Maine again, but a more brutal take on the state. Boar Island is Nevada Barr’s latest, 2016, offering. Heath (female despite the name) Jarrod is in a wheelchair, so feels particularly helpless when her adopted daughter is the victim of school cyber-bullying. She arranges to go to her old friend, Anna Pigeon, who has taken a ranger job at Boar Island in a remote part of Maine. However, the bullying becomes stalking when the threatening messages continue, and it becomes clear they are being watched.
Anna is trying to clear up the murder of a local man, with a history of domestic violence, which ultimately will put her in extreme danger. The main feature of this book is the high level of violence against women and as such I found it uncomfortable reading. It’s entirely realistic – there’s little that you wouldn’t find in the pages of a newspaper – but the sense of helplessness and anger of the victims comes across very clearly. Barr is a skilful writer – I wouldn’t be left feeling Heath’s anger over her daughter’s oppressor if she wasn’t – but not a comfortable one. Not in a hurry to read another one.
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.
I’ve long admired Elly Griffiths’ brand of unshowy but emotionally complex crime fiction. The lead character, forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway, has a close relationship with DCI Harry Nelson of the Norwich police force, and each volume in the series introduces new twists into their lives. It’s one of the few series that acknowledges the realities of blended families, affairs, child care and elderly parents, in the lives of the investigators. The series also switches between town life (in Norwich) and rural settings, and this episode, “The Chalk Pit”, is set in town, or under it – a series of chalk tunnels under the city appear to have been the setting for at least one crime. Ruth has been called to investigate some bones, that are too recent to be of archaeological interest.
At the same time, a number of rough sleepers have been murdered soon after speaking to the police, with one being found dead on the steps of the police station itself. The police are also investigating a series of women who have gone missing with startling abruptness. The connections between these events are teased out, until a final battle leaves one of the main characters fighting for their life.
I shouldn’t be calling this “country crime”, but my excuse is that Ruth, with her isolated home on the saltmarsh, is a countrywoman regardless of where the crime takes place. It’s a shifty excuse, but any excuse to read a Griffiths. With each successive novel, the touch is more sure, and as this is the 9th in the series, this is accomplished and absorbing writing.
Before Easter, I couldn’t find a suitable Easter mystery to read, but during the holiday I found a handy list from Janet Rudolph, and before you know it, I’m on Amazon and my finger has strayed towards the buy-it button. Also on her site I found a link to awards for light-hearted crime, and there were more lists of books I’m sure I’d like and I could just go and check them out on A…. Step Away From the List. Now. (I have a librarianship gene: two of my aunts were librarians, and in moments of stress I tend to acquire books. Heredity’s a powerful thing.)
Meanwhile, back at the reading pile, I found “Thirteen Guests” by J. Jefferson Farjeon waiting. I really liked this, fortunately, because he was the brother of a favourite childhood author, Eleanor Farjeon, author of (among others) “The Little Bookroom“. Her brother writes with more emotion than many of his contemporaries, and I particularly enjoyed his amateur sleuth, the journalist Bultin, who found that fame only reached his doorstep once he stopped being nice. Most of the characters are viewed through the eyes of an inadvertent guest, John Foss, who catches his foot in the train door at the local station, and is brought up to the house by a fellow guest, the femme fatale Nadine Leveridge. Foss is then conveniently put up in a room just off the front hall, where he can hear all the comings and goings in the house.
The thirteen guests at Bragley Court, seat of Lord Aveling, are well set up, with plenty of secrets and motives established early on. The detection element, and the police inspector, seem to play a secondary role to that of the house-guests, and the ending is rushed, suddenly becoming more mechanical. However, it’s worth reading for the early chapters, and it left me wanting to read more of his work.
Now I know how the original readers of Christie’s “Murder of Roger Ackroyd” must have felt – a mixture of indignation (“Not fair, I was tricked!”) and admiration at how the trick was pulled off. All I can say is, the author of “Black Water Lilies” (Michel Bussi) would not be admitted to the Detection Club in the 1930s, because this book does not play fair.
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but it’s set in Giverny, northern France, the home of the Impressionist painter Monet, who in his later years painted many versions of his lily pond, with the water lilies depicted in every colour except black. If there were to be such a thing as Monet’s “Black Water Lilies”, it would be enormously valuable.
When a prominent local citizen is found dead in the stream that feeds Monet’s garden (I keep typing Money for some reason), a police inspector, Laurenc Serenac, newly arrived from southern France, is called in to investigate, but finds that the villagers have closed ranks. The one person he thinks could help is the village schoolteacher, Stephanie Dupain.
Giverny is as much a character as any of the humans, or the dog, and the perils of being a tourist village are highlighted, that sense of being not real, so photographed (and painted) that the village itself is a fiction. It is hard to pick apart the real from the imagined, and the reader is constantly searching for clues as to which is which. An impressively unexpected ending has sent me back to the beginning, to re-read.