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Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Agatha Raisin and the Wellspring of Death by M.C. Beaton

In 2014, I co-organised a conference in London: Queens of Crime, which focused on crime fiction and women. An astonishing number of delegates were middle-aged men, and they tended to tow a similar line: Agatha Christie was the Queen of Crime, PD James was just about acceptable, and Jessica Fletcher was a saint. On the first day, one gent -- a friend whose scholarly work I like and respect, but with whom I disagree on a couple of key points -- made a joke about M.C. Beaton, author of the Agatha Raisin mysteries, 'which are, of course, a waste of paper.' The room erupted with approval.

For the remainder of the conference, the idea that Beaton or Raisin could be considered crime queens, or even worthy of comment, became a running joke. An awful lot of energy was expelled on not giving these books the time of day.

I was a little confused. As I stated at the time, I didn't have a problem with the Agatha Raisin books; I quite liked them. There are a lot and I haven't read them all. I have also never tried Beaton's other series, Hamish Macbeth, or her romances written under the name Marion Chesney -- so, clearly, this series isn't engraved upon my heart, but it's okay. True, the books are not brilliantly written (okay, they are badly written), but these people were the kind who insisted that Agatha Christie just wrote puzzles, that literary quality was the last thing worth noting. So why all the hate? It was a mystery.

After checking Google to make sure that Beaton was not in fact a member of Britain First, I decided to just accept that lots of people didn't like the books, but that I wasn't one of them. After all, as an academic I'm used to being the only person in the room defending genre fiction of any kind, let alone a specific author. The hate continued at subsequent events; marvellous events with brilliant scholars, nearly all of whom I disagreed with on at least this one point.

When Sky announced an Agatha Raisin television pilot, and then a whole series, I was delighted. I came to the books through the radio adaptations with Penelope Keith, which change the tone considerably, so I wasn't surprised or disappointed to find the whole thing softened for TV. The other day, it was announced that Agatha Raisin would return for a second series. To honour this exciting news, I decided to review one of the books, and picked up an unread one at random from my bookshelf: Agatha Raisin and the Wellspring of Death (1998). Then, my eye fell on a publicity quote emblazoned on the back cover:
Agatha is like Miss Marple with a drinking problem, a pack-a-day habit and major man lust. In fact, I think she could be living my dream life (Entertainment Weekly).
And, just like that, all was clear. The hostility to the Agatha Raisin books has nothing to do with slap-dash writing. It's hostility towards Agatha Raisin herself. As an overweight, chain-smoking drinker solving twee English village mysteries, and actually taking the name Agatha (her maiden name is 'Styles', btw), she is desecrating the image of Miss Marple. Now, in my opinion, Miss Marple is a horrible person -- a great, loveable character, but an unkind person who uses gentility as a facade. That's my opinion and it's not a popular one. People like their older women detectives to be grandmotherly.

I, on the other hand, love Agatha Raisin. In the opening pages of The Wellspring of Death, she is lighting up her fifth cigarette of the morning when an uninvited houseguest asks her to put out her cigarette:
'Tough,' said Agatha. 'This is my house and my cigarette. What do you want?'
'Don't you know you are killing yourself?' 
Agatha looked at her cigarette and then at Mrs Darry.  'As long as I am killing myself, I am not killing you. Out with it. What do you want?'
Trust me, this is exactly how most smokers want to talk to helpful friends. So it's delightful to read about a fictional superhero who actually says the words.  Raisin, a retired PR manager, has moved to the Cotswolds for a slower pace of life. But she doesn't fit in and the locals have a nasty habit of bumping each other off when she's around. This is the seventh book in the series, so she has mellowed a little, but the city rudeness is still there.

However, as each book progresses, we learn that Agatha is in fact the most humane person in the village. She is naturally kind, while the polite and proper locals are cruel and out for themselves. At one point, a furious Agatha lets rip at the parish council, telling them: 'You're always like this, murder or no murder -- nasty, carping, vicious and bitchy.'

The plot here isn't really important, because the books are much of a muchness.  It all starts when the village next to Agatha's catches the eye of a high-falluting water company, which is planning to destroy the village spring for corporate ends. With hostility from the villagers brewing, a bored Agatha signs up as the company's PR spokesperson, but as soon as she has delivered her maiden polemic she stumbles over a corpse.

Agatha is reluctant to investigate, because she is busy with the PR job and her latest sexual conquest. Sleeping with a man half her age means she feels she has to pay more attention to her physical appearance than usual, and to shield herself from increasingly bitter village gossip. The relationship doesn't work out, as we know from the start that it won't. Meanwhile, Agatha's will-they-won't-they friend Colonel James Lacey flits in and out, getting jealous and saying nothing.

The whole tone is a bit smug and right-of-centre. Most village mysteries are, because most villages are. This is a world where the murderer can wrong-foot the detective by calling them 'a liberal', presumably the worst insult imaginable. Agatha herself is a bit right wing. There is a frankly hilarious description of evil left-wing environmental activists, clearly written by someone who has never met a left-wing environmental activist.

But underneath everything, as stated, the lead character is sympathetic and humane. She can register distaste and hurl insults (my favourite one from the radio is 'your imagination is as garish as your lipstick') but she understands that even bad people don't deserve to die. When the plot demands, she grows emotional. The first thing that puts her off her toy boy is when, upon discovering a second corpse, he decides to call the papers -- to make sure it's reported in a way that reflects his company well -- before calling the police. Agatha is outraged, and channels her energies appropriately.

The writing style is simple and straightforward. The author's mind seems always to be on other things, and she seems to be rushing to type 'The End.' The book was probably written in less time than it takes to read, and it took me one afternoon. But it does what it needs to do: it entertains, inoffensively.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Behind the Screen by the Detection Club

BBC Radio 4 Extra has just finished a rather exciting serial rebroadcast. The production in question, Behind the Screen, is an abridgement of an eccentric novella co-written by members of the Detection Club in 1930, and I thought this was the perfect opportunity to revisit the original.

The novella (not a novel, as it's only 70 pages long) was first published as a six-part serial in The Listener, at the same time as it was broadcast over the radio. The round-robin project was a deliberate fundraiser, followed by many other efforts of a similar ilk, most notably The Floating Admiral (1931). A much longer, and better-known, book, The Floating Admiral would feature several crime-writing heavyweights, each contributing a chapter towards an un-plotted murder mystery, and nearly all of them preferring their own solutions in sealed envelopes, to be published at the end of the book.

Behind the Screen, later published with a similar effort called The Scoop, was written differently. The six contributors planned in advance what would happen when, and who would write what. The result is a more conclusive, but sadly also a more conventional, mystery, reading very much like the minor effort of a middling star of the age.

The Ellises are having a quiet evening in, with a few guests, the housekeeper Mrs Hulk, and their hated lodger, Paul Dudden.  Young Amy Ellis is with her fiancĂ©, a medical student  called Wilfred, who senses a sinister atmosphere in the house. His thoughts take shape when he discovers, behind a Japanese screen, 'Dudden dead [...] Dead Dudden!' Moreover, Dudden has been killed up to three times. Soon, the local police inspector arrives and buggers everything up, so it falls to Wilfred to get to the bottom of things.

The contributors to Behind the Screen are, in order: Hugh Walpole, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, E.C. Bentley, and Ronald Knox.

All six writers keep the tone light, though some are lighter than others. Walpole's opening is inevitably melodramatic, and Christie's second chapter, introducing a few more characters including one of her own trademark busybody spinster men (these remind me so much of so many of her fans), makes the whole thing readable. Sayers and Berkeley are reliable, but neither is in their element. Bentley is demonstrably outside of his comfort zone. One of the reasons it took me so long to read Trent's Last Case -- a pioneering masterpiece of golden age crime -- was an aversion to his chapter in Behind the Screen.  In the final chapter, Knox trips over himself a little in an attempt to explain the complicated solution whilst retaining his trademark moralistic levity.

Back in 1930, each part was broadcast on the BBC, with the author reading her or his own chapter. This was quite a common feature of the genre at the time, and has to do with a number of things: a now-alien celebrity culture, crime fiction's quest for legitimacy, and the national spirit of game-playing that accompanied the genre's success. Fun fact: the first person to play Miss Marple was in fact Agatha Christie, who read out the character's monologue, 'Miss Marple Tells a Story', on the radio in 1934. Not for the first time, I'm dreadfully irritated that no one has recordings of the older BBC broadcasts.

The serial in The Listener was published as a competition: readers were given key questions and invited to send in their ideas by post. There were 170 entries, and Miss E.M. Jones of Birmingham won the top prize of ten guineas. In my edition (a standard 1980s American paperback), all the competition-y bits appear as appendices.

A while ago now, HarperCollins reissued The Floating Admiral, resetting the text of an American reprint inside the first edition cover, with a new retro dust-jacket. It did very well, and was followed up with a string of other round-robin reissues. Most of them were published with 'forewords' by Agatha Christie, because she didn't actually take part in many, and this enabled her name to be huge on the dust-jackets (these 'forewords' would take the form of a newspaper column, a private letter, a shopping list ... well, not quite, but more or less). The project culminated in the production of a new round-robin novel, The Sinking Admiral, by some of the Detection Club's current crop. I must get a copy. If you've read it, what did you think?

Why there hasn't been a reissue of Behind the Screen is something of a mystery. I wonder if it's because The Scoop, with which it has traditionally been published, and to which Christie also contributed, is decidedly politically incorrect in places. However, that hasn't stopped revivalists before. Maybe it's because neither novel is massively brilliant -- and, certainly, both lack the fun spontaneity, the sense of maliciously tying the next writer up in knots, that makes The Floating Admiral so unique. But if not being very good was a bar to big-scale publication, our bookshelves would be considerably barer.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

The Madman of Bergerac by Georges Simenon

A short while ago, I did some last-minute cover teaching for a university course on crime fiction. Glancing through the syllabus, I noticed a good selection of novels, but one entry particularly caught my eye. ‘Any Agatha Christie novel’. Eyes widening in horror, I huffed my disapproval. They’re not all the same! Agatha Christie was the finest crime novelist of all time, each of her best books a masterpiece on its own merits. And so on. I sternly put the class right on this point, and that was that.

Now, this week, I’m guest lecturing on another crime fiction programme at a different university. After glancing at the handbook, I had a chat with the module convenor and found myself asking, ‘So, they’ve read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and a Georges Simenon so far?’ The convenor replied in the affirmative, politely naming the Simenon, The Madman of Bergerac (1932), in the process. In that moment, I realised that I was as bad a hypocrite as anyone in the House of Commons (okay, my hypocrisy doesn’t actually kill people, but it was pretty devastating). I was thinking of Simenon’s entire output – famously written in haste – as homogeneous; every title as interchangeable.

I’ve never quite gotten on with Simenon. People say he has a commanding psychological intensity; that his prose is laconic and insightful. I’ve always thought it felt poorly-plotted and unlovingly executed. I’ve read about five over the years, and not enjoyed any before. Nonetheless, determined to check my prejudice, I gave The Madman of Bergerac (first published in French as Les trois morts de Bergerac) a read. And I decided to examine it with fresh, objective eyes.

It was enjoyable enough. I liked Maigret very much, with his quirky subterfuges and bloody-minded curiosity. He has a very clever trick in interrogations of
 jumping from one subject to another and suddenly talking about things that have nothing to do with the conversation. […] The other person, fearing a trap, tries to guess at an ulterior motive when there isn’t one.

The idea is that they slowly grow frustrated and bored, and then answer the real questions truthfully by rote. And I liked the long-suffering, hen-pecking Madame Maigret, too. Going by the titles of later books in the series, she seems to feature a lot, which makes me happy. Their dynamic reminds me a tiny, tiny bit of Rumpole and Hilda, but Frenchified.

The novel begins with Maigret travelling on a train, determined to get a break after a particularly unpleasant case. But when a passenger jumps from the moving train not far off the railway station, Maigret’s curiosity is peaked to such an extent that he also jumps. Then he (Maigret) is shot. He wakes up in hospital and finds himself under official suspicion of being ‘the Madman of Bergerac’, a homicidal maniac terrorising young women in that seemingly respectable commune.

The locals remain suspicious of Maigret, because he comes from outside of Bergerac, and they cannot face the idea that the killer could be an insider. After all, as one character puts it, ‘[o]ne would understand if it had happened in Paris, where vice is endemic … but here!’  But all is not as it seems: one of the first things Maigret notices is a complete lack of prostitution. So, of course, he asks the Chief Prosecutor, ‘what do you do around here for love?’, because he believes – correctly, as it turns out – that it’s impossible to have a place, however serene, without a sex industry.

Simenon’s Bergerac, then, is no St Mary’s Mead, and while the locals are busy suspecting Maigret, he, in his turn, casts a suspicious eye on citizens in positions of power. He only starts to make progress in his case when he asks a pretty obvious question: ‘suppose [the police] stopped looking for a madman? Suppose they simply looked for a logical explanation of the chain of events?’

There are some fabulous turns of phrases that give us lovely insights into character and circumstance. For example, when Maigret exhales a lungful of cigar smoke, it rises above his head ‘in the shape of a halo’; a ‘very petty bourgeois’ woman wears ‘clothes […] made by a local seamstress, or, if they did come from a good fashion house, she didn’t know how to wear them.’

One thing that was particularly – umm – noticeable was the overuse! of! exclamation! marks! I’m not sure if this is the translator’s initiative, because I don’t remember it from other Simenon titles, but I found it highly distracting. There are about eight on each page! I also didn’t care much for Simenon’s plotting. I’ve heard that he just dashed these off with a pipe and a bottle, and perhaps that shows. There’s an element of throwing things into a pot and moulding them together. But it’s fine. I did find the story interesting. I am, however, glad it wasn’t longer.

The novel is, in all, a nice take-down of rural respectability. I enjoyed it more than I expected to, but I’ll have forgotten all about it in a month.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

The Taxidermist's Daughter by Kate Mosse

For 2018, I made about a hundred resolutions. One week in, and I’ve broken nearly all of them, but decided that the first week was a blip and that, next week, I will magically stick to a demanding pattern for self-improvement. One of the resolutions which I broke a few days ago was the decision to read a chapter for pleasure every night in bed.

My mistake here was picking up Kate Mosse’s splendid gothic murder story, The Taxidermist’s Daughter (2014).  For one thing, her chapters are incredibly short – there are 49, plus a prologue and an epilogue – in around 400 pages. So, obviously, I thought, ‘three or four chapters for this one.’ Then I started reading, and before long it had become, ‘just twelve or thirteen chapters … just a couple of hundred pages…’ The writing is gripping and the atmosphere compulsive.

The Taxidermist’s Daughter concerns Connie Gifford, a 22 year-old taxidermist’s daughter (shocking, right?) who is a skilled taxidermist herself, in an isolated house in Sussex in 1912. Except it’s not really 1912 – Mosse uses the year as the nebulous olden days, where rich people were benevolent, their fathers were corrupt, and each plucky servant knew her or his place and apologised for saying ‘heck’. Despite this, the novel builds up so much atmosphere and suspense that the clichĂ©s don’t matter. Slowly, warily, we feel a huge amount of sympathy for Connie and her friends from a range of social classes.

Connie has lost a huge chunk of her history: ‘the vanished years’ account for all her experiences up to the age of twelve but, recently, she’s been having flashbacks. Small scenes, they grow longer and more intense as the narrative progresses. At Blackthorn House, she cares for her widowed father, who has fallen victim to alcoholism, powerless to stop his past skill and precision from fading away.

One day, a body washes up at the foot of the estate: a beautiful woman with coppery hair. Connie sees incisions in the skin and knows that the woman has been strangled with fishing wire. Helped by a handsome stranger, Harry, who also provides a bulk of the POV, Connie and her maid inform the authorities – but the death is recorded as an accident. Meanwhile, both Connie’s and Harry’s fathers go missing.

Before long, it becomes clear that a serial killer is stalking the quiet rural area. Clear to the reader, who accesses the murderer’s thoughts, but not to anyone else. As the crimes become more dramatic, connections to an asylum and to the craft of taxidermy become explicit. Since the stormy weather is such a huge part of The Taxidermist’s Daughter, I did wonder if the time-setting – April 1912, the month the Titanic sank – was significant. However, no reference is made to that disaster, nor to the great social changes it has come to emblematize.

Mosse’s writing style reminds me of the stuff we studied at school and university. There’s something off-putting about it at first. Not a word is out of place, not a device is misapplied, but it’s so perfect that it almost feels sterile. Like, this is correct writing. Writing to be admired, not to be read. However, this feeling only lingered briefly, and after the prologue I was no mentally writing essays on Mosse’s prose; I was supping it.

So compelling is the prologue that, by the time we get to Chapter 1 and read this opening paragraph, it doesn’t feel overwritten:

Connie looked down at the scalpel in her hand. Quicksilver-thin blade, ivory handle. To the untrained eye, it looked like a stiletto. In other houses, it would be mistaken for a paring knife for vegetables or fruit.
 Not flesh.
Like all good historical novelists, Mosse does her research and knows when and how to deviate from strict authenticity in the service of a good narrative. I appreciated the historical details, although I found them jarring in places. Whole passages seem to exist only to remind us that the author has researched the period. Take this, for example, when Connie gets a flashback to her time on a train as a girl:
 They bought a lunch basket at one of the stations along the line. Connie could remember how greasy the chicken leg was between her fingers. Some cold beef too, and a little bread and butter. Remembered laughing and playing word games like ‘Cupid’s Coming’ and ‘Taboo’. It was a dull day, she remembered that too. The guard came to light the lamps in their carriage.

Such a paragraph could serve to show us the sensory intensity with which Connie’s memories are returning. But it doesn’t. It just chucks a load of details at us. Mosse is far from the worst culprit in this sense – and at least the passage is elegant. Too many historical novelists open each chapter with a handy list of things they’ve Googled. Mosse doesn’t do that, but in such moments as this, I didn’t feel wholly transported into the world of 2012 – or, more importantly, into the mind of Connie Gifford.

There aren’t twists and turns or shocks in Mosse’s novel – that’s not her stock in trade (although she does pull a sweet trick in the epilogue, which made me smile). There is, instead, a slow burn. The climax comes with gathering inevitability, as Mosse describes the storm clouds taking hold over the marshes, getting ready to reap historic levels of havoc. The final confrontation between goodies and baddies results in a neatly messy watery resolution.

If you want to escape into a moody and thought-provoking landscape, I’d certainly recommend The Taxidermist’s Daughter. Escape is the key word here; get lost in Mosse’s captivating prose and try not to§ think about the problems. I can picture this story as a BBC miniseries; one of those period pieces that capitalises on the nostalgia and manages to make the whole thing boring. So if it does get filmed -- and I have no idea if anything's in the pipeline -- I'd still recommend reading the book.
I only have one caveat: don’t pick it up if you have anywhere to be in the next five hours.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Mini reviews #12

Death in a White Tie (1938) by Ngaio Marsh. Blackmail, debutantes, and dying social niceties abound in this golden-age mystery with more than a touch of the self-parodic. Although one of the least substantial Roderick Alleyn novels, I think it’s one of the best. Marsh is at her best when she’s writing like a wasp sampling sugar.

Knots and Crosses (1987) by Ian Rankin. The first Rebus novel, which was, apparently, never meant to spawn a series. The idea of a divorced alcoholic detective, unable to recreate his former glories while all the time the world around him needs fixing is old and hackneyed now, but it was probably fresh when Rankin wrote this. And, the way he writes, it still feels fresh.

Agatha Christie: The Grand Tour (2012), edited by Mathew Prichard. I’m conflicted about this beautiful book. It is, undeniably, a lovely thing to behold. The format is simple: a collection of Agatha Christie’s letters, written to her mother during her 1922 world tour with her first husband. As a Christie enthusiast, I love the insights into my favourite writer’s early professional life. As a human being, I feel a bit dodgy dipping into her personal – and definitely not professional – correspondence.

Death Comes to Pemberley (2013) by P.D. James. An almost unspeakably dull mystery sequel to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and, it turns out, James’s final book. I have very little good to say about this, except that the author’s love and affection for her source shines through on most pages.

Detecting Wimsey: Papers on Dorothy L. Sayers (2017) by Nancy-Lou Patterson. A collection of old (mostly 1970s/1980s) essays on Sayers and her detective, previously published in specialist journals and edited by Patterson’s students. While there is nothing ‘new’ in the scholarship, it provides a fascinating glimpse of how crime fiction studies used to be – and, by proxy, how far the field has come.