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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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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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‘Points and Lines’ by Seicho Matsumoto ****

Seicho Matsumoto’s Points and Lines was first published in 1958 in Japanese and it became an instant bestseller and a favourite among mystery/crime literature enthusiasts. Having sold millions of copies worldwide, this book managed to establish Matsumoto as one of the most important post-war Japanese mystery writers.

I had purchased this book years ago, in a very old Greek translation (which I doubt was done directly from Japanese) and I finally got around to reading it last month.

The plot of this book revolves around the mysterious death of a man and a woman in a rather secluded Japanese shore, which, after some initial investigations, is rendered as a couple’s double suicide. However, the protagonist, Detective Mihara, suspects that something of much bigger importance is hidden behind those deaths and begins a more thorough investigation. Could this double suicide be somehow connected to a pretty dark political scandal?

I did enjoy reading this, and, being a rather short read of approximately 200 pages (depending on your edition) it did manage to capture my interest until the final revelation. The whole mystery exuded the feeling and atmosphere of a traditional cosy mystery novel, which felt both nostalgic and outdated at the same time. There were some passages that were a bit tiring and overwhelming, particularly where the author cumulated too much information in too small a space, such as the train schedules and timetables. I found myself skimming through those, not really being able to combine the knowledge of the facts surrounding the deaths with the information about the trains in order to reach a conclusion.

Apart from that, it was pretty fast-paced and the solution at the end left me satisfied. It was really interesting reading such a pioneer novel for the mystery genre in Japan, and especially seeing how literature started to develop in Japan after the war and its dire consequences. One could say that both the atmosphere and the events that take place in this book, all this chaos and disorder that is described, could be a reflection of the general situation as well as of the Japanese psyche in the aftermath of the war.

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Du Maurier December: ‘Murder on the Cliffs’ by Joanna Challis ****

As soon as I heard about Joanna Challis’ murder mystery series, which features Daphne du Maurier as an amateur detective, my interest was piqued.  I just had to get my hands on the first book, Murder on the Cliffs and I feel that it ties in marvellously with my du Maurier December project.

Before I purchased Murder on the Cliffs, I decided to take a look at a handful of reviews, merely to see how the book was received.  I hadn’t heard anything about the novel before, and was interested in the opinions which readers had of it.  The available reviews – online, at least – are incredibly varied, and I understand that not a large percentage of readers actually enjoyed the book.  I wanted to read it regardless, however, as I find the general idea most intriguing.  This book in particular – the first of three in the du Maurier mystery series – is said to give ‘fictional life to the inspiration behind Daphne du Maurier’s classic Rebecca‘.

The premise of Murder on the Cliffs has clearly been well thought out: ‘Young Daphne du Maurier is headstrong, adventurous and standing on the cusp of greatness’.  The novel takes place in 1928, where twenty one-year-old Daphne, walking along a Cornish beach, finds the ‘drowned body of a beautiful woman, dressed only in a nightgown, her hair strewn along the rocks, her eyes gazing up to the heavens’. She quickly decides to conduct her own murder investigation: ‘My interest in people, potential characters, and their motivations demanded I at least try; what had I to lose?’

The beginning of the novel immediately sets the scene and tone of the whole: ‘The storm led me to Padthaway.  I could never resist the allure of dark swirling clouds, windswept leaves sweeping down cobbled lanes, or a view of the sea, its defiant nature stirred up.  The sea possessed a power all its own, and this part of Cornwall, an isolated stretch of rocky cliff tops and unexplored beaches, both enchanted and terrified me’.

Rather charmingly, I think, Australian author Joanna Challis makes a yearly pilgrimage to Manderley.  She clearly cares about the way in which she has portrayed her subject.  I really like the way in which she has fictionalised Daphne as her protagonist; her personality comes across as well as it does in du Maurier’s own non-fiction.  The use of Daphne’s first person perspective heightens the sense of realism throughout.  Challis also makes use of nature throughout her novel, and often personifies it in powerful ways: for example, the ‘snarling’ sea is given a sinister character of its own, the morning sun ‘waltzed’ across the sky, and a ‘crumbling stone tower crawled up the cliff at one end’ with ‘its ivy cloak bleeding into the house’.

An interesting mixture of characters has been used within Murder on the Cliffs.  Many of those who had such an impact on du Maurier in real life – her father and sisters, for example – are merely alluded to, and the majority of the other protagonists and villagers have been entirely fictionalised.  Daphne is staying in the village of Windemere with her mother’s old nanny, Ewe Sinclair, a self-confessed gossip who spends a lot of her time talking to her young charge about the case.  This allows Challis to show both their speculations, and the things which Daphne discovers, alongside the official investigation; both unfold side by side.  This is a simple plot device, but an eminently clever one to use in such a novel.

Murder on the Cliffs is an absorbing novel.  The only issue which I had with the book were a few awkward uses of dialogue; either it did not fit with the character in question, or it was too modern.  This did not detract from the story in any great way, however, nor did it lessen my enjoyment of the book.  Challis has blended fact and fiction wonderfully, and whilst I did guess the denouement before it occurred, I still found Murder on the Cliffs a most enjoyable read.  I will happily carry on with the rest of the du Maurier Mystery Series.

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Three Disappointing Novels

I subscribe to the Nancy Pearl rule of only reading fifty pages of a book and giving up if you aren’t enjoying it.  It works very well indeed for the mostpart, but there are occasions in which I have read an enjoyable book by a certain author, and want to see another of their works through to the end in the hope that it might improve.  There are also those books whose storylines sound far too good to give up reading.  I have grouped together an amalgamation of three such books, all of which I had high hopes for and was ultimately disappointed with.

‘The Listeners’ by Monica Dickens

The Listeners by Monica Dickens **
If I had bothered to read the blurb before purchasing The Listeners, I doubt whether I would have chosen it over Monica Dickens’ other books.  Its premise – troubled people seeking help from The Samaritans, which is partly based upon her own experiences in setting up the first American branch of the charity – does not render it the most cheerful of novels by any means.  The front of the very ugly Penguin edition which I read says that ‘her famous novel about the Samaritans’ is ‘compassionate, observant and amusing’.

I did like the way in which The Listeners followed different characters, both victims and workers for the Samaritans, but there was a real sense of distancing throughout, and I felt unable to identify – or even sympathise with – the characters because of it.  Dickens has created a cast of very troubled people, and there are far too many characters throughout, which further hinders any care and compassion being built up on the side of the reader.  Whilst Dickens is not shy in describing those whom she creates, they feel rather two-dimensional, particularly when considered as an entire cast.  As with much of Dickens’ work, it is nicely written, but it is neither as lovely as Mariana, nor as witty or absorbing as her memoir, One Pair of Feet.  It was even a little dull in places, which I found surprising; I was expecting it to be a very engaging novel.  It was lovely, however to see that some people do give up their time to help others in such life-changing ways.

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Celebrations at Thrush Green by Miss Read ***
This was another book which I borrowed from the library, and based upon the two books written by Miss Read which are upon my read shelves, I was expecting quite a quick and cosy read.  The premise sounded relatively intriguing: ‘There’s double cause to celebrate in Thrush Green: the school is in its centenary year, and an unexpected letter sheds light on the village’s most distinguished son, whose statue has stood on the green for many years.  However, the preparations are plagued with anxieties…’.

Sadly, and even though I did enjoy it on the whole, Celebrations at Thrush Green is my least favourite Miss Read book to date.  It was a little too quiet and predictable overall, and some of the characters did not feel as though they had been well fleshed out.  I will still read more of the extensive Thrush Green series, but I can only hope that all of the books I have yet to come across are more enjoyable than this one.

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‘An Expert in Murder’ by Nicola Upson

An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson **
This is one of the novels which I picked up in the library sale. I hadn’t heard of the author before, but the premise – in which an imagined Josephine Tey works as a detective of sorts to solve crime – was really interesting.  (Side note: I hate to be superficial, but the beautiful Faber & Faber cover also attracted me to the volume.)  The storyline does sound marvellous:

“It is 1934, and celebrated Scottish crime writer Josephine Tey is on her way to London to see her own hit West End play – but her trip is interrupted by the grisly murder of a young train passenger…  Cleverly blending elements of the Golden Age author’s real life with a gripping murder mystery, ‘An Expert in Murder’ is both a tribute to one of the most popular writers of crime and a richly atmospheric detective novel in its own right.”

I am beginning to adore quaint crime novels, and this seemed to fit the brief perfectly.  Until I started to read it, that is.  The sense of place is very well portrayed from the first, but the scenes and settings are the liveliest thing about the entire book.  The style of the prose fits the period relatively well, but oddly, a lot of the dialogue, and the things which the characters talk about – do not seem to.  There are often quite modern constructions within the conversations, which sit oddly against the whole.  The third person perspective which Upson has used does work well with the unfolding story, but something about it renders the characters rather flat.  Whilst An Expert in Murder starts off relatively well, it soon lost momentum.  It lagged a lot in places, and did not hold my interest throughout.  There were no characters whom I really liked – or was even interested in – and I even found Upson’s portrayal of Josephine Tey rather insipid.  I doubt that I will read more of the author’s work based upon this, especially given the poor reviews of her fiction which I have seen around the Internet since reading this book.

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‘Brat Farrar’ by Josephine Tey ****

I had only read a couple of Josephine Tey’s novels before I started Brat Farrar, but she is an author whom I very much enjoy.  This particular novel was first published in 1949, and is more of a mystery than a murder mystery.  The plot is most interesting:

“A stranger enters the inner sanctum of the Ashby family posing as Patrick Ashby, the heir to the family’s sizeable fortune.  The stranger, Brat Farrar, has been carefully coached on Patrick’s mannerisms, appearance and every significant detail of Patrick’s early life, up to his thirteenth year when he disappeared and was thought to have drowned himself.  It seems as if Brat is going to pull off this most incredible deception until old secrets emerge that threaten to jeopardise his plan and his very life…”

I was intrigued all of the way through the book, but sadly the plot twist which was used was quite obvious, and I guessed what would happen just a little way in.  The entirety of the story was so well written and plotted however, that it didn’t seem to matter in the grand scheme of things.  All of the characters were believable beings, and they had qualities which set them apart from one another, which is quite tricky to do sometimes when there are a few protagonists in a novel.  Brat Farrar is not my favourite Tey to date, but it is still a great novel.

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Flash Reviews (15th November 2013)

‘The Red Garden’ by Alice Hoffman

The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman ****
Before beginning this beautifully titled book, I had no idea that Hoffman had turned her hand to short story writing, so I was rather intrigued to see how she would use the shorter fictional form to her advantage.  I have found with previous books of hers which I’ve read that she creates clever and well-rounded plots and realistic characters, and she is adept at writing about small town life in America.  I am pleased to say that this book contains all of the elements mentioned above, and it certainly met my expectations.  Hoffman’s descriptions particularly shine in The Red Garden.

The stories which she has woven here are both lovely and thoughtful.  I really liked the way in which she linked the seemingly separate tales too.  All are set at various points in history in the same small town in Massachusetts.  The different families and the relationships they forge with one another are the concrete which have made a cohesive whole of these tales.  I very much enjoyed The Red Garden and would recommend it highly, particularly if you are a newcomer to Hoffman’s work.

Elegy for Eddie by Jacqueline Winspear ***
I am really beginning to enjoy murder mysteries, and know that Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series is very well liked.  When I saw several of her books in The Works as part of a 3 books for £5 deal, I thought I would give one of her stories a go.  I chose this one merely because the plot intrigued me.  I was not sure which book in the series this was when I picked it up (it transpires that it is the ninth).  Throughout, I found that Winspear set the social and historical scene of the early 1930s well.  It is not a very well written book at times, and it was sadly rather lacking in correct punctuation (the eternal quibble of proofreaders worldwide, it seems).  The dialogue did not always fit with the time period, and aside from the constant assertion of events and objects which Winspear included, on this basis it could have been set anywhere, and during many different time periods.  I did not warm to Maisie Dobbs, the investigator of this series, as much as I thought I would, but it is by no means the best crime book I have read of late.  The plot was a little drawn out and there was no very clever twist which I did not see coming.  Overall, I found Elegy for Eddie mildly enjoyable, but I do not think I will carry on with the rest of the series on the strength of this book alone.

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil **
Narcopolis begins with a stream of consciousness; the prologue is essentially one long sentence, which has barely been broken up.  It then moves into a more traditional style of prose (with full stops and everything!) when the first chapter begins.  I found the overall feeling of the novel to be rather gritty.  Thayil does not show many – well, any, really – of the positive elements of Indian society, but focuses instead upon elements such as brothels, drug taking, addiction, and corruption.  In this way, he has highlighted the brutality of Bombay during the 1970s, and he does well in showing that such violence affects those from all walks of life.  This, for me, was the definite strength of the novel.

Unfortunately, I found that Narcopolis felt rather too matter-of-fact at times, particularly with regard to the many episodes of drug-taking (which made me feel a little queasy), and the pain experienced by the protagonists.  Throughout, even the few positives which his characters are faced with are tinged with sadness and cruelty.  Whilst I was not enamoured with any of those whom Thayil had crafted, they were all rather enigmatic and did intrigue me in different ways.  I neither liked nor disliked Narcopolis, and shall end only by saying that it wasn’t really my thing.  Note to self: do not be so taken in with brightly coloured covers and books adorned with ‘Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize’ slogans in future.