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.
An early start to the Christmas reading, with Margaret Mayhew’s Bitter Poison, the fifth in her series featuring The Colonel and the fictional village of Frog End. The Frog End Players are preparing their annual pantomime, but this year have chosen to stage a version of The Snow Queen instead. Marjorie Cuthbertson has decided that a new arrival in the village, a former model, would be ideal, and does everything she can to persuade Joan to take on the role. She has roped much of the village in to help, even persuading the Colonel to construct a sleigh, so when a member of the cast is murdered, he has a ringside seat.
Mayhew has a disarming lightness of touch, and I enjoyed this a great deal, but ultimately it came up short -quite literally, at 148 pages, with no sub-plots and the villain quickly revealed. It needed more plotting and detecting, but as a cheerful guide to village life (and the Frog End KGB) it passes the time in pleasant fashion.
To the Faroes this week, a remote group of islands in the North Atlantic, for Chris Ould’s The Killing Bay. The title is a reference to the regular whale hunts, that involve boats driving whales into a bay where the local inhabitants then kill them. After one such hunt, one of a group of international protesters is found dead. One of the last people to see her alive was Jan Reyna, a British policeman of Faroese extraction, who has returned for the funeral of his father.
Jan teams up with the local police, including Hjalti Hentze, and it quickly becomes apparent that this is not a straightforward murder, but that there are a number of vested interests, not least within the police force itself.
This is an atmospheric look at a little-known area of the world, and the difficulties of policing a series of islands linked by ferry, plane and tunnel. Everything takes time, and all the characters seem isolated. Oulds is also a screenwriter, so the story is well-structured, despite an initially complex series of shifting scenes. It is the second of an intended trilogy, and I will be looking out for the next instalment.
In fiction devoted to rural crime, the community is a source of strength, either for or against the main character, and in Jane Harper’s The Dry, the Australian outback community of Kiewarra is very much against Aaron Falk. For the Melbourne-based detective, this comes as no surprise, but the reason why his family had to leave is only revealed gradually. Aaron has returned for the funeral of his old schoolfriend Luke, who died alongside his wife and child. Luke’s parents do not believe it was suicide, and ask Aaron to help convince the local policeman, Raco, to continue with the investigation
This is a strong and confident narrative, and feels like a mid-series novel rather than a debut. The pacing is skilful, the characters have an emotional hinterland, and the devastating effects of a multi-year drought add to the tension of a community under severe stress. (I particularly liked the touch of a local schoolchild’s drawing being of a cow with wings, “My Cow Who is Now in Heaven”.) Highly recommended.
This was an opportune moment to read it, as Harper has just won the CWA Gold Dagger. I was also reading it over the first night of hard frost this winter, and today’s it’s been raining hard. The Dry has reminded me that a small wet island has its advantages.
Devon, this week, for A Cursed Inheritance and Kate Ellis’s DI Wesley Peterson is investigating the death of a crime writer, who has been re-examining a family massacre that took place twenty years ago at Potwoolstan Hall. The writer, Patrick Evans, is found dead in the grounds of the Hall, and as Peterson begins his investigation, it seems that everyone has something to hide, and that more than one guest at the Hall, now run as a New Age healing centre, has not been entirely truthful about their identity.
DI Peterson’s wife, Pam, resentful of the amount of time her husband is spending on his work, is exchanging emails with an archaeologist friend of theirs, Neil, who is in the States, at one of the first 17th-century settlements there, and one of the settlers came from Potwoolstan Hall. A trail of letters from the early settlers gives clues to a much earlier mystery, but how is this connected to the present murders?
There’s a lot of plot in this, if not two books’ worth, and I was left wondering if the American element was a completely separate book that hadn’t quite panned out. The tangle of relationships in the main story becomes ultimately confusing and once the murderer was revealed, the other plot elements were done and dusted in a couple of pages. One two many secret aliases, but otherwise a gripping read.