A Crime Round-Up

I’ve often commented that when life gets busy or I’m overstretched, I find it far more relaxing to read about people killing one another than falling in love. But that’s probably because I like the kind of crime fiction that’s about puzzle solving. Every once in a while I can cope with an adrenaline-rush thriller, but I have no taste for the kind of gritty, gory, depressive crime that seems to have become the staple of the mass market these past few years. Please, no forensic pathologists dissecting people in graphic detail, no dreary Glaswegian council estates rife with drugs and disaffection, and unless it’s really well done I steer clear of all the missing or abused children stories too. I know it happens in reality, I know I ought to stay in touch with the true consequences of violence, but I’m sorry, when I want to put my feet up, literarily speaking, I really like jolly crime. An evocative location, a cast of suspicious characters, a corpse who no one liked anyway and a masterful detective, that’ll do nicely.

It’s been a busy few weeks here and I seem to have got through a fair amount of crime fiction. First up is P. D. James’s The Lighthouse which ticked all the above boxes, and was pretty well written to boot. I really like P. D. James but I don’t feel the urge to binge on her books the way I’ve done in the past with other classic crime writers. Somehow she is best enjoyed at discrete intervals when her cool, intelligent voice and tight plotting restores your faith in genre fiction. This novel is set on an island off the British coast which is used as a retreat for VIPs. When one of the distinguished guests is bizarrely murdered, Adam Dalgleish is called in with his team to sort out a tangled web of rivalries, jealousy and pathological resentment among the island people. P.D. James is tremendously good at creating memorable secondary characters and working her way neatly and strategically through the midway question and answer sessions that always risk dragging the lesser writers down. She has also developed the characters of Dalgleish and his team intriguingly over the years, so the reader’s sympathy is engaged even-handedly between the detectives and the suspects. The only thing I’ve never quite found plausible is Dalgleish’s moonlighting as a poet; it ought to work but doesn’t really for me. Still, it’s a minor quibble amongst so much that’s done right. This is a deftly, intricately plotted novel that works its way to a conclusion with a steady grip on the reader’s throat.

Falling into the thriller category is Ghost by Robert Harris. I’m not much of a conspiracy theory gal myself; I don’t believe people are that organized, but nevertheless I thought this was very good. The first person narrative is recounted by a nameless ghostwriter (naturally) who is drafted in a the last moment to fix every writer’s nightmare – a huge and apparently useless biography of the recently deposed Prime Minister that needs to be knocked into bestseller shape within a month. The ghostwriter is flown to an out-of-season Cape Cod where the Prime Minister and his entourage are in quasi-exile to write his memoirs and allow the dust from his term in office to settle. More trouble is on its way, however, as the ex-PM’s handing of some terrorist subjects has made the news in an unpleasant way, with an old political enemy stirring the mud and landing him before a war crimes tribunal. It’s a story that could make the book, but it might mean the end of the PM’s political career and permanent exile in America – at the least. What’s most disturbing for our narrator is the fact that the previous man to do his job ended up falling off a ferry and drowning in highly suspicious circumstances. So there’s certainly some information out that might be best left hidden. Naturally the narrator’s writerly curiosity gets the better of him and he starts to make his own inquiries, not to mention forge his own relationships with the ex-PM”s intimate circle. It wasn’t really my kind of book at all, but I found it engrossing and rather clever in the way it wove questions of ghostwriting into the thriller format. And Robert Harris is a very good writer; you have no sense of strain, no lapses in tone or quality, just consistently strong writing of the invisible school that facilitates the story without drawing undue attention to itself. I think everyday realism in unrealistic formats (and let’s face it, the thriller is pure fantasy) is very hard to do, so I applaud someone who can do it well.

Finally, I came over all enthusiastic at the prospect of a new American crime writer I read about on the blogs, Kathryn Miller Haines. Her unlikely detective, Rosie Winter, is a struggling actress in the early 1940s, trying her best to get a good part in a New York that’s struggling with the consequences of the Second World War: no money, too much propaganda and the ever-present grief for missing men. Rosie’s own boyfriend signed up for the Navy after their last argument and she hasn’t heard from him since. Seeing as a girl has to make ends meet, Rosie has been working part time in a detective agency, and the book I read, The War Against Miss Winter, begins with Rosie discovering her boss murdered in an office cupboard. It’s not long before Rosie becomes caught up with his last case that revolves around a notorious missing script of a play and leads to Rosie’s involvement with a political theatrical group and a bunch of mobsters. It’s sad to say but this, for me, was much better in principle than in practice. It ought to work; Rosie has a fine line in wise-cracks, the situation is great and Haines used to be an actress so the theatrical dimension is done with fine authenticity. But the style, with an endless procession of 1940s slang, is overwrought and the author has yet to learn how to present her material to maximum effect. I kept forgetting who people were and having to flick back to find previous mentions, and important plot points were whipped through in a couple of sentences, displaced in favor of yet more 1940s padding. The book certainly got better as it went along, and I did feel the idea had enough potential to make me read the next one in the series. But it goes to show that whilst genre fiction might be much maligned as an ‘easy’ form of literary low-life, it is very, very hard to do well. To make a book gripping, evocative, plausible, shapely, funny and true is a pretty tall order, and the authors who can do it and make it look effortless deserve our admiration

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14 thoughts on “A Crime Round-Up

  1. What fun! I do enjoy P.D. James very much and you have just reminded me it has been ages since I read anything by her. Years ago I had a James binge and read her first three or four novels all in a row. It was too much. Everything was all run together by the end of it. My husband likes Robert Harris. I will have to ask him if he knows about this one. And while the prospect of finding my boss dead and stuffed into a cupboard is appealing, I think I will pass on the The War Against Miss Winter.

  2. I know exactly what you mean about crime stories. I’m reading a bunch of murder mysteries right now myself. There is something quite satisfying about them. Right now I am reading Her Royal Spyness series by Rhys Bowen. It’s thoroughly entertaining.

  3. How lovely for you – the time for this fun reading! I have long adored Adam Dalgleish, but agree with you on the poetry part. He does seem the tortured, sensitive type, but poetry – I don’t think so. A jolly crime? You are too funny.
    Has the new semester/position begun?

  4. It’s been ages since I read any PD James, but I did enjoy her books. I have Ghost which I bought because I liked Robert Harris’s Pompeii. I haven’t started it yet. I don’t think I’ll bother with The War Against Miss Winter – thank goodness that’s not another book to add to the TBR mountain.

  5. Isn’t it funny that crime fiction can be almost a comfort read? I know I turn to mysteries a lot. I think it’s that with a crime story you know things will be resolved in a good way (well, almost always!) I’m intrigued by the Miss Winter book – I like the setting… I just read another mystery set during that time frame and I found it wonderful (This Dame for Hire). I’m curious how it’d compare to that one. I guess I’ll have to check it out :)

  6. Stefanie – that remark about your boss really cracked me up! I always think I want to read more P D James than I do. In the middle of a novel I imagine I’ll go onto a second, and then by the end I realise enough is enough. But I do like her work a lot. If your husband reads Ghost, do let me know what he thinks! Bluestocking – and how I love a recommendation from a blogging friend! There’s nothing quite like crime to suit a certain mood. I’ll be checking Rhys Bowen out. Qugrainne – how nice to think that you too find the poet in Dalgliesh a bit implausible! The term has indeed started, thank you for asking, and it’s when I’m in recovery mode from a lot of organising that crime seems just right. I should post on it when I’m a few weeks in as it is so very different from my old job, but full of intriguing possibilities so far. Anne – I am still waiting for my copy of Maloney’s Law to arrive, but arrive it will in the end! I’d love to know what you make of Ghost if you read it (and even what your sister-in-law-to-be thinks too!) big hugs. Booksplease – I haven’t read anything else by Harris, but I think I will read more of him now. And so glad to find another P D James fan. Her age is telling a little bit now, but she still writes better than many authors half her age! And I know, sometimes it is a relief to find a book that one doesn’t actually want. :) iliana – I did think of you whilst I was reading the Miss Winter. It’s a gorgeous US copy, slightly larger than a UK book and with the kind of binding that means it falls open and stays open. It was a really good set up and I will certainly read the second in the hope the few faults are ironed out. Thank you for the recommendation – wonderful! I shall be checking that out.

  7. I liked Ghost too and your comments about Robert Harris are spot-on. It is a pleasure to read his work. I’ve just finished PD James’ latest – The Private Patient – which was strong, but possibly not as consistently good as The Lighthouse. It was still a great escape, though.

  8. I do love PD James – and I’m really keen to read her latest novel. I sometimes lose patience with Inspector Dalgliesh myself…occasionally he’s just too “Eeyore-ish” for his own good!

    Funny, I was looking at The War Against Miss Winter in the bookstore just the other night. Thanks for the honest review :)

  9. I know, LL – huge apologies! I had to chase the Book Depository twice in order to get copies for the people I dedicated M’s L to and the first package is still missing somewhere, sigh! Yell if you have further problems and I’ll see what I can do!

    Love & hugs

    Axxx

  10. Charlotte – so glad to know you liked Ghost, too, and Harris in general. I must read more of him! I’m astonished that P D James is managing to produce books so regularly and still with quality – I can only hope I have the same mental sharpness at 80-whatever she is! I’m sure I’ll read The Private Patient, but there’s quite a lot of her earlier stuff I’ve still to read, which is a nice thought. Becca – your comment about Eeyore made me laugh! But happy that you are a PD James fan. The Miller Haines book was by no means bad, but it could have been better. Still, it’s only my view and other people may think she strikes just the right balance. I often worry that my mood affects my reading too much if I haven’t chosen just the right book. I’m sure you know what I mean! Anne – no need to worry – M’s L arrived just before lunchtime today (oh our lovely postal service) so hurrah! I am looking forward to it. What a pain for you, though, when they are usually so good.

  11. Hurrah! Thanks for letting me know, LL. I think it’s just the curse of me – I am the opposite of the Midas Touch in terms of postal deliveries. Must be the ley lines or something …

    Axxx

  12. I’m glad you like the James novel; I listened to that one and enjoyed it a lot. She does a great job with the characters — you are right! I listened to it twice, in fact — the second time through to see how she plotted it. It was an interesting exercise, but it confirmed to me that I’m terrible at figuring out mysteries — I really don’t think if I’d tried hard to figure it out on the first go-through that I could have. Oh, well!

  13. Anne – LOL! But on this occasion, the curse is lifted. Huzzah! love and hugs. Dorothy – Ah I thought you were a blogging friend who had read it. I do like the idea of listening a second time to figure out the plotting; what a cool idea. Mystery writers across the globe are cheering now to have found a perfect reader. :)

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