“I don’t like to be out of my comfort zone, which is about a half an inch wide.” (Larry David)

Last week I wrote about dystopian novels, and Kaggsy commented that when things are bad, comfort reading is the thing, particularly golden age crime. A sage suggestion – it offers the escape of another time, and the reassurance of puzzles being solved, things being put right. So this week’s post is all about comfort. The comfort of people being stabbed in the back with knives, and left to freeze to death in the snow.

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Firstly, the golden age classic A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh (1934), the first of her novels featuring Chief Inspector Alleyn. I did enjoy this: a country house murder, a closed circle of suspects, class snobbery, unfounded paranoia about Bolsheviks; it was a perfect example of the genre 😀

Sir Hubert Handesley throws a party at his country house, to include a game of ‘Murder’ – you can probably guess what happens. During the time allotted to the game, a man who disappointingly, is never referred to as a cad or bounder though he is clearly both those things, is found stabbed in back, bleeding out next to the cocktail tray and the  dinner gong (love the incidental details of golden age mysteries!)  What’s more, the knife is Russian:

“‘Rum coincidence that the knife, your butler, and your guest should all be of the same nationality.’”

Enter Inspector Alleyn – dry of wit, Oxford of education, mysterious of background but suspiciously posh, not a man to be carried away by xenophobic paranoia, who sets about investigating the murder through an appealing mix of dogged attention to detail and flashes of flamboyance fuelled by his prodigious intelligence:

“‘As a rule,’ he observed, ‘there is much less to be gleaned from the clothes of a man with a valet  than from those of the poorer classes. “Highly recommended by successful homicide” would be a telling reference for any man-servant.’”

Ngaio Marsh’s authorial voice is similarly witty, making this novel a funny, entertaining puzzle.

“Mr Benningden was one of those small, desiccated gentleman so like the accepted traditional figure of a lawyer that they lose their individuality in their perfect conformation to type.”

A Man Lay Dead is perfectly paced (only 176 pages in my edition) and of course Alleyn gets his murderer, with a few red herrings along the way. I bought this as part of the perennially tempting collected sets from Book People, and I’m looking forward to working my way through the rest…

Patrick Malahide as Inspector Alleyn in the BBC adaptation

Patrick Malahide as Inspector Alleyn in the BBC adaptation

Secondly, a novel I’m including as part of Women in Translation month – head over to Meytal’s blog to read all about WITmonth. Under the Snow by Kerstin Ekman (1961, trans. Joan Tate 1996) is not a golden age novel, but it offers much of the same appeal, being a straightforward, non-gory whodunit. Reading in the midst of a UK summer (such as it is) it also offered me an escape into a wintry Lapland landscape, far away from real life and the daily news which currently evokes this reaction in me:

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One winter’s night in a remote northern village in Lapland, a mah jong party gets out of hand (as they so frequently do, those crazy mah jong players) and the art teacher of the local school, Matti, is found frozen to death in the snow. Police officer Torsson is called into this small community:

“just like Torsson, the chief of police of this mining town had originally come from the south. Having carried out his duties for thirty-five years among a taciturn breed in a country where the winter is five thousand and sixty-four hours long, he had lost some of the animation in his speech and the cheerfulness he associated with brightly lit shopping streets and apple blossom. He did not like to be disturbed.”

Torsson feels something is not right with Matti’s death, but can’t prove it. The story then jumps forward to the summer, when Matti’s friend David arrives in the area:

“Occasionally the road seemed to be leading up to heaven, the car climbing in growling second-gear up kilometre-long hills towards the empty sky…this July day was clear, the sky blue. The mountains seemed to him to be the most immobile and largest objects he had ever seen. Top marks to you, old chap, he thought, for David Malm travels round the world, painting, and he’s seen a thing or two”

David and Torsson form an unlikely partnership as they start exploring the events of the winter night in the midst of the relentless daylight of summer within the Arctic Circle. The overweight, steady, unemotional Torsson has been underestimated by the villagers but alongside the more flamboyant David progress is made. The mystery itself is straightforward (the novel is only just over 200 pages) but the atmosphere evoked by the extremes of light in the different seasons is fully utilised by Ekman to create an eerie, unsettling atmosphere.

“there is infinite patience up here. This is due to time, which thanks to the sun’s strange behaviour exists here in different proportions. A year is one long cycle of cold night and blistering light day. The celestial clock turns rather majestically when you live right underneath the pendulum.”

To end, a cornucopia of comfort 🙂

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18 thoughts on ““I don’t like to be out of my comfort zone, which is about a half an inch wide.” (Larry David)

  1. I’m not huge on crime (Golden Age or otherwise) but I do have ‘comfort reads’ – mostly re-reading Gatsby or something by Elizabeth Taylor (I have yet to read all of her books so keep them in reserve for when the need is urgent).

    I love that rabbit in a hat hard. And the Shetlands in shetlands.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t read contemporary crime at all, but I do love the golden age. I think I find it escapist – today’s crime writing would be far too bloody for me!

      Gatsby is a perfect novel, but too sad for me to have as a comfort read 😦 I completely understand eking out a favourite author – I still haven’t read the last two Kate Atkinson…

      I’m not normally one for cutesy animals, but I could not resist that rabbit, and shetlands for Shetlands is such a brilliant idea, I’m amazed its not been done before 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Gosh, it’s been so long since I read Ngaio Marsh – I’d kinda forgotten the wit. I feel a re-read coming on! Haha! Michael Palin really is nearly as sweet as the choccies and cute as the bunny, isn’t he?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really enjoyed the Marsh – most golden age crime seems to have some humour but with her I felt it was more to the fore. Happy re-reading!

      One of the greatest days of my life was standing next to Michael Palin while he ate a slice of chocolate cake – if it wasn’t for that pesky restraining order…. 😀

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  3. I have added Under The Snow to my list, I live a chilly mystery, and I also love your cornucopia of comfort, and have no idea why Michael Palin made me laugh our loud but you are so right! If a comet was heading towards the earth, Michael next to me, the chocolates in my hand and the rabbit on my lap would make it a lot easier to cope with.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’d rather murder than dystopia any day – at least with the former you know there are forces of order out there somewhere…. I haven’t read Marsh for ages but I do remember liking her books very much indeed.

    And thank you for the cornucopia of comfort – the rabbit is enough to reduce me to a jelly but the ponies! Ponies in jumpers!!! (*melts quietly in a corner*)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I love the quote that heads up this post – it could be written for me! There is something incredibly comforting about Golden Age crime fiction, as you say – we know what we are getting, there is a mystery and everything gets neatly sown up with no overt violence. Great post (well within my comfort zone)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve also run to the gory comfort of murder and crime since Brexit and your recommendations have been added to my wish list. Those pictures are wonderful. Nothing says comfort like a pony in fairisle! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m not a big crime reader, but I can see what would be comforting about it. It’s reassuring to know that you can expect all the little ends to be sewn up neatly in a satisfying conclusion. If only life followed suit!

    Love your cornucopia of comfort – makes me look forward to an Autumn curled up in front of my (imaginary) fire, with lots of knitted things, and watching Agatha Christie reruns 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really only like golden age crime – I’m too squeamish for contemporary crime! It’s definitely having everything neatly pull together that is satisfying and escapist – as you say, life is never like that!

      In January and February the winter gets me down, but the period up to the end of the year when the nights start drawing in I love – knitwear and Christie is definitely the way to go 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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