Crime Fiction Alphabet: Z is for Zouroudi

The end of the alphabet!

And the first book I penciled in, at the end of last year when I was wondering if I could really do this, and thought it best to make sure I had something for the difficult letters first.

The Messenger of Athens proved to be what I call a watching book. The kind of book that allows me to sit back and observe a whole different world.

It is a world that is beautifully drawn, with many – almost too many – wonderfully evocative descriptive passages. I was transported.

To a small, remote Greek island, where a woman’s body has washed up on the shore. She was a local woman, and it is said that she must have jumped or fallen from the cliffs. Her body is returned to her family and she is buried. Life goes on.

But then a stranger arrives.

“My name,” he said in Hermes Diakatos. “I have been sent from Athens to help you in your investigations into the death of Irini Asimkopoulos.”

There was no investigation. No autopsy. The police thought it was suicide, but the death certificate said accidental death, to spare the family’s feeling.

“I expect you’re surprised at my name. Hermes Messenger. mt father’s idea of humour. He was a classical scholar.”

Who could the visitor, who would be known simply as the fat man, be? He might be a policeman, though he would say that he was not. Or a private investigator. though it was impossible to think who might have hired him. Maybe he was a private individual, willing and able to take steps to see that justice was done. Or maybe he really was Hermes, the messenger of the gods …..

That intrguing question was never answered, but it really didn’t matter.

The fat man had both intelligence and charm. He moved about the island, speaking naturally to people, asking the right questions, leaving the right silences for people to speak, to tell him everything that he needed to know.

And as he does this the stories from the past are told. Stories of a young couple struggling with marriage. He misses the freedom he had as a single man. She wanted another man who she cannot have and feels trapped. Stories of a husband and father who is still drawn to another man’s wife. Stories of concerned families, who see what is happening, what could happen ….

This is a mystery is built on classical lines, well executed, and it fitting its setting perfectly.

There are no major surprises, but that really didn’t matter. It was lovely to watch the story play out with all of the elements – characters, plot, setting, prose – coming together to fine effect.

And in the end justice is done. But maybe not in the way you would expect …

It was the right ending, but I was sorry to leave.

I shall definitely be seeking out the next book in the series …

*****

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

“Each week, beginning Monday 10 January 2011, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

And now the alphabet is done. I’ve read a wonderful mix of books along the way, and I have discovered many more that I’d like to read one day.

For that I must than Kerrie, and her wonderful contributors.

And next week – or maybe even sooner – I’ll pull my whole alphabet together …

Crime Fiction Alphabet: Y is for You Are a Gongedip !

I hadn’t thought that the letter Y would be so difficult.Maybe its proximity to X, the most difficult letter of them all, lulled me into a false sense of security.

I did have a book lined up: Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurardottir. I’d read some positive reports, and I saw some potential in the opening chapters, but when I find characters telling each other how dark, how horrific, how bloody a murder was early in a book it is inevitable that I will decide that I don’t want to know any more.

When I looked to my own bookshelves I could find just one novel that might fit: Desiring Cairo by Louisa Young. I liked the first few chapters, but it seemed to be a novel with a little crime rather than a piece of crime fiction. And I put it down one night and couldn’t find it the next morning. I took that as a sign that this wasn’t the book.

I checked through a few anthologies to see if I could find a good short story, but I found nothing. Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L Sayers all let me down!

And so it was time to go to the library. I could find nothing on the crime fiction shelves, not one Y author or one Y book. There was a crime novel with a title beginning with the word You on a paperback carousel, but the plot looked so ludicrous that I didn’t even consider it.

I found two titles by Margaret Yorke on the large print shelves. They looked readable but I wasn’t inspired, and so I moved on to look at volumes of short stories.

Three Best of British anthologies edited by Maxim Jakuowski, two CWA anthologies yielded nothing.

But then I spotted a copy ofThe Fantastic Book of Everybody’s Secrets. I’ve read it, and I do have a copy of my own, but I have no idea where it is. And I found that Sophie Hannah had written my Y story.

I must admit that it hadn’t stood out when I read it alongside the others in the book, but when I read it again I realised that it was rather good.

“YOU ARE A GONGEDIP !”

What a thing to have shouted at you!

An insult from a secret language devised by childhood friends. A language that they continued to use at university. And even when they met up in later years.

It wasn’t something that William, expected to hear as he worked at home on a new edition of a dictionary of rhymes.

A young woman was shouting at him from the street. A young woman who worked for his publisher, in some very junior capacity. A young woman he’d had a brief relationship with, and then moved on without a second thought.

She had picked up the secret language on a night out with William and his friends, and she was going to use it.

Shouted insults were only the start – there was far more to her plan than that.

This was the story that proved that revenge is a dish best served cold.

Sophie Hannah took a simple idea, executed it nicely, with well drawn characters, with sharp dialogue, and with the same intelligence, the same contemporary touches that she brings to her novels.

And a wicked twist in the tale fitted absolutely perfectly.

I can say no more!

*****

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

“Each week, beginning Monday 10 January 2011, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

Next week the alphabet ends – Z is for … ?

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B Hughes

Dorothy B Hughes

“The germ or seed was always a place, a background scene. And against that background, there began a dialogue or a monologue; whatever it was, a conversation. Then I would begin to recognise the characters. The plotting was the final step; it was people and places that interested me, not gimmicks.”

(Dorothy B Hughes in the MWA Handbook)

When I finished reading The Expendable Man and turned to the afterword it was lovely to see the author’s own words about her writing. And lovely to be able to nod, and think, yes she does, and she does it very well.

The story opened with a man driving through the Arizona desert as he travels from Los Angeles to Phoenix. The opening paragraph sets the scene perfectly:

“Across the tracks there was a different world. The long and lonely country was the color of sand. The horizon hills were haze-black; the clumps of mesquite stood in dark pools of their own shadowing. But the pools and the rim of the dark horizon were discerned only by conscious seeing, else the world was all sand, brown and tan and copper and pale beige. Even the sky at this moment was sand, reflection of the fading beige of the sun.”

That sense of place continued right through the story, as did the fine quality of the writing.

Hugh Densmore was a young doctor, travelling back home for a family wedding.

He saw a hitchhiker standing by the road. A young woman. And that presented him with a dilemma. Night was falling and he didn’t want to leave her there, alone and vulnerable to predators. But he wasn’t sure he wanted to take the chance of being seen as a predator, by her or by others, if he stopped and offered her a ride.

Persephone Endpapers

He decided to stop, to try to make sure that the young woman was safe. And she accepted his offer. But he would soon wish he hadn’t stop. She was ungrateful, and he could see that the stories she was telling him weren’t true. And even when he was back home, caught up with family events, he couldn’t shake her off.

And there was worse to come. Hugh’s hitchhiker was found dead. Murdered. And he was the prime suspect.

And so The Expendable Man becomes a classic tale of the wrongly accused man. The man who speaks the truth, but is not believed by the authorities. The man who the real murderer sees he can easily frame. And the man who will struggle to clear his name, and to bring the real murderer to justice.

The story plays out in the way that these stories generally do, but there are many things that make this particular story so very fine.

Time and place were captured perfectly. I was transported across the Atlantic to Arizona, and back in time to 1963.

Each and every character is simply but clearly drawn. I believed in them, their relationships, their conversations.

I believed in Hugh and I had to follow him, even though I hated what was happening to him, even though I hated some of the things he saw and heard.

And then there is what many have called a twist but I am more inclined to call a revelation quite early on. I have to say that it confirmed my suspicions rather that coming as a complete surprise, but that really didn’t matter. It came naturally from the characters, from the place and the time, and it gave the story so much depth and power.

It also means that I can’t say too much more about The Expendable Man.

Other than it is a very fine novel, a very brave story to have written in the early 1960s, a crime novel with important things to say, and a book that I am happy to recommend.

*****

The Expendable Man is my entry for letter X in the Crime Fiction Alphabet.

Yes, it starts with X the sound rather than X the letter, but X is so difficult and I promised myself I wouldn’t read a book just because I had a letter to fill. I had no X books on my shelves, I could find none that I wanted to read in the library, and I did want to read this one.

And I think those are good enough reasons to bend the rules just a little!

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

“Each week, beginning Monday 10 January 2011, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

And so next week Y is for … ?

Crime Fiction Alphabet: W is for Written in Blood

Letter W in the Crime Fiction alphabet offered many possibilities.

I had intended to re-read Whose Body as part of my grand plan to re-read the works of Dorothy L Sayers in chronological order. But my copy seems to be awol.

The Whisperer by Donato Carisi is in my Filling The Gaps pile, but it wasn’t the right book for the moment.

I picked up Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart from the library, and it looks lovely but it wasn’t the book either.

Because I spotted an anthology from Honno in the library. A publisher I love, and I had wanted to read an anthology before the alphabet ended.

And so Written in Blood was the book!

I knew none of the authors, and I discovered that none of them were established crime writers and that they were a diverse and intriguing group of women. Some had been published before but others not. That made Written in Blood a very interesting proposition that I could approach with absolutely no preconceptions.

I found a wonderfully diverse set of stories, covering so many different areas of crime fiction. Some conventional crime that the library would put on the crime fiction shelves, and some stories that approached crime in a very different way, or where crime was incidental, that would be shelved with general fiction.

So many different characters, so many different lives, were offered up in so many different ways.

There was action, there was drama, there was comedy, there was tragedy …

I’m never sure how to write about short story collections, but this time around I have decided that, as there were so many fine stories, the best thing I can do is a whistle-stop tour:

Man and Boy by Yasmin Ali opens with a striking picture of a council estate.

“The sky spills like damp stuffing from a fly tipped mattress. the houses are not old. they are puny and scuffed with tiny gardens full of random, blighted vegetation and windblown polystyrene and cigarette butts. Some windows are chipboarded up. Others have curtains, but they betoken a fragile feminine resistance that would crumble easily before the threat of a matchstick or a brick.”

The story that follows is just as striking. It tells of the consequences, positive and negative, predictable and less so, of a gun being stored in a family home. A very cleverly constructed short story.

Tailings by Caroline Clark is a very different story. A student from mew Zealand finds a body on the Welsh hill farm she is visiting. There seems to be no solution – and no direction to the story – but a clever deduction twists everything together beautifully. A quiet and clever story.

The Wolf in the Attic by Anita Rowe is gem. The storytelling is pitch perfect from the start.

“You wouldn’t think, to look at me, that I have anything to hide. I sit here in my creative writing class, a short, stout middle-aged woman in twinset and pearls, the epitome of Welsh middle-class respectability. Retired nurse, empty nester, divorcee living alone, carefully nurtured pretence of total celibacy – now threatening to become reality – dabbling in a little creative scribbling to while away all these new-found leisure hours. But really, it’s not like that at all. I joined this class with the express purpose of making a confession in safety …”

As Envis painted a picture of her childhood with the little half-sister she envied so I thought I knew where this one was going. Then I change my mind. And then my mind was changed for me. An intelligent and gripping piece of storytelling.

Ten Little Londoners by Joy Tucker painted a picture of life in a women’s hostel. A woman disappeared, life went on, nobody was too concerned, but they really should have been. This was a simple story that left space to think, to wonder …

The Sound of Crying by Helen Lewis is another stand-out. An atmospheric tale of motherhood, medicine and grief. I’d love to say more but I can’t, so I will simply note that the author’s biography indicates that she has written a novel and that I would love to know a little more about it.

Cherry Pie by Kay Sheard took an extraordinary concept – a woman approached by a girl claiming that she is her daughter who drowned in infancy – and then took her story down some very unusual roads to reach a classic ending. This one is a true original!

China Doll by Kate Kinnersley rang the changes, with a little Welsh noir. Not a style I care for, but I could see that it was well done.

Bitter Harvest by Val Douglas told the story of two children born to neighbours on the same day. A bright girl and a brain-damaged boy. The story was nicely constructed, but it was a little predictable and I didn’t care for the stereotypes.

Killing the Village Cat by Jan Baker painted a lovely picture of life in a small village as it told the story of that death and its consequences. It was very readable, and highly entertaining but it was more of a sketch than a short story. And, sure enough, the author’s biography told me that  she was writing a novel using the characters created for this short story. It could be good …

The Emerald Earring by Sue Anderson had a familiar feel. A young man used his wife to rob an elderly aunt. But just who was using who?

“Swaying on its golden wire, the emerald flashed in the firelight, sending out little sparks. “So what are you going to do now?” he said. she couldn’t see him properly – the firelight had given him a golden halo but his face was in shadow. She thought about it: it hadn’t been easy, stealing something so valuable. It took nerve. She couldn’t have done it without him.”

Yes, the tale had a  familiar ring, but the author added some lovely ingredients of her own to produce a lovely little story.

Pork Pies by Maggie Cainen saw an old woman reminiscing about her childhood. A lovely picture, marred only by her mother chopping up the rent collector and feeding him to the pigs … Very nicely done.

Christmas Presents by Hilary Bowers introduces Bubbles, a would be party-girl constrained by poverty. She dreams of a share in the proceeds of a local Post Office Robbery. And she finds that her dreams might come true, but that the price will be high. Much too high. The character and her world are vividly evoked, and I really wanted to know what would happen to her. A fine piece of storytelling, with a nasty sting in the tale.

Within a Whisker by Beryl Roberts tells the story of a con man, trapped in South Africa and looking for a way out. I could see that the story was well executed, but it just wasn’t my sort of story.

The Visitor by Delphine Richard was a gem. A gunman stumbles into a Welsh farmhouse, setting into motion a story that balances drama and comedy, crime and domestic detail quite perfectly.

Without a Trace by Imogen Rhia Herrad was the last story, and it was a very accomplished tale. A beautifully written, perfectly executed revenge drama that very nearly took my breath away.

A fitting end.

Written in Blood is a fine selection of stories, and it is clear that traditional art of the storyteller is clearly alive and well in Wales

*****

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

“Each week, beginning Monday 10 January 2011, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

And so next week X is for … ?

The Crime Fiction Alphabet meets A Month of Dutch Literature: V is for Van der Vlugt

Now, where was I?

Four days ago I had a post written in my head, but before I could capture it I lost my internet connection. Completely.

I missed many my link to other readers, but without it for a few days I did a lot more reading. And I used the half hour a day available to me a the library to check email and continue my search for a job.

I’m still lacking a wireless connection, but for the moment I have salvaged a wired link and so I will try to pull that post out of the back of my mind …

Shadow Sister by Simone Van Der Vlugt seemed to be the perfect book. I had enjoyed the author’s first book, which I wrote about here, and so her second would nicely fill the V slot in my Crime Fiction Alphabet. And letter V fell in the middle of June,  so that the same book would fall nicely for A Month of Dutch Literature.

It was too perfect. I’m afraid the book was rather disappointing. It fell into the classic trap for crime fiction, of compromising characters for the sake of the plot. And I’m afraid there were problems with the plot too.

I must say now that this isn’t going to be a hatchet job. There were good things, things I liked, and I had no problem reading to the end. But I was disappointed.

The story began promisingly.

“All of a sudden he’s got a knife. The flash as he draws it is so unexpected fear paralyses me. I try to speak, but the sound dies in my throat. I can only stare at the blade glinting in the light streaming through the classroom window.”

Lydia taught in a language school. It could be difficult, but she cared, she felt she was doing good, and she was professional.

Her husband was less happy. Particularly when Lydia acceded to her school’s wish to deal with the student who pulled a knife on her quietly, in-house, to try to prevent damage to its reputation.

But Elisa, her twin sister, understood. The two woman were very different. Lydia, the teacher, was married with a child, organised, she knew where she was going in life. Elisa though was single, a photographer, and much more spontaneous in how she lived her life. Yes, two very different women, but they were joined by a shared history and they understood each other perfectly.

Until, just days after the knife incident, Lydia is killed.

And then the story is split. Between Lydia and the days leading up to her death, and Elisa in the days after as she grieved and searched for answers. It’s a very effective structure, drawing the reader into each life, each situation, and then unsettling as the realisation surfaces that one of those women is dead.

And initially I believed in them both, but things went a little wrong. Lydia’s character was compromised as her story was used to make points about immigrants and cultural differences. They were valid points, but they were pushed that little bit too hard. And Elisa’s character was compromised by the author’s decision push other aspects of her grief to one side and focus only on her need to know what happened.

I wondered if there was a very different novel trying to get out here. A story of family, culture and loss, that had been compromised by the need, or wish, to produce a book that sat more naturally in the crime fiction genre …

As a murder mystery Shadow Sister started well, but then it faltered. Because secondary characters were so very lightly sketched. Because so many secrets emerged. And because there were too many times when characters said and did things that I couldn’t believe in order to make the plot work.

And I’m afraid the ending didn’t work either. I knew when a killer was unmasked sixty pages before the end that there would be another twist to come. And there was, a very predictable twist that I’ve seen so many times before.

After that though, there was a final moment that worked beautifully, And there had been other moments before.

That made the weaknesses, the crime fiction clichés, so frustrating. Because those high points reminded me that Simone Van der Vlugt can write wonderful crime fiction, and made me think that she might do well to bend, or even break, the conventions of the genre …

Translated by Michele Hutchison

*****

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

“Each week, beginning Monday 10 January 2011, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

And so next week W is for … ?

Crime Fiction Alphabet: U is for Unburied

I was going to be sensible. I was going to read a short modern book from my Filling The Gaps pile for letter U in the Crime Fiction Alphabet.

But in the end another book, a book that I knew would throw me way behind schedule was calling me much to loudly to resist.

The Unburied by Charles Palliser.

“A big, fat murder mystery. It is a perfectly pitched pastiche of Victorian Gothic … compulsive reading.”

That’s what it said on the back cover, quoting the London Evening Standard, and I have to agree.

At the heart of the book is The Courtine Account, a document written in 1882 and put away to be opened only after the deaths of certain of those mentioned in its pages.

The Courtine Account was finally unsealed in 1919.

It was written by Doctor Edward Courtine, a historian, a distinguished academic but  a solitary man. A man who had separated himself from the world, and as a result lacked insight and understanding of other men.

It was clear that something was amiss. Subtle hints were dropped as the story advanced and eventually the truth of the man’s history would be revealed.

He was invited to spend the week before Christmas with Austin Fickling, a student friend who had become a teacher in the cathedral city of Thurchester. The two hadn’t met for more than twenty years, and there had been bad feeling between them, but  Courtine welcomed the invitation.

He was eager to visit Thurchester as he had a great interest in King Alfred the Great, and he had learned that an earlier historian with the same interest had worked Thurchester Library, and had maybe left behind papers that were never catalogued.

It didn’t occur him to wonder why Fickling had been so eager to extend that invitation, and why he behaved so erratically.

Fickling told him stories. Stories of a ghost that was said to walk in the town. The ghost of a man who was murdered at the cathedral two centuries before. Courtine is fascinated and so he has a great deal to research, a great deal to discuss at the library and at the cathedral.

He is so caught up in his research, so disinterested in what might motivate other men, that he doesn’t wonder why the owner of the house said to be haunted by the murdered man invites him into his home. Even though that man’s door is always locked, opening only to allow servants to enter and leave, and never, never admitting guests.

And, of course, it is too late that Courtine realises that he has become a pawn in a murderous conspiracy.

He struggles both to uncover the truth, and  to have it believed.

The Unburied is a book that ebbs and flows.

An introduction, in 1919 with The Courtine Account finally unsealed in a wonderful piece of drama.

Then the pace slows as the account itself begins. There are many conversations, many small details. Stories are told, retold, discussed …It’s still a pleasure to read, but a more subtle pleasure. Close attention is required, but it pays, it really does.

The pastiche of Victorian Gothic is pitch perfect. Others (I’m thinking particularly of Sarah Waters and the late Michael Cox) may have written with more verve, more drama, but The Unburied is just as fine, in a quieter, more cerebral way.

And the two murder mysteries, two centuries apart, were intriguing.

The pace rose again as the account the Courtine Account ended with a quite splendid courtroom drama, and the author’s realisation that all he can do is set down what he knows.

The finale picked up the 1919 story again, and tied up some, but not all, of the loose ends. There was maybe a little too much revelation at the final hour, a little too much contrivance, and, I think, a little cheat, but there was so much in this book to think about that I could quite easily forgive that.

Because I would so like to travel back to Thurcester, to observe and ponder those mysteries just a little more …

*****

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

“Each week, beginning Monday 10 January 2011, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

And so next week tomorrow V is for … ?

Crime Fiction Alphabet: T is for Tyler

I know that I first read about L C Tyler on a blog, but I really can’t remember which one. Which is a pity, because I really would like to thank whoever it was that inspired me to order that first book: I loved it, I loved the three that followed, and now I am eagerly awaiting a fifth book.

The Herring Seller’s Apprentice was the book that started it all.

It introduced me to two quite wonderful characters:

Ethelred Tresidder: a middle-aged crime writer, just about scraping a living by writing under three diverse aliases, who is maybe on the brink of a mid-life crisis.

Elsie Thirkettle: Ethelred’s agent, and a formidable woman driven by ambition, curiosity and, most of all, chocolate.

Elsie persuaded Ethelred to investigate his ex wife’s disappearance, hoping that it would provide inspiration for a new novel. But soon she wondered if Ethelred knew more about that disappearance than he had let on ….

A lovely scenario on which a fine mystery is built, told with warmth and wit, and enriched by a wonderful agent-author relationship.

And then there was A Very Persistent Illusion. It was that rare and very special thing, a second novel just as good as the author’s first but completely different.

It is the story of a commitment-phobic young man, whose attempts to escape a girlfriend sets off a chain of events that will force him to look at his past and maybe change his future.

A very difficult story to sum up, quite different from anything else I had ever read, so I’ll just say that intriguing characters, clever plotting and fine writing made it oh so readable, and that I definitely recommend reading.

After that I was intrigued to see what would come next.

It was the return of Ethelred and Elsie in Ten Little Herrings. I loved them just as much as I had the first time, and I loved the story that found them caught up in a modern country house mystery with echoes of the golden age and a touch of the surreal. It really was so clever and so entertaining.

And I was pleased that the cover of the book bore the slogan “An Elsie and Ethelred Mystery.” It definitely suggested that there would be more chances to meet the duo I had grown to love.

And that brings me to a book I haven’t written about before. I read The Herring in the Library when I was having a break from blogging last summer. It was another gem, I always meant to come back to come back to it, and now I am.

The story opens with Elsie and Ethelred playing Cluedo. The postman arrives, bringing Ethelred an invitation to dine with an old school friend he saw recently for the first time in years: Sir Robert Muntham of Muntham Court.

Elsie’s curiosity was piqued, and she persuaded Ethelred to take her as his guest. It was a strange evening, and it ended with the host dead in his locked study.

As the title suggests, this mystery with its roots in the golden age. There’s the aforementioned locked door, there’s a secret passage, there’s a lovely variety of suspects, and there’s a plot that twists and turns beautifully.

But it’s a golden age mystery in a very modern world. Not a pastiche but a modern novel by an author who has taken inspiration from the finest writing of another age, and used that inspiration to create something that is entirely his own.

And there’s more!

Ethelred is writing a new novel: a historical mystery, featuring Chaucer’s sidekick Master Thomas, investigating a crime that has striking similarities with Sir Robert’s death. Maybe it will cast light on that death…

As ever, there’s warmth, wit and wonderful writing to hold everything together.

It all ends in a fabulous denouement, with a such a clever twist.

It’s a while since I read the book, so some of the details have slipped my mind, but I do remember that it was a joy to read and that it more than lived up to expectations that the author’s previous novels had sent sky-high.

And one of the greatest joys was meeting Elsie and Ethelred again.

They will be back again very soon in Herring on the Nile. Let me share the blurb to see if I can entice you :

“In an effort to rejuvenate his flagging career, crime novelist Ethelred Tressider decides to set his new book in Egypt and embarks on a ‘research trip’ with his literary agent, Elsie Thirkettle, in tow. No sooner has their cruise on the Nile begun, however, than an attempt is made on Ethelred’s life. When the boat’s engine explodes and a passenger is found bloodily murdered, suspicion falls on everyone aboard – including a third-rate private eye, two individuals who may or may not be undercover police, and Ethelred himself. As the boat drifts out of control, though, it seems that events are being controlled by a party far more radical than anyone could have guessed.”

Now doesn’t that sound like a journey not to be missed?

*****

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

“Each week, beginning Monday 10 January 2011, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

And so next week U is for … ?

Crime Fiction Alphabet: S is for A Study in Scarlet

I must confess that, though I have read a lot of detective fiction and a fair few Victorian novels over the years, I have veered away from Arthur Conan-Doyle.

I blame my English teacher for this. He was a very good teacher and a lovely man, but one particular exercise created a certain prejudice in my mind. Looking back now it was actually a very interesting exercise. We read one half of a short story – The Speckled Band – in class and then asked to write our own conclusions. I was very pleased with mine, and I seem to recall that I got a good grade. But when I rad Conan-Doyle’s ending I was unimpressed. It seemed very far-fetched, and I thought that mine was definitely superior.

Oh, the confidence of youth!

But that’s why I have always thought of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle as not my kind of writer.

Recently though Sherlock Holmes, his most famous creation seems to have been everywhere: repeats of the classic serial on ITV3, a high-profile modern reworking on BBC1, and an even more high-profile feature film. Not to mention a good few books inspired by the man.

I decided that it was time to investigate the Holmes phenomenon and that, just in case my older self decided that she liked them, I decided to start at the beginning. And so it was that I brought a very nice new Penguin edition of A Study in Scarlet home from the library.

I enjoyed Conan-Doyle’s storytelling and prose style from the very beginning. And I was very pleased that the beginning was a proper beginning. John Watson, invalided army surgeon, and Sherlock Holmes, scientist and man of mystery, were brought together by a mutual acquaintance who knew that both were seeking rooms.

I’m naming no names, but I have often felt the absence of a proper backstory when I have read certain crime series.

The rooms were, of course,  at 221b Baker Street. And it was to that address that the police came to consult with Holmes. Which reminds me of something else that I really wanted to mention. There was a professionalism and respect in the relationships in this book, between detective and police, and between detective and associate. No one-upmanship as one investigator tried to outdo the other. No foolish sidekick necessitating slow and simple explanations. Just concern that objectives were achieved and proper accounts were given. I did like that.

Now, back to the mystery. And what a mystery it was. A dead man, seemingly unscathed but with his face frozen in terror, found in a derelict house. Found lying in blood that was not his own. And a single word written in that blood on the wall.

Baffling!

But a little knowledge, a little observation, a little understanding of human nature swiftly lead Holmes to the solution. And it led me on an extraordinary journey through the darker side of Victorian London. My bafflement continued, as Holmes gave little away, but I was intrigued by the mystery, caught up in the journey, and so I kept the faith.

I was rewarded with the identity of the murder halfway through the book. I wondered if it was a false ending, if there was to be another twist, or maybe even another mystery. In fact though there was another story entirely. The story of the man who would become a murderer. A story of adventure, love and religion set on the other side of the Atlantic.

The change of style and pace startled me, but it worked. I understood.

And I think that I might, finally, be beginning to understand the appeal of Holmes.

*****

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

“Each week, beginning Monday 10 January 2011, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

And so next week T is for … ?

Crime Fiction Alphabet: R is for Roth

 Letter R in the Crime Fiction Alphabet offered up many possibilities, but once again it was a book from my line of green Penguin Books that called the loudest.

You see that line holds many lesser known woman crime writers from the fifties and sixties. Women who created such original scenarios, such interesting characters, and who wrote about them with subtlety, intelligence and wit.

And so I picked up Shadow of a Lady by Holly Roth, hoping to meet another.

I knew nothing of the author, but the storyline was intriguing.

An American woman was driving from Paris to Geneva. Her fiance, who had been called home to England, had planned a route for her, but she decided to do things a little differently. Just a small show of independence. Sadly though, it lead her into trouble. The terrain was much tougher than she had expected, and the small British car that her fiance had given her was quite unlike the cars she had driven before. Laura pressed on, but she never reached Geneva. She disappeared.

The drama of Laura’s journey pulled me in. I liked her,  I admired her spirit, and I missed her when she disappeared.

And then the scene shifted. The drama was quieter, the story moved forward through dialogue instead of action, but it was no less effective.

Some time later a trunk arrived at a Norfolk station.  And it caused great consternation when it is found to contain the body of a woman who has been badly beaten, and is wearing only an anklet engraved with the letter L.

The trunk was linked to Laura’s fiance, John Seton-Smith, and the body was identified as Laura’s, by her maid and by the porter at the mansion block where she made her home.

John disputed the identification, but his was a lone voice. He could not – or maybe would not – account for the hours immediately after he and his fiancee parted.

That was infuriating, but I realised that Holly Roth was very cleverly planting a seed of doubt.

John found himself on trial for murder at the Old Bailey. He knew that he was innocent, but as the prosecution builds its case he realises that he could be found guilty.

His only hope lies with the private detective hired to trace Laura…

And so dramatic, and utterly believable, courtroom scenes are balanced by the investigations of a most practical and logical detective.

It was a fine mystery and the two principal characters made it sing. They were simply but effectively drawn in the beginning, but they gained depth as more was revealed. And yet they both retained a certain mystery. That was very clever.

I knew that there was a very simple solution to the mystery, but I was sure that it was wrong. And so I was baffled.

The end when it came was dramatic. At first I thought that the solution owed rather too much to luck, but maybe that had to be because identification mysteries are very difficult to resolve satisfactorily.

Or  that maybe the author built up the mystery a little too much and made it impossible for her ending to work perfectly. There were some loose ends that made me think the book might have worked better as a whole if things had been simplified just a little.

But the quality of the writing and the characters carried the day.

And a striking twist, followed by a very clever postscript, rounded things off nicely.

I haven’t been able to explain the many strengths and few weaknesses of this book as well as I’d like, because I don’t want to say too much about the plot. So just let me say that it wasn’t perfect but it was certainly good enough to make me want to investigate Holly Roth’s other books.

And, as luck would have it, I picked up two of those other books this afternoon. But that’s another post for another day …

*****

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

“Each week, beginning Monday 10 January 2011, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

And so next week S is for … ?

Crime Fiction Alphabet: Q is for A Question of Proof

In 1935 poet Cecil Day-Lewis published his first work of detective fiction, under the name Nicholas Blake.  I must assume that the writing was lucrative or enjoyable, or maybe even both, as he went on to write another nineteen over a period of more than thirty years.

And that first book was entitled “A Question of Proof”, allowing me to use the potentially tricky letter Q in my Crime Fiction Alphabet to see just what a former Poet Laureate might have brought to the golden age of crime writing.

Of course he brought lovely writing, and he also brought a nice little mystery. 

 A schoolboy, the headmaster’s rather unpopular nephew, is found dead, strangled, in a haystack on Sports Day at an English preparatory school. Nobody saw anything. Nobody heard anything.

There is just one clue: the propelling pencil found in the haystack. That put the teacher who it belonged to in a rather difficult position. Because he dropped the pencil during the course of an assignation with the headmaster’s wife. Did the boy see something he shouldn’t have? Was he killed to keep him quiet?

Maybe. But other possibilities present themselves.

There is no evidence though. No proof.

The headmaster, concerned that the local police are not making progress, calls in gentleman detective Nigel Strangeways.

The detective, who is both charming and intelligent, wins the trust of both teachers and pupils. He watches, he listens, and he deduces who the killer must be.

Still though, there is the question of proof.

And there is another murder before that question is finally answered…

I was transported to that school in the 1930s.

Because the characters were so simply and so clearly drawn. I could hear their voices and I could believe in their relationships.

Because the evocation of time and place was wonderful, rich with details that really brought it to life.

At first the pace was slow and the style a little self conscious. I rather resented the omniscient narrator steering me this way and that. I wondered what I wasn’t being allowed to see, and whether those authorial flourishes were padding to disguise a slight story.

But things soon settled down. The story hit its stride, and that narrator took a step back and steered me so gently that I was hardly aware he was there.

Something was missing though. The mystery lacked the depth, the possibilities to ponder that can be found in many golden age mysteries.

But that second murder was very, very clever.

And it did hold me. I read happily until the denouement came. It was dramatic, it was surprising, but I wasn’t sure that the motivation for murder was really there.

So I’m can’t file A Question of Proof under great, but I am going to file it under promising. After all, it’s the first of a series that could well grow in stature …

*****

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

“Each week, beginning Monday 10 January 2011, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

And so next week R is for … ?