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