Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Delicious Death: Some Quickfire Crime Reviews

First, some links to my latest reviews for The Bookbag:

Desolation Island by Adolfo Garcia Ortega (short answer: very very good)

The Story of English by Joseph Piercy (short answer: very very mixed)

Now I don't know if you've heard, but I like crime. Theoretically, of course. This blog does not endorse wrongdoing in any way, shape or form, and in fact would encourage you all to be nice to other people and not kill them.

Nonetheless, in the abstract, crime soothes me. Here is a round-up of my latest toothsome murder selections.

Sovereign by C. J. Sansom.

I've said before that I like Sansom's books a lot. Not only does he have a very good, very full-blooded line in historical recreation, he's becoming a technically better writer as he goes along. Sovereign is the third in his series of novels about a crime-solving hunchbacked lawyer struggling to stay alive among the political intrigue of Henry VIII's court. It's set in 1541 and concerns two of the aging Henry's more disastrous decisions: his marriage to hot young thing Catherine Howard (the second beheaded, according to the rhyme) and his royal Progress around a very tetchy and still rebellious North of England.

Matthew Shardlake and his sexy assistant Jack Barak are sent to York on a mission to look after the safety of a political prisoner. Of course, Shardlake gets royally mixed up in Henry's progress and ends up uncovering a plot to destabilise the entire Tudor succession. As you do. It's all a bit ridiculous (although based on real events and real intrigue, like all the best fiction) but thoroughly fun, and the story carrys you along at a breathless pace all the way to the end. It's a 650 page book that reads like a 250 page novella.

Poor old Shardlake is a good man in a bad world. He doesn't know when to leave well enough alone and who has a lot of trouble remembering that most people are a lot nastier than he is. Each book sees him sinking further into his pit of emotional despair, and each culminates with the inevitable announcement that this will be ABSOLUTELY HIS VERY LAST CASE. Since I know that Sansom has written at least two more Shardlake novels I can smell the lie and be very grateful for it. This series ticks both my crime nerd and  history nerd boxes, and long may it last.

I see I originally gave the Shardlake books 3 stars. I must have been feeling mean that day. For this outing, I'm revising upwards to

4 stars.

The Affair of the Mutilated Mink by James Anderson

Before I actually read it, I had suspicions that The Affair of the Mutilated Mink might be a silly book. Imagine my joy when I realised that it is precisely that. Its pages give off gusts of the purest, most exquisite Golden Age foolery (in case you are wondering, this rare substance smells like leather-bound books, pearls, rolling acres and gunshot wounds, and Agatha Christie used to spray herself all over with it every morning).

The second in Anderson's series of pastiche Golden Age detective novels (my library didn't have the first), its English upper class characters bray and blether delightfully, its American characters say HOWDY and chew cigars and everyone has utterly creative secret backgrounds involving JEWELS and MISTAKEN IDENTITIES and TRAGIC DEATHS. The dippy set-up (American producer wants to shoot movie on location at the film-mad Earl of Burford's scenic pile) is an excuse to drag a motley cast of movie star types, aristocracy, long-lost relatives and the obligatory troubled artist together for a country-house weekend party that ends (surprise surprise) with MURDER MOST FOUL.

The Affair of the Mutilated Mink never makes the mistake of taking itself seriously. Even the characters know they're being ridiculous, and there's an extremely meta joke-that-knows-it's-a-joke atmosphere to the whole thing that reminded me a lot of P. G. Wodehouse. Fans of Golden Age detective fiction will have their hearts melted by throwaway references to Ariadne Oliver and Inspector Alleyn (who, in this world, are real people), as well as spot-on recreations of stock characters like the officious Scotland Yard man (complete with trusty valet), the prima donna actress and the American movie producer extraordinaire. At the same time, though, Anderson's doing something quite intelligent with the familiar tropes. The man sent from Scotland Yard turns out to be too smart for his own good and the mystery is actually solved by Wilkins, one of those adorably modest country detective who are always totally snubbed in Christie and Sayers novels. The leading girl is not only suitably plucky and resourceful but also quite a rounded human being, the Earl's bluffness is all for show... and so on, and so on. It's a really witty variation on a well-known theme that feels new and old at the same time - which, coincidentally, was what all those Golden Age crime novels were trying to do in the first place.

This book is wonderful. It affectionately embraces all the flaws of its parent genre, pokes gentle fun at its worst excesses and on top of that manages to put together a fairly tidy and inventive murder mystery. The reveal may not blow your mind, although there are some great twists in the tale, but the joy of any good Golden Age murder mystery is the silly, over-the-top journey to that final denouement, and this journey is ridiculously fun.

Another 4 stars.

Image from banisbooks.blogspot.com
Scales of Justice by Ngaio Marsh

By the way, in case you're wondering, I did not mistakenly smash my fingers against my keyboard to come up with that first name. Marsh was from New Zealand, so her parents gave her a name that's the Maori word for a kind of tree. The G is silent so it's pronounced like Naio. There you go, that's your fascinating trivia for the day. You're welcome.

Before I actually discuss the content of this book, I would like to direct your attention to the FANTASTIC cover of my edition. It is purest essence of the 1970s, when publishers had just discovered photography but were not yet conversant with realism. This image has it all: fake plastic trout, puzzled dog, daub of red paint where the blood should be. It is so ugly that I can't stop staring at it.

Unfortunately, though, it turns out that the best thing about Scales of Justice is that cover. A lot of Golden Age writers (apart from Dorothy Sayers, who got bored and turned to translating Dante instead) carried on relentlessly beating the dead horse of the 1930s setting well into the 1960s, and this book, published in 1955, contains themes so stale that they're practically suppurating.

The female characters wear twinsets with their tweeds and the male characters talk about Nazis, but apart from that you'd never guess that the year was no longer 1935. Retired colonels and dusty earls still perambulate around their small English country town, huntin' and shootin' and fishin' and sleepin' with each other. The murder itself is an example of the worst excesses of the clue puzzle format, which states that if the killer does not do the deed while balanced on one leg, wearing a swimming costume and a lion mask and wielding a melon borer the writer is NOT TRYING HARD ENOUGH.

Marsh is trying hard, all right, but the effect is of insanity and extreme hideboundness rather than any kind of real invention. Add to that the tiresome upper-class honour displayed by all the characters, which pointlessly derails the investigation for 100 pages, and you have a murder mystery so idiotic that I could barely finish it. And when I did, the reveal was stupid. Nul points, Marsh. Nul points.

2 stars.

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