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One From the Archive: ‘The Crime at Black Dudley’ by Margery Allingham ****

First published in May 2015

Vintage Crime Classics have just republished Margery Allingham’s first Albert Campion mystery, The Crime at Black Dudley.  Published in 1929, the novel has not been printed in an English edition for over thirty years.  Queen of crime Agatha Christie says that Allingham ‘stands out like a shining light’, and one cannot help but feel that her work is certainly due a resurgence.

The premise of The Crime at Black Dudley is sure to appeal to lovers of crime, particularly those with a penchant for the more old-fashioned or ‘cosy’ mysteries.  In the novel, a group of London’s ‘brightest young things’ accept an invitation to the Black Dudley mansion.  ‘Skulduggery is most certainly afoot, and the party-goers soon realise that they’re trapped in the secluded house’.  Albert Campion, one of the trapped, is on hand to assist the others in unravelling ‘the villainous plots behind their incarceration’.

The way in which Allingham describes the house adds a feeling of foreboding almost immediately.  She writes that, ‘Miles of neglected park-land stretched in an unbroken plain to the horizon and the sea beyond…  In the centre of this desolation, standing in a thousand acres of its own land, was the mansion, Black Dudley; a great grey building, bare and ugly as a fortress’.

The novel opens with the character of Dr George Abbershaw, a ‘minor celebrity’, who soon becomes one of the story’s protagonists.  Whilst on holiday at Black Dudley, ‘Much to his own surprise and perplexity, he had fallen in love’ with a young woman named Margaret Oliphant.  The weekend is being hosted by the owner of the house, Colonel Gordon Coombe, ‘an old invalid who liked the society of young people so much that he persuaded his nephew to bring a houseful of young folk down to the gloomy old mansion at least half a dozen times a year’.

Centuries past at Black Dudley, a murder was committed with the house’s revered Dagger, which is still kept in pride of place.  It is this ritual of sorts which is recreated by the characters on the first night.  Of this act, Campion says, ‘”All this running about in the dark with daggers doesn’t seem to me healthy”‘, thus creating fissures within the body of the protagonists.  Further peculiar goings-on such as this soon ensue, and serve to both deepen the mystery and add texture to the plot.

One of the main points comes at the instance in which Colonel Coombe dies after a supposed heart attack.  Questions about the situation being ‘fishy’ are almost immediately raised by many of the guests.  As a doctor, Abbershaw goes to view the body under the guise of signing the cremation certificate.  After doing so, ‘The fussy, pompous personality that he had assumed dropped from him like a cloak, and he became at once alert and purposeful.  There were many things that puzzled him, but of one thing he was perfectly certain.  Colonel Gordon Coombe had not died of heart disease’.  Moreover, Abbershaw becomes ‘convinced that there were more secrets in Black Dudley that night than the old house had ever known.  Secrets that would be dangerous if they were too suddenly brought to light’.

Throughout, Allingham is both witty and amusing, whilst being rather to the point.  Of Abbershaw’s falling in love, for example, she writes the following: ‘He recognised the symptoms at once and made no attempt at self-deception, but with his usual methodical thoroughness set himself to remove the disturbing emotion by one or other of the only two methods known to mankind – disillusionment or marriage’.  The perceptions which Allingham gives of her characters too are very shrewd: ‘The man was an arresting type.  He was white-haired, very small and delicately made…  Under the sleek white hair which waved straight back from a high forehead his face was grey, vivacious, and peculiarly wicked’.  The author is also a master at piecing together places and scenes, and second to none at building moments of tension or shifting experiences in just a single sentence: ‘The house-party which had seemed as large round the dinner-table now looked amazingly small in this cathedral of a room’.

With The Crime at Black Dudley, one has the feeling of being in the company of a very skilled writer.  The plot has been well constructed to the extent that not a dull page exists within the novel, the character development is wonderful, and the dialogue is never staid or predictable.  The only thing which does not quite ring true is the speed at which relationships between characters are declared; thankfully, though, such instances are few and far between.  On reading The Crime at Black Dudley, it is clear to see why Agatha Christie, P.D. James, and other such writers so admire Allingham.

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Reading the World: ‘The Mind’s Eye’ by Hakan Nesser ***

I borrowed Hakan Nesser’s The Mind’s Eye from the library for inclusion in my year-long Reading the World project.  I hadn’t heard of it before, but I count myself as a fan of Nordic Noir, and thought it might be just the thing to read on a cold winter’s night.  This volume has been translated from its original Swedish by Laurie Thompson, and was first published in Sweden in 1993; the author was victorious in the Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy Prize for it, and subsequently won other prestigious awards for his later work.

9780330492782The Mind’s Eye is the first Inspector van Veeteren mystery, in which a history and philosophy teacher named Janek Mitter awakes to find that he cannot remember who he is.  He then discovers the body of his beautiful young wife, Eva, floating in the bath after an attack.  Even during the trial which follows, he has no memory of attacking his wife, or any idea as to how he could have killed her; indeed, ‘Only when he is sentenced and locked up in an asylum for the criminally insane does he have a snatch of insight.  He scribbles something in his Bible, but is murdered before the clue can be uncovered’.

The novel’s opening passage is quite striking: ‘It’s like being born, he thought.  I’m not a person.  Merely a mass of suffering’.  In this manner, Nesser gets straight into the story.  He continues thus when the body is discovered, using short, snappy sentences to capture the mood: ‘He entered the room and, just as he switched on the light, he became quite clear about who he was. / He could also identify the woman lying in the bath. / Her name was Eva Ringmar and she was his wife of three months. / Her body was strangely twisted…  Her dark hair was floating on the water.  Her head was face-down, and as the bath was full to the brim there could be no doubt that she was dead.’

The Mind’s Eye is rather a quick read, and a page-turner, at least.  It isn’t the most gripping mystery, nor the most memorable slice of Scandicrime; in fact, it lacks the darkness and the often twisted, gory killings of many of its contemporaries.  There are far more grisly whodunnits out there, and part of me wishes I’d selected one such instead.  Nesser’s effort is well plotted, and the plot points do keep one interested in the story.  I cannot help but feel that the blurb of the novel gives a little too much away, however.  There is nothing overly special about the translation, sadly; the way in which it is rendered takes away any memorable prose, and it uses many paragraphs made of short sentences to further push different points home.  Needless to say, it is not a series which I will be continuing with.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Girl on the Train’ by Paula Hawkins ****

Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on The Train is a number one bestseller, which has been incredibly well reviewed.  S.J. Watson, author of the incredibly clever Before I Go To Sleep, calls it ‘a top-notch thriller and a compulsive read’, and Stephen King says that it kept him up for ‘most of the night’. 9780857522313

The premise of The Girl on the Train is both simple and clever; Rachel Watson, our protagonist, ‘catches the same commuter train every morning.’  Each time, a signal stops it in exactly the same place, allowing her a view of a row of suburban back gardens.  One morning, ‘she sees something shocking.  It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough.  Now everything’s changed.  Now Rachel has the chance to become a part of the lives she’s only watched from afar…  She’s much more than just the girl on the train’.

The book’s opening passage – a prologue of sorts – is so intriguing, and definitely makes one want to read on: ‘She’s buried beneath a silver bitch tree, down towards the old train tracks, her grave marked with a cairn…  I didn’t want to draw attention to her resting place, but I couldn’t leave her without remembrance.  She’ll sleep peacefully there, no one to disturb her, no sounds but birdsong and the rumble of passing trains’.

Rachel’s is the first perspective which is made use of, with the starting point of July 2013.  Of her daily journey, she tells us: ‘Twice a day, I am offered a view into other lives, just for a moment.  There’s something comforting about the sight of strangers safe at home’.  We learn, rather early on, that the street which the train stops at is Blenheim Road – the place in which she used to live, in her first self-owned home with her ex-husband, Tom.  There, she was both ‘blissfully happy and utterly wretched’.  It is clear from the outset that Rachel is troubled; an untold event seems to be overshadowing everything for her, and she has turned to alcohol to seek solace.  She is a complex narrator; whilst she is lonely and, some would say, untrustworthy, there is a feisty side to her which beats its way to the fore when it is warranted: ‘Who was it said that following your heart is a good thing?  It is pure egotism, a selfishness to conquer all.  Hatred floods me.  If I saw that woman now… I would spit in her face.  I would scratch her eyes out’.

Some of the events which Rachel participates in are obscured by her alcoholism, so the story often appears fragmented.  This is an intelligent plot device, and one which piques the interest of the reader: ‘It comes over me like a wave, black dread.  Something happened, I know it did.  I can’t picture it, but I can feel it…  I’m frightened, but I’m not sure what I’m afraid of, which just exacerbates the fear’.  She then goes on to candidly say, ‘I feel like I am part of this mystery.  I’m connected.  I am no longer just a girl on the train, going back and forth without point or purpose’.

The rest of the book uses the alternating perspectives of Rachel, Megan and Anna, whose paths intersect at times.  Their voices are all relatively distinctive.  The differing vantage points and times in which these narrative voices are set add depth to the whole, and allow Hawkins to tell a story within a story within a story.  The pivotal plot points come at perfect moments, and the pieces cleverly slot into place as the novel goes on.  The mysteries deepen, and complexities give the whole a wonderfully layered texture.  Hawkins’ structure is effective; a relatively short entry is given for each day, morning and evening, for each of the perspectives.

The Girl on The Train is Hawkins’ first thriller; this is surprising, in many ways, as it feels as though she is incredibly comfortable writing within the genre.  There is nothing about the novel which does not strike one as polished and well crafted.  The Girl on The Train is gripping and difficult to put down.  If you are looking for a fast-paced thriller with depth, look no further.

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Mini Reviews: ‘Fantastic Night’ and ‘The Lightkeepers’

Fantastic Night by Stefan Zweig ****
9781782271482I purchased Fantastic Night as part of Oxfam’s wonderful 2016 Scorching Summer Reads campaign.  I was already familiar with Zweig’s work, and remember how enraptured I was when reading the excellent The Post Office Girl some years ago.  Fantastic Night provides a mixture of novellas and short stories, many of which I hadn’t come across before.

As with all of the Pushkin Press titles which I have had the pleasure of reading thus far, the translation here is seamless. There were a couple of tales I wasn’t that enamoured with, but those which I loved or very much admired greatly outweighed these. Zweig is a masterfully perceptive author, and there was such a difference to every one of the stories here. ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman’ is stunning. Fantastic Night is a real joy to read.

 

The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni ***** 9781619026001
Before gushing uncontrollably about Abby Geni’s masterful The Lightkeepers, I shall just copy the blurb so that you get some context about the story: ‘In The Lightkeepers, we follow Miranda, a nature photographer who travels to the Farallon Islands, an exotic and dangerous archipelago off the coast of California, for a one-year residency capturing the landscape. Her only companions are the scientists studying there, odd and quirky refugees from the mainland living in rustic conditions; they document the fish populations around the island, the bold trio of sharks called the Sisters that hunt the surrounding waters, and the overwhelming bird population who, at times, create the need to wear hard hats as protection from their attacks. Shortly after her arrival, Miranda is assaulted by one of the inhabitants of the islands. A few days later, her assailant is found dead, perhaps the result of an accident. As the novel unfolds, Miranda gives witness to the natural wonders of this special place as she grapples with what has happened to her and deepens her connection (and her suspicions) to her companions, while falling under the thrall of the legends of the place nicknamed “the Islands of the Dead.” And when more violence occurs, each member of this strange community falls under suspicion. The Lightkeepers upends the traditional structure of a mystery novel –an isolated environment, a limited group of characters who might not be trustworthy, a death that may or may not have been accidental, a balance of discovery and action –while also exploring wider themes of the natural world, the power of loss, and the nature of recovery.’

I very much enjoyed Geni’s short story collection, The Last Animal, and couldn’t wait to read her debut novel.  My parents scoured The Strand for me on a recent trip to New York, and I couldn’t have been happier when they presented me with it (and three other equally wonderful tomes).  Geni’s novel explores similar themes to those in her story collection – nature, humans, and the effects of one upon the other.

Geni’s writing is electric.  Such emphasis has been placed upon every single sense that the whole springs to life immediately.  You can almost smell the salt on the breeze, taste the stale crackers and tuna macaroni, and, despite living on an isolated island with just a few others, feel their eyes on you as you read.  Geni uses both the first and third person perspectives effortlessly, and even the more simplistic or mundane elements of life on the Farallon Islands feel extremely creative due to the way in which she presents them.  Everything here feels original.  The Lightkeepers has been so well researched, particularly with regard to the nature around Miranda, and the photography techniques which she utilises.  The Lightkeepers is exquisite.

 

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‘One of Us: The Story of a Massacre and Its Aftermath’ by Asne Seierstad ****

For the purposes of background to this review, I have copied the original blurb: ‘On 22 July 2011 Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 of his fellow Norwegians in a terrorist atrocity that shocked the world. One of Us is the definitive account of the massacres and the subsequent trial. But more than that, it is the compelling story of Anders Breivik and a select group of his victims. As we follow the path to their inevitable collision, it becomes clear just what was lost in that one day.’

9781844089185It’s always going to be difficult to review a book about such a sickening and notorious crime as the massacre which happened on the island of Utoya in July 2011, and the bomb attack which happened in central Oslo just beforehand.  Norway is one of my favourite countries, and Oslo is certainly one of the most peaceful and friendly places I have ever visited.  I was even more shocked, therefore, when I learnt about Breivik’s crime.  What occurred was reported in the British media, but relatively few details emerged about the trial. When I spotted One of Us in Fopp, I decided to pick it up to learn as much as I could.  The fact that it is written by Asne Seierstad also swayed me, as I very much enjoyed her fascinating The Bookseller of Kabul when I read it a few years ago.

One of Us is the very pinnacle of excellent journalism.  Seierstad has taken her subject and written about his entire life, as well as taking into account elements of his parents’ lives to see what, if anything, rubbed off on Breivik and caused him to have the views which he so firmly holds.  Seierstad is thorough, but this will surprise nobody who is familiar with her work.  I have read several reviews which stated that One of Us is far too drawn out in places.  I did not get this impression at all; rather, the very depth of the details which she included, and the scope of her study, was of the utmost importance to try and understand Breivik and his motivations.  (I still do not, but that is by the by).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I learnt far more than I did throughout the original media coverage, and in retrospect, I feel that One of Us is one of the most important books I have ever read.  I admire Seierstad and the amount of scholarship which has gone into every single page of this book.  She gives such weight to the victims, picking out several of them and giving their backstories, which again was such an important element of the whole for me.  One of Us is a masterful work, which has been fluidly translated into English.  It is a book which I would – and will – recommend to everyone.

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Flash Reviews: ‘Ox Crimes’, ‘Black Eyed Susans’, and ‘Vinegar Girl’

Time for three more mini reviews!

Ox Crimes by Various Authors *** 9781781250648
I purchased Ox Crimes whilst seeking out my Scorching Summer Reads pile because it sounded wonderful. I love the idea behind it; twenty seven crime writers donating a story apiece to Oxfam. As with the majority of anthologies, there were a few stories which didn’t really interest me – the more hardboiled detective ones in this case – but on a high note, I have also (finally) discovered Stella Duffy.

I very much enjoyed how quirky a lot of these stories were; there were unusual elements to them for the most part, and not one could be termed run-of-the-mill. A mixed bag of crime stories, let’s face it, but literature for a good cause is always worth buying.

 

9781405921275Black Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin ***
I have been trying to read more thrillers of late, and Black Eyed Susans has undoubtedly been hyped. Whilst travelling to my early morning lectures, I must have seen a dozen posters with that eye-catching field of flowers, featuring the slightly ambiguous naked woman, dotted around the underground.

My thoughts about the novel are a mixed bag, as I had a feeling they might be. The storyline is intriguing; it has elements of the general thriller, but there are a few twists to it in places that I wasn’t quite expecting. Heaberlin’s writing didn’t blow me away, but the pacing was strong. The merging of past and present stories worked well, but the tenses were undoubtedly confused at times (and I say this as a proofreader). Black Eyed Susans felt, to me, rather drawn out in places, and whilst it kept me entertained, I don’t think I’d rush to pick up another of Heaberlin’s novels.

 

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler * 9781781090190
This had so much potential. WHY WAS IT SO DULL!?

I love Shakespeare. I love The Taming of the Shrew. I love the Hogarth Shakespeare series. I greatly admire what the authors have done. I had hoped that this would suck me in as Jeannette Winterson’s book did, but alas. There are nowhere near enough echoes of the original here; if you were not aware that this was a rewriting of Shakespeare, I’m not entirely sure you’d be able to guess.

I’ve not had the best experience with Anne Tyler’s novels in the past; I have begun three, and abandoned three. I think I’m going to give her up as a bad job. Thoroughly disappointing, and hopefully not a precursor of the rest of the series!

 

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