The Chalk Pit

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I’ve long admired Elly Griffiths’ brand of unshowy but emotionally complex crime fiction. The lead character, forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway, has a close relationship with DCI Harry Nelson of the Norwich police force, and each volume in the series introduces new twists into their lives. It’s one of the few series that acknowledges the realities of blended families, affairs, child care and elderly parents, in the lives of the investigators. The series also switches between town life (in Norwich) and rural settings, and this episode, “The Chalk Pit”, is set in town, or under it – a series of chalk tunnels under the city appear to have been the setting for at least one crime. Ruth has been called to investigate some bones, that are too recent to be of archaeological interest.

At the same time, a number of rough sleepers have been murdered soon after speaking to the police, with one being found dead on the steps of the police station itself. The police are also investigating a series of  women who have gone missing with startling abruptness. The connections between these events are teased out, until a final battle leaves one of the main characters fighting for their life.

I shouldn’t be calling this “country crime”, but my excuse is that Ruth, with her isolated home on the saltmarsh,  is a countrywoman regardless of where the crime takes place. It’s a shifty excuse, but any excuse to read a Griffiths. With each successive novel, the touch is more sure, and as this is the 9th in the series, this is accomplished and absorbing writing.

Easter Thoughts – and Thirteen Guests

Before Easter, I couldn’t find a suitable Easter mystery to read, but during the holiday I found a handy list from Janet Rudolph, and before you know it, I’m on Amazon and my finger has strayed towards the buy-it button. Also on her site I found a link to awards for light-hearted crime, and there were more lists of books I’m sure I’d like and I could just go and check them out on A…. Step Away From the List. Now. (I have a librarianship gene: two of my aunts were librarians, and in moments of stress I tend to acquire books. Heredity’s a powerful thing.)

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Meanwhile, back at the reading pile, I found “Thirteen Guests” by J. Jefferson Farjeon waiting. I really liked this, fortunately, because he was the brother of a favourite childhood author, Eleanor Farjeon, author of (among others) “The Little Bookroom“. Her brother writes with more emotion than many of his contemporaries, and I particularly enjoyed his amateur sleuth, the journalist Bultin, who found that fame only reached his doorstep once he stopped being nice. Most of the characters are viewed through the eyes of an inadvertent guest, John Foss, who catches his foot in the train door at the local station, and is brought up to the house by a fellow guest, the femme fatale Nadine Leveridge. Foss is then conveniently put up in a room just off the front hall, where he can hear all the comings and goings in the house.

The thirteen guests at Bragley Court, seat of Lord Aveling, are well set up, with plenty of secrets and motives established early on. The detection element, and the police inspector, seem to play a secondary role to that of the house-guests, and the ending is rushed, suddenly becoming more mechanical. However, it’s worth reading for the early chapters, and it left me wanting to read more of his work.

 

The Birdwatcher

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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.

Black Water Lilies

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Now I know how the original readers of Christie’s “Murder of Roger Ackroyd” must have felt – a mixture of indignation (“Not fair, I was tricked!”) and admiration at how the trick was pulled off. All I can say is, the author of “Black Water Lilies” (Michel Bussi) would not be admitted to the Detection Club in the 1930s, because this book does not play fair.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but it’s set in Giverny, northern France, the home of the Impressionist painter Monet, who in his later years painted many versions of his lily pond, with the water lilies depicted in every colour except black. If there were to be such a thing as Monet’s “Black Water Lilies”, it would be enormously valuable.

When a prominent local citizen is found dead in the stream that feeds Monet’s garden (I keep typing Money for some reason), a police inspector, Laurenc Serenac, newly arrived from southern France, is called in to investigate, but finds that the villagers have closed ranks. The one person he thinks could help is the village schoolteacher, Stephanie Dupain.

Giverny is as much a character as any of the humans, or the dog, and the perils of being a tourist village are highlighted, that sense of being not real, so photographed (and painted) that the village itself is a fiction. It is hard to pick apart the real from the imagined, and the reader is constantly searching for clues as to which is which. An impressively unexpected ending has sent me back to the beginning, to re-read.

Another Country House in the Snow

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This week, it’s James Anderson’s “The Affair of the Mutilated Mink”. Set in the 1930s, just as the talking pictures were taking over from the silent, the Earl of Burford is a recent convert to the cinematograph, and is thrilled (in an understated, aristocratic way) to welcome a film producer and one of his favourite film stars, Rex Ransom, to his country seat at Alderley. The Countess of Burford, Lavinia, is a little less excited, but hopes they will be company for her long-lost cousin Cicely and husband Sebastian, recently returned from the Antipodes. The Burfords’ daughter, Lady Geraldine, has mischievously invited both her suitors down for the weekend, so she can decide which one to marry. But who invited the Italian filmstar, Laura Lorenzo?

This is very much Lord Emsworth territory, Blandings with murders. It was written in 1981, so the language flits through the decades (note to self: when were burglar alarms invented?) but it’s all so cheerfully done it’s hard to bear any ill will. Inspector Wilkins is a basset-hound of a detective, droopy and doleful, a complete contrast to the old Etonian Chief Superintendant Allgood of the Yard. This is an affectionate tribute both to Golden Age crime fiction and to P G Wodehouse, which is a difficult trick to pull off. To be enjoyed with a large sherry and a wind-up gramophone for background music. A perfect weekend read.

Unseasonal Reading

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I know it’s almost Easter, but I’ve been reading “Another Little Christmas Murder” by Lorna Nicholl Morgan. It was originally published in 1947, but was revived last Christmas with a suitably ornamental cover. A young career woman, Dilys Hughes, is driving across the Yorkshire Dales in a snowstorm, when she comes off the road at a dangerous spot. Another motorist, Inigo Brown, stops and offers to take her to his uncle’s house, Wintry Wold, for the night. ( I know the roads north of Reeth, and they’re not a good place to be stuck in your car, but Wintry Wold? Too southern, too twee.)

On arrival, though, the much-younger and recently married Aunt Theresa, an annoyingly teeny and delicate woman (I’m guessing the author was taller), is not pleased to see them, and prevents Inigo from seeing his uncle. As the snow builds up, it traps more and more people at the house, and when murder is done, everyone is under suspicion. Morgan has a comic touch, but is adept at ratcheting up the tension as people die or disappear.

This is a classic country house mystery, minus the aristocracy; the servants have at least as much a role to play as the owners of the house, although it can be hard to distinguish between them – I found myself leafing back on several occasions. It’s a light and enjoyable read, and I’m glad it was rescued from the snowdrift of obscurity.

Speaking of snow, guess what’s due tonight? This book is probably more appropriate than anything featuring poisoned Easter eggs or homicidal bunnies. (Not that I could find any. Big gap in my collection. The nearest was Louise Penny’s “The Cruellest Month”, meaning April.( If T.S. Eliot had lived in the north, he’d wouldn’t have seen lilacs until May, and there goes the whole poem.) Or G M Malliet’s “Pagan Spring”. I’ll be having my own Easter egg hunt for springlike mystery novels.)

With Our Blessing

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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.