“The Saltmarsh Murders” by Gladys Mitchell (1932)

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“There are all sorts of disadvantages in telling a story in the first person, especially a tale of murder.”

After reading a parody of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, it seemed fitting to dip back into a genuine one. I’ve long been ignorant of Gladys Mitchell, which seems odd given she was so prolific. Perhaps her profile is simply lower, or maybe even not all of her books are currently available. I can only make excuses for my ignorance. Nonetheless, I’m here now with the surprising The Saltmarsh Murders.

Noel Wells, the curate in the small village of Saltmarsh, sets about telling us the story of the murders that he got caught up in. He prefers to spend his time dancing with the vicar’s niece, but the peace is shattered when the unmarried housemaid is found to be pregnant, and the vicar’s shrewish, vindictive wife throws her out. A few days after the baby is born, the housemaid is strangled and the baby disappears, with no one ever having set eyes on it. Questions are raised – who had the motive and the opportunity? Why was the girl so secretive? And was there even a baby at all?

Noel calls on Mrs Bradley, an amateur detective and psychologist who happens to be staying in the village, to investigate the murder and together they find themselves dragged into Saltmarsh’s seedy underbelly as the story grows to incorporate a false letter, a kidnapped vicar, smuggling, the village lunatic, a missing corpse and an excavation of the local quarries. With Mrs Bradley convinced that the wrong man has been convicted, it is a race against time to find the true culprit and save an innocent man from death.

For much of the reading, I was worried I’d have to come here afterwards and give a negative review. The opening chapters were slow, somewhat repetitive and I kept losing track of who was who. It took a while to get to the actual murder, giving us some strange plots earlier on that quickly get discarded and prove not to be so important. I’d also made guesses on a number of plot points and was rapidly proven right on them all. However, when Mitchell finally reveals who the murderer was, the rug was pulled out from under me and I wasn’t anything like close. It’s a curiously satisfying solution.

The style of its time, with language and attitudes one would expect of the 1930s, so there are some terms that seem questionable to modern readers, but in many other respects there are some curiously modern topics involved, including pre-marital sex, incest, racial tension, and pornography. It was undoubtedly quite a shocking read at the time, and indeed, parts of it are still so today. Many other elements remain typical of books of the sort – small village, missing people, a secret passage and a country vicar.

I’d probably read Mitchell again, although I don’t necessarily see Mrs Bradley as one of fiction’s “most memorable personalities”, but I’m in no particular hurry.

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“A Murder To Die For” by Stevyn Colgan (2018)

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“A warm drizzle began to fall just as the very last piece of festival bunting was being hung.”

As surely anyone who follows me on Twitter or is a regular reader here will know, I went through the crowdfunding publishers Unbound to produce my second novel, The Third Wheel, and thanks to the support of many of you, it will be out later this year (and there is still time to pre-order a copy!) While scratching around the website, however, I of course stumbled across many other works-in-progress, some of which I have supported in turn. A Murder to Die For was already funded by the time I got to it, but that’s no bad thing. As seems to be the purpose of Unbound, it seemed exactly the sort of book I was looking for…

Agnes Crabbe lived a solitary life between 1895 and 1943, penning many murder mystery novels, none of which saw the light of day. By accordance with her will, her manuscripts were revealed to the world at the turn of the millennium, and what was discovered blew everyone’s minds. Some of the best stories from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction were flung out into the world decades after they’d been written, birthing hundreds of TV adaptations, radio plays, stage shows, and fan clubs. Not least of these is the annual Agnes Crabbe Murder Mystery Festival held in her hometown of Nasely.

Normally a fairly sedate event where hundreds of fans – usually all dressed as Crabbe’s famous detective, Millicent Cutter – turn up to hear talks, swap theories and drink heavily, this year things go a bit different when the festival opens with a shocking murder. The heads of the different fan clubs begin to spread their own theories and given that the town is overrun with murder mystery fans, everyone thinks that they can be the one to solve the case. However, fiction isn’t as neat as reality, and the police first have to deal with all the amateur sleuths before they can get to the issue of what actually happened. But given that this is a village where the suspects, witnesses and victim are all dressed as Millicent Cutter, things are not always what they seem…

After a run of books that were temperate, unimpressive, or simply not capable to hitting exactly the right spots, it was a delight to breeze through this excellent novel over the weekend. Sat in the garden under a scorching sun, I consumed this in two days and slightly regret having done so, as it just made it end all the quicker. Stevyn Colgan, who has previously appeared in my consciousness as one of the QI elves and as a guest on one of my favourite podcasts, Worst Foot Forward, now turns his attention to fiction and does it with serious skill. A former policeman himself, he knows the ins and outs of the crime solving world and is as such perfectly placed to be able to bring the reality to the table.

The novel joyfully plays up the tropes and themes of murder mystery stories and while some of them are retained in full, he’s not above twisting, bending or snapping the rules as he deems fit. After all, crime stories follow a pattern – real life doesn’t. Colgan wrote the entire book, I’m sure, with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, giving the overblown and eccentric characters life in a way I’ve not seen for some time. It’s very silly, but it’s also very clever, much like something by Jasper Fforde. Although Colgan states in the novel’s acknowledgements that Agnes Crabbe’s life story mimics in many ways that of Vivian Maier, a photographer who only received acclaim for her work after her death, there feel enough references in here to also parody the greats like Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. Beautifully, the novel also opens with an introduction to the life and work of Crabbe, and a complete list of her titles, all of which sound so improbably like mysteries from the golden age that I would love to have a read.

A truly remarkable, funny, sharp, creative and interesting look at murder mysteries. Bring on the sequel.

“The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler (1939)

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“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.”

Last week, I watched – for the first time – the 2012 comedy film Pitch Perfect, and I promise you there is a tangential link coming here in case you’re wondering why I’m starting a post about Raymond Chandler by talking about Anna Kendrick. Upon finishing the film, with my friend unimpressed at my unimpressed reaction, she said, “This is the trouble when you come to things too late. You’ve built them up in your head and they never live up to your expectations.” She’s right. As someone who gets to things in his own time, I’m often behind the curve on some of the big titles in popular culture. In the case of Raymond Chandler, I might be about eighty years too late…

Private investigator Philip Marlowe has been hired by General Sternwood to track down a blackmailer who’s causing trouble for his daughter Carmen. He also lets slip that the husband of his other daughter, Vivian, has gone missing, and while he doesn’t ask Marlowe to find him, it seems that just about everyone else expects that he has. The Sternwood daughters are something of a handful, and Marlowe is caught up in something rather full-on, and that’s before the first body turns up. He finds himself embroiled in a case involving a missing car, some nude photographs, a stalker without a clue, and the disappeared wife of a gangster.

I’d read over the years a number of quotes from Chandler, most of them being either incredibly wise (“Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.”) or very funny (“I’m an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard.”), and I think this had led me to believe that this books were a non-stop riot of one-liners and witty words of wisdom. At yet, instead I found myself being the one having to fight off a big sleep as I ploughed through the text. I found that characters blurred together and I wasn’t particularly bothered about the eventual fates of any of them.

It’s not badly written, and it has a fairly interesting story, but something about it failed to capture me. I was told that Chandler was better than Hammett, but there’s not much of a difference. Chandler possibly just clinches it with his dry wit. (“You should see him sober. I should see him sober. Somebody should see him sober. I mean, just for the record.”) Like Sam Spade, Marlowe isn’t necessarily a fully unlikable character, although that’s purely in the context of him being fictional. He’s an interesting creation, but I wouldn’t want to have a drink with him. Is he as iconic as Sherlock Holmes as some people claim? To me, no, but I can see the tropes and cliches being put into place and he is the Ur-PI that all others will come to follow.

Hard boiled crime looks fun from the outside, but whenever I dive in I just find that it doesn’t live up to my expectations.

“Grinding It Out” by Ray Kroc (1977)

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“I have always believed that each man makes his own happiness and is responsible for his own problems.”

Ray Kroc’s name is perhaps not one that comes immediately to mind when you’re thinking about the most influential people in history, but there’s no denying he belongs in the list. He may not have discovered gravity, or come up with the theory of evolution, or invented the aeroplane, but he changed the face of the planet in such a way that there is no doubt at all that you’ve come up against his business at some point in your life. That’s because Ray Kroc is the man who made McDonalds.

Born in 1902, it wasn’t until Kroc was in his fifties that he moved into the fast food industry. Having heard rumours of a Californian restaurant run by two brothers, Mac and Dick McDonald, he jetted out to visit them and was so impressed by what he saw, he convinced them to let him begin opening franchises across the country, with the first one opening in Illinois in 1954. It was, almost immediately, a success. This book, written in 1977 and thus only really detailing the first twenty-five years of the business, is Kroc’s own story of how it happened.

Penned as something of a cross between an autobiography and a business manual, Grinding It Out explores the tenacity of Ray Kroc and his insistence on doing things right, not skimping on quality, and the sheer enthusiasm and passion he shows for whatever he may be working on. He was at times a pianist, a door-to-door salesman and even joined up to help in World War One, finding himself in the same company as a quiet cartoonist called Walt Disney, no less. He eventually began selling paper cups, and later milkshake machines, and it turned out he had a natural flair for salesmanship and business. Seeing McDonalds as something that could become enormous, he made a deal with the brothers and set about turning it into the behemoth that we know (and many of us love) today.

Being an autobiography, Kroc surely skips over some of his less pleasant traits, although it’s clear even from his own narration that he’s rather arrogant, pig-headed, and while he’s not always against admitting he’s made a mistake, he would rather everyone just did as he told them. He was married three times, but with the first two he ensures his ex-wife is left with a large alimony that can keep her comfortable for the rest of her life. Towards the end of the book, the company begins doing a lot for charity, in particular setting up Ronald McDonald House, and he’s not backwards in coming forwards and telling you about what a gracious, generous soul he is. Nonetheless, for all the faults he seems to have and hide, he’s a thoroughly engaging narrator. It is said that “even his enemies agree there are three things Ray Kroc does damned well: sell hamburgers, make money, and tell stories.” It’s true in spades. He’s in turn funny, charming and while you know he’d probably be a nightmare to meet, he certainly knows how to keep your attention.

Given that the book was written in 1977 and Kroc died of heart failure in 1984 (although it is said he worked right up until the end), this is only the beginning of the McDonalds story, and therefore the last forty years are entirely absent. This means that while we learn about how the kitchens were set up and see the introduction of the Big Mac and Ronald McDonald, there are no mentions of McNuggets, Happy Meals, or salads. Nonetheless, we do get to learn about how exactly the Filet-O-Fish came into being, why the Hulaburger failed, and where the Shamrock Shake had its genesis.

Love McDonalds and Kroc’s work or hate it, you cannot deny that he was certainly influential, and it’s fascinating to learn more about the man behind the company.

Pass the McNuggets.

“Call Me By Your Name” by André Aciman (2007)

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“‘Later!’ The word, the voice, the attitude.”

I’ve been away at a wedding this weekend, and a trip away always requires at least two books to be packed. As it was (and as I think I expected) I had hardly any time to read, so most of this was completed once I was back. It felt right to take a romance with me to a wedding, and this one ties into the fact it’s Pride Month, too. Where better to spend a few days at this time of year than the Italian Riviera. Come with me, let’s go.

It’s the late eighties, and seventeen-year-old Elio has just met the man who’ll be staying with his family for the summer. His parents take in a lodger every summer, someone who is working on a book and needs time and space to write. This year, it’s Oliver. He’s twenty-four, intelligent, effortlessly cool, and utterly beautiful. Elio is smitten from almost the moment Oliver gets out of his taxi and becomes conflicted about whether he should make his feelings known. Oliver is at times friendly and perhaps encouraging, but at others distant and determinedly ignores Elio, who begins to wonder if he should start a relationship with the local girl Marzia instead.

As the weeks progress, the two young men grow closer and become more entangled in one another’s lives and emotions. The six weeks of the summer may not mark a particularly long time on the calendar, but they will forever change Elio and Oliver as they seek out true intimacy for the first time, and maybe the last.

At its heart, the book is simply about the difference between sex and intimacy and how they can easily be confused. Pure intimacy is perhaps the rarest relationship one can have with another human, and while at times you could argue that Elio tries to force it here, there’s no denying that they do have something pretty special, if at times somewhat bizarre. Although the sex scenes with them together are kept discreet and half-hidden, there are still enough scenes of Elio pleasuring himself – often in fetishistic and unusual ways – to counterbalance.

Anyone of any sexual stripe will be familiar with this sense of lust; a longing for someone that you can’t be sure returns the feeling. This being literary fiction, however, the characters are not necessarily people we know, even if their emotions are. Elio is precocious at seventeen, transcribing music and blending artists together for his own compositions. Oliver teaches at Colombia and spends most of his time in Italy working hard on his new book. The characters around them all have an other-worldly sheen, too, as if the Riviera polishes everyone to a high gleam and makes even their faults look more acceptable.

As for the prose itself, like much literary fiction, the book is awfully fond of itself and its use of extensive paragraphs that detail very little action at all. Elio spends much of his time fretting and while he’s not unpleasant as a person, some may find him beginning to grate after a while. Fortunately, the book’s wise words and descriptions of life are rather good. It’s also notable that despite being a book about two gay lovers, I don’t think the words “gay” or “love” make a single appearance. The book is open and aware of bisexuality, which is a novelty, and does its very best to avoid labels. Love is love, after all.

A warming and thoughtful novel, which can make even the hardest heart believe in the worth and power of intimacy.

“Mostly Harmless” by Douglas Adams (1992)

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“The history of the Galaxy has got a little muddled, for a number of reasons: partly because those who are tyring to keep track of it have got a little muddled, but also because some very muddling things have been happening anyway.”

Every year I’ve been doing this blog, I’ve tried to have a specific series to be re-reading. In 2013, it was A Series of Unfortunate Events, and then in 2014, all of Douglas Coupland. 2015 was Harry Potter, 2016 went to Jasper Fforde, and 2017 didn’t actually have a theme and was just a few old favourites I wanted to rediscover. This year, I set myself the task of rereading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, and since it’s only a trilogy of five, I’ve already done it. Fittingly, the 42nd book I read this year was Mostly Harmless, which feels just about perfect. Don’t panic – my waffling introduction ends now. The next paragraph gets to the point.

Mostly Harmless picks up at an unspecified point beyond the end of the last book. Arthur Dent is scouring the multiverse (or rather, the Whole Sort of General Mish Mash, as multiverse doesn’t quite explain what’s going on) for any sign of Earth, but is routinely upset to find that it doesn’t exist, or does but in an entirely unfamiliar way. Ford Prefect has returned to the headquarters of the Guide and breaks in as to avoid the expenses department who would like a word. He finds things have changed rather a lot since he was last here. And elsewhere, Tricia McMillan is starting to wonder if her career as a television presenter is a satisfying compromise to the opportunity she didn’t take to join Zaphod Beeblebrox on his spaceship.

Except, as we know, she did. Only not in this universe. On this version of Earth – where the primary difference appears to be that clover here usually has four leaves and a three-leaf clover is lucky – she went back for her bag and Zaphod left her behind with nothing but frustration and a sense that she was meant to be so much more. She gets a second chance, though, when aliens land and take her to the planet Rupert, just beyond Pluto, to ask how astrology works. Meanwhile, Ford is fiddling his accounts in ways previously unseen by the galaxy, and Arthur appears to have finally found somewhere that he isn’t entirely miserable. That is, until our Trillian turns up and informs him that he’s a father, which is awkward as they never even got around to sleeping together. As everyone gathers together for one final time, Arthur realises that this really is the end – for now at least.

While still funny, surreal and one of the cleverest books in the known universe, there’s definitely a bleak streak throughout this one. Everything feels a little more futile, and ending cannot be described as happy, however you slice it. Adams admitted later that he was having a difficult time personally when writing this book, and it shows. He had, apparently, always planned to restore whatever passes for order in the series at some time later, but his untimely death in 2001 put paid to that. Although a sixth book has been published, I won’t be reading it for now. I sense that no matter how good the imitation, it won’t be quite right.

The book is also the most uneven of the series. Zaphod and Fenchurch are both missing – the former’s absence is not explained, and there is a throwaway line regarding the latter – and the plot threads don’t necessarily all tie up quite as well as we’re used to. It ends rather abruptly and we never properly get a chance to savour the final events. There are, however, more female characters than ever, some interesting philosophy, and an underlying message about the importance of home and trying to find one’s place in the universe.

I’m sure that Adams would’ve given us a lighter sixth book, but it is what it is. All in all, it’s still a great book, better than I remembered, and I love some of the concepts. Arthur is still an angel, and I would love to take him out for tea, just to give him a bit of normality. Whatever happened next though, including the real reason that 42 is the answer to life, the universe and everything, are buried along with Adams in Highgate Cemetery. I’ve been to see his grave, and I advise any fan to do the same. There’s a beautiful tradition, though. In life, Adams claimed he could never find a pen when he wanted one, so it’s now the done thing to take one with you and leave it for him at his grave.

And if that touch of madness doesn’t sum up the wonderful man and his incredible books, then I don’t know what does.

“Railsea” by China Miéville (2012)

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“This is the story of a bloodstained boy.”

It’s almost a shame that I used up my introduction spiel about trains for a film last year, when it would’ve served me well here. Never mind. Most books that give a prominent role to trains feature just the one. Something magical and impressive that captures the imagination. China Miéville, however, goes a little further than that, and envisions a world entirely populated by trains. Welcome to the Railsea.

Sham Yes ap Soorap is an assistant doctor aboard the Medes, a moletrain. He is new to the Railsea, but is now sure to spend the rest of his life touring the rails, hunting for giant moles, in particular the great southern modlywarpe, and getting to know the other riders of the rails. In this world, there are no oceans, just endless plains laced with endless tracks. Every kind of train patrols them, from huge iron wartrains to wooden trains with sails. There are those made of salvage, those running on steam, and even one-man traincycles that people use to get around the islands.

While on a hunt, Sham and his crew stumble across a wrecked train and set about searching it for salvage. Inside, Sham instead finds a camera. The flatographs it shows, however, reveal something far more interesting than holiday snaps. There are images of children from a distant country, rare salvage, and most bizarrely of all, potential evidence that the Railsea does indeed end. Captivated by the image of a single rail leading out to darkness, Sham convinces Captian Naphi to put aside her hunt for Mocker-Jack, the great white mole, and seek out the people in the flatographs, and then, perhaps, find the edge of the world.

But rumour travels quickly on the rails, and soon Sham is in peril, as salvagers, pirates, monsters and molers all seek him out. What he and his crew discover may change not only his own fate, but that of the entire Railsea.

I’ve read Miéville a few times before, and he’s continually proved himself to have an imagination beyond anything one could reasonable expect from a writer. Aiming to write a novel in every genre, here he turns his attention to the great adventure tales. Indeed, the whole novel can be seen as a parody of, or homage to, Moby-Dick, particularly with the Captain’s obsession with hunting down the ivory-coloured mole that took her arm. This is expanded to be part of the lore, as most captains have what they call their “philosophy” – a particular creature that stole a limb from them, and they commit their lives to finding and killing the beast. Indeed, the creatures of this world are perhaps the most fascinating aspect. With no oceans, lakes or rivers, the ground itself takes up the reins for producing enormous and terrifying beasts. Most everything that we know on Earth to live in the ground lives here, although often far larger and more bloodthirsty than we would remember. Moles grow huge, but so do badgers, naked mole rats, rabbits, earthworms, termites, antlions, burrowing owls and earwigs. These animals have never been so scary.

Miéville also works magic with the setting itself. A world where ships are replaced by trains might seem quite simple, but the level of detail included is wonderful. Trains are limited in their travelling patterns by rails, unlike ships which can steer any which way, but there are still plenty of parallels. Trains are besieged by railgulls, and many of them still have crows nests aboard. The moletrains work mostly like whaling ships, and there are pirates here too, just like in adventure tales set on the open waves. Some job titles change – there is a trainswain rather than a coxswain – and they still sing shanties, although with slightly different lyrics, such as the classic, “What Shall We Do With the Drunken Brakesman?” The world is full and while we still see nothing like all of it, you know that it’s all there.

The book also keeps a level of uncertainty as to when and where the book is set. At first it seems like it might be another world distinct from our own, but there are mentions of the society having been going for a very long time – there is an awful lot of salvage, some of which looks like contemporary technology – and there are obscure references to things that appear to have been passed down through folklore, such as a brief mention of the god Railhater Beeching. It also seems that the planet has been visited by beings from other worlds before now, so if it is Earth, it’s a very distant future one with little water.

Although the book at times chugs along slower than the London to Brighton train on Southern rail, by the end it’s a Japanese bullet train and the ending itself contains a laugh-out-loud moment that makes it all worthwhile. It ends on a note of promise, and I almost wish I could have kept on following Sham on his adventures. It’s not my favourite Miéville story, but it’s still a pretty remarkable read.

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