My attempt to start digging into the to.be.read mountain continues, although I did get three books from a charity shop the other day and have read 1.5 of them, thus not making a proper dent in the mountain. Winter has arrived, with the wind hugging the chinmeys and the rain splattering the glass and the cat suddenly deciding that actually, it will sleep on the bed after all due to the feline principle of stealing human’s heat. And when winter suddenly drops in, I get an urge to read crime fiction.
The Fashion in Shrouds
by Margery Allingham
fiction | UK crime | C20th | Campion series
I’ve previously mentioned that I have read all the Campion series, so this was technically a reread. It’s the one in which Albert’s sister, a fashion designer, is suspected of attempting to murder her rival (an actress) for the love of a airplane designer. The rival’s husband dies. Then the model he had taken up with, who looks like the actress, is murdered. And the actress’s previous lover shot himself three years before. The press, naturally, are having a field day. Like a lot of jazz era novels involving celebrity, it doesn’t require much to translate it into Heat-era speak: at one point a dress design by Val is replicated by a cheaper house, recalling Burberry‘s current embarassment over market-stall copies of their check.
Except this is also so of its era that it passes beyond pastishe. Not just the automatic exocticism of air travel – something long lost in the easyjet era – or the colonial elements (the husband was the governor of a Ivory Coast British colony snadwiched between the Belgiums and Germans). Not even the fact that women wearing trousers is terribly shocking. No, it’s the language and mindset which seems shocking. The casual use of ‘nigger’ pulls you up before you even get to Albert’s awful line to his sister: “What you need is a good cry or a nice rape, or both.” Campion has been sepia’d by the television adaptations with Peter Davison as the detective, so it seems even worse that a detective thought of as pleasant, diffedent and shy would casually say these things. I’ve no idea if the book has been allowed to fall out of print (this was a green Penguin editon I found to add to the collection) or if it has been bowdlerised as Christie’s Ten Little Niggers (1939) became Ten Little Indians became And Then There Were None. Perhaps surprisingly, given the ageless elements, or unsurprisingly, given the dubious language it was not amongst the Campion stories filmed back in the late 80s. But neither was my favourite, Traitor’s Purse.
The Silver Pigs
by Lindsey Davis
fiction | UK crime | C20th | Falco series
Like many crime readers, I devour entire series about a particular detective. Discounting the Famous Five, I think the first series I read through was Lord Peter Wimsey, then Campion, then Roderick Allyn, then Cadfael and so on. I was late to Christie which may explain my dislike of Poirot. I keep meaning to read the Morse books, and I like several more contemporary series, like Christopher Brookmyre, but I wanted new historical crime so I asked for recommendations. One person whose name came up was Lindsey Davis so I picked up The Silver Pigs whilst in Waterstones (at the same time as The Palace Tiger). What struck me almost immediately – whilst reading the list of characters – was the humour of it.
Aged 30. Vespasian’s elder son; popular and brilliant.
Aged 20. Vespasian’s younger son; not so brilliant, and not so popular.
A gardener’s horse:
Also, there are maps. I like extras with my crime. The novel itself is an entertaining mixture: Falco would like to see himself as an ancient Rome version of Philip Marlowe, but he’s hampered by his large family, his mother and the fact he is too kind-hearted. Like Cadfael, he’s a former soldier but unlike Cadfael, who went to the Meditterainean on the First Crusade before returning to Shrewsbury, Falco was sent from Rome to Britainnia during the Bodicea uprising and is, unsurprisingly, very unhappy to be sent back there. Davis’s Rome has both the marble beauty of the Senate and the piss-tubs of the launderies in the backstreets. (As a sidenote, anyone who found the HBO Rome series to be less enjoyable than they hoped should try these books.) Her Britain is damp, cold and corrupt. Unlike now, obviously. Part of the British section is set in Isca Dumnoniorum or, as it is known today, Exeter, which was one reason I followed the recommendation to try the book. There was a bit in which a bunch of drunk soliders were described as at a crossroads in the city: that was also true in the Civil War era, and right up until 3am last night.
The central mystery is laid out in such a way that the reader suspects as Falco does, so that you neither feel superior due to working it out far in advance of the detective, nor cheated because information enabling you to solve the murders is withheld. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that, when I saw Scandal Takes a Holiday in a charity shop last week, I grabbed it and am currently halfway through.