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.
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, a chance discovery in my local library – Mablethorpe by W.S. Barton. The author and indeed the publisher, Rudling House, were new to me, but I have at least been to the beach at the eponymous east coast resort. The novel could have done with more stringent editing, but captures well the precarious and isolated feel of an out-of-season caravan park. The plot revolves round the lives of a number of park owners and their children, and when the first child goes missing, suspicion falls on one of them, Mark Smith. The police are convinced they’ve got the right man, even if the proof is inconclusive. However, as spring returns, the disappearances begin again. What if the prime suspect is innocent?
Many people like to pretend that class distinctions barely exist, but one of the last great divides is the caravan park. Those whose holidays consist of a week in a static caravan (aka trailer in the US) are considered, erm, less advantaged, which means that Mablethorpe, with its in-depth dissection of caravan-park mores, holds some of the fascination of an anthropology textbook revealing the forbidden rites of distant tribes for the uninitiated. The detection element is weak, but Barton is a man who knows about caravans, and for that alone, plus the east coast atmosphere, it was worth giving this a go.
This is an Easter read from the list of seasonal reading on Janet Rudolph’s site. “The Quarry” by Johan Theorin is set on a Swedish island, and as the spring sea-ice is melting, people return to the island for the summer. Among them is Per Morner, whose father Jerry is sinking into dementia, and whose daughter is in hospital on the mainland. When Jerry’s former studio burns down, Per comes to the realisation that his father’s past is more dubious than he had expected. His neighbours have troubles, and histories, of their own, including Vendela, who grew up on the island and has returned with her husband Max to write his latest cookbook.
The novel sets out many of the classic country crime features: the tension between incomers and long-standing residents, the fear of development, the long-held secrets of the residents, and their sense of shared history, together with an appreciation of nature, in this case the alvar and the sea. Theorin is good at creating dislikeable characters, with Max the self-absorbed egotist a prime example. However, I found it harder to work out which characters I was supposed to empathise with, since he presented a good number of points of view to begin with, and no murder until well into the book. I feel guilty for not loving it, like someone ending a bad relationship, saying “It’s not you, it’s me”. This is well-written, and intricately plotted, and the pace never sagged, and yet… it’s not Theorin, it’s definitely me that’s at fault.
PS In case anyone was wondering, the “alvar” is an area of limestone pavement, such as that found in the Yorkshire Dales, but the name sounds as though it should be elf-related. The characters spend a lot of time trotting about on it.
This week it’s been a bit of a doorstop detective story, to make up for last week’s slim volume. “With Our Blessing” by Jo Spain is set largely in rural Limerick, apart from a sequence in Dublin at the beginning that establishes Detective Inspector Tom Reynolds as the hero in the first volume of a series. The plot centres around the death of a nun, and her links to an infamous Magdalene Laundry, where young pregnant women were sent to have their babies as recently as the 1980s. Strangely enough the day I started reading this, I found an article in the Guardian on a related issue. It’s not history until it stops being current affairs – and this issue is still in the process of being uncovered.
The novel has a large cast of police men and women, to the point where I started to find it difficult to distinguish between them. However, the pace is good, with the tension kept up over the 500+ pages.There was a neat subplot which relied on one of them being a bit useless, and another setting up an unrequited romance, but the author also looked at maternity from a number of angles through various characters. The enclosed setting of a nunnery, as the snow closes in and cuts the investigating detectives off from their colleagues, is reminiscent both of the traditional country house murder and Louise Penny’s volume set in a Canadian monastery.
The author, who is an Irish journalist, is new to me, but the second volume came out in Ireland last autumn so I hope we’ll see it soon over here. I haven’t read much in the way of Irish crime, but “With Our Blessing” has left me wanting more.
This week I felt the need for sunshine, so I’ve been reading Tim Heald’s “Death on the Pueblo”, the last of the Simon Bognor series, written in 2012. Heald died in November, and while I hadn’t read his later work, it saddens me that there will be no more.
This is the classic world of “snobbery with violence”, in Colin Watson’s phrase. Heald writes – wrote – hard to remember the past tense – guides to a certain class that he describes as “not quite top drawer” but still higher up the filing cabinet than the majority, a class with access to the corridors of power. Here, the newly knighted Sir Simon has been called to investigate the disappearance of a former East End villain, Jimmy Trubshawe, living the life of Riley in Spain, who has apparently been poisoned. Simon and his wife Monica, and trusty sidekick Contractor, head off to the countryside near Salamanca to investigate.
There’s an elegiac tone to this, a realisation that the world has changed and crime fiction with it. I find Heald amusing, but at the same time, this now reads like a requiem for a way of life that is vanishing, that of the upper-class amateur investigator. Monica describes Bognor as “an old cosy. An elderly dog with its hair falling out”, which may well be true, but like an old dog, it’s sad to see an empty basket.
This week I was prompted to read “The Bird Tribunal” by Agnes Ravatn after hearing part of an episode on “Book at Bedtime” on Radio 4. It occupied a week and 2 days’ worth of episodes, with the rest of the second week being filled with Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds”. I’m not sure what’s happening with the book-scheduling on Radio 4, but I’m pretty sure there’s someone with a grudge against humanity, or at least Radio 4 listeners, involved. Or perhaps the purpose of Book at Bedtime has changed, no longer to lull people to sleep, but deliberately designed to keep people sat bolt upright in bed alert to the tiniest sound of impending menace?
Major spoiler alert – if you don’t want to know too much about the plot, click away now. The plot revolves round a young woman, Alliss, who has left her job as a TV presenter, for reasons that become clear later, to work as a housekeeper/ gardener for a man living in a remote part of Norway whose wife is “away”. The truth is revealed sparingly, doled out like a trail of breadcrumbs leading into the forest, to reveal how two damaged characters end up in each other’s orbit, with almost no one else to intervene. The prose is spare and simple, but the tension rarely lets up. The imbalance of power between the two is made obvious from the start, when he insists that she wait while he eats, and then she can eat afterwards. He appears to hold all the power, but as in any domestic noir, the narrator, ostensibly powerless, finds her capacity to act by the end. There are overtones of Bluebeard – she must never go inside his locked workshop – and Norse myths, but there is a reason why the misanthropic Radio 4 scheduler linked this work to one by du Maurier. The parallels with “Rebecca” are strong enough that this could be said to be a modern retelling, with one or two twists.