Thursday, April 17, 2014

Country Houses

One of the things I enjoy about Ruth Rendell's Inspector Wexford novels, which now cover a half-century of English history, from 1964 to 2013, is the depiction of social change.

In Simisola, the wealthy and ambitious grocery store chain millionaire couple, Wael and Anouk Khoori, bought a Kingsmarkham country estate, Mynford Old Hall, which they promptly demolished and replaced with another structure, because the older house had the misfortune of being a nineteenth-century Victorian mansion. Wrong style!

Mynford New Hall is what Rendell calls a "mock-Georgian" mansion, done in the best Jane Austen style. During the course of their murder investigation in Simisola, Wexford and Mike Burden call on the house and interview the Khoori's two Filipina servants, Juana and Rosenda:

There seemed no need to penetrate farther into the house.  The hall was a vast chamber, pillared, arched, alcoved, the walls paneled and with recessed columns, very much the kind of room guests must have been welcomed into at a Pemberley or a Northanger Abbey.  Only this was new, all new, barely furnished.  And even in the early nineteenth century, even in winter, no great house would have been as cold inside as this one.

It's interesting how the country house still serves as such a potent symbol in the English mystery novel, so many years after the end of the Golden Age of detective fiction, a literary period with which the country house has been so strongly associated.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Murdermarch? Simisola (1994), by Ruth Rendell

The American hardcover edition of Ruth Rendell's Inspector Wexford detective novel Simisola (1994) carries a blurb from Publishers Weekly that describes the novel as "at times like a contemporary Middlemarch with a murder mystery at the heart of it."

There is no doubt that with Simisola Ruth Rendell was aiming, like P. D. James in her Inspector Dalgleish novel, Original Sin, which appeared the same year,  at what she would see as a higher thing than a "mere puzzle" about a murder and its solution, a novel of realism about social ills afflicting modern England.

I would say Simisola is a considerable success. Beyond doubt, it is a great improvement on a previous Wexford "social problem" novel, An Unkindness of Ravens (1985).  If Ravens is much inferior to P. D. James' contemporaneous A Taste for Death (1986), I would say that Simisola is superior to James' Original Sin.

It is difficult to fully evaluate Simisola as a social problem novel because of a practical problem inherent in all mystery reviews, that of the imperative of avoiding "spoilers."  So I will try to be as circumspect as I can in my discussion (warning to anyone who picks up the American edition: it reveals too much on the jacket about the plot, in my opinion).

It is true that Simisola is Rendell's premier racism novel, yet I would argue that class issues--particularly the exploitation of the poor by the rich--ultimately are the strongest concern here (race and class do intersect, of course, and gender issues also are addressed, although more cursorily).

Since the 1990s Rendell, though herself politically to the left, has in her Wexford novels continually decried what her surrogate Wexford deems "political correctness," to the extent of creating a character evidently deemed by many the most irritating person in the Wexford canon, the excruciatingly and arguably impossibly politically correct Hannah Goldsmith.

Although Rendell continually raps racism and misogyny in her books, she has also made clear that she does not believe "political correctness" should exempt from criticism misdeeds by women and members of minority groups.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this attitude can be found in the interesting but ill-fitting Not in the Flesh (2007) sub-plot about female circumcision, a subject about which Rendell has spoken out publicly with passion and conviction.

We see this attitude as well in Simisola, in Rendell's portrayal of the ambitious and wealthy couple Wael and Anouk Khoori.

To be sure, in Simisola Rendell includes some wealthy characters who are more sympathetic than the Khooris (and also some who are even less sympathetic than the Khooris). Yet it is clear that the frequent lack of sympathy for the poor is something Rendell is greatly concerned with indicting.*

*(not only the wealthy are indicted: Wexford's subordinate, Mike Burden, is on hand, as always, to represent middle-class obtuseness and complacency, while indifferent government bureaucrats also are pummeled).

The events of the novel take place against a backdrop of economic recession and much of the action revolves around events at the local Employment Service Jobcenter (ESJC), which also houses the Benefit Office. Bringing this matter even more to home for Wexford, both his all-too-frequently hapless daughter Sylvia and her husband have lost their jobs and are spending a great deal of time with Wexford and his wife, Dora.

Given the economic state of affairs in the United States for the last five years, this subject in a twenty-year-old British novel seemed rather timely.  I found both the race and class issues were deftly integrated with the mystery plot by Rendell.

So what is the plot?  Inspector Wexford learns that Melanie Akande, daughter of his physician, Raymond Akande, a Nigerian immigrant, has vanished and he launches a police investigation into the matter. Melanie Akande disappeared after a visit to the ESJC, a fact that becomes sinister after the woman with whom she had her appointment is found dead, strangled in her bed.

The investigation of Reg Wexford and Mike Burden into the presumably related murder and disappearance is long and involved, allowing Rendell to introduce a large cast of memorable characters, including the fulsome local politician Anouk Khoori, wife of a multi-millionaire grocery store chain owner; Raymond Akande's stately spouse Laurette; Carolyn Snow, a highly vindictive wife of an adulterer; Cookie Dix, the much younger wife of a wealthy architect; Ingrid Pamber, with her amazing blue eyes; flat-bound witness Mr. Hammond, ninety-three years old but still mentally sharp; the blind but ever-mirthful Mrs. Prior; and Nigerian-born crossing guard Oni Johnson and her ESCJ habitue son Raffy (played by Idris Elba in the 1996 film version of Simisola--his sixth acting credit on imdb).

Rendell offers a clever alibi gambit and a few Christie-esque clues in the text; yet as the tale reaches its terminus the logic of the themes severely circumscribes the field of suspects, which leads me to disagree with the stated view of some contemporary reviewers that the solution is an astonishing surprise.

Thus I would not rate Simisola Rendell's greatest success among the Wexford novels as a puzzle.  It clearly is, however, a notable example of the modern crime novel that uses the mystery to explore social issues.  The whole thing is compellingly done by an author working at the height of her writing powers, making Simisola a book that I can enthusiastically recommend to mystery fans, even those of the more traditionalist sort. Incidentally, in a brilliant touch the novel's strikingly simple title is invoked but once, in the final line.

See also, at the Passing Tramp:

Going Wrong (1990) by Ruth Rendell
Asta's Book (1993), by Barbara Vine
Not in the Flesh (2007), by Ruth Rendell (Wexford)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

An Invitation....

People who read this blog and use Facebook might be interested in "Golden Age Detection" a Facebook group started by Jeffrey Marks for fans of traditional mystery (discussions also are known spill over into other areas of crime fiction).  It is a closed group, but if you "friend request" me on the Facebook page I started I can place you in the group. We would love to have you join.

Later this week, by the way, I will be posting reviews of Ruth Rendell's Simisola and Crippen & Landru's latest Edward D. Hoch Dr. Sam Hawthorne short story collection, Nothing Is Impossible. And there should also be the last part of of my consideration of Lucy Worsley's take on Golden Age detective fiction.

I am also expecting to get a series of interviews about crime fiction with some interesting people rolling soon!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Worsleying around with the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, Part Three: The Lower Orders and Our Social Betters

It has taken me a while to get around to this, but here is Part Three of my look at Lucy Worsley's genre survey A Very British Murder.  See here for Part One and Part Two.

After a short chapter of about 2000 words on the Detection Club (this is acceptable, though you will learn much more about the Detection Club from Doug Greene's observations on it in his biography of John Dickson Carr, my CADS booklet Was Corinne's Murder Clued? The Detection Club and Fair Play and Peter Lovesey's essay on the Detection Club, forthcoming in Mysteries Unlocked), Worsley in Chapter 23, "Snobbery with Violence," adopts the old Julian Symons-Colin Watson take on Golden Age English detective novels, castigating the books for their "attitude that servants are not really human" (the chapter title is the same as the title of Colin Watson's book on the subject).

Worsley cites as evidence for this assertion Margery Allingham's Albert Campion and his manservant Magersfontein Lugg.  Do Allingham readers agree that the memorably-portrayed Lugg comes off as "not really human"?  And what about Dorothy L. Sayers' Bunter?  He may not be human, but, if so, it's because he's super-human, not subhuman!

Not really human? Lugg and Campion

Worsley also cites a character in Sayers' The Nine Tailors who says of a chauffeur, "I believe him to be a perfectly truthful man, as such people go."  Worsley doesn't mention that immediately after this comment the person Mrs. Gates is talking to mentally refers to her as "this old cat." Worsley may have missed this, but Mrs. Gates and her retrograde social attitudes (and, yes, they were retrograde attitudes, even among Sayers' readership, in the 1930s) are being satirically portrayed by Sayers.  This is not evidence for Worsley's claim, but rather evidence against it.*

*(Here is a character's description of Mrs. Gates from earlier in the novel: "But I'll tell you who would have noticed anything, and that's Mrs. Gates--our housekeeper, you know....She's a perfect ghoul...She's quite nice, really, but she ought to live in a Victorian novel....")

Of course Worsley, like Symons and Watson before her, is right that there are plenty of objectionable classist attitudes about servants legitimately attributable to authors of Golden Age mysteries, but the argument can be overdrawn.  In fairness to the Golden Age mystery, there was more nuance on this matter than often is admitted.

Worsley goes on to pronounce that "in the Golden Age, too, the detective was usually of a specific social class, much more elevated than it had been in the days of Inspectors Field and Whicher, when detection was considered dirty work....Agatha Christie cleverly allowed Hercule Poirot to sidestep the issue of class by making him Belgian and therefore, notoriously, hard to categorize.  But a great many of his colleagues sprung from the ranks of the aristocracy."

Predictably, Worsley then goes on to offer as evidence of the "great many" Peter Wimsey, Albert Campion and Roderick Alleyn.  Once again only resort to the Crime Queens is made. But what about the resolutely bourgeois Inspector French (Freeman Wills Crofts), Superintendent Wilson (GDH and Margaret Cole) and Inspector Macdonald (ECR Lorac)?  These are three examples, just the number Worsley offers, but additional ones could be offered (and have been on this blog).  It's simply not true that the readership of Golden Age mysteries could not abide a smart middle class policeman as a series sleuth.

a middle class copper

Part Four will consider Worsley's explanation for the "fall" of the Golden Age detective novel.

Nosing It out in Northumberland: Vera, Season One (2011)

Recently I reviewed at this blog Ann Cleeves' new Vera Stanhope detective novel, Harbour Street (2014).  I liked the characters of DCI Stanhope and her subordinate DS Joe Ashworth and the evocatively portrayed north England setting, so decided to give season one of the popular television series, starring Brenda Blethyn as Vera and David Leon as Joe, a try, despite some qualms I have about Cleeves' plotting in Harbour Street. I am happy to say I liked the series and will be getting season two, though again I have some qualms about the plotting.

In my view the strongest of the four episodes in season one was the fourth episode, Little Lazarus, the only one not based on a Cleeves novel. This was an extremely good television crime film. The other three all had good points as well, but were not on par with the superlative Little Lazarus. I'll talk about each one in order.

"Hidden Depths"

Vera cogitates

Vera and her team investigate two seemingly related murders, that of a teenage boy and a young woman schoolteacher.  In both cases the corpse, garroted, was found in water, strewn with flowers. Vera focuses her sights on a group of four male ornithologists.

This was a very solid opening for the series.  As in all the episodes of season one, the score and the photography are superb. The wide open, bleakly beautiful spaces immediately reminded me of Wallander.

Also striking was the centrality to the plot of mental aberration and sexual psychosis.  It is no surprise to me that Ann Cleeves is a great fan of Nordic crime fiction in general. The influence is quite evident in all three season one episodes based on her novels.

Arguably the suspects were not as well fleshed out as the could have been, but there are a lot of interesting plot wrinkles and the final revelation of the identity of the killer allows an important thematic point to be made, one that relates to the personality of the title character. Additionally, I thought there were some memorable insights into the state of families in modern England (I also noticed this in the novel Harbour Street).

"Telling Tales"

Joe questions

In this episode Vera discovers that a recently deceased woman may have been wrongly convicted for the murder of an adolescent girl.  There soon follows another murder, which Vera believes is related to this earlier case.

I found this episode the least satisfying of the season.  Again psychosis and sexual misdeeds are brought to the fore, and I found it hard to square behavior with character, as it is presented to us. Additionally, I was left in confusion about aspects of an assault made late in the story, and Vera reaches the solution by pure (and unlikely) happenstance. Blah!

"The Crow Trap"

one of the many sad souls Vera encounters in the course of her investigations

A woman who co-owns land desired by a quarrying company is murdered.  It turns out that this woman was a suspect in a previous case, concerning the disappearance of a child. Another murder follows.

Yet again psychosis plays a great role and the whole thing seems rather far-fetched in the final analysis, but I did admire the plot construction and found the whole thing quite engrossing.

In all three of these episodes Vera's personality is nicely developed, along with her relationship with Joe. One is inevitably reminded, I think, of Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis. Like Morse, Vera is a loner who doesn't take good care of herself and can be difficult to work with, though she can have great empathy for the sorry souls she runs across in her cases.  Like Lewis, the young family man Joe is more placid and helps anchor his boss to the social world.  They make a nice team.  Both Blethyn, a twice Oscar-nominated actress, and Leon perform extremely well in these roles.

Other members of the team are non-entities, with the exception of Holly Lawson and Kenny Lockhart, and even they are not given too much of interest to work with.  Paul Ritter's pathologist Billy Cartwright, on the other hand, offers some memorably mordant moments.

Finally we come to the season one finale:

"Little Lazarus" (story by Paul Rutman)

Vera is judged

In this one, a young boy survives a brutal attack in which his mother is killed.  Investigating into the mother's past, Vera finds a maze of mystery, some of which seems to implicate people in high places.

I found this a tremendously engrossing episode, with good characterization and an interesting, intricate plot that thankfully for once did not depend on anyone being absolutely stark ravers.  The ending I found quite poignant, because we have been made to care for the people involved, including two interesting modern couples.

Vera's relationship with the boy is nicely developed and we are left with a cliffhanger about Vera's health--as if we didn't have reason enough already to come back for season two!

Friday, April 11, 2014

True Confessions? The Diary (1952), by William Ard

Another helping of hard-boiled this week, with William Ard's The Diary (1952).  Ard has been lucky to get some vocal enthusiasts, Dennis Miller, who has a blog about the author, and genre critic Francis Nevins, who has written an introduction to some reprints of Ard crime novels by Fender Tucker's Ramble House.

a young-looking William Ard
striking a cool pose
(courtesy Dennis Miller
The Diary, the second of William Ard's Timothy Dane detective novels, has not been reprinted by Ramble House, though Ard's first and third, The Perfect Frame (1951) and .38 (1953), have been, in a twofer volume titled Perfect .38.

In his introduction to Perfect .38, Nevins distinguishes Ard's writing from what he calls the "sadism-snigger-and-sleaze" school of Mickey Spillane, arguing that Ard

carried on in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, in which the private eye stands for personal and political decency, legitimate violence abounds but sadism is eschewed, sex is not a savage perversion but a restoration of oneself and a friendly caring for another.

Without getting extensively into the matter of Nevins' characterization of Spillane, who remains popular to this day, I will say that Nevins highlights some of the qualities about The Diary I found appealing.

One deal breaker for me with Spillane has always been the enjoyment his "hero," Mike Hammer, takes in killing people. It's not just that Hammer is willing to take the law into his own hands, vigilante-style, it's that in doing so he is so palpably satisfying his own personal blood lust.

Timothy Dane, on the other hand, is a different sort of hard-boiled detective, at least from my reading of The Diary. For starters, just take that name, "Timothy."  I'm not an expert in hard-boiled monikers, but there's something boyish and non-macho about the name Timothy Dane (just compare it with Mike Hammer).

And check out the striking cover illustration of the Popular Library edition of The Diary. This illustration depicts Dane, not with Diane Rebow, the brattish eighteen-year-old millionaire's daughter and author of the novel's titular diary, but rather with a young prostitute who appears in one short scene in the book, trying to pick him up.

The whole scene is extraneous to the plot, yet it has lingered in my memory:

She was young and thin and very sad looking.  Her skirts were hiked to knee level and she wore a transparent blouse and a black brassiere but not because it was hot. She asked me for a cigarette.  I handed her one from the pack and lit it.  She cupped my hand in both of hers.
"Thanks," she said.
"Nice night out."
"You live in New York?"
"You wanna get laid?"
"Sure you do."
"What's the matter--you queer?"
"I'm broke."
The girl shrugged her shoulders.  "Who isn't?"

Dane's face looks unusually softened and sensitive for a man on a hard-boiled paperback from this era (and despite her attempted airs the "girl" on the cover looks just that--a girl). Dane isn't swaggering or brandishing his gun; instead he's pensively holding out a packet of cigarettes.

Don't get me wrong, Dane does his share of tough stuff in this book, including killing a guy, but he doesn't seem to get enjoyment out of it and he expressly rejects the notion of playing God.  He is a decent man.

a much different encounter
The Diary opens very much in Chandler-Hammett tradition, with Dane getting hired to straighten out  a mess a millionaire's daughter has gotten herself into.  Diane Rebow's diary has been stolen and her father, in the midst of planning a political career, is anxious to get it back. It seems there's some steamy stuff in it, though the father insists it all must just be teenage imagination, fueled by Hollywood films and romance novels.

Soon Dane is enmeshed in a messy affair of multiple murders, drugs and civic corruption at the highest levels.

This is a good hard-boiled mystery, even shorter than most for the period and never lapsing into the tedium of endless fisticuffs.

To be sure, there is quite a lot of incident (including a good share of what Nevins deems "legitimate violence").

However, our hero, with perhaps implausible good fortune, survives a final scrape with death and at the end explains everything to the characters assembled at the millionaire's house, just like he's Hercule Poirot or something. It's masterfully done.

Dane even finds time for some romance with Eileen Kay, the personal assistant of political boss Jim Steele (yes, the very same name as Dana Chamber's hard-boiled sleuth, discussed here last week). Kay is a good character, sexy (natch), smart and independent, although Ard does have her fall prey to a couple "comic" misunderstandings that don't do her keen brain justice (Nevins justly refers to this as "elements of Hollywood sex comedy").

After she and Dane have survived a quite traumatic night, she offers herself to Dane--who has recently been sapped, shot in the shoulder and injected with codeine--and is quite miffed when he has the temerity to fall asleep on her (okay, she didn't know about the codeine, but she was around for the sapping and shooting parts and might have surmised that he might not be up to another job, so to speak, that night).

I know in hard-boiled mythology the hero is supposed to be able to manage head bashings and bullet wounds without too much more than batting an eye (let alone having to resort to hospitalization), but that he's also expected the very same night to make a woman out of the heroine is a bit much!

Be that as it may, I found The Diary a great read and will be returning again to the work of William Ard, an author who died much too young in 1960 at the age of 37.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Royal Rendell and the Great Gladys

Ruth Rendell, who turned 84 a couple months ago, is still scribbling away, five decades after the publication of her first novel, with a new book, The Girl Next Door, scheduled for publication later this year.  Rendell fans will know that she writes three types of crime novels.  Under her own name she produces traditional police detective novels and psychological suspense thrillers, while under the pseudonym Barbara Vine she writes denser, multi-layered mysteries more in the Victorian style (if fully modern in subject matter).

Ruth Rendell
In my view, the Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford series that Rendell launched fifty years ago, with From Doon with Death (1964), is one of the finest bodies of series detective fiction produced in the last half-century. Of the dozen Chief inspector Wexford novels published between 1964 and 1983, there is only one real comparative "dud," I think: the sophomore effort A New Lease of Death (1967).

While the Rendell Wexfords from this period, like Rendell's sister Crime Queen P. D. James' earlier Adam Dalgleish novels, offer clever, fairly clued puzzle plots, I think they are more forward looking than James' books. Though a policeman and not an "eccentric amateur" sleuth, James' Dalgleish seems more a throwback to the Golden Age Great Detective, being a sophisticated yet isolated loner (a poet no less).

On the other hand, Rendell's Wexford, with his wife and daughters and his sidekick subordinate, Mike Burden, seems to have helped set the mold for numerous crime fiction series about provincial English policeman (and, more recently, policewomen).  Often people say they prefer the "psychological" Rendells or the Vines, but I think the Wexfords should receive their due too.

Beginning in 1985 with An Unkindess of Ravens, Rendell began writing longer Wexfords (all her Rendells got longer at this time, like the books in her Vine series, which was launched in 1986; this has been, of course, a general trend in crime fiction over the last three decades). Between 1985 and 2013 Rendell has published another dozen Wexfords, which are more of a mixed bag in my view.  The puzzle plotting tends to be more diffuse, while there is greater emphasis on social issues (feminism, racism, environmentalism, child molestation, spousal abuse, female circumcision).

I was going to review Ravens here this week, but to be frank I found this novel the worst Wexford I have read.  To me the writing was flat and the characters uninteresting (the women, for example, seemed caricatures, either stereotypical doormat housewives or stereotypical strident feminists, which really surprised me, coming from this writer). I can't help feeling that at this time her creative interest was really drifting over to the psychological Rendells and the debut Vine (The Killing Doll, 1984, The Tree of Hands, 1984, Live Flesh, 1986, A Dark Adapted Eye, 1986). Coming right in the middle of that "Big Four," Ravens seems particularly unmemorable.

I decided to go back and look at the novel Simisola (1994), arguably, I think, the best of the later Rendell Wexfords.  This has the overt political dimension Rendell now likes in her Wexfords, plus strong writing and characters and a more focused plot.  It's also longer in the modern style (I'm guessing about 120,000 words), so I am not quite ready for the full review!  But I hope to have more soon.

Gladys Mitchell
Meanwhile, I wanted to alert readers of this blog to the fact that a lot of new Gladys Mitchell titles are available, in both the US and UK (check out Amazon and  I am planning a post on Gladys Mitchell later this month.  I think she was a genuine Golden Age Crime Queen, on the level of Christie, Sayers, Allingham and Marsh, but have never actually blogged about her here to date.

As in the case of my "humdrum" favorite, John Street, many of Gladys Mitchell's books are extremely rare--she never really caught on with US print publishers--and expensive, which has put them out of the reach of most readers.  Now she is accessible again, with a wide range of works.  Good news indeed!