Five Red Herrings does a couple of things that really annoy me, like having a long section of people positing obviously wrong ways the crime unfolded, and the whole “the reader will of course know what the missing object was” bit — no, I don’t! I’m not a painter, I don’t have that education, and I don’t know how common it would’ve been in Sayers’ time, but knowing that fact has not lasted.
In any case, reading it this time, I did enjoy Five Red Herrings more than I did last time, perhaps. The introduction in the new edition drew my attention to the fantastic sense of place and character, and to appreciate again the way that Peter is embedded in the mystery, caring about the people involved. Plot-wise, it’s very clever again, literally written according to train timetables and precise distances between places. It might not be my favourite, but I can appreciate all the work that went into it. Sayers may not have thought her detective novels terribly literary or worthwhile, but hindsight says they are.
Girl Waits With Gun is based on the real story of Constance Kopp and her sisters, and draws inspiration from the real facts of her life — newspaper articles, family documents, etc — but it’s definitely a fictionalised version, giving Norma Kopp the hobby of looking after pigeons and so on. As a story, it’s entertaining, but perhaps more so knowing that Constance was a real person and this is one attempt to interpret her thoughts and feelings, her hopes and fears, during the time she was menaced by a mill owner who refused to pay for crashing into her family’s cart and wrecking it.
I thought it might turn out dry, but actually I got pretty into it, and on putting it down I was frustrated that a particular character didn’t know a particular fact — I won’t say what, because of spoilers. It’s enough to make me want to hurry up and pick up the next book as soon as I can. It’s obviously speculative, and it’s anybody’s guess what the Kopps would have thought about it, but it makes for a good story.
First of all, I love that the new edition has an introduction by Edward Petherbridge. Ian Carmichael was a brilliant voice for Peter, but if I could picture Peter, I think it’d be Petherbridge I’d see. And his introduction is fitting: erudite and respectful of Sayers’ work, but also playful.
The novel itself, well: it’s Strong Poison. I love it for so many reasons. Okay, I do get a little frustrated with Peter for making the fact that Harriet is likely to be hanged about how awful it is for him, when he barely knows her and has just fallen in love at first sight. But there’s so much witty banter, and Miss Climpson is a delight as well. And there’s the fact that this is the start of a relationship which is never fulfilled until it is equal: they start off so unequal, and Harriet’s prepared to just give in and leave things that way, but Peter steps back and waits and waits and… There could be an easy happy ending, but instead there’s a relationship that has to be worked at, until mutual respect is reached rather than pity or gratitude. No consent but free consent — how can I not applaud that story?
The mystery itself is of course tortuous, but you’d expect that from a Golden Age story like this. Peter, Miss Climpson and Bunter keep it from being weighed down — along with Parker’s delightful realisation about Mary.
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Dorothy L. Sayers
A reread, of course. Not the best of the Wimsey books, but full of Sayers’ usual brains and wit. There’s some excellent character interactions — especially one between Lord Peter and Parker, where Peter is somewhat resenting the fact that he’s working with the police and potentially having to betray friends. There’s some great quotes, like Peter saying that books are kind of like shells that we discard when we grow out of them, but which lie around as a record of people we used to be. Yes!
This is one of the not-really-high-stakes mysteries, though; the death was of an old man, and was somewhat predictable, and the person who killed him didn’t try to cover his tracks by attacking other people. It becomes more of an intellectual puzzle, though there are some good bits about the feelings of particular characters. I don’t want to say too much in case anyone’s interested in reading this and forming their own opinions about the murder, so I’ll stop there! A solid mystery, but not the most emotionally involving of the Wimsey books, nor the cleverest.
It’s fun approaching these books now I’ve introduced my wife to them, via the radioplays and Edward Petherbridge TV series. (I think most of my gifts from her this year have been Wimsey themed… a bunch of the new editions of the books for my birthday, and then the Petherbridge series on DVD for Christmas!) It gives me a bit of a fresh eye to appreciate things all over again; the wittiness of Sayers’ writing, the cleverness of the plot, the way the characters all work together. Miss Climpson is a delight, up to and including the wry observations on how she’s actually rather nosy, despite saying she’s not. Parker is the perfect partner for Peter when investigating, willing to put in the hard graft which Peter is constitutionally unsuited for. And Bunter… well. I don’t know what Peter would do without him.
The murder/mystery part is rather fun, because it has two key problems: there’s no discernible motive, and there’s no discernible method. Peter has to track down both, and without saying too much, the legal problem on which the plot hangs is rather clever once you work it out, though infuriating while you’re trying to get there. The murder method… well. Embarrassingly simple, but just sneaky enough that it’s difficult to prove.
It’s not my favourite of Sayers’ books, but it’s witty, cleverly written, and definitely worth spending time with.
Reading this a second time, I liked it more; I think my theory the first time I read it that it’d lost some of its freshness because I’d been reading too many Phryne books in a row was probably true. It gives us a glimpse of a different Phryne, and the experiences that made her the person she was, covering her life in Paris just after the war, and that’s pretty interesting — you can see it informing the way she chooses her lovers in the present-day of the books, and how she really became tough as nails.
It’s also nice because the book gives us a little more focus on Bert and Cec — a little more of a glimpse at their history and their bond, and some of their friends.
Against that, the plot with the girl who was going to marry a chef feels very light, almost inconsequential. It does help keep the book moving along when there’s a lot of other emotions that could make it heavy-going, but it’s not memorable or especially interesting in itself.
The Hanging Tree does a hell of a lot, gathering together some plot points, revealing some secrets, teasing some future potential, humanising (well, sort of) characters like Lady Ty we might be tempted to just despise… It’s one of the plot-heavy entries to the series, featuring the Faceless Man and Lesley prominently, so predictably it gets a bit frenetic near the end. Characters flit in and out of sight; Peter stumbles into bad situation after bad situation; lots of property damage is incurred.
For the most part, it really worked. The tension ratcheted up as I realised exactly what was at stake, and new characters revealed things I’d wondered about (like a tradition of British women doing magic). Little ironies came up — if the Folly hadn’t been such an old boys’ club, and the new characters had been involved, would Lesley be with the Faceless Man at all? Could he have really tempted her?
And no doubt if this had ended the ongoing plot, I’d have been disappointed that it was so ‘easy’. Yet the ending seemed a little toothless: we know more about the Faceless Man and what he can do, but do we really have information to stop him? It feels like this series could easily go on another six books in this way: a book off and then a book that ends with Peter grappling with the Faceless Man, only for him to get away… I think I wanted a little more forward progress by the end.
There has to be space, though, for appreciating how much I love the new pathologist and Guleed’s involvement. I’m surprised she’s not being trained up at the Folly yet (but then, it’s also cool that she isn’t just following the same path as Lesley, like some “better” Lesley — she’s definitely her own character, with her own approach to problems)…
Despite my slight quibbles, it’s a fun read and a more than worthy entry to the series. Bring on the next! Sooner rather than later, please.
Phryne’s answer to Murder Must Advertise, and loaded with references to Sayers’ work (Nutrax Nerve Food, you say? smuggling clues in magazine copy, really?) — but also very much a novel in its own right, as Phryne goes above and beyond any of the on-screen heroism displayed by Lord Peter by rescuing her lover, Lin Chung, from pirates. Yep, pirates. As ever, it’s the usual mix for a Miss Fisher novel: a bit of mystery, some very fashionable clothing, some sex, a murder or so, and daring rescues featuring guns and requiring Phryne to get her kit off.
It kind of sounds formulaic when I put it that way, but it doesn’t feel that way when reading. It remains a ‘cosy’ mystery despite the guns and murder, even when it’s not a reread, because you know Phryne’s going to fix things in the end, with only minor damage to those around her. (Though I admit to being sceptical that Lin Chung’s replacement rubber ear is that realistic.)
The mystery part of it is fairly staid in comparison, though I do love the engagement with then-current politics (i.e. the mild background commentary on Mussolini).
A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie, Kathryn Harkup
I avoided picking this up for quite a while, mostly because I’m just not that interested in Agatha Christie’s work — she wrote some great mysteries, but I’m more interested in characters, and I’m not overly fond of any of hers. (Poirot and his mannerisms drive me mad, sorry.) It turns out that while this does talk a lot about Christie’s work, it also relates her ideas to actual chemistry — of which she’d have been aware of as an assistant in a dispensing chemist — and actual murders that she may have found inspiration from.
All in all, it becomes a rather entertaining little package, not just focused on recounting the plots of Agatha Christie’s books. The chemistry involved was pretty easy for me to follow, but bear in mind that I am in my last year of a science degree! It might get a little too involved for people who are interested in this from the Agatha Christie end of the equation (while not, I think, being worth reading just for the explanations of how poisons work, because there’s a lot of social info and stuff about Christie and her plots as well). Fortunately, if you are a fan of Christie, Harkup doesn’t spoil any of her plots — or in the rare cases she has to for the sake of explaining things properly, she warns you in advance.
I still would’ve liked to see it be about the Golden Age crime fiction in general, and then Harkup would’ve had a great one to analyse in the shape of Sayers’ Strong Poison… but that’s beside the point.
A Very British Murder is an extremely readable, sometimes gossipy survey of the development of crime/mystery literature in Britain, up to the Golden Age of Sayers and Christie. It examines why people loved a good murder story, and what kind of murder story they wanted, while also reflecting on some of the real murders that occurred and the anxieties surrounding them.
I especially enjoyed Worsley’s sympathy for Sayers and Christie, and her defence of Gaudy Night against a male critic’s boredom about it. Quite right, too!
It’s not deep lit crit, or a totally in depth micro-history, but there’s interesting stuff and it’s entertainingly written.