Crime Round-Up

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.

15 thoughts on “Crime Round-Up

  1. I loved the twist in Gentlemen & Players! I guessed it about 50 pages in, and I was so excited about my hunch I called my mom (I was at college) to have a witness in case I turned out to be right. lol I haven’t read any of Harris’ other stuff, but I should get on that.

    I was underwhelmed by An Expert in Murder, and I think it’s because by choosing Tey as a character, Upson is inviting comparisons to Golden Age authors that she can’t live up to. I loved the setting, but the rest of it wasn’t enough for me to want to read more of the series. I’m quite picky about mysteries, though!

  2. Not my genre usually, but these look intriguing. Have you come across Pryce’s Aberystwyth Mon Amour series? Noir pastiches with a dark heart set in a twisted (and independent) Wales, a country which had its own Vietnam in Patagonia (in reality there’s a Welsh-speaking colony there still). They’re beautifully done and much more profound than they initially seem.

  3. I totally did not get the twist in Gentlemen and Players until the very end, and she floored me! It was a fun read and I am very much a reader who is willing to overlook implausibilities if there are other things going for the story, which as you say, there really are in Harris’s book! I liked the Upson, but can understand why some people didn’t get on well with it and would just prefer to stick to reading Tey’s own books. I liked the atmosphere she created and love that period, so I couldn’t pass it up. She might just as well have made up a character modeled on Tey but not used her as a character, but maybe that is frowned upon. I do want to read the other books but just haven’t gotten around to them. And I love Golden Age writers–they are hard to beat and you can’t get any more authentic than Christie and the other writers active at that time. I’ve not heard of Megan Abbott–I like that period as well, so I’ll have to see if I can get it over here!

  4. I liked Gentlemen and Players more by a factor of at least ten than I liked Chocolat. But I haven’t read anything else by Harris since, because I feel like my love for G&P is all to do with the classics angle.

  5. I like noir in film, so I’m hoping that if you give Abbott’s other books a go you’ll have one to recommend. I like Josephine Tey, so I’m sorry that the book that featured her wasn’t better. With my limited time and reading speed, I have to be choosy.

  6. This piece gave me a whole new insight into your reading tastes, Litlove! I’m seeing you in completely different way – serves me right for trying to pigeonhole you in my head. I love that your tastes are so varied and you always manage to surprise me.

  7. For some reason I have really gotten into mysteries lately, so I found this post very interesting. I haven’t read any of these, although I think I might give the Upson series a go, if I can find them. I recently picked up an audio version of The Cat Who Saw Ghosts,” one of the “cat” books by Lilian Jackson Braun. I hadn’t expected to enjoy it as much as I have been, and now I want to read more. Maybe it’s the time of year…dark nights and weather keeping us indoors. P.S. I miss snow.

  8. Gentlemen and Players sounds really appealing. I’ve read a lot of novels set in schools lately, and I’ve enjoyed them all. There’s something about the dynamic of a school or university that can be so interesting. And the plot twist everyone is talking about — intriguing!

  9. I usually enjoy something by Joanne Harris (I think the only misses for me so far have been her early book Sleep Pale Sister and her short story collection) and Gentlemen and Players was so delicious. Kind of what I expected Engleby by Sebastian Faulks to be like, but that one didn’t work for me and got put down never to be returned to.

    I think I might have a go at Die a Little if I can find it, agree that’s a seductive cover and sometimes a well done end will turn it all around. Although An Expert sounds tempting and real life characters in fiction are one of my favourite kinds of sweet if done well, I’m not sure if I’d like a heroine who seems to have little real involvement in the crime. Just used to active lady sleuths I guess.

  10. Eva – lol! I love that you called your mum up to be a witness! That’s hilarious. I really enjoyed the Joanne Harris, and whilst I liked Upson, I admit it didn’t push all the right buttons for me. Because Agatha Christie is my benchmark crime fiction writer, I guess that’s always a high barrier for the competition!

    Plashing Vole – I’m delighted you’ve recommended that series. Once again the covers are striking and I’ve often thought about picking one up. Now, I will.

    Danielle – I didn’t see it coming either! It was just so clever. I thought there was a lot to recommend the Upson and I would certainly suggest anyone give it a go who likes that period (the atmosphere as you say is very well done). And I think Megan Abbott is American, so you should be able to get hold of her books. I’d love to know what you think of her!

    Jenny – of course! Roy Straitley is just THE perfect Latin master, isn’t he? He could have been made for you.

    Lilian – I know what you mean – there are times when I feel like reading around in new authors, but others (when I’m time poor or tired) when I really want to be assured of a good read. Would love to know what you think of Megan Abbott.

    Kathleen – absolutely perfect!🙂

    Charlotte – and if you can face it, read Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes – best school crime fiction novel ever, in my book.

    Baker’s daughter – I will read anything. Well, apart from Westerns, horror and hard core sci fi. But beyond that, anything. However, my reading does go in patterns, so it’s quite possible I give the impression of only reading certain genres!

    Grad – I’ve seen those cat books but haven’t read them. I completely agree that this is mystery and crime time of year – definitely cozy to read with the curtains drawn. As for snow, you are welcome to the icy scrapings we have here. Not nice.

    Stefanie – it’s a great cover, and well, it’s often enough to win me over!

    Dorothy – I really love school/college novels and will read pretty much anything set in one. I’d love to know what you make of G & P if you do get hold of it.

    Jodie – I know what you mean about active lady sleuths – a fine breed, and one I am fond of. I’ve also enjoyed all the Joanne Harris novels I’ve read (haven’t read Pale Sister, though, so will steer clear of that). I’d love to know what you think of Megan Abbott – I notice that amazon marketplace sellers have some new copies of her books for 1p plus p + p, which is very tempting!

  11. Pingback: Good Reading for All » Novel Readings - Notes on Literature and Criticism

  12. I really liked Megan Abbott’s book and just haven’t gotten around to reading anything else by her. It looks like all of her books are noirish mysteries right? I love mysteries but tend to stick with more police procedurals and if they are set outside of the U.S., even better! I love to travel🙂

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