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Artillery Row Books

Murders for November

Killings amid the crunch of leaves

The superb British Library Crime Classics are back with another E.C.R. Lorac, in this case The Theft of the Iron Dogs: A Lancashire Mystery (1946; 2023, £9.99). Again we have the stalwart Chief Inspector Macdonald of Scotland Yard and a setting in the fell country of Lunesdale, which Lorac (Edith Caroline Rivett) knew so well. Again we have the issue of wartime and postwar regulations and rationing providing the opportunities for fraud, in this case clothing coupons. Macdonald is pursuing a racketeer, and a body turns up in the Lune. First-rate and, as ever, handsomely produced. The war and postwar press repeatedly, Macdonald knowing “the enormous increase in petty pilfering even amongst respectable people in these days of universal shortage”. The solution is fair, and indeed the relevant guidelines are apparent from a relatively early stage. It is the “why?” that is of prime interest, in this case going back far before the war.

The Theft of the Iron Dogs: A Lancashire Mystery, E.C.R. Lorac (British Library Crime Classics, £9.99)

He Who Whispers (1946; British Crime Classics, 2023, £9.99) sees John Dickson Carr bring together the two strands of Gothic fiction: the real presence of the occult and, alternatively, human manipulation that suggest such a presence. We have a murder of 1939 in France of an Englishman on top of a tower, by a sword-stick in the back that could not be applied by the victim but with no-one else apparently present, in a tale that includes vampirism and the terrain-defying ability of vampires. Yet, as Gideon Fell is at pains to point out, there is no reason to believe that vampires steal bank notes. There is a fair-play explanation for the murder and for an attempted murder during the course of the investigation, as well as some interesting discussion of a generation whose nerves have been shot to pieces by the war. This indeed is part of the strength of the book: its attention to people at a moment of tension, and to the sexuality and romantic attraction of a pre-1960s’ generation that was far from constrained. It well deserves reading.

Nick Louth’s The Body in Nightingale Park (Canelo, 2023, £/.99) returns us to the present, with a police force under pressure from a number of crimes in Surrey and Sussex that gradually appear to have a taut and menacing link. This works well and deserves the description “gripping”. It captures modern Britain, as in going outside at a hospital “where a man in a dressing gown and a surgical boot was smoking under the porch, right by a sign which said that he couldn’t”. I rather liked “She hardly looked capable of bruising a meringue nest”. The politics of the book are unlikely to please many, as toxic males are joined by female counterparts, with the latter particularly sinister as is the sole lawyer. But as a story with drive, it works well.

Scarlet Town, Leonora Nattrass (Viper, £16.99)

Leonora Nattrass’s Scarlet Town (Viper, 2023, £16.99) is not meant for me, as it includes real characters whose correspondence I have read and on whom I have worked extensively, notably Francis, 5th Duke of Leeds, and Sir James Bland Burges. Set in Helston in 1796, the story is based on the contested election there in 1790, with a murderous twist. The “Author’s Note” somewhat reflects a lack of understanding of the electoral system, but the book is well worth reading, and the murders are skilfully arranged.

B.M. Howard, author of Blood on the Tiber (Canelo, 2023, £9.99), is apparently “the pseudonym of a historian specialising in the Napoleonic period”. Well, he/she is not me, but certainly cracks a great pace in the succession to Blood and Fireflies, which introduced the magistrate Felix Gracchus and Lieutenant Dermide Vanderville of the French Revolutionary army. Part of the entourage of ambassador Joseph Bonaparte in Rome, they interact with a rich cast of the real and the fictional in a lively novel of drive and excitement. Most of the writing is good, although I would not write of “opportunities for distinguishment”. The sleep-time “bosom of dreams of delusions” becomes a nightmarish concatenation of crises in a Rome of crumbling classical remains, exuberant revolutionaries, and a sinister cardinal directing the police. Having declared, “There is no divorce in heaven”, he meets the rejoinder, “No, I imagine it is as hard to find a lawyer up there as it is to find a priest”. The characters are presented with the clarity of a fine pen, as in “the straightforward selfishness of the insufficiently tried man” or “a mouse striving so hard to groom a paste lion”. Gracchus is the wiser of the protagonists, Vanderville his more energetic aide. Their exchange at the close presumably reflects the author’s views:

“Passions have their place, Gracchus.”

“Not in our work. Observe that the passions of the vicious are put an end to by the hangmen — those of the virtuous are more to be feared. We have seen lovers commit crimes, zealous ministers bring on wars, and pure though narrow minds not baulk at revolutions. Who displays passion, even for good, exposes peril.”

The novel juxtaposes a plot based on events in Rome in 1797 with what eventually becomes a Gothic-horror tale of great power and sophistication. Strongly recommended.

Alis Hawkins’ A Bitter Remedy (Canelo, 2023, £9.99)
A Bitter Remedy, Alis Hawkins (Canelo, £9.99)

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Alis Hawkins’ A Bitter Remedy (Canelo, 2023, £9.99), the first of what are apparently to be a series of Oxford Mysteries. It comes much praised and is good on the world of Victorian patent medicines, but it is a two-dimensional work without nuance in characterisation, and its sentiments are all-too-much to the fore. I struggled to finish it. Charles Dodgson, “Lewis Caroll”, turns up.

The Lover of No Fixed Abode by Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini (1986; English translation, 2024, Bitter Lemon Press, £9.99) is a mystery rather than a murder, with the prime mystery that of the identity of the principal character. Set in modern Venice, this is a novel of the art world and of social difference, one in which romance, longing and the imagination are interwoven. Venice is repeatedly to the fore, and it is handled far better than in Donna Leon’s formulaic novels. This novel is a homage…

…to a long-established Venetian taste for forgery, plagiary and deceit. There are a hundred, a thousand such ménages in Venice: Danish sculptresses, English composers, Dutch photographers, Mexican poetesses, Guatemalan novelists, all shacked up with some companion in art and love whom they support or are supported by. They had given up “everything” (which is usually nothing) to come and live out their dream in the most romantic city in the world, and they don’t forget it for a single moment … Venice had better pay back in kind by way of hints, inspiration, exaltations and various sublimation. He looks like a cigarette end stubbed out by a highly nervous smoker.

It is written with an effective ironic tone that is very attractive.

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