it should encourage readers to be more adventurous. It’s certainly left me with a new list.
This week, I’ve been even further afield, to the Solomon Islands with G.W. Kent’s Devil-Devil. It’s set in the 1960s, before Independence, and Sergeant Ben Kella has been called on to investigate the death of an islander on his home island of Malaita. At the same time, a schoolboy has disappeared from the local mission school. Sister Conchita, who has recently arrived, becomes involved, but is also at odds with Sergeant Kella, who follows the traditional religion of the islands, and has the hereditary role of peace-maker.
It’s a complex plot, with disreputable ex-pats, mafia-like Chinese business-men, and traditional rivalries between the bush (inland) villages and the saltwater villages, as well as more recent rivalries dating back to the Japanese invasion in the 1940s and the battle of Guadalcanal – my history is rusty, but I recognised that name at least. There are also times when a glossary might have been helpful (I discovered via Wikipedia that a lap-lap is a waist-cloth, i.e. two flaps of material and some string to hold them in place), but this first novel in a series sets the scene admirably for a place that I’m guessing is outside most people’s experience. It has something in common with Tony Hillerman’s tales of the American southwest. The author lived in the Solomon Islands (south of Papua New Guinea) for eight years, working in education. This was an enjoyable and instructive introduction to the Sergeant Kella and Sister Conchita mysteries, and I hope to read more.
For a long time, I have resisted the charms of Martin Walker’s series featuring Bruno, Chief of Police, set in the Perigord region of France. I already had my French detectives, thanks to Messrs Simenon, Freeling and Hebden. There was no need to add one that was obviously designed to appeal to trapped English office workers, with a heavy emphasis on food and wine and better weather than at home.
Then I finally read one. I picked up The Devil’s Cave (no. 5 in the series) with my sternest I’m-Not-Going-To-Like-This expression. If it were possible to read a book with folded arms, I would have. And I was wrong wrong wrong – I was enchantee. Yes, there was every French cliché in the book, but it was charming. Bruno himself is a more sophisticated Hamish Macbeth, torn between two women, and eschewing all ambition so that he can stay in the place he loves, with his hens and his kitchen and his basset hound puppy.
The story opens with a naked dead woman floating down the river in a punt, like the Lady of Shalott. Tracing the boat back upstream leads Bruno to an old French family with a complicated family tree and even more complex land dealings. They also own, and lease out, a famous local cave which forms the centre point of the investigations. Bruno, needless to say, cooks and drinks his way through a series of escapades, including a comic set-piece in which someone tries to frame him. I learned some new French slang, and am now an official convert to the cause.
It’s the turn of the “country spy” story again. In Clare Carson’s Orkney Twilight, the first in the Sam Coyle trilogy, our heroine is a teenager in 1984, and has volunteered to go to the Orkneys with her father, an undercover cop, and her friend Tom, who plans on becoming a journalist. It turns into an awkward holiday: her father Jim has brought his gun, and is intent on dead-letter drops at scenic Orkney sites. Someone is watching their holiday cottage. Sam is worried she’s given away too much of her father’s past to Tom, who can’t help himself from ferreting into the past. She is torn between wanting to know more, yet wanting to protect her father, but at the same time mistrusting everything he has told her.
This reminds me of other unreliable fathers, such as John Le Carre’s own father, fictionalised in A Perfect Spy, or the grandfather of River Cartwright in Mick Herron’s Spook Street. It turns out that the author’s own father was an undercover policeman in the 1970s, and far from being a cunning plot device, this has an element of autobiography. Carson captures the confusion of the teen years, the suspicion of the adult world while wanting to join it, but has also overlaid it with an emotional flatness that made it hard to feel genuine sympathy for Sam. The international element seemed tangential rather than intrinsic, but the next volume may change that. (The third volume in the series, The Dark Isle, has just been published.)
There were plenty of knowing references to the significance of the south bank of the Thames at Vauxhall – which would become the home of MI6 some years after this novel was set – and to authentic south London settings as well as the Orkneys. The author resists the trap of name-checking 1980s brands and music to set the scene, and I found plenty to admire in the writing. However, I failed to warm to the characters and this may mean I leave the series here.
This week it’s been a visit to one of my favourite authors, Robert Barnard, and A Fall from Grace. It’s set in the fictional Yorkshire town of Slepton, where “Charlie” Peace and his wife have just bought a new house, with financing from his father-in-law, who moves in just up the road. It’s only later that Charlie thinks to enquire why his father-in-law, Rupert, was so keen to move away from Devon. Perhaps it has something to do with his penchant for finding and exploiting women to do his housework? Or is there something more sinister afoot?
Barnard breaks every “rule” of modern crime writing – the murder happens late in the book, there are few cliff-hangers, few suspects, and yet his work draws you in and pulls you along like a toy train on little rubber wheels. Charlie is an amiable character, as is his wife Felicity, currently expecting the Foetus, whose sex has yet to be revealed, and their attempts to settle into a new home ring true. The other characters are largely sympathetic, though the book has reminded me once again why I would never want to teach teenagers, or run for Mayor (amongst the many things I wouldn’t want to do. Instead of a bucket list, I have a list of things I intend never to do. It’s going really well so far.)
Perhaps not one of Barnard’s strongest plots, but even a mid-range Barnard is highly enjoyable, and well-suited to the particularly dank summer that’s currently hovering over us.