Death of an Avid Reader

9780349400570As we near the publication date of our next full edition of Shiny New Books, you might reasonably fear that the title of this post referred to me. But no! It is in fact the most recent addition to the series of crime novels by Frances Brody featuring her 1920s lady detective, Kate Shackleton. I confess I just love this sort of reproduction vintage crime. I’m a fan of the traditional cozy whodunnit, and ready to cheer when – for example – Kate’s stalwart housekeeper, Mrs Sugden, brings in the tea and hot buttered muffins as Kate sheds her coat and muffler after a long day of tough sleuthing out in foggy Leeds. Bring on the comforting period detail! This novel provided me with a weekend’s perfect relaxation.

So it’s autumn 1925 and Kate has received a letter regarding a new private investigation. The venerable Lady Coulton charges her with finding the daughter she gave up for adoption many years ago. With only an old photo and a last-known address to guide her, Kate sets to work with her trusty ex-policeman assistant, Jim Sykes. But it isn’t very long before her attention is distracted, first by the discovery of a Capuchin monkey in the back of her car, property of the local organ-grinder who seems to have gone missing (Mrs Sugden is disapproving but scarcely ruffled, you’ll be glad to know, by a monkey as a house guest), and then by a distinctly odd story of ghosts in her local library. As a member of the board, she agrees to witness an exorcism in order to settle the fragile nerves of the ladies who work there. But instead the evening ends with the discovery of a real body, that of Dr Horatio Potter, a learned local man who is deeply involved with the library’s business. And lying not far from him, in a state of collapse, is the organ-grinder.

Kate finds herself dragged into this case in order to prevent the crime from being thoughtlessly attributed to a poor old sick man. But when it seems that the missing daughter she seeks might well have been a former employee at the library, and that the library is riven with quarrels over a proposed move into new buildings, her cases merge and become more complicated.

There’s a lot going on in this novel and the plotting is masterful. There are plenty of revelations and twists and turns, a colourful cast of characters and the atmosphere of 1920s Leeds is beautifully recreated. I thought this was consistently well-written and Kate Shackleton is a fine creation. Left widowed by the war but far from helpless, she puts her VAD nursing skills to good use along with her able intelligence. She never oversteps the boundaries of what a lady of her class could do in that era, but you do feel that she actually works her puzzles out, rather than relying on some stroke of luck or anachronistic act of derring-do. She’s often been compared to Jacqueline Winspeare’s Maisie Dobbs, and there is a circumstancial resemblance to her, but there’s more detecting going on in these books, less historical detail. I don’t mind that as I can sometimes get a bit bogged down with Maisie. And on an entirely superficial note, the covers are fab. If you like your cosy crime intelligent but restful, then I’d warmly recommend her.

As for this avid reader, I am aware of being horribly behind yet again in my blog reading. I’ve kept all your posts on my feed reader and hope to start getting to them very soon. Many apologies – hopefully the new edition of SNB will more than make up for my absence!

 

 

Passing Through

I am still somewhat brainless with chronic fatigue and turgid in spirit (isn’t turgid a good word?), though I don’t know what Mr Litlove’s excuse is. This is an exchange we had just the other evening:

Me: And how were your sandwiches today?

Mr Litlove: Very nice, very tasty. I do like that cheese. And the mayonnaise.

Me: That’s interesting. Considering the sandwiches I made you were ham and tomato.

Mr Litlove: (eyes darting from right to left in concentration) But there was mayonnaise in there… wasn’t there?

Me: You don’t have a clue, do you?

It’s a wonder they still let us drive. The only thing I’ve been doing with any consistency and engagement is, as usual, reading. But so many of the books that have passed through my hands lately have been for the magazine, one way or another. You’ll note the Monique Roffey in my sidebar, and the recent half-review of Archipelago I wrote. I’m actually putting together a special feature about her writing for our next edition because I think she’s an amazing author, fearless in her approach and so clever in her storytelling. She’s asking questions about power and politics, risk and catastrophe that no one else has the guts to tackle.

in love and warI’ve also just finished the new novel by Laurie Graham, who is a writer who really should be better known than she is. Several years ago now I read and loved The Importance of Being Kennedy, and since then she has produced a series of historical novels that focus on a sprawling dynasty at the height of a crisis. Only she is a wonderfully comic author who gives her characters the sort of lines that Maggie Smith would punch the air to have in Downton Abbey. This latest was a joy and my love of her continues unabated. I’m also at the start of a novel by Alex Preston set in the late 30s when a young man is sent (in disgrace) to Florence by his powerful father in order to set up a wireless station for the Faschists. It’s been wonderful so far. Honestly, if any idiot decides to proclaim the death of contemporary fiction, I shall be unrestrained in my scorn. I’ve read – and have still to read – a stream of brilliant books for the magazine.

Given my under-par nature at the moment, I’ve also been reading solidly comforting crime fiction. Last year, thanks to Danielle, I discovered Elizabeth Daly and her gentleman detective, Henry Gamadge. I read Any Shape or Form, set as usual in the grand houses and crazy families of New York in the 1940s and absolutely loved it. Gamadge is visiting his elderly Aunt Alice and obliged to visit the neighbours with her. There, two conflicted sides of a family – the stepmother and her stepchildren – are being brought together by Johnny Redfields, a friend to all concerned, in the hope of effecting a reconciliation. Before the end of the afternoon, however, the stepmother is dead. It was the sort of book that makes me think of Bertie Wooster who, when interrupting Jeeves in his reading of Spinoza, commented guiltily that he bet Jeeves’d just got to the place where they found the second body.

deadheadingI’ve also recently discovered Catherine Aird, though her books are a bit harder to get hold of. She has a hapless Detective Inspector C. D. Sloan (‘Seedy’ to his work colleagues) squashed between a boss half in love with the ill-digested propositions of whatever recent training course he’s been on, and the only reinforcement he can ever lay hands on, Constable Crosby, who no one believes will ever make a decent detective as he is so immune to the niceties of police work. They all take place in the fictional county of Calleshire and are sort of halfway between Caroline Graham with her Midsomer Murders and something a little older and gentler, Margery Allingham perhaps or Ngaio Marsh. I like ‘em.

the last asylumThere have also been a few new arrivals over the threshold, cough. I couldn’t resist historian Barbara Taylor’s memoir, The Last Asylum, about the four years she spent there recovering from a nervous breakdown. Nor The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark by Josh Cohen, which draws on psychoanalysis, literature and life to argue that we cannot lose our basic privacy because we have parts of ourselves that even we can’t access. (Mr Litlove skim-read this one weekend morning and said he found it a bit academic, but I don’t suppose I’ll mind that too much). I’ve also picked up copies of Sue Gee’s Coming Home, about colonial Brits returned from India, and D. J. Taylor’s The Windsor Faction, an alternative history novel which begins with the death of Wallis Simpson. Cleopatra had her asses’ milk, I have creamy pages of vanilla-sprinkle words to bathe in; I can thoroughly recommend it as a treatment. But what do we do about Mr Litlove??

 

 

The Farm, Or It’s Not As Nice In Sweden As You’d Think

the farmA few weeks ago, Mr Litlove was under the weather and so he decided to distract himself with a book. He settled for The Farm, by Tom Rob Smith, a novel I’d given him for his birthday. He started it that morning, ‘this is very good,’ he said at lunchtime, and by the late afternoon he had finished it.

He’d found it both gripping and clever, and since he’s quite hard to please when it comes to fiction, I was very curious about it now. So a couple of days later, I picked it up too.

Daniel has thought that his parents are enjoying a quiet retirement in Sweden, his mother’s native land, where they are running a small, remote farm. Then one day, returning to his London apartment after a trip to the supermarket, his father calls him, clearly distressed. His mother is ill, disturbed; she’s been making wild accusations and suffering from paranoia, and has been taken to a mental hospital. Daniel hardly has time to digest this shocking information and buy a plane ticket to Sweden before he gets another call, this time from his mother. ‘Everything that man has told you is a lie,’ she insists to him. ‘I’m not mad. I don’t need a doctor. I need the police.’ She is on her way to Heathrow airport where she wants him to meet her and provide her with sanctuary.

Unsurprisingly, Daniel doesn’t know what to believe. He hasn’t seen his parents for a while, not because of any rift, but because he is keeping a secret of his own. He’s gay, and doesn’t know how to tell them. His mother, he knows, had a difficult childhood and has made every possible effort to keep his happy and free from care. To Daniel, it’s not the fact of his homosexuality that will bother them, but his own reluctance to confide in them. His mother’s determined creation of a perfect upbringing has in fact disabled him in two ways: the first is that he can’t tell them anything that may blemish the smooth surface of their past, the second that if that smooth surface breaks down, he fears that all sorts of terrible things may emerge. When his mother arrives, it’s the meeting with his partner, Mark, that he worries about. But she is so strung out, so bursting to tell him her strange tale, that she barely notices anything about her surroundings.

She has with her a satchel that she tells him is packed full of ‘evidence’, and she insists on taking him through it piece by piece, convinced that it has been the scattered, disjointed nature of her narrative that has left her open to the charge of insanity in Sweden. Even so, her story treads a fine line – is she overreacting to the things that have happened? Has her troubled past finally caught up with her? Or is there really something dark and disturbing going on that involves the corruption of a small town?

Funnily enough, I found myself distracted in the opening parts of the story by the conviction that it was autobiographical in nature. It was something about the way the narrator described not being able to tell his parents about his sexuality, the urgency of those opening scenes. In fact, a quick online search revealed that the whole premise of the novel actually happened. Tom Rob Smith’s Swedish mother did turn up at his flat to tell him and his brother that she was recently released from a psychiatric institution where she had been placed against her will, after uncovering wht she thought was a conspiracy involving their father. Woah – after that sort of family drama, you probably would have to write about it. In an article in The Telegraph, he says: “with writing it’s like you can retreat from the muddle that is everything else.” Perhaps that’s one reason why the novel is brilliantly plotted.

In The Farm, the narrator, Daniel, eventually takes a trip to Sweden to find out the truth about his mother’s wild accusations, and the truth turns out to be something intriguingly twisted and different. Viewed overall, from a bit of a distance, this really is a clever novel that takes the tropes of Scandi noir thriller and makes something quite unusual out of them. It is very gripping and the mother’s tale is spookily unnerving, her recounting an uneasy mix of insight and extraordinary leaps of assumption. The way that stories generate their truths via the alliance of events and emotions, and the way coherence can be utterly misleading, is beautifully explored. But this isn’t a perfect novel. The first part, the mother’s story, takes 286 pages to tell, the resolution in Sweden a mere 80, and this imbalance has a cost, I think. The thriller element is lost along the way, Daniel’s initial sense of being torn between his parents simply fades. You still end up with a good story; but it isn’t quite the story you thought you had at the beginning.

I felt a bit mean telling Mr Litlove that I’d thought it a tad flawed here and there, after his wholehearted enthusiasm for the novel. But it may well be that this is a book best consumed in a single sitting. It’s very smooth and easy to read, so the prospect is quite do-able. And it is really clever and well written. It’s certainly left me with a strong desire to read his Moscow trilogy that began with Child 44.

 

The Cuckoo’s Calling

CuckooCallingI really felt for J. K. Rowling when she was outed as the author of this, the first in a new crime series under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. She could have lived off the Harry Potter novels for the rest of her life, but her first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, showed that she was keen to keep writing. The assumption of a pseudonym showed that she wanted some objective assessment of her work. As professional critics have made clear time and again, their response to her writing is profoundly influenced by their emotions about her wealth and fame. For the most part, whenever she publishes something new the knives are out, because there’s a quota for how much good press a person gets, and it’s a pretty small one.

And it is hard to read anything by J. K. Rowling without Harry Potter’s shadow looming over the story. My son grew up with Harry Potter; I read the first five novels out loud to him, which made me inspect Rowling’s prose far closer than was probably good for either of us. I think she is a fantastic storyteller, and The Prisoner of Azkaban should rightly take a place in the pantheon of great classic childrens’ books. After that, I felt she was sorely in need of a courageous editor to cut out the padding and the occasional infelicities in her prose. I had no interest in The Casual Vacancy, because I felt it would always be Rowling’s own reaction to having written Harry Potter – it’s no coincidence that the book is so relentlessly grim. But I was intrigued to see what she could do with crime fiction. Plotting was always one of her strongest points.

When a supermodel falls from her apartment window in a lush Mayfair residence, press and police are quick to assume that it’s suicide. Lula Landry appears to be the one of the usual celebrity crowd, spoilt and narcissistic, dating a seriously messed-up actor in an on-again off-again relationship, superficial, flighty and probably neurotic. Her brother, the lawyer John Bristow, refuses to accept the verdict, and calls in private detective, Cormoran Strike, to re-open the enquiry. Strike is an intriguing and endearing gumshoe; a wounded war veteran now running to fat, who has his own relationship issues. He is the son of a famous rock musician (who he never knew) and a super-groupie, hippy mother, who dragged him and his sister around in a peripatetic, shiftless sort of existence. Cormoran is too much of an alpha male to be damaged by all of this, but he is faintly embarrassed by it. The new case represents a vital upturn in his fortunes, as he’s on the verge of bankruptcy. And by sheer chance, fate does him a fine service by landing a temporary secretary on his doorstep who will turn out to be an unexpected asset.

Cormoran gradually finds a number of loose ends in the case that refuse to tie up. What was Lula Landry writing on a piece of blue paper in the back of her chauffered car that people seem so keen to insist was a shopping list (now missing)? What happened when she visited her sick mother that left her in a state of unusual distress? Why did one of the main witnesses insist she heard a man in Lula’s appartment when it’s obvious she could have heard nothing at all from where she was standing? And why did Lula arrange to have lunch with her gold-digging friend, Rochelle, and then only stay with her for fifteen minutes?

This was an immensely readable book, compelling, well organised and peopled with a cast of vividly-drawn, if mostly unpleasant, characters. I really enjoyed it. J. K. Rowling uses the talent she had already shown with HP for cherry-picking some of the most intriguing elements of both crime and contemporary culture and bringing them together in a satisfying way. It was a stroke of genius to give Cormoran a secretary who is secretly longing to become a detective. The relationship between Cormoran and Robin becomes one of the most gripping parts of the book, and there’s no romance in it whatsoever. No, we’re talking Watson to Sherlock Holmes, or perhaps more aptly, Della Street to Perry Mason. But perhaps most of all, we’re talking Hermione Granger to Harry Potter. Cormoran is smart, determined and limited; he needs a female foil with insight and sensitivity to effect some last minute rescues from situations he plunges into without sufficient forethought.

As a huge, hairy ex-military policeman who’s not afraid of a fight, Cormoran has shades of Jack Reacher. And Lula Landry’s relationship with Evan Duffield was strongly reminiscent of Kate Moss and the awful Pete Doherty. The resolution of the case was pure Agatha Christie. But all of this added up for me, at any rate, into a fine murder mystery. It’s not about to win a Nobel prize, but it certainly kept me entertained for a couple of days. It’s not what she does, it’s the way that she does it.