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Artillery Row Books

Murders for June

Murders haunt the longest days as well as the shortest

“‘I wish you’d make up your mind whether you are giving me a third degree or making love to me.’ ‘My mind has nothing to do with it,’ I said.”

The dialogue, in this case from The Little Sister (1949) of course is Chandler writing as Marlowe, “a nice enough fellow, in an ingenuous sort of way” as he is described in The Lady in the Lake (1943), or, when in a bleak mood in The Little Sister, as “the page from yesterday’s calendar crumpled at the bottom of the waste-basket.” There is much pessimism in the last, and a harsh account of a change in Los Angeles:

We’ve got the big money, the sharp-shooters, the percentage workers, the fast-dollar boys, the hoodlums out of New York…. We’ve got the flash restaurants and night club s they run, and the hotels and apartment houses they own, and the grifters and con men and female bandits that live in them… Out in the fancy suburbs dear old Dad is reading the sports page in front of a picture window, with his shoes off, thinking he is high class because he has a three-car garage. Mom is in front of her princess dresser trying to paint the suitcases out from under her eyes. And Junior is clamped onto the telephone calling up a succession of high school girls that talk pigeon English and carry contraceptives in their make-up kit.

This tone is usually not given voice by Chandler, but it is below the surface of what is characterised as “a neon-lighted slum.” The imagery is often of decay — “like ants on a piece of overripe fruit” — and many of the characters manoeuvre accordingly, police as well as criminals. Marlowe seeks the truth but that is generally harsh. The pace of the plots is fast, but there can also be an unravelling of character and conspiracy that matches Simenon in the sense of the pressure of and on moral opposites.

The Lady in the Lake, The Little Sister, The Long Goodbye (1953) and Playback (1958) are brought together by Everyman in a handsome edition, first published in 2002 and recently republished for £20. The introduction, by Tom Hiney, whose biography of Chandler appeared in 1997, is helpful, on both man and style, and puts the individual books into context. Money, violence and sex are central in the novels, but they are all aspects of a rootlessness played out in a harsh environment, human as well as physical. A must. 

My second book of the month is of a different scale and offers a contrasting voice. Christianna Brand (1907-88) was far from hardboiled, but she offered very skilful plots and London Particular (1952; British Library Crime Classics, 2024, £9.99) was her favourite. Others of hers have already appeared in the series, and her hero, Inspector Cockrill, a sardonic smoker different to Marlowe, is brought in to explain an impossible murder with a closed circle of seven suspects, one of whom we are told is the murderer. Unlike Christie, there is an engagement with social change, the attractive Rosie being promiscuous and seeking an (illegal) abortion. The fog is everywhere. A real puzzler of a plot. Recommended.

In contrast to the recent train timetable-obsessed novels of Seicho Matsumoto I have reviewed, Akimitsu Takagi’s The Noh Mask Murder (Pushkin Vertigo, 2024, £9.99), the first English translation of a classic locked-room mystery is replete with more historic themes, those of a traditional culture, in the shape of a figure in a sinister mask who appears to be haunting the Chizuri family as it is killed off. Taut, well-constructed, with two narrative viewpoints interestingly different, this is an impressive read.

Very different in tone, and designed for a pleasant summer’s day (any sightings?), M.R.C. Kasasian’s The Montford Maniac (Canelo, 2024, £9.99) provides different voices in terms of the fictional character inhabiting the mind of the whimsically perceptive Lady Violet Thorn, with contemporary killings paralleling those of a decade ago. The whole froths along, with humour to the fore.

The Lifeline by Phyllis Bottome (1946; Muswell Press, 2024, £10.99) has been reprinted with an introduction by Miles Jupp and David Stenhouse that suggests that it was Bottome who blazed the way for Fleming by producing an adventure novel introducing Mark Chalmers who served as a model for Bond. Moreover, the link is taken further as Bottome was the wife of Ernan Forbes Dennis where Fleming was educated/brought into maturity in 1927 and with whom he maintained a friendship. Similarities are brought out in the introduction.

The book is certainly worth reading for all those interested in mid-century adventure fiction and also for the background to Bond. Yet, there are great differences in the writing of the two novelists. Fleming writes more crisply and his narrative is faster in style and pace. Bottome is wordy and uses the novel to pursue her interests, including descriptions of Appeasement, character, religion, faith, horses, and the differences between Austria and Germany. Moreover, Chalmers is an Eton schoolmaster who becomes an agent as an aspect of the need to mobilise for World War Two, not a SIS professional, and there is more perhaps of the moral atmosphere (though not plot) of Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male (1939) than of Bond.

Fleming used what he knew for his writing, and he had read Bottome’s novel, but he brought much else, and did not share some of her concerns. I would recommend reading it on its own right, but not because it brings much to an understanding of Fleming or Bond.

Reading a pair of books provides an opportunity to assess by comparison. Dan Malakin’s The Wreckage of Us (Viper, 2024, £16.99), his third novel after The Regret and The Box, works very well, with its fast moves, short chapters by several narrators, fine setting in the Forest of Bowland, and tautly-edged descriptions: “This is Britain at the moment where mixing herbal teas possibly could have worked as a business, if she were different, and her husband were different, and the entire world were different.” Sex is at best disappointing: “Once it was done she lay awake, feeling increasingly sick as the alcohol wore off and wondering if it was acceptable behaviour in a one-night stand to stuff your lover’s mouth with a sock to stop his snoring.” Frequent reveals stop any sense of reader complacency. Works well.

Not the case, I am afraid, with A.E. Goldin’s debut, Murder in Constantinople (Pushkin, 2024, £16.99), which follows Ben Canaan, a young Jewish chancer from the East End fleeing justice to Constantinople where, in 1854, he finds himself in murderous international intrigue at the start of the Crimean War, chasing “the White Death,” an agent of the “Third Section,” who has a secret underground laboratory with a hydraulic lift to speed his escape. The writing quality just is not there for me, and some of the conversations are overly wordy, while the historical references are a jumble. At the same time, the book is well-paced as a series is launched in which Canaan is hired by Palmerston ‘as a globetrotting detective of sorts.’

Louisa Scarr’s Gallows Wood (Canelo, 2024, £9.99) is the first of a new series from the author of the five-strong Butler and West series. It introduces PC Lucy Halliday, a dog-handler focused on body-detection, with (what a surprise) a difficult back history, and Detective Inspector Jack Ellis, a Darcy-like officer, with (what a surprise) a difficult back history, against the background of an impressive plot that starts with a body part and move to discover crime-police links in a story that really works in building up interest. It also presents satisfying twists, turns and reveals. Very good.

N.J. Mackay’s The Sweetheart Killer (Canelo, 2024, £9/99) juxtaposes Sebastian Locke, an interesting DI, and Stevie Malone, a singleton in a delusional mess, in an impressive story set in Thames Park as a serial killer strikes in the shadows. Well-worth reading. There are some similar elements in another first-rate work, Dan Malakin’s The Wreckage of Us, mentioned above.

J.M. Hewitt’s The Perfect Village (Canelo, 2024, £9.99) is a portrayal of a dystopia of perfection with the enigmas of would-be motherhood to the fore, and men, fathers, husbands and sex overly presented in terms of cruelty. I found the symbolic landscape took too much of the foreground. Not a favourite.

Joachim Schmidt’s Lamann and the Sleeping Mountain (Bitter Lemon, 2024, £9.99) is far from Scandi-noir. Essentially a whimsical account of modern Iceland with a mystery thrown in. Weak.

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