It’s the last week of term here, which generally means a student log jam, fitting everyone in before the vacation begins. And it’s been snowing; not enough to transport us to a winter wonderland, just enough to make the pavements treacherous and the traffic back-up, although it’s supposed to get worse tomorrow. Why can’t snow only fall overnight? At least then it gives you a chance to get up in the morning, consider your options and make sensible decisions. What usually happens instead is a complete gridlock of traffic, with the motorways turned into lorry parks and people trapped in their cars for ten hours. Anyway, this is a slightly hasty post as I attempt to catch up on a number of crime novels I’ve recently read, with not quite enough time to do them justice.
Nicola Upson – An Expert in Murder
This is the first in a series of crime novels (there must be at least three out now) that feature real life crime writer, Josephine Tey as the main character – although not the detective, it should be noted. Upson provides a clever mix of truth and make-believe in her narrative. It begins with Tey on her way down to London to the theatre where her play, Richard of Bordeaux, is nearing the end of a phenomenally successful run. On the train she meets a young fan and ends up making a surprisingly quick emotional connection to her; but tragedy strikes when the train arrives in London and the young woman is found murdered in dramatic circumstances. The context for the story is true – Tey did write a box office smash under a pseudonym, and both in life and fiction, she did not take well to fame, not least thanks to an unjust accusation of plagiarism of the kind that so often accompanies huge successes, and that wounded her deeply. In the novel, this is drawn out into a significant thread.
You can see why Upson chose Josephine Tey as a main protagonist – she lived in turbulent times (the legacy of WW1 is woven very plausibly into the narrative of the crime), had a cool career, and enough flamboyant friends to provide a swarm of jolly secondary characters. But I admit I did feel it would have been so much better if Upson had chosen to write about Tey because she was an exciting, eccentric personality. As it is, she is that most wishy-washy of characters, the nice, sympathetic person. She has no role to play in solving the crime, apart from being the bumbling person who ends up in the middle of danger and who could have avoided it by thinking twice. This may sound like I disliked it, but not at all: I enjoyed it well enough. It is a competently written, well-plotted and thoughtfully composed novel. The setting is a very good one, and I didn’t guess whodunit, nope, not even close. So there are plenty of reasons to give this series a go, even if for me, it wasn’t as good as proper golden age crime.
Joanne Harris – Gentlemen & Players
At St Oswald’s boys’ grammar school, the start of a new school year is plagued by worse troubles than the usual rivalries, disputes and crises. One of the new teaching staff has returned to the school after a decade spent festering the wrongs and injustices of the past, and has arrived with the darkest kind of revenge in mind. Now this was a splendid novel, taut, fierce, intricate, clever. The narrative alternates between our evil protagonist, set to bring the old school to its knees and Roy Straitley, the astute and ironic Latin teacher who is nearing retirement (and being pushed faster towards it than is polite by his colleagues), but who may yet save the day. As our unnamed fiend starts to put his dastardly plans into action, we are gradually given the back story that explains why the school is the target of subtle terrorism. Roy Straitley, on the other hand, has enough trivial problems of his own to solve, what with the German department’s latest attempt to invade his territory (in the form of commandeering his room) and the usual bunch of boyish mishaps, but his experienced teacher’s nose scents danger of a more menacing kind, and despite his age, weight and general unsuitability for the role of hero, he finds himself drawn into the deadly chess game his opponent has planned.
I really enjoyed this, although I also felt that the likelihood of anyone actually getting away with the crimes described was rather low. Frankly, it doesn’t much matter unless you are a stickler for plausibility. The narrative carries the reader along on its fast current and has a twist of stunning brilliance towards the end. Be warned that is also gets very dark, in a way that may feel a bit unexpected. But Joanne Harris is a reliably good writer, and the best part is the voice of Roy Straitley – humane and humourous and grumpy and sharp, a classic entrenched teacher’s voice. I rooted for him in a hopelessly partisan way.
Megan Abbott – Die A Little
I am always attracted by noir and, forgive the superficiality here, the cover of this novel promised such splendid, cheesy, 1950s glammed-up noir that I had to give it a go. On the whole, glam noir is what you get. The story concerns school teacher Lora King, whose unusually close relationship to her brother, police investigator Bill, is abruptly altered by his swift marriage to the volatile but charming Alice. An ex-Hollywood wardrobe assistant, Alice seems at first to fit perfectly into the role of devoted suburban housewife, but as Lora gets to know her better, so more and more incidents serve as warning signals. Alice disappears from her job for days without warning, has clandestine meetings with dodgy men and brings an un-choice relic of her past with her in the form of her messed-up friend, Lois Slattery. It’s enough to start Lora on some quiet investigations of her own, and before she knows it, she is caught up in the seedy underbelly of Hollywood and its greedy traffic in drugs and prostitution. As Lora tries to find out the truth about Alice to save her brother, so she realizes that her own life is heading down a slippery slope.
I felt I ought to have enjoyed this one more than I did. It’s very well written, very assiduously placed in 1950s America, full of period detail and bold in its characterization. But oddly enough, the writing somehow got in the way of the story a bit in its early sections. Lovely writing, when you are offered it to admire just for its own sake, slows the pace down, and crime writing needs that octane-infused quick start if it’s going to really win you over. So it took me about half the book to really get into it. But then I did devour the end, which was well done. I’d like to read another one by this author, and once again there are about three or four more books in the series to choose from. Much promise here, hopefully fulfilled further down the line.