Category Archives: Crime

Birds of a feather: The Silver Swan by Benjamin Black aka John Banville (2007)

I was intrigued by the first novel in this new series by the pseudonymous Black, Christine Falls, which I reviewed last year. As I recall the thing that struck me most was the way the protagonist, Quirke lacked a first name – he still does. Is this literary pretentiousness on the part of Banville, or merely lack of imagination? Whichever, I find it’s beginning to grate. And get in the way of the story, which is always bad, especially when, as here, the story is actually pretty good. But then I know nothing about the working practices of pathologists in 1950s Ireland, and it may be total mince for all I know.

The story begins naturally, with a body. This time of an apparent suicide. Quirke is asked to do the autopsy by the body’s grieving husband; an old chum of Quirke’s that he hasn’t seen for years. Billy Hunt is desperate that his beloved’s body not be cut up, and Quirke agrees. But then he finds puncture wounds on the woman’s arm, and his curiosity gets the better of him. As in Christine Falls we have a picture of a society where inconvenient answers, indeed inconvenient questions are swept under the carpet, and the road to find the truth about the woman’s death is rocky indeed. Along the way, Banville creates a wonderfully evocative atmosphere that is so grim and claustrophobic that it makes you wonder how on earth Quirke is going to stay on the wagon until the end of the book.

I understand Banville is very dismissive of these two novels, claiming to have knocked them out in six weeks. Well good luck to him – I wish I could write that fast.

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Gossips Galore: Detection Unlimited by Georgette Heyer (1953)

Pretty much my first thoughts on finishing this novel were, what on earth has the title got to do with the book? It sounds like the name of a firm of private investigators, but the plot is another of Heyer’s village set mysteries, and the only investigators are the police.

Hated local bigwig Sampson Warrenby has gone and got himself murdered. Unfortunately for the police there is a rather large pool of suspects (just about everybody).

Once again we meet Inspector Hemingway, whom we previously met in Envious Casca. He also appears in Duplicate Death and No Wind of Blame which I have not yet read, but there is no attempt to round him out as a character in the way that, for example Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn is rounded out.

There is at least, a lot of detail in this novel – for a start there’s a map of the village, so we can properly visualise all the convoluted descriptions of where people said they were at the time of the murder and the routes they took to get there. I always use maps when writing anything complex, so I could appreciate this. The characterisation was also quite good – as noted above, everyone has a motive – it’s because everyone has something shady in their past. Everyone also has a theory as to who committed the murder, and none of the suspects is shy about informing the Inspector who they think did it. For him, the task is to filter out the noise and the misdirection from gossipy neighbours, including the killer and identify them.

As if that wasn’t enough two of the suspects decide to investigate, and end up falling in love in the process. But it’s still hopelessly clichéd, and definitely not the best of Heyer’s detective novels.

Cut to pieces: The Butcher of Smithfield by Susanna Gregory(2008)

I have previously been much enamoured of Gregory’s Mathew Bartholomew series set in mid 14th century Cambridge, but I hadn’t yet come across Thomas Chaloner. The Butcher of Smithfield is apparently the third Chaloner novel, and I’m sorry to have missed the first two as Chaloner is an engaging character. Unlike Bartholomew who was a doctor, Chaloner is a Restoration spy. This is a period I am not hugely familiar with, but I have read several Restoration set mysteries over the last few years e.g. Parliament House by Edward Marston and this is far superior.

After four months away on a special mission, Chaloner returns to a London slowly sinking into the mire, both literally and figuratively. It never stops raining, and shady characters abound. One of these, who runs a protection racket centred on Smithfield market has gone and got himself murdered… perhaps, although the general assumption is that he has died from a surfeit of cucumbers. Chaloner’s boss, the Lord Chancellor wants him to investigate, but he’s not keen, wanting to find out why a friend needed to speak to him urgently but then died. Strangely, this friend also seems to have died from too many cucumbers. The chase begins, galloping us along to a conclusion that neatly links everything with a twist I certainly never guessed, although I was near.

Chaloner even has a blog!

Susanna Gregory on Wikipedia

Mistress of the art of death, Ariana Franklin (2007)

This is that rare historical whodunnit – one which manages to have a female protagonist who really isn’t just a modern woman in fancy dress. It was a deserved winner of the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Award.

The mistress of the art of death of the title is Adelia Aguilar, a medieval pathologist from Salerno. This is perfectly plausible as the Salerno medical school in 12th century when this novel is set, accepted women.

Children are being murdered in Cambridge and the local population have fixed on the obvious culprits, the local Jews. Cash-strapped Henry II is non too pleased as the Jews are responsible for generating much of his revenue. He sends to Salerno for assistance which comes in the reluctant form of Dr Aguilar who must then overcome local prejudice to identify the real killer.

This well written and pacey thriller had me turning the pages as fast as I could read them without once going near my historical howler button. Impeccable research, engaging characters and a deft plot make this a novel well worth reading.

Announcement of Franklin’s CWA win

Another review

A haunting read: Footsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer (1932)

Another great read from Heyer, a not terribly serious read set in the now familiar locale of a country house. This time it is a gloomy and dilapidated Tudor priory, reputedly haunted to the extent that very few people have set foot in it for years. The protagonists are a jolly bunch – Peter, Margaret and Celia – who have inherited the house from an uncle and who, along with Celia’s husband determine to solve the mystery of the evil monk who stalks its corridors. As well as the investigation of real or faked supernatural goings-on, there is a murder, and the dénouement provides a satisfactory and happy conclusion to the investigation.

While reading this I was reminded of another of Heyer’s novels – one of her Regency romances, The Talisman Ring. This too is set in an isolated country house and has similar supernatural happenings. Like that, this was well written with excellent if somewhat stock characterisation. It is very much of its time – there are lots of allusions to the servant problem, and some of the dialogue is less than pc, but it has the benefit of being funny in places. Don’t pick this up if you are looking for something dark and challenging, but if you want a genuinely entertaining, light read, then this should prove just the ticket.

See also,
Penhallow
Envious Casca

Dissecting a life: Christine Falls by Benjamin Black (2006)

Benjamin Black is the pseudonym of the writer, John Banville whom my SO assures me is a fearsomely literary Irish type who won the Booker a couple of years ago. Shows how much attention I pay to things like that. Despite this handicap, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and found it interesting and readable. I would agree with The Grumpy Old Bookman that whatever it says on the tin, it’s not a crime thriller, although despite what he asserts, there is in fact a crime, as a character is murdered. But I think it reads better as a straight historical novel.

The novel is very rooted in its time period, and gives a wonderfully evocative view of Irish society in the fifties, smothered in its ecclesiastical blanket. A society where everything is done on a nod and wink, without bothering the authorities, with its laundries and orphanages for inconvenient mistakes and the recalcitrant.

The protagonist, Quirke, is a pathologist, and the tale begins with a body. But the dissection Quirke must carry out is as much on his own life as on the corpse on the table before him. He is a well-realised character (as are all of them) deeply flawed and all too human.

I liked the twist at the end, but thought the rape was a clunky way of ensuring a rather unpleasant character got their come-uppance. What I did find annoying (and improbable) was the way that we never find out what Quirke’s first name is. Even his relatives all call him by his surname. Still, as I say, an enjoyable read, as much for the background as for the story.

A cavalier affair: Parliament House by Edward Marston (2006)

Marston is a prolific writer of historical crime fiction although this is the first of his novels that I have read. This particular one is the fifth featuring the two main protagonists, the architect Christopher Redmayne and constable Jonathan Bale, and is set in Restoration London. In this case, I had no difficulty picking up the threads; there were references to past cases but they were never intrusive, and always given to provide relevant background information. Too often, when reading third or fourth novels in a series there is far too much irrelevant catch up info; here it was just about right.

On arrival at a party being thrown by a client to celebrate the completion of a house for him, Redmayne witnesses the appalling murder of one of the guests, shot in the street by a miscreant who escapes before being identified. Teaming up again with Bale he engages to find the murderer, but things are not as obvious as they might appear. Was the guest the intended victim after all?

I found it an entertaining read, but I felt that the unmasking of who really dunnit at the end was a bit rushed, and there seemed to have been little ground work laid for the unmasking, which should always be obvious once you are told. I didn’t feel this was the case in this instance. I did like the ironic twist right at the end though.