Gilbert Adair has produced a couple of clever pastiches of Agatha Christie's crime stories. I particularly enjoyed the first, The Art of Roger Murgatroyd, which has all the necessary elements, a meek vicar, a flamboyant actress, a feisty female crime writer reminiscent of Ariadne Oliver and a ponderous detective who raises the shade of Inspector Japp. All of these characters are of an older generation, and the necessary discord is created naturally with the arrival of a young couple personifying the 1930s, especially one under the necessary suspicion of having foreign blood. Then there's the butler and the secretary, of course, and the traditional cast of characters is complete.
I enjoyed Tobermory the ancient black Labrador, and think Agatha the dog lover would have done too. Although I think she would have managed his part differently.
It's a locked room mystery, at Christmas in a snowbound country house. The solution is ingenious, and Christie readers should discover who the guilty party is – I regret to say that I should have, but didn't and had to wait for the denouement. Guess which of the characters works it out.
The second, A Mysterious Affair of Style, was enjoyable too, based around the theatrical scene of the 1940s, with some of the main characters from the first novel. There seems less of the Christie feel to it, perhaps because its theatrical setting reminds me more of Ngaio Marsh, but it is still a strong pastiche Agatha's style. Subtle hints of their famous contemporaries infiltrate the pages, generally with the actress Cora dropping names – when she was dining at the Ivy with Noel, or passing a remark with Orson. Farjeon, the director, has distinct Hitchcock characteristics, while Farjeon's 'tame little wifie' shows the endless tolerance and support of genius that Alma Reville gave to the flesh and blood director.
There are unexpected twists that I always enjoy, from the double bluff at the theatre, to the revelation of the unexpected skills of the least remarked of the cast. And some amusing stereotyped exchanges – when the news of a character's death is gently broken by saying they've gone to join the Great Majority, Cora exclaims , 'What! … You mean he's gone to Hollywood?'
As I read these books I was always aware that Christie had not written them, and I was not meant to believe she had. But there was enough of her style there, and enough gentle prods at her habitual phrasing, to sometimes think she could have done.
Margery Allingham was one of the Golden Age crime writers. Although I read her books from my late teens it was only when I was older that I really appreciated the complexity of her plots and the eccentricity of many of her characters. I don't like many of these, but I find them, even the weirdest, totally convincing.
The world she created becomes very vivid. This is partly because of the quality of landscape description, especially for those who know the areas she wrote about. But it's mainly because she provides relationships between the characters, often romantic ones, as well as crime and mystery to solve.
Albert Campion, her deceptively lank and vague hero, with 'a pale face half obliterated by enormous horn-rimmed spectacles' and a mysteriously noble background, contrasts strongly with Magersfontein Lugg, his massively built lugubrious ex-cat burglar manservant with atrocious manners. And I can virtually see Chief Inspector Charles Luke, who
looked like a gangster and was a tough. He possessed the Londoner's good temper, which is also ferocious, and a quality of suppressed force was apparent in everything he did.
Then read about Victoria Prunella Scroop-Dory (Prune), the woman Luke's attracted to, his antithesis, descended from an ancient line, born out of her true time with a beauty
bred to express an ideal which was literally medieval. Piety, docility, quiet, might have suited it well enough.
I'm not particularly drawn to either Campion or Lugg, but I do admire the skill that developed them over the years. Luke, though, I would have liked to meet, and Prune too.
My favourite books are the ones with the more bizarre plots and characters, many of whom are trying to retain a way of life that has passed. I enjoy, without much liking, the Faradays in Cambridge (Police at the Funeral), where great-aunt Caroline runs the family 'like Queen Elizabeth and the Pope rolled into one', and Sunday traffic is held up so that she can be driven to church in her carriage. Uncle William, one of those living under her autocratic rule, is an awkward old codger – I particularly enjoy him, but I wouldn't want to spend much time with him.
Without being overtly unpleasant, John Widdowson 'with his irascibility, his pomposity and his moments of sheer obstinacy' (Flowers for the Judge) is an unendearing character as he tries to fill the shoes of 'Old Man' Barnabas in the publishing company that bore his name. But Ritchie, ah, Ritchie Barnabas, now he could so easily be overlooked until the denouement. I like Ritchie.
The characters I particularly like are aunt Hatt in Sweet Danger, with youthful Hal trying to live up to his role as head of the family and restrain his beautiful sister Amanda Fitton, whose head is full of cogs and wheels and electricity. Dr Galley, his oddness so much taken for granted in his small community, can't easily be forgotten.
Essex, Marjory's homeland, features strongly in this and some of the other books. It's in The Beckoning Lady, my most favourite of all the novels, where you can see elements of Marjory in Minnie Cassands and of her husband Philip Youngman Carter in Tonker, of the ebullience of their artistic lifestyle and of the parties they held at their home in Tolleshunt D'Arcy. There are two bodies in this story and one is of a previous character, who has come into his own over the years. He's much mourned. And the murderer is one I'm very glad was uncovered – especially as I didn't guess who it was until very late in the plot.
If you like the salt marshes of Essex you'll feel you're there when you read her description of Tollesbury in Tiger in the Smoke –
littered with little sea-going boats, all of them out in the river well away from the village … the grey-green expanse of marsh and sky and sea, where, in November, the black geese and great saddleback gulls seem to live alone.
I lit the fire and sat down over tea to read James Anderson’s book, The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy. I had no idea of the treat in store, for it was like stepping back to the 1930s when the Golden Age authors were delighting their readers. His style is inherited from Agatha Christie, his love of detail perhaps from Ngaio Marsh. The complications and twists of the plot, though, are all his own, with perhaps a touch of Margery Allingham. And I’m astonished to say that I early on guessed the perpetrator, although I couldn’t anticipate all the permutations of the story line.
There were all the tried and trusted characters – the beautiful adventuress, the rich American, the politicians and the aristocratic landowner, as well as the bright young things, both male and female. I sank into their lives and problem with the practice of long habit, and look forward to reading more of James’s work.
The work of John Bude is new to me. He was really Ernest Elmore, one of the founders of the Crime Writers’ Association, and his pseudonym was particularly appropriate for the first of his books I read as a reprint, The Cornish Coast Murder.
For those who love Cornwall as I do, the descriptions are superb, for they conjure up favourite images as I read. Picture ‘… a smoky moon appeared, fitfully, among the shredding clouds.’ See that ‘… the Atlantic ran out to the far horizon like a glinting sheet of lead, whilst nearer in the slow swell glittered with thousands of tiny diamonds and broke into long advancing lines of dazzling white foam.’
There are the standard characters: the landowner, the doctor, the vicar, the star-crossed lovers, and a surprisingly bright local bobby as well as a likeable police inspector. Add in the odd mystery surrounding the murder, like the footprints on the cliff path, mix in a number of suspects, cross out two or three of the latter, add one or two more, throw in another couple of red herrings, and the story moves along nicely. It was some time before I realised where it was going, and I only really guessed the person responsible for the death almost at the end of the book.
I have book collections of several authors from the Golden Age of crime writing in the 1920s and 1930s. No doubt Agatha Christie is still the most well known of the writers, partly because of the recurrent popularity of Hercules Poirot and Jane Marple on television.
I first discovered her works on my aunt's bookshelves when I was in my teens, and they marked my introduction to crime writing. I went with friends to see The Mousetrap on my 21st birthday, when the production was older than I was.
Now when I come back to her books I appreciate characters and plots anew. I learned from her never to underestimate the innocuous-seeming person, like Honoria Waynflete in Murder is Easy; to realise how the crassness of one individual can drive another to an act that would normally be beyond them, as in The Mirror Cracked from Side to Side; how to see the potential in the outsider, like Megan in The Moving Finger; to be scared by the implacability of strong uncontrolled emotion in Nemesis.
Two at least of her characters are specially endearing to me – the dog she created in Elephants Can Remember, who provided a valuable clue, and Bob in Dumb Witness, the fox terrier who gave Poirot the final answer to the plot. Bob was based on Agatha's own dog, and the cover of the first edition is drawn from him.Just remember, dogs can't be fooled as easily as people.
Her most famous detectives are unexpected, two characters who could so easily have been overlooked. The superficially dithery maiden lady, whose knife-sharp observation has been honed on the life of villagers. And the foreigner, the refugee, with the impressive belief in his little grey brain cells.
David Suchet's impressive performance as Hercules Poirot in the television series must have introduced many new people to Agatha's skills as a storyteller. Hugh Fraser's Captain Hastings is also the best I've seen, his interest in cars making him irritatingly endearing. The two men's relationship with Inspector Japp is cleverly developed too, making the policeman less of a fall guy and more of a fallible screen for Poirot's intelligence. These are the first productions where Miss Lemon seems like a real person, with an interactive relationship with Poirot and Hastings. The contemporary touches, like the ouija board, and Miss Lemon's kiss curls, add a great deal of subtle depth, and the settings are always superb. It became a game to try to identify the houses each time I saw an episode.
I only recently came across Star of Bethlehem, a collection of stories with a creation theme, and of poems. Not a hint of crime in them, just a profound understanding of human nature, an interest in the sublime and a love of nature. I enormously enjoyed reading them.
I came across the Detection Club books in the National Trust shop at Agatha Christie's Greenway. The Club evolved in the 1930s from informal dinners attended by detective writers of the period – Allingham, Berkeley, Chesterton, Christie, Mitchell, Rhode, Sayers, and others.
Various combinations of the members collaborated in books, such as The Floating Admiral. In this book, each writer produced a chapter, carrying on the plot from where the previous writers had left it. Knowing this, I found it fascinating to read, and was quite unable to detect the seams created by the different authors. The only blip was tiny, the use of a character's exclamation in one chapter that I think didn't occur anywhere else.
Although I didn't enjoy Ask a Policeman as much, it was perhaps an even more interesting exercise for writers and readers. Given the crime and the characters, each participating writer had to solve the crime. The writers did this differently, naturally, but with one another's characters and style, not their own. Again, I couldn't have told this was the case if I hadn't known beforehand.
Miss Anna Dean has written a series of novels 'by a lady', each in one volume. Based in Georgian England, her heroine Miss Dido Kent is a spinster aunt who writes letters to her sister, often about their brothers, one in the navy, one in the church and one involved in a bank. This will sound familiar to fans of Jane Austen, and she would undoubtedly recognise some of herself in Dido.
Dido is dependent on her brothers, with whom she has to live on a peripatetic basis. She is independent, quirky, and determined that marriage is not for her without equality of thought and expression. She is also an amateur sleuth, specialising in murders among her social peers. This leads her into very unfeminine conversations and out of a woman's accepted sphere of life. Whether she will find a man who can accept this is part of the ongoing plot from novel to novel.
As a fervent admirer of both Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer I could not fail to enjoy these books. The added element of crime solving in a familiar Georgian setting gives them an added appeal for me.
Carola Dunn writes a series of charming light-hearted novels based in the 1920s, with a newly independent aristocratic lady determined to stand on her own two feet in the changing society after World War I. Carola's heroine, the Hon. Daisy Dalrymple, has whiled away many pleasant hours for me in well-visualised grand houses. In fact, she whiles them away so rapidly, that I've finished the books faster than I meant to.
But Daisy is no snob, and relates happily to the many characters of all levels of society. DS Tom Tring, a striking dresser, is a character to envy, and Daisy's flatmate Lucy, of a nouveau-riche background, is more socially conscious than Daisy, harder to win over to the joys of an egalitarian society.
For all their light-heartedness, the novels have a sound period background, from hairstyles and clothes, to cars and photography. The careful, but unobtrusively presented, details add considerable depth to the plots, which are always unusual.
Georgette Heyer is best known for her Regency romances, though the accuracy of her historical detail is not always fully appreciated. Her other fans will undoubtedly know that An Infamous Army was used at Sandhurst Military Academy because there was no better account of the battle of Waterloo. I've found that over years of reading them my favourites have changed, from ones with more striking characters to those with far more cleverly drawn ones. In my teens it was Lord Vidal in Devil's Cub who seemed fascinating, now it's characters like Freddy in Cotillion that I appreciate. The first was originally published in 1932, the second in 1953, so the writer and the reader's taste seems to have matured at about the same pace.
I didn't know for years that Georgette also wrote contemporary, mainly 1930s, crime fiction. When I did finally come across these books I found that her light touch with characters is visible here too, creating vivid personalities at a few strokes of her pen, and putting them in awkward situations. If you haven't come across the Vereker family in Death in the Stocks, try to get acquainted with them – they're well worth meeting. And I suspect Georgette had a penchant for English bull terriers – they have a tendency to crop up in her crime novels.
Another contemporary take on the village murder mystery comes in G M Malliet’s series about the Reverend Max Tudor, who is an unusual vicar in many ways. There is an amusing slant on the villagers, bringing their characters into the modern world with the New-Age version of the witch, and the police inspector with a passion for justice and order, perhaps resulting from his exotic childhood.
But the traditions of the classic story are kept, bringing in the Women’s Institute, the village fair, the retired army officer and the eccentric gentry. The aficionados of crime will fall easily into these plots and recognise their familiarity, made original by the author’s own style.
Many of Ngaio Marsh’s books have been reprinted since I first discovered the works of yet another Queen of Crime from the Golden Age of the 1920s and 1930s. But I had all the fun of tracing down out-of-print copies in second-hand bookshops. The two of her works I come back to most are Death in a White Tie and Surfeit of Lampreys. Even after many readings, so that I know the plots and characters well, still they give me a great deal of pleasurable reading.
Her work is beautifully crafted, her theatrical background evident in the structuring of her work, and her New Zealand heritage in some of her novels. She more frequently takes some traditional settings in England, like a country house at Christmas, adds in a cast of, say, reformed criminals as servants, and then throws the crime into the scene, letting the ripples spread slowly out. Or she sets up a sea voyage with a killer on board the ship, and sends off some amazing characters just asking to be murdered or suspected.
Ngaio creates so many distinctive characters, many of them redolent of their era, conjuring it again into life as the books progress. There’s the clash of two redoubtable spinsters in Dead Water, the upright and incorruptible Miss Emily Pride, who should have got on admirably with Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver, and the determined priestess of the local shrine. There are the Lampreys, eccentric, amusing, annoying aristocrats whose lifestyle exceeds their means, and who are very likeable in their poverty. Man about town, ‘Bunchy’ Gossip is one of the genre’s finer creations, an exquisite member of upper class society, perceived by many as a charming buffoon, but a man whose moral sense and judgement of society make him invaluable to the police.
‘Handsome’ Roderick Alleyn is a less immediately striking detective than many, acting as a foil for the many more colourful characters of Ngaio’s novels. He is reserved, gentlemanly, with a seemingly hopeless love for the painter Agatha Troy. Troy is one of the most appealing characters I’ve come across, with her disarmingly blunt frankness, and most readers live in hope that she’ll one day allow Alleyn to overcome her phobic distaste for policemen.
Northanger Abbey is my least favourite of Jane Austen’s novels, so I didn’t start Val McDermid’s version with much hope of enjoyment. How wrong I was. Almost instantly I was totally engrossed in the story - fascinated at how she has transmuted both the characters and the plots into a modern setting – amused at the form of teenage obsession the contemporary Cat Morland indulges in – caught by surprise by the reason behind the General’s change in attitude to her.
The characters are uniformly superb – and of our time. I’d have a hard time to decide which I thought was best, but Bella Thorpe and her brother are so insidiously awful that it’s skin-crawlingly delicious to uncover the full extent of their self-centredness – even though Austen did too.
This is one of books in the Austen Project, where modern authors reinterpret her books in a modern setting. I can’t wait to read some of the others.
A A Milne is not a name I associate with crime novels. But The Red House Mystery, the one book he wrote in this genre, is a classic mystery from the 1920s. There’s the requisite country house and a party of guests in residence. The laid-back hero, there by chance of course, finds his amiable sidekick, always several steps ahead of the police inspector, who just may not be as stupid as he seems. There’s a romantic interest, a hidden tunnel, a lake, all the prime ingredients of such a plot.
And the plot itself is clever, much clever than I realised as I read until I was almost at the end of the book. I guessed fairly quickly who did it, but not how and why, lulled perhaps by the familiar details of the contemporary scene, with its golf and its tennis, and its well-known speech patterns, ‘I say, what fun.’
I can only be sorry that Winnie the Pooh fame arrived and A A Milne wrote no more crime novels. I would like to have met his hero again.
Gladys Mitchell created Mrs Lestrange Bradley, psychological practitioner and solver of mysteries and crimes. Although she wrote at the same time as Allingham and Christie, I did not come across her books until they were reprinted recently.
Initially I found Mrs Bradley's description and behaviour off-putting – she is an older woman with 'sharp black eyes, an aristocratic nose, a thin mouth which pursued itself into a queer little birdlike beak… a pair of yellow claw-like hands, the fingers of which were heavily loaded with rings'. She has a tendency to cackle and a fondness for combining striking colours, like magenta, orange and blue.
But on reading more of the Mitchell novels I came to appreciate Mrs Bradley's eccentric character and recognise her fondness for young people, with an essential understanding of and sympathy for their troubles.
The plots are serpentine, and erudite enough to have pleased Dorothy Sayers and Lord Peter Wimsey. I have yet to be sure when I start a new Mitchell book that I have worked out her style well enough to spot the guilty party.
Her settings are described in more detail than I generally like, but I guess that they are often exceptionally accurate. Death and the Maiden is mainly placed in Winchester, which I know well. Enough of the details about the place she wrote of in 1947 remain the same today for me to trace her footsteps quite accurately. When her character Miss Carmody went out for a walk she took a route I've taken hundreds of times on my way, as she was, to the river path to St Cross.
She crossed the High Street and stood for a moment beside the Butter Cross before she passed beneath an archway which led across the green to the Cathedral. …she left the flying buttresses of the south wall of the Cathedral behind her and crossed the silent and beautiful Close. She paused… to admire the sixteenth century houses near Kings Gate, and then she walked under the arches of the gate itself, with the Church of St Swithun athwart it, and turned down College Street towards the river.
She passed the College booksellers' and the house in which Jane Austen died…
Even as I write I feel, as perhaps Gladys did too, that I'm following that route again. Jane Austen didn't, of course. She came to Winchester only to die and be buried in the Cathedral. Miss Carmody didn't visit her grave in this book, but perhaps Gladys did.
I don't know where to begin with Elizabeth Peters. If I'd found her books before I began to write, perhaps I would never have got started. Her output is prolific, both in the name of Elizabeth Peters and writing mysteries in the name of Barbara Michaels. But whichever name she uses, I get the same pleasure from reading about her feisty whacky heroines, who bombard their way through every difficulty that arises, wiping the board with the men around them – even the ones they're attracted to.
It was as Barbara Michaels that I first came across her, writing suspense rather than crime. This is not a sphere I generally enjoy, but her suspense is something else again and I rushed through the books with bated breath and beating heart. I first read her books because many of her earlier works related to history that I favoured – King Arthur, Richard III, the Young Pretender – with the trademark contemporary twist. But overall I've rarely read anything I've enjoyed as much as her Georgetown series, for characters, plots, settings and the fascinating occupations – anthropology, antique clothes, native superstitions.
It was years before I realised Barbara Michaels had another persona in Elizabeth Peters, so I delayed far too long in making my acquaintance with art historian Vicky Bliss (and Sir John Smythe) and Victorian feminist and Egyptologist Amelia Peabody (and Emerson). The books they fill are the ones I read again and again, especially when I'm tired and want the kick of contact with old and loved fictional friends. Although I suspect that in reality they might be rather wearing.
If you enjoy the humour that Elizabeth/Barbara deploys you'll whizz through her books as rapidly as I have – and see if you can identify the connection between the Bliss and Peabody series before it is revealed. I did!
Once I wasn't fond of historical crime novels. Ellis Peters changed that forever. As soon as I read her first book featuring Brother Cadfael, A Morbid Taste for Bones, I was hooked, waiting eagerly for each new instalment in his story.
She chose a little known period in history, that of an earlier civil war instituted by the rival claims of cousins Stephen and Maud to the throne of England. It was a time when Normans and Saxons were still distinct groups, and her geographical placing of Cadfael in the monastery of St Peter and St Paul at Shrewsbury enabled her to add the Welsh to her plots.
This background gave added colour to her characters, such as the patrician Prior Robert, hoping to climb the monastic ladder to the power he was sure was his just reward on earth, and the creep Brother Jerome, self-appointed monitor of his brothers, toady to the prior. Cadfael, the ex-soldier and sailor who had been involved in the fight for Jerusalem, brought a whiff of the real world to their enclosed life. He involved them and himself time and time again in mysteries that he determined to resolve, regardless of their disapproval and obstruction. And his resolutions had less to do with man's law but his own perceived sense of justice, applied equally across the political divides, generally in favour of impetuous young men and women, so sure of the rightness of their cause.
I've not only enjoyed the characters, such as the faintly Machiavellian Hugh Beringar, generally Cadfael's strongest ally. I've also been drawn almost totally into her country, most particularly in the dreadful winter of The Virgin in the Ice.
From knowing next to nothing of this early period in history I now feel quite at home with it, thanks to Ellis. I wonder as I write this what her characters would have been like in a different time setting. Much the same, I guess, Roberts and Jeromes exist across the centuries. So thankfully do the Cadfaels.
And over the years I came to so much enjoy later revelations in the series. The one when Jerome so satisfyingly got his come-uppance, and another when Cadfael had revealed to him what he regarded as the great blessing of his life, God's sign that his life had been lived well.
These are among the books that I go back to again and again, old friends I reach for when ill or tired, who lead me back into a world I have come to know well. Ellis Peters also wrote as Edith Pargeter, and it was Edith's books that I came across first, but it was the Ellis ones that have the irresistible appeal.
The first in James Runcie's series of Granchester Mysteries introduces an Anglican version of Chesterton's Father Brown. A younger man than the rotund Catholic, and a priest more at odds with his ability to solve crime and how it conflicts with his calling in the church, he nonetheless resolves one problem after another. And he has the inevitable awkward housekeeper to contend with, and the police sidekick to bounce ideas off of. Plus two women to chose from – perhaps – a nice line to continue through the series, which has its erudite touches, like the naming of one of the characters for the visionary Hildegard of Bingen, and its musical references reminiscent of Inspector Morse. And a dog has been introduced, to watch out for in the next books.
Another prolific writer, whose books first appear at the tail end of the Golden Age, was Patricia Wentworth, creator of Miss Silver. Miss Silver is another spinster sleuth, but she's quite different to Christie's Miss Marple, although they were both brought to life within a decade of each other.
There is a lovely contrast between Wentworth's bucolic Inspector Lamb and his elegant aristocratic subordinate Frank Abbot, product of the new police college, who both rely on Miss Silver's help to find the truth, unwillingly and willingly. Never underestimate Inspector Lamb, but do enjoy his pop-eyed dismay at another of Miss Silver's appearances. See how Frank's admiration of the elderly sleuth greatly improves the appeal of his ostensibly chilly character.
It's only over repeated readings that I've come to appreciate the subsidiary characters, like the subtly unpleasant mother in the house next door in Through the Wall and the stoical seamstress in Miss Silver Comes to Stay. The latter is probably the Wentworth book I enjoy most, with perhaps my favourite character in Henrietta Cray.
This is the story of how Poirot came to life again. Agatha Christie created him nearly a century ago. Much more recently David Suchet followed a trail that she had laid to recreate the living character in another medium, that of television. And the little Belgian detective lives and breathes there as Agatha made him, with all his foibles and eccentricities, and his essential loveable humanity.
David unearths every little trait that Agatha described in Poirot, relates to similarities in his own character, defines the detective’s appearance, walk, speech, his every movement. And this comes not just from the writer’s work, but from the character, from Poirot himself.
It’s a fascinating account of how Suchet and Poirot melded together, and bonded with the superb incarnations of the other regular characters, Captain Hastings, Miss Lemon, Inspector Japp. Reading this book it becomes clear how the television series came to be such an amazing representation in moving 3D of the people and plots that Agatha devised. I am sure she would recognise Poirot if she could see him thus, and be proud of the work that went into recreating him for the series.
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