A read from the 1980s this week – Peter Dickinson’s The Last Houseparty. I was a big fan of his works for children, in particular the Changes trilogy, set in an England that had gone backwards, when the machines were smashed and the population took up the lives of medieval peasants, with only a handful of children somehow immune, and able to remember a time when there were machines.
I found echoes of this in The Last Houseparty, which flits between eras, from 1937, when the eponymous houseparty took place, an encounter in the North African desert in 1941, up to the early 1980s (the mention of Laker Airways dates this). In the present day, the young daughter of Lady Snailwood’s secretary is an adult, showing visitors round the house, which is falling apart, the famous mechanical clock and its rotating figures now still. In the past, the two Quintain cousins have been invited by their aunt Zena to entertain at her political salon. Zena was meddling in affairs of state, and seems to be trying to settle the Middle East, but the talk is largely of how to prevent the coming war.
During the weekend, a number of terrible things happen, initially only mentioned obliquely in the present day, so that the reader has to act as detective, slowly revealing more and more of the picture, but the truth is only made clear in the final paragraph. This left a rather bitter taste, and I wanted to like this more. It is perhaps more of a literary novel than crime fiction, despite the crime. The author has obviously carried out extensive research into clock workings, cars of the 1930s, and croquet, amongst other things, but somehow the characters never quite spring to life. One for the “interesting but tastes have changed” pile.
Nora is taking the train to Oxfordshire, to stay at her sister Rachel’s farmhouse for the weekend. When her sister fails to show up at the station Nora sets off on foot, only to discover that something terrible has happened to her sister. Under the Harrow, by Flynn Berry, tells the story of Nora’s grief and the slow uncovering of her sister’s past, as she comes to learn that we never really know the people we love.
Some years previously, as teenagers in East Yorkshire, Rachel was attacked and left for dead. Since then, she has feared that the same could happen again. Nora has to retrace her sister’s steps, and her sister’s past, to find the truth. It’s one of those stories which it would be a shame to spoil by giving away too much, so I won’t. The author’s sharp, well-observed prose leads the reader to ask, what if it were me? What would I do in that situation? It falls into the category of “domestic noir” but unlike some recent best-selling works, Nora is a reliable narrator, and the shock comes from the understanding how one act of violence can both ripple outwards and rebound. This isn’t my favourite sub-genre, but it is a skilful example and deserves to be better known.
Set in the fictional English county of Calleshire, Catherine Aird’s Dead Heading features the police duo of DI Sloan and DC Crosby. On a frosty night in March, two separate orchid growers have their greenhouses sabotaged, and the orchids inside are killed. Is there someone out there with a grudge against the growers – a business rival, perhaps – or with a grudge against the customers expecting the plants? (Strange how orchids attract both crime and detectives in a way that, say, marigolds, do not. Nero Wolfe grew orchids.)
At the same time, an elderly woman, Enid Osgathorp, has gone missing, and as DI Sloan investigates, it becomes clear she was involved in blackmail. But there may be more than one blackmailer around Berebury. And what is Benedict Feakins hiding in his bonfire?
This is a lively read, with a complex series of characters with overlapping lives, and plenty of gardening talk. I was a little thrown by some seemingly random upper-casing of common plant names, but apart from minor editorial glitches it is a well-plotted tale by an author with a strong track record.
Set in the early part of the year in a snow-bound Dorset, Ngaio Marsh’s Death and the Dancing Footman sees Jonathan Royal invite a houseparty of guests who are guaranteed to get along spectacularly badly. He has chosen his poet/playwright friend, Aubrey Mandrake, to be a spectator at this “Big Brother House” set-up, which includes Mrs Compline, her face ruined by botched plastic surgery, the surgeon who had spent the last 20 years hiding from his handiwork, the two Compline brothers William and Nicholas, and the girl who was engaged to one and then the other, plus two female rivals who ran beauty parlours.
As the snow comes down, the party are trapped at Highfold Manor, and it is not long before the guests turn, first to attempted murder, then an actual killing. Each is suspicious of the other, ready to betray the other, and as the tension mounts, Mandrake catalogues the alibis of each. It all hangs on the evidence of Thomas, the footman who was dancing in the hallway to the strains of “Hands, Knees and Boomps-a-daisy.”
This was written in 1942 and is very evidently a war novel. A character opens his window after dark, then remembers the black-out. Talk of war is forbidden after dinner, as too depressing, and when the murderer is finally revealed, the detective Roderick Alleyn feels strongly how ironic it is to hang an individual when elsewhere people are being killed wholesale. Alleyn only appears towards the end, the snow having prevented anyone sending for help for several days, so we see much of the story from Mandrake’s point of view. I was surprisingly engaged, having not read Marsh for many years. There are some interesting plot twists, and a rising pitch of tension up to the end. On my “Keep and Re-Read” pile.
Just the Facts Ma’am Challenge – Gold/ What/Reference to man or woman in the title
To start the New Year, one of the best-sellers of last year: Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders. This is a portmanteau novel, with one story encasing another. The “wrap-around” story is that of Susan Ryeland, an editor at Cloverleaf Books, who has just taken delivery of what turns out to be the final work of her star author, Alan Conway, and his fictional detective Atticus Pünd. She (and the reader) get 270-odd pages through Conway’s manuscript only to discover the final chapter is missing. In trying to find out what happened to the ending, Susan becomes convinced that something also happened to the author, and that he did not commit suicide.
This is a skilful under-the-bonnet examination of what makes a classic crime novel, from the minimum-five-suspects dissection to the stock characters of country house fiction – the vicar on the creaking bicycle, the surly gardener, the doctor who knows more than professional discretion will allow them to reveal… Horowitz also writes women well, and I completely believed in his female editor, with her relationship dilemmas, using work as a distraction. And yet, something of the cynical attitude of the fictional Alan Conway crept in, who despised the crime stories that made him famous, and what it seemed was lacking here was some of the spiritedness of an Agatha Christie. When Horowitz wrote a new Sherlock Holmes, despite the modern subject matter, House of Silk contained some of the sheer joy of invention, but I came away from this without any belief that the author enjoyed the traditional village crime novel. (And yet his scripts for the early Midsomer Murders were highly entertaining. Perhaps you can’t step into the same river twice.)
In other news, a sad farewell to Sue Grafton, who died just after Christmas. Her last book, Y is for Yesterday, had been published earlier in the year. There will be no Z.