Happy Easter! I hope everyone is having a lovely long weekend. Here it is cold and damp and drizzly and we have lit the fire and are reading and listening to Schubert’s late violin quartets. Doesn’t that sound civilized? Except that Mister Litlove is reading his son’s Walking Dead compendium (parts 1-8). I’m not sure that zombies are quite the sort of resurrection we should be thinking of today. Inevitably I did catch the throat bug that my menfolk had, but the good news is that I must have built up reasonable immunity whilst looking after them, as I haven’t suffered anywhere near as badly. Mister Litlove is only now beginning to look like his normal self. So things have been very, very quiet around here, and quite a lot of reading has been done.
First a review hanging over from last week. I haven’t read David Nicholl’s big hit, One Day, but I see the bus go past with the advert for the movie plastered on its side. Am I right in thinking it’s about a couple who meet regularly on the same day for many years? Well, Alex Capus’s novel Léon and Louise, is a sort of European version with more passion, more randomness and two World Wars. It begins in 1918, when the teenage Léon Le Gall, fed up of school when the war offers so many opportunities for enterprise, drops out and takes up a job on the Normandy coast. There he meets and falls in love with Louise Janvier, a wonderfully feisty young woman who is defensive of her heart. But after a long day trip they take, camping and cooking mussels on the beach, they declare themselves to each other. On their return they run into one of the last German artillery barrages. They are separated, severely wounded and each led to believe that the other is dead.
Ten years pass and Léon is married to Yvonne, with one small child and another on the way. Their relationship is not an easy one and pregnancy is making Yvonne cranky. Léon works now in the police department in the laboratories, testing food for poison in cases of suspicious death. He is undertaking his daily commute to work when he glimpses Louise on another metro train. This entirely unexpected sighting rocks his world and he can’t stop travelling the metro lines in case he spots her again. Yvonne insists that Leon track Louise down, arguing that they will have no peace until the situation is resolved one way or another. And so Léon finally finds Louise and again for the space of a day and a night they are reunited. But Louise once more resists involvement, refusing to disrupt Léon’s marriage and extracting from him a promise that he will never seek to see her again. It will take the upheavals and dislocations of another World War before the final act in this interrupted love affair is played out.
This was a charming read, gentle, engaging and evocative. If I had a quibble, it would be that it loses impetus somewhat three-quarters of the way through, unsurprising really when it has to cover so much hiatus in such a long-drawn out romance. But this isn’t a narrative about sensational happenings, despite the brutality that separates our lovers in the first place. It is about ordinary people and quiet lives, and the very strangeness of history that tumbles us all about in arbitrary ways.
My other review today is another novel that focuses on ordinary, quiet lives that are bizarrely disrupted. Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie is the first in a series of detective novels featuring the vicar of Grantchester, the eponymous Sidney, who by a run of coincidences is forced reluctantly into investigating local crimes. We are in the 1950s and Sidney has recently been elevated to his prestigious living in one of the beautiful villages on the outskirts of Cambridge. Sidney is a bachelor, only 32 when the story begins, and a busy man, taking tutorials at the university and enjoying evenings out in the pub playing backgammon with his friend, Inspector Geordie Keating. He is dragged into a distinctly tricky role to play when one of his parishioners, an Irish solicitor, apparently commits suicide and his mistress insists to Sidney that it was murder. The case is closed and Sidney’s friend the Inspector, is none too keen to reopen it, and so Sidney finds himself bicycling around the people involved in the situation and finding his ability to listen and to extract confessions comes in handy in unusual ways.
This first case in the novel is only a start, as Sidney Chambers goes on to become involved in a number of others, the mystery of an expensive engagement ring that seems to disappear in full view, the dubious ethics of a local doctor who may have his own reasons for encouraging elderly pensioners to a slightly early death, and the fake painting substituted for a potentially priceless original in the local stately home. Each case is told in a series of long short stories, which nevertheless maintain a narrative feel as Sidney’s personal circumstances develop along the way, particularly his love life. If there isn’t a television series of this pending production then surely there will be one soon, as it is almost easier to think of the book as a series of episodes in a season, and the experience of reading was very much akin to watching Midsomer Murders or the Inspector Lynley mysteries.
I read this when I had my bout of the throat bug and found it a delightful set up and a wonderful addition to the ranks of cozy crime. I was particularly enthusiastic about the first half of the book, which set the scene beautifully and provided some intriguing cases for Sidney to solve. If the second half felt a bit more contrived to me, it didn’t matter so very much. Those of us who enjoy crime fiction series know that it can take a little while to establish characters and get comfortable with them. It’s the very reluctance of Sidney as a detective that makes for awkwardness, as there is no compelling need for him to be involved in some of these cases. His friend the Inspector is rightly annoyed with him for interfering at times, but will then turn around and give him something important to do. So it seemed to me that motivations became a bit haphazard, but then again these are gentle, entertaining stories, not intending to be great works of literature, and going along for the ride is a lot of fun. I’m sure this will become an extremely popular series.