Listening to the radioplay and watching the TV adaptation of Clouds of Witness with Lisa made me really appreciate the actual book all over again. Every detail that she quibbled in the radioplay or TV series had an answer in the book; Sayers really knew what she was about. (Which is not to say that she never dropped a brick, but she made choices in her books for good reasons, and adaptors of her work should pay attention to her intentions there. (I’m looking at you, whoever adapted The Nine Tailors for TV — never mind that you’re blatantly disregarding history by having the Spanish flu occur in the 30s.)
Anyway, the book itself: in this second book of the series, Lord Peter finds his own brother accused of murdering his sister’s fiancé, and has to rush back to England from Paris to help investigate what happened. The book isn’t short of physical peril for Peter: he nearly drowns in a bog, is shot by his sister’s other fiancé, attacked by a farmer, and flies from the US to the UK in a two-person aircraft to hurry back with evidence for Gerald’s trial. He gets to be a hero here for Gerald’s sake, and readers see more of his depth of feeling, sense of responsibility and duty, and of course his wit and brains.
People often think little of mystery books, and consequently of Dorothy L. Sayers, and it’s true there aren’t many mystery novels whose solution turns on the plot of an 18th Century French novel. Still, Sayers ensured there is at least one (and several other books with equally erudite references and plots).
We were watching the Petherbridge TV adaptations again, Brexit is terrible, and it was that kind of day. Of course I gave into the temptation — threw myself into it, more like, from Peter’s first “oh damn” to the denouement. When I review a book over and over again like this, I start to think about new ways to approach the review: it’s no good me telling you every time that this book is the first book in Sayers’ favourite series, in which Peter investigates the mysterious discovery of the body of a vagrant, shaved and cleaned up to look like a wealthy man, found in an architect’s bath wearing nothing but a pair of pince-nez. You’ve heard that from me before.
So what really caught my attention this time was the fact that even here, with Peter being a new series detective, when a lot of other Golden Age novels settled for dealing with the puzzle and leaving the detective to enigmatically take care of themselves around the edges of the mystery, Sayers is doing interesting things. She discusses Peter’s character at length — the shell shock is a prominent feature, yes, but also she deals with the fact that he’s an aristocrat, and thus there’s something very public school about how he approaches crime. The scene between Peter and Charles during which they discuss the rights and wrongs of pursuing criminals is great.
What also struck me a lot this time is how casually anti-Semitic it can sound. There’s one line about Sir Reuben having “the shekels” to stop a deal that just… modern Twitter shudders at the phrasing. Sayers thought she was actually quite positive toward the Jewish characters, but… gah.
It remains entertaining, and I was glad to focus on the scenes that give Peter a little more depth — but I’m also excited to get to Clouds of Witness and onwards.
In The Hollow Man, some thinly characterised people try to work out a locked room mystery, probably less paper-thin than they seem for some readers since it’s actually the sixth or so entry in a long running series, but really not sufficient for someone just starting out. Various implausibilities are discussed, unlikely red herrings crop up, and in the end there’s a shocking reveal, the trick is explained, and no one of any consequence to the reader has changed or grown at all.
As a puzzle story, it’s not bad, but I don’t quite get the hype about John Dickson Carr if this is typical of his work. It feels like the story and characters are thin layers of papier-mâché covering what the author really wanted to do, which was just play with that puzzle. It’s not unusual for a Golden Age crime novel, but from the enthusiasm of other readers I assumed there would be more to it than this. I’ll probably try another book or so by Carr — series detectives like his Gideon Fell can be a difficult proposition, but other books not featuring this character might be okay (reader, I hate Poirot, but Agatha Christie is really not bad when you leave him out of it). This wasn’t bad, I just didn’t care.
In this book, Daisy gets involved in a whole new kind of case — one that involves her with the police in America, along with whispers of corruption in the local government, vast amounts of gun crime… and a babysitter arranged for her while Alec is away to try and stop her getting into trouble. (Spoiler: he doesn’t succeed.) This is a very different setting for Daisy and it feels much less cosy, because she’s in a lot more genuine danger at times.
At the same time, there’s a whole section of the book that finally picks up on Alec having been a pilot, featuring an air chase across the US. Pretty epic stuff.
I feel like the this book was somewhat lacking because it has so few familiar characters. Ms Genevieve/Eugene Cannon is pretty awesome, a now-retired former crime reporter who wrote under a male pseudonym for acceptance, but otherwise I missed Daisy’s friends and family, and Alec’s team at the Yard. I’m quite, quite ready for Daisy to be home now. I worried about this series getting too formulaic for me, but with more variation in the background, I missed some of the more routine characters.
I just wish Daisy would go ahead and become a PI, honestly. At least that would put a figleaf over the glaring fact that nobody accidentally finds so many corpses!
Death at Bishop’s Keep follows mostly two characters: the first one being Kathryn Ardleigh, a thoroughly modern and independent American lady, and the second being Sir Charles, an English gentleman with an interest in… well, all kinds of things, from murders to mushrooms. It opens with Kathryn, though, as she’s offered a job with her heretofore unknown British aunt, and travels across to England in order to become her secretary. She quickly finds that though the situation sounds ideal — with a generous salary — she has two aunts, one of whom is repressive and cruel, and plans to treat her like a servant instead of as family. All is not well in the household, as it’s clear that her Aunt Jaggers has some kind of hold over her Aunt Sabrina, and disapproves of the work Sabrina has employed Kathryn to do.
Meanwhile, Sir Charles finds himself investigating a murder, since the local police seem unlikely to do anything about it. Between that and neighbourly visits, he finds himself thrown into Kathryn’s company a lot. They don’t quite investigate together, but their paths keep crossing, and when Kathryn’s aunts both die violently of poisoning, Charles finds himself eager to help Kathryn discover exactly what happened.
The best thing about the book is the possibly too anachronistic Kathryn, who also happens to be a writer of lurid short stories (which is her motivation for getting involved in any trouble or intriguing situation she can — she mines it for her books!). The writing is mostly workmanlike rather than particularly exciting, and the solution to the mystery was pretty obvious from the moment a certain plot element was introduced.
Nonetheless, it was a fun enough read — though not one where I’m eager to read the rest of the series. Part of that is because I’m told Sir Charles becomes the main character to a greater degree, and part of it is that there was just something fairly pedestrian about this in the end. Kate’s an interesting character, but not in the same way as my other favourite mystery heroines. If the other books are on Kindle Unlimited, I might pick them up sometime, but I’m not in a hurry.
I picked this up because the author had a delightful thread on Twitter, basically. It’s not something I would normally pick up, perhaps, given that it’s sort of middle-grade-ish in target audience — but it’s a mystery story and I was told it was entertaining (and inclusive!) so I thought I’d just go ahead and give it a shot. And it was enjoyable: Daisy and Hazel are at a boarding school and become friends, and this term they’ve decided to imitate Holmes and Watson and become a crime-investigating duo. Daisy considers herself the brains of the outfit, while Hazel is the heart (and more often than not has some smart ideas of her own) and the writer, following Sherlockian custom. When Hazel finds a dead body which disappears by the time she goes back to show someone, they realise they’ve found the perfect case.
As befits the audience, it goes along at a hefty clip, and the mystery isn’t too difficult for the audience to get into themselves. It does a nice job of evoking the historical setting without getting into too much detail, using Hazel’s outsider status as a foreign student to explain what might not be familiar (although it all is if you were into Enid Blyton’s books as a kid, as I was). All in all, it still wasn’t my thing, but it was fun as a change, and it is something I’d happily recommend to someone of the right sort of age and/or interests.
In this book, Daisy and Alec have got married and they’re off on a cruise to the US. Because Daisy is Daisy, she quickly runs into a murder, and Alec is unwillingly drawn into the case because he’s the only policeman on board, and everyone turns to his experience (not to mention his rank). We get to spend some more time with Gloria and her father, and endure one of those typical “gold digging girl from the stage marries a millionaire with ill-intent” plots.
Mostly meh, in retrospect, though Daisy and Alec’s relationship and interactions remain fun.
Busman’s Honeymoon isn’t the most substantial story, though it does have insights into married life and the kind of compromise necessary to couples. Harriet and Peter talk out the problems they encounter, and it’s a delight. In this book they finally get married — mostly covered in excerpts from letters and diaries, including some delightful glimpses into Peter’s mother’s life and way of thinking — and go off to spend their honeymoon in their new house, a place Harriet knew as a child. When they arrive, the owner is unexpectedly absent, and things are all at sixes and sevens… and of course, it turns out that the owner is actually dead.
Naturally, Harriet and Peter are drawn into the investigation, finding that it quickly disturbs their married bliss… and that they can find a way through it by communicating, being patient with one another, compromising (although never in a way that compromises their values). Anyone who knows my usual rants about the issues with romance novels and indeed with people in general will see how that delights me!
And as always, it’s cleverly and often wittily written, full of allusions and references. Sayers isn’t afraid of making you work at it, sometimes, and that’s also fun.
The Cobbler’s Boy, Katherine Addison, Elizabeth Bear
This novella is basically the story of how Kit Marlowe (think “Come live with me and be my love” if you know poetry!) and how he became a spy, as the rumour about his life and death goes. In this story, he’s a teenage boy, just awakening to his sexuality (with a local lad named Ginger) and forced to be quick-witted to help his mother and keep his lout of a father from being accused of the murder of one of his own friends.
It’s a quick read, and it almost doesn’t matter if you know about Marlowe or not: you quickly orientate yourself with the time period and the circumstances of young Marlowe’s life. The authors chose to go with fairly period-authentic language for the dialogue: thees and thous abound, which I know would turn some people off (but it is, I promise you, all grammatically correct and appropriate, to the best of my knowledge).
It’s not quite a rip-roaring thriller, but it does go along at a fair clip, and it’s a fun adventure whether you know Marlowe or not. If you do, and are aware of some of the facts about him, it has a little extra depth and savour.
I read this around Christmas, because it’s seasonal, and why not? It’s a set-up with tonnes of atmosphere: heavy snow falls, trapping trains on the tracks where they stand, and a group of travellers leave to try and walk to their destinations, or a working station, or just because of sheer boredom. The weather worsens, however, and one of them twists an ankle, and so they end up sheltering in a house they find empty, but open and ready as if for visitors. The mystery grows as a couple of other people join them, and as they explore the house. This is even one of the sort of mystery novels where there’s a hint of the supernatural, as a paranormal investigator is one of the group, and another susceptible member of the company finds herself experiencing weird episodes of pain and fear.
In the end, there’s some down to earth murder going on as well, and a touch of romance. To be honest, although I’ve enjoyed Farjeon’s other books, this one rang a little hollow for me and I wasn’t as keen. He does the atmosphere pretty well, but the characters are an odd bunch who wear their flaws rather openly, and I honestly just got confused by the comings and goings and mysterious happenings. It relies on coincidence a bit too much, and just… doesn’t in the end quite work for me. Sad, since I was sure it’d be a good one!