In Ngaio Marsh’s Death at the Bar, Inspector Roderick Alleyn is called to a small Devon fishing village, where a well-known barrister has been murdered over a game of darts. The village is remote, separated from the outside world by a tunnel through the cliff, and only those staying at the village inn, the Plume and Feathers, would have had the means to launch an attack on Luke Watchman, taking his annual holiday with friends.
The crime is carefully set up, with plenty of motives established in the first fifty pages. The rest of the novel is a painstaking dissection of who stood where, who said what, and in what time-frame. Was it one of the two men that Watchman had named as his heirs, the painter Cubitt or the actor? The mysterious fat Irishwoman who also painted? Or the pub landlord’s sulky son Will? This is as close to a police procedural or an episode of CSI as the 1930s gets, both detailed and with plenty of twists, causing readers to double back on themselves more than once. Cleverly done, and still enjoyable to this day.
As a side note, the Guardian had an enjoyable article at the weekend on the gulf between town and country life as portrayed in television. Just the thing for people who have been snowed in for much of the week.
George Mann’s Wychwood is billed as a cross between horror and crime fiction, with supernatural elements, which might lead one to believe that this would be closer to a work by Phil Rickman, or perhaps James Oswald. In fact, this is almost cosy in comparison, which could be due to its setting in the Cotswolds, which exert their own rose-filled influence over everything, in the same way that PG Wodehouse’s Honeysuckle Cottage turned a writer of lean muscular prose into something more winsome.
The newly divorced reporter Elspeth Reeves has returned to her childhood home, only to find that a murder has been committed in the woods behind her house, part of the eponymous Wychwood. She teams up with local policeman Peter Shaw, and together they discover the murders (plural, and rapidly increasing) are linked to the local legend of the Carrion King. I have one or two quibbles with the likelihood that any policeman would be allowed to take a friend with him to interview suspects, but fiction generally depends on the suspension of disbelief, so if you disregard the finer points of a police procedural, this keeps up the pace, and comes to a satisfying conclusion at the end. The supernatural element is vanishingly slight, the horror muted, and the overall effect is very Home Counties. A readable traditional cozy, no matter what the marketing would have you believe.
A bleak novel, this week – Brian McGilloway’s Borderlands, set on the borders between Northern Ireland and the Republic, the “soft” border that may be about to become a “hard”, or controlled, border again as Brexit looms. The past, including the pre-cooperation days of the controlled borders, casts a long shadow over this area, and Inspector Benedict Devlin of the Garda travels backwards and forwards over the border as he attempts to track the killer of a young girl, found almost naked in woodland, just before Christmas. She had been seen with a young traveller boy, and suspicion falls on him and his family. At the same time, Devlin is asked to investigate a break-in at an old people’s home, witnessed by the father-in-law of his ex-girlfriend.
The plot is as intricately enmeshed as the branches on a winter tree, and confidently handled, but this is a harsh world full of violence, with little in the way of likeable characters or any leaven of humour. McGilloway was shortlisted for a Debut Dagger for this, and deservedly so. And yet – pulls out soapbox and stands on it – I wouldn’t trust a detective that couldn’t be trusted with a dog, and Devlin is simply Too Irresponsible for Dog Ownership (TIDO). He leaves a basset hound (short-coated dog) in a shed each night, in the snow, at Christmas, and when the dog escapes and is accused of sheep-worrying, does he defend the dog, or take him into the house? Does he heck. I began by assuming this was the author’s way of telling us that Devlin was a villain (Hollywood code these days for a bad guy involves violence towards dogs) but no, it turns he was simply TIDO. Violence, swearing, goes with the genre – total irresponsibility doesn’t, and annoys me no end. Other dog people may feel the same.
Julia Chapman’s Date with Death is the first in a series set in the Yorkshire Dales, in the fictional village/small town of Bruncliffe. Delia Metcalfe, recently divorced, is struggling to make ends meet with her dating business, and has rented out part of her building to an unknown stranger – who turns out to be the black sheep of the village, Samson O’Brien, who has returned to the Dales after a career in the police. No one is glad to see him return, except perhaps his feckless ex-alcoholic father, now in an old people’s home.
When one of Delia’s friends is found dead, the grieving widow asks Samson to investigate. However, more men in the area are winding up dead, and the one thing they had in common was attendance at one of Delia’s speed-dating events. Delia and Samson are forced to join up in order to catch the killer, despite their differences.
This is obviously intended to be the first in a series, with hints thrown out about Samson’s previous career that are never resolved (pet hate of mine). I also struggled to differentiate between some of the characters. That aside, Chapman has an engaging style of writing, and although the Cathy/Heathcliff sparring between the fell-running Delia and the darkly brooding Samson may pall without strong plotlines, this was a creditable first outing.
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.
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.
Much of my reading over the last year may have seemed a little random – and that’s because it was. I have a very low book-buying budget, which means that the local library, relatives and friends provided a percentage of last year’s country crime fiction. For 2018, it would be great if there were some kind of unifying principle, a theme – or wait, how about this challenge over at My Reader’s Block? At least six Golden Age (up to 1960) and/or Silver Age (generously up to 1989) books is the minimum requirement. I can manage that, but don’t want to limit myself too stringently to vintage fiction when there are so many new authors to discover as well.
There we go, that’s a plan for 2018 – it’s certainly a great deal more planned than 2017’s reading was. (I would also like to mention that I’m reading non-rural crime fiction as well, but for the purposes of this blog, only the rural variety counts. The above challenge is going to have to stick to that rule.
Merry Christmas, and a happy reading holiday to one and all.