“Give me a whisky, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby.” (Anna Christie, (Greta Garbo) 1930)

You may remember, back in the mists of time (14-20 October), the 1930 Club, hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. Although I took part, I’d hoped to do two posts, but was far too disorganised with the second one. Karen kindly said I could sneak in a late entry, so here it is, very much overdue and very much overlong!

My excuse is I’m having renovations done in my tiny flat and the whole place is in disarray to say the least. It has made me clear out 19 sacks of books to the lovely charity bookshop, but the overall effect on my shelves has been negligible. Which makes me think I should just give in and accumulate books until they take over entirely and smother me. A good way to go in my opinion.

Back to 1930! Do have a look at all the wonderful posts from people who managed to post on time – it turned out to be a great year 😊

Firstly, some cosy crime courtesy of the British Library Crime Classics series, The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton.

The titular village is a pretty place in East Anglia, but somewhat isolated and insular “with that curious half-mistrustful air not uncommon among the natives of East Anglia.” 😀

Strangers are not welcome in High Eldersham, and Samuel Whitehead, retired police officer and local publican, was one such stranger. Still, he seemed to have settled in relatively well right up until the point that someone stabbed him to death. Inspector Young is called in from Scotland Yard and immediately suspects one of the locals:

“He knew from experience that brutal murders, inspired by some entirely inadequate motive, were not uncommon. They were nearly always due to the workings of an unbalanced mind, brooding over some fancied grievance until the lust of blood was awakened. Then the hitherto harmless and peaceful individual became a criminal… He would await his opportunity and deliver the blow. And, the deed once perpetrated, he would return to normal sanity. It was not unlikely that the murder of Whitehead was due to such causes.”

It’s hardly a robust theory. Young is not an idiot though, and he quickly unearths the titular secret, although that doesn’t tell him who murdered the pub landlord, or why. He decides to call on his old friend Desmond Merrion “a living encyclopaedia upon all manner of obscure subjects which the ordinary person knew nothing about.”

And so the professional and amateur detective set about solving the mystery, which to modern readers won’t be much mystery at all – its very clear what’s going on. That’s not a criticism though. I suspect in 1930 it wasn’t quite so obvious, and it doesn’t matter now – the comfort of these plot-driven golden age stories is watching everything play out exactly as it’s supposed to, and I enjoyed following Young and Merrion as they discovered the extent of the dastardly deed.

While it’s not the most sophisticated in terms of plot or characterisation, The Secret of High Eldersham still has enough about it to pull you along. It also doesn’t fall foul of many of the prejudices of GA detective fiction either. Despite the bizarre opinion of East Anglians that I quoted at the beginning, in fact the residents aren’t made too yokely; there’s no racism/anti-Semitism that I can remember; and the loveliness of the female love interest isn’t dwelt upon and she’s actually allowed to have a personality.

Burton doesn’t hang about – there’s very little filler here. He gets on with telling the story and once that’s done, it ends. So, a quick, cosy crime read, perfect autumnal reading as the nights get longer for those of us in the northern hemisphere.

Simon also reviewed TSOHE for the 1930 Club and you can read his review here.

In my last post I looked at EM Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady which included this entry:

August 31st.—Read The Edwardians which everybody else has read months ago—and am delighted and amused. Remember that V. Sackville-West and I once attended dancing classes together at the Albert Hall, many years ago, but feel that if I do mention this, everybody will think I am boasting—which indeed I should be—so better forget about it again, and in any case, dancing never my strongest point, and performance at Albert Hall extremely mediocre and may well be left in oblivion.”

Although I don’t have much in common with the Provincial Lady’s life of ease, like her I enjoyed The Edwardians, which Sackville-West told Virginia Woolf she was writing to ‘make my fortune. Such a joke it will be, and I hope everybody will be seriously annoyed.’

Although she saw it as a joke, its not really a comic novel. It tells the story of Sebastian, heir to the country estate of Chevron, and his sister Violet. Chevron is VSW’s beloved Knole, which she couldn’t inherit due to having ovaries, and which Virginia Woolf also immortalised as the home of Orlando.

The chapters are told from the point of view of different characters, beginning with adventurer Leonard Anquetil, who is not of the same class as the rest but has been invited to Sunday dinner because they think he will be amusing.

“And now the rest of the day must be got through somehow, but the members of the house-party, though surely spoilt by the surfeits of entertainment that life had always offered them, showed no disposition to be bored by each other’s familiar company, and no inclination to vary the programme which they must have followed on innumerable Sunday afternoons since they first emerged from the narrowness of school or schoolroom, to take their place in a world where pleasure fell like a ripened peach for the outstretching of a hand. Leonard Anquetil, watching them from outside, marvelled to see them so easily pleased. Here are a score or more of people, he thought, who by virtue of their position are accustomed to the intimate society of princes, politicians, financiers, wits, beauties, and other makers of history, yet are apparently content with desultory chatter and make-believe occupation throughout the long hours of an idle day. Nor could he pretend to himself that on other days they diverted themselves differently, or that their week-end provided a deserved relaxation from a fuller and more ardent life.”

Through Anquetil, our introduction to the lives of the privileged class is a sceptical one at the least, scathing at most. Yet VSW adored Knole, and through Sebastian’s feelings for Chevron we learn how feelings of home run deep, even when that home is a vast estate populated by many.

“Everybody, from Sebastian downwards, obtained exactly what they wanted; they had only to ask, and the request was fulfilled as though by magic. The house was really as self-contained as a little town; the carpenter’s shop, the painter’s shop, the forge, the sawmill, the hot-houses, were there to provide whatever might be needed at a moment’s notice. So the steward’s room, like the dining-room and the schoolroom, was never without its fruit and delicacies.”

Meeting Anquetil has an enduring effect on both Sebastian and Violet. Sebastian’s conflicted feelings about his class, privilege and the society he operates within are brought more to the fore.

“One half of Sebastian detested his mother’s friends; the other half was allured by their glitter. Sometimes he wanted to gallop away by himself to the world’s ends, sometimes he wanted to give himself up wholly to the flattering charm of pretty women. Sometimes he wished to see his whole acquaintance cast into a furnace, so vehemently did he deprecate them, sometimes he thought that they had mastered the problem of civilisation more truly than the Greeks or Romans. “Since one cannot have truth,” cried Sebastian, struggling into his evening shirt, “let us at least have good manners.” The thought was not original: his father had put it into his head, years ago, before he died. But this brings us to Sebastian’s private trouble: he never could make up his mind on any subject. It was most distressing. He had, apparently, no opinions but only moods,—moods whose sweeping intensity was equalled only by the rapidity of their change.” 

We follow Sebastian as he has affairs, becomes a fashionable man about town, and tries to figure out what he wants. In the background of this is his younger sister Violet, who seems a more determined and clear-sighted individual:

“She felt inclined to say, “Very well, if you want the truth, here it is. The society you live in is composed of people who are both dissolute and prudent. They want to have their fun, and they want to keep their position. They glitter on the surface, but underneath the surface they are stupid—too stupid to recognise their own motives. They know only a limited number of things about themselves: that they need plenty of money, and that they must be seen in the right places, associated with the right people. In spite of their efforts to turn themselves into painted images, they remain human somewhere, and must indulge in love-affairs, which sometimes are artificial, and sometimes inconveniently real. Whatever happens, the world must be served first. In spite of their brilliance, this creed necessarily makes them paltry and mean. Then they are envious, spiteful, and mercenary; arrogant and cold. As for us, their children, they leave us in complete ignorance of life, passing on to us only the ideas they think we should hold, and treat us with the utmost ruthlessness if we fail to conform.””

The plot is slight but I think it’s meant to be – one of VSW’s points is that nothing much happens to these people. I came away with a mixed picture of aristocratic life; on the one hand there is an unflinching portrayal of wasteful, privileged lives, but on the other hand, they are never entirely condemned. I suspect this mirrors VSW’s conflicted feelings on the issue, and it also stops the novel from being too judgemental and bitter.

I didn’t enjoy The Edwardians as much as the other Sackville-Wests I’ve read ( All Passion Spent and Family History) but maybe that’s because I didn’t find Sebastian particularly engaging. I felt Violet was off having a far more interesting time, living in her own flat, hanging out with Bohemians and falling in love. I would have liked to hear more about that, or even some more about their wonderfully bitchy mother. But that’s just personal preference and I do find VSW’s writing to be a great read.

To end, the classic musical Puttin’ on the Ritz was released in 1930. Imagine if you’d never heard that well known ‘reasonably straightforward syncopated 5/4 time signature’, you might struggle with it…

Novella a Day in May 2019 #26

Buried for Pleasure – Edmund Crispin (1948) 176 pages

Although I’m not a big reader of contemporary crime, I do like a golden age mystery and I enjoy Crispin’s tales of amateur detective/Oxford professor Gervase Fen’s adventures. In Buried for Pleasure, Fen has left Oxford to travel to the delightfully named Sandford Angelorum, where he is standing for Parliament as an Independent.

“This panorama displeased Fen, he thought it blank and unenlivening. There was, however, nothing to be done about it except repine. He repined briefly and extracted himself and his luggage from the compartment.”

Fen stays at The Fish Inn where loud renovations undertaken by the owner blast him out of bed every morning. He seems surrounded by comely women – the bar manager, the bar maid, the local taxi driver.  Thankfully once their attractiveness is established it isn’t dwelt on and there’s some good characterisation of women in this, which is not always present in GA novels. In fact, the resident detective novelist, Mr Judd, is quite scathing about the whole thing:

“Characterisation seems to me a very overrated element in fiction. I can never see why one should be obliged to have any of it at all, if one doesn’t want to. It limits the form so.”

Crispin pokes fun at everyone in this novel. Novelists, academics, and of course politicians all come in for a gentle ribbing. There is the response to Fen’s first loquacious, entirely meaningless political speech:

“ ‘You’re a natural, old boy … can you keep that sort of thing up?’

‘Indefinitely,’ Fen assured him. ‘The command of cliché comes of having had a literary training.’”

And the political system as a whole:

“ ‘Now, these Sandford people don’t know you as well as I do,’ Captain Watkyn pursued, with a confidence which their quarter-hour acquaintance did not seem to Fen entirely to justify, ‘and … they’re quite likely to elect some scoundrelly nitwit who’ll help send the country to the dogs. Therefore, they’ve got to be jollied along a bit – for their own good, d’you see?’

‘As Plato remarked.’

‘As whatsit remarked, yes.’”

This is not the GA novel to read if you’re in the mood for a good murder with plenty of suspects and clues to work out. This side of the novel – a poisoning before Fen arrives, a stabbing after he becomes resident in the village – is pretty negligible.

However, it’s funny, light, endearing, and doesn’t fall into many of the prejudices which can mar this genre, although the villagers are portrayed as a bit yokely.

Buried for Pleasure was just what I needed after the gothic tribulations of O Caledonia yesterday: complete and utter nonsense and none the worse for it 😀

 

“Going underground, going underground” (The Jam)

There were a few blissful weeks over the summer when everyone took their kids on holiday and my commute to work was almost bearable, because it was done with approximately two-thirds less people than usual.  Now those halcyon days are well and truly behind us and everyone’s back at work, I thought I’d try reading about public transport to see if it fills me with new-found affection for my early morning travel.  Given that I’m reading during said commute, with my book touching my nose and my head wedged into someone’s armpit, there’s still some way to go, despite the efforts of some wonderful staff.

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Firstly,  Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay. This was the first of Hay’s three crime novels, and is part of the British Library Crime Classics re-issues, which I completely adore. I love these so much I even bought one full-price the other day, rather than waiting for them to turn up in charity bookshops, which is something I never do.  This could be the start of a slippery slope….

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The wonderfully-monikered Miss Euphemia Pongleton is found strangled by her own dog leash on the stairs of Belsize Park station (for those of you who know the Misery Northern line – see, it can get worse – you could be dead).   Suspicion falls on her wastrel nephew Basil Pongleton, whom she was constantly inheriting and disinheriting:

“It’s awfully difficult to explain and I had a ghastly time with the police yesterday. Wonder they didn’t arrest me right away, but they’re keeping an eye on me. I noticed a fishy-looking fellow with police-feet lounging opposite my window in Tavistock Square this morning”

The dialogue is definitely part of the appeal of golden age detective fiction for me, it’s just wonderful. While Basil is dithering around making matters worse, his eminently more sensible cousin Beryl tries to unravel the mystery.  Miss Pongleton lodged at the Frampton Hotel, and each of the eccentric fellow boarders has their part to play.  My favourite was Mrs Daymer:

“a middle-aged lady who liked to accentuate the gaunt strangeness of her appearance by unfashionable clothes. She would explain proudly that they were of hand-woven material…perhaps their intimate connection with the sheep justified their particular unwieldiness”

Mrs Daymer, who gives off a smell of wet sheep in the rain, is unperturbed by the murder as she writes crime fiction and likes to “suck [people] dry” for her novels. Between her and Beryl, they manage to piece together what happened.  This being the golden age, there is a missing will, confusion over some pearls and an obese terrier (ok, so that last one isn’t really a trope but I had to give him a mention). Murder Underground is not the most taxing mystery (I’m useless at guessing who done it, and even I got this one quite early) but it’s a great example of this period in detective fiction, and very readable.

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If only this poster was right… unfortunately I find it the swiftest way to passive-aggressive tutting, both given and received.

Secondly, Metroland by Julian Barnes. I don’t always get on with Julian Barnes.  I can see he’s a highly accomplished writer, but I find him coldly intellectual and distancing.  However, in Metroland I think he does capture something about a certain time in late adolescence and the wish for a brave new world. Christopher and his friend Toni live in the suburbs at the tail end of the Metropolitan line, and wish they didn’t:

“Toni and I prided ourselves on being rootless. We also aspired to future condition of rootlessness, and saw no contradiction in the two states of mind; or in the fact that we each lived with our parents, who were, for that matter, the freeholders of our respective homes.”

Yes, Christopher and Toni are hugely pretentious snobs.  They desperately wish to be French, which leads them into unintentionally hilarious scenarios like trying to be flaneurs along Oxford Street.  They also talk about art with a capital A:

“Art was the most important thing in life, the constant to which one could be unfailingly devoted and which would never cease to reward; more crucially it was the stuff whose effect on those exposed to it was ameliorative.”

Oh dear.  But in case you’re wondering why on earth you would want to spend any time in this idiot’s company,  I do think it’s worth it.  As I said, I find Barnes can be cold, but actually his portrait of Christopher is quite affectionate, and although you laugh at his pretentions, he’s not contemptible, just young and striving for something different to that with which he has grown up.  Christopher gets his wish and moves to France, but of course he doesn’t quite end up living the life he imagined. Metroland is about how its not always a disaster to not achieve your dreams, and how ordinary can also equal happy.

To end, a wonderfully British reaction to an unusual happening on the tube (for those of you not of these isles, rest assured that the response from passengers at the end is actually a huge outpouring of unconditional enthusiasm, I promise you):

“Babies don’t need a vacation, but I still see them at the beach…” (Steven Wright)

The rest of that title quote is: “It pisses me off! I’ll go over to a little baby and say ‘What are you doing here? You haven’t worked a day in your life!’” Unfortunately right now I’m working every day of my life and that pisses me off no end.  Being the eternal student means any spare spondoolicks go towards debt repayment, so no holiday for me for the foreseeable future. As a bibliophile, the obvious answer to this is a vicarious holiday via the printed word.  Here I am reading in my local park:

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Just kidding – I don’t like Walt Whitman.

Firstly, I’m having a staycation with The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude. I love golden age detective novels, and this is one of the wonderful re-issues under the British Library Crime Classics series.  Set in the coastal Cornish village of Boscawen, the Reverend Dodd and his friend Dr Pendrill are avid consumers of detective fiction, meeting every Monday for dinner and to divide the spoils of their library parcels:

“heaven forbid that the shadow of any crime should ever fall across the grey-stoned cottages, the gorse dotted commons and cliff-girdled seas of his beloved parish. He preferred to get his excitement second-hand and follow the abstruse machinations of purely imaginary criminals”

Reverend Dodd doesn’t get his wish however, as someone murders the dastardly Julius Tregarthen, bringing the pragmatic Inspector Bigswell to the village, in direct contrast to the Reverend’s more idiosyncratic detective style:

“it’s always struck me that the detective in fiction is inclined to underrate the value of intuition. Now, if I had to solve a problem like this, I should first dismiss all those people who, like Caesar’s wife, were above suspicion, merely because my intuition refused to let me think otherwise. Then I should set to work on what remained and hope for the best!”

This approach seems highly dubious to me, but then even the level-headed Inspector has his own prejudices, as he records in his notebook:

“Three shots entered the room at widely scattered points. The garden is fifteen feet in length. This argues a poor shot.  Probably a woman.”

Between the two of them however, they of course manage to find the villain.  The Cornish Coast Murder is not the greatest detective story ever written, but it is entertaining and well-paced, and has a surprising sympathy for the murderer – this is not a clear-cut case of right/wrong. Bude went on to write other cases set in picturesque tourist traps  – The Lake District Murder, The Sussex Downs Murder.  He didn’t change his pseudonym to a local town each time though, disappointingly (John Ambleside? John Bexhill-on-Sea?)  I may take another holiday later in the season to Bude’s other murderous locations…

Secondly, and in direct contrast to the cosy Cornish amateur detecting, The Shore by Sara Taylor. I can’t claim this as a relaxing vacation read, despite the beautiful cover:

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The Shore tells the lives of islanders off the coast of Virginia. The chapters are told from the viewpoints of different characters and move back and forth across time from the nineteenth century to the twenty-second, showing how people, bloodlines, events and actions are all interwoven. Taylor’s writing is breathtakingly beautiful but her gaze is unflinching:

“The Shore is flat as a fried egg; on a clear day from our upstairs porch it feels like you can see into tomorrow…We take the force out of hurricanes, grow so much food that a lot of it rots on the vine because there’s too much to pick or eat, but people say the government doesn’t remember we’re here, that we get left off when they draw the maps.”

Life on The Shore is not easy – the people are brutal and brutalised, violent and destructive – particularly towards women. At times the unrelenting harshness of the lives depicted made this a tough read, but Taylor’s writing is so original, so tight and accomplished, that I felt myself drawn onwards, like one of her characters unable to stop themselves:

“[I] have been easing back into the landscape like putting on a favourite coat. I hate this place and I love this place and I don’t know if I want to go as far away as possible or ever leave.”

The Shore is its own place, with its own rules.  There are ‘witches’ – women bearing the scars of domestic violence who medicate those in need with traditional remedies from the land – and storm bringers, young girls with gifts inherited from their grandfathers:

“She finds a breeze, gives it a twist, and pulls the particles across the bay like teasing knots out of her sister Lilly’s hair.  It is a gradual process, and her pace slows as she waits. The ambient moisture begins to bead and grow heavy , a million pregnant bellies.  Then, she brings it down.”

The Shore is truly astonishing. It’s definitely one to read only when you’re feeling robust enough to take it, but I wholeheartedly recommend it.

 “The stars are smeared across the sky, not the pretty scatter that most people imagine, but a crush of millions in the beautiful, pure darkness”

For me, this sentence sums up The Shore.  It is striking, unsettling, the imagery is unexpected and there is a hint of violence – all from the point of view of an individual who knows how powerless they are but still carries hope.

To end, the obvious choice of Madge (who appeared in Desperately Seeking Susan, as did Steven Wright who started the post – this was, of course, complete coincidence brilliant planning on my part) in a video where the budget appears to have been maxed-out on matching bangles for all concerned…these were simpler times, people.  All together now: “Holidaaay! Celebraaaate!” :

 

“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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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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