Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Lonelyheart 4122

Miss Lemon, my dear readers, fears she has met her match.

Never did she expect to find within the pages of Colin Watson's Lonelyheart 4122 a character of such remarkable individuality and on par (if you will pardon Miss Lemon for saying so) with the more enigmatic creations of Mrs. Agatha Christie herself -- Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, Mr. Harley Quinn, and, er-hem, Miss Felicity Lemon.

(If my Christian name comes as a surprise, take comfort in the fact that it's been an extraordinarily well-kept secret. Even Mr. Poirot didn't discover it until 1955, when working on the Hickory Dickory Dock case.)

The character to rival Miss Lemon's sphinxdom is one Miss Lucilla Teatime, described as "remarkably trim and handsome." Indeed, those with the fortune to meet Miss Teatime instinctively approve of her ... "for there was in her appearance the flattering suggestion that she had taken pains to spare one personally the spectacle of yet another dumpy, disgruntled, defeated old woman."

Hmmm. Miss Lemon is not entirely sure that the foregoing passage is complimentary. Then again, perhaps isn't wasn't meant to be. In any case, Miss Teatime, just arrived from London, is far and away more than the regular folk of Flaxborough ("a market town of some antiquity with remarkable social and political intransigence") bargained for.

Shortly after her arrival in said town, Miss Teatime becomes a client of a matrimonial agency with a dubious reputation for success. Two of its women clients had recently laid hold of large sums of money and then went missing. Which is where Inspector Purbright comes in.

Come to think of it, Purbright rather reminds Miss Lemon of her dear friend Japp: tall, gangly, well-meaning but sometimes a little slow on the uptake. Perhaps there's more of Agatha Christie in Colin Watson's work than he'd care to admit.

What Miss Lemon is sure of, however, is that fans of her can't help but become fans of him.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

School for Murder

"I write only to entertain," said Robert Barnard.

After reading School for Murder, and enjoying it immensely, Miss Lemon could hardly quarrel with that assessment.

The novel has all that a connoisseur of the British mystery could hope for: an insular setting (this being Burleigh, a third-rate boys' school in a remote corner of the county of Swessex), a poisoning, a cast of shady characters and a quirky detective -- all served with a dish of delightful satire.

Mr. Barnard, it seems, is known for his incisive observations and dramatic wit. The Burleigh School, with its penny-pinching headmaster (the superbly named Edward Crumwallis), substandard boarding annexe, out-of-date texts, grubby gamesmaster and hated head boy, makes the perfect stage on which he can exercise his skills.

One need look no further than the opening gambit to see that one is in for a treat: "A fly buzzed in the Staff Common Room of Burleigh School. It provided a fitting accompaniment to the voice of headmaster."

Mr. Crumwallis is busy bewailing newfangled curricular standards. Why Golding, when one can just as easily have Black Arrow or Westward Ho, he fulminates.

Dorthea Gilberd (Junior English, Junior History) isn't snowed. "Or, to put the matter more honestly, thought Dorthea Gilberd, tearing her glance from Tom Tedder, why don't they prescribe books that Burleigh School has already got copies of?"

Events take a more serious turn when a series of misfortunes befall the boarding annexe: an ill-placed razor blade, strong booze in the fruit squash ... and then much worse.

In all, it's a school-days satire cum detective mystery that keeps one guessing -- and laughing along the way.

Mr. Barnard, an alumnus of the Royal Grammar School in Colcester, Essex, and longtime university lecturer in English knows well of what he speaks. Miss Lemon is pleased to have discovered him -- and she hopes you will be, too.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

One Across, Two Down

It should come as small surprise to her readers that Miss Lemon is an avid worker of crossword puzzles. To enjoy them, one must have a smattering of foreign languages, geography and music, and keep up on popular culture and sport. It's just the sort of activity that calls upon one's logic and resourcefulness. It's perfect for those employed in a library ... or perhaps a detective agency.

Miss Lemon has recently taken to solving American-style crossword puzzles. Less overtly clever than their British counterparts (the punning clues are far fewer), the seeming simplicity of these puzzles is the real challenge. Only an hour ago, Miss Lemon sat sipping her afternoon tea and wrestling with whatever would be a four-letter word for 'Type of shark,' first letter 'L,' last letter 'N.' By the time she got to her last bite of scone, she had it: LOAN.

Only in America would this fish swim in a fiduciary sea.

But lest Miss Lemon be diverted from the true purpose of this column, it is this fondness for crosswords that drew her to Ruth Rendell's One Across, Two Down (1971), and she recommends it for her readers now.

The novel, like her later (and perhaps stronger) Judgment in Stone (1977), is a whydunit rather than a whodunit. But true to the threads that bind all of her fiction, Ruth Rendell doesn't stint on suspense -- or psychological exploration of character.

The character in question in One Across, Two Down, Stanley Manning, has no ambition in life beyond becoming a master setter of crossword puzzles. Oh, and getting his hands on his live-in mother-in-law's £20,000.

When Stanley loses his job at a petrol station, he finds he has little more to do than the daily crossword.

Naturally, Stanley's idle mind turns to murder.

Miss Lemon won't reveal the bizarre set of circumstances that unfold -- one might be able to guess them. But suffice it to say that long before the inheritance comes due, Stanley find himself embroiled in a most unwise investment.

There is perhaps a bit more violence in One Across, Two Down than what Miss Lemon typically cares for, but the clear-eyed deftness with which Ruth Rendell portrays Stanley's motivations -- and the workings of his mind -- make it easy to overlook.

And Miss Lemon must admit, Stanley Manning, in the midst of his paranoid stupor, invents some of the cleverest -- if not craziest -- crossword clues.

She thinks you will enjoy this one immensely. Now if you will pardon Miss Lemon, she thinks she's heard the Evening Standard dropped outside her door.