Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Michael Innes: The Daffodil Affair

I've never read any Innes before - not sure why, just never occurred to me. But the other week I met an acquaintance who noticed my Peter Lovesey novel, and we got talking about crime fiction, and he mentioned that he used to read Michael Innes, and I thought I'd give him a shot then.

Reading the novel I fluctuated between thinking it was great and thinking it was pretentious. The first blogging idea that came into my head was that I should write "this is a literary novel - if by literary you mean that there are an awful lot of words in the sentences" - but later I decided that it doesn't really apply. It is literary in the real sense too - oblique-ish references to Ulysses (the Joyce one) etc. On the whole, two days after finishing it, I think it's quite memorable. In a good way. Excellent? Would I say that? I think I must read some more to make sure (but I'm reading Ian Rankin now, so it will have to wait).

The story is that a series of seemingly unconnected events - the disappearance of a counting cabhorse, a haunted house, a multiple personality girl and a Yorkshire witch - turn out to be all part of a scheme to cash in on peoples' credulity in the post-war years (the book is from 1944). The actual crime novel part is very by the way really - it's more a case of the prime characters being police officers than a case of a novel about a crime. There is no detection per se, they sort of stumble upon the right people in a deus ex machina sort of way. Which is disappointing if you're expecting a whodunnit. I suggest the reader just goes with it.

I think some quotes are in order.

"There are openings in all classes [ ... ] In the main it will be spiritualism for the upper class and astrology for the lower. Spiritualism is comparatively expensive - and can be extremely so - whereas astrology is quite cheap. The middle classes will have the benefit of a little of both. For rural populations we shall rely cheifly on witchcraft. What is sometimes called the intelligentsia has exercised my mind a good deal. Yoga might do, and reincarnation and the Great Mind and perhaps a little Irish mythology. But the problem is not important, as there are likely to be singularly few of them left."

It is uncannily accurate, isn't it?

" 'Here is a perfect detective-story motive, and yet we're not in a detective story at all.'

'My dear man, you're talking like something in Pirandello. Go to sleep.'

'We're in a sort of hodge-podge of fantasy and harum-scarum adventure that isn't a proper detective story at all. We might be by Michael Innes.'

'Innes? I've never heard of him.' Appleby spoke with decided exasperation."


This could make an excellent film, in the right hands.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Peter Lovesey: Bloodhounds

This novel takes place after Diamond's return to Bath, while he is trying to settle in with his new team. It features a valuable stamp, a locked-room murder mystery and a circle of crime fiction aficionados calling themselves the Bloodhounds of Bath.

I like this one a whole lot better than The Summons. I found it better crafted, and the far-fetchedness of the plot in some instances matched the theme of the book, which is the discussion of preposterous crime stories. After reading this I'm going to try to read some more of John Dickson Carr; I have read a bit, but not much.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Enid Blyton: Claudine at St Claire's

My father is in the process of moving, and we were over at his flat sorting through books. I found all my old Secret Seven books - I didn't have the complete set or anything, but I have a good few. I liked the Secret Seven better than the Famous Five. Claudine at St Claire's is the only St Claire's book I've got, I kept meaning to find more, but I never did. I used to love reading Enid Blyton as a child. And later aswell - in my teens, if I was depressed and felt lonely I'd re-read one of her books and try to revert to a simpler childhood emotion. Which is false really, childhood emotions aren't simple at all, they just seem that way in retrospect.

Anyway, I re-read this one just the other day. It's terrible really, all the waffle about English honour and sound English values. It was written in 1944, but there is no mention of the war at all - unless we are to understand that this is why Claudine is in England in the first place? But then she surely couldn't talk about sending her oh-so-beautiful cushion cover home to France? Nevertheless, there is something very comforting about fictional boarding school camaraderie - especially for children like me, who were lonely and didn't feel at home at home. HPS - Harry Potter Syndrome, I suppose.

I remember feeling disappointed when I learned that Enid Blyton was a cold and distant mother. But it's not really surprising, when you read her books with an adult's eye. She's not writing about real people, she's writing about archetypes. Sometimes they change, but since she is writing the book she is always in control of their development. She must have found RL difficult to cope with.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Alexander McCall Smith: 44 Scotland Street

This book is unusual in layout, since it was originally a serialised novel in The Scotsman. McCall Smith complained about how there were no more serialised novels, such as Dickens', and he was promptly offered the job to write one.

Now, while Dickens wrote in a time when people happily read immense quantities of text with their morning tea (I presume), McCall Smith lives in an age of much shorter attention spans. hence, his chapters are very brief. When reading all the instalments in one swoop, it therefore lacks flow, and comes across as a little too staccato. Although, as usual when reading his work, I really couldn't give an arse about such minor details. It's so much fun. I am in love with the characters and I want more of them. Please write a sequel, Mr. McCall Smith!

Best part: a hymn to Belgium presented to the Church of Scotland. No.. the best part is the cameo of and incessant references to Ian Rankin. I want to read Rankin now, and I never did before - surely that's saying something!

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Jeffery Deaver: The Twelfth Card

A teenage girl from Harlem, researching some family history in a library, is attacked and narrowly escapes being killed. The scene is set to look like an attempted rape, but doesn't add up. Rhyme and Sachs start unravelling the different clues, while the girl's life is still in danger.

This is one of Deaver's best, IMO. Quite riveting, and full of false leads that trick the reader into making presumptions about where the story is going. It does have weaknesses, however. Deaver tends to just tie up all the loose ends towards the last quarter or fifth of the novel, without much consideration for the literary flow of the novel. He repeats previous things that have occurred in the Rhymes/Sachs timeline, to keep the uninitiated reader up-to-date, but for the rest of us it becomes repetitive. He also does his research into the underlying theme of the novel, in this case black culture, Harlem and its history, African-American Vernacular English (abbreviated AAVE, as he is careful to point out), and tends to go on about this at some length - sometimes fitting it into the story nicely, other times breaking the flow of the narrative to lecture us, the readers. Now, to me, it's very interesting to learn all this about Harlem... but it does ruin the literary aspect of the novel a little. It remains very obvious that Deaver is a white man writing about a black man's world - on the other hand, and to be fair to him, it's not like he tries to hide it, really.

Fun detail in this one: Deaver hints that Amelia Sachs may be related to the German police officer we became accquainted with in Garden of Beasts. Less fun detail: a clumsy line about what Parker Kincaid and Margaret Lukas (from The Devil's Teardrop) are up to now (not as well worked into the flow of the book as the German connection above).

ETA: almost forgot to mention one of the most interesting aspects of the book! Deaver uses the novel to speak out against the dehumanisation inflicted by the death penalty. I don't want to give away too much of the plotline, so suffice it to say that his method works quite well. Now I have to go off and have dinner. :-P

Friday, February 10, 2006

Amanda Cross: Sweet Death, Kind Death

After reading six pages of this novel I thought - damn, is the woman capable of writing a setence without a subordinate clause? This has never bothered me before, but this time.. I swear to God, I read half the book before the short sentences started appearing. I'm a strong believer in mixing it up.

Apart from that it's a charming little book, for those of us who appreciate the kind of intellectual sleuth Kate Fansler is, and don't require the crime to be at the centre of things. Kate tends to ramble through the book drinking whisky (sic) , smoking, talking in subordinate clauses galore, and then suddenly, bam! - crime solved. The solving part is really not the important part. What's important is the thoughts on feminism, middle age, womens' roles in society etc. They're also such an excellent introduction to the American Intellectual - a breed a lot of Europeans don't believe exist. But Kate Fansler can out-quote Lord Peter and Harriet if she puts her mind to it - she can certainly outdrink them, in a refined way of course.

Have another drink, why don't you.

Plotline: a professor at a college for women only commits suicide by drowning. It seems straight-forward enough, but something she's written in her journal makes her biographers uneasy about it. To dispel doubts the president of the college invites Kate to do some sleuthing.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Carina Burman: Cromwells huvud

För flera flera år sedan läste jag Den tionde sånggudinnan, och jag tyckte den var mycket bra. Originell, intressanta och varierade karaktärer... men efter det blev det aldrig av att läsa någon annan av Burmans böcker. Men så häromveckan var det en artikel om henne någonstans, så jag tänkte att jag skulle låna någonting på biblioteket. Det blev alltså Cromwells huvud.

Och min Gud, en så tråkig bok. Jag ska genast erkänna att jag bara läst hälften. Jag skumläste den andra hälften idag på jobbet, men jag orkade inte ens uppfatta vad skruven på slutet var (jag bara antar att det var någon sorts skruv, någon som visade sig vara mördare eller dylikt). Den utspelar sig i Cambridge, och är skriven i något slags 40-talsstil, inbillar jag mig - jag är ingen litteraturvetare så jag är inte säker. Kändes oäkta i alla fall. Zzzzz.

Om jag har några läsare som kan rekommendera en Burman som är värd min tid, ber jag er att lämna en kommentar om den!

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Patricia Cornwell: Postmortem

I've read a few Cornwells before, mostly because I enjoyed Kathy Reichs' books about forensic anthropologist Tempe Brennan very much and according to book cover quotes Cornwell is "the original". I haven't taken to them though, and it all comes back to what Amanda Cross says about liking the detective... I don't like Kay Scarpetta. Really. And sometimes you can not like a character and still like them, if you know what I mean - but I really don't like Kay Scarpetta at all. All she has going for her is intelligence. It just isn't enough.

Anyway, so last Sunday we were at dinner with some of my husband's colleagues, and we got talking about crime novels and the man of the house said he liked Patricia Cornwell. I said I didn't, but admitted to having read only later ones, when the plotlines have all become extremely exagerrated and there are more conspiracy theories than in Alias. HE said that no, it's the early ones that are good. So I went to the library to get some early ones, picked up Postmortem (her first, and award-winning novel) and about six pages in I'm beginning to think that hey, this is familiar, I've read this before haven't I? But I can't remember much, hardly anything. (Once again - blog = good.)

So QED - Patricia Cornwell is a little overhyped. Although I can completely see what a breath of fresh air she must've been in the crime novel business back in 1990. She deserves cred for that alright.

Postmortem introduces us to Scarpetta, her niece Lucy (of later lesbian poor judgement - don't you love reading series in the wrong order?) and Marino. A serial killer is strangling single women in Richmond, in a cruel and bestial fashion. There are almost no clues to go on, and the pressure is on the police force, the politicians and of course on Scarpetta, who becomes the victim of a conspiracy aiming to make her scapegoat. She also becomes the focus of the killer, and it all ends in a shoot-out in her bedroom. I really don't feel bad about giving that away, because if you didn't see it coming you don't deserve to read books.

The book is full of forensic detail, including descriptions of the recently discovered DNA technology. It's quite interesting to read, since we now take it for granted so much that we think we understand it even though we don't (I'm talking of people like me, not majoring in science-y subjects). Postmortem also features some computer hacking, in that pre-Windows XP-on-every-computer era. This is also interesting, but it goes way over my head. I'm mostly bemused by genius Lucy's fascination by the computer, since I myself never took to it until I learnt I could surf the net and talk to people. So what if there's a database? What do you do with it if your Auntie Kay has forbidden you to mess about with it? N.b. that these latter thoughts are not what make me unembracing of the book, they're just thoughts...

It's kind of a classic must-read. I think I'll look for no. 2 and see how I feel about that one before I pass final judgement.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Peter Lovesey: The Summons

An ominous title, but not a very ominous book, on the whole.

Peter Diamond left his job as a police inspector in Bath years ago, and he and his wife are now struggling to make a living in London. When a murderer he put away 4 years previously escapes from life-time inprisonment and takes a hostage, Diamond is called back by his former colleagues. The alleged killer wants Diamond to prove his innocence, and Diamond investigates the case again.

Better (much better) than it sounds, although why Diamond is praised as being such a kick-ass police officer is beyond me - occassionally he seems thick as two planks. But it's witty, and well-plotted on the whole. I've previously read Wobble to Death, and now I feel I must give Lovesey another few chances and read some more of his work.

Peter Diamond as a character is a lot like Inspector Frost, of television fame, but Frost is based on another series of books I understand (by R.D. Wingfield -I should check them out too).

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Val McDermid: Report for Murder

This is the first Lindsay Gordon mystery - and it must be a newly acquired by the library, because I haven't seen it before. It looks like a reprint... now that the Hill/Jordan crime novels are such a hit I suppose the publisher is more keen on flogging even the books about the gay journalist sleuth, or so the cynic in me supposes.

Lindsay goes to a girl's boarding school to write a cover piece, which will help the school raise funds to save some of their playing fields. This goes against her principles really, but she's helping her friend who teaches there, and at the same time earning some much-needed cash. Just before the fund-raising concert the star of the show is found strangled to death, and Lindsay's friend is arrested for the murder. Lindsay and her new girlfriend set out to discover what the police obviously must've missed. This is the book that introduces girlfriend Cordelia, who will in later books turn out a bad egg - I'd love to ask McDermid if this was planned from the start or not!

I am, as I've said, very fond of Lindsay, but I have to admit that these novels are not among McDermid's best. Much as I am loathe to admit it, the Hill/Jordan novels have that honour. They are more emotional and descriptive, which makes for a better work of literature on the whole. Since Report for Murder is the first one of all it can be excused for being a little too formulaic, however.