Crime Fiction Alphabet: I is for Ivy

“I might have been alone in a painted landscape. The sky was still and blue, and the high cauliflower clouds over the south seemed to hang without movement. Against their curded bases the fells curved and folded, blue foothills of the Pennines giving way to the misty green of pasture, where, small in the distance as hedge-parsley, trees showed in the folded valleys, symbols, perhaps, of houses and farms. But in all that windless, wide landscape, I could see no sign of man’s hand, except the lines – as old as the ridge-and-furrow of the pasture below me – as the dry stone walls, and the arrogant stride of the great wall which Hadrian had driven across Northumberland, nearly two thousand years ago.”

*****

Mary Grey had only arrived in England, from Canada, a few days ago but she already felt at home, she was already a little in love with the English countryside.

But she found out that she wasn’t alone. A man approached her, convinced that she was his cousin Annabel, who had disappeared nine years ago. She assured him that she wasn’t. That he was mistaken.

The man was Connor Winslow, Con, and he was the manager of his great-uncle’s estate, Whitescar. He looked after the land and his half-sister, Lisa managed the house.  And Con had an extraordinary idea: Mary should impersonate Annabel.

Matthew Winslow was dying, and he refused to believe that his grand-daughter was dead. Annabel was still named as the heir to his estate and his fortune in his will. Con wanted Mary to pose as Annabel, to claim her inheritance. She would be paid a substantial amount of money from the estate and he would save the family home he loved.

The idea seemed ludicrous. And yet …

Mary went to Whitescar. But she soon that realised, for all that Con and Lisa had told her, there were things she didn’t know. Things they had chosen not to tell her. And things that they didn’t know.

Who was Annabel? Who was Mary?

Mary Stewart wraps up a mystery and an emotional family drama with some lovely gothic touches

Yes, the plot does sound unbelievable, but she makes it work.

She attends to the practical details. Only a few people need be deceived for a very short time, and Annabel has been away for a long time. You can change a great detail, forget a certain amount, between the ages of nineteen and twenty-eight, and Mary’s own life history can be used to account for Annabel’s ‘lost years’.

And she writes it beautifully. Descriptions of the house and the country are beautifully and naturally written, the characters and their conversations are utterly real, the motions rang true, and I found it very easy to be drawn in.

There were so many gentle plot twists, so many emotional changes, and my involvement with the story never faltered.

There were lovely details too. Annabel’s cousin, Julie, was the same age that Annabel when she disappeared.  Julie’s boyfriend, Donald, was an archaeologist involved with a project at a Roman fort in the area. And the plotters themselves note the similarity of their plan to Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar …

The romance that I expected in a Mary Stewart novel arrived a little late, and the grand finale was everything a finale should be.

Having Mary tell the story was a wise decision. I questioned her reliability, and I wondered what she might be holding back, but now that her story is done I can’t fault her narration. I understand the reasons for everything she said and did; and for everything that she didn’t say and didn’t do. 

I wonder if it’s significant that the author gave her leading lady her own name … ?

I had an idea how the plot would be resolved, and I got a lot of it but not everything.

A couple of small niggles: a few women characters a little too accepting of their situations, a few male characters a little undeveloped, and the unbelievability of the deception at the centre of the plot.

That leaves me incline to say that this is a book to read when you want to be entertained, but not when you want to be too analytical.

But, having said that, I can’t fault the logic. Now I look back I can see that there were clues. And I think that if I went back to the beginning and read The Ivy Tree all over again the logic would still hold up, and I would admire the cleverness of the construction.

I probably will one day, but I have a good number of Mary Stewart’s novels still unread to attend to first.

I’ve read ‘Rose Cottage’, ‘Thunder on the Right’ and this one, and if there are any of the others that you can particularly recommend I’d love to know.

*****

The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

“Each week, beginning Monday 21 May 2012, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

So next week, I is for … ?

Crime Fiction Alphabet: H is for Hidden

Camilla Läckberg’s last book, The Gallows Bird, the fourth of series of crime novels, set in and around in the small town of Fjällbacka on the Swedish Coast, ended with a cliffhanger. Going through her late mother’s effects, Erica Falk found a Nazi medal, a bloodstained shirt and some old notebooks, diaries from the war years.

That made me exceedingly curious, and I had high hopes for the next book in the series: The Hidden Child.

It begins with Erika going back to work, retiring to her study to research and write a new “true crime” book. Her husband, police detective Patrik Hedström, was beginning a period of paternity leave and the couple had agreed that it was his turn to run the house and be the full-time, hands-on parent. Needless to say, things did not run smoothly. Patrick had underestimated the demands of looking after a one-year-old, and he missed his work and his colleagues. Erika wasn’t overly concerned that Patrik’s ex-wife. another newish parent was back in town, but she was less happy that her daughter was being babysat in the police station while Patrik gave a helping hand to a murder enquiry.

And Erika found it strange, sitting upstairs, trying to work while her husband and daughter were downstairs. She couldn’t concentrate on her work, and so she began to read her mother’s diaries. She met her mother as a sociable young woman, so different from the cold, distant mother of her memory.

The history reported in Erika’s mother’s diaries and the murder that Patrik’s colleagues were investigating were linked. Erika saw that straight away and she began to investigate, seeking out her mother’s old friends, and digging for more details in the local library.

It was fascinating, seeing the young people of the diaries in old age. Much had changed, and much had stayed the same. Much was said about the effects of the war in Sweden, and the political consequences that still resonated. And there were human stories too, stories of friends, stories of families. All are well handled, and there are some wonderfully touching moments.

The plot was strong, and a little less guessable, than many of Camilla Läckberg’s mysteries. And she’s as good as ever at bringing out just the right details of domestic life, opening out the stories of Fjällbacka’s detectives, making all of her characters and their lives seem utterly real.

Camilla Läckberg writes very human mysteries. And though this book could easily be read as a stand-alone, there is much to be gained from reading her books in the right order. There’s a nice variation to the mysteries, consistency and evolution in the ongoing storylines, and after reading five I can’t pick one standout or one dud.

But I do have to say that, with this book, the story took some time to get going, and though I like the plain straightforward style, one or two things bothered me that hadn’t before. There’s a little too much exposition through dialogue, and one or two scenes were a little laboured. But as soon as the plot began to move I forgot my concerns and I was happily engrossed; and now I’ve seen the synopsis for her next book I realise that those scenes were lining up another story.

I’m hoping for another intriguing mystery, and more interesting developments in the lives of characters I’ve come to like very much.

*****

The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

“Each week, beginning Monday 21 May 2012, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

So next week, I is for … ?

Crime Fiction Alphabet: G is for Greenwood

I wasn’t sure that I needed another series of books well into double figures in my life, but as soon as I heard about her I knew that I had to meet the Honourable Phryne Fisher.

As the story opened she was a socialite, in London, in the Roaring Twenties. And, lovely though that may sound on a damp, grey evening in the twenty-first century, she was just a little bit bored.

A misjudged practical joke at a society party was the catalyst that changed her life. Phryne saw what had happened, and stepped in to save the day with a wonderful combination a charm, diplomacy and quick thinking. I couldn’t help but like her.

The next day Phryne was summoned by a Colonel and Mrs Harper. They had concerns about their daughter in Australia. They had doubts about her husband. Would Prynne consider making the long journey to find out what was going on?

Our heroine was intrigued. She had been born in Australia, and her family had been dirt poor until they received a substantial legacy from a distant relation and stepped into a brand new life.  That made her a very interesting proposition: a wealthy, independent, modern young woman with a depth of understanding that her contemporaries lacked.

No wonder she was bored with London society!

And of course she said yes!

From then on the story was a whirl.

Phrynetravelled with a pioneering lady doctor – like Prynne, a supporter of Doctor Stopes – and that brought a backstreet abortionist to her attention. She had to do something about that!

She found a young woman in a desperate situation and stepped in to help, transforming her into a lady’s maid.

And of course there was the case that sent her to Australia in the first place.  Phryne would become entangled with a handsome young ballet dancer, a drugs baron and a communist plot before she found some quite unexpected answers.

The juxtaposition of serious issues – birth control and drug addiction – and frivolity – a wonderful array of frocks and dalliances with young men – is rather strange. Most of the time I liked it, but I did have moments when I was heartily sick of wardrobe details and just wanted something to happen.

Phryne was wonderfully capable in all of her dealings, always a step ahead, and on some days that would have bothered me a great deal but on the day I read this book it bothered me just a little.

Because the story was as colourful as its cover. It had plenty going on, the characters were simply but clearly drawn, the period and the settings were well realised … and the heroine is a star.

In the end I have to say that this was a charming, undemanding period piece, with just enough substance to hold it down.

*****

The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

“Each week, beginning Monday 21 May 2012, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

So next week, H is for … ?

Crime Fiction Alphabet: F is for Fitt

Imagine, if you will, a country estate. A grand house with extensive grounds set on the English coast. A house named Mizmaze, because the main feature of those grounds is a maze.

‘The Maze was at the south-west end of the garden; it covered over a quarter of an acre, and seemed even bigger to those who walked in it. The entrance, cut in the splendid yew hedge, was six feet high and three feet wide; on the top of a topiaried archway stood two topiaried birds with long spreading tails.’

At the centre of the maze a man lay dead. He was the owner of the house, and his murderer had struck him down with one of his own croquet mallets.

This looked very promising.

Augustine Hatley left two daughters. Alethea, his favoured child, was a divorcee and Angela, his less favoured child was a spinster. His former son-in law, Ben, was also present. he was married again, to Angela, an actress significantly older than him, but he still carried a torch for the wife had acquiesed to her father’s wish that she leave him. And his neighbour, the widowed Lady Lanson who maybe had ideas of marrying again had been visiting. Accompanied by Horick, her feckless, aimless son, who was loved by Angela who he loathed and loathed by Alathea who he loved.

A houseful of suspects, and a tangled web of relationships to unravel.

Inspector Mallet set off to examine the scene and the physical evidence, leaving Doctor Fitzbrown to speak with all of those present.

I’m afraid it was all a little lacklustre. The characters were dislikeable and very nearly grotesques. Once I had worked out their personalities and their relationships I had little interest in their exchanges.

I began to wish that I could find someone to care about. Or, alternatively, that Molly Keane had written a murder mystery, she would have given things that extra push towards the dark side …

And then there was a second, very different murder. More investigations, more dialogue. I hoped that this was the spark the book needed, and it very nearly was. But then characters began to crumble, logic was lost, and I began to see little inconsistencies.

I wasn’t sorry when the murderer was unveiled and I could put the book down.

Such a pity, because the set-up was so promising, the characters had possibilities, and I know how good Mary Fitt can be.

I was so impressed with Death and the Pleasant Voices, which came early in her career, but unimpressed by this book, which came much later.

It felt like a first draft. Idea was there, the style was there. I can’t help feeling that with just a little more work, a little more direction, this could have been a triumph.

But, sadly, it wasn’t.

*****

The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

“Each week, beginning Monday 21 May 2012, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

So next week, G is for … ?

Crime Fiction Alphabet: E is for Elizabeth

I saw the name of Elizabeth Ferrars on the spine of a green Penguin, and it rang a distant bell. I’d read a few of her books, years ago when the only crime writer I knew was Agatha Christie and I was looking around to see who else I might like.

As I recall I’d liked her enough to pick up a few of her books from the library, but she slipped from my mind when she fell out of fashion and her books disappeared from the library shelves.

I picked up Murder in Time, not really thinking it might be a book to buy, just to place the author. But when I read the synopsis I was intrigued, I saw similarities with a very famous crime novel, but I saw differences too.

“Nothing could sound more innocently gay – or fantastically extravagant – than a flight on a specially chartered plane for a week-end in Nice. But most of the people whom Mark Auty invited suspected some sinister intention. why, then, did they accept? For accept they did, coming from such far-removed places as a pub on the edge of Dartmoor, a Bloomsbury hotel, a quiet Oxfordshire village, a Soho night-club, to gather for the journet in Mark’s Surrey home. Why Mark really asked them and why they accepted are questions that are only answered in full after murder has intervened …”

I was to discover that, fourteen years after Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then there Were None,’  Elizabeth Ferrars took the same starting point and did something entirely different with it.

First she introduced her guests, dropping in on them in their own homes as they consider whether to accept that extraordinary invitation. An elderly woman, pacing, chain-smoking, as her son offers counsel. A blustering publican, whose pretty young wife, so used to getting her own way, is having trouble persuading her husband to accept. A middle-class couple, whose comfortable morning routine has been shattered by contents of the intriguing envelope that the postman delivered.

The portraits are beautifully drawn, the characters are clearly set out, but their stories are so clearly untold. And from start to finish, the writing, the characterisation, the storytelling, are all pitch perfect.

The scene switches, sharply. A young woman sees a man mown down by a car on a London street. it looked like an accident, but she had caught sight of the driver. It was deliberate. Murder.

Sarah tells the police what she has seen and then, still deeply shocked, turns to go home. She walks straight into Mark Auty. Their paths had crossed during the war, when she was his driver. He sees her distress, listens to her story, walks her home, takes time to make sure she is alright. And then he invites her to join his house party.

She is tempted, but it seems so strange. Mark explains why he is holding the party, why he wants her there, and that tips the balance. She accepts.

A strange house-party gathers. And then there is another, audacious, murder.

The police investigate. The guests talk about what has happened, they tell their stories – or in some cases have their stories drawn out of them. But it was difficult to know who was telling the truth, how the facts would fit together. As new facts emerged I changed my mind about what might have happened, about what was truth and what was lie. I had an idea, but I couldn’t make all the pieces fit.

And in the end I don’t think Elizabeth Ferrars quite succeeded in fitting them together. I was happy with the answers to the questions about Mark Auty. there were a couple of loose ends, but by and large things made sense. But I was a little less happy with the answers to the questions about the murders. The logic worked but the psychology was a bit of a stretch.

Just one little weakness in an excellent piece of crime writing: an intriguing mix of traditional, country house mystery with something a little darker, a little more modern, all rooted in real history.

It’s very clever, there are some lovely touches, and I’d love to write more, but I can’t without giving too much away.

I wonder if Elizabeth Ferrars has written anything else as good …

*****

The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

“Each week, beginning Monday 21 May 2012, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

So next week, F is for … ?

Crime Fiction Alphabet: D is for Dickens – Monica Dickens

I knew that Monica Dickens was a wonderful author. I knew that she had written a marvellous range of books, works of fictions and non fiction, stories for children and stories for adults. But I didn’t know that she had written crime fiction until I spotted a tatty copy of ‘Closed at Dusk’ in a charity shop bargain box.

It’s a story set in a country house, but not a conventional country house mystery.

“The house which stands in these beautiful gardens, is not open to the public. It has been the home of the Cobb family since 1750, when Sir Desmond Cobb, successful farmer and agricultural advisor to King George II, replaced the sixteenth century manor house with this magnificent dwelling designed by a pupil of John Wood the Younger.

In 1870 Sir Desmond’s descendant Walter Cobb and his wife Beatrice changed the name of the house from Lynford Place to The Snactuary, in keeping with their mission to promote here the welfare and understanding of all living creatures. Most of the animal statues to be seen about the estate date from that time.

After a period of neglect during and after the Second World War, the magnificent gardens and lake have been restores and improved by Walter Cobb’s great-grandson, William Taylor, the present owner, who welcomes you to The Sanctuary.

Open 2pm : closed at dusk.”

Monica Dickens spent some time painting a picture of the family who lived in the house at the centre of that wonderful estate. William Taylor and his wife Ruth, a professional, middle-class couple in their fifties, setting out on a new adventure. Their daughter Tessa, who was in the first flush of a new relationship and found it very useful to be able to leave her young son, Rob, with his grandparents. Ruth’s grandmother, Agnes, who lived in the lodge with a companion who had once been her housekeeper. And many others; siblings, cousins, children, who all gravitated to what they thought of as the family.

People wrapped up in their own lives; people who didn’t look beyond their own world.

Monica Dickens painted their lives and their world beautifully. And I wondered when the story would begin. It took a while, but it was worth waiting for.

The first hint came when the family began to have problems with a lady who worked in the tea rooms. She had to be eased out, and they found a positive treasure to replace her.

Jo was a young widow; a woman who didn’t need to work, didn’t need the money, but wanted to occupy her time, wanted to be needed. She was so capable, so easy to get on with; she would willingly turn her hand to whatever needed doing.

Monica Dickens wrote so beautifully, so subtlely, that I was happy to believe, with the family, that Jo was that rare gem. Even though I knew the conventions of the genre.

Of course she wasn’t!

It slowly became clear that Jo was a construct. Marigold had created her, to reach out to, to punish, one member of the family who had done her a terrible wrong.

Jo was a wonder, but Marigold was criminally insane.

The mask must never slip.

Monica Dickens drew her character so beautifully, with understanding and restraint. It was easy to understand her hurt, her pain, her anger with Tessa. But she had held on to those emotions too tightly, for too long, and that had unbalanced her mind. She was a real woman, an ordinary woman you might pass in the street, not knowing her story, not knowing who she was.

And her actions are just as real, just as believable, and that makes this quiet novel so much more chilling that many more dramatic pieces of crime fiction.

It was so easy to frighten a child, and unsettle adults, when she learned the house’s ghost story. The family could be observed and their weaknesses could be played on, their secrets used against them. A beloved pet could be spirited away.

And then there was a terrible accident. An old lady left a cigarette end smouldering, a fire started, and her companion died, overcome by fumes. But of course it wasn’t an accident, it was murder.

It  wasn’t enough though, and Marigold realised what she had to do to make Tessa really suffer. Suffer as she had.

The finale is dramatic and thought-provoking. There is murder, suicide, and terrible sacrifice.

Monica Dickens manipulates her readers’ sympathies so cleverly. Her villain is so clearly in pain, her victimwas the cause of that pain, and she was careless, thoughtless, selfish …

It was all so very real, so very plausible. Every character, every action, every detail was pitch perfect.

And in the end life went on, and that made the story all the more chilling.

*****

The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

“Each week, beginning Monday 21 May 2012, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

So next week, E is for … ?

Crime Fiction Alphabet: C is for Christie

For a long time now I watched the band of readers who have been reading their way through all of Agatha Christie’s works in order. I’ve thought about joining them, but I knew that I couldn’t do it. I’m much to easily distracted, and I’d feel the call of a book out of order as soon as I signed up.

But a little while ago my fiance picked up an account of the life of Miss Jane Marple in a book sale. And I realised that it was a long time since I had reacquainted myself with any of her cases, and that reading twelve novels in order might be interesting. And there’s nothing to say I can’t take a little detour into any of Agatha Christie’s other books along the way.

Miss Marple’s crime solving career began with The Murder at the Vicarage in 1930.

It was clear from the start that Colonel Protheroe would be the victim. He was self-important, he was intolerant, and he had no time for tact or diplomacy.

He was found, shot in the head at the vicar’s writing desk.

There were many suspects.

The most obvious were an unhappy wife, an aggrieved daughter, an entangled artist.

And  there was  a mysterious newcomer, an unsettled curate, an eccentric archaeologist.

Even the vicar had expressed the view that anyone who murdered Colonel Protheroe would be doing the world at large a service.

The types were familiar, but the characters were nicely drawn.

And it was the same with the mystery. There are familiar elements: a clock, apparently knocked over and confirming the time of death; an unfinished letter, that may or may not have been tampered with; confessions that cannot possibly be true.  – but they are used well, throwing many questions into the air and creating a seemingly unsolvable puzzle.

Inspector Slack was confounded, but the lady who lived next door to the vicarage understood human nature, she watched, she listened, and she worked everything out. She was, of course, Miss Jane Marple.

An older, more gossipy, less charming Miss Marple than would appear in later novels and adaptations. And she remained on the fringes of the story: an interested neighbour who was not yet the person to be turned to when there was a mystery to be solved, the person whose name police would recognise.

For much of the book that worked well. The vicar told the story,  he and his family were charming, and his view was clear and unjudgemental.

But later on, when everything had been thrown up into the air, I missed the guidance of a detective or a more engaged protagonist.

This isn’t Agatha Christie’s finest mystery. There’s nothing wrong with the logic, but a few elements were predictable, and there isn’t the ingenuity that makes many of her mysteries really sing.

But it is a solid mystery, built on traditional lines. A nice period piece, a solid human story, and a very readable book.

There are some lovely touches too. Echoes of Poirot’s first mystery in the plotting. Echoes of Roger Ackroyd in the narration. I wonder if that was deliberate.

I found much to enjoy, much to ponder, and now I’m looking forward to Miss Marple’s next case.

*****

The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

“Each week, beginning Monday 21 May 2012, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

So next week, Dis for … ?