More Cosy Crime

a death in the dalesIt just so happens that I’ve had two blog tours come along, one after the other. Today’s is for the latest (seventh) Kate Shackleton crime novel by Frances Brody, A Death in the Dales. Last year I reviewed Death of an Avid Reader, which I loved, and I very much enjoyed this one, too.

Kate Shackleton is, I suppose, somewhat like Maisie Dobbs, in that she is a post-World War One private investigator, one of the superfluous women whose husband died in the fighting and who needs to make her own way in the world. Kate was a VAD during the War, and so whilst she is undoubtedly a lady, she has a certain plausible toughness about her. She is ably assisted by her housekeeper, Mrs Sugden, and a former police officer, Jim Sykes, who goes to the places (like pubs, and servants’ quarters) that she cannot.

By this seventh outing, Kate has an admirer – Lucian Simonson, a doctor – and she has also discovered a family. Kate was adopted as a baby and has only recently found her natural relatives, who come from a lower social class than the one she was raised to inhabit. When her niece needs to convalesce after succumbing to a dangerous bout of diphtheria, Kate decides to take her out of Leeds and into the country. Lucian’s aunt has recently died and her house is standing empty; it’s the perfect opportunity for a holiday in the Yorkshire countryside, but it’s also clear from Lucian’s manner that it’s a trial run for Kate in a house that could easily be her own. Kate has come to value her independence, and she isn’t keen to be rushed. But at the same time, she is as aware as the next woman in 1926 that marriage offers a more conventional lifestyle than her rackety profession.

However, it seems Kate’s reputation has preceeded her. Lucian’s Aunt Flora has left a box of cuttings and notes for Kate concerning a murder that she witnessed from her bedroom window ten years ago. She saw the landlord of the local pub as he was knifed, but in a strange scuffle, the person who commited the murder was not the person tried and hanged for the crime. At the time, the word of one elderly lady was insufficient evidence against the fact that the drunk in the gutter was discovered with the weapon in his hand. Flora was convinced a third person had been involved, who had quickly run away, but with no idea who this person might be, and much hostility in the village against her defence of the accused, justice proceeded to her chagrin. Flora knew of her nephew’s involvement with a private detective and hoped to meet her one day – leaving her posthumous legacy for Kate when Lucian failed to introduce them in time.

Kate’s hardly been in the village five minutes before other inhabitants are seeking her help. Her own niece, Harriet, befriends a girl whose brother has gone missing, and the local gentry call Kate in on a delicate matter of missing love letters. You’ll not be surprised to know that all three mysteries are bound together in unguessable ways.

This is a reliably strong series with a plausible heroine and clever, deftly interwoven plots. There’s just enough history supporting the stories – in this novel the General Strike of 1926 is the main talking point, with Kate unable to access enough petrol for her car – to be realistic without overloading the reader. I found this highly readable, and satisfyingly written.


superfluous womenI realise this is Frances Brody’s blog tour but I hope she won’t mind if I mention another cosy crime novel I’ve been sent – Superfluous Women by Carola Dunn. While we’re doing the cosy thing here, we might as well put them all together, because if you like one, you’ll probably like the others. This is the 21st Daisy Dalrymple novel, and they are remarkably soothing comfort fare. I’ve read lots of them, and followed Daisy’s progress post-WW1 and the loss of her fiancé to her marriage (hopelessly shocking to her aristocratic mother) to a DCA from Scotland Yard. Daisy is a much more unofficial crime-solver than Kate Shackleton, and so this murder concerns the discovery of a body in the cellar of a house her friends have recently moved into. Three superfluous women, they have come together to share their living costs and pool their resources, and Daisy, visiting only while recuperating herself from bronchitis, just has the knack of being on the spot when crime takes place. I do feel that if you like Carola Dunn, you’ll like Frances Brody, and vice versa. It’s autumn, the nights are drawing in, the days are growing cold, and cosy crime is a wonderful antidote, I find, to the general blahs of the season.

Crime Fiction Giveaway

Just a quick post for this giveaway as the full review will appear in Shiny on 8th October when our autumn edition goes live. But the lovely people at Constable offered me a free copy for any of my readers, anywhere, and a comment will put you in the draw.

murder on seaEarlier this year I read the first in the Whitstable Pearl series by Julie Wassmer and enjoyed it. Wassmer used to write scripts for Eastenders, so she was always going to be a safe pair of hands. This second novel was, unsurprisingly, better than the first as is so often the case with crime fiction series, as the characters become more clearly defined and grow from book to book.

I started reading this one morning last week, and although I had all sorts of things I ought to have been doing, I finished it later that same day. It’s cosy crime set in the seaside community of Whitstable and our sleuth is restauranteur and private eye, Pearl Nolan. A spate of poison pen messages in Christmas cards causes much upset among Pearl’s friends and acquaintances, and is swiftly followed by a suspicious death at the church hall fundraiser. Pearl’s love interest, DCI Mike McGuire happens to be at the fundraiser thanks to Pearl and so he, too, finds himself excluded from the police investigation. Together, they set out to find the culprit.

This is just a really good, engaging story, lots of suspects and colourful characters, strong plotting, satisfying ending. Cosy crime isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s my comfort reading go-to. If it’s yours, put yourself in the draw, which I’ll close next Friday, 2nd October.


vertigo hitchcockAlfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film, which topped the British Film Institute’s poll in 2012 for best film of all time, is deservedly famous. But how many people have read the book the film was based upon?

Well, Pushkin Press have just released a new crime imprint, Pushkin Vertigo, that features the novel along with other international crime masterworks published originally between the 1920s and 1970s. Vertigo was written by the amazing French crime duo, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who I actually became rather interested in about a decade ago. Their books are often outrageous in premise and yet they pull them off brilliantly. Mostly they turn on a seemingly supernatural occurrence which always ends up with a logical explanation as part of a dastardly crime. So they’re both nutty and completely engrossing, a combination that always hovers around the supernatural in any case, something Boileau-Narcejac exploit ruthlessly in the knowledge that the impossible, the numinous and the inexplicable have a hypnotic effect on us.

vertigo boileauVertigo as written by Boileau-Narcejac is essentially a ghost story – or rather a Geist story, the original term from which ghost derives, meaning the spirit or soul. The story begins when ex-police detective, Roger Flavières is employed by his old friend, Paul Gevigny, to keep his wife, Madeleine, under strict surveillance. According to Gevigny, Madeleine has been experiencing periods of blackout, moments of ecstatic absence that have led him to suspect her of being possessed by the spirit of her suicidal grandmother, Pauline Lagerlac. Flavières is initially skeptical: ‘Either your wife’s ill or she’s up to some game or other,’ he tells Gevigny. However, once he has made Madeleine’s acquaintance and begun his mission of surveillance, Flavières undergoes a radical change of heart. Not only does he become convinced of her ghostly possession, but he also falls deeply in love with her. After thwarting her suicide attempt, he exchanges his role of spy for that of protector; rescuing Madeleine from her own internal estrangement becomes his raison d’être.

However, Flavières has one fatal weakness; his vertigo has already made him abandon his job in the police force after an incident in which a colleague, taking his place in a rooftop chase, fell to his death. The logic of inevitable repetition powers this story and so, when Madeleine rushes to the top of a church tower in a moment of otherworldly possession, Flavières finds himself once again unable to intervene, and once again forced to witness a death by falling.

Flavières is a curious mix of frustrated heroism and full-blown neurosis, a prickly, unstable character whose cynicism is a form of romanticism contaminated by despair.Yet his force is bound up in his determination to overcome his own phobias and to find strength and courage inside a mind tortured by its own uncertainties. When he rescues Madeleine from her attempt to drown herself, he rescues himself from his apathy and aimlessness – small wonder then, that when he loses her, he thinks: ‘She was dead. And he was dead with her.’ What a clever, tight thematic grip this narrative exerts; Madeleine is possessed by the spirit of Pauline Lagerlac, and in going to her rescue, Flavières becomes possessed by the spirit of the woman he adores. Round and round in circles we go, but it doesn’t stop there.

Intrinsic to this story is its setting at the very start of World War 2. When Flavières and Madeleine first meet, it’s the period of the phony war, when everyone is thrilled and terrified and waiting in disbelief for something to happen. And when Madeleine falls to her death, it is, of course, the moment when the war begins for real and the Germans invade Paris. Flavières decides to leave the country and he only returns when the war is over; his years in Africa have left him sick and weak, he is a broken man, returning to a broken, hapless France. It’s more than just a pathetic fallacy at work here; instead it’s a radical lack of boundaries, as the spirits of time and place as well as people, reach out contaminatory fingers, infiltrating one another. Aimlessly entering a cinema, Flavières is astonished to witness a face in the newsreel he thinks he recognises. After all, he’s just spent the past five years being obsessed by her memory. Could it be that Madeleine now lives on in someone else?

Well, we’ll leave Flavières rushing off in search of his old love. Even if you’re well acquainted with the ending to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, you’ll find the second part of the story quite different. There is a much darker, harsher, more unnerving vision at work, and Hitchcock’s movie seems quite light and cheery in comparison. The film of Vertigo is understood to be the place where Hitchcock spells out his relationship to his cool blondes most openly – his desire to control and mould them which always ends in disappointment, because his fantasy is only ever that and cannot really be made real. Whereas Boileau-Narcejac suggest that ghosts are both intrinsic and alien to our sense of the human – that our identity is to some extent a haunted house, people live on inside us, just as we inhabit the hearts and imaginations of others. For Flavières, Madeleine really does complete him, and what might seem romantic is actually pretty scary too. Hence our ambivalence over the ghost – what is psychologically real is denied as being too uncomfortable to our sense of self, and instead we play with the idea of the ghost as something that exists in a troubling way outside and beyond us.

Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac makes a fascinating companion to the Hitchcock film, and is, I think, an amazing book in its own right. I’ve got a couple more of the Pushkin Vertigo series to read and if they’re all up to this standard, it’s going to be a fabulous collection for crime lovers.

Internet Shaming: Why The End Doesn’t Justify The (Being) Mean

shamedJon Ronson’s latest book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed begins his enquiry with a completely engrossing account of the onslaught of public shamings that have become increasingly popular on social media, Twitter in particular.

Chances are you’ll remember at least some of them. Jonah Lehrer is his first Twitter victim, a clever hotshot writer who embellished six of his Bob Dylan quotes in a book he wrote about creativity. For this he was virtually flogged in the online streets. When he attempted a public apology, he had to give his speech in front of a screen displaying an audience Twitter feed that quickly turned vicious. Under such circumstances, Lehrer froze emotionally, and that was enough to convince those tweeting that he wasn’t really sorry and his apology wasn’t good enough. They didn’t say it quite so nicely. His reputation in the three subsequent years has never recovered.

Then there was Justine Sacco, a PR person who made a regrettable joke tweet about AIDS before getting on a plane to Africa. By the time she landed there were photographers at the airport, ready to catch the look on her face when she turned her phone back on and was hit by hundreds of thousands of 140-character judgements of bile and hate. And Lindsay Stone, who had a silly photo taken of herself being disrespectful at the Arlington National Cemetery and posted it on Facebook. Oh there are more (Cecil the lion being one of the most recent) and in every instance jobs were instantly lost, reputations ruined, families destroyed, people thoroughly shamed. And the twitterers lapped it up; scarcely a day passes still without social media turning into judge and jury on some unlucky idiot.

‘It felt,’ Ronson writes ‘like we were soldiers in a war on other people’s flaws, and there had suddenly been an escalation in hostilities.’ Was it a sort of hysteria caused by group violence, he wondered? He looked into public shaming and discovered that it had been outlawed as a practice back in the 19th century because it was considered too brutal. The law has its limits, after all. People, alas, once unleashed do not. And once shaming has begun, it spreads contagiously. Ronson thought that his stories ‘only revealed that our imagination is so limited, our arsenal of potential responses so narrow, that the only thing anyone can think to do’ is shame, and shame again.

Ronson’s book is brilliant at pointing out the outrageousness of such behaviour (I was certainly spitting feathers at some points), but understanding the motivations of social media is a lesser goal in his book. He does argue, though, that even the most extreme shamers feel they are doing good – and the paradox of a million-strong crowd of self-righteous tweeters, all thinking they are on the side of the angels but looking from the outside like an avenging mob of bullies has the ring of uncomfortable truth about it.

Instead, Ronson goes on to explore what can be done about shame in the aftermath – how is it possible to recover from the public trashing of one’s reputation? After the fire and brimstone of the first half of the book, the second falls a lot flatter, but there are some crucial discoveries made. The most important of which is what terrible psychological damage shaming inflicts. Ronson talks to the psychologist and prison reformer, James Gilligan, who was sent to some of the worst US jails in the 1970s where murders and suicides occurred daily. After spending time with the most violent offenders he realised there was an obvious origin to their behaviour. ‘I have yet to see a serious act of violence,’ he told Ronson, ‘that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed or humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed.’ The more horrific their early experience of shame, the more violent they became in adult life. Shaming is profoundly destructive. It certainly does not achieve its intention of bringing a person to heel, or if it does, the cost is excessive.

But obviously, it must make the shamer feel like the good and acceptable side of the interaction. Ronson doesn’t talk much about the wider media, except to say that ‘in our line of work the more humiliated a person is the more viral the story tends to go. Shame can factor large in the life of a journalist – the personal avoidance of it and the professional bestowing of it upon others.’ And yes, the professional media offers a powerful model of misconduct that has filtered down to social media, showing us that this is how you behave in the presence of perceived wrongdoing.

But it doesn’t really explain the excessiveness of the threats on twitter in comparison to the perceived crime. You have to wonder why such outrage could be created by a writer who adds an innocuous half-sentence on the end of a Dylan quote? Jonah Lehrer’s case is the most perplexing of all.

Ronson never really comes up with answers either to why shaming is so tempting, nor to how we recover after being shamed. Unless we count hiring a specialist internet firm to bury the offending material under a ton of bland google entries. And I was surprised that he never went to talk to an ordinary psychotherapist, who would have told him some useful basic information about shame.

Shame only happens when an accusation chimes with a deep-seated fear that the criticism is correct. So the worse we feel about ourselves, the more vulnerable we are to being shamed. The answer, you might think, is to feel good about ourselves. But that urge is what provokes much of the thrashing around on social media that we see; the act of shaming is part and parcel of the need to tell others how ethical we are, what fabulous things we do, what great lives we are leading.

Funnily enough our entire culture seems to have forgotten the unbeatable antidote to shame and never once is the word mentioned in Ronson’s book: humility – and for all concerned. Humility is the recognition that we are flawed, that we are going to make mistakes, that we do not have all the answers, and never will. It’s a gentle acceptance of the reality of the human condition, in the awareness that we can and do learn. It’s a kind thing and a quiet thing (which is probably why it’s in short supply on shouty social media).

Although Ronson’s book is essentially about shame, it’s the parts about the internet which are by far the most fascinating. If you travel here regularly, you know that the virtual world is ruled by energy and entropy, and given there are so few attempts to control what happens, we get a pretty accurate portrait of what unrestrained human energy can do. It’s essentially a junior school playground without enough dinner ladies. We know the internet is a place where wonderful things can happen, but it can be vicious and spiteful too. We need laws here, not least because this book shows us that the law is much kinder than we are.

In the absence of those laws, though, perhaps all would-be online shamers might consider one important distinction: attack the issue, and not the person.