Notes from the sofa

There may yet be a glimmer of sunlight at the end of the grey tunnel of gloom that has been May 2021, but I would not place much money on it. It would be nice to able to read in the garden beneath warming rays instead of curled up under a blanket on the sofa, after all. Perhaps too the sun might raise levels of enjoyment, for  much of my recent reading has been sadly somewhat underwhelming.

After what was a tremendous start with ‘A Load Of Old Bones’, I have to say that I found Suzette A. Hill’s second instalment in the series to be a disappointment. The multiple narrators still work to a degree throughout ‘Bones In The Belfry’, but I admit I found myself tiring of the voices of Bouncer the dog and Maurice the cat, particularly as in this book they rarely move the narrative on and instead are devoted mostly to recapping in a slightly different way on something that we have already been shown through the words of the vicar, Francis Oughterard.  It rather reminds me of those dreadful television news bulletins and ‘magazine’ shows where there is a compulsion to say exactly the same thing several times, often in exactly the same words (but occasionally with a fractionally changed inflection), so concerned are the writers that we are too dim to understand. Also there are, perhaps, only so many witty observations to be made about cat and dog behaviour…

There are a few light meta-fictional touches in ‘Bones In The Belfry’ (a character turns up to write a crime novel about the murder that is at the heart of ‘A Load Of Old Bones’) but these feel a little half hearted and do not really develop as one might hope. Sadly, the peculiar tension between morality and self-preservation, between self-sacrifice and individualist self-interest that permeates oddly through ‘A Load Of Old Bones’ is almost entirely missing here. Instead the thing is almost entirely played for laughs, leaning towards comedy rather than the comic. Perhaps subsequent books recapture something of the charm and strangeness of the first, but on the evidence of ‘Bones In The Belfry’ it may be some time before I feel the desire to find out.

Better by a significant distance is Sarah Caudwell’s 1981 novel ‘Thus Was Adonis Murdered’. Now this had languished unread in my Kindle library for several years, to the point at which my initial impulse to buy and subsequent failure to actually start it are lost forever in the murky mire of my memory. Thankfully a nudge from L.C. Tyler had me loading it up, and goodness, what a wonderful read it is. For much of its length the book utilises the model of novel in letters, with additional cogitation by the series’ title character Hilary Tamar. Tamar as a character is quite lightly drawn in the book, with much of the focus being given to her barrister colleagues, yet this lightness of touch allows really quite concrete and appealing characters to emerge. Mostly this is done through the most marvellous exchanges of dialogue which are so thoroughly redolent of Red Brick University educated professionals as to be almost parodic. Caudwell (Sarah Cockburn) delicately treads the line between farce and thriller, weaving a tremendously well constructed plot with threads of bright humour, literary reference and a splendidly evocative sense of place (her depictions of Venice may be less detailed than Donna Leon’s but are every bit as captivating). As a ‘detective’, Tamar is very much in the mould of the detached thinker, making astute observations and lingering somewhat in the background, and I am certainly intrigued to see how the subsequent novels unfold. Certainly too I hope for something more fulfilling than that provided by the Reverend Oughterard.

Now I have noted several times in the past that the British Library Crime Classics series is a reliable source of good quality reissues that give a tremendous return in terms of enjoyment. I’ve noted too that the broad church of detective fiction means that occasionally a particular title or author fails to hit the (personal) mark, and this is certainly the case with Marie Belloc Lowndes’ 1934 ‘The Chianti Flask’. Perhaps best known for her 1913 novel ‘The Lodger’ (and this perhaps known to more people in the form of Hitchcock’s film adaptation), Lowndes writing, even in 1934, feels stylistically rooted in the Edwardian era. Indeed ‘The Chianti Flask’ reads very much as some kind of Romantic Melodrama with barely a nod to the genre of crime or detection. If one were being kind it might be described as an inverted mystery, but really there is little mysterious about the story, whilst the build up to what feels like an obvious and inevitable reveal feels laboured and tedious rather than suspenseful and thrilling. Unless you are committed to collecting the series or enjoy the florid limpidity of constrained romance, I would leave this one on the shelf.

In contrast, some of my own favourite titles in the British Library series have been the resuscitations of Freeman Wills Croft and his Inspector French, although in recent weeks it is a couple of his titles outside that reissue series that have entertained me. The first of these is ‘The Pit Prop Syndicate’ from 1922, in which some of the foundations for his Inspector French character are sketched out in the form of Scotland Yard detective Willis. As with Belloc’s ‘Chianti Flask’ there is still something of the melodramatic to Wills Croft at this point of his development, particularly in the treatment of the ‘love interest’, but on the whole the pace of the thriller carries this one through. Split into two parts, Wills Croft creates an opportunity to lay the groundwork for his later commitment to the police procedural approach. In the first half of the book therefore we follow two amateur detectives attempting to uncover fraudulent activity, and whilst they Do Their Best in a kind of Richard Hannay ‘Boys Own’ manner, it is clear that only professional involvement can crack the case. ‘The Pit Prop Syndicate’ may not be the best example of Wills Croft’s craft, but it is thoroughly entertaining and an interesting reference in terms of his development as a writer.

Writing as much as one new novel each year, by the time of 1939’s ‘A Fatal Venture’ Wills Croft was well into his stride, with Inspector French an established character and his reputation as the expert in unpicking watertight alibis very much in place. Raymond Chandler once said that in terms of plots, Wills Croft was “the soundest builder of them all” and certainly ‘A Fatal Venture’ has a sturdy storyline peppered with interestingly sketched characters. An infatuation with modes of transport (trains and boats in particular) comes over in many of Wills Croft’s books, and if that manifests itself in the rather cool detachment of factual detail rather than effusive passion, then so be it. One very much knows what one is getting with his books, and with that in mind his Inspector French seldom fails to deliver. He certainly does so here, and with an interesting solution to the key alibi being found through the realms of photography, it is also going to interest anyone who ever wielded a camera as much as to those who appreciate the lines of a steamship.

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