Saturday, October 02, 2010

A Classic English Crime – short story collection

I had time to kill before my pilates class last week, and nothing to do since the shops had closed. I hadn’t eaten, felt depressed and sorry for myself, so went into the library to feel worse, since I then had cause to yet again feel mopish about the library's lack of comfort reading for me. No unread LeGuins, Ngaio Marshes, Loveseys, Hares or Dickinsons … all very tragic. I went for the short story collections and picked out one science-fiction (more on that later) and one crime. In the large print section. To make me feel (unfairly) just that little bit more geriatric.

Naturally, I think I’ve read this before. Which doesn’t matter, because I only vaguely remember one or two stories in it. Frankly, most of them aren’t very good. The book is one from the "Keating’s Choice" collection, and H.R.F. Keating (unread by me) and editor Tim Heald (also unread by me) seem to have worked together in choosing participating authors. The theme is The Golden Age of detective fiction, more specifically Agatha Christie, since the book was published in celebration of her centenary.

Like I’ve said, not mad keen on Agatha Christie. And unsurprisingly, several stories end up being rather dull takes/travesties/parodies of the Dame’s stories and characters. Double fail so to speak. One features a miss Harple, who detects crime in a small village, one has both Marple and Poirot. You get the idea. The best one in that cathegory is by Susan Moody (stepmother of Crown Princess Mary of Denmark! Who knew?!): a young woman sent by her employer to spy on an insurance claimant writes snarky and spirited letters to him, revealing that they are really quite close and intimate but have had a falling-out. At the end we find out that the hotel murder she’s been writing about never took place, but was just a ruse to awaken his protective side and make him come rushing to rescue her. Reminds me of Dorothy Sayers a bit. Simon Brett contributes with a mock “discovery” of a thesis, in which the author shows how Christie’s ideas are rooted in her wide knowledge of classic literature, and shows how among others Beowulf, Alexander Pope and Robert Burns herald the introduction of Hercule Poirot. It’s pretty awful. When I was in high school myself and a friend held a presentation to the class on Wordsworth, and since it was April 1st we wrote a mock poem called Ode to a Teacup and said it was the original of Ode to a Grecian Urn. Funny enough for a joke in our high school class, not funny enough to print in a short story collection for Agatha Christie’s centenary, if you see what I mean, yet this is what Simon Brett has done. Keating’s story is called Jack Fell Down and features a Scandinavian detective called Hjerson, which is just super-lame. Hjerson, indeed. There are real names. And if he’s Finnish, he either should have a Finnish name or a good Swedish-Finnish one. Editor Tim Heald contributes with the above-mentioned parody with both Marple and Poirot, called Experts for the Prosecution – starts off okay but peters out into something perhaps best described as jocularity, maybe.

The best stories are obviously the ones that avoid using Christie’s characters, but instead draw on the style of the detective novels of the age and/or the historical times they took place in. Peter Lovesey’s is, true to form, an enjoyable piece of writing that despite the short format manages to make actual characters of the people in it. Margaret Yorke, Celia Dale, Catherine Aird, Robert Barnard and Paula Gosling also do a good job. Liza Cody’s (I like Liza Cody, but haven’t read much of her) is most original. Written from the perspective of a young, spoiled boy, it tells of him betraying a young Jewish girl to the Nazis, somewhere at the start of the Third Reich. I can’t say I thought it was great though, because somehow it didn’t feel right in terms of language choice etc. – anachronistic, that’s the word. But it was definitely the most original of the bunch (Brett’s doesn’t count).

Oh, adding this on Oct 11th: One of the charmingest things about the book, or this copy of it rather, is the pencilled notes in Russian throughout. Someone who speaks Russian must have been learning English from this. Loads of little translations jotted in here and there. I like it, even though it makes me feel guilty for basically dropping all my Russian studies and forgetting the entire thing. I can still read the notes though.

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