Set in the early part of the year in a snow-bound Dorset, Ngaio Marsh’s Death and the Dancing Footman sees Jonathan Royal invite a houseparty of guests who are guaranteed to get along spectacularly badly. He has chosen his poet/playwright friend, Aubrey Mandrake, to be a spectator at this “Big Brother House” set-up, which includes Mrs Compline, her face ruined by botched plastic surgery, the surgeon who had spent the last 20 years hiding from his handiwork, the two Compline brothers William and Nicholas, and the girl who was engaged to one and then the other, plus two female rivals who ran beauty parlours.
As the snow comes down, the party are trapped at Highfold Manor, and it is not long before the guests turn, first to attempted murder, then an actual killing. Each is suspicious of the other, ready to betray the other, and as the tension mounts, Mandrake catalogues the alibis of each. It all hangs on the evidence of Thomas, the footman who was dancing in the hallway to the strains of “Hands, Knees and Boomps-a-daisy.”
This was written in 1942 and is very evidently a war novel. A character opens his window after dark, then remembers the black-out. Talk of war is forbidden after dinner, as too depressing, and when the murderer is finally revealed, the detective Roderick Alleyn feels strongly how ironic it is to hang an individual when elsewhere people are being killed wholesale. Alleyn only appears towards the end, the snow having prevented anyone sending for help for several days, so we see much of the story from Mandrake’s point of view. I was surprisingly engaged, having not read Marsh for many years. There are some interesting plot twists, and a rising pitch of tension up to the end. On my “Keep and Re-Read” pile.
Just the Facts Ma’am Challenge – Gold/ What/Reference to man or woman in the title
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.
This week’s rural reading is from Normandy, Fred Vargas’ The Ghost Riders of Ordebec. It’s set in the summer, and Commissaire Adamsberg has been summoned from Paris to allay the fears of a woman whose daughter Lina has seen the local version of the Wild Hunt, the Ghost Riders or Furious Army, who travel along a set route, picking up evildoers on their path, and condemning them to ride for eternity. Lina and her three brothers are regarded by the other villagers as “special”, and their unhappy history is slowly revealed. Lina saw in her vision four people seized by the Furious Army, the first one a man named Herbier, who is found dead shortly after Lina’s revelations.
Adamsberg has to contend with the local cop, a man rather too keen on his own Napoleonic antecedents, and the local countess, who takes him under her wing. He has also had to bring along his son, an injured pigeon, and a key witness in a corruption case. His usual team are mostly left behind in Paris, where they continue to act as an eccentric and mildly dysfunctional family, worrying about the cat that sleeps on the photocopier and generally not doing things by the book.
Vargas has a fantastic eye for character, and can sketch an entire person in two or three well-chosen sentences. I enjoyed the parallels between the odd family in Ordebec and Adamsberg’s usual team, showing why Adamsberg was uniquely qualified to gain people’s confidence in this case. Vargas paints her characters with tolerance and affection, and I could cheerfully spend a great deal more time with them.
The seasonal reading continues with Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, first published in 1938, and it’s fascinating to read it in close proximity to last week’s read by Mavis Doriel Hay, published in 1936. Christie back then was the younger generation, her language much more lively than her older competitors, her pacing influenced by that of the theatre, and she could have given a masterclass in the writerly advice to “show, don’t tell”. Here, rather than the detailed listing of relatives, Christie, in a series of short scenes, introduces the members of the Lee family who make up the Christmas guests at Gorston Hall.
In HP’s Christmas, once again a patriarch has gathered his five children round him, in this case four sons and rather than a daughter, the child of his daughter who married a Spaniard and died. He sets his children against each other, talks openly of changing his will, and is then found murdered, in a locked room. It is left to Poirot and Inspector Sugden to pick their way through the alibis and motives, until the final, unguessable, unveiling of the murderer.
This is a lively read and I suspect for me will become part of the pile of comfort reading that will resurface in Christmases to come.
This week, it’s a British Library classic, Mavis Doriel Hay’s The Santa Klaus Murder. Sir Osmond Melbury has invited his entire family, all four daughters and his son, with their respective partners and children, to the ancestral home of Flaxmere for Christmas. As is the way with families, all is not sweetness and light, particularly not Sir Osmond, who is wrapped round the little finger of his secretary Grace.
It will therefore surprise no one to read that Sir Osmond is found dead in the library, shortly after the Christmas presents have been distributed. The police are called, and after a complex series of alibis are aired, the wrong-doer is revealed.
I found this heavy going. The first few pages were almost a genealogy textbook, with the explanation of the family tree, and while it was relevant to learn that Sir Osmond treated his daughters particularly poorly, the initial pace was slow. Some of the language has dated badly (“she flung herself into his arms incontinently” doesn’t mean she wet herself, but it sounds almost as if..) The ending was neatly done, but it took a lot of work to get there.
An abandoned barn, in a remote rural location in Norway. When the young police officer William Wisting is asked to accompany a friend interested in vintage cars, he has little idea that this will lead him to a case that he can only solve thirty years later. The barn contains a car with two bullet holes, and the driver was never found.
The story is told from two viewpoints: that of the present-day Wisting, a detective nearing the end of his career, and that of the young man, his wife with twin babies, and the conflict between needing the overtime and needing to be with his family. The past and present turn out to be strongly linked, and Wisting ends solving cases from both time-frames.
When It Grows Dark by Jorn Lier Horst may be several books into the series but also serves as an introduction to Wisting’s career as a detective. It is short, at 160 pages, but perfectly constructed, an exquisite miniature masterclass in plotting. (Full Wayne’s World “we are not worthy” bowing – it’s that good. On a scale of one to ten, definitely an eleven.) Pretty much everyone who’s due a Christmas present from me this year can guess what they’re getting.