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
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.
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.
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.)