Thursday, December 29, 2011

Miss Lemon's Mystery Roundup, 2011

Aside from a fragrant cup of Earl Grey, there is almost nothing Miss Lemon likes more than tucking in to a delicious mystery. The more British that mystery, the better.

Miss Lemon had many quiet moments to pause and reflect on these small quirks of inclination. So as the year 2011 draws to a close, she leaves her readers with just a few of her very favourites -- for their own reading and ruminating pleasure:

1. The Blackheath Poisonings (1978), by Julian Symons. In this Victorian-styled mystery, the twisted branches of the Mortimer family bear strange fruit indeed. Readers will find no shortage of suspense and sensation in this case of poisoning that is teased out in a cache of letters. 

2.  The Documents in the Case (1930), by Dorothy L. Sayers. Speaking of epistolary accounts of poisonings, one doesn't have to search too far to find a Golden-Age model for Symons' excellent mystery.

3.  Three Blind Mice (1947), by Agatha Christie. While it is difficult to choose just one work by Agatha Christie as a favourite, Miss Lemon likes this one for its well-drawn set. When the snow begins to fall outside, this is just the book to have by your side.

4. Master of the Moor (1982), by Ruth Rendell. Having made quite a name for herself as doyenne of the psychological novel, there is no book that better shows off Ruth Rendell's virtuosity than this moody mystery. If you've not yet read it, delay no longer!

5. Lonelyheart 4122 (1967),  by Colin Watson. One might think twice about trolling the lonelyhearts column for love after reading this satirically delicious romp through Flaxborough with the delightfully devilish Miss Teatime. It saddens Miss Lemon that Colin Watson is a mystery novelist largely forgotten today.

Here's to reading many more excellent mysteries in 2012!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Forgotten Book Friday: The Lodger

Miss Lemon can't think of a book more appropriate to recommend for such a chilly, foggy November day as this than The Lodger (1913), by Marie Belloc Lowndes.

Indeed, thick fogs -- London particulars, as they were once known -- play a role as central to the plot as the protagonists do in this tale of psychological suspense based loosely on the very real unsolved murders of Jack the Ripper in 1888.

Ellen and Robert Bunting, respectably retired from service, have fallen on difficult times and have little more to their names than a few pawn tickets and four respectably-appointed rooms to let in their house on the Marylebone Road. Though appearances might suggest otherwise, the couple are down to their last few pence, even after making due without such small comforts as tobacco and the daily newspaper. 
From the Illustrated London News 13 Oct. 1888

In fact, the couple are a hair's breadth away from starving. And then, just when Bunting can take it no longer, a savage murder is cried out in the streets. Overcome by the temptation to spend his last penny on the evening paper (all the ha'penny papers have gone), he leaves the gaslight on and a lodger, like a Dark Angel, appears at the Buntings' door.

To Mrs. Bunting, his eight quid a month represent salvation.

But at what price?

The lodger keeps extraordinarily odd habits. Not the least of which is walking out late at night when the London fog is at its filthiest and the streets are at their emptiest. He seems to have an obsession against drink and immoral women and a proclivity for reading nothing but the Bible.

Above all, his late-night perambulations coincide unnervingly with the string of murders that terrorize London's East End.

Published in 1913, The Lodger, for a reason inexplicable to Miss Lemon, is long out of print. The chilling story contained herein is a timeless one. While there is no onstage violence, the creeping unease steals in just like a fog.  As you can see, Miss Lemon's copy of this excellent novel has seen better days.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Forgotten Book Friday: The Blank Wall

Miss Lemon is not entirely sure it's fair to saddle  The Blank Wall, by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, with the Forgotten Friday label. Nevertheless, from the book's original publication in 1947,  it has had a tough go at remaining at the forefront of the reading public's mind.

Efforts by such discerning literary admirers as Raymond Chandler, who entreated his publisher, Hamish Hamilton, to bring Mrs. Holding's works to England, came to naught. Even laudatory reviews that appeared in respected periodicals such as The New Yorker, and the adaptation of The Blank Wall into two cinematic hits -- first The Reckless Moment in 1949 and then The Deep End in 2001 -- did little to keep this gem of psychological suspense from slipping the collective cultural memory.

A pity, as this wartime story of one woman's snap decision to conceal the body of a man who may or may not have been murdered by one of her family has a resonance one doesn't soon forget. Isn't it always the thing done on instinct, without a moment's thought, that causes one the most trouble to explain later?  Certainly that's the case for Lucia Holley, who is forced again and again to choose between the urge to protect her family and her own peace of mind.
Endpaper design for No. 42
Fortunately for us, those wonderfully intuitive editors at Persephone Books chose to republish The Blank Wall as Book No. 42, and the novel has been saved, in Miss Lemon's view, from obscurity. The publisher's note in the Persephone edition rightly points out that the acuity with which Holding depicts the psychological underpinnings of her characters' motivations sets the bar for the British masters of the genre who were to follow her: Celia Fremlin, Ruth Rendell, Margaret Yorke.  

Indeed, Miss Lemon's readers who enjoy any or all of the aforementioned authors will most certainly enjoy The Blank Wall.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Documents in the Case

Miss Lemon just loves a good poisoning ... don't you? 

If so, her faithful readers will not want to miss Dorothy L. Sayers's The Documents in the Case (1930) a marvel of a murder mystery told entirely in the correspondence and written statements of the key figures in the case.

George Harrison, a likable chap devoted to his family and his pastimes, is unceremoniously poisoned by a stew of amanita muscaria, a mushroom famous for its deadly venom. See the photo at right and beware not to mistake it for amanita rubescens, or the comparatively benign and edible 'warty caps.' 

The hitch here is that Mr. Harrison was a seasoned gatherer and connoisseur of edible toadstools -- he even published a book on the topic and illustrated it himself. His son, Paul, finds it impossible to believe that his father would make such an amateurish mistake. So he collects the said documents and forwards them to Sir Gilbert Pugh at the Home Office. And thus an inventive and absorbing narrative unfolds, one that doubles as an armchair investigation.

Miss Lemon finds more than just the meta-form of this novel intriguing. Its creation is something of a curiosity, too. The copy Miss Lemon read, published by the New English Library in 1978, clearly names Robert Eustace as co-author. Yet many other editions -- and bibliographies of Sayers's work -- do not.

Eustace, the nom de plume of Eustace Robert Barton, a doctor and novelist in his own right, is credited by some sources with supplying Sayers with the central plot point and supporting medical and technical details that make The Documents in the Case such a marvel.  At the same time, those details are what sometimes interfered with Miss Lemon's willing suspension of disbelief. The technical whys and scientific wherefores are such that Miss Lemon found it hard to believe such minutia could be recalled in a letter or a written statement.  Unless, of course, the author was an inventive novelist himself.

How much of this work is Sayers's? And how much is Eustace's? Literary sleuths will enjoy puzzling out that question as much as they will the case of one very suspicious death.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Coffin Trail

Looking for a well-crafted mystery in the tradition of Colin Dexter or P.D. James? What about one set in the Lake District, with well-read characters worthy of their Wordsworthian surroundings? Miss Lemon is here to tell you to search no longer.

The Coffin Trail (2004), by Martin Edwards, has all of these attributes and more. From page one, Miss Lemon found herself utterly immersed in this modern-day whodunit featuring DCI Hannah Scarlett and an Oxford historian who's drawn to the Lake District village of Brackdale by shades from his past.

Ostensibly writing an article for a popular history magazine on the old coffin trails used by the villagers before Brackdale got a proper churchyard, Daniel Kind unearths more than just mouldering newspapers from the archives. He begins asking questions that stir up old resentments and make him the prime mover in a cold-case investigation into the  murder of a young woman whose body was left on the so-called sacrifice stone.

The villagers dropped blame for the murder squarely at the door of Barrie Gilpin, a maladjusted lad suffering from autism whose own body was found on the rocks not far from the sacrifice stone. Blood from the victim was found on his person.

Daniel -- and others in the village, too, including DCI Scarlett -- begin to wonder if perhaps it wasn't convenience's sake that buried the investigation with Barrie.

In keeping with the best mystery writers, Edwards endows each of his characters with motive, opportunity and skeletons in the closet aplenty. What most interested Miss Lemon were the dramatizations of the relationships between Hannah and her partner, Marc Amos, a bookseller; Daniel Kind and his girlfriend, Miranda; and the well-heeled Dumelows. Edwards portrays the calm seas and squalls all couples endure with a deft hand.

You'll find quite a bit of realism in this neatly turned out crime novel -- topped with suspense and surprise, too.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Agatha Christie's Method for Murder

Imagine a world without Agatha Christie. Miss Lemon simply can't do it. It seems as though she, and the inimitable characters of her creation -- Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Mr. Satterthwaite, Mr. Parker Pyne, indeed, Miss Lemon -- have been around as long as movable type.

And yet, as difficult as it is to believe, 2011 marks a mere 91 years since the publication of her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) and the debut of that famously fussy Belgian detective.  The success of Agatha Christie's first novel launched a career among mystery novelists that, in terms of recognition, endurance and influence, has yet to be rivaled.

Yet Agatha Christie's style is not everyone's cup of tea. Condemned by more than one critic as 'elitist,' 'escapist,' and 'wooden,' Agatha Christie's works continue to sell -- by Miss Lemon's reckoning, more than two billion of her books have been sold so far, and the tills continue to ring apace.

Escapist? Perhaps. Characters that lack nuance? One could make a case. However, there's no denying that Dame Agatha could craft a mystery cleverly enough to keep even the sharpest of armchair sleuths second-guessing the murderer's identity.

And yet, Agatha Christie never played fast and loose with the clues. Adequate evidence is always there for the reader to solve the crime -- as long as he or she is astute enough to detect it. 

In Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks, John Curran points out that one possible clue to Agatha Christie's enormous success as a mystery writer is her mastery of the double-blind -- or that fine authorial touch that makes the most obvious suspect the least likely to have committed the crime. In lesser hands, mystery novels that depend on this technique tend to fall flat.

In compiling the published Secret Notebooks, Mr. Curran had the enviable task of going through more than 70 of Agatha Christie's manuscript notebooks, tracing the threads of plot outlines, character sketches and random thoughts that, strung together, provide clues to the creative ingenuity that stood behind so many of her excellent crime stories.

As a follow up to that indispensable reference source, Mr. Curran has just published Agatha Christie's Murder in the Making, in which he draws on the textual evidence he encountered in the Christie archives to come up with a theory that attempts to explain her enduring literary appeal. (He also publishes the original ending to A Mysterious Affair at Styles, rejected by her editors at The Bodley Head.)

Miss Lemon can't wait to get her hands on a copy.

As all serious admirers of Agatha Christie know, 15 September is the anniversary of her birth in 1890. This post is part of the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge that today celebrates her 121st birthday. Please join in the felicitations.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Ordeal by Innocence

Justice is, after all, in the hands of men, and men are fallible. -- Arthur Calgary

Oh, they are, they are! One need look no further than the premise of Agatha Christie's Ordeal by Innocence (1958), to see the truth of Professor Calgary's observation borne out.

When the doting mother of a large family of  adopted children is found bludgeoned to death with a fire poker, Jacko Argyle, the black sheep of the family, is accused and convicted of the crime. When he dies in prison, six months into his sentence, the Argyle family thinks that justice has been adequately served, and they can at last put the ghastly chapter in their lives behind them.

But then evidence to exonerate Jacko emerges in the form of Arthur Calgary, a biologist and Arctic explorer, who recounts giving the accused a lift at the time of Rachael Argyle's murder. To Professor Calgary's great consternation, the family find his news most unwelcome.

The reason for their discomfiture becomes obvious, as each Argyle must, in his or her turn, prove their own innocence of the murder; and, true to Agatha Christie form, each one of them has something to hide.

Ordeal by Innocence is another standalone novel that features neither M. Poirot, nor Miss Marple, or indeed any of the characters -- Capt. Hastings, Inspector Japp, Ariadne Oliver -- who so often aid in the effort to set the world back to rights after injustice has been done. Even so, Mrs. Christie takes care not to stray too far from the cerebral investigation and drawing-room revelation formula that is the stamp of so many of her other excellent novels.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Speak for the Dead

Miss Lemon seems never to tire of Margaret Yorke. There's something about the crispness of her sentences and the simple delicacy with which she tells complicated and compelling stories that draws Miss Lemon back again and again.

What's more, her range of psychological portrayals is nothing short of virtuosic. She can convey the motives of a middle-aged, middle-class serial rapist with as much realism as she can the mental workings of a common street thug. The characters she creates for Speak for the Dead (1988) are no exception to her great ability.

She presents us with Gordon Matthews, an intelligent but directionless product of a privileged home. His mother is obsessed with the rigidity and grandeur of the Russian tsars, while his father whiles away his retirement drinking beer at the pub and making futile passes at the woman who runs the till at the local hardware store. Gordon, it's revealed early on, has spent time in prison for manslaughter; but what actually precipitated these charges -- and the validity of the charges themselves -- is a matter of perspective.

Upon Gordon's release, he meets Carrie Foster, a vibrant and clever girl, much more able to fend for herself than Gordon's previous wife. But not all is straightforward beneath Carrie's pleasant and capable facade. Carrie, in her turn, meets Nicholas Fitzmaurice, a sweet and innocent seeming boy -- 'such a pet,' as she likes to refer to him -- until the truths that surface become more than he can handle.

The characters' collective foibles prove to be a volatile mix and make for a mesmerizing story.

If you've not yet tried reading Margaret Yorke, you really must. Many of her titles are now out of print but are easy enough to find second-hand. They would also make an excellent candidate for Felony & Mayhem re-issues.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Knots and Crosses

Miss Lemon is probably not alone in disliking the clichéd tendency to describe all crime fiction set in Scotland as 'gritty.' Even so, there's something of the air of seediness that cannot be ignored in Ian Rankin's Knots and Crosses (1987), and Miss Lemon is not entirely sure that it's her cup of tea.

For starters, the crimes described in this first of the Detective John Rebus novels are horrendous. A lunatic, someone with John Rebus's postal address, is on a spree, abducting, then brutally strangling, a succession of young girls. After each deed, the killer is kind enough to send Rebus a note: a cryptic word puzzle of sorts and always with a memento of either a knot or a cross.

What struck Miss Lemon as odd is that there's very little detection that goes on in this book. It's clear from the beginning that Sgt. Rebus is no Hercule Poirot when he cannot see that his brother is dealing drugs on a large scale, despite all the clues before him. What's more (and Miss Lemon begs your pardon if this gives too much away), the solution to the case and the identity of the killer come only after Rebus allows himself to be hypnotized. Of all things!

Based on the enormous popularity of the John Rebus novels and the success of Ian Rankin as an author, there's little doubt in Miss Lemon's mind that the books improve over time. Indeed, the narrative pace and the little foibles given to Rebus (he has the unethical habit of stealing breakfast rolls from an unattended bake shop of an early morning) are things she greatly admired. But the violence, the vindictiveness and the author's decision to bring the criminal -- and the crime -- so close to Rebus's home are examples of the grittiness she'd so greatly like to avoid.

Yes, yes. Call Miss Lemon outmoded with an eye for nothing but the country-house cosy. She'll take her lumps. Still, she'd rather have a good old-fashioned case of arsenic in the tea and a vigorous exercise of the leetle grey cells any day.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Evil Under the Sun

For every evil under the sun,
There is a remedy; or there is none;
If there be one, try and find it,
If there be none, never mind it. 

-- Mother Goose

Catchy little rhyme, isn't it? Though the words have come to us on the wings of Mother Goose, they could have been as easily taken from the mouth of M. Hercule Poirot, as he tries to solve an intricately planned murder in Evil Under the Sun (1941).

The mise en scène is pure Agatha Christie. The stage is a secluded island off Leathercombe Bay, complete with a pirate's cove and a causeway that floods at high tide. The players are a delightfully Christie-esque cast that leaves no one without questionable character, opportunity or motive. There's the much despised Arlena Marshall, a former actress, and as many of her fellow guests would have it: 'a man eater.' Her husband, Captain Marshall, is an excellent specimen of English reserve.  There's a philandering husband and his wall-flower wife. An obnoxious couple from America (Mrs. Christie gets the 'And didn't I tell them, Odell' and the 'yes, dears,' just right); an athletic spinster; a successful dressmaker; a fanatical vicar; a shady, 'self-made' investor; and, lastly but not leastly, the neglected stepdaughter of the Marshalls.

All of these characters play some role -- even if ever so small -- in what turns out to be a most puzzling mystery. But M. Poirot, as Miss Lemon has known for so long now, is not to be gotten the better of.

Perhaps one of the particular pleasures of this novel (if Miss Lemon dare make mention of it) is to see the rough treatment the preening Poirot gets at the hands of Mrs. Christie. Horace Blatt, the self-made millionaire, sums up the company thus: 'A lot of kids, to begin with, and a lot of old fogeys too. There's that old Anglo-Indian bore and that athletic parson and those yapping Americans and that foreigner with the moustache -- makes me laugh that moustache of his! I should say he's a hair-dresser, something of that sort.'

Although the year was only 1941, and Dame Agatha was entering the peak of her powers as a crime novelist, it's clear that Poirot, loth as he'd be to believe it, is beginning to wear.

But her gentle barbs are just part of the fun. And they, with the mesmerizing seclusion of the coves and cliffs, make for a delightfully chilling game of mystery and murder. A perfect diversion for a hot summer's day.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Endless Night

Feeling a bit wilty from the relentless summer sun? Then let Miss Lemon recommend Agatha Christie's chilly crime novel, Endless Night (1967) to cool you down.

Max Mallowan, the renowned archaeologist and second husband to Dame Agatha, once observed that Endless Night was perhaps her darkest novel.

It is a bit of a dark horse, Miss Lemon must agree, starting out of the gate as it does with the breathless first-person point-of-view of Michael Rogers, a salt-of-the-earth type of man; but a dreamer and a drifter, too. Rogers is a man with a past, but one who's quick to point out that so many of us are -- especially the ones who wind up at the center of a crime story. In this case, the story's got to do with a fantastically wealthy young American heiress, a Swedish architect, a lonely plot of land called 'Gypsy's Acre,' a curse, a real-life gypsy, and many, many hangers on.

Oh, and did Miss Lemon mention pasts?

There's no Poirot in Endless Night; or Hastings, Japp or Miss Marple, either. Even so, this is Agatha Christie at the top of her game. She seems to inhabit wholly the sensibility and manner of Michael Rogers, a convincingly rendered voice right down to his arrogance as a man and insecurity as a writer. As Miss Lemon mentioned, there's a breathless quality to Rogers' narration, and according to The Secret Notebooks of Agatha Christie , she wrote Endless Night in the space of six weeks versus the usual six months to a year that it took her to write other books.

And as in Third Girl, Mrs. Christie strives for, and, in Miss Lemon's estimation, succeeds in capturing a surprisingly modern tone in characterization and in plot detail.

Without giving too much away, Miss Lemon urges you to read Endless Night. Be patient, should it seem as if not much is happening in the way of murder or mischief. When you get to the end, you'll see not only a neatly fashioned crime and solution but also a startling allusion to some of Mrs. Christie's greatest novels of the past.

Miss Lemon won't say which ones.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Sins of the Fathers

Let's face it. Nothing seems a bigger nuisance than when a well-meaning amateur decides to try his hand at the work of a professional. Just ask Mr. Poirot, or, in the case of Sins of the Fathers (1967), Chief Inspector Wexford.

Wexford feels nothing but annoyance when the Reverend Henry Archery goes poking into a grisly case of axe murder that Wexford closed more than twenty years ago. It's an imposition that Wexford never would have tolerated had it not been at the Chief Constable's insistence.

And so we see little and hear less from Wexford, his nose out of joint, in this second in the series that features the prickly chief inspector and his more tractable sidekick, Mike Burden, by Ruth Rendell. Instead the focus is on the desultory investigations of Henry Archery, whose son wishes to marry the daughter of the infamous axe murderer. Archery would like to prove the man, who has already hanged for his crime, innocent.

Barring that, of course, Archery would stop the marriage. What turns up in the course of Archery's questionings opens the eyes of more than just the residents of Kingsmarkham, where no one and nothing seems to be quite as it should twenty years hence.

Miss Lemon's readers have no doubt noticed the plural indicator in this aptly titled novel: for as the Reverend Archery himself discovers, not even the most chaste of men are immune to the frailties of the human condition -- a discovery, Miss Lemon might add, that makes Archery that much more sympathetic and gives the novels an absorbing subplot.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Forgotten Book Friday: Matilda Bone

Another treasure unearthed during Miss Lemon's recent move is Matilda Bone (2000), a first-rate historical novel for children, now mostly forgotten, by Karen Cushman.

Well, perhaps this novel is not so much forgotten as overshadowed by Ms. Cushman's other historical works, particularly The Midwife's Apprentice and Catherine, Called Birdy, for which she won the Newbery Medal and the Newbery Honor awards.

In this novel, we meet Matilda, orphaned by her natural parents and raised by Father Leufredus in a comfortable estate, as she's unceremoniously dropped in Blood and Bone Alley in a small village between nowhere and nothing, while Father Leufredus takes himself off to Oxford and higher learning.

Sure that he'll be back for her, Matilda turns up her nose at Red Peg, the bonesetter, of Blood and Bone Alley, her trade and the miserable cottage she lives in. Made to sweep the floors, stoke the fires and mix the poultices, Matilda spends her time mumbling about injustice and praying for deliverance. 

What, one may well ask, does this children's fiction have to do with British mystery? Well, for Miss Lemon at least, the medieval period of our history has always been a source of fascination and mystery. So many myths abound: that most all people living in the so-called dark ages were peasants, a hoi polloi who were dirty, ignorant, inept and indigent hovel dwellers without wit, sense or taste.

Matilda Bone makes short work of most of our modern misperceptions in a way that is wry and poignant. Miss Lemon especially likes the heroine of this novel, Matilda, because she, like (let's face it) all modern children, is deeply flawed, especially in her inflated sense of self. Always aiming 'for higher things,' like her idolized Father Leufredus, Matilda soon sees that calling on the saints and speaking in Latin do little to help avoid being bilked at the fish market or comfort an ailing friend.

It's sad that we, and Matilda, never hear from Father Leufredus again. But his untimely exit leaves the door open for Matilda to learn the difference between theory and practicality; and she grows, albeit stubbornly, to appreciate a few small joys of this earthly realm.

Matilda Bone, Miss Lemon thinks, is a gentle yet absorbing reminder that those who lived in 1143 are scarcely different from we who live today. Egoism, superstition, deception and fraud were just as alive then as they are today. So were intelligence, compassion and genuine friendship.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Faithful unto Death

Miss Lemon begs her readers' pardon for her long silence. No, she wasn't enjoying an extended holiday in Biarritz. She was moving house! A daunting task, one must agree, for those who collect British mysteries in the quantity that Miss Lemon does.

Whilst un-shelving, organising and re-shelving her treasured possessions, Miss Lemon came across Faithful unto Death (1996), the fifth entry in the Inspector Barnaby series, and she enjoyed every second of it.

In this installment, Barnaby and his smug bag-carrier, Sgt. Troy, are tasked first with the disappearance of Simone Hollingsworth, the docile-seeming wife of an aggressive technology entrepreneur, and then, later, Alan Hollingsworth's suspicious suicide. Thrown into the mix is the brutal hit-and-run that kills Deborah Brockley, an awkwardly plain 30-something spinster and neighbour of the Hollingsworths, who harbours surprising secrets of her own. 

Are these crimes connected? And who could be the author of such callous violence in a village as quaint and placid as Fawcett Green? The solution certainly surprised Miss Lemon.

Like all of Caroline Graham's novels, Faithful unto Death is witty and well-crafted and stuffed full of quirky characters shrewdly drawn. A perfect diversion from relocation stress.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Death Watch

For Miss Lemon's readers who don't mind tucking into a toothsome police procedural, may she recommend the second entry in the Inspector Bill Slider series: Death Watch (1992), by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.

Reading this made Miss Lemon think of Colin Dexter's The Dead of Jericho. Indeed the two novels, with plots rooted in Greek tragedy, characters who quote Shelley and Shakespeare and detective inspectors more dogged than ambitious, share a crafty commonality.

But finding the familiar doesn't make reading Death Watch any less fun. It's possible that Dexter influenced Cythia Harrod-Eagels, but the story is all of her own devising.

In this case, a fire alarm salesman turns up dead by fire in a dodgy hotel. Was it suicide? Or was it murder? Slider and Atherton follow the rapidly cooling trail to the former members of a now-defunct London fire brigade. Curiously, most of them have died in suspicious circumstances, too. 

The parallels to Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None are difficult to escape. The question is not just one of whether Bill Slider can catch the murderer before another fireman falls, but who would have the motive to carry out such a spree in the first place? What grudge can one carry against the self-sacrificing members of a fire brigade?

All Miss Lemon can say is that the answer may surprise you.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Hand of Death

By now, my dear readers, you must know what a devoted admirer Miss Lemon has become of Margaret Yorke. Reading the sometimes grim -- but never dull -- The Hand of Death (1981) has done nothing to alter that opinion.

Like Agatha Christie's genius for hiding her murderers in plain sight, Margaret Yorke has the uncanny ability to dip into the most ordinary stock of Englishmen -- in this case, it is the quiet antiques dealer, Ronald Trimm -- and pull out the ones capable of the most shocking crimes. Though you'd hardly guess it from the face they put to the village at large, their secret lives and outrageous crimes are made completely plausible by Yorke's pen.

When Trimm's (aptly named in this novel, as he likes everything just so) advances are rebuffed by the marvelously depicted widow, Dorothea Wyatt, he sets off on a violent sexual spree. Almost as difficult to take as Trimm's selfishness and brutality, is the plot twist that puts the lonely widower and loyal friend to Dorothea, George Fortescue, into the frame for rape and murder.

Miss Lemon must warn her fans of cosy mysteries that The Hand of the Death is not one. For those who can stomach a bit of fictional violence, however, this novel is well worth the read -- indeed it is impossible to put down, once one has picked it up.

Within pages, it becomes clear why the pathetic Ronald Trimm behaves so abominably, proving again Margaret Yorke's mastery of psychological character study. She throws in a bit of good police procedural, too, but with just the right touch.

All of the characters in this novel, sympathetic or despicable as they are, are fully realized, which is what, Miss Lemon reckons, so ofter draws her back to Margaret Yorke.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Franchise Affair

Life had been sailing along rather comfortably, if not rather dully, for Robert Blair, senior partner of Blair, Hayward and Bennett, the next-to-only legal firm in the village of Milford. Miss Tuff had been relied upon to bring his tea (petit-beurre Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; digestives Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays) on the same lacquered tray with the same white linen napkin at precisely the same time for nearly a quarter of a century. As the last post of the day went at 3:45 in the afternoon, it was often Mr. Blair could knock off as soon as four for a late-afternoon round of golf.

Lassitude and golf weighed heavily on Mr. Blair's mind when on an afternoon in April, difficult to distinguish from thousands of others, the phone rang a minute after tea and the last post, and the Franchise affair began.

The facts of the case in Josephine Tey's The Franchise Affair (1949) turn out to be as sensational as they are seductively credible.  Robert Blair finds himself coming to the defense of two women whom the villagers quickly brand as witches. Are they guilty of the charges that are laid against them?

My dear readers, trying to work out whether they are or they are not quickly becomes the most compelling aspect of the novel.

Inspector Grant makes a small cameo appearance, but in actuality the investigation of the alleged crimes in the Franchise affair is up to Robert Blair. If Miss Lemon found anything wanting in this near-perfect mystery, it is that in the end, coincidence rather than the labour of the little grey cells put paid the mysteries of the Franchise affair. But it is a small criticism of what is an otherwise highly enjoyable whodunit.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag

Only the other day, a brightly coloured package arrived at Miss Lemon's door. Imagine her delight when after untying the ribbon she discovered a book bedecked in a shade Miss Lemon could only describe as eponymous. It was the latest in the Flavia de Luce series:  A Red Herring Without Mustard.

The package reminded Miss Lemon that there was another book by Alan Bradley with a similarly eccentric title that sat among her prodigious bookshelves, patiently awaiting her attention.

Dismayed at having neglected the followup to such a delightful debut as The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Miss Lemon set to The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag with alacrity.

She wasn't disappointed. After making a brief adjustment to her suspension of disbelief to the incredible precociousness and cultural wisdom of the novel's eleven-year-old detective, Flavia de Luce, she found many of the same narrative pleasures and surprises as she found in Mr. Bradley's first novel. Only this time it is July, not June, and the murder victim is a puppeteer rather than a philatelist.

Once again, Flavia attempts to poison her older sister, Feely. Once again, she carries out harrowing experiments in her laboratory to find out things that perhaps she'd be better off not knowing. Once again, she cloaks her tale in a colourful cape of amusing metaphors and wry philosophical observations. 

In short, this is a novel not to be missed. And as it refers to several of the events in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, it may be prudent to read it before cracking A Red Herring Without Mustard.

Now if you're wondering (and who isn't?) where Mr. Bradley comes up with these madcap titles, he is gentleman enough to tell you, just after the flyleaf:
Sir Walter Raleigh to His Son
Three things there be that prosper up apace, 
   And flourish while they grow asunder far;
But on a day, they meet all in a place,
   And when they meet, they one another mar.

And they be these; the Wood, the Weed, the Wag:
   The Wood is that that makes the gallows tree;
The Weed is that that strings the hangman's bag;
    The Wag, my pretty knave, betokens thee.

Now mark, dear boy -- while these assemble not,
   Green springs the tree, hemp grows, the wag is wild;
But when they meet, it makes the timber rot,
   It frets the halter, and it chokes the child. 

Indeed, my dear readers, mark this well. For in it, you'll find many a clue; perhaps even before Flavia de Luce does.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Orchestrated Death

It's been some time since Miss Lemon has picked up a whodunit so absorbing that she could not put it down again until she'd gotten to the end.

That was exactly the case with Orchestrated Death (1991), by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, which features the debut of Inspector Bill Slider and his sergeant, Jim Atherton.

Jim and Bill. The names don't promise much in the way of originality or wit, do they? Don't be fooled. This mystery crackles with snappy one-liners and wry observations about everything from marriage --  the reasons for 'which ranged from the insufficient to the ludicrous' -- to hair colour. Slider's son Matthew makes friends with 'a boy called Sibod, with such flamingly red hair that it looked like a deliberate insult.' 

Her faithful readers must know by now that Miss Lemon has absolutely nothing against red hair. Nor shall her readers take amiss any of clever banter that's batted back and forth between Slider and Atherton, the pair of which bring to mind Inspector Barnaby and Sergeant Troy in the British mysteries by Caroline Graham.

The premise of Orchestrated Death is smart and simple: the body of a young woman is found naked in a tenement in West London, and the only thing to identify her is the mark on her neck made by the chin-rest of her violin. And a rare and expensive violin it turns out to be.

Though largely without family or means, it seems the murdered woman, a second-chair player from the Birmingham Orchestra, owned a Stradivarius.

As Slider and Atherton try to reckon how their victim came by a fiddle worth well-nigh £1 million, the suspects, the inconsistencies -- and the bodies -- begin to pile up. But what Miss Lemon found most compelling is that along the way, Slider, sleepwalking through life married to a woman he no longer understands, is suddenly awaken by a chance encounter with a witness. The relationship that develops is at once as poignant as it is believable; and it adds just as much tension to the narrative as the murders do.

Miss Lemon promises that should you pick up Orchestrated Death, you'll not be disappointed. Now, she must run. She has a date for the symphony. 

Friday, January 14, 2011

Forgotten Book Friday: A Fatal Inversion

Here it is, already two weeks into the New Year, and what is Miss Lemon doing? Not keeping up with her posts, evidently.

To rectify this dereliction of literary duty, Miss Lemon offers her readers another Forgotten Book Friday selection: A Fatal Inversion (1987), by Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine.

While laying to rest their spaniel, the most recent owners of Wyvis Hall in Nunes, Suffolk, unearth a dark secret, the relics of ten years past when a group of men and women barely past their teens had the ill-founded idea to start a commune. They called it 'Ecalpemos.' And there's your 'fatal inversion.'

Flash forward ten years and the keepers of this secret -- Adam Verne-Smith, Rufus Fletcher and Shiva Manjusri -- each in his own way relives the past and begins to panic as he pieces together the clues the police might find that will implicate him in what should have been a long-forgotten crime.

Though she offers several incisive psychological portrayals, A Fatal Inversion is not Ms. Rendell's best work. Perhaps it's the multiple points of view interspersed with countless flashbacks to 1976 that make this narrative sag at times. Even so, there are many things Miss Lemon found to like about the novel, such as the 'secret drink' that Rufus always keeps hidden behind a curtain hem, a habit that never changes from his days at Ecalpemos to his successful practice on Wimpole Street and the sign of a true alcoholic.

Readers also learn the shocking reason why Adam is so neurotically anxious about the welfare of his infant daughter, Abigail. The reason Ms. Rendell puts forward is as brilliant as it is sinister.