Murders for late October
Professor Jeremy Black rounds up the best autumnal reads that are successful in grounding a sense of place
A sense of place is clearly a first reflection of detective fiction and one that differentiates it from much literature, place in the sense of the specifics of the puzzle, those of the action, and those of the habits of mind involved in the culture that provides background to both crime and solution. The novels herewith reviewed do well in this respect. Indeed, this helps provide much of the interest of the books and makes them a branch of travel literature.
As autumn nights draw in, the mind naturally turns to tidying up one’s life. Working from home may appear an answer, but murder is more decisive, and not least if a cannon is scored and the blame goes to another opponent.
Murder as political is certainly a theme in Maurizio de Giovanni’s Bread for the Bastards of Pizzofalcone (Europa Editions, 2021, £8.99), the translation of a work first published in 2016. When I was last in Naples, the national government had deployed troops to show that it was taking the headlines in the fight against crime seriously, and politics are to the fore here: “Congratulations for having noticed all these details in just a few minutes’ time, Sherlock, but it just so happens that people much, much higher up the totem pole than you and me have decided that we are not to stick our noses into this matter.”
Or again: “just like with natural selection, when it came to the administration of justice, the animals that are most likely to survive are the ones that first manage to catch the scent of new conditions.”
Mafia killing or not, the murder of a baker breadmaking sets up a course through the complexities of a fascinating city, and this, the latest in the series about a failing police station, deserves much praise for its skilful dissection. Bar for bread, there is no equivalent to the Montalbano fascination with food, but the story is stronger thanks to its multiple perspectives.
The reflection by detective writers on the genre is an aspect of the never-failing self-reflection of the literature. And so also with Bread and an interesting commentary, although, in a sense, all detective fiction is a commentary on what has gone before.
The Godmother is taut, economical and a very skilful interweaving of novel and detective story
Winner of the European Crime Fiction Prize, Hannelore Cayre’s The Godmothers (Old Street Publishing, 2019, £8.99) begins with a brilliant abrupt start and offers some arresting writing: ‘You don’t hear the job description “General Manager” anymore … but in the ’70s, it was a thing. It went with duck à l’orange, yellow polyester roll-neck jumpers over mini-culottes, and braid-trimmed telephone covers,’ or ‘When I saw him collapse head first into his plate I felt an indescribable pain. As if an apple-corer had plunged into the centre of my body and extracted my spirit in one piece,’ or ‘…dogs, you see, they don’t believe in God. Dogs are intelligent, not like people…. I confess to a shamefully patrician and perverse fascination with stupidity.’
The inverse values adopted by the protagonist-narrator are fully explained. We are in a world in which ‘unfailing honesty ended up being one hell of a pain.’ The Godmother is taut, economical (177 pages each of a modest size and acceptable print), a very skilful interweaving of novel and detective story, one that moves across the generations and between culture, is very well plotted, and contains a vivid use of prose, for both inside and from the protagonist. Deserves widespread attention, but cannot see how this character can be rerun in another episode. The theme, however, could readily be used in other contexts.
The Midnight Hour by Elly Griffiths (Quercus, 2021, £20), the latest in this prolific author’s Brighton Mysteries series, has an interesting plot, but the prose needs work. The dialogue is often lame, as in ‘“A dresser looks after an artiste’s clothes … but I was more than that. I was Verity’s right-hand woman. I made sure that her dressing room was as it should be. I booked train tickets and hotels. We travelled all over the place together, a different show every week. I could tell you a few stories.”’
And so on. The writing avoids before allusive, elusive, insightful or interesting, and comparisons can be forced – ‘Did Whitby have to go around looking so atmospheric all the time? It was like being rapped in a French art film.’ Yet, the writing serves to move the story along. There are some genre references as in ‘I know murderers are always engaging private detectives in crime novels but it’s a bit unlikely in real life’ or, somewhat surprisingly, ‘fictional detectives, private and otherwise, were almost always men.’ However, even if the book deserves a thorough editing, a pleasant, undemanding read.
Bodies from the Library 2, selected by Tony Medawar (Collins Crime Club, 2019, £12.99) is the welcome sequel to the first volume, that of 2018, and includes several hitherto unpublished short stories among the fifteen published. Hitherto unpublished, Christianna Brand’s ‘No Face’ is brilliantly set in the world of fraudulent clairvoyants, and a gripping account with an excellent twist. ‘Before and After’ by ‘Peter Anthony’ [In Fact Anthony and Peter Shaffer] also has a superb closing twist, and, in the meanwhile, deft phrasing as in ‘It was a homely little meal, married perhaps for the hypersensitive by the arrival of the mortuary van’ or, as with timings, ‘I never believe doctors on questions of health, but on questions of death I have always found them infallible.’ Helen Simpson’s ‘Hotel Evidence’ is very different in tone, being essentially a comedy of manners involving divorce. A gentle humour pervades the piece. In contrast, Q. Patrick’s ‘Exit before Midnight’ is a lengthy and disturbing account of a murderous New York New Year’s Eve, with a variant on the locked room mystery. Well plotted. ‘Room to Let’ by Margery Allingham and ‘A Joke’s A Joke’ by Jonathan Latimer readily accessible, while Christie’s ‘The Man Who Knew’ is brief but effective. S.S. Van Dine’s ‘The Almost Perfect Murder Case’ shows that even such crimes were after all a matter of chance. Vance’s affectations have scant charm. ‘The Hours of Darkness’ by Edmund Crispin, a substantial piece, is published for the first time in this collection. It has some classic Crispin lines: ‘Noel, the sole purpose of playing hide-and-seek is to allow people to make love in decent privacy for a few minutes.’
Christianna Brand’s ‘No Face’ is brilliantly set in the world of fraudulent clairvoyants, and a gripping account with an excellent twist
E.C.R. Lorac’s brief ‘chance is a Great Thing’ captures working-class life, Clayton Rawson’s ‘The Mental Broadcast’ is a weak piece about a card trick, Ethel Lina White’s ‘White Cap’ deals with work tensions and serendipity in a murder charge that is thwarted, John Rhode’s hitherto unpublished play ‘Sixpennymorth’ concerns wartime murder and blackmail, C.A. Alington’s ‘The Adventure of the Dorset Squire’ is somewhat weak and dated, and the collection closes with Dorothy L. Sayers’ unpublished Peter Wimsey, ‘The Locked Room.’ There are some wonderful passages:
‘to be a great writer Mrs Deerhurst always felt a man must have a great deal of the woman in him. Didn’t Lord Peter think so?
Lord Peter replied that he felt sure de Maupassant would have understood Mrs Deerhurst perfectly.’
‘“…they broke a door-panel in, and found Mr Deerhurst dead in his deck chair shot through the head. Which suit will your lordship wear today?”’
…. ‘said Dr. Robbins, manifesting a highly efficient degree of sympathy.’
A worthy end to a handsomely produced collection that would make a perfect present. Sayers has Lord Peter describe being a writer as ‘“not a payin’ job as a rule”’ but here it certainly brings much pleasure.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe