Friday, December 31, 2010

Forgotten Book Friday: The Hours Before Dawn

It's been some time since Miss Lemon has offered something for 'Forgotten Book Friday.' With the New Year 2011 right round the corner, perhaps it's time she got back into the habit. And what better book to suggest for the occasion than Celia Fremlin's gothic suspense chiller, The Hours Before Dawn (1958).

Exhausted with the care of her infant son, Michael, whom she can't get to settle through the night, and two young girls, Louise Henderson feels like her life is unraveling. Her husband feels neglected, her neighbours complain, and she can't keep up with the endless household tasks.

When the Hendersons decide to take in a lodger, Vera Brandon, Louise in her sleepless stupor wonders if she isn't imagining things: like Vera creeping into Michael's room when she said that she would be going out; Vera's seducing of her husband; a nagging feeling that she's somehow met Vera Brandon somewhere before.....

Anyone who has read Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper will be sure to sympathize with Louise's mounting terror. Is she really going mad, or does Vera Brandon intentionally mean her harm?

Though the subject matter does not readily suggest it, Ms. Fremlin is a keen observer of human nature, and her prose is evidence of her extraordinarily sharp wit. Her most brilliant portrayals are those of the children, especially Harriet, who sets tea out in the hallway (where it is inevitably trod upon) for her Teddy yet argues with the inexorable logic of a Socrates.

It is a wonder and a shame to Miss Lemon that Celia Fremlin is today largely forgotten. One could do worse than to resolve to remember her in the New Year.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Dead of Jericho

Miss Lemon finds many things to like about Chief Inspector Morse, first made famous in the Oxford mystery novel series by Colin Dexter and further lionized by iTV. Although Morse and his sidekick, D.S. Lewis, obviously descend from the Holmes and Watson and Poirot and Hastings tradition, there is much that's modern and original about the pair's depiction.

Morse lives in Oxford, rather than London. He drives a Lancia.  He has an indefatigable appetite for English ale and cigarettes and can't get enough of Wagner. Like Miss Lemon, he has an obsession with working crossword puzzles. His hair is thinning and his waist is thickening. He's a bachelor, but not necessarily a confirmed one. In short, Morse is irresistibly human.

Except ... that we don't know his Christian name. (For the incurably curious, it is eventually revealed in Death Is Now My Neighbour 1996.)

Unlike many detectives who have preceded him, however, Morse isn't afraid to admit when he is wrong. Whether it's his failure to pick up the next round or the alacrity with which he'd like to pin the solution to a crime on the plot of a Greek tragedy, Morse is not infallible and never afraid to say so. Even if the tone of his admission is surly.

In The Dead of Jericho (1981), Morse finds a fleeting spark of romance with a woman who several weeks later is found hanged. Was it suicide? Or murder?

As Morse and Lewis investigate, they turn up a past that could have been written by Sophocles: a child given up for adoption; a father killed in a road accident; a rumoured love affair between a woman and a much younger man.

Just how close Dexter's plot hews to Aristotelian ethics, she shall leave for her readers to discover. She's sure you'll enjoy Morse's antics along the way.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Safely to the Grave

Miss Lemon doubts she has ever met a character in mystery so unrelentingly pernicious as Mick Harvey.

He's a villain to outdo all of Margaret Yorke's villains. And she, the mistress of the psychological thriller, knows how to paint startling portraits of evil.
When we first meet Mick, he is not only rough with his wife, Beverley, and a thundering bully to his neighbours, but he also quickly reveals himself to be mean, cocksure, prone to drink and quick to blame others for all of his own shortcomings. His hair is permed, he wears a weak mustache and the beginnings of a beer belly.

Just the sorts of things one hopes to find in an anti-hero, aren't they?

But there is nothing redeeming or heroic about Mick Harvey. After cleaning out Beverley's purse and spending the evening at the Cricketers, Mick tries to run two women off the road who are returning from a night at the ballet. When Marion Quilter and Laura Burdock decide to report the incident of dangerous driving to the police, they set off a chain of events that seems as much the product of ill fate as random chance.

Miss Lemon isn't revealing too much when she says that Mick proves more than once that he's not afraid to kill anyone who stands in his way: not even a dog.   

This is in many ways an upsetting novel. And yet ... as much, my stalwart readers, as you will want to put down Safely to the Grave (1986), Miss Lemon tells you that you will not be able to do so.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Who Saw Him Die?

Doesn't the title of this book just beg one to read it?

Miss Lemon certainly thought so when she first spotted it it for sale at Second Story Books in Washington, D.C. 

Her curiosity didn't steer her wrong, either. Sheila Radley, in Who Saw Him Die? (1987), produces just the sort of smartly-written and atmospheric British mystery that Miss Lemon and her devoted readers demand.

When 'Clanger' Cuthbert Bell, Breckham Market's official town drunk, fatally meets his match with a Rover driven by 'Lucky Jack' Goodrum, no one seems terribly surprised. Clanger had been playing an inebriated version of chicken on the town's twisty roads for some twenty years. All the villagers agreed that an accident was only a matter of 'when' not 'if.'

Jack Goodrum still considers himself lucky, even before he's cleared of all charges at Clanger's inquest.

Even Chief Inspector Quantrill would never have heard of the incident, had not Cuthbert's sister, Eunice Bell, called him up to demand a criminal investigation. It seems to her that Jack Goodrum had reason enough to wish her brother dead.

It isn't until a nasty burglary and then an even nastier murder, however, that the circumstances of Cuthbert's demise are opened up -- but when they are, plenty of skeletons are trotted out of the closet.

Superbly paced and cleverly plotted, this is mystery just the way Miss Lemon likes it.

Perhaps the best thing, though, about Ms. Radley's mysteries are their Chief Inspector, Douglas Quantrill.  Miss Lemon couldn't help but be reminded of Horace Rumpole, as DCI Quantrill bemoans his marital state and the paltriness of his diet.

He also holds an inappropriate eye for his attractive sergeant, Hilary Lloyd, who's smart enough to put him off gently. But that doesn't stop Quantrill from trying, and these wind up as some of the most amusing scenes.

Who Saw Him Die? is the sixth book in the Inspector Quantrill series.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Master of the Moor

My dear readers: Should you find yourself in want of a dark, brooding novel set among the dark, brooding moorlands of Yorkshire, look no further than Master of the Moor (1982), by Ruth Rendell.

Outwardly bluff and cheerful, the protagonist of this tale, Stephen Whalby, likes nothing better than roaming for hours among the hills, heather and tors of Vangmoor. But on one such solitary ramble, Stephen chances upon the body of a young woman, strangled, and with what must have been silken blonde hair cropped off roughly at her scalp.

The finding upsets Stephen, though it's difficult to detect that from the casual excitement with which he shares the finding with Lyn, his wife:
'You weren't long.'
  'I hadn't got far. Oh, Lord, darling, there's something pretty ghastly up there. A girl and she's dead. I found her lying among the Foinmen.'
  It occurred to Lyn -- fleetingly, to be gone in a moment -- that most men would have broken such a thing more gently to their wives. 
Even so, the event sets Stephen back on his heels, because the moor is more to him than just a place for respite and solitude. No one knows its paths, its stones, its forgotten mines and secret passages better than he does. He's come to feel a sense of ownership. He's even lately begun authoring a column in the local paper in which he styles himself as "The Voice of Vangmoor."

Soon, when another blonde woman goes missing and Stephen insinuates himself into the search, he begins to think of himself as 'Master of the Moor.' Stephen's desire to control all that occurs on the moor becomes a compulsion.

The effect of Stephen's obsession with the moor on the narrative complications is brilliant. Stephen's actions -- discovering the first body and then leading the search for the next -- place him in the unenviable position of prime suspect in the eyes of the local police.

Even Miss Lemon began to wonder about Stephen as his breezy outward behaviour soon shifted to reveal a darker interior. With all his 'Good Lords' and 'Good griefs,' one doesn't know whether his exasperation is simply good-humoured bemusement or something more sinister.

Of the final scene, Miss Lemon will say but this: it leaves one gasping for breath.

In all, Master of the Moor, with its moody setting and psychological suspense, is just the sort of novel to read as October drifts darkly into November. 

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Three Blind Mice

Miss Lemon doesn't feel that she is going too far by saying "Three Blind Mice," the first story in this eponymous short-story collection by Agatha Christie is perhaps one of her all-time best.

And as her devoted readers will agree, when it comes to pacing and plot, Dame Agatha is no slouch at the mystery in short form.

Neither one of these elements in stinted in "Three Blind Mice," where the mise-en-scéne draws the reader in without delay: a blizzard bears down on the lonely guesthouse of Monkswell Manor, while its novice proprietors await with anxiety and uncertainty their strange list of guests.

As it so often happens in stories by Agatha Christie, not all ends up well at the Manor. First one murder occurs; then another. And while one of the guests at Monkswell picks out a haunting little nursery tune on the piano: Three blind mice; Three blind mice / See how they run; See how they run; another lays a trap that may well prevent the murder of a third.

There's quite a bit of history behind Mrs. Christie's story, a wicked play on the old Mother Goose rhyme by the same name. "Three Blind Mice" made its debut as a radio play in May 1947 and was broadcast in honor of Queen Mary's 80th birthday celebration. Mrs. Christie later worked the radio play into a short story in December 1948, and, then, in 1949, into a stage drama, which is now best known the world over as London's longest-running-ever play, The Mousetrap.

The play opened at The Ambassadors Theatre in London's West End in 1952 and starred Sir Richard Attenborough -- and it was a tremendous success. Meanwhile, the short story had been published in a magazine in the U.S. and then was collected and published, in 1950, in Three Blind Mice and Other Stories. But Mrs. Christie wavered when it came to having a similar sort of collection published in the U.K., as so many people had yet to see The Mousetrap.

And so it is still today. The Mousetrap continues its historical run in London's West End (now at St. Martin's Theatre) and "Three Blind Mice" as a short story is still only available in the States. An interesting fate for both works.

What Miss Lemon enjoyed seeing most especially in the short-story version were the little elements sprinkled within the narrative that were clearly drawn from Mrs. Christie's own experience after World War II, with the sudden shortage of affordable houses and domestic servants. Rationing was another issue that adds an interesting plot dimension. In all, "Three Blind Mice" is excellent fun -- but do respect Mrs. Christie's wishes and don't read it if you haven't yet seen the stage version. 

Do you have a favourite short story by Agatha Christie? Miss Lemon would love to hear what it is.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Smooth Face of Evil

Miss Lemon recently took a holiday jaunt to New York City, where she spent time browsing in The Mysterious Bookshop on Warren Street in TriBeCa. This august emporium (devotedly exclusively, one might guess, to Miss Lemon's favourite subject) is the place in North America to acquire new, second-hand and rare copies of a broad range of the novels of crime, mystery and suspense most worth having.

To wit, for $3 Miss Lemon picked up The Smooth Face of Evil (1984), a gripping tale of vintage psychological suspense by Margaret Yorke.

If it is cliche to say that once she began reading this story about the smooth talking con artist who meets with his comeuppance in a most unexpected way, she could not put it down -- well then, you will have to excuse Miss Lemon's triteness, for it is the truth.

From the moment Terry Brett smashes his stolen Vauxhall into Alice Armitage's illicitly borrowed Volvo, and then alters the details of the event to make things seem like they happened the other way round, Miss Lemon was hooked. She suspects her readers will be, too.

As is her wont, Ms. Yorke graces The Smooth Face of Evil with the most telling points of psychological detail. Alice Armitage, for instance, is a lonely and aging (though in now way frail or elderly) widow who is manipulated into going to live with her son, Giles, and daughter-in-law Helen far from the Bournemouth coast where she lived independently and happily. When Alice arrives at Harcombe House, she quickly sees that she is welcome only for the money she brings from the sale of her house, as Helen quickly dispatches her to a frigid attic apartment. In short, isolated and unwelcome, she is ripe for conning.

Terry Brett is the sort who can talk his way out of trouble and into the hearts and purses of even the most worldly of British housewives. The rewards for these endeavours, along with an occasional car theft, are handsome.

Sue Norris, a tenant of the Harcombe House Lodge, who lives there, unmarried, with Jonathan, meets Terry after the smashup. Worldly is not quite the way to describe Sue. Despite Terry's charming curls and neat suit, Sue picks him out for what he is, and a strange alliance is formed.

Just who ends up conning whom -- and who runs the risk of murder Miss Lemon shall leave for her readers to discover. The journey to the crime's unraveling is nine-tenths of the fun.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Murders of Richard III

My dear readers: Have you ever wondered whether Richard III really did murder those innocent babes in the Tower to secure his position on the English throne?

Miss Lemon must tell you that she likes to ponder that tricky bit of history every now again. So it was with great pleasure that she picked up The Murders of Richard III (1974), by Elizabeth Peters, wherein the main characters seek to suss out the truth behind the much-maligned reign of dark King Richard.

Their parlour-games of re-enactment, however, quickly turn treacherous as one by one the various characters that were supposed victims of Richard III fall into mischief and even worse.

Will Jacqueline Kirby, Ms. Peters' spirited librarian-cum-sleuth who sets on the case with her prodigious handbag and formidable store of knowledge sort out the tangled histories and the mystery of the Ricardian trickster in time to stop a murderer?

Miss Lemon leaves it to her readers to find out.

She will say, though, that those who like medieval history are certain to like this book. Ditto for admirers of Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, which the book gently spoofs. For if there was ever a figure from history who has swirling about him more mystery than Richard III, Miss Lemon would like to meet him.

Elizabeth Peters is one of the nom de plumes for Barbara Mertz, a respected historian and author of nearly 70 books, including works of nonfiction. Two of these are now considered classic works of popular history: Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs and Red Land, Black Land. She earned her Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of Chicago in 1952. Mystery Writers of America awarded her the MWA Grandmaster in 1998.

When it comes to the past, Ms. Peters knows whereof she speaks.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Six Feet Under

Yes, my dear readers, you all know it by now. Miss Lemon loves to grouse about Inspector Thanet. Reading Six Feet Under (1982), by Dorothy Simpson, has done little to change that proclivity.

Stuffy and self-satisfied, the Inspector could rival M. Poirot, were it only that he had a sense of humour.

But the poor man in trying.

Now that his partner, DC Mike Lineham, is about to enter the matrimonial state (the only state, by the way, that Luke Thanet thinks fit to live in, so it's high time), he turns his moral apprehensions homeward. 

And my, does Inspector Thanet find something to fret about: His wife Joan is thinking of ... how could she? ... joining the workforce. Life, Thanet predicts, will never be as sweet, harmonious, or comfortable as it is with Joan waiting for him quietly at home.

While he gnashes his teeth over this familial conundrum, a more serious domestic drama unfolds in the bucolic village of Nettleton. Carrie Birch, an introverted spinster devoted to the care of her invalid mother, is found murdered.

Who would want to harm a woman so drab and selfless as Carrie?

As Thanet and Lineham go digging, they turn up plenty of dirt, as it were, on Carrie and the few villagers she lived among.

Miss Lemon doesn't feel as though she's giving much away if she says that Thanet is wise and decent enough to see from the business in Nettleton that a stranglehold put on a loved one is no way to ensure that love is returned.

As Miss Lemon said, he is trying. Despite Inspector Thanet's irritating ways, this is a smartly plotted and psychologically insightful mystery.  Well worth the read.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Happy Birthday, Agatha Christie

The happy day is upon us once again: today marks the 120th anniversary of the birth of Agatha Clarissa Miller, in Torquay, England. As we all know now -- but couldn't possibly have foreseen then -- she grew up to become the bestselling and perhaps most ingenious mystery writer of all time.

With the day in mind, Miss Lemon thought it apt to give a mention to the few of Dame Agatha's many publications (eighty detective novels, short-story collections and plays; eight novels under the nom de plume, Mary Westmacott; and two memoirs in all) that she most frequently ranked among her favourites.

By the order in which Sir Max lists them in Mallowan's Memoirs, they are:
  1. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926). This is also one of Miss Lemon's all-time favourites. So clever is the plotting, so intricately masked is the murderer that critics cried foul when this masterwork first appeared. But no violation of the conventions of mystery has ever been proved. Sour grapes, perhaps?
  2. The Pale Horse (1961). Agatha Christie prided herself on her knowledge of poisons -- an erudition she gained while working in the dispensary of Torquay Hospital during the first World War. The plot of this novel shows her pharmaceutical training to its best advantage.
  3. The Moving Finger (1943). Smart characterization, snappy dialogue, and a plot that zips right along make this book the perfect illustration of all that is good about Agatha Christie. This work also employs Miss Lemon's favourite but most disturbing plot device: the anonymous letter.
  4. Endless Night (1967). Set in a fictional rendering of Max and Agatha's beloved Greenway, both cite this work as one of their favourites for its strong psychological exploration and classic struggle between good and evil.
With these books in mind, Miss Lemon bids you a very happy Dame Agatha Day!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Mallowan's Memoirs

As we near the 120th anniversary of Agatha Christie's birth (15 September 1890, for those who need reminding), Miss Lemon thought, what better way to celebrate the double-diamond jubilee than with a view of the grande dame of mystery through the eyes of archaeologist and Asiatic scholar, Max Mallowan?

And what better place to get that view than from Mallowan's Memoirs: The Autobiography of Max Mallowan (1977). The book is excellent for its vivid recollections of the digs at Ur, Nineveh, and Chagar Bazar, among others; its plates and illustrations of people, excavation sites and artifacts; and of course its observations on life with Dame Agatha. He was her husband, after all.

Fourteen years younger than Agatha, Sir Max Edgar Lucien Mallowan  (he was knighted in 1968) was a classmate of Evelyn Waugh at Lancing and went on to earn a B.A. in classics at Oxford. After graduation, he foundered a bit until being invited to join Leonard Wooley as an apprentice at Ur, an ancient city, now located partway between Baghdad and the head of the Persian Gulf.   

The odyssey at Ur is where Sir Max's absorbing tale begins. He describes the notoriously difficult nature of the Wooleys -- both of Leonard and even more so, of Katherine, who is gently portrayed in Agatha's Murder in Mesopotamia (1936). But it was Katherine's imperious nature that brought Max and Agatha together. She ordered Max to escort Agatha, who was on her second excursion to the Middle East, on a round-trip tour of Baghdad. He found the task -- and the mystery writer -- so agreeable that Max Mallowan and Agatha Christie were married on 11 September 1930.

The two -- Max no great mystery fan and Agatha no great archaeologist -- in the end made an interesting pair. And the marriage -- despite rumours of Max's affair with Barbara Parker, whom he married after Agatha's death -- was a happy one. Indeed, Mallowan's Memoirs is dedicated to Rosalind, Agatha's only child, 'with love.'

What Miss Lemon finds so intriguing about reading Mallowan's Memoirs is how his perspective aligns with that found in Agatha's varied works. In fact, they complement each other quite smartly. To have read Agatha's autobiography or Come Tell Me How You Live (1946) or any of her works set in the Middle East is to get a special sense of insight when reading Max's account.

Sir Max himself gives a charming perspective on Agatha's novels and craft, though he is careful to stop short of offering literary criticism. The critic of detective fiction, he wryly observes, 'must be either a knave or a fool,' for the elegance of the narrative lies in the arc from crime to solution. One cannot discuss mysteries intelligently, he writes, without discussing their endings.

Miss Lemon will bear that in mind.

In the meantime, she will say that this post is part of a series, the Agatha Christie Blog Tour, intended to commemorate her life and work. If you like Agatha Christie and her milieu, stop by and have a look round.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Copper Peacock and Other Stories

My dear readers, you must be thinking, 'Hooray! Another Forgotten Book Friday selection from Miss Lemon.'

Yes. She knows just how much you love them.

This one, The Copper Peacock, by Ruth Rendell, is no more worthy of being forgotten then the other books Miss Lemon has singled out for remembrance. The work is a collection of short stories first published, collectively one assumes, in 1991.

The tales herein -- though none more than thirty pages in length -- carry all the macabre landscapes, psychological aberrations and calamitous fates that signal classic Ruth Rendell.

The book opens with "A Pair of Yellow Lilies,' remarkable both for its irony and surprise. Ms. Rendell's canny knack for realism is fully on display here, too. If the reader's stomach doesn't lurch when unlucky Bridget Thomas turns to discover her bag with all the money she has to her name gone from her library carrel, then that reader must be insensitive. 

"Mother's Help" is unforgettable for the sheer malevolence of its main character, Ivan. "Long Live the Queen," and "The Fish-Sitter" both capture that creepy and uncomfortable aura generated by people who connect too closely with their pets.

The title story, "The Copper Peacock," doesn't appear until two-thirds of the way through the book. Though Miss Lemon promises that it will make one rethink rejecting out of hand that next tasteless gift one receives from a coworker.

The last story of the lot, "An Unwanted Woman" features Ms. Rendell's now familiar Chief Inspector Wexford.

All of these stories, in varying degrees, show just how inventive, versatile and, yes, even wicked, is the mind of Ruth Rendell. Pick up a copy of The Copper Peacock if you can.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Forgotten Book Friday: The Blackheath Poisonings

Like a child who has mastered a new game, Miss Lemon has now officially gotten the hang of 'Forgotten Book Friday.' If she seems to be able to think of nothing else for her blog, please accept her sincerest apologies as she offers this week's selection: The Blackheath Poisonings (1978), by Julian Symons.

In a word, it's unputdownable.

All right. That may be more than one word squashed together, but you see Miss Lemon's point.

Subtitled 'A Victorian Murder Mystery,' Mr. Symons delivers what he promises. The prose is so polished, the dialogue so convincing, the plot so positively Victorian in its intricacies and double meanings, that Miss Lemon had to double-check Mr. Symons's vital statistics to be sure that he was not a product of the Victorian era.

Born in 1912 and deceased in 1994, he is not. A lifelong poet and novelist (Mr. Symons left school at age 14), he succeeded Agatha Christie as president of England's Detection Club in 1976, holding the post for almost a decade.

The Blackheath Poisonings is an excellent example of the Golden-Age influence on Mr. Symons. The story centers on the last twisted branches of the Mortimer family tree. The descendants have set up their strange houses in Blackheath, then a bucolic retreat some short distance from London.

When Roger Vandervent, husband of docile Beatrice, dies suddenly of 'gastric fever,' his son Paul suspects something foul.

It's not long before a cache of incriminating letters are discovered in the hands of a blackmailing servant.

Miss Lemon trusts she's not giving too much away when she says that more than one death and a sensational trial follow. (If Mr. Symons was not a Victorian, he most certainly must have been a barrister.) And through all of this winds the thread that Paul Vandervent grasps much too late: "Somerset Maugham [Paul writes] says somewhere that Victorians felt about women as though they had no back passages." They had no complexity; no strength or integrity.

But those Victorians got it very wrong. Mr. Symons, however, gets it -- and this engaging crime story -- very right.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Forgotten Book Friday: Death on Account

Here it is, Friday again. Miss Lemon hardly knows where the time gets to. So before this day gives her the slip, she would like to use it to remind her readers of an excellent but now mostly forgotten novel by Margaret Yorke: Death on Account.   

First published by Hutchinson in 1979 but now long out of print, Death on Account remains an incisive study of the social and psychological forces that drive even the most benignant of persons to commit outrageous crimes.

Robbie Robinson is a middle-aged banker. He's never broken into the ranks of management, but he is quite competent at what he does.

In the eyes of his bullying wife, Isabel, however, Robbie is a complete failure -- good only for bringing her tea trays in bed at the weekends and fixing things about the house. The childless couple has long stopped sharing a bedroom.

When Isabel decides to sell the house that Robbie loves and move the pair to a more pretentious neighbourhood, the sleepwalking Robbie slowly awakens.

And what doozies his dreams have been. Robbie works out an elaborate plan to raid his own bank. He tells himself it is only a fantasy. But then he goes ahead with what is -- with one small exception -- a very clever plan.

As in any good Margaret Yorke novel, the chain of events that unfold link the most unlikely characters in the most intriguing ways. Robbie, who is not yet unattractive and skilled at woodworking, finds himself involved with the young woman he held up. And the reader can hardly begrudge Robbie this fleeting romance.

Indeed, Miss Lemon thought him to be one of the most sympathetic Margaret Yorke villains she's met to date. And much of the tension comes from when and how Robbie's deeds will be discovered.

Miss Lemon suspects that Mrs. Yorke's tongue was more than a little in her cheek when she chose the name for her unfortunate protagonist. Clearly, she enjoyed herself while writing Death on Account. The prose is crisp and simple; and at the same time, unsettlingly profound.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Dead Man's Folly

Miss Lemon can't think of a more suitable summer diversion than Dead Man's Folly (1956), by Agatha Christie. The story opens amid preparations for a fête to be given by the new owners of Nasse House, an estate that's stood largely untouched since Tudor times. But the new-moneyed owner, Sir George Stubbs, has other ideas about the house and grounds, particularly those that will please his vacant, young wife, Hattie -- including erecting a folly where it clearly does not belong.

Hattie Stubbs, for her part, wants little to do with the planning of the fête, which is to have all the traditional trappings, including a coconut shy, a skittles alley, a fortune teller, and the pièce de résistance, Mrs. Ariadne Oliver's own custom-designed murder hunt.

But events take a puzzling turn when the pretend murder victim is found dead in fact -- and Hattie Stubbs goes missing from the fête she never wanted to attend in the first place. Who would want to murder a gawky 15-year-old Girl Guide? And where could Hattie have gone in her perilously high heels and impractical silk frock?
"I feel awful," said Mrs. Oliver, sinking down in the chair in front of him like a purple blancmange. "AWFUL," she added in what were clearly capital letters.
    The Inspector made a few ambiguous noises, and Mrs. Oliver Swept on.
    "Because, you see, it's my murder. I did it!"
It is an especial delight to see Mrs. Oliver in all her scattered splendour, full of outlandish hypotheses and woman's intuition as she tries to work through her own convoluted plot to help solve this clever meta-murder mystery. Mrs. Oliver, acting on her uncanny instinct, has already called in M. Poirot, ostensibly to give away the murder-hunt prizes but in fact to keep an eye out for anything -- or anyone -- suspicious.

Indeed, it is the quirky cast of characters -- which ranges from a passel of foreign tourists staying at a nearby hostel and a disgruntled architect to a shady cousin who turns up from Hattie's past -- and not just the bucolic summer setting that make Dead Man's Folly such a delight.

You'll forgive her for mentioning it, but even Miss Lemon can boast of a walk-on rôle in this real-life game of Cluedo. 

The fictional Nasse House is supposed to be situated near Torquay, the birthplace of Dame Agatha, and is in fact modeled on her own beloved Greenway in South Devon. She got the idea for the plot while sitting outdoors, watching  her grandson, Mathew, play; and the scene of the inspiration is vividly described in the preface of  Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks -- but don't look unless you are prepared to have the plot revealed!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Forgotten Book Friday: Mrs. Craddock

It has not been Miss Lemon's habit to participate in Forgotten Book Friday (rely on Hannah Stoneham and Mysteries in Paradise for excellent posts on the subject); but it is high time she started.

With that in mind, she respectfully submits Mrs. Craddock (1902), by W. Somerset Maugham.

Yes, yes. Miss Lemon knows that Mr. Maugham is hardly a forgotten writer. Even so, she would be willing to wager a note or two that a few of the most devoted students of early twentieth century British literature have not read this provocative novel.

If, however, those same devotees have read Gustave Flaubert's masterpiece, Madame Bovary (and appreciated its genius), they will most certainly appreciate Mrs. Craddock.

Bertha Ley, heir to the decaying estate of Court Leys, determines to marry beneath her. Though only one person close to Bertha is fool enough to oppose her engagement to the tenant farmer Edward Craddock, she won't be swayed.

What follows is a painful disillusionment -- both for Bertha Craddock and for the mesmerized reader. Edward is not only insensitive and oafish; he is willfully anti-intellectual. Oh, and he detests the French. He is everything that Bertha is not. And yet Bertha cannot stop loving him.

When Edward decides to run for public office, Bertha is appalled. He has no training in public speaking or rhetoric. What's more, he has no understanding of history or public affairs. But when his rambling, patriotic rant is received with thundering applause, and he thumps the radical candidate at the polls, Bertha can do little more than sigh. No one, it seems, sees what she sees. And of course, this union cannot end well.

Although Bertha's fate is somewhat less operatic than Emma Bovary's, it is no less tragic.

What truly empathetic (and bibliophilic) reader, Miss Lemon asks, will finish this novel and not think, "Bertha Craddock, c'est moi!"!

Although written in1900, his editors decided to delay publication of Mr. Maugham's second novel after the successful Liza of Lambeth for fear of it being perceived as risque and immoral.

Miss Lemon suspects that what really had the publishers worrying was Mr. Maugham's withering portrait of conservative provincialism, especially among the county set. But they wouldn't have worried if he had written something convincing, would they have?

Now if Miss Lemon goes on any longer, she shall have to re-name this post Forgotten Book Saturday.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Ghost in the Machine

The latest entry to date in Caroline Graham's Midsomer Murder series featuring the bilious Chief Inspector Barnaby and the hapless Sergeant Troy might be more aptly titled 'Inheritance of Loss' for the sweeping way in which it examines the sinister consequences of a windfall.

Mallory Lawson is just about at wits' end -- financially and psychically -- as principal of a failing inner-city comprehensive, when his favourite aunt dies and leaves behind a sizable legacy of property and cash. Mallory's wife, Kate, sees an opportunity to pursue her dream of rescuing undiscovered but truly literary novelists from the maw of obscurity. Their daughter, Polly, sees her chance to get out of crippling debt, and perhaps even to profit at the other end.   

But the given name, A Ghost in the Machine (2004),  isn't bad, either. In this case, it comes from the bizarre collection of instruments of ancient warfare assembled and put on display in the home of Dennis Brinkley, the Lawson's otherwise uneccentric solicitor and accountant. When the massive catapult goes wobbly and winds up killing Dennis, more than one resident of Forbes Abbot is called to explain.

Fans of Caroline Graham will find many familiar features to admire in A Ghost in the Machine, including an unflinching realism of both setting and character studded with elements of the bizarre: Forbes Abbot's own Church of the Near at Hand, in which one medium claims she's communed with Dennis's killer is only one small example. The naked greed of the Lawson's daughter, Polly, will also make the reader sit up and take note.

Miss Lemon must report, however, a few small flaws that mar the perfection of this mystery. The narrative is quite bloated, and the reader finds herself more than 150 pages in before the first murder occurs. It isn't until page 250 or so that Inspector Barnaby makes his (now long awaited) appearance. And more than one character is a bit overdrawn in her human frailty. Carey's bereaved companion, Benny, for example, is hardly more complex than the village idiot of yore. And Kate, while wholly believable, is a bit too sanctimonious for Miss Lemon's taste.

But these are small quibbles and in no way prevent Miss Lemon from recommending A Ghost in the Machine as a thoroughly entertaining summer read.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Agatha Christie Reading Challenge

Imagine Miss Lemon's delight when she discovered that hers is the featured blog on this month's Agatha Christie Reading Carnival.

This wonderful site is organised and hosted by Kerrie Smith, a Christie- and mysteriophile of top rank. Here you'll find reviews of Agatha Christie's books (like Ryan Groff's of The Sittaford Mystery); interesting essays about Agatha Christie's life and work (see this article Kerrie found on Slate); links to like-minded blogs, and other fun facts and Agatha Christie miscellany. It's a great place to keep up with all things Agatha and connect with fellow Agatha Christie admirers.

Dear readers, if you've not stopped by ACRC, you must. And while you're there, why not join the reading challenge? If Agatha Christie could write all these works, surely we can read them!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Balmoral Nude

What do Queen Victoria, a pre-Raphaelite artist, the Rt. Hn.ble William Ewart Gladstone and the murder of a gin-shop courtesan have in common?

In The Balmoral Nude (1990), by Carolyn Coker, the connections add up to a delightful stew of art, history, murder and mystery.

It seems Cecil T. Fetherston was a one-time tutor of art to Queen Victoria. He also happened to fall in love with a prostitute called Emma. Mr. Gladstone, who was known to proselytize among the less morally fortunate in Victoria's time, has the unhappy luck to witness jealousy get the better of Mr. Fetherston.

When Fetherston is hanged for Emma's murder, he leaves behind a tantalizing cache of pen-and-ink drawings.

Deborah Foley, the twentieth-century heir to the Fetherston Gallery, dangles the drawings in front of several parties more than eager to own them; and the result, as one might guess, is a nasty series of murder. 

Miss Lemon found herself enjoying this novel in spite of herself. None of the characters are particularly likable. There's an obnoxious couple from Phoenix, Arizona, who buy up British artefacts and otherwise spend their lives making excuses for their spoilt and slatternly daughter, unfortunately called 'India.' Worse, they've just bought a title at auction and now insist on being addressed as Lord and Lady Smith-Hamilton.

Deborah Foley, the owner of the Fetherston Gallery is a vague and single-minded woman, whose chief interest is her American husband, Clayton, whose occupation is modeling for Harris Tweeds and whose demeanour and appearance made Miss Lemon think constantly of the Marlboro Man. Deborah's brother, Arthur, evokes the prodigal Sebastian Flyte, from Brideshead Revisited, but he seems to lack all of Sebastian's charms.

There's an uptight and ambitious gallery manager, called Sybil Forbes; and an arts reporter, called Mandy Carruthers, famous for her plunging necklines; and a writer, called Malcolm Putney, who happens to be publishing a book on the Queen Victoria, William Gladstone, Cecil Fetherston connection, and who would stoop as low as required to get his hands on the drawings to illustrate his otherwise unremarkable work.

But for all these grasping characters, The Balmoral Nude is neatly written, with sharp characterization, snappy dialogue and evidence of the author's keen sense of just what to leave out to keep the pace zinging along. Best of all is the late-to-arrive Inspector Chadwick of Chipping Codsbury, who does little more than lurk. And in the process, of course, he catches himself a murderer.

The Balmoral Nude is long out of print. But should her readers see a copy in a second-hand shop, Miss Lemon's advice would be to snap it up. It's perfect holiday reading.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Dead Man's Mirror

For her readers about to set about on their summer holidays, might Miss Lemon recommend Dead Man's Mirror, a chilling collection of tales by the dame of whodunit, Agatha Christie, to tuck into their steamer trunks? She promises it will make passage on the Queen Mary -- or any other mode of transport -- seem all the more swift.

The book sets off in the way it means to continue with its title story, "Dead Man's Mirror," a novella, really, that is also one of Mrs. Christie's takes on the old mystery chestnut: the locked-room murder. Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore, a man by all accounts of remarkable ego and quite possibly mad, is found in his study shot through the head. A revolver lies beneath his dangling fingers; a note scrawled in haste on the blotter reads a desperate 'SORRY.' Both the window and door to the room are locked and the key is conveniently found in Sir Gervase's pocket.

Seems like a neat case for suicide until Hercule Poirot picks a tiny shard of shattered glass from the base of statue. The case, he observes, "is like the mirror smashed on the wall. The dead man's mirror. Every new fact we come across shows us some different angle of the dead man.... We shall soon have a complete picture."

"Murder in the Mews," the second in the lineup, is also a locked-room murder; but one, Miss Lemon thinks, more elegantly plotted. M. Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp stroll along the streets of London on the evening of 5 November, when Japp remarks that all the fireworks would be just the thing to disguise a murder. And indeed, the two are led to just such a ploy when they are called to investigate the death of Mrs. Barbara Allen. Ostensibly another suicide, this time the angle of the bullet wound and the absence of prints on the weapon make it impossible for any but the most naive to think that was so.

Mrs. Allen's flat mate, Miss Prenderleith takes her death a bit too cooly for Japp; but there are others just as 'hairy at the heel.' Miss Lemon gives nothing away when she says that the clue to this mystery is more smoke than mirrors. 

The final story -- and Miss Lemon's favourite -- is titled "Triangle at Rhodes." It begins with a peek at HP in top form:
Hercule Poirot sat on the white sand and looked out across the sparkling blue water. He was carefully dressed in a dandified fashion in white flannels and a large panama hat protected his head. He belonged to the old-fashioned generation which believed in covering itself carefully from the sun. Miss Pamela Lyall, who sat beside him and talked ceaselessly, represented the modern school of thought in that she was wearing the barest minimum of clothing on her sun-browned person.
Miss Lyall, like Poirot in his own more subtle way, is at once observing and gossiping. Little does she know that she's about to witness the makings of murder.
'Mademoiselle,' said Poirot and his voice was abrupt, 'I do not like this at all!'

'Don't you?  Nor do I. No, let's be honest, I suppose I do like it really. There's a horrid side of one that enjoys accidents and public calamities and the unpleasant things that happen to one's friends.'
This story, which was later expanded in Evil Under the Sun (1941), neatly reminds Miss Lemon why she enjoys mysteries so much.

*Miss Lemon must note that this American edition, published by Dodd, Mead & Co. in 1937 omits the fourth story included in the British edition published by Collins, "The Incredible Theft." But with writing so blithe and with Poirot and Japp in such high good humour, she scarcely noticed the lack.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Unnatural Causes

Please don't think Miss Lemon unkind if this recommendation of P. D. James's Unnatural Causes (1967) sounds halfhearted.

In fact, there are many things Miss Lemon likes about this novel, set in the very isolated, very literary village of Monksmere, precariously perched on the edge of the North Sea. At the same time, Miss Lemon regrets to say that she found a few things about Unnatural Causes less genial.

So let's get the unpleasantries out of the way first, shall we? For starters, Miss Lemon does not much care for Adam Dalgliesh. Now before her loyal readers stoke the heretical fires, do let Miss Lemon explain.

At least in this particular work, Superintendent Dalgliesh is condescending and smug, and, worse, reluctant to get involved in a riveting case because he's on holiday in Monksmere, visiting his spinster Aunt Jane. Not a convincing excuse. Because in the meantime, the body of a local mystery novelist drifts to shore in a dinghy, the writer's hands severed neatly at the wrists. Not long after, a likely suspect finds that a hefty dose of arsenic is decidedly not his cup of tea (or whiskey).

But Dalgliesh remains largely unmoved. Sometimes simpering (he's ostensibly on holiday to have a good think about whether marrying Deborah Briscoe would turn out to be too much of a bore); sometimes seething (Dalgliesh takes great offence to the insinuation by Inspector Reckless that his saintly aunt might somehow be implicated in the crime), Dalgliesh seems content to tell himself that this is Reckless's show and he's perfectly capable of managing it alone.

Even so, Dalgliesh can scarcely mask his disdain. Even among the writerly cabal that seems to have headquartered itself at Monksmere, Dalgliesh, because he is a poet, places himself on the artistic high ground. There's Maurice Seton, the mystery writer; Celia Calthorp, a garish woman who pens romance; Oliver Latham, the womanizing theatre critic; and J. D. Sinclair, literary novelist and village recluse. And although they seem to outwardly despise each other, it's nothing odd to find them converging en masse on poor old Aunt Jane, or lunching and picnicking, or spending the evenings in one another's company. Again, not very convincing.

Perhaps Miss Lemon still feels the sting of Ms. James referring to Agatha Christie as a 'literary conjurer,' with hardly any influence on the detective novel as we know it today in her latest book, Talking About Detective Fiction. She also calls Mrs. Christie's characters 'pasteboard,' which is all well and good so long as one cannot be accused of employing them in one's own fiction. To wit, Aunt Jane.

But to be fair, there were many things that drew Miss Lemon into Unnatural Causes. The village setting, along the craggy Suffolk coast, was deftly drawn. There's also an unforgettable scene in London at the fictional Cadaver Club, set up in Tavistock Square. This is one of Miss Lemon's favourite parts of London, and if only there were such a club that privately catered to mystery writers and criminologists and which exhibited relics of unforgettable crimes....

Even so it reminds one that even with its flaws, Unnatural Causes is still worth reading. One of the novel's most clever aspects is the metafiction on which it rests. The opening chapter is a lovingly drawn description of a handless body adrift at sea -- the very description found in the manuscript that Maurice Seton posts to his secretary from the Cadaver Club.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Mary Reilly

Mary Reilly, by Valerie Martin is not a detective novel in the traditional sense. But there is plenty of mystery swirling about this mesmerizing story told from the point of view of the housemaid to Dr. Henry Jekyll, Victorian England's most infamous case of split personality.

And if there's mystery in the telling, Mary Reilly means there to be. She tells her strange tale in a series of journal entries, the first of which recounts, at her master's bidding, the unnerving story of how she acquired a series of animal bites over her neck and hands.

"I've read your story," Dr. Jekyll tells her, after she has delivered it to him by means of deceiving the ever-watchful butler, Mr. Poole. (The jealousies, obligations and psychology of 'place' depicted below-stairs are only a few of the many deftly portrayed aspects in this psychologically astute novel.)    

"'Like many a good storyteller,' he went on, 'you raise more questions in your tale than you answer.'"

Indeed, that quality -- the ability to withhold -- is perhaps the chief delight of Mary's story.

Now, one might wonder: weren't most parlourmaids in Victorian England illiterate? Not so, as Mary's journals plainly prove. She was educated at a school for the poor -- one funded, as it turns out, by her now benefactor, now tormentor, Dr. Jekyll -- and took easily to her studies. Her methods of observation are by turns lyrical and blunt. Her voice is unforgettable: 
"'He were a big enough rat, that's true, sir,' I said, 'though I never saw him. He was heavy as a dog.'
   He made a sound I thought was a laugh so I looked up and found I was right, for he had still the traces of a smile about his mouth, though it was a quick one and gone already. Still his eyes smiled at me, but not with malice, so I felt bold to speak.
   'Have I said something funny, sir?' I asked.
'Not what you said, Mary, but how you said it. You have a frank manner that is not without charm.'"
Although it seems to take Mary Reilly the greater portion of this narrative to fully understand what her master is about, Miss Lemon felt not the least bit of impatience. Letting the fascinating story unfold in its own time was gratification enough. She is sure her readers will feel the same.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Do forgive Miss Lemon if she seems to be hopping on the Alan Bradley bandwagon. But it was the title that drew her to this sassy sleeper from 2009.

That clever turn of phrase -- The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie -- comes from William King's The Art of Cookery, published in 1708:
Unless some sweetness at the bottom lie,
Who cares for all the crinkling of the pie?
Catchy, isn't it?

Indeed, the cover sets one to thinking about pies and crusts and even jack snipes, poisons and postage stamps, which are just the points on which this mystery turns.

Miss Lemon found many things to like about this novel and its heroine-cum-detective, Flavia de Luce. She is smart, for starters. Preternaturally so. But Miss Lemon was more than willing to suspend her disbelief for an eleven year old so well read and culturally astute as to remark that Beethoven sounds as if he cribbed all of his piano works from Mozart and that in a perfect world, the Bishop's Lacey library would be open 24/7. Did she mention that Miss de Luce also maintains a sophisticated laboratory and not only has the periodic table memorized, but also owns a first edition of Richard Mead's A Mechanical Account of Poisons in Several Essays (1702)?

Flavia de Luce is also resourceful. And not in the least squeamish -- of rats, of heights, of bullying pub owners, or of creepy philatelists. She is plucky almost to a fault.

By the same token, Miss Lemon found a few things she did not like in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. A protracted and borderline-violent confrontation with the killer made Miss Lemon think that perhaps Mr. Bradley takes too liberal an interpretation of the conventions of cosy crime fiction (see six rules for cosy writing on Mysterious Matters).

He also overdoes it with the metaphors. Readers will be treated to at least one in every paragraph, and sometimes more. Sometimes many more. This will irritate some of Miss Lemon's followers, she fears. But on the whole, many of the metaphors do as Aristotle dictates: they help the reader to see some emotion or action or sense differently by extracting some essential essence by way of the comparison. Those metaphors that don't live up to this standard could have been edited out.

But these are two small quibbles in what is an otherwise highly enjoyable mystery with a gratifyingly original heroine. Miss Lemon has already placed The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag high on her to-read pile. (It's the title again!)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Who Is Simon Warwick?

For her readers who are hungry for a smartly plotted whodunit full of Aristotelian moral hazards, reversals and recognitions that would please the great Greek philosopher himself, might Miss Lemon recommend
Who Is Simon Warwick? (1978) by Patricia Moyes.

Who is Simon Warwick? An excellent question. And one that keeps Ambrose Quince, executor of the late Lord Charlton's estate, Chief Superintendent Henry Tibbett, and most certainly the reader guessing until the novel's remarkable close.

Simon Warwick, it seems, stands to inherit a tidy sum of both property and influence should he be able to substantiate his identity as the boy who was adopted by an American Army officer and his English bride in October 1944. It's no surprise, however, that laying claim to the estate invites more than one motive -- and opportunity -- for murder.

This neatly turned out narrative travels from London to Charlottesville, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., and then back to London again. All of these places are fully realized. The novel is both moody and tense, and if Miss Lemon may say it again, full of surprises.

Patricia Moyes, author of some twenty works of mystery, said in an interview that she always strives to write the novels she would most like to read. A simple sounding sentiment, perhaps, but one that even the most seasoned writers would do well to keep close at hand.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe

Miss Lemon must confess her weakness for Mother Goose. Baa, Baa Black Sheep, Little Miss Muffet, The Cat & the Fiddle ... there's something about the whole gang that is at once rakish and delightful.

Most intriguing, however, are those Mother Goose rhymes that take a murderous turn -- which is exactly what happens in Agatha Christie's One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940).

M. Poirot, having just conquered his fears of the dentist chair in 58 Queen Charlotte Street, trips lightly into the path of Dr. Morley's next patient. Nothing unusual for Poirot to remark about her, other than her double-barreled surname (Sainsbury Seale), a slovenly tint job and a great silver buckle that has just dislodged itself from her shoe.

Will that buckle become the first in a series of ominous clues to a game of murder?  Suffice it to say that the corpses pile up faster than a child can learn to count to twenty.

It's fortunate that Miss Lemon's dear friend, Chief Inspector Japp, is there to provide M. Poirot with just the right amount of opposition to set him on the track of a murderer.

As in most all of Mrs. Christie's novels written and published in the 1940s and '50s (see Taken at the Flood, for another example) readers will find herein snappy dialogue, a sense of humour, and a narrative pace that zings right along. Add to that a bit of espionage, covert identity, intricate plotting, and a neat parallel to the old Mother Goose rhyme, "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe" and you have a most amusing way to pass a rainy April evening.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

No Medals for the Major

Pardon Miss Lemon if she seems to be on a tear with Margaret Yorke. But really, she finds the author's books so atmospheric, so tense and so psychologically astute, that sometimes it is all she can do to prevent herself from reading one right after another.

No Medals for the Major (1974) is no exception to the calibre of Ms. Yorke's oeuvre. From the book's excellent title to its dark yet completely plausible ending, Miss Lemon could not find a single fault. 

This story concerns one Major Johnson, a small and solitary man of dignified bearing but no real distinction, who strives to assimilate himself into retired life in the village of Wiveldown. The small inroads he makes are quickly blockaded when the body of a young girl who'd recently gone missing turns up in the boot of his car.

Forget innocent until proven guilty. The mob mentality that sweeps through the village and is then turned against the Major is enough to send even the gentlest of souls of a murderous spree. But that's not what happens here.... 

Like many of her novels, No Medals for the Major is a whydunit rather than a whodunit. And as in her others, the pieces of narrative puzzle are woven together in a startlingly clever pattern. 

Once employed as a librarian at Oxford, some of Ms. Yorke's most interesting characters are librarians. They are the recurring figures to look out for in her fiction. And trust Miss Lemon when she says that these librarians scale the range from shushing spinsters and sensitive intellectuals, to shrewd and self-serving backstabbers.  

Lest one fear that Miss Lemon shall soon exhaust the entire retinue of Margaret Yorkes and have nothing more to recommend, she promises this won't happen. At least not in the near future.

Margaret Yorke has written nearly 30 crime novels to date, with several of the early entries featuring the Oxford don and amateur sleuth Dr. Patrick Grant. (Miss Lemon is savouring those.)  Ms. Yorke also has authored some ten non-mystery novels, including Summer Flight (1957), Once a Stranger (1962) and The Limbo Ladies (1969).

Margaret Yorke was born in Surrey in 1924, and as far as Miss Lemon knows, is still hard at work at her craft and living in a village in Buckinghamshire.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Poe: A Life Cut Short

Miss Lemon was just browsing some reviews of Poe: A Life Cut Short (2008) by Peter Ackroyd, (after the fact of reading it, as she is often wont to do) and finds she must agree with at least one critic, who acidly observes that this could be resubtitled: A Book Cut Short.

Not that Miss Lemon intends any unkindness toward Mr. Ackroyd, whose tale  The Lambs of London, for instance, held her in utter thrall. It's just that she couldn't fight the feeling of disappointment that trailed her like a ball of lead as she slogged through the pages of this lithe and airy looking biography.

The problem, it seems, is that barely any life at all is breathed into the American poet and master of the macabre.

The biography begins promisingly enough -- and with Miss Lemon's favourite, a mystery:
On the evening of 26 September 1849, Edgar Allan Poe stopped in the office of a physician in Richmond, Virginia -- John Carter -- and obtained a palliative for the fever that had beset him. Then he went across the road and had supper at a local inn. He took with him, by mistake, Dr. Carter's malacca sword cane.
From there, Poe set out for a steamboat to Baltimore. It was the last time anyone would see him or officially account for his whereabouts. That is, until six days later, when he was about to meet his death.

With so much potential, it's a pity the biography doesn't continue in this arresting and mysterious vein. But what follows seem more like scattered vignettes and snippets of Poe's disappoinments and disgraces. What Miss Lemon longed for -- but did not find -- were the portraits of Poe as a writer. What, she wanted to know, fueled Poe's creative fire? How did he work?

Indeed, the way Mr. Ackroyd tells it, it's difficult to imagine Poe ever setting pen to paper at all, occupied as he was in getting himself dismissed from West Point, engaging in inappropriate love affairs, nursing his consumptive relations, running up debts, insulting his colleagues, getting sacked from various offices, and hitting up erstwhile friends and relations for the loan of $10 or more.

Poe's 1841 story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," credited as one of the first modern detective stories, is scarcely given a passing mention. But perhaps, this being a brief biography, there simply wasn't room. Even so, Miss Lemon noticed bits of repetition in the narrative -- one of her pet peeves, to be sure, and evidence of her notion that perhaps this biographical endeavor was put together in too much haste.

But all is not lost for Mr. Ackroyd's tribute to Poe. For what it did do was send Miss Lemon back to what she views as two of the greatest contributions to American lyric poetry: "The Raven"  and the stunningly onomatopoeic "The Bells." For that, she isn't sorry.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Miles to Go

Dear readers, by now you must know Miss Lemon and all of her quirks: how she values order and efficiency; how she loves Devonshire cream atop a freshly baked rock cake; her passion for filing; and how she likes nothing better than to curl up on her divan on a rainy Sunday afternoon to read a good old-fashioned British murder mystery.

You also may have noticed Miss Lemon's reluctance to dip her toe into the pool (mind she did not say 'cess') of modern politics.  So I think you will be pleasantly surprised to learn that, on occasion, an old cat can indeed change her stripes.

Just such a realisation struck when Miss Lemon discovered how much she enjoyed reading the very modern, very American and very action-packed spy thriller Miles to Go (2010), by Amy Dawson Robertson.

The intrigue centers on Rennie Vogel, the only woman to land a permanent place on the FBI's elite and newly formed counter-terrorism team charged with hunting down the leader of a terrorist training camp in Tajikistan. From the race that cements Rennie's spot on the team to a harrowing trek through the lush forests of Shuroabad, Miss Lemon can see why this genre is called 'thriller.' Double agentry, hostage manipulation, narrow escapes -- it's all here in dramatic splendor.

Lest one think that Miss Lemon's literary sensibilities have veered madly from the British cosy, she begs one to consider the many things in common Ms. Vogel and her milieu have with their literary forebears.  Like Poirot with his little grey cells and Miss Marple with her village parallels, there are things that set Rennie Vogel apart from her peers and ultimately make her the one able to vanquish evil and establish order where others fail -- all the while unmasking that which is not at all what it first appears to be.

What's more, Miles to Go is smart and literary. From its apt title, taken from Robert Frost's poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," and references to Hawthorne, to Fareed Reza, a reluctant terrorist still moved by the first time he ever laid eyes on Da Vinci's Ginevra D'Benci and Rennie Vogel, who remembers her childhood as if it were a cloister, shut up as she was with all of her books, Miss Lemon challenges her readers to find genre fiction so literate.

Ms. Dawson Robertson names Patricia Cornwell as an influencing figure on her writing, and indeed Miss Lemon could see many Cornwellian elements in Miles to Go, particularly in the scenes set  around Quantico, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Ms. Dawson Robertson also seems to have picked up Ms. Cornwell's knack for pacing. Miss Lemon picked up the book on a Saturday afternoon and had finished the bulk of it by nightfall. (Granted, she had to avert her eyes during many of the decidedly onstage acts of violence.)

Even so, dear readers, please don't laugh when Miss Lemon says that after reading Miles to Go, she rather regretted not taking up a career in the MI5. Then again ... one is never to old to be recruited, is one?

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Ravenmaster's Secret

Miss Lemon chanced upon a lively historical adventure whilst rummaging through a library sale on a recent Saturday afternoon. Indeed, once she began reading The Ravenmaster's Secret (2003), by Elvira Woodruff, she found herself instantly transported to the Tower of London, circa 1735.

If ever she felt like she were a prisoner, however, it was only because she could not summon the strength to pull herself away from this enchanting narrative. Not, at least, until she had turned the last page.

It seems the post of Yeoman Warder Ravenmaster has been held at the Tower of London at least since King Charles II issued a royal decree commanding that at least six ravens be kept on Tower grounds. Should the ravens ever leave, the legend goes, "the tower will fall"... and so, perhaps, will  the kingdom.

Ravens themselves have naturally flocked to the Tower long before their royal institution. Proximity of the gallows and access to fresh meat seem to be the major draw for these macabre little creatures.

But Tuck, the raven that's attached himself to 11-year-old Forrest Harper, the hero of our story, is more pet than black portent. As for Forrest, he's small for his age, mostly friendless and, as son of the Tower's Ravenmaster, lives a dull life in what is essentially a prison.  Forrest gets ill at hangings and bullied by the London boys.What's more, he hates to do his chores.

The one friend Forrest does have is the Tower's rat catcher called, appropriately, Rat.  Not the sort of company Forrest's kind parents were hoping for him to keep. Rat, in turn, is terrorized by the ghoulish Tower chimney sweep, who threatens to kidnap Rat and send him climbing. A fate that would certainly spell death.  Not surprisingly, Rat and Forest long for escape -- that is, until a pretty Scottish prisoner comes to stay at the Tower. She teaches Rat and Forrest one of the most important phrases they might ever learn: Dree yier ain weird.

Face your destiny.

What Miss Lemon found so persuasive about this novel are all the small details that give it both texture and suspense. From the harsh smell of lye on washing day to the hole in Forrest's  pocket that might spell loss of freedom for them all, Miss Lemon means it when she says that while reading The Ravenmaster's Secret she scarcely noticed the modern world around her.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Mysterious Mr. Quin

Perhaps one of Agatha Christie's most underappreciated yet nevertheless fascinating characters is the mysterious Mr. Harley Quin.

Always appearing unpredictably and in a dazzling spectrum of light, Mr. Quin's essence is best summed up thus: he comes; he goes. And always, he trails a mystery in his wake.

The task of sorting out the mysterious circumstances signaled by the inscrutable movements of Mr. Quin falls on the shoulders of one Mr. Satterthwaite, a man as preening and with as sharp an eye for the dramatic as his name suggests.

The Mysterious Mr. Quin (1930), then, is one of Miss Lemon's favourite collections of short stories, all featuring this bizarre yet eminently likable pair. 

The stories run the gamut from table-turning to ill-fated love. Perhaps the best of the lot are "The Dead Harlequin," in which a painting for sale at Harchester Galleries harks back to a long-ago curse on the house of Charnley, and "At the Bells & Motley," about the troubling consequences of unsolved murder.

In all of these cases, to paraphrase Mr. Satterthwaite, where Mr. Quin is concerned, things happen.  Indeed, with their faint element of the supernatural, these stories are a delightful departure from the usual Poirot and Miss Marple.

But, please, do not tell Mr. Poirot I said so.

Monday, March 8, 2010

When You Reach Me

"The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious."

So says Albert Einstein in his 1931 essay, "The World as I See It," and Miss Lemon finds she could not agree more.

Neither, it seems, could Rebecca Stead, who so aptly chose this quote as epigram for her 2010 Newberry-award winning novel, When You Reach Me.

Miss Lemon picked up the novel and could not -- absolutely could not -- put it down.

The story is told from the point of view of a twelve-year-old girl named Miranda, living with her single mother in New York City. And her mother has just been selected as a contestant to appear on Dick Clark's The $20,000 Pyramid (a game show, for those who don't know , that was once wildly popular in America).

The notification of her mother's good fortune arrived that day on a postcard, writes Miranda, "Just like you said." It's one of the first of many clues to a brilliant mystery about the ideas of relationships, causality, narrative, and time.

But who told Miranda that her mother would be picked to appear on The $20,000 Pyramid?

It becomes Miranda's task to parcel out the events of the past six months and order them in such a way that will lead her (and the reader of her letter... and the reader of this book) to discover exactly that.

Not a single scene, character, setting, or clue is wasted in When You Reach Me. Not Miranda's childhood obsession with Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time nor the fight she has with her best friend, Sal. She and her sixth-grade friends get a part-time job at Jimmy's sandwich shop, working only 40 minutes over their lunch break -- and that's important, too.

So are The $20,000 Pyramid practice sessions that she, her mom, and her mom's boyfriend, Richard, work up in their living room. After the Speed Round, which her mom seems to have mastered, there is the Winner's Circle, where a celebrity partner will give clues not for a word but for a whole category. For example, tulip, rose, or daisy would be "types of flowers; poetry and the Pledge of Allegiance would be "things you recite."

As it turns out, all of the chapter headings of When You Reach Me could be Winner's Circle categories and perhaps clues, too: "Things That Burn,"  "Things on a Slant," "Things You Hold on To."

Really, it's brilliant.

For those of her readers born in the late 1960s or early '70s, Miss Lemon promises that this novel will resonate. And for those who have ever read anything by Madeline L'Engle or gave more than a passing thought to the nature of time, she promises it will resonate even more.

When You Reach Me is a superbly drawn mystery and more than deserving of the Newberry Medal.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Scent of Fear

Looking at this photograph of Margaret Yorke, one can't help but think that if there's a universal face of a mystery writer, this must be it.  Eyes that miss nothing. An ironic smile that says, 'Of course I know that people are rarely what they seem.'

Both of these qualities are abundantly in evidence within the pages of The Scent of Fear (1980), an unputdownable portrait of a boy who goes badly wrong and whose crimes end up threading together disparate lives in the most unexpected ways.

Indeed, one of Margaret Yorke's most remarkable talents as a writer is her ability to people a village seemingly at random, with character types that run the gamut from well-to-do spinsters and high-flying solicitors to petty criminals and arsonists. Her psychological analyses are as unflinching as they are astute. Best of all, she seems to have perfected the sacred art of showing her readers how or why her characters are lonely and isolated ... or even criminal. Never does she simply tell.

Really, Miss Lemon thinks that Margaret Yorke is one of Britain's most underappreciated mystery novelists. She once said in an interview that she's most interested in writing whydunnits, perhaps because character is what attracts her writerly instincts. If you've ever read A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell, you know of what Miss Lemon speaks.

Character and its motivation are especially well drawn in The Scent of Fear, the same for which is true in Find Me a Villain and  The Small Hours of the Morning. Margaret Yorke has a knack for creating tension by revealing clues to certain characters just a beat too late.

She's also no weak hand behind the mise-en-scene. If you like your mysteries with plenty of tea, sherry and foul weather, you'll certainly like Margaret Yorke.

Friday, February 19, 2010

And Then There Were None

'Death of a Mystery Writer.' 'And Then There Were None.' Pardon Miss Lemon if she's beginning to sound a bit morbid. But when it comes to British mysteries, the titles are half the fun.

That's especially true in the case of this Agatha Christie classic, first published under a different title in 1939. However, And Then There Were None, the name given to the first American edition published by Dodd, Mead & Co. in 1940, better foreshadows the tension that lurks between the covers of this mystery masterwork.

Ten ordinary and unsuspecting British folk are invited to Indian Island, off the coast of Devon. Ferried to this barren and isolated rock by Sticklehaven's very own Charon, the guests of Indian Island soon realize their peril.

First, there's the odd set of glass figurines on the dining room table. Ten little Indian boys. Then there's a disembodied voice, outing for all and sundry the skeletons that lurk in each guest's closet. All, it seems, have been guilty of a crime The Law can't touch.

And as a final, damning flourish, all the guests find the following nursery rhyme, posted in their bedrooms:
Ten little Indian boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.

Nine little Indian boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were eight.

Eight little Indian boys traveling in Devon;
One said he'd stay there and then there were seven.

Seven little Indian boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.

Six little Indian boys playing with a hive;
A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.

Five little Indian boys going in for law;
One got in Chancery and then there were four.

Four little Indian boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.

Three little Indian boys walking in the Zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were two.

Two little Indian boys sitting in the sun;
One got frizzled up and then there was one.

One little Indian boy left all alone;
He went and hanged himself and then there were none.
What fascinates the reader -- and the murderer, as it happens -- is that inevitable diminishment. That creeping terror that comes with the first death, then the second, and so on, each in accordance with the circumstances the nursery rhyme presaged.

The book rather reminds Miss Lemon of A Pocket Full of Rye. But it's much more sinister.

Just when you think, dear readers, that you know who's behind this inexorable string of murders, you'll be asked to think again.

This is, after all, Agatha Christie at the top of her game.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Death of a Mystery Writer

For her readers who cherish every quirky aspect of the classic British mystery (and if you're reading this column, surely that means you), may Miss Lemon recommend Robert Barnard's delightful Death of a Mystery Writer (1978).

The novel has everything, from a cold-blooded poisoning in the polite village of Wycherley to a gaggle of disappointed heirs and a Welsh detective who's just far enough left of the mainstream to stir up the long (long) list of suspects into an amusing set to.

Few and far between are the people who know best-selling mystery writer Sir Oliver Fairleigh-Stubbs and would not like to see him dead. As insufferable as the Welsh detective he creates, Sir Oliver likes nothing better than to get the better of his inferiors. Whether he's insulting his neighbour's wine or making his children grovel for favour, Sir Oliver Fairleigh-Stubbs finds no shortage of enemies.

Worse, his novels aren't even good. Sir Oliver knows little about crime or its detection, and he has never once met a Welsh person.

And that's just what makes Death of a Mystery Writer such a deliciously smart satire. Miss Lemon may even go so far as to give it that terribly modern label: meta-mystery. With chapter titles and dramatic twists that allude to the masters, like Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie, the ironies abound.

To wit: when Sir Oliver Fairleigh-Stubbs at long last drinks a deadly draught of nicotine-tainted Lakka, a Welsh detective is called in to investigate. The murder, more than one of the suspects remarks, could have been taken directly from the pages of one of Sir Oliver's novels.

Pardon Miss Lemon for mentioning the she even sees shades of herself in Sir Oliver's unflappable literary secretary, Miss Cozzens. Inspector Meredith notes that "the brief glimpse that he had had of her ... suggested to him that here was a woman with no nonsense about her.... On the surface she looked like a shorthand taking machine, and a totally conventional moral entity -- but behind the glasses savage little glints of intelligence were to be detected."

Readers should be not at all surprised at the level of complexity and cleverness they'll find in Death of a Mystery Writer. Robert Barnard names Agatha Christie as one of his favourite mystery writers, and her presence is felt keenly here and in other works. Mr. Barnard wrote an appreciation of Mrs. Christie in 1980 called A Talent to Deceive. It is now on Miss Lemon's to-read pile.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Night She Died

The Night She Died (1981) is the first in Dorothy Simpson's Inspector Luke Thanet series, and Miss Lemon is afraid that it is not her best.

It's not that the premise fails to intrigue. Quite the opposite. In The Night She Died, a young woman named Julie Holmes is found stabbed in the foyer of her home. The only fingerprints on the knife are Julie's.

Even the briefest enquiries produce a long list of suspects. From her husband, who discovered her body within minutes of her death, to a woman who once knew Julie's now-dead mother. What the enquiries don't produce is much certainty about the dead woman's private life. Thanet knows she had a jealous ex-boyfriend, who is a presenter for the BBC. She also had a boss, who seemed to be harassing her. What he can't account for is where exactly all of these people were on the night Julie Holmes died.

All of this is terribly interesting to Miss Lemon. So perhaps the problem is that this novel suffers from the first-timer writer's compulsion to trust too little in the reader and to tell too much.

The painstaking description of Thanet's every inner thought she found especially tedious. And in his relationship with the less experienced DS Mike Lineham, Thanet is depicted as being both priggish and condescending.

None of this, however, was so annoying that Miss Lemon couldn't get to the part where she learns whodunit.

Lest her dear readers give Mrs. Simpson a miss entirely, Miss Lemon suggests that they start with Close Her Eyes, where Thanet is less tiresome and the pacing is at perfect pitch. Or perhaps an even later entry. For a full bibliography of the Inspector Thanet series, one need only consult this handy list on Fantastic Fiction.

Ah, the joys of Internet communication. Miss Lemon feels very modern.