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.