Thursday, 17 May 2012

Some vintage crime

Here, as part of my Century of Books, are four crime novels which might all come under the category "acquired taste". Some, I imagine, will hate them.  One of the things which interested me about reading books spanning the twentieth century was that I could include mystery novels as a sort of sub theme, and these range from 1926 to 1951. The first is a one-off, a writer for whom this was just an interesting foray, the others all wrote more than one crime novel.

T.H. White, Darkness at Pemberley (1932)
Was this, I wonder, the first Jane Austen fanfic? It's become rather fashionable of late to give mysteries Austen settings - we've had Lynn Shepherd's Murder at Mansfield and P.D. James' Death Comes to Pemberley, but this little oddity predates them by 70+ years. What this isn't is a whodunit - because you know who, almost from the very beginning - or even a howdunit, because you know that, too. It's what happens next that's important. And as the action moves from its opening in Cambridge to Pemberley, the excitement steps up with not one but two thrilling chases, as Inspector Buller and his old friend Charles Darcy (scion of that Mr Darcy) join forces. Sort of Jane Austen meets John Buchan.

To say much about the plot would be to spoil the fun, but it starts with two bodies in Cambridge (and a wonderful disclaimer at the beginning) - it's a classic locked room mystery, but is it a murder and a suicide or, as Buller begins to suspect, a double murder? He's a conscientious policeman, but unusually, one with an imagination, and the outcome of his investigation leaves him so hugely disillusioned that he feels he has no option but to resign. In many ways, Darkness at Pemberley reminds me most of Edmund Crispin's Gervase Fen novels, having the same mix of suspense and glee, plus an absolutely implausible plot. You also need to make some allowances for the period - White was, after all, what one of his characters describes as "a bit of a nationalist" (along with a number of other writers with whom he shared his affinity for nature).

Gladys Mitchell, When Last I Died (1941)
I picked this, the first Mrs Bradley mystery I've read, pretty much at random. If you've seen Diana Rigg portraying her as cool and glamorous in the BBC series, you may be in for a surprise, as in the books she's described as a wrinkled old bat with an evil sense of humour and a disconcerting tendency to cackle. She has decided views on what we now call restorative justice (leaning much more towards the retributive kind), a line in political incorrectness the length of your arm, and a decidedly long-suffering chauffeur. As a psychoanalyst she can't resist the whiff of the supernatural, and in this book she combines an investigation of the disappearance of two boys from a remand home with one, prompted by personal curiosity, into a haunted house, which provides the opportunity for a very questionable bit of experimentation. You wouldn't get away with it nowadays.

Personally, I'd put Mitchell into a fairly long list of crime novelists who write perfectly good books with reasonably solid plotting, ideal for whiling away an evening or two with, but not so good that you rush out to acquire the next in the series. I note that Mitchell connoisseurs like to say that, though patchy, she's better than Christie, but - this far at least - I think Christie's funnier. If I get hooked on Mrs Bradley, of course, I may have to revise that.

Another that fits into the category of "good enough" is Victor L. Whitechurch's The Crime at Diana's Pool (1926). I really wanted to read another of his books, The Canon in Residence, which I'd read was very funny, and I was wildly jealous to read Simon's post about it here (I expect I'll succumb and hunt down a copy, especially as Simon liked it, but I am trying hard not to buy "real" books right now...). Whitechurch sounds rather fun himself -  a clergyman who wrote detective stories - but then, he liked railways, which is nice and safe and dull. The real hero of Diana's Pool, though the focus moves about a bit between him and the police, is eagle-eyed vicar, Mr Westerham, "an energetic, capable parish priest,a good organiser and a sensible preacher". He makes no apology for his interest in the events surrounding the murder of Felix Nayland, but he's so shrewd and down-to-earth that police don't mind. It helps, perhaps, that he moves in the same social circles as the Chief Constable - indeed, both were at the gathering where the murder occurred.

I don't know whether Whitechurch used Westerham in other books - he could develop nicely, I'd have thought, although he's not very interesting in himself: he lacks the quirks which make a fictional detective memorable. Although not prolific, apparently Whitechurch did have a recurring character who was a vegetarian railway detective, so he was obviously aware that readers need something distinctive to latch on to.

Duplicate Death by Georgette Heyer (1951)
Heyer's mysteries can be fun, and in this, the third of her books to feature the redoubtable Hemingway, she reintroduces several characters that we met earlier in They Found Him Dead. The best of these is that thoroughly bumptious child, Timothy Harte, now grown to adulthood but not a white less bright and breezy. Hemingway has been promoted and is well-viewed by Scotland Yard, who regard him as a reliable man to put in charge of a society murder. His bagman, Grant, is reliable too, apart from a disconcerting tendency to exclaim in Gaelic - irritating to Hemingway, who's unable to pop home at the end of a long day and do a bit of quick Googling to make sure that they aren't aspersions about his policing techniques. Heyer is equally good at writing likeable and loathsome characters, and Mrs Lilias Haddington and her daughter Cynthia are pretty ghastly. I didn't find myself too hampered by not having a clue what duplicate bridge is (having firmly resisted OH's efforts to get me interested in card games, though unlike Hemingway, I could Google it). The story romps along with Heyer's usual aplomb and has the bonus of an ending that'll make you smile.

None of these books have the fireworks of many modern detective stories but they are all worth their re-issue, White and Whitechurch by Ostara, who have an entire list which makes my mouth water (and rather elegant covers). What they lack in showiness they more than make up for, in my opinion, in good writing and wit, which are qualities that endure.

12 comments:

  1. It's been a long, actually VERY long time since I last read any Georgette Heyer, but your description of "Duplicate Death" made me want to pick her up again.

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    1. It's her usual nicely done froth, with plenty of humour. And she does write well - I can't imagine a year in which I don't read something by her.

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  2. "Jane Austen meets John Buchan"?! Irresistible!

    *Hurries off to Amazon...*

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    1. Oh heavens, I shall feel terribly responsible if you hate it!

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  3. As Linda says ....(the White sounds wonderful!)

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    1. I do hope I haven't allowed my longterm love of White to cloud my judgement too far - I know my OH would have loathed it :-{

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  4. Whoa! What? TH White wrote Jane Austen fanfiction? The TH White? I feel like I should have known about this sooner, but for sure I need this in my life stat.

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    1. Well, it's set at Pemberley... really, aside from The Once and Future King and The Goshawk, White's work in largely forgotten, although I loved The Master when I was growing up. I don't know what I'd make of it now; sadly, I don't have a copy (may have to find one, though).

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    2. Oh, and the glorious Mistress Masham's Repose, of course - my copy of that is so well-read it's disintegrating.

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  5. I love these books! I will be looking Whitechurch. Thanks.

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    1. I'm definitely going to read The Canon in Residence!

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  6. Lovely post, and I'm hurrying off to see if my library has any of the TH White -sounds irresistible - and the Gladys Mitchell - fun. Excellent little reviews too, I thought.

    I had no idea TH White wrote a mystery!!!

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