A tad early for a Valentine, but hey ho . . . . . . .
She loves me, she loves me not . . . .
In the pink . . .
THE LOVE DETECTIVE: THE NEXT LEVEL is written by Angela Dyson, published by Matador, and is out now.
You might guess that a crime novel featuring an amateur detective called Gawaine St Clair is not going to take you down many mean streets; furthermore, were one to Frenchify its chromatic tint, then it would probably be nearer beige than noir. This being said, if you are a Golden Age fan, like dry humour, enjoy a clue-laden whodunnit and are never happier than when luxuriating in the follies and foibles of the English middle classes, then Cherith Baldry’s Dangerous Deceits will be a joy.
Gawaine St Clair seems to be a man of independent means, not unlike his aristocratic predecessor Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, and his affluence enables him to take up criminal investigations without having to make excuses to an employer for his absence from the workplace. In this case he is called upon by his aunt Christobel to solve the mysterious death of a vicar. Father Tom Coates disappeared into his vestry moments before the beginning of a service, and was not seen again until he was found some time later, all life extinct due to a fatal blow to his head with the time-honoured blunt object.
It needs to be said at this point that the novel is very, very ‘churchy’. I use the term to describe a way of life centred around the Anglican church, with attendant church wardens, vergers, flower ladies, Parochial Church Councils, the occasional Bishop, and heated disputes over liturgical practices. Anthony Trollope de nos jours? Possibly, but as an Anglican, albeit rather lapsed, I share Cherith Baldry’s obvious love of the sonorous prose of The Book of Common Prayer – the proper 1662 version, not some squeaky clean modern adaptation designed to appeal to ‘the younger generation’. She uses suitably resonant quotes as her chapter headings, none more appropriately than:
“Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live.”
St Clair is faced with a whole repertory company of likely suspects, all – or none – of whom may have had their reasons to bash Father Tom’s head in. In no particular order, we have a choleric prep school Headmaster straight out of Decline and Fall, a woman denied communion because of her marital woes, a glib local solicitor, the dead man’s brother and sister, with whom he owned valuable shares in a family business, and a dowdy local GP with a beautiful and sophisticated wife.
Gawaine may be too arch and precious for some tastes but he fits perfectly into the Home Counties landscape with its manicured village greens and faux Tudor dwellings. I thoroughly enjoyed Dangerous Deceits and Father Tom’s killer is unmasked not amid the dusty shelves of a country house library, but in the altogether more fractious atmosphere of an extraordinary (in the procedural sense) meeting of the Ellingwood PCC. The solution, as in many a whodunnit, rests with everyone – including Gawaine, the local coppers and, in this particular case, me – making a seemingly obvious assumption early in the piece.
Cherith Baldry (right) is an acclaimed writer of children’s fiction and fantasy novels. The first in her Gawaine St Clair series was Brutal Terminations, which came out in February 2018. Dangerous Deceits is available now and is published by Matador.
Lock 13 features Chris Honeysett, a private detective whose cases I had never read before, despite this being the sixth in what is clearly a popular series. The previous episodes are Headcase (2005), Slim Chance (2006) Rainstone Fall (2008) An Inch of Time (2012) Worthless Remains (2013) and Indelible (2014). Honeysett, like his creator Peter Helton (more on Helton’s website here) is an artist operating near Bath in the south-west of England. His professional investigations do not pay all his bills, and he supplements his income by selling his paintings when he can, and teaching drawing and painting classes from his picturesque home, a former mill which he shares with his girlfriend, Annis.
Honeysett is engaged on an extremely dull – but possibly lucrative – case involving a gentleman called Henry Blinkhorn, an angler who, when his boat overturned in the Severn Estuary, tragically drowned. Or did he? The company faced with a hefty life insurance payout to the Widow Blinkhorn have their doubts, and Honeysett is hired to prove that Mr B is alive, well, and pulling several skeins of wool over the eyes of Griffins, the people who are taking the million pound hit over the death, or not, of the unfortunate fisherman.
A welcome distraction from the tedious observation of The Chestnuts, the Blinkhorn’s six-bedroom house in one of the many salubrious areas of Bath, comes when Honeysett’s regular model for his life drawing classes, a young lady called Verity, inexplicably disappears. With Annis – also an artist (and noticeably more successful) away painting a mural for a rich celebrity, Honeysett decides to delve into Verity’s disappearance but, as is the way with these things, he discovers that he may have bitten off more than he can chew. Verity was friendly with some rather disreputable characters, including a verminous colony of New Age Travelers who, when they are not meditating or actually traveling, have their grimy fingers in a lucrative drug dealing business.
It seems that young Verity has come into funds rather suddenly, and has realised her oft-longed-for ambition to buy a canal boat and remove herself from the stresses and strains of city life by taking to the water. By a rather fortuitous set of coincidences (both for himself and the plot) Honeysett manages to borrow a canal narrow boat in which he sets off to pursue the errant Verity. As both he and we quickly discover, “pursue’ may be over-egging the pudding, as the laws of canal boating restrict speed to 4 mph. As Honeysett makes his stately – and occasionally wayward – progress in the ironically named Dreamcatcher, he soon has a growing number of conundrums to solve. Who, for example, are the two mysteriously sunglassed gents who appear to be following him in their cabin cruiser? And what is the true story behind the tragic drowning of Neil, former owner of Dreamcatcher, in the murky depths of the titular Lock 13?
Sometimes a novel is so delightfully written that a reader can reach the last page with a smile and sense of contentment, despite the fact that nothing very dramatic or shocking, at least by the standards of some modern thrillers, has happened during the 200 pages or so which have made up the narrative. Lock 13 is one such book. Peter Helton (right) tells the story through the eyes of Chris Honeysett, and the style is fluent, conversational, occasionally erudite, often witty – but always very, very, readable. Established fans of the Honeysett series can feel duly smug that the amiable painter-sleuth has found another convert, and they can rest assured that I shall be working my way through the file of Honeysett’s previous cases. Lock 13 is published by Severn House, and will be available from 29th December.
I like to think I have a wide taste in music, and can get something out of almost every genre and style. I do draw the line at ‘modern’ jazz, however. My view is – and I show my age by borrowing a phrase from the 1957 Wolfenden Report – that it should be permissible only between consenting adults, and very definitely in private. So, no Crime Fiction set around an alto sax player who plays thirty-five minute solos (sadly, he’s not fictional, but he is certainly committing a crime.)
I do love Operas, though – at least those written up to the death of Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini (who would be just as wonderful even if he didn’t have six christian names.) I would add the personal caveat that for me it is sometimes better heard than seen, as stage productions can sometimes demand too much suspension of disbelief. Our chosen book, then, is Spur Of The Moment by David Linzee, and it is set around the St Louis Opera company as they prepare a performance of Bizet’s wonderful, preposterous, exhilarating four-act classic, Carmen.
The central character in the book is Renata Radleigh, an English mezzo-soprano who is employed by the St Louis Opera to sing the relatively minor role of Mercédès. Her brother, fellow ex-pat David, is also employed by the SLO, but his task is to tout far and wide for commercial sponsorship.
When a key company patron Helen Stromberg-Brand is found brutally murdered, the police suspect David Radleigh and arrest him. His motive? It seems that Helen – nicknamed Sturm und Drang – and her husband were on the verge of cancelling a huge donation. Could they have argued? Did David lose his temper with the headstrong woman?
But there could be another motive. Helen Stromberg-Brand was a national celebrity, at least in the field of pharmaceutical research. She and her team were on the threshold of patenting a revolutionary drug to combat urinary tract infection in women. In partnership with the charismatic billionaire Keith Bryson – who has the casual dress sense, long hair and boyish charm of Richard Branson – Helen’s unit at the Adams University Medical Centre were about to find even greater fame and riches. Now she lies in the police mortuary, her head shattered by a heavy glass bowl.
Renata is not the world’s most loving sister, but she refuses to accept that David could have killed Sturm und Drang, if only because he is far too wet and wimpy for murder. Together with a former reporter, Peter Lombardo, she thinks the lady’s demise was less to do with the SLO, and more to do with the cut-throat world of drug patenting.
David Linzee has himself been a ‘supernumary’ – basically the opera equivalent of a spear carrier – and he enjoys several digs at the way an opera company in a mid-sized city is run. I particularly enjoyed his jibes at the ubiquitous need for sponsorship. Linzee (right) explains that the SLO has to make sure that literally every brick in the building has corporate support. Thus we have the Peter J Calvocoressi Administration Building, the Charles Macnamara III Auditorium and – best of all – the Endeavour Rent-a-Car Endowed Artist. In this case it’s Amy Song, the woman playing Carmen.
By the time Renata and Peter think they have unraveled the mystery of who killed the formidable Mrs Stromberg-Brand, the unorthodox stage set of the Carmen production experiences a malfunction. A giant playing card land on the heroine’s head. An all-points-bulletin is issued for the only actress who can replace the stricken Ms Song – none other than our very own Renata Radleigh. Renata takes the stage in triumph, but before the distraught Don José can plunge his stage dagger into Carmen’s heart, a real killer pre-empts the drama at the bull-fighting arena.
If anything, the plot of Spur Of The Moment is even more unlikely than the full blooded passion and drama taking place on stage between the doomed gypsy girl and her battling lovers, but what the tabloid press might call THE SHENANIGANS IN SEVILLE make a wonderful backdrop for this beautifully written and sharply funny murder mystery. A tad cosy, perhaps? Maybe, but when something is as well written as this, you won’t hear me complaining. A final word, if I may. Try to get to a production of Bizet’s masterpiece as soon as you can. Why the hurry? Well, it stands to reason, surely? Not only was Bizet not Spanish, his opera may well come to be classified as ‘cultural appropriation’ as well as making harmful stereotypes of people from Seville, women who make cigars, gypsies, policemen and bullfighters. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
You can catch up with the previous parts of this series by clicking the links.
Some historical crime fiction takes us back to times way, way before our own memories could have any validity. Then there are stories set in periods that many of us could reasonably have experienced at first hand. With the former, it is simply the author’s research versus the depth – or lack of – our own historical knowledge. The latter is a much more tricky enterprise, as someone who sets their book in the 1960s, for example, can be exposed to a more searching light – that of readers who actually lived through the years in question.
Peter Bartram’s mileu of choice is the early 1960s. We are in Brighton, the celebrated seaside town on England’s south coast. Its days of fame as the Gay capital of Western Europe, and infamy as the first large local authority to be mismanaged by the Green Party were yet to come, but the seeds of eccentricity have already been sown. Our guide through the Sussex town is Colin Crampton, the scoop-hungry reporter for The Evening Chronicle – a Brighton newspaper. He is a thoroughly engaging character with a quick wit, and it isn’t too fanciful to imagine that he might resemble the author in his younger days. If you read Bartram’s biography, you will be forgiven for thinking that if Crampton is not Bartram, then he is someone who the author knew very well in his early days as a journalist.
The basic plot is that we have a long-retired star of What The Butler Saw machines – Marie Richmond – who dies in a mysterious road accident. Then, a machine featuring her in her prime is broken into, and the revealing footage is stolen. The man who should have been guarding the pier is found bludgeoned to death – with a coconut. Crampton/Bartram introduces us to some memorable characters, including a camp, overdressed theatre critic and a toupéed old thespian, both of whom are crying out for the much-missed talents of John Inman and Charles Hawtry to bring them to life.
As Crampton attempts to unravel the mystery of why the ample charms of a silent movie star should have given someone cause for murder, there are some delightful period references and jokes which made me laugh out loud, although younger readers might not get the gags unless they are students of British popular culture in the second half of the 20th century.
There may well be readers who, by this point, have been receiving ‘cosy’ messages on their genre radar. All well and good, as there are elements of cosy crime here. We have an unambiguously likeable central character, a familiar and lovingly-painted background, and a cast which includes several amiably odd characters. We reviewers love our genres, and some readers may even share this obsession, so I’ll pop Stop Press Murder into the Cosy pigeonhole, with one or two caveats. Although the tone is generally as gentle and as light as a Brighton breeze, Bartram finds enough dark corners in the seaside town to keep the interest of those who like their crime fiction with a harder edge. The style of the book reminds me very much of the sharply humorous writing of Colin Watson and his Flaxborough novels, which also delight in the dafter aspects of English life, as well as boasting a collection of folk with similarly improbable surnames
Crampton is convinced that there is a link between the odd events on the pier, and discovers that Richmond – or to use her real name, Sybil Clackett – has a twin sister who is no lesser personage than the Dowager Marchioness of Piddinghoe. The local police and the Chronicle’s rival newspapers are seeing the case differently, however, and Mr Figgis, Crampton’s boss, is becoming increasingly twitchy as he fears for his sales figures.
Peter Bartram explores all possibilities inherent in the twin sisters storyline, and delivers an excellent novel, full of twists and turns, plenty of action scenes, crackling dialogue – and a great sense of fun. I’m looking forward to yet more encounters with the Evening Chronicle’s star turn. You can find a copy of Stop Press Murder by following the link.