I’ve had a week off for holidays, which has taken me to the Northumberland coast. Not wanting to re-read Anne Cleeves’ Vera novels, I’ve gone further afield, to Maine, for my holiday reading. I tracked down one of the Agatha Award finalists, “Fogged Inn”, by Barbara Ross. It’s the fourth in the Maine Clambake series published by Kensington, and something of a guilty pleasure. The mass-market American cozy isn’t widely available in the UK, but I have a now-not-very-secret liking for the cheerful covers and a sense that this is pulp fiction for our age. The more shocking stories are mainstream, and the professionally written but produced to a rapid schedule cozy mysteries are now somehow less worthy.
If there’s one thing that’s likely to make me a read a ton of these, it’s the thought that I’m not supposed to… “Fogged Inn” is set in the small Maine town of Busman’s Harbour, and Julia Snowden goes downstairs one morning to discover that someone has stashed a corpse in the catering refrigerator at the restaurant where she works. Needless to say, the kitchen is declared a crime scene and closed for business.
The corpse is a stranger, but in a small closely-knit town, it’s only a matter of time before someone will work out who he is, and what his links to Busman’s Harbour are. Julia’s an energetic sleuth, and this mystery is full of regular people trying to make a living in the off-season of a small tourist town. An enjoyable setting, with a hardworking heroine, and recipes too. Mug of cocoa and tartan rug time.
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 trip to the bleak shingle wastes of the Kent coast, the landscape made famous by Derek Jarman and his garden close to Dungeness nuclear power station. In this police procedural, a middle-aged constable who has devoted his life to community safety meetings and dull meetings with local councillors finds himself drawn into a murder enquiry when one of his neighbours on an isolated coastal road is brutally killed.
William South’s job is further complicated by his new boss, a woman who has recently moved down from London with her trouble-prone teenage daughter. She suggests that his home becomes the operational centre for the enquiry, and he quickly learns that his bird-watching neighbour had a number of secrets.
The story is intercut with South’s early history, in Troubles-era Northern Ireland. His father was involved with the paramilitaries, and it becomes clear early on that South has grown up with a sense of guilt as well as loss.
I found the Northern Irish element predictable, and by the end, it was slowing the pace of the present-day narrative. All the same, this is a highly readable and well-crafted novel, that breathes new life into familiar fictional territory. Thumbs up.
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.
Much like Mrs Peabody, I’m reading some of the best books of 2016 (according to Crimetime). However, even without their helpful list, it would be hard to miss Jessie Burton’s “The Muse” which is everywhere at the moment; I can’t even go to the supermarket without falling over huge piles of the decoratively flowered cover with a crowning motif of crossed revolvers.
I’m not sure I would have categorised this as crime fiction, although it does contain a mystery and a murder, set partly in rural Andalusia at the time of the Spanish Civil War. I think my misgivings come from the extensive reading list at the back. It’s not genre fiction if it comes with homework. An authorial nod to one or two key influences as an afterword, fine, but much beyond that and I start to have that uneasy feeling that my essay is due in by Friday.
However, it seems ungracious to carp when the story has an original set-up, in two time-zones – 1960s London, seen through the eyes of a young girl from Trinidad, Odelle, who wants to be a writer, but takes a job at an art gallery. Her story is contrasted with that of Olive, an English/Austrian girl from 1936, whose Jewish art dealer father has taken his family from Vienna to Spain just as war breaks out. A painting links the two eras, and the central mystery of the book is: what happened to the painter, and how did the painting end up in London? With the hindsight of our own era, knowing the unhappy histories of the 1930s, there is a growing sense of dread as the older tale unfolds.
It’s also a discourse on the role of women as artists, and how they begin, how much the cards are stacked against them by the expectations of society, and the undermining effects of racism, colonialism and poverty. Burton can hold the pace and tension well, and manages not to swamp her characters with worthiness. Her first novel was a big hit, and I’m sure this one will sell by the supermarket trolley-load. Good storytelling, but I won’t be filing it between Allingham and Christie.