Tag Archives: #crimefiction

‘The White Cottage Mystery’ by Margery Allingham

The White Cottage Mystery was Margery Allingham’s first detective fiction and her second novel. She began her writing career with Blackerchief Dick, an historical adventure, published in 1923, when she was only nineteen. The White Cottage Mystery was serialised in the Daily Express in 1927 and published as a novel a year later. After Allingham’s death in 1966, her sister Joyce revised the work to remove recaps etc. necessary in a serial.

Margery Allingham’s work is very individual among Golden Age fiction. Unquestionably a great detective novelist when she played it straight, she sometimes blurred the boundaries between detective fiction and rollicking adventure yarns, full of high jinks and eccentric enemies. You see this now and again in Agatha Christie’s earlier novels, such as The Secret Adversary and The Big Four, which also started life as a serial. Great fun, though I prefer Allingham’s more serious cases.

Although I’ve a great affection for Allingham’s work and Mr Campion, she’s my least favourite of the GA ‘big four.’ Someone has to be and that’s only because I love Christie, Sayers and Marsh even more. Margery Allingham was a wonderful writer and in The Tiger in the Smoke, (published in 1952), gave us one of the great London novels.

The White Cottage Mystery begins in Kent before moving to Paris and the South of France. A man described as a ‘mental torturer’ is shot dead in his neighbours’ house. Naturally enough, everyone in both households turns out to have a motive for his murder. As Mr Campion didn’t make his first appearance until the next novel, the detective is Chief Inspector Challoner of the Yard, assisted by his engaging son Jerry.

In a way, both are stock characters but none the worse for that. All humans really fall into one of a few types, however little we like to think so. And pre-war detective characters had to be products of their class and upbringing. So we have the Chief Inspector, keenly observant, wise and avuncular and Jerry, a typically young, enthusiastic, would-be detective, thoroughly decent and in love with one of the suspects. His father says of him:

‘Jerry,’ he said, ‘you have a quick eye, a fertile imagination, and the gift of application, but you’ll never make a detective – you’ve no ground work.’

Although Margery Allingham’s writing invariably had a freshness and vivacity, The White Cottage Mystery feels very much like the work of a young writer. The character of the murder victim is unremittingly black, other characters and plot lack the subtlety of her later work. Even the greats had to learn their craft and there’s an enjoyable liveliness about the narrative, with red herrings galore.

It’s fascinating to read the early work of a much-loved crime writer and see the origin of later ideas. Here we have the idea of a nefarious society – no more details as I don’t want to spoil anyone’s reading – but it’s the idea expanded upon in Look To The Lady, published in 1931. We also get the first appearance of Allingham’s cheery old lags, always so vividly written and culminating in Mr. Campion’s lovable side-kick, Magersfontein Lugg. Chief Inspector Challoner too, is not unlike Inspector Stanislaus Oates of later novels.

The revised novel retains the feeling of a serial. The opening plunges into action, quickly introducing the hero and the murder. There are short, titled chapters, each giving a concise piece of the jigsaw and ending on a cliff-hanger or hook. There’s no room for musing or build-up with the finished work 157 pages. Even so, Margery Allingham inserted some lovely sentences that set the atmosphere in a line or two. This is when the action shifts to Paris:

The car turned suddenly out of a noisy thoroughfare into a quiet old-fashioned avenue where the trees, green and dusty in the heat, nodded together before tall brown houses. They came to a standstill before a house whose windows were hung with old-fashioned looped plush curtains and showed the gleam of polished mahogany in their shadowed depths.

I enjoyed re-reading The White Cottage Mystery. It’s as good as many ‘standard’ inter-war mysteries with a well-reasoned plot and inventive solution. Most impressive for a twenty-three year old author. The foundations are there though a contemporary reader probably wouldn’t have sensed that the author was going to become one of the pre-eminent crime writers of the Golden Age and beyond.

 

 

 

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‘Heirs and Assigns’ by Marjorie Eccles

Published in 2015, Heirs and Assigns is an historical detective novel in the best British tradition. I really enjoyed this book, particularly for its clever plotting, evocative sense of place and understanding of its fascinating period, the late 1920s.

I’ve liked Marjorie Eccles’s work for many years – her Gil Mayo police procedurals set in The Black Country (in the English West Midlands) and stand-alones. It was a great shame that she wasn’t well-served by the BBC when they made a series using the Gil Mayo books. As I recall, they went for a quirky approach which was quite different from the novels and didn’t prove popular.

It’s interesting how hit and miss these things are. When Bentley Productions added a tongue-in-cheek spin to Caroline Graham’s excellent Chief Inspector Barnaby novels, they came up with Midsomer Murders… and the rest is history. (It didn’t hurt that the early episodes were adapted from the novels by renowned crime novelist and script-writer, Anthony Horowitz).

But had things gone differently, Marjorie Eccles’s Superintendent Mayo would be a famous name, along with the likes of Barnaby and Vera. Over the years I’ve too rarely seen her work in bookshops, she’s one of many authors whose books I discovered in libraries. These days they’re available as ebooks. I wish an enterprising production company would pick up the Inspector Reardon series. They’d make perfect Sunday night viewing.

Heirs and Assigns takes place in November 1928. Inspector Herbert Reardon and Sergeant Joe Gilmour live and work in Dudley at the heart of The Black Country. An industrial town of cramped, back-to-back terraces, mill chimneys and a permanent pall of gritty smoke. Many people think that The Black Country had its name from the smog but it actually comes from the wide seam of coal that the towns and villages are built upon. John – born and bred in the Black Country – says the coal seam itself used to be known locally as the thick.

The detectives are sent to investigate a suspicious death at Hinton Wyvering. A village close to the remote countryside along the Welsh Border, it’s with a day’s reach of Dudley and a world away in landscape. The owner of Bryn Glas, a Tudor farmhouse, now comfortable family home, died in the night, after his sixtieth birthday dinner. Someone among Pen Llewellyn’s family and friends is a murderer.

Bryn Glas sat on a wide natural plateau, a parcel of land scooped out of the side of the hill, at a point high above the river. Behind the hill the land rose even higher to the moors, the great windy spaces of heathland, where the undulating countryside became wilder, rockier and even dangerous at times, littered with disused quarry workings. A great outcrop to the east was a place of cliffs, caves and precipitous drops down to the river.

Marjorie Eccles vividly portrays life in a quiet, rural corner of England in the late 1920s. The way people lived and their very different attitudes are so well depicted. The house and village are beautifully described and you can picture every scene. Most of the village straggles along a hilltop above a river. Left behind even then, by the main road at its foot, leading to the town.

Inspector Reardon and his sergeant are appealing characters, both happily married. They work well together. Reardon is a compassionate, perceptive detective, carrying scars – in every sense – from his experiences in the Great War.

Ten years later, we see the times are changing. Old family estates have been broken up, village blacksmiths shoe horses and tinker with motor-cars. Inspector Reardon contemplates affording a two-seater Morris for his wife. Yet the consequences of the First World War are still affecting the villagers.

One resident is treated with suspicion as a former Conscientious Objector, women, who had temporary jobs while men were at the Front, resent being put aside in peacetime. Though in the year the novel is set, all women were finally given the vote, they are still struggling to forge careers on equal terms with men. Inspector Reardon’s wife Ellen is a former teacher who had to resign on marriage.

There are several intriguing motives for murder, secrets and old grudges for Reardon and Gilmour to uncover. When the answer is revealed, murderer and motive are very plausible. The plot is extremely well thought-out and psychologically sound.

Heirs and Assigns is the third title in the Inspector Reardon series. I’m looking forward to reading the earlier books and the latest title, The Property of Lies, published in May 2017.

 

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The Victorian Underworld

A little while ago, I blogged about Kellow Chesney’s classic book The Victorian Underworld, one of the best and most readable introductions to the subject for the general reader.

Donald Thomas’s book has the same title and covers some of the same ground, but it’s well worth a read as well. Reading both books will give you a good working knowledge of the subject and suggest avenues of research you might care to follow.

Mr Thomas is well known as an academic, an historian and biographer, and as a writer of crime fiction – I reviewed his novel Jekyll, Alias Hyde recently. He has also written a detective series and some Sherlock Holmes stories.

The Victorian Underworld, was first published in 1998 and was shortlisted for a CWA Golden Dagger.

Thomas begins with a prologue entitled “Darkest England,” setting the scene for the Victorian townscapes and countryside where the underworld thrived.

Mr Thomas pulls no punches in exposing of the hypocrisy of Victorian Britain. Sheer poverty drove people towards crime because of the basic need to survive.

On a personal note, I must say I get a little weary of present-day politicians preaching the merits of Victorian values,  and yearning to recreate such a world. Victorian Britain must have been an interesting place to live if you were very wealthy – but for the vast majority, it was a long struggle often just to put bread on the table.

As Aristotle pointed out a few thousand years ago, “poverty is the main cause of crime and revolution.” The Victorian Establishment suppressed – often with considerable brutality – most attempts to even up the odds.

The Underworld of the Age was an inevitable reaction to a Victorian lack of decency and fairness. Although there was a great deal of casual crime, there was also a considerable amount of criminal organisation. Mr Thomas looks at both in great detail.

Here we have the thieves, the swell mob and the pornographers, the way justice was loaded against the poor and there’s a lengthy examination of corruption at the heart of the Establishment and, in particular, at Scotland Yard.

There is a very good chapter on the stealing of the Crimean gold from a moving train, fictionalised in a book and a film by Michael Crichton as The First Great Train Robbery. The reality of the crime is much more sensational than any work of fiction.

Mr Thomas deals well with the subject of Victorian sexuality – there were, after all, tens of thousands of prostitutes on the streets of London.

He devotes a chapter to the mysterious memoirist called Walter, whose voluminous My Secret Life, gives some vivid pen-sketches by a man who was a customer of these women. There’s also a look at W.T Stead’s exposure of child prostitution and a glance at Victorian homosexuality.

Mr Thomas’s book was first published a few years after I first studied the Victorian Underworld as an undergraduate, doing a minor in Victorian social history at the University of East Anglia.

I seem to recall that, apart from the Kellow Chesney book, I was obliged to seek out primary sources – and so one should. But for the general reader without a great deal of time, these two books by Mr Chesney and Mr Thomas, offer a very readable and fascinating introduction.

My interest in the history of the Victorian Underworld has never wavered. I’ve read a lot more since graduation and tried to portray this world as accurately as possible in my own novels The Shadow of William Quest and Deadly Quest.

 

 

 

 

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The Murder in Romney Marsh by Edgar Jepson

Edgar Jepson (1863-1938) was a popular detective novelist of the Golden Age. He translated Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin stories and also wrote supernatural tales. Jepson was the grandfather of novelist and scriptwriter, Fay Weldon. The Murder in Romney Marsh (Black Heath Classic Crime) by [Jepson, Edgar]

The Murder in Romney Marsh was first published in 1929. The chapters have cryptic titles, a popular device at the time. A businessman named Robert Garfield has been murdered in the village of St Joseph on Romney Marsh. Garfield lived in London and used his country home, Applecross Farm, as a shooting-box. James Carthew, a young inspector is sent from Scotland Yard to assist the local police, who are -in time-honoured fashion – baffled.

Inspector Carthew has a jaunty air about him. He’s been waiting for a chance to prove himself and feels this case may be it. At first, he passes himself off as a young gentleman who wished to amuse himself on a holiday. When he first examines the murder scene, he pretends he’s out rough shooting, looking for spent cartridges.

I stuck my eyeglass in my eye – nothing gives a man an air of greater simplicity than an eyeglass properly used. Has he been reading Dorothy L. Sayers?

Superintendent Goad, Carthew’s boss dislikes him because:

He preferred men of his own kind, men who had put in from seven to twelve years as ordinary police constables before they passed into C.I.D., whereas, after being demobilized and spending my gratuity, I had only spent two years as an ordinary constable before I passed into it. Also he did not like in me what I once heard a business man call ‘The Public School Taint’ in me.

Inspector Carthew has a conceited manner, full of confidence, though he is astute. He doesn’t want to share his findings with Collins, the local policeman. He’s a bit of a user and very keen to get full credit at the Yard for his work.

He narrates the story in first person, not the most common choice for detective novels. It gives an immediacy as the reader knows all his thoughts on deduction but we lose a more rounded view of what’s happening. The structure has to stay completely linear. I noticed how everything goes Carthew’s way. From the moment he arrives on the Marsh, he finds one clue leads to another. The jigsaw fits in place without setbacks.

Carthew is an interesting character. For a Scotland Yard inspector, he isn’t wholly moral. Once he falls for a suspect, he’s prepared to bend the rules, holding back facts from Collins and obliquely steering the lady out of trouble. We’re left to wonder whether Superintendent Goad dislikes Carthew for being ‘cocky’ and not one of the lads. He’d never stand for rule-bending so he can’t know about that.

Or is Goad prejudiced about a personable young chap with an old school tie and fast promotion? For there’s something likable about Carthew and he is on the side of justice – if not the letter of the law. Jepson’s characterisation makes Inspector Carthew very believable and way above a stock detective.

All the village characters are well-drawn, although a couple of foreign villains with exaggerated accents seemed strangely familiar. There are some interesting glimpses of class attitudes of the time. The local vicar is an old comrade of Carthew’s from the War. Here he discusses the vicar’s step-daughters who are hard up, have nothing useful to do and rarely meet anyone new:

Wouldn’t it be better for them to get a job – shorthand and typewriting or something of that kind?

No, such jobs lead to nothing. And then it would mean their living alone in a big town and long hours and poor pay and associating with people of a lower class.

The novel has a convincing atmosphere of Romney Marsh – in Kent, on the border with Sussex. There are some lovely descriptions of the haunting, flat landscape with its autumn mists seeping over the sea wall, plank-bridged dykes, warm-tiled cottages and fine, ancient churches. The Marsh is sheep country and its shepherds are known as lookers. A sinister name, harking back to the area’s smuggling history. This is a fascinating area, for ever associated with Russell Thorndike’s wonderful Doctor Syn stories.

There’s much to enjoy in The Murder in Romney Marsh, especially if you want to get a feel for what rural England was like between the wars. This is a good, escapist, detective yarn. A typical example of the kind so popular with readers trying to forget the horrors of the Great War and blot out the shadow of the war to come. It isn’t too hard to get the murderer though the conclusion is very well-reasoned and the outcome for Inspector Carthew is surprising. Well worth a read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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‘Holy Disorders’ by Edmund Crispin

Holy Disorders, published in 1946, is the second Gervase Fen mystery by Bruce Montgomery (1921-78), writing under the pseudonym Edmund Crispin. Montgomery is considered to be one of the last of the great Golden Age novelists. He was much admired by his friend Agatha Christie.Holy Disorders (A Gervase Fen Mystery) by [Crispin, Edmund]

Edmund Crispin stands out among his peers for the sparkling humour he brought to his work. His amateur sleuth Gervase Fen – a Professor of English at Oxford – was partly based on Montgomery’s Oxford tutor, W.G. Moore. Fen is eccentric, mercurial, by turns charming or pithy. At one point, Fen spends some time running through suspects’ alibis with his friend, Geoffrey Vintner.

‘Do you get it?’ He asked.
‘No’, said Geoffrey.
‘Nincompoop,’ said Fen.

Fen has the wit of Peter Wimsey, the facetiousness of Rory Alleyn and the capacity for getting in a mess of Bertie Wooster. He takes up enthusiasms rather like Toad from The Wind in the Willows and he frequently quotes the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. Gervase Fen is as idiosyncratic as Sherlock Holmes, as brilliant a detective and just as lovable to the reader.

Holy Disorders is set in the hot summer of 1940 with the Battle of Britain dominating the headlines. Beginning in London, we follow Geoffrey Vintner, a confirmed bachelor, organist and composer, on an eventful journey down to the Devon cathedral town of Tolnbridge. He’s perhaps something of a self-portrait as Bruce Montgomery was a bachelor for most of his life and a composer of church music. (He was also well-known for his film scores, composing the music for several Carry On comedies).

Vintner is summoned by Fen to be a temporary replacement for the cathedral organist, who’s been attacked and put out of action. Along with this breakfast telegram, Vintner receives an anonymous letter, warning him not to go to Tolnbridge.

He felt as unhappy as any man without pretension to the spirit of adventure might feel who has received a threatening letter, accompanied by sufficient evidence to suggest that the threats contained in it will probably be carried out.

Before leaving London, Vintner is waylaid while purchasing a butterfly net for Fen – insects of several kinds play a significant part in the novel. His journey manages to be both farcical and menacing. He’s saved from attack by Henry Fielding, a young man who is heir to an earldom and straight out of Wodehouse. He’s looking for adventure and inveigles himself into this one, accompanying Vintner to Tolnbridge. Fielding explains why he hasn’t joined up:

They won’t have me. I volunteered last November but they graded me four, I joined the ARP, of course and I’m thinking of going in for this new LDV racket.
Nothing wrong with me except shaky eyesight…I want to do something active about this war – something romantic. I tried to join the Secret Service but it was no good.

Crispin was an extremely accomplished writer, a real all-rounder. His sense of atmosphere is beautifully written. Settings such as Paddington Station and the journey by steam train, summer evenings in the gardens of Tolnbridge and its surrounding countryside are lyrically described. The author settled in South Devon and was obviously thinking of that coast’s estuaries when he described Tolnbridge. Its topography bears some resemblance to Exeter at the head of the Exe estuary, though only partial. Too much is imagined to be a thinly-disguised version.

When Vintner arrives in Tolnbridge, there’s an M.R. Jamesian feel to the narrative. His hostess at the clergy-house explains that the organist has been rendered insane:

An empty cathedral isn’t a good place to be in all night– even for the unimaginative.

Athough Holy Disorders has a lively, humorous tone, there’s constantly a much darker atmosphere lurking beneath. It reminds me of the way Agatha Christie creates a sense of evil in many of her plots. I wonder if this is a trick they ever discussed? Beneath the larky fun – the feeling that P.G Wodehouse has tried his hand at a murder mystery set in a Trollopian Cathedral Close – there’s an undercurrent of cruelty and malice.

Along the way the narrative is a delight, in places laugh-out-loud funny. Gervase Fen doesn’t appear for seventy-odd pages. His entrance is built up, pantomine fashion, the reader constantly hearing about his latest exploits and reading his messages. When he does burst in, he soon breaks the famous fourth wall, stepping out of the action a moment to address the readers, as though we’re in on the joke. Rarely seen at the time, though Leslie Charteris does this engagingly in his Simon Templar stories.

The novel is full of word-play and literary allusions in a way that reminds me of the much-missed Reginald Hill’s work. You feel that Edmund Crispin was having fun as he wrote, treating his readers as intellectual equals and thoroughly enjoying himself.

Another instance of Crispin having fun and breaking the rules is when he describes the reading matter lying about the clergy-house – John Dickson Carr (whom he admired), Nicholas Blake, Margery Allingham and Gladys Mitchell.

He also has the local inspector say:

The Chief Constable got on to the Yard. I believe they were going to send down one of their best men – fellow called Appleby.

Much to Fen’s indignation. (Sir John Appleby, Michael Innes’s famous detective). Fen, being competitive, determines to solve the case before the Yard – that well-known trope – with all the enthusiasm Morse might show for a free pint of real ale and a fiendish cryptic crossword.

Holy Disorders is hard to describe or categorise. A glorious romp, an adventure yarn, a Golden Age thriller, it’s also an intriguing whodunit with a final gathering and a chilling ‘reveal’ worthy of Poirot.

That probably sounds like too much in the pot but trust me, you’re in the hands of a master. Edmund Crispin’s mysteries are a dazzling treat, as fresh and enjoyable now as the day they were first published.

  

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‘A True and Faithful Brother’ by Linda Stratmann

I always like Linda Stratmann’s Victorian-set Frances Doughty Mysteries and very much enjoyed her latest novel, A True and Faithful Brother, published in 2017.A True and Faithful Brother: A Frances Doughty Mystery (The Frances Doughty Mysteries) by [Stratmann, Linda]

They’re excellent murder mysteries enjoyed at random, though – as in most detective series – readers will gain a greater understanding of Frances and her world if they’re taken in order. A True and Faithful Brother provides answers to an intriguing sub-plot which begins with the first entry in the series, The Poisonous Seed, published in 2011. It’s been a long wait but all the better for it.

The series is based in the West London district of Bayswater in the early 1880s. An interesting, fresh choice of setting and an area of London I haven’t seen used in other Victorian-set detective novels. Bayswater is described as a small town-like community within the capital. Linda Stratmann’s impeccable research gives a vividly authentic sense of what the area would have been like at that time.

By the late Victorian age, many of the defining features of twentieth century Bayswater were in place, including the shops of prosperous Westbourne Grove and William Whiteley’s famous, ever-expanding department store. Real buildings and personalities are often mentioned – such as the local coroner – and there’s always an interesting author’s note on the historical background.

A True and Faithful Brother gets off to a flying start with a twist on the classic locked-room mystery. A retired businessman and philanthropist has vanished from a darkened room during a Freemason’s Lodge meeting. The exits were locked, bolted and guarded, leaving a perplexing puzzle.

Miss Frances Doughty, a young lady detective, is asked by a former client to investigate and find the missing man. Frances is a very likable character, intelligent, determined and lives up to her name. At this stage in the seventh book in the series, she’s well-known to the Bayswater community, local police and press as a successful private detective.

However, events in her last case – detailed in Death In Bayswater – have caused her to lose her confidence somewhat. As the novel opens, she’s decided to give up criminal work and stick to servant problems, long-lost relatives, missing pets and other safe domestic cases. When a body is discovered, Frances has a very personal reason for once again getting involved with a case of murder.

Series’ readers come to know an endearing bunch of recurring characters, led by Sarah, Frances’s loyal assistant and companion. I like the local police inspector and the network of enterprising errand boys who act as Frances’s ‘eyes and ears,’ rather like the Baker Street irregulars.

A theme runs throughout the novels, of the difficulties faced by single women making their way in later Victorian society. Frances, young, with little security, is striving be taken seriously in a male-dominated world. She and Sarah are surviving on hard work and initiative in a society where many think their profession is unsuitable for women.

We learn a lot about the changing times. Frances and Sarah support the emerging women’s suffrage movement and take exercise classes with self-defence in mind. Linda Stratmann describes this fascinating background in a light, engaging style, weaving seamlessly with the murder plot.

The narrative is gripping and Frances has to face great danger – of more than one kind – before a satisfying conclusion. The Frances Doughty Mysteries are a very enjoyable blend of Victorian setting, rich in authentic detail with intelligent, complex plots, well-rounded characters and a most engaging heroine. I look forward to her next adventure.

 

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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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The Language of the Dead by Stephen Kelly

The Language of the Dead, published in 2015, is the first in a series by American author, Stephen Kelly. I’ve read very little crime fiction set in the Second World War, though I enjoyed the detective drama series Foyle’s War. However I was intrigued by the synopsis saying that the main character, Chief Inspector Thomas Lamb, was still haunted by his time in the trenches.

The Language of the Dead: A World War II Mystery by [Kelly, Stephen]

The novel is set in the summer of 1940, where the murder takes place in a village in Hampshire. The setting had me hooked as I grew up in a small Hampshire village. It’s a county that’s not often used in crime fiction – although on television, Hampshire provided the locations for St Mary Mead, (real life Nether Wallop) and Chief Inspector Wexford’s Kingsmarkham (Romsey).

I enjoyed The Language of the Dead very much, despite a couple of issues I’ll come to later. Crucially important, I really liked the three leading detectives. They alone make me want to read the second in the series. Chief Inspector Lamb is an appealing character, a happily married, family man, deeply affected – twenty-two years on – by his experiences in the First World War. A fair man who takes his job seriously.

His side-kick Sergeant Wallace has his own problems and is the focus of a well-written sub-plot with a noir-like feel. The author made me ‘see’ those particular scenes like a black and white film. When the third of an uneasy trio is introduced, Inspector Rivers is a figure from Lamb’s past. This debut novel sets the scene for some interesting development in future titles. Stephen Kelly’s characters and their motivations are very believable.

The plot concerns the bizarre murder of an old man, while he was hedging on farmland. As the author mentions on his website, this was partly inspired by a real unsolved murder which took place in Warwickshire in 1945. Inspector Lamb’s daughter is the village A.R.P. warden.

Stephen Kelly is good at catching the atmosphere of rural southern England thrust into the desperate summer of the Battle of Britain. Traditional village life with its lingering superstitions is shown changed almost overnight by R.A.F. camps, gun emplacements, rations and the blackout. Everyone is nightly watching the sky where the flames of Southampton and Portsmouth can be seen. The villagers are already tense and fearful before they have a murderer among them.

Because Stephen Kelly writes so well, I was disappointed that he didn’t convey any real feeling of Hampshire. I’ve no problem with adjusting the map – that’s necessary for writers and we certainly do that in our own novels – but most writers keep an authentic atmosphere of place. I’d have liked some description of the fictional village of Quimby and the old cathedral city of Winchester, home to the detectives’ police station. The sparse details we do get are inaccurate, Hampshire doesn’t go in for glens or stone-built villages.

But the main jarring factor for me, was the constant use of Americanisms and sometimes lack of knowledge of British ways. Part of me feels mean saying this but American terms ‘jolt’ me out of the British fictional world that’s been created. It seems fashionable among American authors to write historic crime fiction set in England and I do understand the attraction and difficulties. I enjoy Charles Todd’s period crime novels but sometimes find the same problem. 

Despite these caveats there was so much I enjoyed about The Language of the Dead. I will read the second book The Wages of Desire and look forward to finding out more about the series’ characters.

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Agatha Christie’s ‘Towards Zero’

 Towards Zero was first published in 1940, although the War isn’t mentioned in the novel. The unusual title comes from a remark made in the prologue about the origins of murder. Towards Zero (Agatha Christie Collection) by [Christie, Agatha]

I like a good detective story,” he said. “But, you know, they begin in the wrong place! They begin with the murder. But the murder is the end. The story begins long before that – years before sometimes – with all the causes and events that bring certain people to a certain place at a certain time on a certain day. …All converging towards a given spot. Zero hour.”

The detective in this story is Superintendent Battle, who features in four earlier stories, The Secret of Chimneys (1925), The Seven Dials Mystery (1929), Murder is Easy (1938) and Cards on the Table (1939). Battle is staying with his nephew, a police inspector, who welcomes his uncle’s greater experience.

The plot has an interesting structure, beginning with a couple of scenes whose significance only becomes apparent at the denouement. We know early on that someone is planning the minutiae of a murder. Then we switch to letters being written and plans made for the characters to come together, nine months later in September. They stay at a house called ‘Gull’s Point,’ on the cliffs above a Devon fishing village. The setting is thought to be based on Devon’s Salcombe and the Kingsbridge estuary .

Once the suspects are gathered, Agatha Christie skilfully builds an atmosphere of prolonged tension, making this a gripping read. Scenes, pleasant on the surface, are full of fear and a sense of waiting for disaster. The characters are well-rounded and Christie’s wise understanding of psychology is shown at its strongest. I couldn’t disagree more with critics who dismiss her work as cardboard characters and superficial plots.

When a murder finally takes place, everyone concerned is put in the frame in a succession of twists. Red herrings abound and twice I was convinced I’d worked out the solution, only to be foxed again. Christie uses a plot device I recall in (only) one other title, but one of her many strengths is to present recycled ideas in such a well-disguised, fresh way that they slip past the readers again. Given that she wrote sixty-six novels, many short stories and there are only so many possible plots, I think she was remarkably clever.

Apparently when Agatha Christie adapted Towards Zero into a play in 1956, it wasn’t a great success. Perhaps because it’s quite an outdoor novel with scenes on the beach and cliffs. And creeping tension is better conveyed on the page?

I suspect this novel is often overlooked due to the lack of Poirot or Miss Marple. Certainly it wasn’t high on my list of gradual rereading – until I saw a few reviews. I must have read it decades ago but didn’t remember the plot. 

Now I’d recommend Towards Zero as one of Agatha Christie’s best. A very rewarding and satisfying read.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Return of Novels and Novelettes

‘Why did he only write a novella?’ was a comment on an otherwise favourable review we had a couple of years ago. A fair question and one we took as a back-handed compliment. We’ve been debating novellas and short novels recently, when as indie writers and avid readers, we note trends in the publishing world.

In the last few years we’ve noticed that novellas are becoming increasingly popular among indie authors. It’s interesting to think about why fashions change in publishing. A cynic might say novellas are quicker to get on sale – that’s true and an important factor – but far from the only reason.

Demand is driven partly by readers and most authors try to write books that will sell in the current market. Unfortunately, demand is also manipulated by the big publishers. For instance, in the 1960s and 70s, historical fiction was very popular. Later, it almost disappeared from the shelves with publishers not wanting to take that genre. It’s hard to believe there were some years when readers went off historical novels when you look at their resurgence today, led by authors such as Hilary Mantel and Philippa Gregory.

Novellas and short novels are an old literary form which is making a welcome come-back for various reasons. It’s worth taking a closer look at what is generally meant by the terms. There are no hard and fast rules. From the writing guides I’ve read, leading indie author commentators mostly suggest that 20,000 words is the starting point for a novella.

I’ve no quarrel with this, though we feel that a 30-35,000 word-count is right for us. In the two novellas we’ve published, that space was a natural length to produce a well-rounded story, neither padded nor truncated. We felt it was a length to give good value to our readers, which is important to us.

A short novel is hard to define, though it’s currently suggested that 80,000 words is the minimum length for a novel. I guess a short novel is what used in Britain to be called a ‘novelette,’ anything upwards of around 40,000 words. This is an atmospheric old word that is reappearing in indie author’s book descriptions and we’re pleased to see it back. ‘Novelette’ conjures up nostalgic thoughts of garish covers and  exciting yarns like Leslie Charteris’s Simon Templar – The Saint – and hard-boiled Chandler and Hammett. Fast-moving adventure stories used to lend themselves to shorter fiction – perhaps until modern publisher-pressure.

Some authors do use the terms novella and novelette for as little as 25-30 pages.  This seems an unwise strategy. Though their work looks longer on the sales page, I’ve noticed angry reviews where readers’ expectations are misled. To pre-empt complaints of being short-changed by a short story, it’s worth making the length eye-catchingly clear in the blurb.

So, why write a novella? The main reason surely is because a writer wants to explore an idea that doesn’t lend itself to an average-length novel but is beyond the limitations of a short story. A story has its own natural length and far better to offer that to your readership than pad a plot in order to charge a higher price.

It’s natural to perceive larger goods as being better value but some of our most iconic fiction has a surprisingly short word count. Think of Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet (135 pages) and The Sign of Four (154), John Buchan’s The Thirty-nine Steps (138) and The Power-House (108), Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male (180) or Stephenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, only 65 pages.

This doesn’t apply only to detective novels and thrillers. One of my favourite novels, J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country has  85 memorable pages. Ghost stories too, often work better at medium-length. Incidentally, few speak of these superb stories as novellas or even short novels. We’re simply glad we have them – and many writers intersperse shorter works between longer novels.

In the world of classic crime fiction, the majority of Agatha Christie’s novels are around 190-220 pages. Several written during or shortly after the Second World War are 160, perhaps due to paper shortage. Their quality is certainly no less, they include the much-loved The Body in the Library. Simenon’s Maigret novels are known for their slim volumes. Both writers had a high output.

A quick look along the shelf at many  crime novelists writing from about the 60s will show that their early novels were shorter. You can see this in the canon of Ruth Rendell. Fellow Rendell fans will know that she decided to incorporate themes of social ills in her later Wexford novels, doubling the length of her early titles. I loved them all and it’s a joy to know you’re getting a thick novel from a favourite writer. Yet I’ve come to think that Rendell’s early  mysteries are stronger. The plot of a murder and its detection has a natural progression which is often better for not being expanded. Another of my all-time favourite detective novelists is Emma Page. Her titles are often 180-200 pages .

Don’t get me wrong – I love to curl up with a fat novel. Two of my favourite writers are Trollope and Wilkie Collins, who average 500-700 pages. Trouble is, I rarely get time to re-read them these days and I’m not alone in that. I’ve also seen  – again in the last few years – that many new crime novels look satisfyingly thick until you open them to find an unusually large font and wide line spacing. Do the big publishers think readers won’t notice? I imagine this trend is to justify the staggeringly high price of new hardbacks – and possibly to recoup going on a table display in Waterstones’?

Readers’ expectations seem to be changing in  ways, especially relevant to indie authors who deal mainly in ebooks. We’re living in an over-worked, stressed, time-poor society. Reading – thankfully for our mental health – is as popular as ever. Maybe even more so with people who weren’t drawn to books, finding they enjoy reading on devices. Many people now want a medium-length read they can enjoy on their phone while commuting. Others want to relax with a novella over an evening or two. Sadly, fewer have the time to commit to a lengthy novel.

Another factor in the rise of novellas/novelettes is satisfying the readers who expect frequent titles. Again, this phenomenon only applies to indie authors. Traditionally, readers have expected to wait for a yearly treat from favourite authors, or even a couple or more years. Especially if they’re longing to follow a series and the author has more than one on the go or fancies writing a stand-alone.

These days in our frantic-paced culture, the received wisdom is that readers expect more than a single ebook a year from authors they like. Industry trends strongly suggest that ebook readers’ expectations have gone haywire. We’re told that standalones won’t sell well and we need to get a series on sale fast or our name will be forgotten by readers who enjoyed our first title. And we all know, some readers expect our carefully-crafted months of work to be handed over for 99p! Publishing shorts does go some way towards retaining readers’ interest.

We will always love writing novels but have really enjoyed working on two novellas so far – one for each of our main detective characters. It feels refreshing and fun between the long-haul – maybe like running a half-marathon. Many indie authors are interspersing their fiction with novellas and short stories. It can be a great way of trying out an idea for a spin-off series or exploring a secondary character in greater depth. This is something we’re considering with our historical adventures and Victorian thrillers.

And we’re not alone. In traditionally published crime fiction, famous names such as Alison Joseph and Lesley Cookman have started novella series between their novels. I’m looking forward to Lesley Cookman’s second novella in her The Alexandrians Series which is out on 31st Jan (now on pre-order). She’s had the inspired idea of taking the Nethergate seaside theatre featured in her wonderful Libby Sarjeant series and using that as an Edwardian setting.

Between all these factors, I think we’ve only seen the start of authors producing novellas and short novels. Thanks to technology, writers now have a freedom to write as they choose. An opportunity unseen since the nineteenth century when small presses abounded and individuals sold topical chap-books in the street. It’s exciting to think that indie authors are leading the way.

What do you think? Don’t be shy – we’d love to hear thoughts from other authors.

Thanks to everyone who has taken the time and trouble to comment. One of the great things about the indie authors’ community is the spirit of openness – sharing experience,  helpful tips and support.

 

 

 

 

 

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