Boarding School Murder, Then and Now

What an interesting comparison it made, reading Tana French’s 2014 novel of murder in a girls’ private school, The Secret Place, and then not long afterwards, Josephine Tey’s 1946 version of the same thing, Miss Pym Disposes. What has changed in 70 years, you may well ask? And the answer in a weird way is: not much.

the secret placeIn Tana French’s novel, the murder is already a year old when the action of the novel begins. Chris Harper, a charming and confident young stud from the boys’ school up the road, has been found dead in the gardens of exclusive girls’ boarding school, St Kilda’s. The inquiry into his murder has stalled and might have remained that way except for a surprising occurrence. One of the pupils, Holly Mackey, makes her way to the police station and asks to see Stephen Moran, an ambitious detective whose career is festering in cold cases. (French’s books feature an interrelated set of characters and Holly and Stephen met many fictional years ago in Faithful Place). Holly has brought with her a photograph taken from ‘The Secret Place’ a noticeboard in the school where students post images and notices and artwork as a safety valve: ‘If you’ve got a secret, like you hate your parents or you like a guy or whatever, you can put it on a card and stick it up there.’ The photograph is of Chris Harper, and in ransom note letters across it is the legend: ‘I know who killed him.’

So Stephen Moran and the original detective on the case, spiky, bad-tempered Antoinette Conway, return to St Kilda’s together, embarking on a day-long investigation that will cover almost 550 claustrophobic pages, and will be told in alternating chapters, one dealing with the investigation in the present, one following the events that led up to Chris’s death in the past. You’ll be familiar with this sort of structure – it’s very popular of late.

miss pym disposesIn Josephine Tey’s novel, the establishment in question is the Leys Physical Training College, a place with a reputation for excellence in its discipline and teaching. Here high school-aged women come to learn about everything to do with a healthy body; they are rigorously trained in gymnastics and dancing, take advanced anatomy and physiology classes, run their own clinics and give classes in local schools. The eponymous Miss Lucy Pym is a writer who has had an unexpected success with a book on psychology. She is also a old school friend of the headmistress, Henrietta Hodge, who has invited her to be a guest lecturer at the school. Charmed by the health and vitality of the students, Miss Pym decides to put off her return to London and stay until the end of Summer term. She will be an interested witness as the students sit their final exams, receive offers of first-job teaching posts and prepare for the great Demonstration of their skills to their parents. We will be on page 186 of 249 before any murder is committed, which is a very old-fashioned way of organising a narrative now, but used to be more popular when it was enough for the writer to produce a set of intriguing characters and it was enough for the reader to watch a situation move to boiling point.

In both cases, the lure for the crime writer is the difference between the gilded surface of life in exclusive establishments and the darkness lurking beneath. Having marvelled at the beauty and vivaciousness of the young women around her, Miss Pym is told that ‘It is not a normal life they lead. You cannot expect them to be normal.’ In the approach to the end of their school careers, with so much at stake in terms of exams and jobs, one teacher explains that

I should say that five Seniors out of six in their last term are so tired that each morning is a mild nightmare. It is when one is as tired as that that one’s emotional state ceases to be normal. A tiny obstacle becomes an Everest in the path; a careless comment becomes a grievance to be nursed’.

The scene is set for an unexpected injustice to rock the school, when a plum first job is given not to the school’s best student, but to a young woman who may have been cheating in her exams.

At St Kilda’s 70 years away, the gilding is more about money and class. Stephen Moran, ambitious himself, is awed by the gorgeous grounds and buildings in which the students live and work. When he views the Secret Place for the first time, covered with images of self-harm, verbal abuse and covert bullying, he is horrified:

That there was what was giving me the off-cider feel. That gold air transparent enough to drink, those clear faces, that happy flood of chatter; I had liked all that. Loved it. And underneath it all, hidden away tight: this. Not just one messed-up exception, not just a handful. All of them.’

Strangely similar also is the focus on over-close friendships as being both admirable, something that we might all aspire to or hope for, and simultaneously diseased and over-heated, dangerous to the emotional stability of those concerned. In The Secret Place, the action focuses on two groups of four friends; one headed by the rich bitch Joanne, who demands obedience from her acolytes, the other group containing Holly and her friends, who become the strange, shining centre of French’s book. Their friendship is portrayed as so perfect and intense and extraordinary that it seems to release supernatural energy. This was a very odd if intriguing element of French’s otherwise orthodox police procedural. The middle part of the book is fascinated by a magical energy the girls can produce together, which can make the lights go out, or levitate small objects. That same energy is dispersed in hysterical ways in Joanne’s group by girls who claim to see Chris’s ghost, something the police officers will use repeatedly to their advantage in questioning overwrought young females.

Even the dialogue isn’t so very different, if you pay attention just to the cadences, though it must be said that, overall, French’s characters are obsessed with boys, clothes, friends and swearing, whilst Tey’s are obsessed with exams, being good and getting the right jobs to go to. Here’s one of Tey’s more frivolous characters:

Oh, Greengage, darling, you are an unsympathetic beast. I’ve bust my suspender, and I don’t know what to do. And Tommy took my only safety-pin yesterday to pick the winkles with at Tuppence-ha’penny’s party. She simply must let me have it back before – Tommy! Oh, Tommy!’

And now we take a deep breath for Tana French:

I mean, just for example, right? You should have seen them at the Valentine’s dance. They looked totes insane. Like Rebecca had on jeans, and Selena was wearing I don’t even know what it was, it looked like she was in a play!… Everyone was like, hello, what are you like? I mean, there were guys there. The whole of Colm’s was there. They were all staring. And Julia and all of them acted like that didn’t even matter.’ Jaw-dropped face. ‘That was when we realised, um, hello, weirdos?’

So what does separate these two novels? Well, I’d say in terms of the content of the story it was mostly attitude – Tey’s young women are essentially good-hearted, hard-working, admirable creatures, whilst French’s are dissolute and cynical for the most part, self-obsessed and all too busy with power games. In terms of organization of the narrative, the difference is 400 pages of padding in the French novel. Not that it isn’t good and enjoyable padding, used to ratchet up the tension as the girls are questioned over and over about the events of a year ago. Both are psychological thrillers, essentially, fascinated by the energy and recklessness of youth. But Tey’s is written from the viewpoint of the analytical and thoughtful Miss Pym, whilst French’s is a God’s-eye-view, up close and personal with the rival groups of girls or with the mismatched officers as they try to solve the case. Tey packs as much into her 250 pages, but most is the rich silt of Miss Pym’s contemplation. In Tana French we are taken over and over the events of the past as we wait for one – or more – of the girls to crack. I very much enjoyed them both (though in all fairness, the ending of Josephine Tey’s was better) – though what Enid Blyton and the girls of St Clare’s would say about it all, I don’t know.

 

 

Obsession With Words

obsession in deathWhen I accepted Obsession in Death by J. D. Robb to review for a blog tour, I had no idea that the author behind the series was actually Nora Roberts. The name J. D. Robb was vaguely familiar to me and I like crime fiction a lot, so I thought I’d give the book a try.

Nora Roberts, in case you are wondering, must be a candidate for the most prolific author of all time. Since she started writing in 1981, she has published well over 200 romance novels and just over 50 novels in the In Death series. Given that her early days were spent writing for Silhouette, it’s true that quite a few of those books are short. But even so, her annual output regularly reaches ten or more novels, which truly boggles the mind. Kind of makes you wonder what you’re doing with your life, doesn’t it? Apparently she writes eight hours a day every day, revises each manuscript three times and likes to write three romances in a row followed by three police procedurals, so as to linger a little in each fictional realm (rather than zip in and out in a fortnight, I presume). And she’s hugely successful – since 1999 every one of her novels has been on the New York Times bestseller list. Whatever you might think of such astounding output, Nora Roberts also wins the award for most philanthropic writer around, channelling a large cut of her earnings into charities for children, the arts and humanitarian aid.

I’m not sure whether it’s surprising or not that I couldn’t finish Obsession in Death. On the one hand, I love Agatha Christie and Lee Child, so I’m no stranger to the prolific author, and the premise for the book sounded intriguing enough. Robb’s police detective is NYPD superwoman, Eve Dallas, and in this outing she is called to the adroit killing of a high-profile criminal defence attorney, a woman with whom Dallas has clashed in court. The job looks neat and tidy enough to be professional, but an inked message on the wall above the body makes it personal. The killer is a self-confessed admirer of Eve Dallas, out to right the wrongs committed against her and clearly seeking her approval. Effectively it’s a serial killer who also happens to be a stalker, leaving dead bodies as love gifts. I thought this had plenty of pulpy potential, a swift easy read with a dash of sensationalism, a spritz of angst and plenty of headlong rushing towards an eleventh hour climax.

On the other hand, I had read a completely ruinous book before picking up Obsession in Death. One of those books that is so outrageously wonderful that everything else pales in comparison. It was Deborah Levy’s novella-length memoir, Things I Don’t Want To Know, written as a response to Orwell’s extended essay, Why I Write. It was devastatingly good. (And yes, I’ll review it soon, once I’ve got over it enough to write something sensible about it.) Undoubtedly that was a factor.

And whilst we’re on the other hand, I should also point out that nothing had warned me in advance that this would be a sci-fi series. Nothing on the blurb or the jacket cover, although the opening lines inform the reader that we’re in 2060. Which is a funny in-the-middle-of-nowhere time to pick, as it’s essentially a recognisable world with slightly different vocab and a few more gadgets. If I’d got further into the story, I would probably have discovered good reasons for the futuristic setting. But I didn’t so I can’t tell you what they were.

Then there’s the romance element. Apparently, Nora Roberts wanted to write in the manner of Mary Stewart, which is why she took on a pseudonym and began a crime series in the first place. It was a way of combining mystery and thriller writing with love stories. Well, by the time of this book, you may imagine that the relationship between Eve Dallas and her now husband, Roarke, is pretty well advanced. Roarke used to be a criminal, but now he simply runs his multi-billion company and helps out with Eve’s cases when she lets him for the fun of experiencing the other side. He is tall, dark and handsome, quite possibly the richest man on the planet, and utterly devoted to Eve. In the opening sections of the story when Eve returns home after a tough day, having forgotten she’s supposed to attend a social function with Roarke, he cancels for both of them and stays home so he can rub Eve’s shoulders and program her dinner into whatever command central produces meals in 2060. He is perfect. It was probably mostly due to Roarke that I gave up about 130 pages in. I just couldn’t stomach him.

It was a perplexing book. The situations were interesting, the characters okay, the dialogue felt natural, there ought to have been all sorts of enticing subplots opening up. But I struggled to get engaged with it at all, felt the crime was approached in a very superficial way and the investigation was flat and forced. I really wanted to like it – how great to enjoy a book in a series and realise you have another 49 to catch up on! But indifference and the press of other books to read meant we parted ways. Fortunately, Nora Roberts does not need my good opinion, nor the royalties from my sales. But if this novel appeals to you, do give it a try; it probably fell into my hands at the wrong moment.

WEEK 2 BLOG TOUR POSTER (2 of 2)

Writer Beware Writer

Ever since Dan Brown did his best to convince us that a Harvard professor of symbology could be an action hero, thrillers have moved into some unusual territories. Those of us crying out for the directions to the nearest library now turn out to have deeper and darker motives than you’d think possible. I was entertained lately by both Philip Kerr’s Research and Robert Galbraith’s (aka…oh you know don’t you) The Silkworm, books set fully within the world of publishing, where the authors had a great deal of fun at the cost of their profession’s integrity. Readers are more than welcome to join the party, but only if they suspend reality first.

researchPhilip Kerr’s Research opens with a shocking item on the news: it seems that multimillionaire author, John Huston, has shot his wife, Orla, and done a bunk from their luxury appartment in Monaco. Alerted to the news is struggling author, Don Irvine, who knows Huston better than most, given that he wrote a significant chunk of his novels. For Huston, ex-advertising copywriter and business mastermind, used to run what he called an ‘atelier’, a clutch of ghost writers to whom he would send out 70-page synopses, full of technical detail, to have them transformed into blockbusters. John is a man who can’t be bothered with the actual tedium of writing, and who saw from his first contract that there was serious money to be made if it were possible to produce generic fiction at a superhuman rate. Don was the first ghost he hired, and he used to do very well out of it, although he was paid a tiny fraction of the money that Houston glories in.

Then John Huston had an awkward turnaround; he decided he wanted to write something more literary and was tired of the treadmill of his empire. The atelier was disbanded and the men he employed were forced back on their own (literary) devices. When the news of Orla’s shooting reaches the papers, Don is dragged to lunch with the rest of the gang, all embittered, angry men who are delighted to witness Huston’s fall from grace. It makes a pleasant change from staring at computer screens, unable to come up with the plot that was John’s particular genius. (‘Being a published writer is a bit like what Schopenhauer says about life itself: non-existence is our natural condition.’) Don among them seems more loyal and forgiving towards their old boss. In fact, he’s expecting a call for rescue from him at any moment, and when it comes, the men team up in a race across the Riviera, trying to outwit justice. Or maybe, Don is trying to reach some unusual justice of his own.

The engine of the plot is rage and envy inspired in men by other men who earn a great deal more money. It’s structure is a two-handed narrative, as Don and John carry the story in turns, the better to twist and fool the reader. And the pleasures along the way are all about the ill-feeling that exists between genre and literary fiction. Huston’s brief to his atelier writers tells them:

If you want your novel to be a page-turner then make clichés your friends. Clichés – the kind of writing that Martin Amis makes war on – are the verbal particle accelerators to finishing books. Original writing just slows a reader down and makes him feel inadequate. Like he’s thick. Which of course he is but there’s no sense in rubbing that in. My readers actually approve of clichés.’

It’s a very funny book – you can’t help but laugh at the wall-to-wall satire – and it’s very slick. Though you get an ever clearer idea of where it’s headed the further through you get and the ending is not quite the exultant climax I was expecting. But it falls into the category of very pleasurable hokum.

 

the silkwormThe Silkworm is a strangely woven beast. Hold it up to the light one way and it’s dark, violent and grotesque; hold it up the other and it’s light, fun and entertaining. Essentially I think it’s written in Rowling’s easy, affable style, but inside her lurks the soul of a 10-year-old boy who is fascinated with everything disgusting and scatalogical (even the bit-part defunct cat is called Mr Poop).

Once again we have an author gone missing, but Owen Quine operates at the far end of the scale from John Huston. He writes revolting and perverse books of dubious literary merit that hardly anyone ever reads. Only when his body is found, murdered in the most ghastly circumstances, the motive seems to lie in his most recent book. In it Quine has taken revenge for all his perceived slights by portraying in ornately disguised fashion, his agent, his editor, his wife, his lover and his great literary rival. Having just written that sentence I suddenly wonder whether Peter Greenaway was a muse for Robert Galbraith; it’s plausible. Anyway, this part-disguise is in fact all about revealing terrible secrets concerning the above cast, things that they did not want the general public to know. Although the book is only in manuscript form, it’s managed to more or less do the rounds of the literary fraternity in London and so the possible suspects for the murder are legion.

Called upon in the first instance to find the missing Quine, is private investigator Cormoran Strike, the Rubeus Hagrid of gumshoes. A giant of a man but far from gentle, Strike wears his ex-military career in the form of a prosthetic leg, victim of a bombing in Afghanistan. Before we go any further, I would like to issue a plea to get that man’s prothesis sorted out. It’s clearly not doing the job, and I lost count of the times we are invited to be moved to sympathy because of it. I began to have fantasies about creating a detective who got the job done with tact and understanding; who realised the value of good contacts and used them, whose main skills lay in disarming and charming suspects and who looked after himself really, really well. But I forgave Cormoran because I like his secretary so much, the pretty and resourceful Robin who longs to be a detective herself. They make a good pairing.

The inadvertent pleasures of the book are to be found, again, in a slicing and dicing of the literary world, its greeds and envies and duplicities. Though really, Galbraith has more interesting and unusual things to say on the paradoxes of love. This is a long book, almost 600 pages, and its characters are for the most part unlikeable and unlikely, but the plotting is strong and sure-footed and the ending is cleverly done.

Robert Galbraith and Philip Kerr agree wholeheartedly that when writing about writers, it’s the compacted mass of dangerous emotions provoked by the desire to be validated through art that causes all the trouble. Writers, beware. And in both books the expletive count was astronomical. Readers beware. In Kerr this felt like parody, in Galbraith like overcompensation. Doesn’t everybody believe that writers are rough, tough stuff, just full to the brim of murderous violence?

Reading Round-Up

I’m not sure I’ve got my head screwed back on yet after the break, but I realise that the number of books I’ve read but not spoken about is growing ever larger. So let’s do a little catching up.

anna quindlenWeeks ago now, I read Anna Quindlen’s Still Life With Breadcrumbs, and it was absolutely charming. Rebecca Winter is a photographer whose reputation has faded after a series of pictures of everyday domestic disorder made her rich and famous. Now the money’s gone, and her marriage is long over, and she is facing a daily struggle with balancing her finances. Both of her parents need expensive care – particularly her mother, lost to dementia, with whom she has never had a good relationship. So to pay the bills, Rebecca moves out of her nice apartment in New York and into a rustic cabin in a rural location out of the city. Here she makes friends with Sarah, the garrulous owner of an English-style tea shop, and with Jim Bates, the local roofer and all-round handyman. The comforting thing about a novel that opens with its protagonist in a miserable situation is that you can be pretty sure of a turnaround in the forthcoming pages. And indeed this is a story about second chances and the possibility of finding happiness that is more durable and fitting than the old happiness that has been lost. I did so enjoy this; it’s well-written and intelligent and as comforting as cocoa. It also provided an intriguing comparison of the woman artist to the Siri Hustvedt novel, The Blazing World, that I was reading at the time (and am, ahem, still reading), but more on that another time.

elizabeth dalyThen I read Elizabeth Daly’s Murders in Volume 2, another Henry Gamadge outing. This begins with Gamadge being called upon by the old aristocrats of New York to solve another initially perplexing mystery. This one involves a wealthy elderly man and the beautiful young woman who claims to be a revenant from his family’s past. Now whereas you might think, aha, this is going to be a Brat Farrar-style mystery, all about whether the young woman is who she says she is, Daly doesn’t take it in that direction. It isn’t long at all before the elderly gent is dead and the young woman has scarpered. And whilst Gamadge realises this will inevitably be a case of cherchez la femme, he has the elderly aristocrat’s difficult and demanding family on his hands and a lot more of the puzzle to solve, particularly when a second body turns up. I just love this series of books. Gamadge is so smart and urbane, but also kind, decent and self-effacing; he is a dear heart. And it’s entertaining to watch him dancing around the extreme and often absurd sensitivities of his well to-do clients. Although these novels are set in the 40s, they feel as if they belonged in the turn of the century, as the cast is made up of the sort of people who would have featured in Edith Wharton novels and are now the dying remnants of their era. But I especially like how clever the solutions to the murders are; Daly was apparently Agatha Christie’s favourite writer, and you can see why.

the sussex downs murderSticking with the old reprint murder theme, I then read The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude. I do wish the covers of these books weren’t quite so appealling, as the stories I’ve read so far have been entertaining but average. I read the one about Death on the Cherwell, which was Enid Blyton with dead bodies, and now this one is… what? Sort of Dixon of Dock Green in the 1930s. The story focuses on an unusual family arrangement – a couple of brothers who live together at Chalklands Farm where the wife of one brother is suspected of being in love with the other one. It’s unmarried John Rother who goes missing one summer evening, leaving his abandoned car behind in a place he wasn’t supposed to be travelling past. In no time at all, the police have decided he’s been done away with, his body dismembered and fed into the lime kilns that provide part of the farm income. The dismembering is discussed endlessly. And of course suspicion falls on the remaining, married brother, the nervy and uptight William. There’s a certain deep-rooted innocence to this murder mystery, which takes familiar plot lines through familiar hoops in a way that was undoubtedly thrilling to an audience in 1930, but which feels just a bit too… familiar to the 21st century reader. I guessed the ending, for instance, which is rare as I’m very gullible when it comes to murder mysteries and willingly take misdirection. But it was charming in its way, and trotted along very neatly and is definitely the sort of book designed to accompany a head cold.

Okay, I have other books to go but this is probably as good a place as any to stop, with Angela Thirkell’s The Brandons and spy writer Charles Cumming ahead of me. I’ll pick up where I left off later in the week. And dear blogging friends, I apologise sincerely for not having replied to comments yet on my past couple of posts. Comments are bloggers’ cat nip, as you know, and I love and appreciate them all. But I’ve been having a bit of a holiday and am not yet caught up. I will, though, for sure.