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.