i've not been reading much of late, and especially not much crime fiction. but a holiday in the beautiful castle north wales coastal town of harlech has revived my reading AND crime fiction love. and here's what i've been reading...
firstly - "a respectable woman" by david fletcher. right... so there's this middle aged detective. he's failed a bit in life and especially love. he has something of a pathetic boy-crush crossed with tinges of lust for a suspect. he has a bit of a drinking problem and gets grumpy far too easily. there's some sexual shenanigans of the more outre variety involving the gentry. and the whole thing is solved via the detective's knowledge of opera. and this isn't an inspector morse mystery. i do suspect colin dexter may have read this though and thought "this is rubbish. i can do better crime fiction than this". pretty much anyone can actually. if it wasn't for the fact that it's just generally stunningly obvious who the criminal is as soon as they turn up, you could also work out the solution because of the ham fisted way fletcher writes the book. fletcher is *not* a bad writer. he's just a clumsy, heavy handed writer. and the sort of evidence that leads me to this conclusion? well, if you do read the book you will notice fletcher likes to indulge himself in heavy handed pieces describing the thought processes of characters. well most characters. in fact pretty much every character. apart from the murderer. just think two thirds through the book who HASN'T had a heavy handed thought piece and... yes, that's the criminal
not very good quite frankly
on the other hand there's "appleby's other story" by michael innes. this is very much typical of late period innes - a master of his craft, not so much caring about writing a masterpiece but enjoying stretching his writing muscles and setting a fiendish puzzle. "appleby's other story" is no classic like "appleby's end", although it is delightfully witty and as light as a souffle. but it is... well... how do i put this? okay... the solution is perhaps the most stunningly cheeky bit of crime writing i have ever read. seriously, only a truly brilliant writer, fully aware of their own skills could bring off a bit of... well, sheer gall like the end of this book. it's astonishing. once i'd realised what innes had done i basically sat and shook with laughter and admiration that anyone could get away with it. i can't tell you anymore, but when you've finished it hopefully you'll see what i mean. cheeky sod!
finally, it's not really a crime novel per se but has a heavy link with both my holiday and crime fiction. "the earth hums in b flat" by mari strachan is pretty much set in harlech, from the detective work me and wife did during the last week (some of the locations match completely and the whole post office selling signed copies with the subtitle "local author" pretty much gave it away), and is that rare thing: a coming of age book that WORKS. the heroine is a slightly dreamy 13 year old girl, not really able to connect with her parents and peers, a bit lonely and a bit special. but she's also tremendously likeable as a heroine and a joy as a central character. she's also a bit of a crime fiction addict, with her eccentric aunt forever dropping off campion novels which gwenni in turn lends to the local police officer. there's a sort of crime at the heart of the book, with a brilliant, cunning solution (cunning especially in it's neat simplicity), an event whose repurcussions are felt throughout. so although it's not a crime novel as such, there's a lot that the average crime fiction fan will find very appealing. irrespective of that, it's also quite utterly the best book i've read all year and doubt that anything else will come near it. a beautifully written, loving, witty, moving and joyful book. the best way to describe it is sort of "the wasp factory" but without the slightly adolescent obsessions that hampers that book. a stunning thing to treasure. highly recommended
i think it worthwhile to quote verbatim the front and back cover of my penguin edition of thurman warriner's "the doors of sleep". the front states "occult, evil, and macabre events in rural sussex" and the back: "the archdeacon was worried. to outsiders the sussex villages of charlton slumbers, slumber st mary's, and little slumber seemed as idyllic as their names. but the archdeacon knew that there was something very wrong about his host charlesworth vinery; about the way he dealt with his tenants; about his apparent power over his beautiful wife. the archdeacon had come to preach a harvest festival sermon but it turned out that he had more need of his powers of exorcism." now, exactly how bad does this book have to be to make you feel disappointed in buying something like this? i mean... the author's name for a start "thurman warriner" is a work of genius in itself. then we have the village names, the caddish villain charlesworth vinery and - we soon discover - series detectives with the names archdeacon the venerable grantius fauxlihough toft, mr ambo and john franklin cornelius scotter... there's even a showman called amen sleep, with his grandchild called starry sleep. how can this fail? i mean SERIOUSLY?
well... it doesn't so much fail, as not quite fully succeed. there are some loose threads here and there which warriner seems to be more than aware of - some online reviews of his work seem to accuse him sometimes of acres of pages of conjecture and discussion rather than actual storytelling, and particularly towards the end of this book when toft and ambo's go-to man (and woman) of scotter and lottie turn up there's quite a bit of this going on. there are a couple of plot points that warriner doesn't really seem fully satisfied with and all credit to him for actually discussing this openly in the character dialogue, this still doesn't stop the reader from being rather less than convinced by his reasoning. it's a slight quibble though, because otherwise warriner is quite a wonderful writer. he's at pains to make the murder make sense - even though the actual incident (man tied to a roundabout in the middle of a village green overnight) is utterly grotesque - where other, lesser writers would have just settled for the admittedly startling image. in fact i thinki i can safely say that warriner's real claim to genius here is that unlike other authors who dabble in the fantastic and grotesque in crime fiction - i'm thinking of john dickson carr, margery allingham and, basically, every other crime writer of the golden age to the fifties - he actually makes the unusual events of the book seem *plausible*. the nearest comparison to "the doors of sleep" is michael innes' "appleby's end" but the difference here is that the village locals, the central family, even the occultist character all seem... likely to exist. it's quite an achievement given the plot of the book
a few other thoughts about the book: warriner is a nicely evocative writer without ever relying on the florid or hackneyed expression. the book is incredibly pacey, yet never seems hurried either. most lesser crime writers would have padded this out with local colour and some crazy antics with the heroes (i mean archdeacon toft is described as a massive, fat, food obsessed cleric but warriner seems to be reluctant to flog this point to death - compare with john dickson carr, a far better writer obviously, and his occasional lapses of judgement with the ostensibly similar henry merrivale). when scotter and lottie turn up towards the end, these rather odd, scruffy "charing cross road types" (as warriner calls them) who seem the biggest indication of the book's 1955 origin, do cause a tiny furore when they interrupt one of toft's sermons... but the incident is merely brushed aside in a couple of lines. i can easily see other crime writers avoiding warriner's economy of writing here and needlessly milking the slight comedic conceit for all its' worth
and possibly the oddest thing about warriner's characters are how suprisingly MOVING they are. i'm thinking of how christie deals with a similar occultist character to shand in "murder is easy", and turns him into a camp, shrill pain in the arse. there's a delicacy to shand, a poignancy to his role in the book, a real sense of sadness to his position in life. similarly i've come across countless relationships in crime fiction akin to the anton/ alyson/ charlesworth one here but never one remotely so moving and touching as this. and as for mr ambo - sort of the main detective of the three ostensinble heroes (toft has the big ideas and strides around being important, scotter does the leg work and the reasoning but ambo has the sense of humanity and the good judge of character of the trio) - there's a lovely, albeit achingly sad hint of a sad past somewhere in there... but one warriner only hints at, teasing out gently with great skill
warriner seems a rum cove of his own accord: a youthful theatrical career, a poultry farmer, cinema technician and finally author. apparently, according to the penguin blurb, "his favourite pastimes are walking and finding obscure pubs and churches". and i'm glad to say he put those pastimes to good use... it's not the greatest crime novel ever, but it's full of good ideas and haunting characters and set pieces that i fancy will hang around my head for years. i'm going to look very hard for the other ambo/ toft/ scotter books. very good indeed
oh i keep giving agatha a chance, and she *keeps* on ruining it for me she really does. just when i read something like "the hollow" or "cards on the table" and start developing something of an admiration for the woman, i read some nonsense by her and it ends up unravelling around me. this christmas i foolishly forsook "an english murder" by cyril hare and plumped for "hercule poirot's christmas". not only is it not a very festive novel - in fact christmas is very much in the background - it lacks either the beautiful simplicity of hare's mystery and the underlying threads about british society. that's not to say "hercule poirot's christmas" is a complete washout, but it's *disappointing* because the solution and method to the mystery seems arbitary at best
the best thing about the book though, and it really is a *very* good thing indeed, is the way in which christie sets up the solution. my feeling is the solution in the end is 1. very messy in terms of the mechanism by which the murder was apparently done and 2. the murderer more than a little arbitary, but if you try and retrace what christie's aims and objectives in writing the book might have been then you can see that the original *thrust* of the book as an idea was almost something very special indeed. to me, the key to the book is the idea that the victim - simeon lee - and his deceased wife have a certain amount of character traits that are then shared throughout the next generation. it has a sort of logic problem element this idea, that the combination of venom, pettiness, mischief and loyalty that makes the surprisingly complex character of lee so interesting has also combined with the sweetness, innocence, love and certain amount of psychological weakness inherent in his late wife and produced various combinations in their children and grandchildren. this is the area where the book really does flourish - the son who most ostensibly takes after his father shares certain aspects with his mother, and in another brother's case the one devoted to the memory of his mother has the same steely desire for revenge inherent in his father. if christie had really gone to town with this idea then the book would have been easily the match of "cards on the table", with that same psychological streak of logic playing through the variant characters as you try and match the suspect with the most in common with the late victim (for much of the book i was convinced it was an elaborate suicide made to *look* like murder). but instead she sort of gets bored and just plumps for just any murderer and a rather silly method which really frustrates the hell out of you when you're beginning to finally think there may be more to this writer
of course this wasn't helped by the other wintry christie i experienced, "the sittaford mystery" in the form of a nineties radio four adaptation. let me see, how do i put this? well, the first cd of the adaptation was really quite fun and interesting and then the second one proved to be... bollocks? is there a sillier reveal than the one for this book? i wasn't convinced by either the method OR the motive, *especially* not the motive. it all seemed incredibly arbitrary - and as for the heroine suddenly plumping for her weak fiance over her collaborator in detection "because he needs me and you don't"... good god, what kind of ending is that? maybe i need to stop reading charles osborne's fawning "the life and crimes of agatha christie" as i work through these books. every time he goes on about how brilliant she is compared to other crime writers, i'll remember the ending of "the sittaford mystery" and wonder if the poor bloke was somehow feeble minded. frankly, it's a load of bollocks and two worryingly poor endings to christie stories in a row are perilously close to undoing the good work of "the hollow" and "cards on the table"
why do i ever bother with this maddening author?
i bought "darkness over hycroft" by f a chittenden for three very simple reasons:
1. it was only a pound
2. it was in it's original forties thriller club dust jacket, a wonderfully lurid thing with a skull and a mask of a beautiful woman
3. it was by some called f a chittenden, for goodness sake. i mean how can you go wrong with something by someone called f a chittenden?
well... by dint of it being a bit crap. this is one of the most maddening crime novels i've read in a long, long time... mainly because so much of it isn't technically bad at all. the detection works well. the detectives - a local policeman called rennie and a retired american investigator called raynor (alarm bell ringing straightaway as the names are so close that you often get them slightly confused) - work well. the plotting works well. in theory this should mean a rewarding and enjoyable bit of minor golden age shenanigans, but sadly not
this is because chittenden isn't so much a bad writer, but a chronic underwriter. his idea of building tension is to go on about the stifling atmosphere and weather outside and the threat of a storm. and then he leaves it as just that. tension between characters is underlined and overly explained by chittenden, but then never ably expressed in the narrative itself either by characters' actions or dialogue. if we meet one of the main suspects in the case, it must be so fleetingly that i wasn't really paying attention during that chapter. it's so undercooked, chittenden may as well just have published dialogue, a series of character names and descriptions and then just the outline of the plot itself. the whole thing just drags on with an incredible lack of tension to a rather predictable ending (you know the kind: everything points toward X not being the villain so thusly you suspect X and hope that the author will then prove you wrong and the villain will be Y... and then it still turns out to be X). so lacking in tension in fact, i just skim read it in the final pages because the whole dreary thing was just going on and on and on and on and on....
why this is so frustrating is because unlike many of the crime novel stinkers i've read over the years, chittenden can obviously cook up an intriguing plot and solution, and can even write passably well. he just... can't make them all stick together as a book. it's as if he's bringing all the ingredients together to make a soup and just leaves them as ingredients, rather than actually cooking them in some way
my trip to america brought me a few treasures to add to the crime collection. firstly i found my first ellery queen books - probably not very good examples of the series, but i've never knowingly seen an ellery queen book in any british book shop over the years - and a couple of intriguing if shlocky looking pulp things... and i found this fantastically ridiculous oddity
i mean how could i fail to pick that up? any book with a cover showing a munchkin with a dagger in it's back simply *has* to earn a place on my shelf. "murder on the yellow brick road" by stuart kaminsky is the story of the murder of a munchkin, found on the set of "the wizard of oz" about a year after the film has been released. the studio have kept the set up for publicity reasons - something i imagine is true, especially as kaminsky used to be a film lecturer before he became a ludicrously prolific crime writer - and are much alarmed to find the corpse of one of the 'little people' found in costume on set. to investigate the murder - and particularly to placate the immensely anxious judy garland - MGM hire private detective toby peters to look into the crime
the idea is very simple - rather than a clever, knowing, postmodern take on cameo appearances kaminsky is plain and simply doing a nostalgic romp where the private eye genre meets the golden age of hollywood straight on. he admits as much in interviews he's written. there's a great deal of humour that he gets out of this situation, and his hero, but the most amazing thing is how straightforward a crime book this is. the puzzle is simple, straightforward and satisfying and doesn't take a genius to work out - but that's not a bad thing. because it's so direct and simple it means he's able to spend time on atmosphere and colour, and even though the plot is simple it's still got a few twists and turns on the way. kaminsky's main aim is to create the antithesis of philip marlowe in peters - he's a big lug of a man with a broken nose, he's a bit moody and sullen although kind at heart, he's not terribly bright, he's on the lower rungs of american society, he's prone to some good leaps of logic but is no great detective - and make him a believable central figure to weave the sillier stuff around. and so we get cameos by clark gable, judy garland, victor fleming, louis b mayer, raymond chandler and - blink and you'll miss him - william randolph hearst and pretty much all of them except chandler work well. there's none of the silly (but fun) postmodern pranks someone like m j trow likes to play when he puts famous historical figures in the lestrade books. these are just iconic figures that kaminsky plays amazingly straight and uses simply to further the plot and there's a lot to admire in that... the temptation to play around with our preconceptions must be massive and to his credit i'm impressed he's resisted it
but... but... it does kind of make the book a bit dull? the really interesting characters are peters' inner circle of friends and hangers on: his dentist friend, the swiss translator dwarf, his very bitter brother... maybe this was the point of the book to contrast the lumpen proles with the high profile icons and accordingly show the rough mechanicals are as interesting - if not more so! - than the starry hollywood types. but that alone doesn't quite save it. i was hoping for something a little more ludicrous than how it turned out and apart from a sly moment at the end where garland gets the better of the villain which nicely reflects a moment from "the wizard of oz" (and frankly i could have done with a lot more moments like this) it's all a bit bland and forgettable... with further volumes detailing the hero's run ins with the likes of bela lugosi, w c fields, joan crawford (the ludicrously titled "mildred pierced" where a character's wife called mildred gets killed with a crossbow purely to allow for a terrible pun in a title), cary grant, charlie chaplin, mae west and most tantalisingly of all the marx brothers (and he's attempting to work abbott and costello into one as well which has pretty much sold me immediately) there's hope the books pick up. because is there a thought more depressing than a crime novel starring the marx brothers that's actually BORING?
i'd like to be a bit more generous about "the homicidal colonel" by robert player, but if i'm honest i can't be because it is quite utterly one of the worst crime novels i have ever, *ever* read. player seems to be a bit of an obscure figure in british crime fiction. certainly i'd never heard of him before i found a copy of his novel "the ingenious mr stone" in a lincoln second hand bookshop a few years ago. i picked up "mr stone" primarily because it was published in 1946 and was british - thusly falling into my period of interest pretty squarely - and also because the cover was *interesting*. it was one of those lurid seventies designs that most crime paperbacks of the time were saddled with - that met their apogee with the ludicrously violent covers of poor old patricia wentworth books - but had a bit of an oddness about it that i can't really delve into too much. and that's because said cover basically gave away *every bit* of the book's twist. not just some of it, but ALL of it. about halfway through the book i suddenly realised i knew what the cover meant and that said cover actually gave away the solution to the crime, the villain, the method... everything. and it's bloody annoying, i can tell you, for a decent crime book to be ruined by the cover design of all things. if you ever see a copy, look for the spine and get a loved one to buy it for you and cover it in plain paper. then read it - it's a goodie - and afterwards remove said cover and BOGGLE at the stupidity of the design department at arrow. it's that stupid. by the same logic, god knows what they'd have cooked up as the cover of "murder on the orient express"
but that wasn't player's fault. "the homicidal colonel" though is. and inherently the problem is that about 90% of the book itself is given away just in that title. you know immediately who said colonel is, and you know his madness is going to turn homicidal. there are two tiny, perfunctory twists at the end - one of which is not so much signposted as explained away by about chapter three so clumsily is it foreshadowed and the other of which is not so much a twist but more a touch of irony that i'd pretty much assumed was just meant to be an implied undertow to the book. no. nothing that subtle here. whatever happened in the twenty five odd years between "mr stone" and this, player's writing has almost entirely gone to pot
the idea is quite intriguing - the pangborne family are a bunch of louisiana plantation owning ne'erdowells. their father is a bully who has his mistress and their daughter living under the same roof as his wife and children. three of these children are patently shits and the other two vaguely sympathetic. after the patriarch's death - in a flashback - the family splinters, with youngest son hugo particularly going awol. the book starts in cheltenham 1956 with the death of the matriarch and the reading of her will. the plot then darts back to louisiana in 1912 and then forward through the thirties, forties and eventually back to the fifties to reveal what happened to the family and the incidents leading to said will that started in the book. so far so good. there's a nice sense of narrative structure as befits a man who was an architect by trade. but the problem is the clumsiness of the story telling. the focus soon falls on the titular colonel as he starts his killing spree and the many weaknesses of the book follow very soon
firstly, the plotting is all over the place. obviously i'm giving nothing away because it's in the title of the sodding book, but said colonel's killing spree is *all over the place*. at the end of the book one of the big chunks of plot exposition tries to imply that there's been a bit more of a steady line of deaths we haven't known about but that seems more of an after the event insertion by a writer who's having a panic he's not structured his book very well. then there's the murders themselves. the colonel's killings are either out of a desire to further himself financialy or within polite society or later on this weird sexual kink he has as his tendencies begin to overwhelm him. but the key problem is player's writing style is more suited to murders for profit or greed than it is sexual proclivities. there's this odd, artless style to these mid book deaths which has an unusually stuffy, airless, arid style of writing with odd violently florid touches which makes them rather... jarring? and disturbing somehow? and not in a way you imagine he planned it to be. this dodgy writing also bleeds into the dialogue, if you can call it that. people either talk in national cliches - pity the poor irish people for example - or simply do plot exposition at each other. there's an awful early sequence at the plantation where the seeds of the familial crisis are meant to be sowed and instead you get this tortuous chapter of characters describing ancient family history in the form of dialogue which just goes on and on and on
by the end of it, the titular colonel meets an odd, rather subdued end, the big twist is played out - in more plot exposition (you can see why so many writers get the murderer to kill themselves so they can leave some kind of letter detailing their history because as dialogue this stuff just doesn't work) through dialogue - and you very quickly realise it's that very basic plot point you noted in chapter three and then finally, almost as an afterthought, a tiny third one comes mewling and puking into the daylight before it gets cruelly snuffed out three pages later. about a third of the way through the book, half of the novel suddenly fell out and i spent a week reading this sodding thing rather than the day or so it deserved purely because it was such a nightmare to physically hold it together. i should have taken that as a warning quite frankly
it's not all bad though. well actually it is all bad, but there are glimmers of hope. if you take it, as i do, as a first draft of a novel that managed somehow to escape to a publisher's office then you can sort of vaguely dream at how a fourth or fifth draft would have looked. the murders of the colonel could still be the thrust of the book, but the twists could be hidden better, there could be another mystery going on of which the colonel is just a small part. someone could be behind the colonel, encouraging him, pushing him on. there's a great deal a writer could do to make this book fundamentally decent... if he worked hard at it and played with the formula a bit. as it is, what we have is this sickly child of a novel that should have been strangled at birth. still... the cover's an improvement at least
aha! this is more like it! as opposed to "the case of the constant suicides" from last week, "the crooked hinge" is very much fell at his best - as mock gothic and florid as you can get, with claimants, witch cults and evil automatons all thrown into the high summer mix. for most of the book, until the very end when the big twist is thrown into the mix which i have to admit i found a little silly, i though this was going to be *the* john dickson carr book for me. i was convinced it was going to even outdo the masterpiece that is "the hollow man" - but it just doesn't *quite* work well enough to do that. "the hollow man" is still the classic, perfect in it's tone of gothic horror and gripping detection (with a little bit of postmodernism thrown in with that perfect locked room lecture). but "the crooked hinge" comes *very* close
the set up is great, reminding me of julian symons' later "the belting inheritance" that i read about this time last year. sir john farnleigh has returned to his family's country seat after many years in america (his journey there was slightly interrupted by the small problem of being on the titanic), married his childhood sweetheart of sorts and basically become admirable and ernest rather than the young tearaway he was in his youth. but suddenly a claimant turns up a few years later, another man claiming to be farnleigh, a man who claims that the current incumbent of the family seat attacked and tried to kill him aboard the titanic and swap identities. it's during the test to see which is the real farnleigh that tragedy strikes. but is it suicide? murder? who is the real farnleigh? what about the strange death a year before? what about the rumours of dark doings in the neighbourhood over the years? what has any of this got to do with anything?
firstly, like in "the belting inheritance", i have to say a good old claimant story is always a bit of a winner. from the tichborne claimant onwards, the claimant plot grips us because it's about duplicity, about doubles, about doubting what we know... and mainly because a claimant is a lot juicier and easier to write about than an overly complex will or codicil plot. i have to admit that while the book concentrated on this, i had a suspicion as to how the whole thing was done that proved to be utterly, horribly wrong - but still is a thunderingly good idea which i am very much filing away for a rainy day. so thanks for that one mr carr! i'll think of forgiving you for "behind the crimson blind" now... anyway. then there's all the rather juicy black magic subplot which simmers along just nicely and... well i can't say much about the conclusion in and of itself. carr is too much of a craftsman and enjoys his plot construction too much not to judiciously drop hints a plenty throughout the book. i actually took notes this time, because although it's near impossible to actually work out a carr solution, i thought i may at least pick up on some of the hints. and i was right. i picked up on one very important clue dropped at the very beginning of the book and if i'd bothered to research another one of the key aspects of the book - and pay attention to half a dozen other hints given throughout the book - i'd have got halfway to working it out
i also really liked the subtlety of the characterisation. the villain is sort of portrayed in two ways - if you are like me, you'll no doubt hate him and pity the victim, but it's not a massive leap to imagine someone who felt the victim had it all coming to him and to pity the villain. carr is just subtle enough not to overplay that part of the book. then there's the character of page who's basically the de facto carr second lead hero, a sympathetic patsy figure who's been watching all that's been happening over the years and has an unrequited love for one of the heroines. as ever with carr, the romantic subplot is *just* played out well enough for it to not clash with the tone of the book. again, there's a sympathetic policeman who seems to be as much of the detection team with fell throughout the book and then there's a smattering of very well nuanced cameos, from murray the aged teacher of farnleigh through to welkyn the lawyer with an overly developed interest in the dark arts through to both of the claimants themselves. some people will no doubt be frustrated that the villain isn't quite brought to justice, but as i said above that's all part of the subtlety of the book and anyway, i read the book as evidence that said villain's psychological make up will be of the kind that they will probably act again at some time and not quite be so lucky
the one thing it does demonstrate though is carr is beyond a shadow of a doubt a showman first and foremost - the automaton at the centre of the book has shades of the very different one in "he couldn't kill patience" which is intrinsically about magic, and with carr's references to magical text books (i'm *desperate* to get hold of hoffman's "modern magic" now) which remind me of the references to the cannell book on houdini in "the hollow man", basically it underlines that always carr is at his best when misdirecting his central illusion. it's no coincidence that the most carr-ish detective outside of carr/ dickson is jonathan creek and that creek is, of course, a magician's assistant. the heavy atmosphere of magic and illusion positively *drips* from carr's best books - and with the subplot based on maelzel's chess player and the constant presence of the possible witch-cult pervading everything in the book this is one of the most heavily "arcane" of all his novels
and as for it's usefulness for me? untold. as all the best fell books do, there are references to books carr has been using for research which are a treasure trove for the likes of me to slowly work out how his mind developed these brilliant little intricate plots. i truly wish that there was a catalogue of carr's library like those we get for the likes of lovecraft. i mean how much use is lovecraft's library listings when the only really useful info it could give us is already in his essay on the supernatural in fiction? but carr's... oh my. what i would do to really know. it's also been useful because in many ways the villain shares a great deal in common with how i've slowly been seeing the villain in madame_marillat developing. and similarly the gothic tone, especially the florid black magic stuff, is absolutely *catnip* for me at this point in plotting. i've noted a fair old list of ideas to use at a later stage i can tell you. my only fear now is that the only way to go after a classic like this is, sadly, down... but i'll take my chances! oh i'll take my chances!
"out goes she" - or "prisoner's base" originally in the US, presumably because the term means less than nothing in the UK - is only my second rex stout novel, but considering that the first one was the hilarious anti-fbi/ j edgar hoover wind up "the doorbell rang" which seems to be the most atypical in the whole series, this is pretty much the first proper nero wolfe novel i've read. as i discussed with "the thin man" i've always been pretty conservative with my crime novel reading and very rarely moved from the british writers if i can help it. but "the thin man" was such a wonderful experience i'm going to give more american crime writers a go - i have a raymond chandler omnibus lined up for the america trip already. admittedly based on only two wolfe novels, already the thing i like most about them - and this is barely a new observation as this same thing is mentioned on the wikipedia entry for stout - is that they very much combine the traditional omniscient detective of the british school (in wolfe himself - as an aside, if you're ever bored look up the hilarious attempts to link wolfe to either sherlock or mycroft as an illegitamate son) in the form of wolfe with the american hard boiled school in the form of archie goodwin. i'm so impressed with the stouts i've now read, i'm going to use them as a sort of bridge between the two genres so i can get used to the american school of writing. i'm making a big space in the bag to hopefully fill with anything by stout i stumble across in february...
anyway. to the book in question. firstly, i'm completely smitten with the detectives themselves. archie goodwin is a watson with brains and smarts, intelligent, thoughtful, witty and sharp witted and with only his love of milk as his one eccentricity. he's an engaging narrator, obviously fond of his boss as much as he is frustrated by him and it's his breezy tone of voice that leads you through the book. wolfe is frankly astonishing. i was always a bit sceptical of a quarter of a tonne detective who never leaves his house if he can help it and dotes on orchids, but it's as if stout has tried to work out how to balance those eccentricities with his more entertaining and believable traits. i love how wolfe is at heart a desperately lazy man who doesn't really like to do any work if he can help it. it's as if sherlock holmes - because obviously mycroft is the template for wolfe - spent all his time in bed rather than taking drugs and playing the violin. that stout turns this cantankerous, lethargic, woman hating grump into the hero is frankly stunning. i laughed out loud a number of times at wolfe's responses to suspect's attempts to account for their movements and there's a lovely dry tone of humour to wolfe at his very best. i even like the fact the detectives come in two sizes - big, idiotic bullies and slightly weary, wary intelligent types. even they're sympathetic... to a degree at any rate
before i get to the book itself, a quick aside. the interesting thing i've noticed on a general level about the - admittedly two or three - american crime novels i've read, is that hammett and stout both had left wing tendencies and sympathies and that the tone of the book is almost diametrically opposite that of the british novels of the period. by which i mean, there's a strong argument that a great deal of british crime writers of the golden age period are very conservative and see the crime novel as a way of reiterating the status quo - a murder happens somewhere beautiful and the police and the talented amateur restore that status quo and root out the evil nestled at it's heart. the american crime novel seems to allow a space to challenge the status quo. big business men are often corrupt and undue riches aren't usually a good thing in these books. even if stout and hammett are exceptions, there's still a feeling that you couldn't have such questioning about the values of the upper classes and the monied members of society comfortably existing in a british crime novel. that, to me, is a very telling difference in tone
anyway - to the book in question. as far as a puzzle plot goes, it's no great shakes. there's a nice bit of deduction at the end even if the ruse for getting all the interested parties gathered in one room is a little less than convincing. but the key is that there's a nice easy flow to the way the mystery progresses and the investigation itself, with the keen eyed archie backed up by the behind the scenes - and even keener eyed - wolfe himself. what's most interesting is that the victims of the crimes are all genuinely people whose loss is very tangibly felt. they are by no means perfect characters, but the widower's anger at his wife's death is awful and the final death is almost heart rending. as well as the playfulness - wolfe is wonderfully withering and blunt and must have been a joy to write - there's a real deep seated level of humanity in the book. and that humanity is almost entirely in the form of archie goodwin. the conclusion and solution is satisfying if a little unspectacular, but then i'm getting the impression already that stout never saw that as the be all and end all of the crime novel. there are other, more important, issues at stake here about loyalty and loss. i was surprised by how actually *genuinely* moving the book could be at times as well
i get the feeling that aside from the fact that archie is the client in this book, it's probably a reasonably minor bit of nero wolfe. i can't really compare with the rest of the series until i read any more. but i do definitely know i'll be reading a lot more if they're as good as this
there are some crime writers in my collection whose books i eke out. cyril hare, anthony berkeley, freeman wills crofts, edmund crispin, margery allingham for example, writers who i know for all their faults will always tick the box for me. i'm cautious to read these writers because i've already drained the well of the collected crime novels of c h b kitchin (admittedly there are only three of them!) and thus have no more to look forward to, and i'd hate this to happen with any of the above. certainly this is the case with john dickson carr who i would say, if i ever was pushed on the matter, is probably moment for moment the most entertaining crime writer of them all for my money
"the case of the constant suicides" is definitely minor carr. not actively bad carr - those exist, as "behind the crimson blind" by carter dickson ably proves being as it is the single worst crime novel ever committed to paper - but definitely not in the league of "the reader is warned", "the hollow man" or "the ten teacups". it most reminds me of a very similar wartime HM novel, "he couldn't kill patience". there are a number of similiarities - both set in the war time, both fairly grotesque in setting (deserted zoo, ugly and collapsing scottish castle) and most noticeably both have a very similar pair of romantic leads, ostensible proffesional rivals who over the course of the book don't so much put their differences aside, but instead realise they can comfortably co-exist as long as they're together. i've always liked the romantic side of carr's books as they're always so nicely unsentimental and sweet natured. but aside from that, "the case of the constant suicides" is about the most odd - and occasionally jarringly odd - book i've yet read by carr
the problem is the tone of the thing. one minute you get a horrible description - and quite brilliantly evoked - of a suicide victim swinging with a soft rope covered in silk handkerchiefs around his neck, and his dog plaintively, hopefully running around the dead figure. it's a stunning image. but the problem is a few chapters before, you've had an incredible amount of nonsense involving broadsword flights, the constant pursuit and humiliation of an annoying canadian reporter and a vile family whisky concoction called "the doom of the campbells". all of which are actually very funny indeed, rather than the sometimes slightly overplayed farce in the lesser HM books, but they really do belong in the world of the HM novels which are far more light comedy in tone rather than the mock gothic universe of dr gideon fell and his g k chestertonish physicality. the book seems to a weird combination of the strengths of both detectives but never fully satisfying because fell just seems a bit lost amongst all the antics. there's also a bit too much of a tendency for carr to dabble in comedy scottish accents, especially in the figure of elspat - who is deeply entertaining, but also deeply irritating at the same time
the oddest thing though about the whole book - and by far and away the best thing about it - is the order all the events occur in. about halfway through the book, fell cracks the method of the central crime and hints at it wildly - enough for me to get the general gist of how it was done at any rate - and then gives it up at least eighty pages before the end of the novel. and similarly, the romantic subplot is wrapped up nice and neatly about three quarters of the way through the book. also, unusually for a carr novel, it's pretty obvious all the way through who did the crime and how it was done. the motive is pretty much introduced about a hundred pages in and the criminal is fairly obvious merely in terms of simple deduction: it's obvious who didn't or couldn't have done it and that leaves us with - well - the villain. but oddly, i don't mind this. sometimes carr over reaches himself terribly, with convoluted but admirable designs for crimes which are tremendously entertaining but rely on blind luck and chance. by having a really simple plot and motive, carr manages for once to make a book that satisfies as well as teases. and the second murder method is both simple, elegant and fiendishly complicated - although again, showman that he is, carr wildly hints at how this is done as well
so although minor, it's actually going to be one of my favourites. the comedy stuff is like the lost screenplay to a follow up to "the lady vanishes" or "the thirty nine steps", the plot zips along (shortest carr novel i've yet read) and for all it's many faults it's oddly the one i think i'll look back at as the most simply elegant of all carr's novels. it's not got the grandeur and folly of his masterpieces, but it undeniably *works* beautifully and that simplicity is sometimes more than enough. the man was a genius, nothing less
and i have officially found the book. absolutely, unquestionably *the* book. oh my word, i never thought i'd find it because to be honest i wasn't looking for it, but now i have found *the* book. and i've never been gladder to discover anything
by this i mean that i've finally found the one book that tonally, thematically and in readability basically amounts to everything i aspire to make mrs_bramley and madame_marillat. and that book is "hatchett and lycett" by nigel williams. it's far from a perfect book - in fact there are a handful of genuinely awkward problems the book never fully manages to successfully navigate - but the more i read, the more i realised that the awkward problem i've had from the start trying to work out what level to peg my books had finally been sorted. here we have high drama, murder, emotional angst, dark deeds of the past, melodrama, poignancy and farce all nestling together almost entirely perfectly. and by golly am i glad to finally have something i can turn to which can shake up the more moribund and wobbly bits of prose i've written
nigel williams is a bit of an odd writer. he was quite a big thing a few years ago, especially around the time of the wimbledon poisoner novels. he was considered one of those authors i would always look for, quite highly regarded and very popular - but something seemed to happen to him after "scenes from a poisoner's life" and he rather disappeared off the radar. a shame really as when i was at university he was definitely one of the authors i always scanned the shops for. i still hold the wimbledon poisoner books as classics of their kind, even if it has been a few years since i dipped into them. i'd not really thought about him or considered him at all for quite some time now, but then stumbled across this book in a todmorden charity shop and liking the plot description and having 50p to spare decided to plump for it. oh am i glad i did! basically the plot goes something like this. dennis hatchett and alec lycett have been close friends for getting on for eighteen years now and for much of that time, the third member of their group has been their friend norma lewis. suddenly lycett finds himself attracted to norma and hatchett begins to wonder whether he's been interested in her all this time as well, and the group dynamic slowly begins to shift. meanwhile someone is bumping off teachers at their croydon private school, world war 2 has just started, norma has inherited a sort of niece and there's some distant rumbling from the past about incidents in 1921 and the early days of hatchett and lycett's friendship. certain questions have remained unanswered or plainly ignored and hidden for years. like what happened to hatchett's absent vicar father? and what happened to lycett's thoroughly unpleasant twin lucius?
as you can see from the description above, the book is densely plotted. and if i'm honest it's far too densely plotted for it's own good. none of the plots *don't* work, but some seem to have intrigued williams more than others. the murder plot - although it works quite nicely - seems definitely undercooked and a little underthought out. for a plot so intriniscally intertwined with agatha christie novels, it doesn't really feel like the product of anyone who knows many agatha christie books at all. also, although it contains some of my favourite bits of the book, the story of the refugee and her involvement in the german nuclear fission programme sometimes seems as if it has wandered in from a far more serious novel. the book is far more at home relating the strange emotions between hatchett, lycett and norma and how this all linked with the horrible, secret events of many years ago. williams plays a blinder here and manages some really moving scenes. some of this is moving because it deals with love, some of this is moving because it deals with death (there's a really beautifully understated sequence towards the end of the book involving a very sudden, unexpected and bittersweet death of a rather minor character), some of this is moving because it deals with anger and bitterness and rage and confusion and secrets and really dark human emotions. and then suddenly williams unexpectedly plays a comedy card and brings us a set piece such as the awful sermon before war is declared (basically it all hinges on the correct capitalisation of the pronoun for God) or the hilarious miswritten version of chamberlain's speech announcing war delivered by a well meaning but rather foolish schoolboy. he also has some very funny simple jokes such as a running gag about lycett's moving letters of love to norma being heavily edited by a paranoid superior officer in the army and coming back as weird, filthy, abstract notes. and he has an unsurpassed way with a metaphor: there's a great cricket game back in 1921 and the young hatchett is doing pretty much what i did whenever fielding - cringing in fear and holding out my hands vaguely hoping the ball will come my way. williams describes this stance as like a roman wife pleading with the emperor for her husband's life and later on has this fantastic sentence where "hatchett was still playing aggrippina pleading for aggrippinus maximus' life". i laughed out loud at that and almost applauded. it must be a wonderful feeling to make a sentence *that* perfect
as i said it's not entirely perfect. the dunkirk stuff seems a little off - a shame, because a bit of digging about on the internet reveals this is what williams worked on the most, although the death of one of the schoolboy's really is pitched perfectly and really moves and makes you feel awkward at the same time - and the final showdown at the church during a combination of a funeral and a wedding is a little hurried and unrealistic after what has gone before, stuff that has been so meticulously planned out. but it's quibbling because for all those scenes which don't quite work out there's stuff like the bombing of croydon which does. and the characters, including the staff and students, really seem like real people. williams has a wonderful way of making a cameo appearance actually seem like a proper character. a perfect example of this is hatchett's mother who is barely in the book but whose presence looms over a great deal of the novel. and also, and this may seem a bit odd to a lot of you but it's really appreciated by me, williams really has a way with character names. peckerley, mavroleon, forssander etc etc are brilliant discoveries and this comes from someone who's been for the last year or so noting any first or last names that strike him as potentially worth using in the future (even wandering around graveyards to find ones at times)
but why this book is so important a discovery is because suddenly i feel like i have a rudder. madame_marillat has frankly been a bit hard to control of late. i'm slowly working on it again - mostly writing stuff in longhand and then typing it up later - but the problem has been quite how to pitch the book. what is it meant to be? a genre book? pastiche? comedy? a serious novel with elements of both? should i be trying for more than all of those? suddenly i have an answer. because although far from perfect, suddenly i have a guide through all this, a book i can dip into to see how someone else managed to pull this off. at times "hatchett and lycett" seems like a slightly less adventurous version of jonathan coe's "what a carve up!" and "the house of sleep". this may sound like a bad thing, and from someone who fell in love with coe because of his adventurous way of trying to turn a great novel into something more by playing with the format and the structure you may think i'm criticising williams. i'm not. coe is a far more complex and rich writer of prose but when he's not trying to achieve something extraordinary with his books he falls a bit flat (accordingly why i'm no big fan of "the rotters club" and "the closed circle" and those odd, pre "what a carve up!" novels which seem all over the place and seriously lacking in cohesion). williams is not attempting anything on the scale of coe's novels here, although he is aiming at saying something about britain and the war and english society, and because he has his sights a little lower he manages to pretty much hit every target. and accordingly whereas, say, the big twist at the end of "the house of sleep" is a bit of a stinker to some people, the twist at the end of "hatchett and lycett" is far more convincing (although to be honest, williams has been trying too hard all book to make you think the opposite of what has happened actually happened and as such you rather suspect him of protesting too much and accordingly pretty much have the twist pegged from the beginning). i hope it is part one of a trilogy as well because i think i may need more of this sort of thing as i keep writing
as i said, this is far from the best book i've ever read. it's not even the best book i've read this year - "the thin man" gets that vote, although this is the second best out of, what, six? - but it's so good to have something to aspire to, to aim at, to use as a guide through this world of prose that's bogging me down. the more i write this blessed book, the more i complicate the narrative and the thing gets more and more awkward to navigate. i'm going to work on that in the second draft and just use the first draft to get the bugger written. but this book has managed to so deftly juggle the complex strands (even though some of the strands aren't quite as used as much as they could be) and make it all seem so easy, i finally feel i can get this bastarding book done. thank you nigel williams. i think i may just owe you...