Archive for ‘mystery’

August 14, 2013

Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night

An excess of feelings in this weekend’s column.

 

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There’s an episode towards the end of Antonia Forest’s The Ready-Made Family where her protagonist, the teenaged Nicola Marlow, travels alone to Oxford. She has never been to the city, but she has read of it; her first experiences of Oxford are filtered through the lens of one who has read Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey books; particularly Gaudy Night, which is set entirely in Oxford. Nicola is not the only one to love those books—a mention of “Wimsey of Balliol” soon after sparks a friendship between her and her new brother-in-law.

But Gaudy Night is one of those books that can feel like admission to some sort of special club, because so many people love it so much. There’s no reason to think of it as obscure—if its status as a mystery novel hinders its being considered a true Classic it still shows up regularly on “best detective story of all time” type lists. Antonia Forest can assume her readers know it; so can Connie Willis who alludes to it in To Say Nothing Of The Dog. It’s not obscurity that leads readers to want to reach out to other people who have loved it with that “you too?”; it must be something else.

Gaudy Night sees Harriet Vane return to Oxford, where she spent her student years, to investigate a crime under the pretext of doing some research on Sheridan Le Fanu. Members of the fictional Shrewsbury College are receiving cruel anonymous letters, and it seems likely that the perpetrator is a member of the Senior Common Room.

This isn’t really a Peter Wimsey book; it’s a Harriet Vane book, and perhaps part of the reason people feel so strongly for it is that it is such a personal, interior work. A return to her old college also means a revisiting of her own past. A large part of the book is the working out of her feelings about Wimsey, and the possibilities that that relationship holds. And while their romance exists in very specific circumstances (in an earlier book he saved her from being convicted for the murder of her former lover) it’s also strongly tied up in the gender politics of its own time—what forms will relationships take in a world where women as well as men are educated, and acknowledged to be as capable of intellectual achievement, as well as of vocations to which they can be completely dedicated? This is also where the “romance” plot (if you can call it that) intersects with the crime plot. There may be no brutal murders, but the ramifications of the college coming into disrepute are far wider than the individual careers of its academics; this is all part of a struggle for women’s education, a struggle in which, historically, Sayers herself was deeply involved. The Author’s Note at the beginning of the book contains a barbed “apology” to Oxford as a whole for perhaps including more women than the regulations of the time permitted, and even the college’s name, Shrewsbury, has a gendered (Shakespeare, but with less “taming”?) feel to it. As a result the whole thing becomes a meditation on gender roles in a changing world; one that is both intensely political and deeply personal. Women often still struggle, nearly eighty years later, to have our intellectual and academic pursuits prioritised to the same extent. If Gaudy Night feels personal to us it’s because its subject still is.

And so it’s important that Peter and Harriet both have Masters degrees, it’s important that at one point he accidentally puts on her scholar’s robes and they fit him (as his would fit her); it’s important that his final proposal to her is in Latin, explicitly refers to her education and comes with a symbolic offering of all of Oxford and what it means to both of them. A partnership of equals, an implicit promise that she should never subsume herself in him, an unending right to a life of the mind. It’s far more touching than a single phrase in a dead language has any right to be.

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July 24, 2013

Robert Galbraith, The Cuckoo’s Calling

No regular column this week because I was reading and writing about Galbraith’s debut novel instead. And about the new Rowling. It’s been a busy week.

This was published in the Sunday Guardian, here.

 

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It’s impossible to write an innocent review of Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling after the events of these last few days. We all know why it’s being reviewed, why it’s at the top of the Amazon bestselling charts at the moment—last week it was revealed that Galbraith was a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling. Rowling apparently submitted the manuscript anonymously; it was rejected by some publishers before being picked up by Sphere. Rowling seems to have wanted to write free of the weight of expectation her name carries with it. That, of course, is no longer an option. That weight of expectation has now fallen heavily upon the book. It has become the focus of editorials about the State of Publishing (capital letters required) all week, either because it’s fascinating that critics, not knowing who its author was, should have given it positive reviews (and what are the implications of that?) or because it is somehow supposed to be meaningful news that the hardback sales of a book by an unknown, barely-promoted debut author should not have been in the thousands. Whatever one says about The Cuckoo’s Calling thus has a meaning that goes beyond the book itself. The completely objective review is probably a myth, but rarely is a book so heavily outweighed by its own context. I might not have read this book and certainly wouldn’t be reviewing it were it not for the revelation of Rowling’s secret authorship.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is a crime novel in five acts, centred around the death of the supermodel Lula Landry. Lula’s mysterious fall from her balcony is thought to be suicide, but her brother is not convinced. He hires private detective Cormoran Strike to find out whether his sister was really murdered. Strike must also sort out his relationship with his new temporary secretary who is efficient, attractive, and more interested in the case than she is in him.

This is a book that places itself very solidly in its specific genre tradition. Cormoran Strike is the classic private eye in his shabby office in a run-down building; approaching middle-age, overweight and in possession of a prosthetic leg (as a result of his time in the army), and currently homeless as a result of the end of his marriage. He is also, for some reason, irresistible to beautiful women. In some ways it’s as if someone had tried to transpose a Raymond Chandler novel upon London. This sits rather uneasily with the very definitely twenty-first century feel of much of the plot’s London setting; the young musician who avoids the paparazzi by putting on a wolf’s mask, the exciting fashion design and the use of google search in the crime-solving business. There are no smartphones; perhaps that would be a step too far.

Since we can’t un-know its author, it’s inevitable for those of us who came to the book too late to look at it in the context of Rowling’s earlier work. Some of the similarities are superficial, such as the use of the epigraph (all in Latin in this book) at the beginning of each part of the work. The delight in naming; Cormoran Strike and Lula Landry would not sound out of place in a Harry Potter book. Eager internet commenters have already pointed out that Rowling’s chosen pseudonym translates to “Fame-bright” “British stranger”.

Rowling’s strength has always been in telling a story and moving a plot along. Most of the characters in The Cuckoo’s Calling slot neatly into type, but this doesn’t hinder the novel. The genre works in Galbraith/ Rowling’s favour here; the book does nothing particularly new, but manages to be a solid, satisfying crime novel. It is interrupted on occasion by awkward prose, as when Galbraith/ Rowling describes a young man as “a masterpiece produced by an indecipherable cocktail of races” (he kindly deciphers said ancestral cocktail for us a page or so later) or when she literally describes characters in terms of feline orifices (“when her mouth puckered into hard little lines around the cigarette, it looked like a cat’s anus”). But moments this spectacular are few and far between.

We’ll never know now whether, given time, word of mouth and the more affordable prices of paperbacks, Robert Galbraith would have built up a dedicated fan following of his own. I suspect he might have; The Cuckoo’s Calling is as good as or better than many popular mystery series. I might not have read the first Cormoran Strike book before I knew who its author was but I think I may be looking forward to the second.

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July 22, 2013

The Cuckoo’s Cover

My review of Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling appeared in The Sunday Guardian today (and will be here on the blog soon)

 

I was interested in the cover with which the newspaper illustrated the review. My copy of the book has this cover, which I think works pretty well at signalling its genre at least. TSG chose this one on the right, which I hadn’t seen before (is it the American one? I’m not sure). I’m assuming that the figure whose back is turned to us is supposed to represent the celebrity model Lula Landry, whose death drives the plot of the novel. Now [spoilers, possibly] quite a big part of the book focuses on the fact that Lula was multiracial, and particularly that her father was black. We’re also told that she’s very beautiful, and I don’t know how far the book is relying here on that slightly creepy trope where people of mixed race are always astonishingly beautiful. Here, for example, (I quoted a bit of this in my review) the detective Cormoran Strike meets a young man who often acted as Lula’s chauffeur:

A masterpiece produced by an indecipherable cocktail of races, Kolovas-Jones’s skin was an olive-bronze, his cheekbones chiselled, his nose slightly aquiline, his black-lashed eyes a dark hazel, his straight hair slicked back off his face. His startling looks were thrown into relief by the conservative shirt and tie he wore, and his smile was consciously modest, as though he sought to disarm other men, and pre-empt their resentment.

The novel suggests that Landry is visibly non-white. She’s described as “dark, luminous, fine-boned and fierce”, in one photo shoot we see “a single dark nipple”, she is described as “black, too, or rather, a delicious shade of café au lait“. We’re told that “‘They go darker, see; when she were born, she looked white.’” More than one character (her adopted brother, as well as another minor character) describes her as having issues from growing up as the only black member of a white family.

And so we come to the image above, and …hmm. I don’t know. I don’t want to outright claim that this cover has been whitewashed, because you could stretch a point and consider the model’s skin “a delicious shade of café au lait“, maybe. But I don’t know. Given the publishing industry’s less than ideal history with putting characters of colour on its covers, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that they should choose a woman with her face turned away from the camera and skin that would usually be interpreted as (at most) lightly tanned to depict a character who’s visibly a woman of colour. I’m still annoyed, though.

November 12, 2012

Sarah Caudwell, The Shortest Way to Hades

Except that this is really about all the Caudwell books. It is in fact a shameless attempt to bully the world into reading them.

An edited version of last weekend’s column.

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The life of an evangelist is a lonely one. We know that we’re onto something amazing, we know beyond all reasonable doubt that the lives of those around us would be enriched by our discovery. We’re not sure why their eyes glaze over and they start to back away when we start in on our favourite subject, but if we persist, surely someday they’ll see the light.

I suspect that I may often be this boring on the subject of Sarah Caudwell, the author of four relatively unknown mystery novels. I first discovered Caudwell in a second-hand bookshop in Bangalore many years ago when I picked up The Sybil in Her Grave on the strength of its cover art (which I later realised was the work of Edward Gorey). In the years that followed I found the other books in various unlikely places- all second-hand, somewhat battered and often mis-shelved.

This series of novels is sometimes called the Hilary Tamar series, after its narrator. Hilary is an Oxford don who seems incredibly talented at wriggling out of research and classes in order to spend time in London with a group of former students. These ex-students, now barristers in Lincoln’s Inn, find themselves regularly mixed up in murders and call on Professor Tamar’s expertise to solve them.

The earlier books are some of the brightest and funniest mysteries I have ever come across. Caudwell’s characters often sound as if they had come straight out of a Wodehouse novel – if one could imagine a Wodehouse novel in which sex, violence and drugs were things openly indulged in and discussed. Her scatty Julia Larwood has all the gormlessness of Bertie Wooster, combined with a susceptibility towards beautiful young men that often leads to difficulties. She is usually backed up by the rather more competent Selena and Ragwort, and by Michael Cantrip who is the only member of the group not to have been taught by Hilary (he, poor boy, was educated at Cambridge).  I love the bleak humour of The Sybil in Her Grave, the last of the series, but in a way I’m glad I got to read them backwards, discovering the first books last.

It may not say much about me as a reader that for a long time I failed to notice one of the most fascinating things about the series; that its narrator’s gender is never revealed. Hilary has a gender-neutral name, and none of the characters ever reveals the pronouns that would make it all clear. This is done in such an unobtrusive way that it’s easy to just make your own gender assumptions (in my head Hilary’s particular type of self-satisfaction codes him as definitely male) and carry on reading without ever noticing that you might be wrong. If I didn’t know how difficult it was to craft a sentence about a person without referring to their gender – and writing about Hilary Tamar has certainly shown me this – I’d be tempted to think it wasn’t a deliberate omission at all.

If I have a favourite of the books it’s the second in the series, The Shortest Way to Hades. The group get involved in the affairs of an heiress and her extended family. Soon a member of the family dies in mysterious circumstances – but it’s the wrong girl. Surely tradition dictates that it is the heiress who ought to have been murdered? The solution lies in the application of textual criticism to the works of Euripides. These books are not afraid to be clever.

I discovered Caudwell before internet book shopping was an option, and as a result each of my copies of her books has a story attached to it. But the internet has made things infinitely easier, and nowadays when I demand that a friend read this writer I can do so in the knowledge that her books are available online, and at a reasonable price. No one has any excuse any longer.

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November 7, 2012

Not My Nigel*: on Strangeways’ women

From here:

Literary detectives might also like to try out a pet theory of Stephen Spender, namely that the outwardly courteous and gentlemanly Poet Laureate used his Blake books to revenge himself on his mistresses. The habit has its origins, arguably, in Thou Shell of Death, when Strangeways is first given a love interest, a free-spirited explorer, Georgina Cavendish, loosely based on Margaret Marshall, an older, sexually adventurous woman with whom Day-Lewis was entangled when at Oxford, to the great distress of his vicar father. Cavendish then dies in the Blitz in 1941 in Minute for Murder at precisely the point that Day-Lewis himself falls in love with the novelist Rosamond Lehmann and turns his back on his first wife, Mary. In 1957’s End of Chapter, there is more than a passing resemblance between the victim, young, highly strung female novelist Millicent Miles, and Day-Lewis’s mistress, Elizabeth Jane Howard, best friend of his second wife, Jill Balcon. And then in The Deadly Joker (1963), the corpse belongs to Vera Paston, who shares much in common with the Indian novelist, Attia Hosain, with whom Day-Lewis had been involved.

When my friend Kajori first demanded that I read the Nigel Strangeways detective novels, written by Cecil Day-Lewis under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake, it was her gushing about the women that convinced me. In the early books Strangeways meets, then marries, Georgia Cavendish, who is – like Margaret Mashall, apparently – older than him and sexually adventurous. She’s also a well-known explorer in her own right; she’s good at what she does, she’s not conventionally attractive. In The Smiler With the Knife she gets to be the protagonist of a book that is nominally part of the series about her husband. I was in love. It helps, of course, that there’s so much else to love about the Strangeways books, that they’re clever and literary and often gorgeously written.

Clare, Nigel’s next partner, was never going to live up to Georgia and I’ve been a bit biased against her for this reason. Yet I recently read one of the later books, The Worm of Death, and she stands up reasonably well. Clare is also famous in her own right (everyone around Strangeways seems to be) – she’s a well-known sculptor, shouts at people when necessary, and occasionally [SPOILER] kills them.

But there’s another woman in The Worm of Death, Sharon, with “blood-red nails”, to whom Nigel is apparently irresistable. But Nigel “never consider[s] propositions before breakfast”, and besides a kiss that seems meant to humiliate her more than anything else, there’s little between them. But what this does is to turn Nigel into the sort of character that women throw themselves at – a hero stereotype that had been missing from the earlier books (as far as I’d read them) in the series.

And so we come to The Morning After Death, the last book in the series. This is set in the literature and classics departments of an American university, and is therefore particularly amenable to the sort of literary referencing that litters the series. It’s also a very male university, with only one prominent woman in academia – she is, of course, doing a PhD on Emily Dickinson.

An early suggestion that things are about to go horribly wrong with this book comes when a prominent visiting poet decides to assault said PhD student. I’ve highlighted the particularly fun bit.

Sukie

(wouldn’t it be nice if I could have just copied and pasted that? This isn’t the place to rant about DRM, but honestly.)

Sukie herself later downplays this rape.

And then there’s Sukie’s attraction towards Nigel, whose irresistable sexual appeal to women seems to have carried over from the last book. After a number of attempts to sleep with him, she finally ends up in his lap. “Oh, well, he sighed to himself”, before apparently having sex with her as an act of charity – one that he presumably enjoys, since we’ve been hearing all about her “supple” body since the beginning of the book. Luckily Sukie knows better than to ask for more, and is sufficiently grateful.

tonstant weader fwowed up

 

Alright then.

Since this is the last ever Strangeways novel we’re never told if Nigel’s giving pity fucks to beautiful young women affects his relationship with Clare. But The Morning After Death does this, and it does blackface, and it does grateful black families who will do anything for white people who are pro-civil rights, and it’s utterly tragic that such an excellent series of books should end this way.

 

*see here.

November 4, 2012

But surely you’re going overboard with the pessimistic travel pieces?

A slightly longer version of the Paper Trails column from October’s National Geographic Traveller India. The November edition is out now, and you should buy it because of the pretty pictures and me talking about Lovecraft and Poe (and some other articles also).

 

[Spoiler alerts for some Agatha Christie novels, I suppose]

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One of the staples of the mystery story is to set a crime in such a place that only one of a limited group of people could have done it. After all, it’s not much fun for the reader who has spent the book struggling to solve the puzzle, if any random passer-by could have committed the act. This is probably one reason why the ‘country house’ murder mystery has been such a classic and successful staple of the genre. In such a story, the criminal can only be one of the house’s inhabitants, guests or staff; and over the course of the novel the reader is given reason to suspect many of them.

But there are ways to limit your pool of suspects other than isolating them in a country house. Agatha Christie offers us multiple examples of this – in her book And Then There Were None a group of people on a deserted island are killed off one by one and the murderer can only be one of themselves. And in Murder on the Orient Express it seems obvious that only a passenger on the train would have had the opportunity to kill the dead man.

Perhaps even more than a train, a ship is the perfect venue for a mystery of this sort. It’s particularly obvious that the criminal must be one of those on board when there are miles of empty ocean all around. Plus, all you need to do to get rid of the evidence (or indeed the body) is drop it overboard! A comforting thought, should one ever go on a luxury cruise.

It’s unsurprising, then, that so many mystery writers have turned to the cruise ship as the scene of the crime. An early example is that of Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan Carries On. Biggers’ novel begins in London, with the death of an elderly man who is on a world tour. Inspector Duff of Scotland Yard is baffled by the case. He follows the tour to France, where there is another death. It’s clear that the criminal is one of the tour-goers, and the novel follows them to Aden, Calcutta and Singapore before the murderer is finally apprehended in San Francisco. Charlie Chan, Biggers’ Chinese-American detective, does not appear until a good two-thirds of the way through; but that might just be a good thing. Biggers may have been racially tolerant by the standards of his day, but Chan’s comically broken English and ‘Oriental’ wisdom are rather cringeworthy.

Later writers have adopted the cruise as well. The eight books in Conrad Allen’s Dillman and Masefield series (the first is Murder on the Lusitania) have the two detectives investigate a series of crimes aboard various ships. The protagonist of Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip begins the novel as the victim of attempted murder by her (clearly very incompetent) husband – he has thrown her overboard in the hope that she will drown. Ngaio Marsh’s A Clutch of Constables takes place aboard a river cruise. One might even make an argument for Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, published last year. Ondaatje cleverly chooses not to make it the focus of his book, but the plot to free a captive criminal forms a big part of the story’s background.

So popular is the cruise trope that there exists an anthology of short stories that deal with the subject. Death Cruise was edited by Lawrence Block and contained writing by Nancy Pickard, Jose Latour, and of course Christie herself.

Christie’s most prominent ship story is Death on the Nile, in which a beautiful millionairess is murdered on an African cruise.  Less popular is the short story “Problem at Sea”, which also involves the death of a rich woman in a locked ship’s cabin. Both stories feature husbands with seemingly unbreakable alibis that prove to be somewhat less so. (In Skinny Dip, Hiaasen’s rich heroine Joey has willed her money to a charitable organisation – one sees her point).

If I had to pick a favourite cruise ship mystery it would be John Mortimer’s short story “Rumpole at Sea”. This week I reread it directly after rereading “Problem at Sea”, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that Mortimer had written his story partly in response to Christie’s. Rumpole and his wife Hilda (“She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed”) attempt a second honeymoon aboard a cruise ship but the mood is somewhat disrupted by the presence of a judge whom Rumpole particularly abhors, and by an overimaginative crime writer.  Here too we see the oddly-behaved husband – though his fellow passengers, having presumably also read their Christie, are immediately suspicious when his wife seems to disappear from their midst. Rumpole solves it all, while strenuously defending the right of every man to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Mortimer makes the cruise ship a less sinister place than some of the other writers mentioned here. But I’m not sure, all things considered, that I’ll ever have the courage to board one.

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October 15, 2011

Nayana Currimbhoy, Miss Timmins’ School for Girls

I wanted very much to like this more but it felt like a bunch of disparate elements thrown together without enough commitment to really explore any of them. Reviewed for TSG here.

 

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Charulata Apte’s most noticeable feature is a prominent, disfiguring “blot” on her face. She’s also from a seemingly-conservative Marathi family, has a strong “vernacular” accent and is the only Hindu on the staff – all qualities that make her something of an outsider at the very English Miss Timmins’ School in Panchgani. She sets herself even further apart from the rest of the staff when she befriends the other outsider in the school, the games teacher Moira Prince and her bohemian friends.

Then one teacher from the school is thrown off a cliff and another disappears, and the residents of Panchgani find themselves drawn into a bizarre murder mystery.

The story is divided into sections narrated by Charu herself and Nandita, a student at Miss Timmins’.  Nandita’s sections have a familiarity to them that suggests that both the author and her narrator have been reading their Enid Blyton. Most of the time this is deftly done – there is breaking out of bounds, forming of clubs, nicknames for teachers; their crime-solving involves a lot of wild theorising and roaming around hunting for clues. This being boarding school, there are also attempts to use planchette to find the real criminal. Yet all of this has the air of something vaguely alien, taken out of books, just as English isn’t really the first language of either of the narrators. So the nicknames for teachers are never quite clever enough to suggest complete control of the language and Nandita in particular is often guilty of awkward phrasing- “Akhila, Ramona, and I, Nandita, decided to skinge together”. Sometimes it’s not entirely clear whether the awkwardness is that of the characters or that of Currimbhoy herself – but when the author occasionally comes up with the perfect metaphor (“we kissed each other like two penguins”) one must give her the benefit of the doubt.

But there is a lot more going on in the novel than an unsolved crime. Charu discovers unpleasant family secrets – concerning both her own family and those of her fellow teachers. Broken and dysfunctional families are something of a recurring theme here. Upon discovering that the avuncular local police inspector has marital problems of his own, Charu is forced to wonder if there are “deep dark secrets lodged in the laps of all… families”. If the novel is to be believed, there are.

References to Shakespeare’s  Macbeth are another recurring event in the novel. Charulata is teaching the play to her students, and frequently the landscape of Panchgani is compared to the setting of the play, with one particular set of rocks called the “Witches’ Needle”, and lots of suitably eerie dark and stormy nights.

Much is made of the absurdity of Miss Timmins’ School. It is an anachronism in the seventies, with its emphasis on Scottish dancing, elasticated bloomers and correct skirt length, as well as the preoccupation ‘proper’ English. But while this is all true, the incongruity of such a school in such a context is lessened by the book’s need to tell us why it is absurd.

Currimbhoy’s Panchgani is the real star of this book. The town, with its scandals, rivalries, restaurants and local drug dealer, feels far more real than the school itself. Currimbhoy is gently funny in her depiction of the local inhabitants, for example Mr Blind Irani and Mr Dubash, elderly men who have long, polite arguments using the letters page of the Poona Herald as conduit. Or the local entrepreneur who decides to branch out into making honey and spends eight months trying to get an American magazine on the subject. When it arrives, the magazine Honey is not at all what he expects.

Currimbhoy never falls into the trap of making Charu too wide-eyed or innocent; her experiments with drugs are described in a matter-of-fact manner that is a relief. She chooses not to overplay the contrast between Charu’s comparatively sheltered (from sex and drugs, if not from sordid family secrets) background and the world of her new friends. Perhaps the only moment where this portrayal falters is in the moment where she discovers that she is bisexual and rather tediously insists that she must be “a wanton woman”.

Miss Timmins’  School For Girls’ one great failure is that it touches on multiple genres while failing to take advantage of them. Currimbhoy has all the weight of the mystery, the school story and the coming-of-age novel to draw upon. There’s even the considerable power of Macbeth, should she have chosen to strengthen that connection. She does not. The result is a novel that is almost one of many genres, but somehow falls in the middle to be nothing in particular. Currimbhoy is a good writer, and parts of her novel are fantastic. But a boarding school murder mystery with a lesbian love affair should never be in danger of becoming boring, and this oneoccasionally comes close.

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November 23, 2010

The Moving Toyshop and female biology

While reading I often come across useful facts about the psychology of women – that we are changeable, that we like shoes, that poison is our preferred method of murder and so on. These are all practical and worth knowing, but I rarely (outside of pornography) come across a startling physical revelation. This happened yesterday when I was reading Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop. In the scene from which I quote, the poet Richard Cadogan has just discovered a corpse.

She was dressed in a tweed coat and skirt and a white blouse, which emphasized her plumpness, with rough wool stockings and brown shoes. There was no ring on her left hand, and the flatness of her breasts had already suggested that she was unmarried.
Huh.
This bit of biological hilarity aside, The Moving Toyshop is great fun. The only other Crispin I’d read was Holy Disorders, which was entertaining but not remarkable. This is entirely different.
Considering that Crispin’s detective, Gervase Fen, is a professor of English, it makes sense that the book should be very literary. But while literature is important to the plot (the whole thing hinges on a knowledge of a particular poet but I shall say no more) and the title comes from Alexander Pope, I was surprised by how aware of it’s own status as fiction the book was. Catherynne Valente has just posted about her love of books talking about books, and books that know they’re books, and it’s a love I share. And I think with genre fiction in particular there’s an opportunity for texts to demonstrate awareness of the fact that they are part of a genre, and to be in conversation with said genre.
So you have a villain who kindly sits the detective and his companions down before explaining everything to them-only to be shot through the window of the opposite house (and could that be a reference to “The Adventure of the Empty House“?) just as he’s about to reveal the name of the murderer. You have a whole array of suspects, a completely absurd plot, and ridiculous car chases around Oxford during which this sort of thing is said:
“Lets go left,” Cadogan suggested. “After all, Gollancz is publishing this book.”*
And you have the narrative commenting on Fen’s love of the deus ex machina as a technique, and attributing to this the fact that a deus ex machina has just occurred within the text. This is the sort of thing you’d complain about in most mystery stories; here, as an affectionate comment on fiction, it’s hilarious.
Conclusion: I need to read more Crispin. What next?
*My copy is published by Vintage, but a perusal of the copyright page proves Cadogan to be correct.