The Betrayal of Trust by Susan Hill

Sunday, 22 June 2014

One of the things about crime fiction is there is always a new detective series to get caught up with. When I was younger, I worked my way through golden era detectives (courtesy of the now refurbished Exeter Central Library). My most recent series was Rebus, but I’m all caught up there. So I’ve been casting about for a new detective to follow*.

My latest investigation was into Susan Hills Simon Serrailler series, with The Betrayal of Trust.

Serrailler is in classic “middle class, middle aged” detective model. He has a complex family: in this case a widowed sister with three children, and an emotionally frozen father. He’s rebelled by going into detective work: the. Rest of the family are medical doctors. He has to deal with chippy colleagues. He has an artistic hobby: he paints.

This “posh DI” model is a procedural offshoot of the golden era’s “gentleman detective”. It essentially wonders what would happen if Wimsey or Campion had joined the police. There is something classist about it: the posh DI is always going against the family wishes, and is mildly distrusted by their colleagues.

None of that makes them bad – in this case, it was a really enjoyable read – but they never become series I become addicted to.

I enjoyed this for its interweaving of social justice and welfare with a cold case, but I mostly wanted to follow Cat Dearbon – the widowed sister – rather than Simon. I felt the constraints of the “posh DI procedural” genre kept pulling me away from a potentially more interesting story.

*I am obviously excluding Endeavour, as a) it’s a TV. Series and b) he’s not technically a new detective – just a younger version.

The Victorian Detective, by Alan Moss and Keith Skinner

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Another off the Christmas book pile, this time diving into non-fiction for a look at the Victorian Detective.


No, not that one.

Instead The Victorian Detective is a slim non-fiction volume looking at the rise of the police detective in Victorian Britain. There’s no doubt Alan Moss and Keith Skinner’s book is well-researched and fully sourced. The problem comes in if you’ve already read The Suspicion of Mr Whicher, which covers the same ground through the prism of a single case.

In attempting to avoid the grisly “true crime” style, this book skims over the cases themselves in favour of, well, HR updates on which station a detective is based in. Overall, it felt rather too dry.

Death Comes to Pemberley

Saturday, 24 March 2012

I’m going to break my word limit here. Just warning you. I actually got my rant down in January but wordpress ate it. So now I’m trying again. With frequent ‘save draft’ clicks.

Death Comes to Pemberley
PD James
(faber & faber, 2011)

You can totally see the logic that meant someone gave this to me at Christmas. It’s three of my favorite things in one bundle: Pride and Prejudice, crime and “non-canonical fiction”. I really need a better term for it than that but “professionally published material making use of another’s fictional universe” is a mouthful. And Mark Lawson’s “literary continuation” deliberately seeks to exclude the wilder, less legal, edges of the field. Whatever you call it, I’ve shelves of it.

‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ is a sequel to ‘Pride & Prejudice’. Elizabeth Darcy (formerly Bennet) is preparing to host the annual Pemberley ball when a body is discovered in the grounds. Darcy, one of the local magistrates, has to investigate and suspicion quickly falls on his childhood friend – and adult rival – George Wickham.

As in Emma Tennant’s Pemberley, characters are made to undergo radicial personality changes in order to enable the author’s desired plot. You can accept Lady Catherine de Bourgh softening her attitude towards Elizabeth once there are (male) heirs at Pemberley. But one of the other characters from the original is so distorted to enable him to play a role that I was thrown out of the narrative.

Not that I’d got particularly into it. An entire chapter at the start is given over to recapping the plot of ‘Pride and Prejudice’. It was the only section of the book that raised a smile, in fact, by being the only bit to capture some of Austen’s sly spirit and tone. But P&P is hardly an obscure text, and the whole book is sold on being a P&P novel. It seems either gratuitous to do an unrequired recap, or egotistical to assume a reader has bought the book on the author’s name alone.

There’s 137 books riffing on ‘Pride & Prejudice’. Yes, really. It’s an industry that rivals that of non-canonical Holmes. There is, in other words, a massive audience for P&P fiction.

So how does it read as a crime novel, if you set aside the P&P elements? It’s an alright, but rather dry, procedural. Mention of the police early on confused me, as I wasn’t sure there was a police force – at least in rural England – in 1803. And so we progress through the arrest, the trial etc., and the resolution. The crime is solved not through Darcy having unusual perceptions and being a proto-detective, but through confessions. That’s not the sort of crime novel I find satisfying, and there wasn’t enough puzzle to play with as a reader.

By trying to sit on two stools, this novel falls down instead.

The West End Horror

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

I am, of course, looking forward to the next series of Sherlock. Bizarrely, I’ve not seen the current big screen adaptations. I think I might be so far down the rabbit hole of non-canonical Holmes that I’ll never return.

The West End Horror
Nicholas Meyer
(Coronet, 1977 edition)

Meyer is considered one of the better non-ACD Holmes writers, in part because The Seven Percent Solution brings makes explicit Holmes’s drug addiction. And in part because he nails Watson’s voice.

The West End Horror is a check list of late Victorian theatre. George Bernard Shaw hires Holmes to solve a murder in the West End. Then a chorus girl at the D’Oyley Cart is killed, bringing in Gilbert & Sullivan. Oh, and there’s Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker and Ellen Terry as well.

The overall plot is enjoyable, with some horrifying scenes played out with just the right sense of Watson holding back whilst trying to be as honest as possible. But that checklist is the problem – whereas the use of Freud in The Seven Percent Solution is integral to the plot, this reads like name-checking. Of course, the London theatrical world was – and is – small. A murder investigation will connect to some of the most famous people of that time. But it feels more fannish than previously, as if the desire to have Holmes meet X is greater than the desire to write a good Holmes story.

Still, it’s an enjoyable one, and worth getting for any Holmes fan.

In the teeth of the evidence

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

This probably rounds out the reviews for the year.

In the Teeth of the Evidence
Dorothy L Sayers
(New English Library, 1970 edition – now Hodder & Stoughton)

I’ve a terrible feeling I’ve read this collection of short stories before. It opens with a Lord Peter Wimsey murder mystery, then a set of Monty Egg murder mysteries, then a set of standalone stories of the ‘sting in the tale’ kind.

Short crime fiction is a very different beast to the crime novel. You need to misdirect the reader yet swing back to the solution without causing whiplash. With less room to manouvre your cast and no space for subplots, it’s a tricky thing to pull off.

It’s not Sayers’ strongest form. When I think of Sayers books, I think of the brick thick Gaudy Night; all Latin quotes and romantic subplots. Wimsey was one of the first detectives to have a domestic live. Put Wimsey in a short story and he’s too high-handed. He barges in and solves a crime, end of.

Montague Egg is much better suited to the short format. A travelling salesman for a wine company, he lives by The Salesman’s Handbook and quotes from it given a chance. He doesn’t seek out murders to solve, he instead tends to be protecting the company’s interests. For example, when a customer dies of poisoning from one of their bottles of wine. Because he is thrown into new situations thanks to his job, there’s less of a sense of him ‘swanning in’.

The nagging suspicion that I’ve read this collection before means I can’t really comment on the sting in the tale stories – they only work if the sting is a true surprise and I seemed to know them already.

If you’re a Wimsey fan, you’re better off with the novels, but this is worth reading for the Egg stories alone. They’re neat and well-characterised, and make full use of the format.

Death at the Priory

Thursday, 28 October 2010

There are gaps in my to be read bookshelf. Gaps.

Not on the pulp shelf, true, but on the non-fiction and ‘proper fiction’ shelves.

Death at the Priory
James Ruddick
(Atlantic, 2001)

The Charles Bravo case is one of several notorious Victorian crimes. In 1876, Bravo took three agonised days to die of antimony poisoning. The police couldn’t find any conclusive evidence, and the coroner’s inquest returned an open verdict. Bravo himself never suggested who might have poisoned him. His wife’s companion, Mrs Cox, suggested he had commited suicide, but no-one doing that would use antimony.

Many books have been written speculating on who did it. This 2001 book by journalist James Ruddick introduces the facts of the case, works through the common theories and produces its own.

Ruddick uses the investigative skills of a journalist (the proper ones, not modern churnalism) to go back to the primary sources. He goes further, in fact, and tracks down living relatives of the key protagonists. This produces new evidence such as letters about wills which changes the standard theories about the case. If someone knew they were due to inherit a vast estate, would they still kill Bravo for threatening their financial state?

As with the Road Hill House murder*, the Bravo case intrigues as it demonstrates the passionate turmoil behind the surface veneer of an upper class Victorian household. Florence Bravo, Charles’ wife, had been married before to an alcoholoic then had an affair with a much older man before deciding she wanted respectability again. She died two years after Charles’ death, of alcohol poisoning.

The contemporary press reported the Bravo inquest verbatim, fuelling a desire for every sensationalist detail. When the inquest was due to sit on a bank holiday the crowds who showed to watch were so great the coroner had to postpone it for the day.

Ruddick covers the details concisely and puts forward a convincing case for his solution, based on the new primary material he uncovered. But some of the familial history is hearsay, so needs to be taken cautiously. Given how many people the case ruined (both in social standing and in physical health), the descendents are unlikely to be unbiased.

Still, the return to primary sources and the determination to find new evidence makes this book a good example of investigative journalism as well as a smart traipse through a true crime.

*I’m shocked to discover I’ve not reviewed The Suspicions of Mr Whicher here but suffice to say I loved it.

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