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Friday, 8 December 2017

Striding Folly by Dorothy L. Sayers

Lately, I’ve not had much time to read crime fiction. My two jobs – lecturing at a university and doing admin for a novelist – have meant reading a hell of a lot of books in completely different genres. That’s why my last two posts have been – cringe – recycled versions of reviews that are nearly five years old. I have, however, been getting my criminal fix by regularly checking my favourite blogs and also by dipping in and out of books. Today, I’ll be looking again at Dorothy L. Sayers; this time at a short story.

The three stories collected in Striding Folly (1972) are among the only pieces of Sayers’ ‘detectivism’ (her word) that I still had left to read. So I had a go at the title story, originally published in a 1939 anthology. Technically, this is a Lord Peter Wimsey tale, although His Lordship only appears three quarters of the way through, and doesn’t do much except polish his monocle and reference the classics. Then he identifies some hitherto unintroduced culprit, despite never having been given any details of the case, and disappears – a deus ex machina created by someone who no longer believes in that particular god.

We follow an evening in the life of Mr Mellilow, who is waiting for his friend to arrive for a game of chess. While he waits, a stranger pays a visit – a man called Mr Moses who endures that smarmy middle-class condescending antisemitism (on the parts of both the protagonist and the author) that certain other minorities experience today. The two men play chess for a couple of hours. Realising that his expected guest is a no-show, Mellilow goes to bed. He wakes up, prompted by a violent dream, and rushes out to a folly, where he finds that his friend is not just late for chess, but late as late can be.

When he tells the police about his alibi – he can’t have killed the man because of Mr Moses – nobody believes that Mr Moses exists … until Wimsey rolls up and sets everything right. The solution Wimsey expounds is amazingly flimsy. You know how, when you read a murder mystery, you can spot some bits but generally not work out a whole conclusive solution? Well, Sayers gives us the bits we can easily work out and anticipate and does nothing with them. It literally goes no further.

Personally, I had a much more elaborate solution in mind when I read this story, and I am fairly sure that Sayers was thinking of something along those lines. I wonder if she got bored writing ‘Striding Folly’ and just dashed off the ending, from Wimsey’s entrance onwards? I’m not sure of the circumstances of commission and publication, but I would be genuinely shocked if she wrote this story for anything but stone-cold cash.
As you might have gathered, I wasn’t wildly keen on this story, finding it a little pointless. Sure, there is something going on with chess: the self-conscious presentation of a strategy game in a genre that Sayers perceived to be reprehensibly fixated on puzzles at the expense of social and literary imperatives. However, she did something along these lines but with crosswords much more effectively in ‘Uncle Meleager’s Will’. All in all, ‘Striding Folly’ strikes me as uninspired, and little more than a Golden Age zombie.

Only read this final bit if youve already read the story, or dont care how it ends:

If you would like to know the solution I think Sayers might have planned:  I think that Mr Moses had some kind of remote control device hidden in his left glove – hence keeping his gloves on and only using his right hand to play chess – which he triggered at ten minutes to nine (the exact time he fell into his first trap in the chess game, because his mind was elsewhere).  I think this set off some kind of electrical charge in a chess piece that the victim was holding, or which was in his boot, and which was later found by the body, or possibly switched with an identical piece by Moses after the event. There is precedence for this kind ending with Sayers; 'The Cave of Ali Baba' (1929) hinges on voice recognition software. Anyway, just a theory!

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Fires of London by Janice Law

Francis Bacon was one of the most powerful surrealist painters of the twentieth century and Janice Law imagines him on the track of a murderer in London's gay underworld during the Blitz.

Law paints Bacon as a likeable, cheeky, self-deprecating but starlingly intelligent and sincere young man, troubled by his sexuality but unlikely to renounce it. Bacon, who narrates, is an ARP warden in London. It's 1939. During a blackout, he walks into a dead body and promptly becomes the prime suspect for murder. A detective on his back has a suspiciously specific agenda, and with old friends and old conquests going missing, things start to get personal.

This short adventure-mystery culminates in a predictable but thrilling manner. While Bacon has been exploring the darkest parts of London and the darkest corners of the human soul, it all ends with a huge flash of light. If you know what I mean. This is London; this is the war.

An immaculately-researched and evocative novel, Fires of London (2013) had me turning e-pages like there was no tomorrow (and `tomorrow' was far from certain for these characters). It does not surprise me one jot that its author is herself a painter: the artistic temperment, and the narrator's tendency to see everything in terms of which paint he would use to capture it, are authentic.

However, I will eat my hat if Janice Law is British. Slang such as `copper' is over-used and often used jarringly. Very few natives of London in the 1930s and 1940s will have used this and only this word to refer to a police officer. Then, as now, and there, as the world over, language was more fluid, more dynamic. Slang is a tricky thing to get the hang of, and only the strongest writers can pull it off. Passages like this were genuinely distracting: `Oh, there were all manner of deviants [...] and a good many pleasant chaps who wanted to buy me drinks and fondle my bum, so to speak.' Brian Sewell aside, I defy you to find anyone who has ever spoken like that.

Writing about corruption, networking, light and dark (on all levels), and secrets, though, Janice Law is in her element. I have a suspicion that Francis Bacon will be thrown into more exploits. And people will want to read all about them.

This review originally appeared on Amazon UK in 2013.

Disclaimer: I was given a review copy by the Mysterious Press.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Hats Off to Murder by D.S. Nelson

Hats Off to Murder is an easy read, and a rewarding one. Milliner Blake Hetherington has worked in his family-owned hat shop for years and got used to watching people and learning. Hats, he claims, become maps of their wearers. When two of his customers die, he becomes suspicious and investigates the deaths to see if he can find a link.

D.S. Nelson does everything a mystery writer should do: she entertains and informs. I read it because I like murder mysteries but now I know a bit about hats too! D.S. Nelson writes very simply and it's like having a conversation with Blake. Every now and then, we're treated to a paragraph about the history of various hats: the bowler, the beret, even the Breton.

Agatha Christie is an obvious influence (Christie's Miss Marple, after all, sat back and watched people, noting that "One begins to class people, quite definitely, just as though they were birds or flowers, group so-and-so, genus that, species that"). Another obvious influence is Arthur Conan Doyle, whose iconic detective made deductions based on objects like hats (ie. "The Blue Carbuncle"). This makes Blake's snooty dismissal of the deerstalker funny: "we are all familiar with the famous Sherlock Holmes and one can hardly fail to see a deerstalker [and think of him]. Made from checked fabric with faux fur lined side flaps, this hat was the sort of mass-produced nonsense I would not sell". Lol.

There are typos, and this would not win a creative writing competition. But neither would anything Agatha Christie wrote. There is the odd brilliant turn of phrase; for example, an exotic French lady "immersing me in a gaze that would have had the Saints confessing". One quibble I have is the length: longer than a story and not quite a novella.

Reading Hats Off to Murder, I felt like I was reading an interesting blog post. And in these contemporary times that is exactly what a traditional story should do. I'm looking forward to the next Blake Hetherington adventure, One For the Rook.

This review originally appeared on Amazon UK in 2013.

Disclaimer: I was given a review copy by D.S. Nelson.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Mini reviews #10

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson. Ian Rankin considers this a detective novel -- and the best one ever written -- so it belongs here. I would call it a gothic novel, and rather old-fashioned for its time, although incredibly accessible. It's a beautifully crafted and blatantly important novel. We all know the story but, I think, 99% of readers will stay engaged from beginning to end.

The Bar on the Seine (1931) by Georges Simenon. An extremely enjoyable and astute novel which begins with a conversation between Maigret and a man he has captured, who is facing the death penalty. It's the kind of book you read quickly, forget quickly, and remember bit by bit.

Rogue Male (1939) by Geoffrey Household. My goodness, some men need to get over themselves.

And Then There Was No One (2009) by Gilbert Adair. Without a doubt, objectively and unquestionably, the best postmodern detective novel of all time. But don't just read this one -- read the whole Evadne Mount trilogy.

A Study in Lavender: Queering Sherlock Holmes (2011) edited by Joseph R.G. DeMarco. This is a collection of short stories, focussing on the central Sherlock Holmes characters from a variety of LGBTQIA perspectives. The stories range in quality quite dramatically, and I think the best is Katie Raynes' 'The Kidnapping of Alice Braddon'.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

An April Shroud by Reginald Hill

I’ve not seen a single episode of the BBC’s long-running series Dalziel and Pascoe and, I must admit, I’ve never wanted to. There’s something about TV police procedurals that irritates me: I don’t know what it is, but I can’t get into them in the same way I can get into police procedural books. However, I’m glad to have finally read a Dalziel and Pascoe novel, although An April Shroud (1975) is more of a Dalziel-featuring-Pascoe novel.

Reginald Hill died in 2012, and, scanning his obituaries and tributes for a small academic project, I was struck by the fact that fellow crime writers talked about him in a specific and unusual way. They didn’t mention his prose – it’s almost as if they hadn’t read his books – but talked instead about him as a person: in an incredibly affectionate and very slightly condescending way. A similar thing happened when Colin Dexter died earlier this year.

All of this piqued my curiosity, and, when I saw An April Shroud in a charity shop, I bought it and read it. Before anything else, I was fascinated by the cover, because it includes three praiseful quotes. One from the Times describing Hill as ‘consistently excellent’ (the word ‘consistent’ always makes me want to read the whole review), one from the Observer calling him the best purveyor of ‘homebred crime fiction’, and one from Val McDermid which strikes me as praise so fully qualified that it’s rather faint: ‘The finest male English contemporary crime writer’ (McDermid being, of course, Scottish).

Inspector Pascoe is on his honeymoon, leaving Superintendent Andy Dalziel alone, on a lakeside holiday. Dalziel is large and gregarious, with a deliberately unrefined manner and an obsessively indulgent attitude to everything in life – including police work. He forces himself to enjoy his holiday in the first few pages of An April Shroud, while standing on a bridge and watching the river beneath:
No! Sod it! This wouldn’t do at all. The holiday was the thing. Fresh air, commune with nature, bathe in beauty, pay homage to history. An English holiday, tired policeman, for the revitalization of.
Any corpse comes floating this way, I’ll say Hello sailor, and goodbye, avowed Dalziel and as an act of both symbol and necessity he descended to the water-lapped limit of the bridge, unzipped his flies and began to pee in the flood.
He is, of course, interrupted by the arrival of a corpse in a boat (okay, it’s in a coffin in a boat; he witnesses a funeral procession). Before long, a combination of harsh weather and greedy curiosity means that Dalziel not only gets to know the entire funeral party, but also ends up staying under their roof.

The family is hardly in mourning, Dalziel notices – they are aloof and uncomplicated toffs. Moreover, the deceased’s widow, Bonnie, causes numerous stirrings in his trousers. When he finds out that that Bonnie is buried two husbands – and the circumstances under this one died – the Superintendent embarks on a busman’s holiday.

Although I’d hate to meet him in real life, I really enjoyed reading about Andy Dalziel. He’s a totally gross human being, but presented so skilfully that when we laugh at him it’s with an appreciation for what’s going through his mind: we appreciate how ridiculous the world around him is, and his refusal to go along with social niceties is almost laudible. I have previously read that Dalziel and his hard-working subordinate Pascoe are a kind of rip-off of Joyce Porter’s Inspector Dover and Sergeant Wilson – and, although I haven’t read any Porter, I’ve always enjoyed them on the radio. However, Dalziel is much more interesting than Dover – who is grotesque and lazy and pretty much hates the idea of work of any kind – because Dalziel has to do police work, even on holiday. Hill explains:
time had to be passed and the habit of professional curiosity was as hard to change as the habits of smoking or drinking or taking three helpings of potatoes and steamed pudding.
So, the character is more considered and therefore more interesting. I also enjoyed his/Hill’s pithy insights into character: one man is introduced as ‘unrepentantly Liverpudlian’, another man’s idea of tasteful d├ęcor is likened to ‘a bourgeois Taj Mahal’, and when some Americans roll up we are told that ‘they might have been gang leaders, astronauts, presidential aides or Mormon PR men, but they were unmistakably American.’

To my mind, the novel drags on a bit. It’s 326 pages long, which I think is 100 too many. The story itself isn’t substantial and, by around p. 150, the observational humour and Dalziel being Dalziel starts to get repetitive. That said, the ending is very nice, with everything tightly resolved but enough ambiguity and human emotion in dialogue with legal justice to be genuinely interesting.

I’m willing to accept that An April Shroud is not the best novel in the Dalziel and Pascoe series, and I’m sure I’ll read another one, one day, but I shan’t be rushing out and stocking up any time soon. Perhaps if I’d already been invested in the two policemen – had actually cared about who Pascoe marries or how Dalziel spends his down-time – I’d have loved it. As it is, I found the book fun and forgettable.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers

Forgive the horrible cover -- I always try to post the edition I read, and this is it!

Seriously, my opinion on Sayers changes with every new moon. At the moment, I like her books a lot, although a reread of Whose Body? (1923) does little to cement the notion that we're dealing with one of the greatest minds in twentieth century crime fiction.

Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) remains a fascinating figure. One of the first women to graduate from Oxford University, she initially started writing detective fiction for pecuniary reasons while working in an advertising agency. Whose Body? was her first novel, and it was an immediate success -- so she went on to write about her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, in several more volumes. As the series progressed, she also sought to stretch the possibilities of the crime fiction form, introducing ethical questions and thematic experiments. The ending of Busman's Honeymoon (1937) is rightly well-known for the unusual attention given to the psychological impact of sending a murderer to the gallows. Ultimately, Sayers abandoned crime writing in favour of translation and quite bad theology.

Sayers was very good at quotable quotes. Among my favourites is this, from Have His Carcase:
I always have a quotation for everything -- it saves original thinking.
But I also like a little poem she wrote (not sure where it comes from, as I've only ever seen it quoted):
As I grow older and older
and totter towards the tomb,
I find that I care less and less
who goes to bed with whom.
The first Sayers I read was Murder Must Advertise. I was quite young and determined to hate it because all the glossy crime scholarship I'd read sneered at the 'highbrow' pretensions of 'Miss Sayers' (use of the prefix should have been my clue that these were not discerning critics). So I was kind of annoyed to thoroughly enjoy it. I just told myself that I didn't like it because the murderer was easy to spot -- although that was very much the point. I then started reading her again at university, and now have two novels and a few short stories left to tackle.

But Whose Body? was a re-read. I'm sorry to say that I enjoyed this book less the second time around, but that's not to say I didn't enjoy it at all. It begins with His Lordship dashing out to an art sale, only to be assailed over the telephone by his mother, the Duchess of Denver, who informs him that a body has been found in a bathtub. And not just any body. This is the corpse of a man wearing nothing but a pair of pince-nez.

The plot is okay, but not substantial. It's not really a whodunit, because there are so few characters you spot the killer straight away and have fun watching Wimsey catch them. The best bit about the book is certainly Wimsey himself, who appears here fulfilling his author's stated aim: to create a hero who was 'part Fred Astaire and part Bertie Wooster'. His first dialogue is 'Oh, damn!' (this may sound silly, but the comma shows that the author takes the written word seriously), and these words -- which also open the entire canon -- are a rather nice way to set things off. When we meet Wimsey, he is described as possessing a 'long, amiable face [that] looked as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat, as white maggots breed from Gorgonzola.' Phwoar.

Agatha Christie loved this description of Wimsey, and when Sayers gave her hero more depth, and a girlfriend, Christie got miffed and wrote a gloriously passive aggressive account of Sayers' (and others') work for a Russian newspaper. She concluded that Wimsey's marriage, which happens somewhere between Gaudy Night (1935) and Busman's Honeymoon (1947) had made him 'a good man spoiled.'

Even at this early stage, however, Wimsey has more psychological nuance than many of his peers. He suffers very clearly from shell-shock, and there is a genuinely shocking scene in which he experiences night-terrors, reliving his horrific experiences on the front line in France during the First World War. This scene also gives Bunter -- in many ways, a cross between Wooster's Jeeves and Poirot's George(s) -- more depth than one might expect from such a conservative writer. We see his servile position as one based on mutual dependence, friendship, and the great equalising consequences of war.

There are some issues in this book that I don't think we can ignore. Many of the golden age crime writers were downright anti-semitic, and I don't think we can excuse this as being 'of its time'. I think it's important to call it out.  Writing in a Jewish e-zine, Amy E. Schwartz has called Whose Body?  'a welter of obsession with Jews': it begins with an apparently Jewish corpse, proceeds through numerous problematic quips (outlined in the linked article), and ends quite unrepentantly in the same vein. Apparently, the first draft of the novel had Lord Peter wowing the implied reader with his cheekiness by pointing out that the body in the bathtub cannot be that of a Jewish financier because it isn't circumcised.

Of course, Sayers toned down the anti-semitism in later novels, once she became aware of the problem's extent and reach -- nearly all the guilty writers did this, whether by design or co-ercement (and it's an area where Agatha herself falls regrettably short). This book, on one level, so drenched in problematic attitudes that it's about anti-semitism. But, at the same time, it's equally indulging-while-pointing-out hilarious snobbery, the death of class security, and the conflict between post-war trauma and post-war nostalgia.

Whose Body? is not a great novel. It's the work of an author still finding her feet, and working out what she wants to do or say with the genre. But any assessment must bear in mind what it spawned -- one of the most significant and interesting series of the golden age.