Photo by Maxim Hopman

Murders for the end of September

Four mysteries, three successes, two surprises and one flop

Artillery Row Books
Death in the Quarry by G.D.H. and Margaret Cole (Collins Crime Club, 1934)

Death in the Quarry (Collins Crime Club, 1934) by G.D.H. and Margaret Cole came when the couple, starting in 1923, were well-established as detective writers. The previous year they had brought out three detective novels from this publisher: A Lesson in Crime, The Affair at Aliquid and The End of an Ancient Mariner. In 1935 they were to follow with three more: Big Business Murder, Dr Tancred Begins and Scandal at School. In total, they wrote twenty-eight detective novels and four short story collections. For the Coles, this was very much a hobby rather than serious work, albeit a lucrative hobby. The publisher helped enormously by providing arresting covers by Youngman Carter. The Coles also made it into the Crime Club Pocket Editions, which is the format for my copy, purchased for £3 in 2021 at an excellent second-hand bookshop in Bridport. Of the twenty-four novels listed on the back cover, three are by the Coles, which puts them marginally behind Christie (four) and Rhode (four), but ahead of Freeman Wills Croft (two) a surprising choice. Croft is referred to by the Coles, with Everard thinking that one of the other characters “did not sound like one of Mr Croft’s infinitely cunning criminals”.

A wet Sunday afternoon of a detective novel

The novel includes some reflections on the genre. Attending an inquest, Everard Blatchington reflects, “he was very like the average educated reader of detective novels; he liked a bit of excitement, and a bit of a puzzle; but he did not want his imagination forcibly stirred. Anything involving the murder of a child, for instance, or the presence of insane, sadistic cruelty, was quite enough to put him off.” There is also reference to “a blood-and-thunder novel” as a ridiculous genre, while, in a Miss Marple echo, the journalist comments, “if you really want harm done, give me a lot of old women and nasty-minded men in a quiet country village.”

Without gripping characters but with a series of improbabilities overcome, the plot moves along, and engages with mild interest. A wet Sunday afternoon of a detective novel.

Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee (Harvill Secker, 2018, Vintage, 2019, £8.99)

Abir Mukherjee is the bestselling author of a series of murder stories set in Calcutta in the early 1920s, with his troubled British police protagonist, Sam Wyndham, backed by his troubled Indian subordinate, Surendranath Banerjee. The issues of modern India are in part presented by those of British rule, although there is a separate character in the imperial setting. Smoke and Ashes (Harvill Secker, 2018, Vintage, 2019, £8.99) is a satisfying read that grips attention from the outset. Well-placed in terms of social, ethnic and imperial alignments, not least tensions within the world, a good grasp for a great contrast of settings, with a rewarding puzzle. A success, although the melodramatic ending is overwritten.

Westwind by Ian Rankin (Orion, 2019, £8.99)

“The Classic Lost Thriller” proclaims the cover. Ian Rankin’s Westwind (published without success in 1990) returned in 2019, with paperbacking (Orion, £8.99) following a year later. Appearing with a retrospective introduction by the author explaining that the original was reworked as a result of pressure from agent or editors “until it felt like it wasn’t really my book at all”, and that he had made only minor changes for the new edition, the novel is set in a then-present predicated on the idea that “without the Cold War having ended, a demanding Western Europe had insisted on a withdrawal by American forces”. This provides the background for an espionage thriller in which America is playing an ambivalent role, while the British are in unsafe hands.

It cannot be said that this is Rankin as half-way adequate, let alone at his best. The strong sense of place that is not only backdrop but an active part of his justifiably-successful Rebus novels is missing. Instead we have a botched novel, with some poor writing and half-of-one-dimensional characters, such as Harry with her manic laugh or the General Esterhazy. This is a political thriller written by a … well gauge for yourself:

This was a sad country, Hepton thought, a stupid country. But it still didn’t deserve to be handed over to Villiers and Harry.

“It’s not a coup,” Drayfuss stated. “A coup would be simpler, more out in the open.”

“Maybe the Yanks want to annex us.”

Dreyfus shook his head. “They did that a long time ago. It’s just that nobody noticed. No … I don’t know.”

Well, I do. This is a terrible book. The quoted section comes from page 278, to which I only persevered, dear reader, so as to tell you not to bother.

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead (Fleet, 2021, £16.99)

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead (Fleet, 2021, £16.99) has been extensively and favourably reviewed, as might be expected from a twice-winning Pulitzer Prize winner. This is an interesting example of a writer with many accomplishments (and awards) moving into crime fiction, as Whitehead has never before produced a crime novel. It is both a success (as the reviewers indicate) and a trifle less good than has been suggested. The reasons for praise are clear. The novel is well-written, has arresting characters, deals with a fascinating period in New York’s history and provides a novel that offers much in its protagonist, Carney. The reveals are mostly about who really runs Harlem, and they are handled well, in a way that bridges with a crime primarily about society. I would recommend it strongly, but I feel the genre of city crime is better handled by James Ellroy, and notably so in his LA Quartet. That is a very high tariff for a starter crime novel, however,  and Whitehead hopefully will press on.

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