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.