Natural Causes, James Oswald
I’m not entirely sure why I originally picked this up; I think it might have been one of those deals where you can get a book for £2.99 if you buy The Telegraph, or whichever other newspaper. At the time, I was regularly buying the newspaper for my grandmother, and if her choice of paper wasn’t available, I’d pick something else more or less at random. A newspaper that offers a cheap book alongside it is always going to win with me, of course.
Anyway, so I knew little about this book going in. It seems to have caused no little frustration for some people: though marketed as a crime fiction novel, in fact the cause of the murders turns out to be supernatural. The murder can’t be solved unless you assume the presence of a demon which jumps between different people’s bodies, despite the fact that the rest of the story builds up clear chains of evidence, links together cases, etc. I don’t mind that, but I do think there’s a bit of a sense this book was mismarketed — though equally, I don’t think it’d appeal to the more fantastical crowd either. It’s no Rivers of London or Storm Front. The two elements sit oddly side by side here, and to me, it’s not clear where it’s going to go as a series. Is McLean going to become a supernatural investigator? Or was this the one strange case of his career? Presumably not the latter, since this is the first book of a series, but it’s not obvious.
The pacing is relatively sedate: it feels like a police procedural. I think that’s the problem — it’s a police procedural with supernatural trappings, and that just doesn’t seem to wash. It’d have to be more integrated — something like, to harp on it, Rivers of London.
I’m not that interested in reading other books, though it wasn’t a bad experience. Shades of fridging, though: the main murder victim is an innocent young girl whose case consumes the inspector’s thoughts because of her youth and innocence, a young PC dies to protect the main character (presumably mostly for his sense of guilt), and the most important woman in McLean’s life is his comatose grandmother, who dies partway through. Hm.
The Man Everybody Was Afraid Of, Joseph Hansen
This is one of those mysteries where you can’t root for the mystery to be solved for the sake of the victim, a man who was a bully, a racist, and thoroughly unpleasant in almost all his interactions. Instead, the characters surrounding them need to get their hooks into you, and in this case that didn’t really work for me. Much more central was Dave’s sadness over his father’s illness, his disconnection with Doug, and the connection he does form with Cecil — one that rather surprises a reader familiar with Dave, who doesn’t seem like the type to be very appreciative of cheating, and yet does so himself.
It gets a little bit too convoluted in solving the mystery, in order to bring in a bunch of red herrings and implicate several different characters. That made it frustrating, and not quite as smooth a read for me as the earlier books. It’s still enjoyable, but not a favourite.
In the Woods, Tana French
I know I’m very much in the minority on this one, but I really didn’t enjoy it that much. The set-up is awesome: the whole mystery of what happened to the main character as a child is so tantalising, I think it’s probably why I picked the book up in the first place. We get so many concrete details, the whole crime scene report. It feels like a set-up for a mystery to be solved, particularly when elements of it crop up in the case that the protagonist is involved in now.
Spoiler: it isn’t solved.
I don’t necessarily demand that a murder mystery solves all the questions raised during the book — sometimes that even feels artificial. I’m not an advocate of adherence to Father Knox’s ten rules, or anything like that. But the fact that the book sets up such a compelling mystery, with so many concrete details, is just infuriating when you discover you’ll never know. Especially since the main character leaves the Murder Squad, and subsequent books do not address the issue either.
The mystery that is solved, by contrast, is too prosaic and easily solved, and I don’t care about it nearly as much. The relationship dramas of the main characters don’t attract me, and honestly, nor does the consciously literary style. It feels slow, and that doesn’t work for me as a stylistic decision. It feels like a slower, more contemplative novel about psychology and things that can’t ever be known, bolted awkwardly onto a standard police procedural — the combination is what fails to work, because each component of the story sets up an expectation about the other.
It’s odd that this worked for friends of mine so very well, and not at all for me; it might be partially the fact that I’ve actually studied stuff like the structure and set-up of crime novels, meaning I have stricter ideas of what I want from a detective novel. It’s probably worth checking out the book anyway if you want a fairly literary crime novel; other people love it, and it seems to be some vagary of personal taste leading me to dislike it so much.
Which is sad, because I was really hoping Tana French would be the next author whose books I’d tear through, a la Sayers and Greenwood.
Busman’s Honeymoon, Dorothy L. Sayers
Featuring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey, Sarah Badel as Harriet Vane and Peter Jones as Bunter
Busman’s Honeymoon, or: the Wimseys will never, ever catch a break.
Honestly, despite the fact that it is a murder investigation, this one is fun. It has plenty of Peter-Harriet banter, plenty of Bunter being the ridiculously amazing manservant that he is, and plenty of heart as well. Peter and Harriet have finally got married, and they’re letting each other in, and Busman’s Honeymoon sees their first hiccups of married life — where Peter’s work as a detective makes Harriet feel like a traitor to friends who are under suspicion, and they have to decide who compromises… I like Sarah Badel’s version of Harriet, laughing and teasing, but warm too.
It’s not just about the relationship, though: there’s a solid mystery at the back of it, which is fun in its own right. And at least with this one, you really feel no pity for the criminal…
Strong Poison, Dorothy L. Sayers
I can’t quite remember what the bad mood was that triggered this return to Strong Poison, so soon after I listened to the radioplay version. Fortunately, given Sayers’ witty, clever and allusive writing, it’s never going to be a chore, especially since this is one of the stronger books of the series — and it was a pleasure to realise how strong the fidelity of the radioplay version was, skipping very little of the original novel.
You see, in Strong Poison, Peter falls in love… with a woman who is almost sure to be convicted of the murder of her ex-lover. Knowing she’s innocent, pretty much because he thinks she’s pretty and her character as described doesn’t support the murder theory, he arranges to meet her, immediately proposes to her, and gets her out of the murder charge by finding the real murderer while he’s at it. The banter between them is delightful, as are the moments where Harriet is more vulnerable — she’s not immune to the situation she’s in, as she shows by breaking down in front of Peter.
The actual mystery is fun as well: in retrospect it’s very obvious, because of certain precautions a particular character has taken, but the unfolding of the hows and whys is still interesting, particularly because Bunter and Parker feature fairly strongly alongside Peter. And there’s also the delightful bit where Peter encourages Parker to propose to Lady Mary…
Still a favourite — even if my eyes popped a little at the point where Peter complains how horrible it is seeing Harriet in the dock… to Harriet. And she sympathises with him and says it must be beastly. Gah!
Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers
Featuring Joanna David as Harriet Vane and Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey
Gaudy Night is the odd one out in both the radioplays and the books. It was recorded later, I think, and it shows — Ian Carmichael sounds almost winded half the time, though it does get better as the book goes on. It’s quite a different tone, too, because it’s from Harriet’s point of view. In the audiobook, this involves a fair amount of first person narration of her thoughts and feelings, which was never a feature of the other audiobooks, which makes it stand out as well.
That said, it’s a pretty good adaptation, drawing together all the key features well and giving clues through the voice acting as well as the plot. In audio, it’s a little hard to keep track of all the female dons, but that doesn’t seem to get in the way too much. And Harriet’s realisation of her feelings for Peter is well done; I think I prefer Sarah Badel’s take on it in Busman’s Honeymoon, but it works.
The Nine Tailors, Dorothy L. Sayers
Featuring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey and Peter Jones as Bunter
The Nine Tailors is a book I think about fondly, although I can’t quite think of why. Some of it is the atmosphere, I think: the Englishness of this little village in the Fens, and the music of the bells woven all through the story — or, not music exactly, but the complex mathematical patterns of British bell-ringing. In a way, that’s how this mystery feels, too: it’s complex, with several mistaken identities and a long unsolved mystery. It’s also a sad one, because a family gets shattered through almost no fault of their own.
And the Reverend and his household are dear characters, of course.
The audio adaptation is pretty good, managing to make all the complex threads come together well. Ian Carmichael’s voice acting is great most of the time, though maybe a trifle overblown during the scene in the belfry. I guess it’s difficult to portray that scene without Peter constantly vocalising, though.
Whispers Under Ground, Ben Aaronovitch
This series remains fun, and the interactions between Lesley and Peter are just A++. I think I found the pacing a bit off reading this for a second time; I couldn’t really remember the plot, but it seemed to be taking an awful lot of time to get to the sewer scenes I remembered. All the same, it’s a worthy entry in the series, with Lesley taking a more active part again, and featuring a less comic-book like amount of violence. Instead, the threat is more personal, more like what you would expect from routine police work… if routine police work required you to notice the vestigia on a murder weapon, and try to track where it came from. Still, this is definitely the most police-procedural-ish of the three books so far; that may or may not appeal to you!
There are some great atmospherics in this book, though, given the sewer excursions (incursions?) and the visit to the Quiet People. And, though I don’t remember it being mentioned specifically before, Peter Grant’s former interest in architecture — the way he can describe buildings and features just adds a little something.
What is driving me mad is that the library had one UK edition and one probably US edition, which spell Lesley’s name differently. I don’t even know anymore. Help. Which does the UK version use?
Not my favourite of the series, anyway; I think if I remember rightly, that’s probably the next one, Broken Homes. Wish me luck going back into that heartbreak, is all I’m going to say.
Murder Must Advertise, Dorothy L. Sayers
Featuring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey
This is a fun story in terms of the whole idea of Peter being undercover, actually working for his living in an advertising company. Here it makes perfect sense that he’s great at it, and the way he pokes around shamelessly is a delight. I’m not so enamoured of any of the secondary characters in this one, though: Parker barely appears, Bunter and Harriet are entirely absent, and the other characters are all new (and confined to this mystery). It remains fun, but it’s not one of the ones that get me emotionally engaged.
It doesn’t help that in the radioplays, Gabriel Woolf no longer voices Parker; it’s someone else, whose voice doesn’t fit half so well. It might if we’d never had Woolf, but as it is, it’s very distracting. I know exactly how the real Parker would say those lines, and this guy is all wrong… It’s much worse than the changing voice actors for Harriet, somehow.
The ending is an interesting one, in terms of Peter’s moral responsibilities. Several times he ends up having pity on the people who have, after all, committed crimes, and giving them an easy way out. They don’t escape to live perfect lives, of course, but all the same, Peter doesn’t hand them over to justice and punishment. It’s something only a gentleman detective could or would do, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.
Moon Over Soho, Ben Aaronovitch
Rereading the second book confirmed that this series is definitely deeply British, usually funny, and with a bit more depth than I originally feared. Reading it this time, I was really interested to note how Peter and Nightingale clashed when it came to understanding the magical creatures around them. Nightingale is a decent guy, and yet he wasn’t prepared to give the ‘jazz vampires’ a single chance, despite all the evidence that they couldn’t help what they did, and didn’t even understand it either. But Peter, an ordinary cop, steps up and says hey, no, we’re meant to protect these people too. They have rights too. He’s the kind of idealistic cop that would greatly better the police forces the world over — he’s not just idealistic, but he also says something.
Granted, he’s also thinking with his dick again, given his personal connection to the case and the fact that women are involved. But it’s still notable that he does the right thing.
It’s also fun that his background, and his dad’s jazz career, are key to this mystery. And it really does leave you wondering how the heck Nightingale managed without an apprentice all that time. Again, despite the fact that he’s generally a good guy and well meaning, I think it shows that Nightingale has been a bit blind.
Also, hey, who doesn’t enjoy the lines like this?
“For a terrifying moment I thought he was going to hug me, but fortunately we both remembered we were English just in time. Still, it was a close call.“
Well, okay, the “NO HOMO” tone it takes sometimes is less fun, but the lack of hugging because English… yep.