“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.

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“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.

“The Invisible Library” by Genevieve Cogman (2015)

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“Irene passed the mop across the stone floor in smooth, careful strokes, idly admiring the gleam of wet flagstones in the lantern-light.”

With a name like Genevieve Cogman, it feels almost inevitable that she penned a novel with a steampunk flavour. Someone, I forget who, had suggested this series to me a long time ago under the logic that my love of books would mean I would adore a story set in an enormous magical library. Indeed, I thought I would adore it too. Here’s the premise.

Irene works for the Library, an enormous book repository held in the space between worlds. She and her fellow Librarians are tasked with entering different universes to seek out works of fiction that are unique, dangerous or interesting. Freshly back from a school of magic, she is immediately assigned a visit to a steampunk universe where there’s a book of Grimm’s fairy tales unlike any other. Her boss also asks her to take along Kai, a new recruit with a needling attitude and more secrets that you can shake a brolly at.

In this alternate world, Irene and Kai soon find that the mission is not going to be an easy one. Chaos has infected this universe in a big way, and there seem to be a lot of people after the book. Its owner, a vampire called Lord Wyndham, has just been murdered and the killer is still at large. Irene and Kai are thrown into a mess of danger and secret societies, with magical creatures, cyborg alligators and Britain’s finest detective after them. Things go from bad to worse when Irene is locked out of the Library, her contact is found dead, and something far more dangerous than she could ever have envisioned is stalking the streets of London.

I do adore the concept – alternate universes with varying levels of technology and magic being visited by beings from beyond space and time to recover priceless works of fiction? What’s not to love? I’m working on something curiously similar myself. However, it all seemed to become far too complicated. In just over three hundred pages we are introduced to this magical Library, the Language while allows magic to occur, Kai’s backstory, the interlocking universes, vampires, werewolves, steampunk technology (including the obligatory dose of zeppelins), the on-going battle between the dragons and the Fae, and a knotty alternate history where Liechtenstein is considered a world power. There are so many aspects here that they begin to trip over themselves. Little is ever fully explained, characters never quite manage to develop three dimensions – often not even two – and there feels a desperation to throw as many things as possible at it.

Cogman also seems terrified that a reader might miss any any of the subtext in her story, and thus we are frequently treated to explanations as to what the true meanings are behind certain lines and gestures. While I get that sometimes subtext can be missed, here it feels almost insulting in its regularity, as if the readers would be too stupid to be able to understand. I did begin to wonder if the books are aimed at a young adult audience, but I can find nothing suggesting that to be the case. Perhaps it’s in the subtext, and it was the one time she didn’t bother telling us?

Since it’s the first in a series, I give it the benefit of the doubt. A lot has to be established in a first novel – the first Harry Potter book is, of course, tonally very different to the others because we’re being introduced to the world for the first time – but it all feels a little too rushed, with a desperation to throw in the Big Bad and explain away the big secrets before we’ve even really had a chance to begin to care about them. There are some interesting scenes, and one or two genuinely interesting characters, but they get lost among the ephemera.

It’s a shame, really, and it falls down where many books have fallen down before – a great premise, with poor execution.

“Portrait Of A Murderer” by Anne Meredith (1933)

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“Adrian Gray was born in May 1862 and met his death though violence, at the hands of one of his own children, at Christmas, 1931.”

One of the key features of many Christmas celebrations is surrounding yourself suddenly with people that you perhaps don’t really want to be spending time with, namely: your family. When families come together, often arguments follow soon after, as we’ve seen in numerous books. When the Gray family return to the nest for their festive party, things are perhaps a little more extreme than we could imagine.

Adrian Gray has never particularly got on with the six children, nor their partners, so when the whole family must gather at King’s Poplar, fireworks are sure to fly. Things go from bad to worse, however, when on Christmas morning Adrian is found dead at his library desk, head bludgeoned in with a paperweight. It’s enough to put a dampener on anyone’s celebrations.

But this isn’t a murder mystery. We know who killed him, and the novel instead explains what the killer did in the immediate aftermath to frame another member of the household, and we are left seeing if the truth will out. Will the wrong person be sentenced? Can a maid’s private midnight celebration unravel the carefully executed fraud? Can the police catch up to the real killer? It’s only a matter of time.

The British Library Crime Collection, I don’t think, has let me down so far and I’ve been captivated with most everything they’ve dug up from the archives and republished. This, however, was something of a disappointment. It’s not that it’s bad – it’s engaging in it’s own way, and an interesting and unusual take on the murder mystery conceit – but I could at no point get too invested in any of the characters, all of whom are unpleasant and selfish. The act of knowing who the killer is and instead watching how they escape the clutches of justice was much better portrayed in Antidote to Venom, although I admit I like the twist on the usual tale by letting us be aware of the murderer.

Perhaps I would’ve enjoyed it more at a different time of year, or in a different mood – it’s been a weird week – and I found the style to be needlessly wordy. The cast of characters is pretty substantial, and while they all get an introduction at the novel’s opening, a lot of them become irrelevant quickly, and I found myself confusing who was married and what everyone’s motives were. A larger cast may work in a situation where the killer is unknown, but here, there’s little need for them all, except as to act as an instant jury.

An interesting take on the murder mystery genre, but not a stand out example from the Golden Age.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Red House Mystery” by A. A. Milne (1922)

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“In the drowsy heat of the summer afternoon the Red House was taking its siesta.”

A. A. Milne, despite all his work as a playwright, poet, comedic journalist and soldier, is these days remembered primarily for just one thing: Winnie the Pooh. His life story, or at least the part focused around Pooh, featured heavily in the recent film Goodbye Christopher Robin. It is therefore easy for many these days to assume that that was all he did. However, four years before a certain bear of very little brain wandered into our hearts, Milne created an entirely different story, set a long way away in space and substance from the adventures in the Hundred Acre Woods. This is Milne’s only foray into the world of mystery writing.

The Red House Mystery opens with the servants of the titular property discussing their master, Mark Ablett. It seems he’s just received a letter that his ne’er-do-well brother Robert has returned from Australia and is coming to see him that afternoon. Not long after the arrival of Robert, however, a gunshot is heard from somewhere in the house.

Antony Gillingham, a stranger in these parts, has got off at the village train station on a whim, upon learning that his old friend Bill is staying at the Red House. He arrives just as Mark’s friend and manservant Cayley is struggling to get into the house to learn who has died. Robert is dead on the floor, and Mark has gone missing. The police speak to the servants and the guests who had been staying at the house, and the latter are bundled off quickly when it transpires they were all off playing golf. Bill, however, stays on to keep Antony company, as the newcomer has decided to take on the role of Sherlock Holmes and needs a Watson. Without telling the police, the pair set about solving the murder themselves…

The novel is filled with most of the trappings of the classic crime story. There are secret passages, missing keys, a dredged lake … and yet what’s really missing are suspects. From the off, it seems there are very few people who could possibly have committed the crime, so quite quickly it stops being a “whodunnit” and instead a “howdunnit”. That’s not necessarily a complaint, as they can be just as engaging.

I did find the character in the Sherlock role, Antony, to be faintly unbelievable though. His guesses are always correct, never mind how flimsy the evidence that points him to a conclusion. While with Sherlock Holmes himself, you sort of accept it as he’s been training himself for years on how to be the world’s greatest detective, but Antony is by his own admission an amateur, so some of his leaps of faith are a bit of a stretch. Still, it’s entertaining enough that I didn’t mind too much. The characters are funny, and there’s definitely the occasional burst of the kind of wit and humour that Milne used to great effect in his time with Punch, and while writing Winnie the Pooh.

Alexander Woolcott noted that this novel was “one of the three best mystery stories of all time”, but I think he’s being rather too generous on that front. It has its place, certainly, and Milne can happily be counted among the authors of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, but if you ask me, it is right that we remember Winnie the Pooh over this. I doubt anyone would really disagree.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett (1930)

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Not pictured: her gams that won’t quit

“Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth.”

Every so often a book comes along that births or redefines a whole genre. Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd blew wide open what was possible in a murder mystery. Mary Shelley is widely agreed to have invented science fiction with Frankenstein. And The Lord of the Rings ensured that in all future fantasy worlds the dwarves have beards and the elves are irritatingly smug. Dashiell Hammett takes his spot among these greats with The Maltese Falcon, popularising and cementing in many of the tropes associated with the hard-boiled detective novel. Though not the inventor of the genre – that title arguably falls to Carroll John Daly – it’s Hammett and his detective Sam Spade that we think of first when we find ourselves exploring this route.

It’s 1928, and a the beautiful Miss Wonderly has just walked into the offices of Spade and Archer. She wants them to tail a man called Floyd Thursby who has run off with her sister, and she’s worried. Before the night is over, Thursby is dead and so is Archer. The police immediately question Spade, who refuses to tell them anything.

Soon, Miss Wonderly is revealed to be Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a woman who is on the trail of the Maltese Falcon, a statuette of a black bird worth millions of dollars. She however, is not the only one. Joel Cairo, a Greek homosexual and Casper Gutman, an enormously fat and desperate man, are both after it too, although no one seems to know where it is, and no one seems very keen on telling the truth or admitting who they’re working for or with.

Are any of them in it together? Who is the young man tailing Spade all over town? Was Archer’s wife really leaving him to run off with Spade? With his work cut out for him and the police on his tail, Spade must get to the bottom of the business with the Falcon before it’s too late and he’s found floating face-down in the harbour.

Sometimes you read a book and think, “Something is off about this but I’m not sure what”. I had that here, and it took a few chapters for it to sink in. The book is told in the third person, which is far from uncommon, but it is perhaps the purest third person novel I’ve ever read. At no point do we get any hint of what people are thinking, what occurred in their backstory, or how they feel about situations. We are only told what people look like, what they’re doing and what they say. It’s easy to see, because of this, why the film was so readily produced. It’s a very visual piece, focused in the here and now so you aren’t distracted by knowing about Spade’s childhood, or how Brigid feels about her involvement.

Spade himself is a difficult character to pin down. Despite the fact he’s emotionally detached, a chauvinist, and willing to let any and all the women in his life believe that he loves them and them alone, I don’t altogether dislike him. He’s sharp and determined, although his sense of justice may not always align with ours, and I also find him quite funny. When being questioned by the police, he’s more than happy to wind them up, and he isn’t fond of taking shit from anyone. He’s inordinately brave, although perhaps its just sheer foolishness, and I’d trust him to solve any case I had. I wouldn’t trust him to not sleep with my wife before he’s through, however.

Plotwise, I suppose it holds together well enough but I found myself drifting a few times, though as usual that’s more of my own fault than a failing in the text – it’s been a long week. I like the set up that seems to be taking the novel one way, only for it to shift abruptly onto another tangent, a device I like employing in my books. It’s iconic in the genre, and I spent much of it suddenly wanting a cigarette, a trench coat, and a dame with legs that won’t quit to walk into my office. Even though I know she’s going to be trouble.

An interesting read, but I’m informed by a crime aficionado friend that Raymond Chandler is a step up again. I’ll get there soon.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Floating Admiral” by The Detection Club (1931)

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“Three glimpses through the rolling smoke of opium, three stories that still hover about a squalid opium joint in Hong Kong, might very well at this distance of time be dismissed as pipe dreams.”

Have you ever played Consequences? It’s that quaint party game where people write a sentence of a story, pass it on, and the next person has to continue the story and so on through as many players are there are. It’s quite good fun, and usually ends up with some ludicrous stories at the end. Now imagine doing that with a whole book. What if you could get the best writers of the age to work together and pen a single story? Well, satisfyingly, it’s already been done.

The Detection Club is a group of detective fiction writers. Formed in 1930 and still running today, almost every notable crime writer has found their way into the illustrious circle. It seems that they decided to pool their resources and so started writing together. However, the way they did it was much in the manner of Consequences. Each writer penned a different chapter, having to follow on from what the previous writer had said in theirs. Some of the contributors are well known – G. K. Chesterton, Anthony Berkley, Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie – while others such as Henry Wade and Edgar Jepson have fallen to the wayside with time and do not have such a great reputation now. Surprisingly, given their differing styles and the very nature of the challenge, the whole thing works. Here’s what’s going on…

Local fisherman Neddy Ware sets out in the early hours of the morning to the River Whyn, determined as usual that that’s the best time to land some fish. However, he gets more than he bargains for, when a rowing boat floats past him. He realises that it’s the Vicar’s boat and then, a moment later, there’s a body sprawled in the bottom of it; the murdered figure of Admiral Penistone. Ware tethers the boat immediately reports it to the police. Soon Inspector Rudge is on the case, but things are definiely not as smooth-sailing as the aforementioned boat.

For a start, every suspect has suddenly been called away to London on urgent business before they can be detained, leaving Rudge to learn the local gossip regarding the Admiral through busybody servants and nosy porters. The Vicar seems to know more than he’s letting on, but hides behind the excuse of “secrets of the confessional”. It seems impossible that the Admiral should be there at all, and everyone’s evidence contradicts, but as the suspects return one by one, Rudge begins to piece together what’s happened.

According to the prologue by Sayers, each writer had to write their chapter with a solution in mind, but also making use of all the clues, hints and facts mentioned in the previous chapters. Anthony Berkley, who has the unenviable task of writing the final chapter calls it “Clearing up the Mess”, which seems about right. And yet, somehow, the whole thing works very well. I’ve only read full books by three of the contributors, so I cannot fully assess their styles, but of the ones I know, you can almost tell. The characters and information come naturally, but it doesn’t stop the writers from adding in information that has merely been unmentioned up until they get a chance to speak. For example, one chapter suddenly mentions that two minor characters are actually related, and while there’s been no evidence of this so far, there’s also nothing saying it’s not possible.

It’s actually a really fascinating conceit, and deftly shows how talented these writers all were independently of one another that when they came together, they could still manage to “solve” a crime with only half the story. At the appendix at the end of the book, each writer also gets a chance to explain the solution they were aiming for, giving a great example, as seen in The Poisoned Chocolates Case, of how facts can be distorted and how odd it is to take the protagonist’s theory as sacrosanct. Had any chapter been the final one, there’s a very different solution up for grabs.

The Detection Club actually did a few of these, but this was the only one that Agatha Christie joined in with, so it’s naturally the one I was drawn to. Perhaps I’ll return to the others once I’ve become more familiar with their work, but this is a must for any lovers of classic detective fiction.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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