Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The Twinning Murders by Shelly Frome - review and interview

Now here's something out of the ordinary (for me, anyway!). I'm delighted to welcome an author today – someone entirely new to me – and to have the opportunity to ask him some questions. Shelly Frome is a professor emeritus of dramatic art at the University of Connecticut and his latest book is a mystery set, intriguingly, between New England and Dartmoor. How could I resist? My review of The Twinning Murders follows, but first of all, this short interview.

To start with, here’s one of those questions everyone asks – are you immensely disciplined, writing a set number of words every day, or are there times when you just can’t get started?

When I get to the point that I’ve done all the groundwork and the dynamic is percolating, I have to put in at least two hours a day. When this time slot is drawing to a close, I always leave the narrative in the air, sometimes at an unfinished sentence so that I can’t wait to get back to what’s unfolding. This way of working also seems to tap my subconscious in some mysterious way so that, more often than not, I discover before I go back to the rough draft or what-have-you, I haven’t taken into account some vital factor—e.g., as a professional tour guide, Emily would have to make certain each and every one of her charges were prepared in case of all possible contingencies while in the U.K. And that is why she has to check up on scatterbrained Silas in the dubious confines of his home.

I’m always fascinated by the urge that amateur sleuths seem to have to investigate – my instinct would be to stay out of trouble, I think! If you stumbled over a body yourself, can you imagine yourself setting off in best amateur detective fashion, sleeves rolled up, Boys’ Own magnifying glass clutched firmly in your hand, getting stuck in?

What fascinated me about this venture, in fact part of the reason I wrote the story, was the fact that Emily had no intention of becoming an amateur sleuth. She set out to right a great wrong and did all she could to get the powers that be to take over. Unlike the standard amateur sleuth, Emily was personally involved with what befell her mentor. After all, he was a father figure since the time her own father walked out on her when she was very young. In this way, the story becomes character driven and, hopefully, engages the reader who may very well empathize with Emily’s plight.  

Distinctive settings like Bath and Dartmoor mean that getting things right is tremendously important – readers do so love to catch an author out!  Some authors claim that desk research is enough to get the important detail right (I’m thinking here particularly of Costa winner Steph Penney, who’d never been to Canada when she wrote The Tenderness of Wolves, but was congratulated on the vividness of her depiction). Have you worn your feet out on the pavements of Bath, or does Google Street View offer all you need?

For me the setting and the springboard have to be real, part of my actual experience. I can take it from there. However, my muse, or whatever it is that compels me write, always balks and the characters refuse to go on if I try to fake anything or rely on Google Street for more than passing information like, How many blocks away is the bus station from the Randolph in Oxford?

I’m guessing that your unusual surname has a west-country pedigree? Does that have anything to do with your choice of setting for The Twinning Murders?

Actually not. I will admit that my wife and I are incurable Anglophiles and spend a great deal of time watching Masterpiece Theatre and countless other programs emanating from the BBC. The setting was prompted by the time I spent in Widecombe-in-the-Moor.

Finally, which is your favourite, please – Poirot or Miss Marple? And, of course, why?

I have to admit I loved Joan Hickson’s portrayal of Miss Marple because she humanized the character and imbued it with sensitivity, caring, thoughtfulness and warmth.  On the page, Miss Marple, like her author, is solely preoccupied with the puzzle at hand and restoring peace and harmony to the village. If I had to choose, I would opt for Miss Marple with Joan Hickson in my mind’s eye. Try as he may, David Suchet’s Poirot is still a fussbudget who is mainly at home away from nature, inclement weather and the countryside, snug in his upscale flat, following his beloved routines while, at the same time, solving murders and conundrums “most sinister.” 

Thank you very much, Shelly! I rather hoped you'd choose Miss Marple as played by Joan Hickson, as she's my favourite. And now, my thoughts, and a little extract to whet the appetite:  

Ordinarily, Emily would have enjoyed the train ride from Paddington. Rolling west, seated comfortably next to a wide picture window, a smiling young mother holding her sleeping two-year-old across the way, a gaggle of passengers behind her chatting amiably, the deep green landscape dipping and rising, each expanse marked off by neat coloring-book hedgerowsall of it ideal for a tour guide headed for the center of Bath on a nice early Wednesday afternoon. Then a short cab ride to pick up her rented Vauxhall station wagon, then lazily wending her way to Darlington House to meet up with her clients. Ordinarily, Emily would have also been looking forward to a little marketing to pick out her trip-snacks of fruit, nuts and assorted biscuits followed by a leisurely exploration of the ancient city. Next, a pleasant early supper at a favorite spot near the Roman Baths, going over plans for the upcoming Twinning and fete: talking to Harriet about the flower judging, Silas about his lecture on the Lydfield and Lydfield-in-the-Moor heritage, Pru about her storytelling stint and foraging for authentic tales of the mist-sodden moorland. Ordinarily, Emily could have settled back into her role as a seasoned rambler.
I’m always curious to read authors new to me, and I also find it diverting to read accounts of visiting Britain from writers from elsewhere – not always entirely flattering, it has to be said. So the opportunity to read Shelly Frome’s The Twinning Murders, with its settings in New England and Dartmoor, was too good to miss. Emily Ryder, who organises tours to ‘Hidden Britain’ for Americans, has reason to regret taking on the eccentric Curtises. Not only has she just lost a dear friend in a suspicious accident, her hometown of Lydfield is the centre of some very dodgy real estate dealing – not the best time to find yourself the other side of the Atlantic with one of your clients intent on running out of the tour! Worse still, she seems to have been followed to Devon by a thoroughly unpleasant man who is working for the developers back home.

One of the things I liked about Shelly’s writing was that he doesn’t find it necessary to shock his readers: when you settle down to a cosy mystery that is often exactly what you want, and you don’t need to find that your quaint English village is awash with blood à la Midsomer Murders. And once Emily and her charges get to Dartmoor, the story really takes off, as the focus tightens, her charges disappear like stray cats and her anxiety that another mishap is simply waiting to happen is proved correct.

There are some nice touches: he’s really caught the randomness of village fetes, all sorts of loosely connected activities happening in a completely anarchistic fashion, but everyone enjoying themselves. The difficult clients, too – Harriet is so wayward it’s quite unsettling, Silas seems barely compos mentis (I would never have agreed to take him abroad!) and Pru is convincingly fey, preoccupied by hunting for witches and pixies and apt to wander off in search of anything that takes her fancy. I thought I detected a real affection for Dartmoor, even if there are no illusions about the awfulness of its weather. The English idiom isn’t quite there, but I’ve seen people who’ve lived here for years not quite get it, and it’s with the introduction of the English characters you start to get that sense of how others see us. To most of Shelly’s readers, I imagine, the US setting will seem familiar and safe, whereas to me it’s exotic, and Devon, and the moor, is the place I know – the disjunct is something I find interesting, so that something seemingly straightforward has a slight off-balance feel. This is reflected in Emily’s situation: you really feel that she is struggling to make sense of what is going on around her, impatient with half-answers and evasions.

I also learnt something about New England architecture – the description of the Curtis house was so  detailed that I had to know more, which led to a fascinating diversion into the intricacies and regionalisms of Federation style.

Check out the other stops on Shelly's virtual book tour which continues until 3 April.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Murder Fortissimo by Nicola Slade

Retired headmistress Harriet Quigley decides to take advantage of recently opened, upmarket convalescent home, Firstone Grange, while she recovers from an operation. Plenty of time to recuperate without relying in help from her neighbours, she thinks, and at first she’s very pleased with her decision, if slightly disconcerted by the number of acquaintances who also seem to be frequenting the home.  Rather more perturbing, though, is the sudden and shocking death of another resident, a thoroughly unlovely woman who seems to delight in needling others and taking advantage of their frailties. 

Harriet is a really likeable and convincing protagonist, not rashly rushing in, but considering eventualities carefully. Her (and the reader’s) sympathies are engaged by the plight of some of her fellow residents, and she’s quite clear – as we are – about the people she doesn’t want to be responsible if the death of the most unpopular resident really turns out to be murder. Her clear-sightedness makes her cautious (welcome in a genre populated by women given to the let’s-split-up-and-go-into-this-dark-building school of investigation), and her experience of handling people is evident, and believable, as is her cousin Sam’s. She’s obviously used to being the sort of person who is confided in, someone generally respected and trusted by her fellows. Altogether, Harriet is admirable, rather the sort Miss Read would have been if she’d found herself caught up in a murder mystery, if perhaps a little sharper – even a little vainer – and more prone to seeing the funny side of things. Because, as usual with Nicola Slade’s books, her obviously irrepressible sense of humour is firmly there.

There’s a nice sowing of doubt about the other residents – plenty of motive and grounds for suspicion, as well as the persistent uncertainty that there has really been a murder at all. It has, after all, been filed under “accidental death” pretty rapidly. Perhaps, Harriet wonders, she has been just a little over-confident in her conviction that all is not what it seems? Perhaps, after all, it will turn out to have been a grisly accident? However, I think the reader can be fairly confident that a book called Murder Fortissimo isn’t going to lead us down any psychological blind alleys, that sooner or later Harriet will be on the track of a murderer and we can sit back and enjoy ourselves.

I did wonder at how quickly Harriet is whizzing about after her operation – I know she’s a determined lady but I think I’d have wanted to put my feet up a bit longer. On the other hand, one has to applaud her decision to go to a convalescent home in the first place – how eminently sensible. Again, in her place I think I’d have stayed at home and lived on beans on toast and whisky, but she’s clearly a woman of much more fortitude than me. Mind you, she has excellent taste in whisky, so of course I approve of her.

Harriet and Sam make an attractive pair of sleuths – they ought to have a long career of stumbling into nasty happenings ahead of them, it’s perfect Miss Marple territory. More, please!

Saturday, 5 February 2011

The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

The setting is Venice, 1407. La Serenissima is effectively ruled by the Council of Ten, responsible for the security of the republic. Titular head is Duke Marco, descendant of Marco Polo, but the real ruler is his uncle Duke Alonzo, Regent because Marco is a halfwit. To maintain its role as one of the most powerful of the Italian city-states, alliances are necessary, and Duke Alonzo has the power to dispose - in all senses of the word - of family members to meet political expediency; to this end he has decided that his niece, 15-year-old Giulietta, will be married to the King of Cyprus. Desperate to evade her role as a political pawn, deserted, she thinks, by the aunt she has trusted, Giulietta flees, but is caught and returned by Atilo (until recently, Admiral of the Venetian Fleet, and still secret head of the Assassini), after witnessing a terrifying street battle. The night before she is due to sail to Cyprus, Giulietta, filled with horror by the knowledge that she is to bear a son to the King and then murder him, escapes again, this time to the Basilica San Marco, where she intends to kill herself. Instead, she meets a mysterious, silver-haired boy. We've already seen his arrival in Venice, incarcerated in the hold of a Mamluk ship, bereft of memory, nameless, and shackled with silver chains.

There are books that draw you in from the very beginning, and this is one of them. There is a flow to the story that keeps you turning the pages long after you should have turned off the light and settled down to sleep. The cords of the story are expertly woven, each character's thread  - and there are more to follow than Giulietta's and silver-haired Tycho's - reappearing just when the need to discover what has happened to them becomes too insistent to ignore, so that you feel just one more chapter can't be resisted. If it lacks quite the savage brilliance of some of Jon Courtenay Grimwood's earlier books, The Fallen Blade is nonetheless very hard to put down, and as Act One of The Assassini, it promises great things. As usual the characterisation is excellent - he's particularly good at young women - and he has a gift for keeping you absorbed in the dangerous characters as well as the sympathetic ones: they might be brutal, ambitious and ruthless, often charming, sometimes appalling, but their motivation is always understandable and their single-mindedness can even at times seem laudable. In other words, they are complex, multi-faceted individuals, and your interest is held because they seem real and unpredictable.

JCG mostly eschews the long descriptions that some authors use for scene setting - where they are used they are sparing and always advance the action, or your understanding of it, but such description as is included builds a strong sense of place - at times, you can almost smell Venice. There's grandeur here, and squalor, and a cast of warring factions whose allegiances could never be relied upon, liable to turn at the slightest spark. It's an alternate history so close to reality that it's utterly plausible, and the reader slips between the real past and the imagined one as easily as Tycho slips between his real city and the invisible one which shelters him when he is first cast adrift in Venice. Vampires and krieghund seem native to this dark and watery city, where assassins lurk not only on every calle but also in the palazzi of the rulers, and poisoning is the quickest way to get rid of a rival. At the end of the book much about Tycho's nature, too, remains to be revealed - bring on Act Two.