Murders for October
A cornucopia of killings
Whilst the nation has a holiday in history that, at another level, is a holiday from history, detective fiction, the murder of others, continues to provide solace for millions. As a nod to possibilities, court (royal as opposed to legal) settings are relatively uncommon, but there is a rich variety on offer. Rather than simply follow the newspapers in puffing detective novels just coming out, this regular series likes to overlap the different levels of time: past novels about both the then past and the then present; present novels about the past, the present and the genre; and glances at the future.
This month produces the following suggestions. The British Library Crime Classics series brings us Christianna Brand’s Death of Jezebel (1949; 2022, £9.99), which is a fiendishly difficult crime mystery. Amurder is committed in full view but without, as trails are pursued into failure, a solution apparently proving possible. Brand was the pseudonym of Mary Christianna Milne (1907–88), a child of empire who wrote after her father lost his money. This is the second of her novels in the series, following Green for Danger, a wartime novel. It suggests that her others deserve republication: she began with Death in High Heels (1941), which drew on her time as a dance hostess, and closed with The Rose in Darkness (1979). I did not get the solution, which is difficult but works. Well done Brand/Milne.
It upsets the usual folly of thinking that sex began in the sixties
The description, set in 1947, reflects changing postwar social patterns, and it upsets the usual folly of thinking that sex began in the sixties. There is also a return for the sardonic Inspector Cockrill and his shabby old mackintosh, visiting from Kent and happy to dodge a London conference “in these disillusioned days”. Britain is a country of “pallid grape-fruit jelly striped with raw carrot” passing as marmalade whilst a chair is now a “tortured thing of plastic and twisted steel”. “The Golden Golliwog” is “a very nasty pub, darling, out on the Maidenhead road. Pseudo-Tudor without, red leather and chromium within, and dancing in what was the barn and still ought to be”. London is dingy, with dustbins spilling forth “unsightly contents” and the lamps casting “shadows in angled walls that seemed as black and bottomless as eternity”. When it is hot, it is “desperately hot. The satiny blades of the grass caught the rays of the sun and shone back like diamonds”.
Near the close, the two detectives discuss what to do:
“This is not a detective novel,” said Cockrill. “In real life the police don’t ‘reconstruct the crime’ so as to confront the criminal. These writer people never get their police procedure right.”
“It would be so deadly dull if they did,” said Charlesworth. “I suppose they reckon that their job is to entertain and not to worry too much about what could or would or couldn’t or wouldn’t have happened … After all, their books are just fun to read — not treatises on the law.”
And so to a very unusual denouement, one that just works. I have purchased many in this series at the British Library shop where three can be obtained for the price of two and the selection is superb.
Very differently set, in the modern Pennines, Julia Chapman’s Date with Mystery (Pan, 2018, £8.99) is the third of the Dales Detective series. Following the formula set by the excellent Date with Death, this is a slow burning novel that rapidly improves, to offer more than Date with Malice. The hardworking nature of farming is captured, as is nostalgia:
Farming calendars on the wall, copies of Farmers Weekly stacked on an armchair under a pile of magazines — notably the Dalesman and Yorkshire Life — a sideboard groaning under sporting trophies and souvenirs from snatched holidays away, the smell of fresh baking coming from the store and an overall air of homeliness. It was a room well lived in … The glance between husband and wife was that of a couple who’d spent their married lives living and working alongside each other. There was no need for words for them to communicate.
Rural singularity is depicted very differently:
As though trying to prove his marital potential, Clive Knowles had insisted on making tea. So now Delilah was perched on the rim of a chair, a chipped mug that she could have aged from the rings of old coffee on the inside placed in front of her, and surrounded by a kitchen that probably hadn’t been cleaned since the current owner’s mother passed away more than three decades before. To say it lacked a woman’s touch was an understatement.
The last sentence could be dropped, and the writing as a whole should have been tightened, but this is a very good tackling of the standard rural theme of dark family secrets.
I had to give up on J.K. Rowling’s Career of Evil
Dark secrets of a very different type appear in S.J. Parris’ Conspiracy (Harper Collins, 2016, pb 2017, £8.99), the fifth of Stephanie Merritt’s series of historical thrillers with Giordano Bruno as the hero again taking on a villainous conspiracy. Set in Paris in 1585, and beginning with the murder of a conspiratorial but conflicted priest, this story brings in not only the French Wars of Religion but also the linked threat to Elizabeth I. The writing can be droll: “Perhaps fanaticism had lent him the courage of someone else’s convictions”, but the filth, squalor and misery of a city of the period are well-captured in an account that does not hide from the horrors of both the life and the politics of those years.
The writing is not taut and can be clichéd: “the giddy sense of walking a knife-edge with every step — it was hard to give up, once you had tasted it.” Catherine de Medici “belonged to an age when a queen was expected to conceal her private feelings at all costs”. The lengthy description of the winter masked ball at the Tuiliers is superb, and the plot builds to a pace of action and style of suspense that gripped this reader. A fascinating plot and excellent resolve.
The Trees by Percival Everett (London: Influx Press, 2022) is a committed novel set in the modern South with the shadow of past lynchings brought home in the rural despair of Money, Mississippi. There is much humour as the prejudices of Southern white society are lacerated, but also a growing bleakness as retribution for past savagery gathers pace, and a race war appears imminent. The puzzles of the murders are subordinated to the energy of the writing.
The Cliff House by Chris Brookmyre (Little Brown, 2022, £18.99) is not exactly a new setting. Islands with a cut-off community and murderer on the loose are familiar territory. Yet, Brookmyre manages to provide continual novelty as his plot reveals the crimes, sins and vulnerabilities of the members of the hen party: “nothing stays secret forever” and these are interesting and very contemporary secrets, though there are no sex changes. Rapid switches between the protagonists work extremely well, and the breaks chosen for this convincing multiple narrative build up the tension and repeatedly spring surprises. “Every person in the room thought the sinner might be them.” The observations can be interesting or witty:
Years of motherhood have utterly eroded all sense of personal privacy, dignity and discretion. She wasn’t sure she and Jen had that kind of relationship anyway. They just played tennis. What it must feel like to be a stag when the royal family were loose in your postcode. It was so like Jason to have bought a car that was totally unsuited to those typical family needs, like ferrying kids around, going to the supermarket, or murdering your husband. There were seven people in the hallway, none of them speaking, all of them staring at their screens, all of them in crisis, a remote presence firing poison into their midst. It was truly a portrait of the age.
A really well-paced thriller with surprises aplenty.
A confession from this reviewer. As I purchased the books myself I do not feel too guilty, but I had to give up on Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)’s Career of Evil (2015) and am not even attempting the latest. She has created a fascinating detective in Cormoran Strike, but I do not feel she writes with the necessary concision, and I only have so much time. All writers, particularly but not only novelists, benefit from self-discipline and editorial control, and that is not working out in this case.
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