An early start to the Christmas reading, with Margaret Mayhew’s Bitter Poison, the fifth in her series featuring The Colonel and the fictional village of Frog End. The Frog End Players are preparing their annual pantomime, but this year have chosen to stage a version of The Snow Queen instead. Marjorie Cuthbertson has decided that a new arrival in the village, a former model, would be ideal, and does everything she can to persuade Joan to take on the role. She has roped much of the village in to help, even persuading the Colonel to construct a sleigh, so when a member of the cast is murdered, he has a ringside seat.
Mayhew has a disarming lightness of touch, and I enjoyed this a great deal, but ultimately it came up short -quite literally, at 148 pages, with no sub-plots and the villain quickly revealed. It needed more plotting and detecting, but as a cheerful guide to village life (and the Frog End KGB) it passes the time in pleasant fashion.
To the Faroes this week, a remote group of islands in the North Atlantic, for Chris Ould’s The Killing Bay. The title is a reference to the regular whale hunts, that involve boats driving whales into a bay where the local inhabitants then kill them. After one such hunt, one of a group of international protesters is found dead. One of the last people to see her alive was Jan Reyna, a British policeman of Faroese extraction, who has returned for the funeral of his father.
Jan teams up with the local police, including Hjalti Hentze, and it quickly becomes apparent that this is not a straightforward murder, but that there are a number of vested interests, not least within the police force itself.
This is an atmospheric look at a little-known area of the world, and the difficulties of policing a series of islands linked by ferry, plane and tunnel. Everything takes time, and all the characters seem isolated. Oulds is also a screenwriter, so the story is well-structured, despite an initially complex series of shifting scenes. It is the second of an intended trilogy, and I will be looking out for the next instalment.
In fiction devoted to rural crime, the community is a source of strength, either for or against the main character, and in Jane Harper’s The Dry, the Australian outback community of Kiewarra is very much against Aaron Falk. For the Melbourne-based detective, this comes as no surprise, but the reason why his family had to leave is only revealed gradually. Aaron has returned for the funeral of his old schoolfriend Luke, who died alongside his wife and child. Luke’s parents do not believe it was suicide, and ask Aaron to help convince the local policeman, Raco, to continue with the investigation
This is a strong and confident narrative, and feels like a mid-series novel rather than a debut. The pacing is skilful, the characters have an emotional hinterland, and the devastating effects of a multi-year drought add to the tension of a community under severe stress. (I particularly liked the touch of a local schoolchild’s drawing being of a cow with wings, “My Cow Who is Now in Heaven”.) Highly recommended.
This was an opportune moment to read it, as Harper has just won the CWA Gold Dagger. I was also reading it over the first night of hard frost this winter, and today’s it’s been raining hard. The Dry has reminded me that a small wet island has its advantages.
Devon, this week, for A Cursed Inheritance and Kate Ellis’s DI Wesley Peterson is investigating the death of a crime writer, who has been re-examining a family massacre that took place twenty years ago at Potwoolstan Hall. The writer, Patrick Evans, is found dead in the grounds of the Hall, and as Peterson begins his investigation, it seems that everyone has something to hide, and that more than one guest at the Hall, now run as a New Age healing centre, has not been entirely truthful about their identity.
DI Peterson’s wife, Pam, resentful of the amount of time her husband is spending on his work, is exchanging emails with an archaeologist friend of theirs, Neil, who is in the States, at one of the first 17th-century settlements there, and one of the settlers came from Potwoolstan Hall. A trail of letters from the early settlers gives clues to a much earlier mystery, but how is this connected to the present murders?
There’s a lot of plot in this, if not two books’ worth, and I was left wondering if the American element was a completely separate book that hadn’t quite panned out. The tangle of relationships in the main story becomes ultimately confusing and once the murderer was revealed, the other plot elements were done and dusted in a couple of pages. One two many secret aliases, but otherwise a gripping read.
This week’s country reading has taken me to the Wyre Forest, in the Midlands, the Worcestershire borders, at a time of major flooding. In Green and Pleasant Land, the sixth outing for Judith Cutler’s former DCS Fran Harman, and her husband Mark, also a former high-up detective, the two have been called in to re-examine a cold case by an Assistant Chief Constable who is suspended/ forcibly retired before they even start the job. Twenty years ago, the wife of a well-known footballer disappeared in the forest, in the snow, leaving behind a dead baby still in his car seat. Fran and Mark have to negotiate some tricky internal politics surrounding the investigation, but no one seems to want this case solved.
This is a recognisable public sector, with austerity meaning that most of the former team have scattered to the four winds, laid off in various tranches of redundancy or encouraged to retire early, and there are no resources to investigate former cases, but equally little will to help anyone else trying to do so. The implications of police corruption are spelled out, including the petty nastiness that can be turned on those meant to be on the same side. The PCC (Police and Crime Commissioner) in particular is best described as “a piece of work”. For all that the novel is part of the “cozy” genre, it deals with some uncomfortable themes, quite apart from the disappearance of the footballer’s wife. A pleasant winter’s evening read, but preferably not when there’s a flood warning out.
This week’s reading takes me to central Sweden, to the region round Uppsala, which is the territory of Anne Lindell, Kjell Ericksson’s police detective in Stone Coffin. A woman and her young daughter are found dead at the side of a rural road, victims of a hit and run, and the woman’s husband is missing. He worked for a pharmaceutical research company, and his business partner claims to have no idea why he would disappear. Anne, in the meantime, is trying to decide whether to repair her relationship with her former partner, who lives out in the country, by a lake. She is ambitious, a city cop, while he is happy to be a labourer, and to bring up their sons in peace and quiet. Neither of them has been able to overcome the gap between them and their preferred ways of life, but neither is happy without the other.
The author deals well with the intertwined relationships between the characters, though I wasn’t entirely convinced by the element set in the Dominican Republic. The members of the police force felt real, with a recognisable set of family dilemmas. I had one or two quibbles with the translation (e.g. “buxbom spheres” are “box spheres” – box topiary is well-known in England, but the name of the plant needs translating, and I have no idea what “wiener cousins” are but I’m guessing “foster cousins”?) Ninety-nine per cent of the time this doesn’t read like a translation, so the other one per cent stands out. A not-too-bleak (for a change) Scandinavian detective.
After the reading of recent weeks, I found myself in need of something less dark, so picked up Graham Norton’s Holding. I’ve always had a soft spot for Norton, not so much for his TV chat show, but for some of his earlier work, such as his guide to having a Eurovision hit (long before he took over commenting on the real thing) and the supremely irritating Father Noel in Father Ted.
Holding is set in a remote corner of Ireland (at least I’m guessing so, if Cork is seen as the epitome of big-city excitement), in the village of Duneen, where the local policeman tackles his first murder scene at the age of 53. The victim may or may not have been the boy that two women still living in the village had fought over, many years previously, but he had disappeared without a trace. PJ, the overweight cop, finds himself drawn to both women, and his previously unexciting existence suddenly speeds up.
Norton is good on blighted lives, squandered promise, lost loves and quiet desperation. (His role as the Daily Telegraph’s agony uncle may have helped with that.) He largely resists the temptation to go for cheap laughs, and instead paints a somewhat bleak portrait of the role of women in a conservative rural society – not that the men have vastly more in the way of options. As a police procedural, maybe this isn’t strong on realism, but as a portrayal of loneliness and isolation in an out-of-the-way place this is a compelling read.
Set in a Spanish national park near Breda in Catalonia, Eugenio Fuentes ‘ Depths of the Forest deals with the brutal murder of a young artist Gloria, who has gone to a remote part to draw some cave paintings. Her boyfriend from Madrid commissions a local private detective, Ricardo Cupido, to investigate. Gloria has a complicated private life, and the park itself is the subject of a long-running land dispute with the elderly aristocrat Dona Victoria and her young protégé Octavio, a lawyer. The park warden does not welcome interference on his patch either.
Cupido is an engaging and well-rounded character, who believes that private detectives are those who have failed at everything else. Yet he succeeds where the police have given up, due to manpower shortages, and the belief that the killings are random. Cupido alone has both the local networks and the patience to untangle the various motivations. The author uses multiple character viewpoints so that the reader has a better knowledge than the detective for the majority of the novel, and the pace is well-maintained despite internal dialogues that continue over several pages without a break.
However, for me this dwelt too much on animal cruelty. I’m aware that different attitudes prevail in different cultures, and that the author was trying to portray the contrast between city and country attitudes: Cupido “mused on the fear that everything to do with the country provokes”. Even so, the revulsion provoked by animal suffering does not leave the reader in a hurry to repeat the experience.
One of Martin Edwards’ 100 books was Ethel Lina White’s Some Must Watch, written in 1933, and subsequently filmed as The Spiral Staircase. It is a classic Gothic mystery, with a young woman, friendless and alone in the world, arriving at a large remote house on the Welsh Marches to look after a strange collection of people, one of whom may be trying to kill her. Of course, because this always happens to orphans. Of course there’s a mad old lady in the attic, and a garrulous servant who tells of all the other young women who went missing, and how she must never go out after dark alone…
Needless to say, our heroine, a sparky redhead, is determined to solve the mystery once and for all, despite both the ominous warnings and the ratcheting tension between the characters. Unfortunately to my mind, there was too much foreshadowing of the “little did she know” variety, and many of the author’s idioms sounded archaic or slightly odd, which detracted from the narrative flow. Perhaps it’s because I read this in a large-print version from my local library. The large-print editions are wonderful for giving the reader a sense of achievement, and I can read fifty pages in no time, but it also means that any strangeness in phrasing is magnified and harder to ignore.
Best regarded as of historical interest, but for a more modern take, Mary Stewart did this without the theatricality some forty years later.
This week it’s Andrea Carter’s Treacherous Strand, the second in her Ben (Benedicta) O’Keeffe series, set on the Inishowen Peninsula in Ireland. (This is the northernmost point of Ireland that terminates at Malin Head, well known to lovers of the shipping forecast.) Ben is a lawyer, and when her yoga teacher Marguerite appears one evening wanting to make a will urgently, she is surprised, but is shocked to find the next day that Marguerite is dead, found on the beach in an apparent suicide bid.
Ben is convinced there is more to it, and that the local guards have written off the case too easily. She follows up with visits to the victim’s neighbour, the sculptor Simon Howard who is determined to charm her. In the meantime, she still has to deal with all the variety of cases that fall to a small-town lawyer, such as drink-driving charges and conveyancing deals, and in the course of these she discovers how tangled the inter-relationships of small-town life can be.
Carter writes with fluency and a distinctive voice – I hope there’s an audio-book of this, it needs an Irish accent to do her full justice – and her flawed protagonist rarely judges the people she comes across but takes them all as they are. More please, lots more.