Murders for July

The good, the beautiful and the grotesque

Artillery Row

Collections written by different hands offer variety and that is certainly the case with The Edinburgh Mystery and Other Tales of Scottish Crime edited by Martin Edwards, the latest in the British Library’s Crime Classics series (2022, £10.99).The broad basis for the collection – Scottish authors or Scotland as an inspiration for non-Scots – can give a hotch-potch character to the collection, but the cast is first rate, including Stevenson, Doyle, Orczy, Chesterton, Tey, Connington, Hare and Innes.

I would recommend beginning with the last two, by less familiar authors. Jennie Melville’s ‘Hand in Glove’ (1974) provides a very sinister smalltown Scotland of sex and murder, gossip and poison, told well from the perspective of a young widow. Philip Hubbard’s ‘The Running of the Deer’ (1974) is very different in its setting, with a hauntingly restrained account of a murder inspired by an apt jealousy-fear.

This is really attractive writing

Similar terrain but in better weather provides Henry Bashford with an account of mystery viewed from a distant eyrie in ‘The Man on Ben Na Garve (1933). Cyril Hare’s ‘Thursday’s Child’ (1959) is an economical case of disguised identity, Margot Bennett’s ‘The case of the Frugal Cake’ (1955) captures jealousies amidst poverty, and the setting, tone, pace and characterisation of the stories provide repeated interest.

Four very different novels continue our survey, each in their way a puzzle, and two already on their way to classic status. Alan Furst’s espionage thrillers approach puzzles from the perspective of wartime complexity, with the mingled betrayals of exigent survival. The World at Night (Random House, 1996; Phoenix 2005; £7.99) is one of his many better ones. The very close pushes implausibility too far, but, until then, there is the muddle of response as the Parisian film producer Jean Casson is pushed by contrary pressures toward an outcome in which one of his circle is murdered. Beautiful writing, finely-etched characterisation, a sense of satisfying menace. This was a reread for me, and it worked just as well as a second time around.

Another fantastic read is offered by one of our Queens of letters, J.K. Rowling who, unlike the plodding Hilary Mantel, can turn a phrase, and again and again. The Cuckoo’s Calling (Sphere, 2013, £8.99) is the first of the Cormoran Strike novels, and provides an engaging detective couple, a fine flair for setting, a delicious satirical pen, notably at the expense of celebrity culture and fashionistas, a satisfying puzzle, a sinister murderer, and an aptly brilliant solution. This is really attractive writing and an engrossing novel that deserves a reread in order to see how playing fair works with this solution.

M.R.C. Kasasian’s Betty Church and the Suffolk Vampire (Head of Zeus, 2018, £8.99) is a sort of cross between Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth series, beginning with Aberystwyth Mon Amour (2001), and Lynn Truss’s Brighton-based Constable Twitten mysteries, but with a Cormoran Strike link in that Betty, the detective protagonist, is also mutilated. Set in Suffolk in 1939, the story has more bizarres than a Dickensian display of grotesques, too many murders, and a cascade of incredible turns that somehow works in order to produce a brilliant tongue-in-cheek ensemble. Betty reflects:

If there was one thing that had made the life of a police officer more difficult over the last decade, it was the explosion of whodunnits with their bizarre murders and unconvincing explanations. The only redeeming factor was that most of the best ones were written by women.

Takes a little while to get into, but a great success.

The National Trust provides the murderous background for M.H. Eccleston’s The Trust (Head of Zeus, 2022, £8.99). This is more plausible than Betty Church but lacks its manic urgency. The murderer is not too difficult to work out, but the read is a comfortable one. A good one if you are feeling tired, and not seeking Scandi noir or its equivalents. There is still much about the National Trust and its properties for future murder novels, and, hopefully, we can find a variety of treatments. 

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