Category Archives: Uncategorized

Post-Christmas – and a New Year’s Resolution

I’ve been whiling away the festive season reading Kathryn Harkup’s “The Poisons of Agatha Christie”. Perhaps not the wisest choice in some families, but for a scientifically-orientated group of people, it was full of amusing dinner-time trivia – did you know that the greater bamboo lemur is immune to cyanide poisoning? Now you do, and so do my nearest and dearest. They will thank me later. (Or not, unless they happen to be responsible for performing an autopsy on a greater bamboo lemur, in which case they will at least be able to rule out cyanide poisoning.)

In other unlikely events, I’ve actually been planning some reading for 2017. Normally I go with the flow and read whatever comes my way, but thanks to the good folks at Crimetime, I have been reminded of everything I missed during 2016. It wasn’t a good year for me, but may have been a very good year for crime fiction, if this list of the top 100 reads is anything to go by. Of the 100, fewer than 20 are rural (spookily similar to the rural population of England, at 17%), but I’ve made my own catch-up list for 2017, and it’s a New Year’s Resolution to work my way through them.

Towards the tail end of this year, I’ve been impressed by Peter May’s “The Coffin Road”, set on a Hebridean island. It starts with an intriguing premise – you’ve been washed up ashore with no memory of who you are. Fortunately a neighbour finds you, walks you home, and soon you’re rediscovering your own life with the eyes of a stranger. You have a dog, a car, and a mistress. A locked shed. And the overwhelming sense that you may have killed someone. I get a warm glow when I’m carried along in the wake of competence – this gave me the warmth of a large mug of cocoa and a spare Labrador on my lap. It’s been perfect indoors reading, when the wind is roaring down the chimney and rooks are being blown sideways out of trees. Must go put some another log on the fire – Happy New Year.

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1st of Autumn

It’s the first day of autumn, the first of September, and the dew is thick on the grass, the hawthorn berries glow like firelight in the hedgerows, and I am squirrelling away books for a winter’s reading.

Over the summer, there have been a couple of country crime reads. The first was The Murder Road, by Stephen Booth. It’s the latest in a long series of Derbyshire-based novels, and this one begins promisingly with a lorry-driver stuck under a rural railway bridge. Longstanding fans of the series will probably enjoy it, but I found myself thinking that no one has bored the pants off me explaining that they took the B2079 as far as Squiddleton before turning onto the A637… since about 2007. In a post-satnav world, everyone does what they’re told without making cunning vehicular diversions or meandering cross-country. To put it another way, if someone had bought Mr Booth a satnav for Christmas, about half the book would be gone.

Then there was the latest collection from Martin Edwards, Serpents in Eden. Bless his little cotton socks, the man can do wrong. He can even wear nylon socks as far as I’m concerned. It’s a mixed bag, but with some gems, and he’s sent me hurtling off in search of H C Bailey, (Henry Christopher, who knew?) who was new to me. I will be tracking down his Mr Fortune series. There were one or two tales that left me thinking “hmm, forgotten for a reason”, but failing short stories can be skipped over with a clear conscience. (The longer the book, the guiltier I feel for not finishing it.)

Finally I’m going to stretch category boundaries massively to include a “country spy” story, which doesn’t even count as a genre because spy stories are always urban, but Mick Herron has squeezed a good bit of Oxfordshire countryside into his second in the Slow Horses series, Dead Lions. The humour is bone dry, the plots as twisty as the ivy threatening to bring down my garden wall, and everyone who’s ever had a dull pointless job will identify with his characters. The next one’s out in paperback in October. Late to the party on this, but huge fan.

Back Again

A short break from blogging turned into a long break. One reason was Real Life, changing jobs, challenge, new field, steep learning curve, etc. The other was – well, I’m calling it a crisis of categorisation. The thing about country crime is that I’ve defined it very loosely as crime set in the country. This includes country house murders, but in effect excludes a great deal of cozy mysteries that thrive in a small-town setting.

I was particularly in difficulties over the latest Elly Griffiths, The Woman in Blue, which is set in Walsingham, Norfolk – large village, so fine – but also at the university where Ruth Galloway works, and then Harry Nelson says early on that he hates the countryside and doesn’t understand it, and I realise the entire series has a town/country dichotomy running through it. The archaeologist, living out on the salt marsh, versus the urban police officer. Do I include conflicted rural/urban crime? Umm, yes, I’ve decided that I will. Just as soon as I’ve drafted up an amendment to my own (currently unwritten) terms of reference.

That’s the trouble with rules, the exceptions, and the setting of limits. What happens with a series that’s set largely in the country but then the main characters go to town? Or when an urban detective makes a brief visit to the hinterland? Rebus in rural East Lothian is still an Edinburgh cop. In the end, I’ve decided to go Red Queen on the whole situation – a thing means exactly what I want it to mean, of course (Alice in Wonderland). So I’m keeping Elly Griffiths – I’m a big fan, and The Woman in Blue is excellent. (Splendid set of red herrings, by the way.) It’s as much about contemporary relationships as it is about crime, but more importantly for me, it features competent women with complicated lives. With the odd murder thrown in.

Plenty of Country

…but not enough crime. I have been reading anything but. The day job has involved wall-to-wall statistics – anyone else know that Public Health England publish stats on dengue fever in England? Me either.

I’ve had a brief holiday on Holy Island, with a visit to Barter Books in Alnwick. The country crime haul threw up an oddity, Martyn Bedford’s “The Black Cat”, set in the West Country, where the murder happens right at the end of the book. Excellently written, but still not sure it should have been shelved in the crime section.

It’s time to pull up my crime-reading socks, so I’m off to Harrogate tomorrow for the Theakston’s Crime Festival – just the one day. I don’t come down out of the hills very often, and my system won’t stand very much city life. A day amongst the heady delights of Harrogate will last me all winter. Hope to find some good new country crime tomorrow.

The status of cozies

There is a large intersection between “country crime” and “cozy” crime  (even if the books are Golden Age mysteries, when serial killer/detailed forensic crime didn’t exist). In the US, this is a large enough group to support an entire convention, Malice Domestic, which recently announced the result of the 2013 Agatha Awards.
 
The convention looked a lot of fun, with plenty of pictures and anecdotes here and here. In the UK, there’s nothing quite so specific – on the contrary, people go out of the way to stress how realistic, gruesome and bloody the whole conference experience is likely to be. The long list for Harrogate is out, which is notably short on cosies (with country crime represented by Peters May and Robinson), and  Bristol is only a little better, in part because it has an award for comic crime. It’s beginning to look like an affection for the sub-genre is the love that dare not speak its name.
 
I think the reason for this is in part a serious fear of being bored. IThe non-aficionados must assume that in a cozy, the characters just sit round drinking tea until someone miraculously guesses who the murderer was. No narrative drive, no idiosyncratic voice, no more tension than the average knitting pattern. Until this week, I would have rebutted this view with force. Then I read an author who shall remain nameless, mainly because I’ve read their website and suspect I’d like them in person, who has written a number of books, often with “Murder” in the title. The one I read, no.8 in a series, had no dramatic chapter endings, no drive, and I had to force myself to keep reading – given my general voracious reading habit, this was quite something. It lived up to every fear anyone might ever have had about the cozy. It made me want to go away and read something with detailed autopsy descriptions. Suddenly I too have “The Fear”, that Fear of Being Bored. I’m going to search the Agatha listings for my next read, in the hope that The Fear can be vanquished.
 
On a separate note, it was interesting to see that mystery fiction is far less likely to be self-published than sci-fi, fantasy or romance fiction. Presumably because conventional publishers still think they can make a profit? I’ll be interested to see how the percentages shift over time.

Pagan Spring

Pagan Spring is the third of G.M. Malliet’s novels set in a fictional southern English county that reads like a cross between Hampshire and the Cotswolds. A new arrival to Nether Monkslip, the self-obsessed actor/ playwright Thaddeus Bottle, wastes no time in upsetting as many of the villagers as he can. Spoiler alert (as if you hadn’t guessed): he is promptly murdered, and the widow asks former MI5 man turned vicar, Max, to help.
 
He is busy pining for his pagan girlfriend, Awena, who for some reason has been exiled for the majority of this volume, presumably to allow him to get on with some detecting instead of moping around like a big girl’s blouse. Among the villagers, many of the suspects are attending the Writers’ Square, and there are plenty of jokes about the perils of the writing life. Malliet seems to be relaxing into her characters, allowing them free rein, and she’s clearly had some fun with them this time. It’s a light undemanding read, despite the sombre turn at the end.
 
(One ignoble thought – surely picking a title sequence with only four options (we’ve already had autumn and winter) was a little short-sighted? Even Sue Grafton probably thought she had wiggle room to spare by choosing letters of the alphabet, and yet now here we are, at W already…)
 

Martin Edwards – The Coffin Trail

It’s been a difficult time in Scenic Village, what with trouble at the day job, and work needed to the Humble Abode. Instead of reading country crime, I’ve been reading anything but, from Ellie Griffith’s latest, The Outcast Dead, to Lindsey Davies’ most recent Flavia adventure, “Enemies at Home”. If there was a Naughty Step for bloggers, I’d be on it right now.
 
However, before real life so rudely interrupted, I was reading the first two volumes of Martin Edwards’ Lake District mysteries, “The Coffin Trail” and “The Arsenic Labyrinth”. In these, the famous telly-historian Daniel Kind has newly moved to the Lake District, down-sizing, escaping the rat race, and at the same time trying to find out more about his dead father, who walked out on his family when Daniel was a child.
 
Daniel meets up with DI Hannah Scarlett, who used to work for his father, and together they solve a couple of cold cases that have spilled over into the present. They’re good on the culture shock the new arrivals can experience, and show how soon idealism about rural life shades over into the acceptance of reality – or otherwise, as in the case of Daniel’s journalist girlfriend, for whom the siren voices of London grow ever louder.
 
Booth makes it all look effortless. There are good plot twists, and the growing relationship between the characters is fully realised. He writes female characters convincingly, which puts him ahead of many more famous names. These first two volumes slipped down my reading gullet like custard, instantly digestible with no nasty lumpy bits. (Extending the custard analogy for a moment, there are one or two writers that haven’t stirred the powder in properly and every now and again you hit the unblended raw material, which leaves you muttering “pah, pah, pah” – Booth has mixed everything just right.)”

The Late Monsieur Gallet

I know what you’re thinking – she skipped a week. Last week I read “The Buzzard Table” by Margaret Maron, in her Deborah Knott series. Moran was new to me, but according to the blurb is huge in the US – which had me wondering why I hadn’t come across her before. As soon as I opened the book to find a family tree with two sets of identical twins, I realised. Family saga, with a crime loosely attached. Family sagas haven’t been popular here since…before I was born, pretty much. I wasn’t the right audience for this.

So instead, I transported myself to Sancerre on a hot August day where the perspiring Inspector Maigret is investigating the mysterious death in a hotel room of the travelling salesman M. Gallet. His colleague Inspector Nevers says, “You don’t know what the countryside’s like, Inspector! You may well be able to find nastier characters here than among the dregs of Paris.” And so he does.

There are many questions to answer: why is there such a great social gap between the not-very-grieving widow and her dead husband? Why was he shot and stabbed? Why did he insist on a room overlooking the “nettle lane”, and what happened to the key? And why was his son in the same town?

A slower, but no less vicious age, and I miss the days when crime fiction was allowed to be short, not measured by the yard. In this, every word counts. I’m glad Penguin is re-issuing them all in new translations. I suspect I’m going to be creating a bit more shelf space for some of the later ones. (Even though my father has the full set bar one, painfully tracked down book by book in the pre-internet era – I think he may be writing to Penguin to tell them to hurry up and release the volume he doesn’t have.)

Manna From Hades

This week it’s another new-to-me series, the Cornish Mysteries from Carola Dunn. The first, “Manna from Hades” was published in the US in 2009, but only here in the UK in 2013. There are 3 out so far, brought out together in the UK by Constable & Robinson. This one is very gentle, can safely be lent to elderly ladies of a nervous disposition, is unlikely to frighten the horses and so on.  It’s set in the Cornwall the author remembers from the 60s and 70s (and I’m slightly unnerved to see my childhood years being treated as fodder for a historical novel) with plenty of references to the novelty of female police officers,  and how you used to be able to leave your doors unlocked – though this premise is somewhat undermined when Mrs Eleanor Trewynn (who may or may not have locked the door) finds a corpse in the stock room of the charity shop that she lives above. She’s a somewhat contradictory character, being both dozily forgetful and scatty, as well as an international peace negotiator and trained in aikido (handy for little old ladies investigating murder).

She’s helped by her niece Megan Pencarrow, and hinders the improbably-named DI Scumble, to find the murderer, together with help from her artist neighbour Nick, and the vicar’s wife. It all meanders along very agreeably, and the easy pace is maintained throughout. After writing at least 20 Daisy Dalrymple novels, Dunn knows what she’s doing, and it’s a good start. I shall be looking out for more.

The Beautiful Mystery

This week it’s off to a remote part of Canada, with Louise Penny’s 2012 mystery, “The Beautiful Mystery” – the title refers to church music, to plainsong, but it’s a nice play on words. Gamache and his sidekick, Beauvoir, have been summoned to a remote monastery, the last surviving outpost of the Gilbertine order, to investigate the death of the prior. It is a closed and silent order, and the shock of the murder has led the monks to close ranks against the investigating duo.

It’s a classic locked-room mystery, or rather a locked-cloister mystery, and John Dickson Carr would have been proud of the plot. So far, so traditional (unlike its predecessor, which did something I’d never seen before in crime – the suspense all came from a sub-plot, told in flashbacks, while the mystery itself was simple and easily solved). However, the introduction of Gamache’s old nemesis, Superintendent Francoeur (how much his name sound likes rancour) ratchets up the emotional tension.

It’s probably not one to start with, if you are new to Three Pines – too much of the tension depends on having read a previous book, “Bury Your Dead” – but this takes an unusual setting, an unusual motive, and anchors it firmly in the modern era. Louise Penny has taken this part of Canada and very much made it her own – I’m glad I read this.