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.
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.
This week, I’ve been even further afield, to the Solomon Islands with G.W. Kent’s Devil-Devil. It’s set in the 1960s, before Independence, and Sergeant Ben Kella has been called on to investigate the death of an islander on his home island of Malaita. At the same time, a schoolboy has disappeared from the local mission school. Sister Conchita, who has recently arrived, becomes involved, but is also at odds with Sergeant Kella, who follows the traditional religion of the islands, and has the hereditary role of peace-maker.
It’s a complex plot, with disreputable ex-pats, mafia-like Chinese business-men, and traditional rivalries between the bush (inland) villages and the saltwater villages, as well as more recent rivalries dating back to the Japanese invasion in the 1940s and the battle of Guadalcanal – my history is rusty, but I recognised that name at least. There are also times when a glossary might have been helpful (I discovered via Wikipedia that a lap-lap is a waist-cloth, i.e. two flaps of material and some string to hold them in place), but this first novel in a series sets the scene admirably for a place that I’m guessing is outside most people’s experience. It has something in common with Tony Hillerman’s tales of the American southwest. The author lived in the Solomon Islands (south of Papua New Guinea) for eight years, working in education. This was an enjoyable and instructive introduction to the Sergeant Kella and Sister Conchita mysteries, and I hope to read more.
This week I’ve been reading Ian Sansom’s “The Norfolk Mystery“, the first in a new series intended to cover all the counties of England. Set in the 1930s, our hero is a young man newly returned from the Spanish Civil War. His life is on a downward trajectory until he sees an advertisement for an assistant to the “People’s Professor”, Swanton Morley.
Morley, a polymath and autodidact, is possibly the most irritating character in English fiction, which allows for plenty of comedy but also for moments when you have to grit your teeth in order to be able to finish the book. The murder itself is overshadowed by Morley – everything is. A well-written detective story, but I can’t help worrying about Mr Sansom, and whether his new creation will overpower him entirely.
The second week of my year-long challenge to read a country crime book a week has me back with Ann Granger for the second in her series of Campbell and Carter mysteries, “Rack, Ruin and Murder”. Much better than its predecessor, and the author has created a comic gem in her character of Monty Bickerstaffe (of Bickerstaffe’s Boiled Puddings), who is slowly decaying, along with the house he can no longer afford to maintain. When he goes out one morning to buy a bottle of whisky, and comes back to find a corpse seated in his usual chair, he is incensed (don’t you just hate it when that happens?) The slow uncovering of facts, and the relationship between Monty and his neighbours, progresses to a logical conclusion, with not a clue out of place. There is a sense of remorseless logic, and all the loose ends are neatly tidied away.
I’m still struggling to warm to either Campbell or Carter however. Monty lives and breathes , and could warrant an entire series of him grumpily finding corpses in annoying places, but if I replaced Jess Campbell with Ian Rankin’s Siobhan Clarke, would anyone notice? For me, the best detective is the one that’s irreplaceable (e.g. Reg Hill’s Andy Dalziel). Oh well, you can’t have everything. Good plot, good pacing, an unforgettable character. 75% right is better than most.
An unexpected recent pleasure was Edmund Crispin’s 8th Gervase Fen mystery, “The Long Divorce”, a poison pen mystery set in the Cotswolds (I’m guessing). An American publisher, Felony and Mayhem, has revived the Crispin backlist – although the cover blurb does make it sound as though the book is largely about a cat called Lavender (not that there’s anything wrong with cat mysteries – but this isn’t really one of them.)
I’ve resisted reading the later Gervase Fen stories, after Crispin made it clear in one of the early ones that he disliked dogs. I hurled the volume aside, and have made it a point of principle not to read him. I’m now making it a principle to re-test my principles. I’d forgotten how smoothly Crispin writes, and while the language does seem donnish, the whole effect was magisterial rather than off-putting. He captures the nuances of village life well – though I suspect no one nowadays would hand their case over to a bus driver and ask him to set it down for them at the next town – not if they ever wanted to see their case again. This is competent fiction, and I’m surprised it has vanished for so long.