Sunday, February 27, 2011

Agatha Christieand Dorothy Sayers x 2, also Ngaio Marsh and Joseph Smith Fletcher x 1, respectively

What I'm actually reading now, to sound like a tv chef, is Alice Munro (for my book discussion club). It's just that my recent setback at work left me not only very down (although I'm better now) but also with a strong hankering for detective fiction, my old love. More specifically for the vintage, Golden Age type of detective fiction that don't over-analyse things and revel in upholding the status quo. Escapism, in other words. I only kept away from Tolkien (the ultimate escapism) because it, frankly, makes me cry, and from The Left Hand of Darkness because I felt I was being too pathetic re-reading that again so soon (at least, it feels as though I re-read it very recently). So detective fiction it was.

First I re-read Dorothy Sayers Gaudy Night (great review here). For all Sayers fans this has to be a favourite I think - perhaps not the first time you read it, because it's so radically different from the other Wimsey novels which are all more classic puzzle whodunnits, focusing on the solving of the crime. If you expect another one like that you might be disappointed by this one first time around. It's more pensive, more contemplative, and it's main focus is the conflict for women between career and family, asking the still-valid question if it's possible to have both.

Harriet Vane returns to Oxford for the annual Gaudy Night celebrations, a bit nervous about what sort of a reception she'll find, what with her notoriety. She discovers that contrary to what she expected she's met with mostly open arms, and she finds herself drawn to the academic life again. "Once, I was a scholar." Still resisting Wimsey's offers of marriage, she is attracted to the largely celibate community of the college, with the dons who have chosen academia over childbirth and -rearing and husband-coddling. When a vicious poison-pen writer and vandal starts terrorising the college, the dons ask Harriet to come back and see if she can find the culprit. She accepts partly because it will give her a chance to immerse herself in the scholar's life again. As the attacks grow bolder and more violent, she eventually asks Wimsey to help.

There are no murders in this book, only attempted ones. The real puzzle here is the conflict between the expected role for women and the one they might like to pursue for themselves. At the time it was written, of course, few women would have the opportunity to have a professional career as well as the responsability of a family - unless, which is not discussed really but which I couldn't help considering, they were working-class and doing those jobs that in all societies have to be done and that are not considered careers. Working-class women have never had the luxury of being stay-at-home mothers. They've always worked, as have farm-wives. So largely the perceived problem is a middle-to-upper-class one. Harriet feels like marrying Wimsey would consume her, she'd be engulfed by him and lose herself - a point of view that Wimsey gradually comes to understand and respect. Also the book is a remarkably honest reckoning with Sayers own authorship and novels, via Vane. While it is Harriet who admits to herself that she hasn't had the courage to tap into her emotions and allow her real experiences to colour the fictional experiences in her novels, and it is Harriet who explains to us how Lord Peter has hidden his sensitive nature behind foppishness and breeziness all these years, we as readers see Sayers apologizing for her early, formulaic Wimsey novels and explaining how hard it can be to write from the heart. So I really like this book. It is a crowning acheivement for a stellar mystery writer.

After that, wanting more, I read Whose Body? on the Aldiko. From 1923, it's the book that introduces Lord Peter Wimsey as gentleman detective. As you may deduce from above, it is much shallower, and Wimsey as a character much more of a type. Nevertheless, Sayers has more depth than other detective writers of her time even in this first book, when she allows Wimsey to suffer a nervous breakdown when the strain of the case gets too severe. He believes himself back in the trenches in France again, and ever-loyal Bunter has to nurse him, now as then. There's also a very evocative bit when they're stumbling through a foggy graveyard in order to exhume a corpse, soon after the breakdown:
The vile, raw fog tore your throat and ravaged your eyes. You could not see your feet. You stumbled in your walk over poor men's graves.
The feel of Parker's old trench-coat beneath your fingers was comforting. You had felt it in worse places. You clung on now for fear you should get separated. The dim people moving in front of you were like Brocken spectres.
"Take care, gentlemen," said a toneless voice out of the yellow darkness, "there's an open grave just hereabouts."
You bore away to the right, and floundered in a mass of freshly turned clay.
"Hold up, old man," said Parker.
[ ... ]
A dim blue light carried by somebody ahead wavered and stood still.
"Here you are," said a voice.
Two Dantesque shapes with pitchforks loomed up.
"Have you finished?" asked somebody.
"Nearly done, sir." The demons fell to work again with the pitchforks — no, spades.
Somebody sneezed. Parker located the sneezer and introduced him.
"Mr. Levett represents the Home Secretary. Lord Peter Wimsey. We are sorry to drag you out on such a day, Mr. Levett."
"It's all in the day's work," said Mr. Levett, hoarsely. He was muffled to the eyes.
The sound of the spades for many minutes. An iron noise of tools thrown down. Demons stooping and straining.
A black-bearded spectre at your elbow. Introduced. The Master of the Workhouse.
"A very painful matter, Lord Peter. You will forgive me for hoping you and Mr. Parker may be mistaken."
"I should like to be able to hope so too."
Something heaving, straining, coming up out of the ground.
"Steady, men. This way. Can you see? Be careful of the graves—they lie pretty thick hereabouts. Are you ready?"
"Right you are, sir. You go on with the lantern. We can follow you."
Lumbering footsteps. Catch hold of Parker's trench-coat again. "That you, old man? Oh, I beg your pardon, Mr. Levett—thought you were Parker."
"Hullo, Wimsey—here you are."
More graves. A headstone shouldered crookedly aslant. A trip and jerk over the edge of the rough grass. The squeal of gravel under your feet.

Then, after this, I didn't want to re-read The Nine Tailors so soon, so I turned to Ngaoi Marsh and re-read Death at the Bar - no need to write more about it at this moment. (But why oh why isn't she better loved?) I did feel a little extra pang when the horrible earthquake happened in Christchurch though, with Ngaoi fresh in my mind.

Still craving more Golden Age I reluctantly turned to the Aldiko's supply of Agatha Christie and read The Mysterious Affair at Styles and The Secret Adversary. The former is her first novel, and the one introducing Hercules Poirot. I'll say no more than that the contrast between Dorothy Sayers' first novel and Agatha Christie's is enormous. One writes lightly, wittily, and quite daringly (as the famous line "Sir Reuben is a pious Jew of pious parents, and the chap in the bath obviously isn't" shows). Agatha Christie just stomps stomps stomps her way through. I wonder if it's because she's easier though? People didn't have to put up with quotes, jokes and double-entendres. I don't know much about art but I know what I like and all that. Why did Christie get an episode of Doctor Who? Oh, but but but, I have to say that I was thrilled to find the word kudos in the book though. I always thought that was modern-ish slang. No siree! One lives to learn.

The Secret Adversary introduces Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, before they marry. It's quite dismal really, with a criminal mastermind basically engineering the Russian Revolution, if I followed the reasoning. I did appreciate the insight into what a shock the Russian Revolution must have been to people of the time. No-one had any idea what to make of it and if the disease would spread, so the wildest theories could fly about. Best bits: the cinema is called the kinema, with a K, and Tommy reads the Daily Mail with gusto. Ha.

Joseph Smith Fletcher was a more interesting find. His novel is not a whodunnit at all, more a novel about a crime, which feels quite modern and daring. 30 years ago two young men embezzled a large sum of money and got caught. The money was never found, and after serving their time they disappear. They are now, under new names, respected pillars of society in a town oop North. One man has remained childless, but the other has a daughter who is set to marry very well. Naturally, their past catches up with them in the guise of a former police detective who has retired to the area, recognises them, and tries to blackmail them. He is found dead. We as readers are left guessing who could have done it, but realise that even though it is obvious to suspect our two malcreants, it can't be them, since we are privy to their thoughts and they suspect each other. It's quite exciting really and more than a little suspenseful. I'll download more of his.

Now I'm more set to settle down with Munro, while parallell-reading In The Teeth of the Evidence, a collection of Dorothy Sayers' short stories that I own. All is, if not well, stable.

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