“And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover/To entertain these fair well-spoken days,/I am determined to prove a villain” (Richard III)

Richard III is being buried today in Leicester Cathedral after his remains were discovered in the rather unlikely surroundings of a car park in the county in August 2012.  Controversial to the end, the reinternment of his remains has been delayed by legal wrangling between Leicester and York as to who should have the bones.  Richard III is one of history’s villains, often believed to have killed the sons of Edward IV to secure his own claim on the throne of England (significant crowds attended his funeral procession on Sunday, so maybe he’s been given the benefit of the doubt). This image is due in no small part to the enduring influence of Shakespeare’s portrayal in The Life and Death of Richard III (1591ish), helped along by Laurence Olivier’s 1955 film.

In the interests of balance I thought I would look at this play alongside a novel that seeks to rescue Richard’s reputation.

Richard is an unusual villain in Shakespeare, in that he is the only eponymous character to start his own play (I think…feel free to correct me in the comments!) as he comes on stage to proclaim:

“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York”

He is also unusual in that he starts with a trochee – bear with me, I’m not going to get too technical & give you flashbacks to the horrors of Shakespeare at school. But I think this is worth pointing out; most characters speak in iambic pentameter (dee-DUM, dee-DUM etc). Richard comes out and seizes the stage with “NOW is…” (DUM-dee): he is in charge from the off.

What follows is the story of a consummate politician doing whatever he deems necessary to seize the crown.  Although he tries to persuade us that his disability (a curved spine, possibly a slightly weaker arm one side) means that through medieval ableism he is marked for villainy (the title quote I’ve used is a pun – he is determined in will and determined by fate) really no-one is less disabled that Richard, as the powerful opening shows us.  He manages to bend everyone to his will; he seduces Lady Anne within one scene, despite the fact that he killed her husband:

“Was ever woman in this humour woo’d?
Was ever woman in this humour won?
I’ll have her; but I will not keep her long.”

This is the bleak humour of Richard III – he plots to kill his fiancée even as he seduces her.  Often the play is described as a tragedy, but it’s really one of Shakespeare’s history plays and the tone is ambiguous: the last production I saw, with Mark Rylance in the lead, played it as a comedy as far as possible.

Richard’s machinations eventually catch up with him and he is defeated by Richmond (Henry VII) at the Battle of Bosworth, desperately crying out “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” A villain indeed, but the audience, like Lady Anne, is seduced by him against our will and the stage is a poorer space when he’s not in it.

Secondly, Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey (1951).  It was Emmie’s review of another Josephine Tey novel that introduced to me to this author, and although I don’t normally read series’ out of order, I made an exception for Daughter of Time, as the Crime Writers’ Association voted it the greatest mystery novel of all time.

Inspector Alan Grant has broken his leg and is bored to abstraction away from his job at Scotland Yard.  His glamorous friend Marta suggests he try and solve a historical mystery to keep from going stir crazy. Captivated by a portrait of Richard III, he decides to investigate the mystery of the Princes in the Tower.

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(Image from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_III_of_England)

Grant’s team is not comprised of his usual fellow policeman, and they all have varying theories:

“Nurse Ingham thinks he’s a dreary. Nurse Darroll thinks he’s a horror.  My surgeon thinks he’s a polio victim. Sergeant Williams thinks he’s a born judge.  Matron thinks he’s a soul in torment.”

As he becomes more involved in the mystery, Grant repeatedly finds himself in opposition to the legend of Richard III:

“’Always a snake in the grass, if you ask me. Smooth, that’s what he was: smooth.  Biding his time.’

Biding his time for what? He wondered… He could not have known his brother Edward would die unexpectedly at the age of forty […]It was surely unlikely that a man busy with the administration of the North of England, or campaigning (with dazzling success) against the Scots, would have much interest in being ‘smooth’.  What then had changed him so fundamentally in so short a time?”

Grant needs an ally, and it arrives in the form of American academic Brent Carradine:

“He was a tall boy, hatless, with soft fair curls crowning a high forehead and a much too big tweed coat hanging round him in negligent folds…He brought over the chair, planted himself on it with the coat spread around him like some royal robe and looked at Grant with kind brown eyes whose luminous charm not even the horn-rims could dim”

Between the two of them, they start to piece together what they think happened as various powerful medieval families jostled for the crown. The more research they do, the less likely Richard-as-murderer seems to be:

“One could go through the catalogue of his acknowledged virtues, and find each of them, individually, made his part in the murder unlikely in the extreme. Taken together they amounted to a wall of impossibility that towered into fantasy.”

Tey does an excellent job of balancing academic arguments and historical fact with keeping the plot moving (the novel is only 222 pages).  Grant concludes his investigation on the day of his discharge home from hospital, convinced he has his man.  Let’s just say Shakespeare could never have dramatised the conclusion he comes to.

To end, I can’t help thinking that if Richard III had a chance to set the record straight, he’d choose to do so through the medium of song:

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Agatha Christie (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #49)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century. Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

The great thing about this reading challenge, and the very reason I set myself to do it, is that it means I read books I wouldn’t have normally. Usually this is because I hadn’t heard of them, but in the case of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, it was because I thought I didn’t like Agatha Christie. I spent a summer when I was about 14 reading a Poirot omnibus, and I thought it was poorly written, with thin plots, shallow characterisation and an annoying central protagonist (I believe Christie shared this opinion of Poirot!) Despite a general love of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, I haven’t picked up a Christie since. So I owe Le Monde (and the attractive bookseller who assured me it was the best of the Poirot novels – how I miss you, Blackwells) a great deal of thanks, because I really enjoyed The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

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(Image from: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/249316529344895760/)

The story is narrated by Dr James Sheppard, the village GP who lives with his nosy sister, the character of whom was a prototype of Miss Marple.

“Our village. King’s Abbot, is, I imagine, very much like any other village. Our big town is Cranchester, nine miles away. We have a large railway station, a small post office, and two rival ‘General Stores.’ Able-bodied men are apt to leave the place early in life, but we are rich in unmarried ladies and retired military officers. Our hobbies and recreations can be summed up in the one word, ‘gossip.’”

Within this inter-war bucolic tranquility, Sheppard is called to the suicide of Mrs Ferrars, a wealthy widow who was engaged to the eponymous victim. She sent Ackroyd a letter explaining she was being blackmailed over the poisoning of her first husband, but Ackroyd is murdered before he finds out who the blackmailer was. Enter a certain Belgian detective to solve the crime. He is Sheppard’s new neighbour, and they meet when Poirot hurls a vegetable marrow over the garden fence:

“’I demand of you a thousand pardons, monsieur. I am without defence. For some months now I cultivate the marrows. This morning suddenly I enrage myself with these marrows. I send them to promenade themselves – alas! not only mentally but physically. I seize the biggest. I hurl him over the wall. Monsieur, I am ashamed. I prostrate myself.’

Before such profuse apologies, my anger was forced to melt. After all, the wretched vegetable hadn’t hit me. But I sincerely hoped that throwing large vegetables over walls was not our new friend’s hobby.”

From this unpromising beginning, the two team up to catch the murderer. It’s difficult to say any more without spoilers, but I thought the novel was good fun (as the marrow scene shows), well-paced (only 235 pages in my edition) and confidently knowing:

“’The essence of a detective story,’ I said, ‘is to have a rare poison – if possible something from South America, that nobody has ever heard of- something that one obscure tribe … use to poison their arrows with. Death is instantaneous, and Western science is powerless to detect it.Is that the kind of thing you mean?’

‘Yes. Is there really such a thing?’

I shook my head regretfully.”

Amongst this levity however, there is a dark undertone – someone has been murdered, after all. And although Christie’s novels are not brutal and bloody (this was published in 1926) she does not let reader forget the inhumanity people are capable of displaying toward each other. The ending of the novel was really quite dark, and I thought it all rather wonderful.

One of Christie’s great achievements in the novel is how she distinctive she makes the voice of Poirot; it captures his unique personality perfectly. Here, David Suchet, who has filmed all the Poirot novels for television, explains how he achieves Poirot’s voice:

“The clever men at Oxford/Know all that there is to be knowed./But they none of them know one half as much/As intelligent Mr. Toad!” (Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows)

I’m in Oxford at the moment, a city I love.  I thought I would look this week at novels set in Oxford, and although there are lots to choose from (I guess lots of writers chose to evoke their alma mater) I’ve picked two crime novels, as Oxford seems to encourage this type of story.  I’m not sure why this occurs, but maybe it’s because it’s seen as such a respectable institution and it’s fun to think of a seething mass of violence and intrigue below the calm façade.  Here’s a picture of Oxford’s most famous fictional detective, to compensate for the fact that I’m not looking at any Colin Dexter novels:

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Image from (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1101952/So-did-Morse-lie-love-In-final-seasonal-serial-young-Morses-secret-admirer-reveals-identity–learn-truth-mysterious-car-crash.html)

Firstly, The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin.  This was the first in a series of novels featuring the sleuthing Oxford don Gervase Fen, and is from the Golden Age of Detective fiction, written in 1944.  The opening paragraph struck a chord with me:

“To the unwary traveller, Didcot signifies the imminence of his arrival at Oxford; to the more experienced, another half-hour at least of frustration.  And travellers in general are divided into these two classes; the first apologetically haul down their luggage from the racks on to the seats, where it remains until the end of the journey, an encumbrance and a mass of sharp, unexpected edges; the second continue to stare gloomily out of the window at the woods and fields into which, by some witless godling, the station has been inexplicably dumped”

Well, the woods and fields may be much less evident, but otherwise… seventy years on and nothing changes.  Travelling on this train are Gervase Fen, his friend Sir Richard Freeman who is Chief Constable of Oxfordshire and wishes he was a don (while Fen wishes he was police officer) and various members of a drama group, who will return to London with their numbers somewhat diminished. Fen is a likeable, eccentric don, whose “normal overplus of energy …led him to undertake all manner of commitments and then gloomily to complain that he was overburdened with work and that nobody seemed to care”; he distracts himself on the train by wishing for “’A crime! …A really splendidly complicated crime!’ And he began to invent imaginary crimes and solve them with unbelievable rapidity.”

The first murder, of uber-bitch Yseult Haskell, takes place in a room in college close to Fen’s office, and so much to his delight he is distracted from his work on minor eighteenth-century satirists to investigate:

“His usually slightly fantastic naivety had completely disappeared, and its place was taken by a rather formidable , ice-cold concentration. Sir Richard, who knew the signs, looked up from his conference with the Inspector and sighed.  At the opening of the investigation, the mood was invariable, as always when Fen was concentrating particularly hard; when he was not interested in what was going on, he relapsed into a particularly irritating form of boisterous gaiety; when he had discovered anything of importance he quickly became melancholy […] and when an investigation was finally concluded, he became sunk in such a state of profound gloom it was days before he could be aroused from it.  Moreover these perverse and chameleon-like habits tended not unnaturally to get on people’s nerves.”

I’m not going to say too much about the plot as its nearly impossible not to give spoilers.  But if you think the eccentric Fen is someone you’d like to spend time with do look at The Case of the Gilded Fly.  I loved the dry, yet gentle humour in the writing, and it was a well-paced, easy read.  My favourite character however, was one of the minor players; unlike a lot of detectives, Fen does not have a complicated romantic life filled with encounters with unsuitable lovers, but is married to the brilliantly indulgent Mrs Fen:

“After she had greeted the Inspector with a slow, pleasant smile, Fen seized up the gun and handed it to her, saying:

‘Dolly, would you mind committing suicide for a moment?’

‘Certainly,’ Mrs Fen remained unperturbed at this alarming request, and took the gun in her right hand, with her forefinger on the trigger; then she pointed it at her right temple.

‘There!’ said Fen triumphantly.

‘Shall I pull the trigger?’ asked Mrs Fen.

‘By all means,’ he said absently, but Sir Richard surged up from his chair crying hoarsely: ‘Don’t! It’s loaded!’ and snatched the gun away from her.  She smiled at him. ‘Thank you, Sir Richard,” she said benignly, ‘but Gervase is hopelessly forgetful, and I shouldn’t have dreamed of doing such a thing.  Is that all I can do for you gentlemen?’”

What a woman. Next, a much more recent tale (2005) whose title tells you exactly what to expect: The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez (trans. Sonia Soto). The novel is narrated by a postgraduate mathematics student, who shortly after arriving in England finds his landlady murdered, discovering the body at the same time as his hero, Professor Arthur Seldom “a rare case of mathematical genius”. The Professor is there because he received a note telling him that something would happen “the first of the series” followed with a mathematical symbol, a circle.  As more people die, Seldom continues to receive notes ending with symbols, and believes the murderer is taunting him specifically as he wrote a book on mathematics where he argues that “except in crime novels and films, the logic behind serial murders…is generally very rudimentary…the patterns are very crude, typified by monotony, repetition, and the overwhelming majority are based on some traumatic experience or childhood fixation”. Some serial killers may take that as a challenge…

The two start working together, using their academic approaches to try and decipher the logic of the murders.  There’s a lot of maths talk, but it’s not overwhelming even for someone like me whose dealings with numbers is limited entirely to their monthly budget.  The combination works well and doesn’t feel forced:

“There is a theoretical parallel between mathematics and criminology; as Inspector Petersen said, we both make conjectures.  But when you set out a hypothesis about the real world, you inevitably introduce an irreversible element of action, which always has consequences.”

Can they make their hypotheses apply in the real world and solve the symbolic series in time to prevent more murders?  What do the symbols really represent?  The Oxford Murders is a short novel and not particularly complex despite the setting in elite mathematics; it’s well written but if you’re a crime aficionado you may find it a bit too straightforward.

The Oxford Murders was made into a film a few years back; from this trailer I would say it’s a fairly faithful adaptation:

Here’s my attempt at a vaguely mathematical end: from the shaded area of a Venn diagram of Oxford and books, here is a picture of one of the most beautiful libraries you’ll ever see – the Radcliffe Camera in central Oxford.  The picture’s wonky because it was blowing a gale and I was up the top of the tower of St Mary the Virgin, where the wind was so strong I thought I, or at the very least my phone, was about to get whipped off the viewing balcony into the square below.  Thankfully we both made it back intact.

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“You have a grand gift for silence, Watson. It makes you quite invaluable as a companion.” (Sherlock Holmes/Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

Yesterday I was vegging out in front of the TV, when I saw something that got me very excited:

Sherlock’s back!  Sherlock’s back!  Sherlock’s back!

OK, now I’ve composed myself, let’s have a discussion about books.  Sherlock’s back!

I’ve gone the obvious route for my first choice, one of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  I chose it because I think this was the first story that made me aware of Sherlock Holmes, watching an old black and white film version starring Basil Rathbone on TV (my mother told me the books were much better and the portrayal of Watson was rubbish – how right she was).  The story is not long, but it crams a great deal in, and is a fast-paced, creepily gothic read.  The story is narrated by Holmes’ loyal companion Dr Watson, who remains loyal despite being on the receiving end of such back-handed compliments from Holmes as: “It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it. I confess, my dear fellow, that I am very much in your debt.” Charming.  The two are employed by Dr Mortimer to investigate the death of Sir Charles Baskerville, and potential danger to his heir, Sir Henry Baskerville.  Henry has inherited a huge pile in the middle of Dartmoor, and rumours of a supernatural, vicious hound that roams the moor abound.  The eerie atmosphere is beautifully evoked, such as Watson’s first view of Baskerville Hall:

“We had left the fertile country behind and beneath us. We looked back on it now, the slanting rays of a low sun turning the streams to threads of gold and glowing on the red earth new turned by the plough and the broad tangle of the woodlands. The road in front of us grew bleaker and wilder over huge russet and olive slopes, sprinkled with giant boulders. Now and then we passed a moorland cottage, walled and roofed with stone, with no creeper to break its harsh outline. Suddenly we looked down into a cuplike depression, patched with stunted oaks and firs which had been twisted and bent by the fury of years of storm. Two high, narrow towers rose over the trees. The driver pointed with his whip.

“Baskerville Hall,” said he.

[…]

The avenue opened into a broad expanse of turf, and the house lay before us. In the fading light I could see that the centre was a heavy block of building from which a porch projected. The whole front was draped in ivy, with a patch clipped bare here and there where a window or a coat of arms broke through the dark veil. From this central block rose the twin towers, ancient, crenelated, and pierced with many loopholes. To right and left of the turrets were more modern wings of black granite. A dull light shone through heavy mullioned windows, and from the high chimneys which rose from the steep, high-angled roof there sprang a single black column of smoke.

“Welcome, Sir Henry! Welcome to Baskerville Hall!””

The story really is expertly crafted, and it’s understandable why Sherlock Holmes endures.  Doyle succeeds in writing pacey, interesting, atmospheric tales that keep you hooked until the end.  And of course, at the centre of it all is one of the most intriguing characters ever created: a brilliant mind for whom no detail is insignificant, and whose genius means he is stimulated in ways that the rest of us may not fully comprehend: “He burst into one of his rare fits of laughter as he turned away from the picture. I have not heard him laugh often, and it has always boded ill to somebody.”

I’ll stop right there before I give away any spoilers as to the mystery.  On to my second choice, Whose Body? by Dorothy L Sayers (1923, my copy 2003, Hodder & Stoughton).  Sayers is one of the authors identified with the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, and this novel is the first to feature Lord Peter Wimsey, an aristocratic amateur detective, who likes to “go off Sherlocking” and went on to feature in many more novels and short stories by Sayers.

I found this novel hugely enjoyable.  It was well-paced (maybe flagging a little towards the end, but maybe I’m just used to Hollywood-style rapid denouements) it was witty, and didn’t take itself too seriously, with a few meta-comedy moments at the expense of detective fiction: “Sugg’s a beautiful, braying ass,” said Lord Peter.  “he’s like a detective in a novel…”; “Its  only in Sherlock Holmes and stories like that , that people think things out logically.”

As the meta moments suggest, Sayers is a clever novelist.  But I never felt she was trying to prove how clever she was.  The story, of a body found in a bathtub and a missing family friend (events Lord Peter believes are connected), remains believable and accessible. Sayers has a confident voice in her first novel, and an interesting turn of phrase: “His long, amiable face looked as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat, as white maggots breed from Gorgonzola.”

I have one proviso to this recommendation: I found offensive the anti-Semitic remarks made by some characters in Whose Body? . The inter-war period was obviously a time that saw a growth in fascism throughout Europe with devastating consequences, and Sayers is probably just putting in her characters’ mouths the repugnant views that were expressed at the time.  According the Wikipedia page on Sayers, she was surprised at accusations of anti-Semitism in Whose Body?, stating the only characters “treated in a favourable light were the Jews!”  Certainly those who express anti-Jewish views are generally portrayed as old-fashioned and/or stupid, but it still makes for uncomfortable reading in this day and age.

I don’t want to end on a negative, so for all you fellow bibliophiles out there, here is a description of Lord Peter’s favourite room:

“Lord Peter’s library was one of the most delightful bachelor rooms in London. Its scheme was black and primrose; its walls were lined with rare editions, and its chairs and Chesterfield sofa suggested the embraces of the houris.  In one corner stood a black baby-grand, a wood fire leaped on a wide old-fashioned hearth, and the Sevres vases on the chimney-piece were filled with ruddy and gold chrysanthemums.”

I for one could spend hours in that room.

Normally I finish with a picture of the books, but they have disappeared, nowhere to be found.  ‘Tis truly a mystery: who could I call on, that is up to the task of solving this curious case…..?

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(Image from http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b018ttws )