Murders for early December
Pass the time by these passages into times present and past: post-war to Covid-era
Murder in the Basement by Anthony Berkeley, These Names Make Clues by E.C.R. Lorac, The Guide by Peter Heller and The Last Supper by Rosemary Shrager
Pleasantly clever, and with much dry wit on display, Anthony Berkeley’s Murder in the Basement (1932, British Crime Classics, 2021, £8.99) is a worthy addition to an already excellent series. The discovery of a body by new house-purchasers (clearly the survey was remiss as with so many modern counterparts) leads to a difficult “whowasdunin” that eventually provides a comedy of characters in an Evelyn Waugh style prep school. Along the way Chief Inspector Moresby and Roger Sheringham vie as solvers, while there is a good cast of possible culprits and a surprising resolve. Well deserves attention.
Some good observations on society in the period:
“Moresby knew those tall houses converted into flats, where the landlord lives in the basement. There is very little that escapes the observation of those landlords and their wives. And when one of their floors is let to a single young woman, of attractive appearance, their vigilance is multiplied a hundred-fold. Jealous of their converted house’s good name, zealous to smell out wrong where no wrong may be, these landlords are the self-elected vigilance committee of half middle-class London. No French concierge even can be fiercer in well-doing or more unwearied in nosiness.”
“It was a theory of Roger’s that out of every score of people one knows, one at least is an undetected murderer. It was an hypothesis for which there was no evidence whatever, but it gave Roger a good deal of foolish pleasure in trying to pick out the twentieth ones in question.”
“Whatever entered the field of Miss Jevons’s experience trickled out again through her mouth.”
“To Mr Parker a straight bat was a holy thing, on a par with the House of Lords, the Athenaeum Club, The Times and all those noble institutions for which Mr Parker considered England stood.”
I am a fan of E.C.R. [Edith Caroline Rivett] Lorac’s detective novels, and there are a number of excellent ones in the British Library Crime Classics. These Names Make Clues (1937, 2021, £8.99) is somewhat different, and will surprise some of her many fans. Unlike the strong sense of place in most of her novels, there is none here, and the story is weakened accordingly. Moreover, the language leaves much to be desired: “‘Serve you right, you sanguinary ass,’ he growled to himself…. ‘Thank Gawd he left me Fatty’s bus.’ … Starting up the amiable M.G. again…”
Alongside these failings, however, there is much of interest, not least the puzzle, which, while totally implausible in all respects (“neither does anything else in this affair strike me as reasonably probable”), is a whodunnits and a whydunnits of some considerable ingenuity.
In a detective novel of the Covid age, the super-rich escape to the Rockies
As many of the characters are detective novelists (“…some of the finest intellects among modern writers find satisfaction in the technique of the detective story”), Lorac has free rein to write about the subject. There is also a lightly-etched political background, one of the characters arguing that Fascism and Communism were fundamentally the same, another commenting on Fascist states trying to discredit Britain, and another ridiculous one fearing “Reds”.
The passage of time is recorded, with the post-war [World War One] youth lacking “‘the same conventions that we had at their age. They’re not susceptible to blackmail because they don’t care a damn who knows what’”.
The Guide by Peter Heller (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2021, £14.99) is very different in settings and style. A detective novel of the age of covid, with the super-rich going fishing in the Rockies to escape crowds in “Billionaire’s Mile”, this is a puzzle set among a capturing of landscape:
“The clouds sailed together and multiplied, so that by late morning the sky was a running scud of overcast. The air over the river seemed relieved of relentless sun and released a wealth of summer smells — the damp of exposed roots, the faint sweetness of black-eyed Susans, a watery scent of crushed horsetails. And rain. The promise of it.”
People are grimmer: “he had to admit that a future with Cheryl felt more like a tunnel than an adventure and he wrote her the letter.”
Moves inexorably from natural elegy to a fast-paced and page-turning what-the-hell-is-going-on? Shades of nativist anti-cosmopolitanism, but first-rate.
Rosemary Shrager’s The Last Supper (Constable, £16.99) has a slow-paced and somewhat weak beginning, but an atmosphere of threat swiftly builds up as we move with a retired celebrity chef to replace a more prominent one who has suddenly died while cooking for a shooting weekend. The latter brings a closed-group cast, and one made more interesting because Farleigh Manor, the setting, was also that for an unsolved Victorian murder. The interplay of the two is handled well and the plot becomes steadily more interesting and a more successful puzzle, albeit with some characters only poorly worked up. The social criticism of the City figures is clear, and some of the writing corresponding: “Prudence saw at least one Mercedes and what she was certain was a midlife-crisis level sports car sitting by the conservatory doors.”
The author, a celebrity chef, is scathing about her world: “You’d need to have baked a Scotch egg on board a satellite, then served it up in zero gravity to a coterie of reality TV stars to cause a ripple in today’s cookery world.”
Writers depicting characters in this fashion does not always work as with: “she’d been titillated by the whole idea of murder at the mansion. Now the reality of it felt so much worse.” Yet one moment of ironic detachment is worth noting: “Mark my words, Mrs Bulstrode — in fifty years’ time, we’ll look back on eating meat like we do on slavery. It’s prehistoric! It’s positively barbaric.” However intended, this reads like a critique of the ahistoricism involved in much of the present-day debate about slavery. Not great writing nor first-league, but a pleasant and interesting, low-intensity read, and notable if tired and seeking undemanding fare.
Jeremy Black is author of The Importance of Being Poirot.
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