It’s a solidly entertaining mystery, I suppose, aware of the genre and making sly little jokes at its expense. It doesn’t really sparkle, though; I felt that the culprit was made obvious by their behaviour, and not just because they acted guilty — also because they had that whole cliché Freudian repressed sexuality going on, which seems to crop up in crime fiction of that period far too much. Gaudy Night is another example, though it does sparkle, because of the character development that’s going on too. In this one, despite his engagement, and the appearance of some regular characters, it isn’t really about Alleyn or development of him or the minor characters. In fact, the POV characters are pretty much two young lovers who we may not even see again.
The repressed sexuality stuff is worthy of an eyeroll, but the machinations of the murder set-up are quite interesting to follow. It gets a bit repetitive, and does that irritating holding-back-of-details that means you can’t solve the crime for yourself (or, in this case, be sure about it), but as a murder mystery it’s alright. I just hope somebody kicks Alleyn into a higher gear…
Looking at the reviews for this book, I had to laugh at how many people compared Kearsley’s work to Mary Stewart’s. Including myself, I’m afraid, which leaves me wondering if Kearsley embraces that or is rather sick of it by now. But truly, some of the plot things here are right up Stewart’s street, too: the moment where the villain kisses the heroine, that charged moment between them. Except that there’s something more subtle here: the villain isn’t purely villainous, but motivated by love as well. There seems something genuine in his attraction to the heroine, his interest in her.
And Kearsley is much harder on my heart. As with Season of Storms, I found myself falling for a character who didn’t make it to the end of the book. Kearsley did a great job with character, much more so than Stewart: I can believe in what happens between the protagonists, I adore a lot of the characters, and all of them have an inner life. There is something dreamlike about the whole book, with these moments of clarity where you really get to know characters and see what makes them tick, even less significant ones.
The plot itself is a bit convoluted, and I could perhaps have done without the drama of Hans and Isabelle’s story, the convenient way everything comes back together at just the right time… but then, it was exactly what I expected from the genre, and worked out with sympathetic characters and a sense of place, it doesn’t come off too badly.
I expected to like this a lot. Golden Age crime fiction, I’m pretty sure my mother mentioned liking it, etc, etc. But I couldn’t get past the endless racism, and the general feeling that Josephine Tey would be a men’s rights activist now. I mean, a woman on the stage overshadows her male co-stars, and yet the whole tone is not, wow, her skill and grace and so on, but that she is secretly a conniving bitch. The whole story serves to hammer home that she’s a woman who only cares about herself — with very little actual evidence, which is funny coming from a detective story. Someone else summarised it really well, and I can only quote (warning, spoilers):
So, someone who wants to kill a woman because he can’t have her is sane. Someone who wants to kill a man to save her daughter’s life is crazy. Very, very interesting, Tey. And at the end we’re asked teasingly whether there’s a villain in the story. I strongly suspect the villain we’re meant to think of is the woman the murder victim was going to kill. If she’d been nicer, she’d have appreciated that nice young man, you see, and none of this trouble would have happened.
(From Leonie’s review on Goodreads)
The description and so on can be as clever as it likes, but I couldn’t stand one more slighting reference to “the Dago”, or commentary about the “un-English crime”, or any of that. And the mystery itself… it’s obvious from the length of the book that the inspector is after the wrong man. It’s obvious from the way the man and the people around him act, too. The only excuse for going along with the thin, motiveless explanation Grant dredges up is if you’ve got a prejudice to begin with and you’re going to stick to your theory no matter what — no matter how Tey makes a song and dance about Grant being bothered by the case.
The reason Grant is wrong, well, at least you can’t blame him there. There’s virtually no clue, and nothing tied specifically to any suspect other than the red herring one. You can’t guess it directly from the information given — not a hope.
I sound really scathing, but that’s in part because I hoped I’d really enjoy this. I read it pretty much in one go: the narration is pretty compulsive, and the narrative voice is an interesting choice too. But the pretty sentences didn’t save it from how bothered I was with the outdated stuff (reliance on reading people’s faces, reliance on “national characters”, etc). Now I’ve gone looking at reviews, I can see other people who didn’t think much of this one did like her later work, so I might still be along for the ride there if I can get it from the library.
I do like this series — and tear through the books — when I get round to reading it, but I don’t particularly feel a pressure to keep up. There’s just something too precious about Flavia, and indeed the whole portrayal of idyllic British country life after the Second World War. My usual pet peeves with this series are firmly in place, in that sense.
But it is nice to just relax into it and enjoy the family’s weirdnesses, the unusual set up for the mystery, the intrepid Famous Five feel you get from Flavia — and the fact that hey, she’s a young girl who is great at chemistry, who deserves and demands respect from the people around her for what she can do. Sometimes she overshoots (and, ah, I think I do recognise myself in that; I was quite a mature kid, but also very aware of it and keen for people to know, which then veers toward being immature again), but mostly she’s quite right that she deserves some respect. I do enjoy her little crush on the inspector, too.
The last line is clearly set up for Things To Change, and I’m quite looking forward to that. There’s a formula now to these books; I hope the next book breaks it, at least somewhat.
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Dorothy L. Sayers
It’s fortunate for me that these books are so familiar to me by now, because I got distracted by other books in the middle of this. It’s not my favourite of the bunch, which helps to explain why; I do like the conflicts between Parker and Peter that’re brought out by the nature of the story, the awkwardness between them as Peter has to suspect one of his own friends. That’s perhaps the best part of this: the characterisations of those two as they try to balance friendship and duty; Peter’s struggle with himself and his own honesty.
The ending is one of those awfully convenient, gentlemanly ones where Peter could bring the person to trial, etc, etc, and then warns them and offers them suicide instead. I can never quite decide what I think about those endings: they give Peter a kind of out, so that he doesn’t have to do the ungentlemanly thing. Which is a bit unfair, really.
Moon Over Soho, Ben Aaronovitch Review from August 12th, 2011
I found Moon Over Soho more compelling than Rivers of London, somehow. It was a bit unputdownable, which is a quality I’ve been missing in my books lately, so that’s nice. Yeah, Peter’s led round by his dick here, too, and fails to think about things because he’s too busy having sex with them, and yeah, he’s got serious manpain over Leslie, who he also makes do all his menial work, but… The plot moved at a decent pace, and set up some plot threads which will no doubt be ongoing.
It still reminds me of the Dresden Files, and I’m still not enamoured of the treatment of the female characters, but it didn’t irritate me as much as I expected — I think I’ll continue reading this series. (Mind you, I didn’t give up on the Dresden Files right away, so there’s still time for it to annoy me.)
I read it more or less all in one go — in three sessions, in one day — so that’s definitely a bit better than the first book, which took me seven reading sessions over just over a week’s time. So if you were only planning to pick up Moon Over Soho if it was better than Rivers of London, showing that bit of improvement, well, it does.
Rivers of London, Ben Aaronovitch Review from July 1st, 2011
I first came across Rivers of London on the Kindle store, and downloaded the sample. I was intrigued by the first chapter, and put it on my wishlist. A friend or two read it, and finally one lent me his copy. He thought I’d tear through it in one go.
Not quite true, as it happens. Oh, all in all, I think it took about two hours to read, but sometimes a few days would go by without me reading more. It reminded me a lot of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books — which is not really a compliment, coming from me. They were similar in tone, and something about the narrators was similar. Thankfully, I didn’t pick up on the same type of waves of misogyny — sorry, I mean chivalry — but I wasn’t entirely happy. Do guys really think with their dicks to this extent? Leslie was, most of the time, a great character — and then I was left feeling rather like she’d been there as a plot device all along. To fill in that role, of Pretty Polly, who is a silent onlooker and untroubled when wooed by a murderer…
Not a great start for women in this series, particularly with the nubile Beverley eventually used as a hostage, and then the whole thing ending with vagina dentata…!
To some extent, it depends what happens to Leslie now. Is she just the instrument for trowelling on Peter’s manpain? Or the exposition tool to help Peter figure everything out? Or will she have a plot of her own?
I will be reading Moon Over Soho, though I did think Rivers of London also had a few problems with pacing, but I won’t have the same tolerance with it. I do like the idea — actual, officially sanctioned members of the constabulary dealing with supernatural events — and I do love a good crime story when it falls together reasonably well.
It’s not that often I delve into the noir-ish side of crime, though it’s not because I have anything particular against it — the whole class of casually drinking, smoking and screwing detectives with cynical attitudes don’t repel me, whether it be Brandstetter, Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. Or, in this case, Matt Scudder. It comes down to the individual detective, and in that sense, Scudder probably comes out neck and neck with Brandstetter. He’s involved in a case that seems sordid, yet he avoids making obvious conclusions and follows the facts; he’s straight, but he ends up in gay bars, talking to gay people, etc, and yet Block doesn’t seem to need to overhype Scudder’s masculinity in compensation. And despite the cynicism, Scudder tithes to local churches, keeps an open mind about people, and doesn’t judge. There’s an honesty about him, too: he takes money, but he admits it, he knows when to take it, and there’s times he’d say no.
There are things about the whole treatment of gay people that don’t come off so well, but most of it seems to be a genuine attempt to let people do their own thing and not get stuck on judging what that is. Unless you’ve killed someone, of course.
In terms of the writing, it’s not Raymond Chandler: there’s no gems where Lawrence Block wrote something in a way no one else has. It’s clean and it works, without unnecessary verbiage or prevarication. Most of the clues are given to us, though there’s one point where the thinking process is based on proper detective work in old records and stuff, and that’s less easy to bring across to the reader in a way that’s at all interesting, so that aspect was a little smudged.
Overall, I actually really enjoyed this. There are some noir detectives I don’t want to spend a minute more with — Mike Hammer, for example — but Matt seems basically decent, and never too convinced that that’s the case.
Starting the New Year with a Sayers review? Yes, please.
So Unnatural Death is maybe not the best in terms of the convoluted plot, the number of characters, etc, because it’s not one of the most personal stories for Lord Peter. On the other hand, you do get to see Peter again treating it a little like a hobby, a curiosity, and then having to face the consequences of his ego. And there’s a lot of Miss Climpson, too; not as much as one of the later books, but enough to show that she’s a really great character — her letters with their underlinings and italicising are hilarious.
The murder method is pretty good for this one, though, really: I wouldn’t guess it if I wasn’t familiar with an NCIS episode where there are a couple of killings done the same way, and yet it’s simple and obvious once you know what it is.
So not my favourite, but it does work and come together beautifully.
The first time I read Whose Body?, I don’t think I thought much of it. Little did I know. It’s not just that I’ve come to love the character — though I do — and the actors who’ve portrayed him, the various adaptations, etc. It’s that Sayers is just so damn clever. Even in Whose Body?, which is far from my favourite, you’ve got the mystery to untangle and then you’ve got all the background references to stuff. I keep finding myself looking up names of murderers and famous poisoning victims and random books and… all the sorts of things that Sayers has Wimsey just know. It’s always very gratifying (to borrow a phrase from Bunter) when I know what she’s talking about right away; it lets you feel like part of the cleverness, though I never feel left out when I don’t understand it.
One thing Sayers was very good at is the convoluted type of mystery, replete with five or more red herrings and careful timetables. This might strike you as pretty contrived, and if you’re particularly literally minded, you might wonder how Wimsey, Parker and Bunter always manage to find such convoluted mysteries, which unravel as soon as you hit upon that key detail (x wanted to marry y once, this book is important, he corresponds in French, which tube of paint was missing, when did a new Property Act come into force, etc). If that’s likely to bother you, then Wimsey might not be able to charm you out of it.
But despite all that, it’s not all about the cleverness or the convoluted plots. It’s also about Peter, who is revealed more and more with each book as a good man, as someone with a fragile core, as someone who struggles between responsibility and his love of the chase. And then there’s other characters like Bunter and Parker, good people themselves who are devoted to him, and who you want to see more of…