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 clich├ęd 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.