And so the end of another year in which I have read much and blogged very little. Somehow moving on to the next book always seems to be a more attractive option than recording my thoughts about something I don't have particularly strong thoughts about.
Looking back over the list of books read this year, I think I've managed to read a wider variety of books than I did last year, or at least I've managed to include a greater number of non-crime works than previously. As it has worked overall, I will probably do the same again this year.
The asterisk denotes an author I've not read before and the country in brackets is simply the place where the action is set.
An Unsuitable Job For A Woman - P D James
The Night of the Mi'raj - Zoe Ferraris* (Saudi Arabia)
From Doon With Death - Ruth Rendall
Monkfish Moon - Romesh Gunesekera (Sri Lanka)
Reef - Romesh Gunesekera (Sri Lanka)
Mr Pip - Lloyd Jones* (Papua New Guinea)
Death at the President's Lodging - Michael Innes*
Abracadaver - Peter Lovesey*
Trial and Retribution II - Lynda La Plante*
Wycliffe and How to Kill a Cat - W J Burley*
The Fire-Master's Mistress - Christie Dickason
A Word Before Dying - Ann Granger
The Grave Tattoo - Val McDermid
The Cutting Room - Louise Welsh*
Agatha Raisin and the Potted Gardener - M C Beaton*
Another Man's Poison - Ann Cleeves*
Dangerous by Moonlight - Leslie Thomas*
Blood From Stone - Frances Fyfield*
The Skeleton Room - Kate Ellis*
Sweet Poison - David Roberts*
A Little Death - Laura Wilson*
Love Lies Bleeding - Edmund Crispin
Gone - Mo Hayder
The Fire Baby - Jim Kelly
The Moon Tunnel - Jim Kelly
An April Shroud - Reginald Hill*
These Are Only Words - Simon R Biggam*
Relics - Pip Vaughan-Hughes*
Belladonna at Belstone - Michael Jecks
The Riverman - Alex Gray*
Dark Assassin - Anne Perry
The Calcutta Chromosome - Amitav Ghosh (India)
Aftermath - Peter Robinson
A Clubbable Woman - Reginald Hill
Inspector Singh Investigates: A Very Peculiar Malaysian Murder - Shamini Flint* (Malaysia)
The Tapestries - Kien Nguyen* (Vietnam)
Rumpole on Trial - John Mortimer
The End of the Affair - Graham Greene
The Resurrectionist - James Bradley*
The Veiled One - Ruth Rendall
Death of an Expert Witness - P D James
The Bastard of Istanbul - Elif Shafak* (Turkey)
The Darling Buds of May - H E Bates*
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning - Laurie Lee* (Spain)
Pig Island - Mo Hayder
The Screaming Tree - Phil Lovesey*
Flesh and Blood - John Harvey
Darkening Echoes - Carol Smith*
Live To Tell - Lisa Gardner* (Boston, USA)
Epitaph For A Peach - David Mas Masumoto* (California, USA)
Havana Gold - Leonardo Padura* (Cuba)
Couching at the Door - D K Broster*
The Crazed - Ha Jin* (China)
The Hawks of Delamere - Edward Marston
The Siege of Krishnapur - J G Farrell* (India)
As Far As You Can Go - Lesley Glaister* (Australia)
Disgrace - J M Coetzee* (South Africa)
The Great Fire - Shirley Hazzard* (Japan/Hong Kong)
The Red Dahlia - Lynda La Plante
A Dark Devotion - Clare Francis*
The Blackpool Highflyer - Andrew Martin
A Carrion Death - Michael Stanley* (Botswana)
A Classic Christmas Crime - Ed Tim Heald
Whiteout - Ken Follett*
Dead Man's Footsteps - Peter James*
The Revenge of Captain Paine - Andrew Pepper
Busman's Honeymoon - Dorothy L Sayers*
Birds of a Feather - Jacqueline Winspear
This has been the most disappointing of McDermid's novels that I've read by a wide margin.
The premise is good. McDermid invites us to imagine that Fletcher Christian
secretly returned from the South Seas and told his version of the Mutiny on the Bounty
to a distant cousin - William Wordsworth
; and that Wordsworth wrote an epic poem based on the account but on his deathbed gave the manuscript to the family maid to destroy because the account was so compromising. The maid, Dorcas Ma(y)son, however kept it and it was passed down through her family as an heirloom. Now a variety of people are after it and some are prepared to kill to get their hands on it.
As I say, the idea is good. Unfortunately the execution is long-winded and tedious and I found myself skimming through whole sections of it without great interest. This is particularly unfortunate as I'd heard good reports of the novel, but I felt it could have lost at least 100 pages and been the better for it.
The novel isn't helped by a number of simple historical or factual errors:
Firstly, McDermid has the maid, Dorcas Ma(y)son, born in 1831 but the finding of her birth certificate is referred to twice. In practice, civil registration did not begin until 1 July 1837, and while it is not impossible that the birth of a child might have been registered more than 5 years after it happened this is not at all credible.
Secondly she has one of the researchers track down one of the potential holders of the manuscript, Edith Clewlow, via the 2001 census. However the 2001 census will be closed to the public for 100 years from the census date so it could not possibly have been consulted.
These are both fundamental errors in terms of genealogy and family history and unfortunate slips given that family history is the whole crux of the story.
I came across the TV series based on Burley's novels more or less at the end of its run and probably only saw a handful of episodes. This is most unfortunate as what I saw I enjoyed and had I discovered it earlier I would undoubtedly have watched more of the series.
This is the first of Burley's novels I have read. Published in 1970 and set a couple of years earlier (the first Apollo moon landing takes place during the period of the action), this is a prime example of how the world of even 40 years ago, not even two generations, has become as distant and strange to us as that of the last war or just after.
An example of this is that the small working port in which the action mostly occurs is precisely that - a working port in which small merchant ships and the docks that served them are still genuinely part of the economy, and not yet pushed out by the rise of the leisure sailor and tourists messing about on boats.
Another example is the lack of formal structure and process surrounding the police enquiry. Interviews with witnesses who are also potential suspects are conducted informally, recorded if at all by a very junior officer with a notebook and pen - a far cry from the formal and regulated procedures of a modern police investigation. This adds a certain measured and leisurely period charm to the novel, and one can feel at least a smidgeon of nostalgia for an era which was still relatively innocent in many respects.
This novel dates from the 1970s, and is a work by an author whose son Phil Lovesey has tended to write much "darker" novels than this work of his father's.
It is rather a jolly romp through the London music halls of the early 1880s in which a variety of artistes suffer acts of sabotage which publicly humiliate them. In fact, despite its title there is only one murder in the novel so the title no doubt arises from the author's inability to resist a pun. It reminded me greatly of Peter Ackroyd
's Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem
- another novel set at almost the same time and in the same milieu.
In any event, it was a quick and entertaining read.
A classic whodunnit, originally published in 1936, so clearly part of what is generally regarded as the golden age of crime fiction.
Although a short novel, at least by modern standards, it was not a quick read and I picked it up and put it down again on many occasions during the past week. At the core is a murder set in the closed confines of an Oxbridge college, but the picture to be investigated by Inspector Appleby and his trusty sidekick is complicated by misunderstandings amongst the academics who form the main pool of suspects. I will not say more than that about the plot so as not to spoilt it for another reader.
Innes writes in a galumphing style with a poor command of dialogue - his characters all too often indulge in speeches which fill whole, and in some cases many, paragraphs. While this may be appropriate to the characters, used as they are to giving lectures and expounding at length on their theories and subjects, it doesn't make for easy reading and slows the plot and action down in a way that is less than engrossing.
There probably aren't many novels set in Papua New Guinea
, and in any event it's the first one I've read that is.
Our setting is the island of Bougainville
, part of Papua New Guinea but reluctantly so. In the past few decades it has seen two brutal civil wars fought between the PNG government and the mining companies on the one hand and separatists on the other who sought to cede from PNG.
I confess that until picking up this book I had never heard of either war, and Bougainville only made me think of a colourful, flowering tropical plant. Yet here we are, in the 1990s in a war on the other side of the world that was taking place at more or less the same time as the Bosnian civil war in the former Yugoslavia.Mr Pip
tells the story of Matilda, a girl coming to puberty in the midst of the civil war in a community having to deal with the ever present threat of attack from government forces. When the island is isolated by a blockade and the village's school teacher is evacuated, it is the sole white resident, a man with a mysterious past, who steps forward to teach as best he can - armed with the school's only book - Charles Dickens
's Great Expectations
. As Mr Watts reads the novel, chapter by chapter, to the class, Matilda increasingly identifies with the character of Pip until he and Dickens's novel obsess her and fill both her waking thoughts and her dreams.
Reef is a novel of many things - of memory, nostalgia, of the aftermath of colonialism, of the effect of human activity on the environment (the reef of the title).
The novel opens with the chance enounter in London between a middle aged Sri Lankan restauranteur, a now-successful migrant, with a newly arrived Tamil refugee on the night shift in a petrol station. The encounter sends Triton, the narrator, back over the decades to review the course of his life and how he also ended up in London.
At the core of the novel is the relationship between Triton, a boy when the story opens, and Mr Salgado, a successful marine biologist obsessed with the destruction of the coral reefs of Sri Lanka's south coast by fishing and other human activity. Plucked from his village to be a domestic servant, Triton quickly masters the menial tasks of the household and takes on the entire burden of running it following the retirement of the cook and the sacking of the other male servant. Ever discrete, he watches over his employer from a respectful distance.
But Triton's great gift is cooking. He is a natural, instinctive and creative cook for whom food and cooking is an expression of who he is and who he is becoming. It is his food, and especially his cake, which first cements the relationship between Mr Salgado and Miss Nili, who first starts to visit as a guest and later moves in as Mr Salgado's lover. Ironically, despite being enamoured, initially at least, by Triton's cooking, Miss Nili hits the wrong note when she presents him with a cookbook for Christmas. The book is given but never mentioned again.
Gunesekera contrasts the quiet gloom inside Mr Salgado's house, only partly dispelled by the arrival of Miss Nili, and the fecund, tumultous and tropical world outside it. Mr Salgado clings to the rituals and habits of the privileged class who were formed under the former British colonial rule, while outside his world is being overturned by political changes, sporadic outbreaks of communal violence which will culminate in civil war, and periodic lurches towards socialism which ultimately leave him an outsider in his own country.
His response to this, to the death of his friend Dias and to the loss of Miss Nili is to do what many others of his class were doing - to pack up everything important and go into an exile which sees his considerable loss of social and financial status. But he takes Triton with him and eventually sets him up with a little cafe which eventually becomes a restaurant.
When one generally thinks about the modern literature of south Asia, it's India which immediately springs to mind. The outpouring of Indian literature and the emergence of a several generations of talented writers have been widely recognised and celebrated. Over the past year or so, however, it's Sri Lanka which has surprised me most.
About a year ago I made a concerted effort to find literature by authors who were not of the Asian "Big Three", ie India, China and Japan, in an effort to broaden my reading. It was Sri Lanka
which provided my greatest single haul, and I have read several of the books I bought then and have the rest still awaiting my attention. Amongst the authors I discovered were:Shyam SelvaduraiAmbalavaner SivanandanMichael OndaatjeRomesh GunesekeraRoma Tearne
This is quite an impressive show for an island with a population of a little over 20m. Compare that with India's population of more than 1bn and it is truly remarkable, especially when Sri Lanka's writers are regularly shortlisted for awards from the Booker and the Costa to the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.
But then I do have an interest in the country since I visited it a few years ago, during a lull in the former Tamil Tiger insurrection.
Dating from 1964, this is apparently the first of Rendell's novels and the one in which she introduces Wexford. I must admit I'd had no idea she'd been writing for 45 years.
It's not a particularly good read. This is very much an apprentice work in which Rendell's style is unsophisticated, and her characters and landscapes are far from convincing. However that's not unexpected with early works. Rendell has had the advantage of being allowed time and opportunity to develop her skills over the years, and the faith of her early publishers was obviously well placed.
This novel was an engrossing read, although it was not quite what I was expecting. From the blurb on the back I'd been expecting an essentially "normal" whodunnit, albeit set in a particularly exotic location.
However the issue of who killed Nouf ash-Shrawi and why is to some extent sidelined by the developing relationship between the ultra conservative desert guide Nayir and the educated and sophisticated female pathologist Katya Hijazi with whom he finds himself having to deal. Initially shocked by finding Katya working close to men unrelated to her, Nayir is unable to look her in the face. During the course of their joint investigation, however, Nayir finds his cultural and religious assumptions and expectations challenged repeatedly by the slow growth of respect and friendship between himself and a woman utterly beyond his previous experience and begins to question all that he has known or taken for granted.
While Nayir is struggling to reassess his relationship with his religion and culture, the investigation slowly uncovers the truth about Nouf and what happened to her and why.
Ex-Poet Laureate Andrew Motion
is complaining about the teaching of poetry in schools
. There's too much emphasis, he says, on easy and obvious children's writers or rap lyrics at the expense of more challenging pieces and Real Poetry™.
Given that most people, especially employers, are complaining about the teaching (or, indeed, the non
-teaching) of virtually everything in schools these days, complaining about poetry teaching may be a minor whinge in the great scheme of things. Nevertheless, it got me thinking back to what, if any, poetry was taught to me in my own school days.
The truth is that I cannot remember any at all being taught, but I suppose it must have been since somehow I had come across Rudyard Kipling
's A Smuggler's Song
in the very distant past and could quote snatches of it in adulthood. Similarly, when I came across Walter de la Mare
's The Listeners
, some years ago I immediately recognised it although I had not actively remembered it. There are, no doubt, a good few others that I will come across with a sense of déjà vu even if I don't recall them beforehand.
In practice I cannot remember any poetry being taught until I embarked on my 2-year 'O' Level English literature course, when the set poetry text was "Ten Twentieth Century Poets", of whom we studied five. Four of them were Edward Thomas, Edwin Muir, Robert Frost and Sir John Betjeman, but for the life of me I cannot remember who the fifth was. I've racked my brains about this over the years, but have never come across any of his (I'm sure it was a male poet, anyway) poems elsewhere which suddenly jogged my memory with an "aha!" moment. Some day I will find out, though.
I'm always curious as to how writers of whodunnits before about 1980 managed to pack a complex plot, a number of twists and an interesting denouement into less than 300 pages (and sometimes much less than this) when today's writers need at least 500 to do the same. But that is by the by.
I'm also fascinated by novels which reach into the past and have me calculating time back on account of it. This one, written in 1972 so almost 40 years old now, has a doctor who was in his 90s at that time and who qualified in 1904, so we can calculate his birth as being c1880; and people who were born in the 1920s are middle aged rather than very old. This need to calculate ages and so on is as compulsive as that of getting out maps or an atlas and pinpointing where, on the River Congo, Kurtz's station was or a village in a novel about Indian Partition in 1947.
The point which has me rather puzzled about this novel is the hoohah over the pistol left to Cordelia by Bernie. It was, as is either hinted at or made clear several times, unregistered yet, in setting up Ronald Callender's murder to look like suicide, Cordelia ensures her own prints are on the gun along with Callender's on the grounds that the police would expect to see them since it was her gun. She then tells the police a concocted story to explain why Callender had her pistol.
Why? Since it had to be left at the scene in order to create a convincing suicide scenario, and she would obviously not be getting it back again, why not simply deny all knowledge of the weapon and let the police assume it was Callender's own unregistered firearm?
So, the end of another year, and time to review what I've read in the preceding 12 months even if I've not been posting reviews and comments about them here as I've gone along.
In terms of the sheer numbers of books read, this is by far the most prolific year I can remember. That said, most of these books have been crime and thriller genre stuff so they are quick and not particularly demanding to read. Anyway, here they are. The asterisk denotes an author I've not read before.
The Mayor of Casterbridge - Thomas Hardy
Uncle Fred in the Springtime - P G Wodehouse
Sounds of the River - Da Chen* (China)
Heart of Ice - Alys Clare*
Mistress of the Art of Death - Ariana Franklin*
The Tiger By the River - Ravi Shankar Etteth* (India)
Dr Thorne - Anthony Trollope
Rough Music - Patrick Gale*
Uncle Dynamite - P G Wodehouse
Old Filth - Jane Gardam*
Traitor's Purse - Margery Allingham*
Enduring Love - Ian McEwan
The Rice Mother - Rani Manicka* (Malaysia)
Funny Boy - Shyam Selvadurai* (Sri Lanka)
Blood on the Tongue - Stephen Booth*
Cover Her Face - P D James
Gone to Ground - John Harvey*
Cocktail Time - P G Wodehouse
Not in the Flesh - Ruth Rendall
The Distant Echo - Val McDermid
Arabesk - Barbara Nadel* (Turkey)
The Railway - Hamid Ismailov* (Uzbekistan)
Detection Unlimited - Georgette Heyer*
The Spider's Web - Nigel McCrery*
A Taste for Death - P D James
Beneath These Stones - Ann Granger*
Dissolution - C J Sansom*
The Lost Luggage Porter - Andrew Martin
Resurrectionist - James McGee
An Incomplete Revenge - Jacqueline Winspear*
The Iron Horse - Edward Marsden
The White Russian - Tom Bradby*
The Summer That Never Was - Peter Robinson
Cold is the Grave - Peter Robinson
Gallows View - Peter Robinson
The Lighthouse - P D James
By Murder's Bright Light - Paul Doherty
The Sweet Smell of Decay - Paul Lawrence*
A Certain Justice - P D James
The Mermaids Singing - Val McDermid
The Wire in the Blood - Val McDermid
The Last Temptation - Val McDermid
Dark Fire - C J Sansom
Sovereign - C J Sansom
Revelation - C J Sansom
The Tolls of Death - Michael Jecks
Unnatural Causes - P D James
The Well of Loneliness - Radclyffe Hall*
Land's Edge - Tim Winton (Australia)
The Sand Glass - Romesh Gunasekera* (Sri Lanka)
Waterland - Graham Swift
Disco For the Departed - Colin Cotterill (Laos)
Death on a Branch Line - Andrew Martin
Devices and Desires - P D James
A Necessary End - Peter Robinson
Past Reason Hated - Peter Robinson
Wednesday's Child - Peter Robinson
Playing With Fire - Peter Robinson
Piece of My Heart - Peter Robinson
The Smile of a Ghost - Phil Rickman
The Fabric of Sin - Phil Rickman
To Dream of the Dead - Phil Rickman
The Five Gates of Hell - Rupert Thomson*
Candle For a Corpse - Ann Granger
In a Dry Season - Peter Robinson
The Song of Silver Frond - Catherine Lim* (Singapore)
The Water Clock - Jim Kelly*
See Delphi and Die - Lindsey Davis
The Jigsaw Man - Paul Britton* (NF)
Anarchy and Old Dogs - Colin Cotterill (Laos)
The Bellini Card - Jason Goodwin (Istanbul/Venice)
Latter End - Patricia Wentworth*
The Water's Lovely - Ruth Rendall
The Sea - John Banville*
Sacrifice - S J Bolton*
The Echo - Minette Walters
The Fire in the Flint - Candace Robb
Flesh House - Stuart MacBride*
White Riot - Martyn Waites*
A Darker Domain - Val McDermid
Rapscallion - James McGee
The Devil's Feather - Minette Walters
Heat and Dust - Ruth Prawer Jhabvala* (India)
Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders - John Mortimer*
The Franchise Affair - Josephine Tey*
Surfeit of Lampreys - Ngaio Marsh
The Various Haunts of Men - Susan Hill
Birdman - Mo Hayder*
The Pure in Heart - Susan Hill
Black Dog - Stephen Booth
Ghost Walk - Alanna Knight
Holy Disorders - Edmund Crispin*
Silence of the Grave - Arnaldur Indriðason* (Iceland)
I haven't given any thought to a reading theme for 2010 but will probably just carry on reading whatever takes my fancy at the time, though I will try to read less crime and a greater variety of other fiction in the coming year.
Some months ago I read, but didn't review here, Rani Manicka
's novel The Rice Mother
which traces the history of a family across most of the 20th century. One thing which particularly caught my attention relates to the family's neighbours, and that is the presence of a female slave in the latter household from the 1930s until some time after WWII. This part of the novel is set in British-controlled Malaya
We first meet her as a young girl, known as Mui Tsai, who had been kidnapped from her village in China and subsequently bought by her present owner. Expected to carry out household duties from childhood, on reaching puberty she was also used as a concubine for several decades, producing a regular stream of children who were taken from her and given to the patriarch's various wives to bring up as their own. Eventually Mui Tsai goes mad and disappears into an asylum, to be replaced by another girl who is also known as Mui Tsai. We discover that "Mui Tsai" is not a name but a lable meaning "little sister" and applied to a menial female servant.
More recently, I have recently read Catherine Lim
's The Song of Silver Frond
, set, like virtually all of Lim's works, in Singapore
in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Although this particular novel of hers does not deal with slavery within the Chinese culture, I looked at a number of her other novels on Amazon and discovered The Bondmaid
whose central character had been sold as a slave at the age of four. This too is set in 1950s Singapore.
I'm not quite sure what to make of this, though given the upsurge in kidnapping of men as labourers and women as wives and sex slaves in China during the past couple of decades it doesn't seem realistic to take the view that slavery or bonded labour was not part of Chinese culture in the mid-20th century.
No, my confusion derives from the fact that both Singapore and Malaya were under British rule for well over a century, and the UK had been actively rooting out slavery around the British Empire since the early 19th century. How then does it appear to continue well into the 20th century in two important parts of British territory? Did the colonial administration know of it but choose to turn a blind eye to it for some reason, did it genuinely not know of its existence, or did it think it had eradicated it?
During the course of the summer I have been working my way through the more recent novels in Phil Rickman's
"Merrily Watkins" series except for one, The Remains of an Altar
, which I've not been able to get hold of so far. Over the past year or so I've been reading a wide variety of crime and mystery fiction and have found these to be head and shoulders above almost all of the competition.
What I've found especially pleasing is the way Rickman is able to truly evoke a particular landscape, Herefordshire
and the southern Welsh Marches
, with which I'm familiar. In addition, he skillfully and evocatively weaves into his stories a deep knowledge of local history and folklore - indeed these are almost invariably central to the plot rather than being merely local colour. His use of the Templar
links at Garway
, the Arthur Conan Doyle
links with Baskerville Hall
, now a hotel, near Hay-on-Wye
and the spectral black hound
legend associated with Hergest Ridge
, for example.
There is a strong undercurrent of horror in these novels (indeed, Rickman's earliest works were more purely works of horror) which in some respects takes mystery and creepy literature back to its roots. The earliest literary horror depended very heavily on folklore and place, on ghosts and the supernatural, but around the middle of the 19th century the focus of horror and suspense literature largely evolved from figures of folklore to a terror and dread of the unseen and unknown. (See Dark Green: Some disturbing thoughts about faeries
for more about this.) Although there have been further developments since then (for many writers and film-makers the object of terror has become the flesh and blood serial killer), Rickman's work takes us back into the realm of folklore and re-envigorates an influence and inspiration that has been largely ignored for a century and a half.
In other ways, too, Rickman takes us back to the early days of gothic literature - the villages and isolated settlements and farmhouses of his Herefordshire and the Marches include a regular quota of inbred locals, many of whom are dangerously barking thanks to a shortage of branches in the family tree. His scenes are set in ruined churches and chapels and on lonely hill-tops, and his heroine dwells in an ancient and delapidated vicarage which mirrors the crumbling castles and mansions of the gothic period. And so on.
There are other influences too - modern paganism
, fertility and folk music (especially that of the late Nick Drake
), as well as contemporary events and society: one of the novels skirts round Fred and Rosemary West
and the Cromwell Street murders, while another, written in the early years of the Blair government, satirises "New Labour"
in the form of a tracksuit-clad and presentation-obsessed, but ultimately corrupt and dangerous, Bishop of Hereford.
What Rickman's novels have that other writers' don't is a complexity of theme and treatment, a deep layering of ideas and a sophistication in the way that the various strands of the story are pulled together. There are very few whodunnits which could be re-read with complete satisfaction, but these undoubtedly can. Long may he continue to write them.
- Tags:arthur conan doyle, exorcism, folklore, gothic literature, herefordshire, horror literature, merrily watkins, nick drake, paganism, phil rickman, welsh marches
I've just finished reading the first three works in Val McDermid
's Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series, ie The Mermaids Signing
, The Wire in the Blood
and The Last Temptation
What struck me about them (leaving aside for the moment the plot, characterisation etc) was the number of Americanisms she uses and/or puts into the mouths of her British characters, such as movie instead of film or ass instead of arse. There were others which I didn't note down and cannot remember now, as well as a number of instances of American syntax, eg someone talking of doing something Thursday instead of on
Where are these Americanisms coming from? Are they there in McDermid's original manuscript, and if not who is introducing them and at what stage in the publishing process? They seem incongruous in the British edition of her works published specifically for sale in the UK - and bloody irritating to this British reader.
I'm thinking of having a day at the Theakston's Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival
in July so might have the chance to ask her directly.
Hmmm, what to say about this? The front cover bills it as "The first in an exciting new series of historical thrillers". Says who? The publisher, of course.
Actually I wasn't that impressed, but this may to some extent be the result of being interrupted in the reading of it so that I picked it up and put it down again several times, each time taking up reading where I'd left off. Disjointed, in other words, and of course my reaction to the book may be flawed because of that.
The Sweet Smell of Decay is competent rather than poor, but against the huge number of historical crime novels and thrillers it just doesn't stand out. There are no obvious anachronisms, but the plot device that sets the whole thing off is frankly clunking - a very minor civil servant receives an unsigned letter, supposedly from his father, asking him to investigate the murder of a cousin he's never heard of. Unfortunately Lawrence doesn't provide any reason, eg by way of backstory, to suggest this is credible. Harry Lytle seems gullible for taking this at face value, which is not what you want when starting to read a novel whose plot requires him to ask questions and seive answers and information.
Like Andrew Pepper's first novel, The Last Days of Newgate, which I read last summer, this novel seems to waste a good idea with writing not yet mature enough to warrant publication.
Until this came through my hands I hadn't been aware that Heyer wrote whodunnits, or indeed anything other than Regency romances.
Detection Unlimited is something of a curiosity in that the writing style seems anachronistic and archaic even for the date at which it was written; in that respect it has stood the test of time less well than the contemporary crime fiction of Agatha Christie. The social milieu of Heyer's novel (an English village in the late 1940s or early 1950s amongst self-satisfied and prosperous country types) is similar to that of the later Miss Marple novels, yet Heyer's handling is much less deft than Christie's in almost every aspect of the writing. Heyer is self-conscious, never seeming at ease with her settings in the way Christie is.
The most obvious difference is that Heyer seems to struggle with dialogue and tends to give her characters unbroken paragraph-long speeches which stop the action and interaction in a most unnatural way. Christie, in the same situation, would use a conversation between several characters to move the action on or to elicit information in a more natural or realistic fashion.
Unfortunately Heyer's characters are as unconvincing as her dialogue and the plot creaks badly as well. All in all, it's not suprising that her crime fiction has largely dropped off the radar.
Some years ago, before it was taken over, the Ottakar's bookshop chain would periodically collaborate with a publisher to offer a specific book for 99p to encourage readers to try an unfamiliar author. This novel is one of the last offered before the chain lost its independence. And it has lurked on the in-pile ever since.
I have mixed feelings about this one. Somewhere around the middle I found myself wanting to throw it out of the window but persevered instead until it emerged from its rough spot and picked up again.
Leaving aside the two halves of the plot, based on two family holidays a generation apart in which adultery and deception come perilously close to destroying two marriages, I find myself ambivalent about the central character, the gay Julian or Will.
This is the first novel by a gay male writer I've read since Colm Toibin's "The Blackwater Lightship" and Alan Hollinsworth's "The Line of Beauty", and it lacks the gritty bleakness of the first and the decadent lushness of the second.
More to the point, I can't help feeling that Julian's/Will's gayness is terribly precious on the one hand and on the other so bloody stereotyped that a non-gay writer would have been pilloried for writing gay characters like that. Will is no grease monkey or engineer, no uniformed anything; he owns and runs a bookshop, for heaven's sake. He might as well have worked in an ad agency or owned a terribly bijoux little bistro. I mean, come on ....
In addition, he shags anything with a pulse. Except his father and his landlord's dog. He shags his brother-in-law and the owner of the holiday cottage and, aged 8, is already taking an interest in his uncle's arse. Promiscuity may be widespread amongst gay men, but would it be too difficult to write a main character outside of the stereotype?