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!)