Monthly Archives: March 2017

Agatha Christie’s A Pocketful of Rye

A Pocket Full of Rye was published in 1953 as an annual ‘Christie for Christmas,’ though it was first serialised that autumn in an abridged version in the Daily Express.Product Details

It’s one of several Christie titles to be taken from a British nursery rhyme, in this case, Sing a Song of Sixpence. This rhyme also inspired two of her short stories, Four and Twenty Blackbirds (1941) and Sing a Song of Sixpence (1929). John Curran, writing in Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks says:

The dramatic impact of an innocent nursery rhyme transforming into a killer’s calling card is irresistible to an imaginative crime writer such as Agatha Christie… The attraction is obvious – the juxtaposition of the childlike and the chilling, the twisting of the mundane into the macabre.

I’ve always found nursery rhymes faintly sinister in their own right. Even in childhood they seemed to retain a hint of their often dark historical origins.

This is the sixth novel to feature Miss Marple, although she doesn’t appear until eighty pages in, after the third death has occurred. The plot concerns the murder of Rex Fortescue, a rich businessman, the suspects are his family and staff. The setting is a town in the Surrey stock-broker belt, twenty miles from London. Baydon Heath was almost entirely inhabited by rich city men.

We see much of the investigation through the eyes of Inspector Neele who is considerably more acute than some policemen of Miss Marple’s acquaintance, Inspector Slack springs to mind.

‘Inspector Neele had a smart soldierly appearance with crisp brown hair growing back from a rather low forehead. When he uttered the phrase “just a matter of routine” those addressed were wont to think spitefully: “And routine is about all you’re capable of!” They would have been quite wrong. Behind his unimaginative appearance, Inspector Neele was a highly imaginative thinker.’

There’s an interesting comment of the time when Rex Fortescue is taken ill in his office:

‘It has to be the right hospital,’ Miss Somers insisted, ‘or else they won’t come. Because of the National Health, I mean. It’s got to be in the area.’

(The free British National Health Service had begun five years earlier).

The murders are staged to follow the lines of the nursery rhyme. After the third death, Miss Marple arrives on the Fortescues’ door step and is soon invited to stay – which always amuses me. She comes because Gladys, the murdered parlourmaid had previously worked for her. Miss Marple trained her in service and wants to offer the police any helpful insights into her character which may assist in catching her killer.

Inspector Neele accepts her help rather more gratefully than Inspector Slack at St Mary Mead.

He had been in two minds at first how to treat her, but he quickly made up his mind. Miss Marple would be useful to him. She was upright, of unimpeachable rectitude, and she had, like most old ladies, time on her hands and an old maid’s nose for scenting bits of gossip. She’d get things out of servants and out of the women of the Fortescue family perhaps, that he and his policemen would never get. Talk, conjecture, reminiscences, repetitions of things said and done, out of it all she would pick the salient facts.

A great summing-up of Miss Marple’s M.O.

The contemptuous murder with a peg placed on the dead girl’s nose, makes Miss Marple unusually angry. There are parallels with The Body in the Library where again, the murder victim is a young naïve girl. She describes Gladys as rather pathetically stupid and obviously feels a sense of responsibility to bring her killer to justice. It’s one of those moments when behind the fluffy old lady, the reader glimpses someone implacable, the murderer’s Nemesis.

I’ve mentioned in previous blogs how much I disagree with the view that Christie didn’t write believable characters. She simply wrote with a light touch. Here’s a character described through Inspector Neele’s eyes:

‘He knew the type very well. It was the type that specialised in the young wives of rich and elderly men. Mr. Vivian Dubois, if this was he, had that rather forced masculinity which is, in reality, nothing of the kind. He was the type of man who “understands” women.’

All you need to know. Agatha Christie trusted her readers’ imagination to fill in the rest.

Although there’s much to enjoy, A Pocketful of Rye isn’t one of my favourite Christies. The murders mimicking the nursery rhyme is too contrived for me and I prefer Miss Marple in a village setting, rather than an enclosed household of suspects.

Having said that, it’s a fine whodunit with a cleverly deceptive plot. The psychology is excellent – as always – and the character of Gladys is very poignant, revealing a greater depth to Miss Marple.

 

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Colin Dexter’s “The Wench is Dead”

Following Colin Dexter’s death earlier this week, we thought we’d continue our tribute to his Inspector Morse novels by re-blogging our look at The Wench is Dead.

The television version of the Inspector Morse mysteries, with the forceful central performance by John Thaw, had overshadowed the original novels in my mind. I hadn’t read any of the books for quite a time. We watched the TV version of The Wench is Dead the other night, so I thought this was an appropriate time to revisit the novel.The Wench is Dead (Inspector Morse Series Book 8) by [Dexter, Colin]

It’s an unusual book, for the crime is the murder of a woman on the Oxford Canal in 1859. Inspector Morse, hospitalised with a stomach ulcer, is given a book about this old crime, is intrigued, and begins to believe that the crime didn’t actually happen as described. With the help of the faithful Sergeant Lewis, a nurse, and a librarian, Morse investigates the crime.

Now, the idea of a present-day detective investigating an ancient crime isn’t exactly new. Josephine Tey used a hospitalised detective, Alan Grant, to investigate the guilt or innocence of Richard III in The Daughter of Time.

I have a great interest in the history of the British canals. I’ve ancestors who worked on them, and they were a staple of my childhood. Now, the surviving canals are mostly used by leisure craft, but in my childhood there were still working narrow boats, many towing butty boats full of coal. The people who worked the canals were quite wonderful. I used to cadge lifts on their boats.

Their world was not so different from that depicted so lovingly and accurately by Colin Dexter. The Victorian boatmen lived a rough life and were viewed with considerable suspicion by the land-bound.

I also have a great interest in Victorian crime, and it’s fascinating to re-examine the evidence on which men and women were convicted. There’s no doubt that the Victorian legal system was flawed against the defendant. At the period of Dexter’s novel, they were not even allowed to appear in court in their own defence. There’s no doubt that a great many innocent men and women were unjustly hanged.

These legal points form an important part of the way the story of The Wench is Dead is resolved, and it’s fascinating stuff. Dexter has a great skill in re-creating the extremely unfair world of Victorian jurisprudence.

It’s a terrific book which well-deserved winning the CWA Golden Dagger as Crime Novel of the Year. Well worth a read.

The television version scripted by the novelist Malcolm Bradbury, (a professor at the University of East Anglia when I was doing my degree there) takes considerable liberties with Dexter’s original. Sergeant Lewis is missing, his place taken by a rookie cop. There’s a couple of love interests for Morse. Interesting departures from the original, and the film is very entertaining. The 1859 sequences are superbly presented. But a lot of the intimacy of Dexter’s novel is lost. John Thaw was on great form as Inspector Morse.

Do watch the film, it’s very worthwhile, but enjoy the beautifully written novel as well.

 

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Colin Dexter R.I.P.

We were very saddened to hear of the death today of Colin Dexter, at the age of 86.

His Inspector Morse novels were a considerable addition to crime literature, always wonderfully readable with great characterisation and superb plots.

They led, of course, to the much-loved television series with the late John Thaw, which was essential viewing for so many years. Colin Dexter’s Hitchcock-style brief appearances in each episode were always eagerly awaited.

Colin Dexter has left a wonderful legacy for all lovers of detective fiction.

 

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Harry’s Game by Gerald Seymour

Out of the 1970s came a series of what I call journalist thrillers, written with a considerable realism and usually by writers who’d been reporters. Perhaps the most famous example is Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the JackalProduct Details

One of the very best is Gerald Seymour’s Harry’s Game, set mostly in Belfast during the Troubles of the mid 1970s, at a time when the warfare between the British Army,  the security services  and the IRA  was at its height.

Gerald Seymour was a reporter on the streets of Belfast at the time and it shows.

To pull off this sort of gritty realism you really need to have walked those troubled streets and estates of Belfast – the Falls Road, the Shankill, the Ardoyne, the Ballymurphy… Seymour did and you can feel the gripping fear that beset these places at the time in every page of  Harry’s Game – these aren’t experiences that can be faked. You need to have been there.

Interestingly, the violence level in Harry’s Game is not over-excessive. Characters are beaten and shot but it never goes beyond that. Harry’s Game is not as graphically violent as many a more modern thriller.

Gerald Seymour achieves menace by the tenseness of the writing, the dangers of men having to live double lives in hostile environments. Undercover work is rarely as well presented as here.

Harry’s Game begins with the assassination of a British cabinet minister by an IRA gunman, Billy Downes, who after the shooting returns to his home in Belfast. On the direct orders of the Prime Minister, and without telling the army or most of the security services, a section of British Intelligence decides to place an agent in Belfast to discover the identity of the assassin.

They use Harry Brown, an army captain of Irish ancestry, who’s previously lived undercover in the Middle East and had a subsequent breakdown. Harry moves into a boarding house off the Falls Road, posing as a merchant seaman with republican sympathies.

Meanwhile Billy Downes tries to sink back into his former life with his wife and children, though brought out at one point to kill a soldier.

There is a kind of parallel between Harry Brown and Billy Downes. Both work undercover for their respective armies. Both are fearful of discovery. Both are under enormous pressure as the people hunting them down get ever closer. Both are victims of a tragic conflict and are neither good nor bad in themselves.

This very well-crafted book was Gerald Seymour’s first novel, though it doesn’t come over as anything but skilled. For sheer suspense it’s hard to beat. I think it captures Belfast very well at that moment in time. Reading it again, now, and remembering those days, it’s all the more remarkable that, politically, Northern Ireland has moved on so much.

The book’s tragic ending still has the power to shock.

 

 

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Magsmen, Gonophs, Macers, Shofulmen and Screevers

What are Magsmen, Gonophs, Macers, Shofulmen and Screevers?

In my blog on Kellow Chesney’s book The Victorian Underworld I mentioned a few of the underworld’s “technical terms”. Kellow Chesney gives a very comprehensive list at the back of his book, but I think it’s only fair to give an explanation of the ones I mentioned.

They would have been very familiar terms to the characters in our books, and – certainly as far as William Quest goes – many of the characters in that series of books qualify to be included under one or more of these terms.

So here goes:

Magsmen – well basically a cheat or a sharper of the lowest kind – the sort who’d probably try and cheat you in a pub or out on the street. They’re still around so watch out!

Macers – Macers play the same sort of game as magsmen but at a slightly higher level. Think con-artist in modern terms and you’re more or less there.

Gonophs – gonophs are minor thieves and often the less skilled sort of pickpockets. Poverty drove many Victorians to crime in this way. My character William Quest starts his life on the streets as a gonoph, but becomes more skilled as time goes by.

Shofulmen – These individuals were purveyors of bad money. Not uncommon in the earlier decades of the century.

Screevers – Although it became an occasional name for pavement artists, the original screevers were writers of fake testimonials – quite a handy vocation in Victorian times when you might need a phony reference, especially if you’d been dismissed by your employer without a character. My character Jasper Feedle partakes in screeving amongst his other many talents.

If you want to enter the dangerous Victorian Underworld do seek out Kellow Chesney’s book – or if you want to walk the dangerous alleys of Victorian London do try my William Quest novels…

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The Victorian Underworld by Kellow Chesney

If any one book inspired me to write my William Quest Victorian thrillers it’s this one, Kellow Chesney’s very readable and scholarly book on the Victorian underworld. It was first published in 1970 and – for me – is the standard work on this fascinating subject.Victorian Underworld: Chesney, Kellow

I first encountered it when I was an undergraduate at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. Although I majored in literature, I did a minor in nineteenth-century social history. The underworld was only a small part of my studies, but discovering Kellow Chesney’s book sent me of on a wider reading programme, both in secondary reading and the primary sources.

When I’m asked to recommend a book on the Victorian underworld this is the one I suggest as a first read. There are several other titles I like – and I hope to give these a mention on the blog in the coming months – but Kellow Chesney’s book is the most comprehensive and the best introduction.

It’s all here, starting with a walk through the mid-century streets of London – and how vividly the author portrays the place. This is no dull work of scholarship, it’s a page-turner as exciting as all the best mystery thrillers.

Then from the main streets frequented by the richest members of society, Kellow Chesney takes the reader to the borders of the underworld, the places where the dispossessed and those forced into crime to survive are obliged to lurk – and the boundaries between the rookeries and the smart streets of society are often back to back.

We are then taken on a journey into the rookeries themselves. Kellow Chesney conjures them up in all their awfulness. It is impossible to understand the Victorian criminal underworld unless you can understand the causes of crime.

Here are the beggars, the pick-pockets, the footpads and the swell mob. The skilled cracksmen who break the safes and steal the jewellery of the richest members of society. Here are the magsmen, gonophs, macers and shofulmen. The screevers and the Newgate mob. (I’ll talk more about these in a blog early next week.)

There were perhaps 80000 prostitutes in Victorian London alone. Kellow Chesney deals sympathetically with their plight, whether they were working the poorest streets in the East End for pennies or selling themselves for much more in the night houses in the West End.

The book is wonderfully illustrated, mostly with the sketches of the great Gustave Dore, adding to the feeling of being there so brilliantly evoked in Mr Chesney’s words. If you can, seek out one of the original hardback editions – the pictures are not so well reproduced in the paperback editions.

When I came to write William Quest, Kellow Chesney’s book was the first I re-read. If you want a good understanding of the Victorian underworld, I commend it to you.

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March 5, 2017 · 10:59 am

‘Magpie Murders’ by Anthony Horowitz

This is the first novel I’ve read by Anthony Horowitz though I loved his television drama ‘Foyle’s War’ and enjoyed his scriptwriting for ‘Midsomer Murders’. So I came to ‘Magpie Murders’, knowing only that there’d been masses of glowing reviews when it came out last year (in 2016). Well, the short version is – here’s another one. Magpie Murders by [Horowitz, Anthony]

I loved ‘Magpie Murders’ and think it’s one of the best new crime novels I’ve found in the last couple of years. (I re-read a lot of old favourites). For anyone who loves Agatha Christie and Golden Age detection, this is an outstanding treat – full of ingenuity and flair – and much more besides.

It isn’t easy to review this novel without giving away too much but these details are on the jacket copy. The story begins in the first person. Susan Ryeland, an editor at a small publishing house is settling down to read the manuscript of ‘Magpie Murders,’ their most famous author’s new detective novel. She’s a likeable, very human narrator, getting comfy with wine, snacks and cigarettes. Horowitz is very good at channelling believable female characters.

Within a couple of pages – and after a few cryptic remarks from Susan – we begin to read the detective novel, clearly delineated with a typewriter-style font. And there we stay until near its end. ‘Magpie Murders’, the manuscript, is a classic vintage murder mystery, set in the mid-fifties in that well-known fictional English village of ‘Mayhem Parva’. Where the sleepy streets are picturesque, the inhabitants seething with secrets and the gossip full of red herrings

Anthony Horowitz presents us with three mysteries; his contemporary ‘Magpie Murders,’ the fictional ‘Magpie Murders’ within his novel and the hidden narrative within the manuscript. You certainly get value for money and this is not one to read in bed as you’re nodding off. Not that you’d want to, as it’s too engrossing. Some reviewers have likened this device to a Russian doll. It reminded me of one of those intricate Oriental puzzle boxes where pieces shift and slide to unlock the key. (We had one long ago, brought home by a Victorian sailor forebear).

The manuscript novel features a celebrated foreign private detective who works closely with Scotland Yard and bears more than a passing resemblance to Poirot. It’s fun to spot the many nods to Christie along the way. The sidekick is named Fraser, referencing Hugh Fraser of Captain Hastings fame. (Now an acclaimed crime novelist himself). Market Basing gets a mention, a town near St Mary Mead and so on.

I think the ‘acid test’ of the dual narrative format is that both parts have to be equally interesting. One of the best examples that comes to mind is John Fowles’ ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’. In this, ‘Magpie Murders’ succeeds admirably.

The manuscript is very enjoyable and captures a real feeling of a 1950s detective novel of the best sort. Despite this, there are anachronisms and this is an example of Horowitz’s skill. I thought I spotted one early on when Downs Syndrome was mentioned. (I’m old enough to remember adults talking about ‘Mongol’ children, which was the usual expression in the 1960s). Then the penny dropped that the anachronisms were written by Alan Conway, the fictional author.

I don’t believe that any writer could pass off a perfect Christie imitation. But I suspect if Anthony Horowitz had been commissioned to write the Poirot continuation series, he would have done a good job. (Possibly something there  hidden in my text?).

We return to the present with Susan Ryeland when she realises that the last couple of chapters are missing from the manuscript. A great cliff-hanger, the rug is pulled just as you’re desperate to know whodunit. The remainder of the novel is as intriguing as the novel-within, as Susan turns detective to track down the missing pages and find out who murdered Alan Conway.

Well-paced to the end, the climax and the reveals are convincing and very satisfying. This is a triumph of intricate plotting, that’s written with great clarity. Important in such a complex structure. I’d be fascinated to know how long Anthony Horowitz took to plot this and how he went about it – it’s hard to believe he’s a ‘pantser’.

The writing is full of clever word-play that reminds me of the much-missed Reginald Hill’s work. There’s a witty, sparkling air about ‘Magpie Murders’ that reads as though Horowitz was having fun and really enjoyed writing it. He clearly loves the Golden Age sub-genre, paying homage, while inverting and up-dating it at the same time.

Clear some blissful free time for this with a drink, possibly a snack, definitely your thinking cap. (Let’s ditch the cigarettes). A superb detective novel, not to be missed.

 

 

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