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!
Gaudy Night looks to be the chunkiest of Sayers’ novels on my bookshelf: in effect, it’s a book-length musing on women and education, on equality in a relationship, and in doing the thing that you’re best suited to do — and making the sacrifices that may entail. Although there’s another book after this, it’s really the culmination of the series in some ways, resolving the romance between Peter and Harriet, and finally bringing the two of them into balance.
The plot itself takes Harriet to Oxford, a place she’s avoided since before she was tried for the murder of her lover. She didn’t think she could go back, after both taking a lover and being tried for his murder (even if she was acquitted), but she quickly finds there’s still a place for her there, and a life that has its charms of quiet contemplation and good hard work. She’s asked to stay there to help them track down something rather odd going on in their midst, a cross between a poison pen and a poltergeist, bent on causing disturbances that will reflect badly on the good name of the college — something that could be a pretty harsh blow to women’s education. In the meantime, she gets embroiled in various rivalries and misunderstandings, meets Peter’s nephew, and generally gets herself into trouble.
Really, the mystery isn’t as important to this book as Harriet’s struggle to forgive herself, and to begin to trust again after what happened to her. Although it’s been some time since the trial, she hasn’t really been confronting the demons and letting the wounds heal, and this book makes her do so. It also makes her really look at Peter, and discover how she actually feels about him.
It’s a book that dramatises badly: the BBC television adaptation is by far my least favourite of the three with Edward Petherbridge, despite the manifest delights of both him and Harriet Walter’s performance. The BBC radioplay is actually narrated by Harriet, and sticks much closer to the book, and so is more successful as a cohesive listening experience, though perhaps less so as a dramatisation. It’s a pretty insular book, and I think you may have to love Harriet, Peter, Oxford, or all of the above, to really appreciate it.
I really do. The thing that excites me most about Harriet and Peter as a couple is the fact that from their first meeting, everything hinges on them becoming equals and seeing each other as such — this isn’t a relationship where either of them subordinates their own wishes. Both are fully formed people, and Peter wants it that way — and Harriet doesn’t know or believe that he does, instead believing that any relationship will involve the subjugation of one to the other. Her realisation is beautiful, and Peter’s patience with bringing her there likewise. I think that aspect of the books has aged well, even if the concern about educating women to a high level seems much less relevant.
Styx and Stones is basically the same as the other Daisy Dalrymple books in its basic outline: somehow, Daisy ends up finding a dead body, and getting embroiled in the case to discover exactly what happened, despite Alec’s best efforts. In this case, she gets involved because her brother-in-law asks for her help in a little matter of someone writing poison pen letters to him — and perhaps to various other people in the village. Taking Alec’s daughter Belinda with her for a holiday, Daisy charges right in to see what can be done.
It’s a generally enjoyable book, with Daisy enjoying the quiet village life and poking her nose in everywhere. Her reactions to the local Scarlet Woman are, as you’d expect from her character and the fact that she’s designed to appeal to a modern reader, tentative but overall positive. As usual, she quickly decides who can’t have done it, based on personal feelings, and lets that colour her whole view of the case — and lead her somewhat astray at times.
My enjoyment of this book is mostly marred by the fact that there is a patently ridiculous chapter in which Alec decides Daisy’s been dragging his daughter into danger, Daisy has a tantrum about it and returns the engagement ring, and then they swiftly make up because Belinda gets sad about it. I’m not sure Alec ever really deals with the fact that he’s mad about Belinda getting into danger, and Daisy never really answers the accusation that she got Belinda into a nasty atmosphere (because I do think Alec has a point that maybe a village where someone is writing nasty and potentially threatening poison pen letters is maybe not the best place to take a child), and basically proper communication and discussion never really happens. I mean, it’s cute and all, but hmm. If there was an issue to begin with, it never does get resolved.
That being said, still a mostly enjoyable book, with a couple of little twists on the subject of who is writing the letters and who did the murder, for variety.
In The Nine Tailors, Peter and Bunter find themselves stranded in the Fen country due to their car being driven into a ditch. Taking shelter for New Year’s Eve in a small vicarage, Peter gets pressed into joining the vicar and his bellringers in ringing in the New Year, literally, with a complex and record-breaking peal. The reader might be slightly confused by this beginning, which features no crime, but after a while things become clear: the vicar writes to Peter later, asking for his help. A body has been found in the grave of a woman who died that New Year’s Day, and nobody knows who he is, who killed him, or even exactly how he died.
This was one of my favourite of the Peter Wimsey books from the start of my acquaintance with them, when I was rather less under the spell of Peter, and more inclined to be sceptical — I think I might’ve given Whose Body? two stars, so thank goodness I didn’t have a blog then: my mother would’ve had a fit. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why this book is a favourite, though. Part of it is a sense of place — the desolate power of the Fenlands, the beauty of the church, the brooding menace of the bells… Part of it is that refrain from the book: “Nine tailors make a man.” For me, anyway, there’s a kind of magic in that phrase, in the idea of the bell slowly tolling to announce a death. And there’s also a good deal to love in the care Sayers took in using the bellringing for so much, weaving it into the plot inextricably, and making all the infodumps about change ringing useful to the rest of the story. There’s a powerful melancholy in the whole book.
(I’m sure for some people that’s also a reason to dislike the book; it’s a fairly measured and slow-paced story.)
For me, there’s also significant pleasure in the ironies of the story, and to elaborate would be to spoil the story. It’s a rather literary effort, compared to the snappier books from earlier in the series: for me, that’s a positive thing, though I like the earlier books as well. Could use more active involvement of Parker, though…
In this book, Amory and her husband Milo go — together, as a couple! with no drama about who is sleeping where! – to a country house at the request of her cousin, a dear friend, who was once on the periphery of a murder and has been called back to the site, along with other people, for some new revelation. Feeling uncomfortable, and knowing Amory’s stuck her nose in a few police investigations, she asks Amory to come — and though she’s no detective and not qualified, etc, etc, she goes, to support her cousin. So far, so very typical of the genre, honestly, and the rest of the book more or less continues that.
I don’t think I’ll continue with this series; it’s nice mindless stuff, and at least she’s stopped (for now at least) playing with the drama about Milo being a playboy. But it’s just a bit too much like everything else, and Amory hasn’t caught my attention in the way Daisy has. I might pick up the next book if I’m bored sometime, but the library wanted it back, and I didn’t care enough to reserve it again, so… there you go.
After rereading the Lord Peter Wimsey books at a fairly leisurely pace for a while, I more or less sat down and devoured the ones I had left, in December. Murder Must Advertise has long been a favourite for the fun of seeing both somewhat of how an advertising agency works, and how Dorothy Sayers herself worked in such an environment. (One feels one’s glimpsed her particularly in the figure of Miss Meteyard, I think — though Sayers herself was writing copy, more in Wimsey’s job than Miss Meteyard’s.) The book features Peter’s one real sustained undercover op: he embeds himself into an advertising agency under the name of Bredon, sniffing out a murder and a dope gang, all at once.
It’s also one of those books with a sincere sense of danger, and a bittersweet ending in which Peter allows a man the dignity of choosing the manner of his own death rather than immediately telling the police what he’s worked out. That tendency is one of the things that irritates me about Peter as a sleuth; his code of honour means he feels he has to allow people an out, even if that out is an honourable suicide. Of course we know that it never does go wrong, for Peter, but it could and it’s a flaw in him for me that he’s always so tempted to put the decision in a murderer’s hands. In this case, he suggests a method of suicide to someone that means their family won’t be overshadowed by the trial — but leaves him no chance of a fair trial. Peter is judge and jury, and the murderer themselves becomes their own executioner. It might not feel like cricket to turn people in to the police, but darn it, the legal system is there for a reason. Peter’s meant to be too decent to back someone against a wall and make them think all is lost, but still. Real people aren’t always right, or always decent.
All the same, for the most part it’s a bit of a romp, with Peter coming up with advertising slogans, and leading a double life to provide himself with alibis (of sorts). Harriet’s not really mentioned, and Bunter and even Parker are often in the background, with the setting and characters of the advertising agency taking centre stage. It makes a nice change.
I was surprised to read that this was something of a filler book, while Sayers was actually working on The Nine Tailors to get all the details right, but it makes sense in a way. It doesn’t advance Peter’s character arc much, or really do anything profound — apart from the last act of bravery on the part of a particular character.
Dead in the Water is the 6th in the Daisy Dalrymple series. In this book, Daisy and Alec are officially engaged, and he’s actually got to face her family — thankfully, her more likeable aunt, and not more time with her strict and old-fashioned mother! Of course, as usual, Daisy quickly falls over a fraught situation, expects murder, and eventually gets it. The same formula is in place here as usual: a crime is committed, and by the time Alec investigates, Daisy’s picked someone to champion. In this case, it’s actually someone she doesn’t even like, who she feels deserves better than he’s been getting all the same.
It’s little things like that (Daisy not liking the person she champions) that help bring some variety to the series; if it was always the exact same kind of person, it’d quickly get tedious, but there’s always just enough variation that it works. For me, and so far, at least. Daisy herself is a worthy sort of heroine: not totally unflappable, but practical and trying to keep her head; a girl who works for her living when she doesn’t have to (except of course, she considers that she does have to, valuing the work); someone with a sense of justice. Alec, too, is a basically decent guy, doing his best to find the culprits and put aside personal feelings. And their relationship is sweet, too.
It didn’t blow me out of the water (heh), but again it’s a fun entry in a series that’s working for me.
Death Wears a Mask is another competent cozy-ish mystery in the same vein as the first, with the side plot of Amory’s playboy husband being, well, a playboy. There’s a fair bit of relationship drama here, where he gets into compromising situations and she refuses to quite believe he’s faithful to her. Plenty of misunderstandings on her side, while he’s actually mostly perfect (cares about her, acts wild but is faithful, etc). Spare me. I hope the oh-no-is-he-cheating drama is over as of this book, because yeesh.
The mystery itself was somewhat predictable, as was the resolution of the relationship drama. The attraction remains that it’s just a really easy and fast read, without being too involving emotionally or too full of guts and gore. A mild pleasure rather than something that bowled me over in any fashion.
Actually, I’m so lukewarm on this and only a little warmer on the following book (which I’ve already read — I’m just behind on actually writing up my reviews) that I wonder why I’m continuing with the series when I have so many lovely things to read.
In this instalment of the Daisy Dalrymple series, Philip falls in love, and immediately gets into a scrape. Daisy, of course, is pretty glad to hear about the lucky girl (it gets Philip off her back, and after all she wants him to be happy) and immediately plunges into trouble to help rescue her when something goes wrong. Alec comes into the story later, and mostly unofficially, with plenty of derring-do and dramatic rescue attempts on the part of all concerned.
In a way, there’s not much to say about this book: it’s fairly predictable as far as the fact that you know Daisy is going to get into all the trouble there is to get into, and figure out most of the salient points (with Alec not doing so badly either, of course). Things turn out pretty much okay at the end, not to mention the fact that Alec and Daisy end the book engaged.
The series remains a lot of fun, and rather wholesome fun at that. If you can’t bear Phryne Fisher’s taste in men, it’s a good alternative for a cosy mystery series.