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[780] The Scold’s Bridle – Minette Walters

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“Confusion. The murderer wanted Mrs. Gillespie dead and confusion to follow. And why would they want confusion to follow? Because it would be much harder to proceed with any kind of normality if the mess surrounding Mrs. Gillespie’s death wasn’t sorted out.” (Ch.18, p.316)

The book deals with whether Mathilda Gillespie, considered by many to be a spiteful, snobbish bitch, was murdered or committed suicide. She is found dead in bathtub with slashed wrists, surrounded by nettles and Michaelmas daisies, and most disturbingly of all, a scold’s bridle on her head. It was an Medieval age instrument of punishment for a gossiping or nagging woman that consists of a cage with a spiked plate inserted in the mouth. When the woman speak the spike will cut the tongue. So whoever killed her must want her tongue curbed—that just shows how universally disliked this old woman was.

Mathilda wasn’t killed in a mad frenzy. It was all done with such meticulous care, even down to the flowers. You said yourself that arrangement was difficult to reproduce without help. (Ch.7, p.117)

Mathilda died in such mysterious circumstances and her GP, Dr. Sarah Blakeney, is the only one who stands to gain by her death. That Gillespie’s final will has superceded all previous ones and designates the doctor to be the sole beneficiary raise questions from Gillespie’s daughter and grand-daughter. Though they are ready to contest the will, but neither is free from suspicion. Joanna is a prostitute on dope and Ruth is a schoolgirl being blackmailed into theft by a rapist lover.

The story is revealed in layers, and entries from the victim’s diary going back in time show how dysfunctional the family all were. The plot itself is highly involved and is played out by an intriguing cast of characters who are no less fleshed out. There are numerous secrets and agendas for the authorities to discover and maneuver around if this case is to be solved. But the root is how tragically Mathilda Gillespie was brought up and traumatized as an adolescent, which has profound impact on her life. She had the intellectual capacity but her social conditioning was such that she allowed herself to be confined in one role she wasn’t suited for, namely marriage and motherhood.

Walters writes in rich literary prose that is rare in the mystery genre. She laces the narrative with references to the works of Shakespeare and drops social commentary along the way. It’s more than a whodunit and the ending is quite shrewd.

365 pp. St. Martin Press. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Minette Walters

My newest favorite author of English mystery/crime fiction is Minette Walters. She writes psychological suspense stories that keep reader guessing until the last page. But I realize she is not as prolific as the others in this genre, where writers are encouraged to published once or even twice a year. Her work reminds me of Ruth Rendell, and indeed, upon a glance of the oeuvre, reveals the concern of wiring and misfiring of psyche. Crime novels cal also provoke repulsion, especially in the depiction of violence against women, like in The Scold’s Bridle. A scold’s bridle in the middle ages was a metal muzzle straddled in woman’s head in order curb her nagging tongue. The opening scene finds the victim murdered in the bathtub wearing a scold’s bridle.

Her insight into psyches is aided by having been a weekly prison visitor for a long period. She became fascinated by judicial punishment after researching her great-great-great grandfather, Joshua Jebb, who was Britain’s surveyor general of prisons in the mid-19th century. Walters never used her visits as research, but the encounters clearly provided a remarkable insight into criminals’ thinking and speech. That said, her books are dark and female-oriented. A writer who continues the line of Christie, Dorothy Sayers, P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, Walters thinks that most women are amateur psychiatrists, and thus the phenomenon that English crime fiction is mostly female-led.

[779] A Suitable Vengeance – Elizabeth George

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More, he didn’t have the taste or the talent for either [communication or intuitive deduction}. And the further he waded into the growing mire of conjecture, the more frustrated he felt.” (Ch.18, p.269)

For someone who is new to the Inspector Thomas Lynley series and knows nothing about the background, A Suitable Vengeance fills that gap. It goes way back to when Lynley was single, before he married Helen, and was dating Deborah Cotter. The eighth earl of Asherton brings his fiancee Deborah Cotter to Cornwall to meet his widowed mother. Accompanying them are Lynley’s best friend, forensic scientist Simon St. James; St. James’s sister Sidney; her boyfriend Justin Brooke; Lady Helen Clyde; and Deborah’s father, St. James’s valet.

The weekend turns badly awry when the local newspaper editor, Mick Cambrey, was found dead in his cottage—hit in the head and castrated. The cottage rummaged and money taken, evidence points to murder-robbery; but soon it is revealed that Cambrey lived a double life. On the pretext of funneling money to update the newspaper agency, he has been operating a medical fraud trifecta of lies, deceit, and greed.

But due to the ingrown relationships, which seem somewhat contrived and overwrought, especially the love-triangle between Lynley, his betrothed, and St. James, there’s a lot of background prose to trudge through before the first hint of foul actually takes place, on p.120. When a second death follows closely on the heels of the first, Lynley finds he cannot help taking the investigation personally—because the evidence points to a killer within his own family.

George drip-feeds information and red herrings to keep readers’ suspension wavering. Her characters, all enmeshed in personal pain, are fleshed out. The resolution of the accumulating murders involves a different type of illegal drugs and centers around the dubious activities of a young London woman whose dubious identity surprises everyone. The mystery is tight and George handles the evidence and supposition with a deft hand, but I would appreciate if she downplays the love entanglement somewhat. That all said, I do find reconciliation and understanding between Lynley and his estranged mother very moving.

449 pp. Bantam. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[777] Careless in Red – Elizabeth George

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“But the fact remains that when someone lies in the middle of a murder investigation, that’s what the cops look at.” (Ch.18, p.520)

Careless in Red opens with Thomas Lynley, in his depression over his wife and unborn child’s death, has gone on a very long walk on the British coast, trying to get away from places and things that remind him of Helen. On the forty-third day of his walk, in Cornwall, disheveled and shabby, he discovers the body of Santo Kerne on the rocks, apparently killed while cliff-climbing. In trying to make report to local police, he involves Dr. Daidre Trihair who owns a cottage nearby at Poulcare Cove.

The boy is the son of a man who had himself been at least tangentially involved in a cave-drowning death a number of years ago. The 18-year-old Santo has been a ladies’ man who sleeps with any woman come his way. He seems to have taken after his mom, a manic tart his father always has to keep his eyes on. Given the family’s extensive social network and Santo’s many partners, George introduces a tapestry of colorful suspects, all of whom has a very good motive for bumping off Santo Kerne. His girlfriend, Madlyn Angerrick, who gives up training for the Olypics, finds out that Santo has been double-dealing her with other women—older women, and cuts all ties. Having a motive to revenge on his cruel infidelity, Madlyn is not above suspicion. Nor is the doctor who is very careful with what she reveals about herself. Santo was reportedly seen in her cottage but she denies knowing him. Santo’s father is also ravaged by guilt because he couldn’t accept the boy for who he was and their last conversation ended in a row.

While the mystery itself is absorbing, it’s the psychological aspects of the novel that make it compelling. George does not write a cookie-cutter whodunit but takes time to develop her characters and get inside their lives. They are more than just suspects. While each has a myriad of reasons to commit the crime, each is embroiled in the respective family drama. Several family sagas are played out, incorporating the intergenerational conflict that binds individual members to each other and intertwines them. The result is a book so rich in content and interpersonal drama that one forgets it’s a mystery. Even the false leads would add to the background of the story. Garnished with a couple twists, the conclusion is a surprise but doesn’t stretch the credibility. The book is a feast of friendships, relationship, family, estrangement between parents and children, and emotional intrigues.

868 pp. Harper Fiction. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Georges Simenon

In Paris, at Shakespeare & Company Bookstore, under the residence cat’s paws, I discovered Georges Simenon’s mystery novels. A stash of them. The staff labels him as the most “re-readable author”, who started with high literary ambitions and ended by writing commercially successful books. Originally from Liège, Belgium, Simenon came to Paris in search of fortune and spent his 20s writing pulp fiction at a break-neck speed. in ten years and 200 short novels later, he followed the advice of Colette, to whom he acknowledged debt, and cut out literature.

It was Maigret who made him famous, and it is the Maigret novels that I found in Paris. The Maigret books are crime novels, but not as much whodunits. Maigret is a policeman, but the novels are far from being police procedurals. The books recount in considerable detail the investigation and the roundup of suspects. It is Simenon’s empathy, his insight into how people behave when they approach the breaking point, that lifts his work high above the common run of crime fiction. Simenon also has a unique sense of place, of ambiance, and his books often evokes the less known sides of Paris, through a look at the backs of houses, as seen from canals and railways.

Selected books:
The Strangers in the House
The Madman of Bergerac
Monsieur Monde Vanishes
The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien
Maigret Sets a Trap

Mysteries Demystified

I read mostly mysteries during the holiday seasons. The writing is more simple and requires less brainpower to read between the lines. But sometimes looking for the right mysteries could be a challenge. Mystery fiction has had many labels attached to it over the course of the genre’s history and there have been many attempts to classify it. The easiest is to stick with authors I like and branch out from there.

Thrillers, whodunits, mysteries, crime fiction, detective fiction, noir: all of these, and more, have been used, separately or interchangeably, to describe basically the same thing. They are all essentially referring to the same overall genre of literary fiction, the mystery or crime story. I divide them up in three categories and keep that mind when I’m browsing:

1. Puzzled Mysteries. One book that comes to mind is the recently read, lesser-known Bodies in a Bookshop by R.T. Campbell. A murder victim is discovered in a room or enclosure with no apparent exit, leaving the detective to ascertain the killer’s means of escape. What if the killer never escaped? The locked-room format uses such devices as misdirection (red herrings) and the illusion to deceive the reader into thinking that escape from the sealed room is an actual impossibility.

2. Cozy Mysteries. Some bookstores now have a separate section of these mysteries. This genre is generally acknowledged as the classic style of mystery writing. Prominent in England during the 1920s and ’30s, this style focused on “members of a closed group, often in a country house or village, who became suspects in a generally bloodless and neat murder solved by a great-detective kind of investigator.” (Crime Classics) The stories almost always involved solving some form of puzzle, and invariably, observation, a keen understanding of human nature, and a heavy reliance on gossip were indispensable tools used in the solving of the crime. Representative authors are Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers.

3. Hard Boiled/Noir. Born in the 1920s with the rise of pulp magazines, these stories captured the reality of life in America at this time in history. Most stories featured a tough guy main character, an isolated protagonist who managed to obey his own code of ethics and achieve a limited and local justice in a less than perfect world. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett are the quintessential hard boiled mystery novelists.

4. Police Procedural. The main characteristic of these types of stories are their realistic portrayal of police methods in the solving of crime. Police novels, or procedurals, usually center on a single police force or precinct, with each individual within becoming a part of the story. Often showcasing several cases at the same time, procedurals concentrate on the detailed investigation of a crime from the point of view of the police. Most of the supermarket bestsellers fall into this category.

[776] This Body of Death – Elizabeth George

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“Abused children carry abuse forward through time. This is the unthinkable gift that keeps on giving.” (753)

This Body of Death is long, but the intriguing plots that at a first glace bear no obvious relation to each other justify the length. The novel begins with a barrage of plot shards: a grisly toddler abduction tale alternates with a baffling narrative about a missing young woman whose bloody corpse turns up in a London graveyard. The victim, throat cut, is identified as Jemima Hastings, a flighty, man-obsessed young woman who, months before, had mysteriously disappeared from the sylvan cottage she shared with her boyfriend, a rather morose, reclusive roof thatcher named Gordon Jossie, in northern England.

There had to be a way to explain both her life and her death. And he had to find that truth, for he knew that its discovery would be the only way he could forgive himself for failing Jemimia…(437)

George spends the first quarter of the book (about 250 pages) developing all the characters associated to the victim. It’s tedious but not compromising on the pace of the book, rather it’s establishing a suspense. In a mystery with such complicated plots, readers will be rewarded for being patient with the background information, which is important to understanding the players and their subsequent actions. The thread about the toddler abduction-murder is the black thread in the white tapestry that one recognizes as significant, but its relevance not revealed until the much later deciding stage. George fleshes out all her characters beautifully, moving seamlessly in and out of their heads, affording glimpses into their secrets. Jemima also comes alive through the recollections of those who know her, as well as the investigation itself, which turns up a variety of leads involving an ancient coin and a stone.

By the way things are developing, everyone associated to Jemima seems to be in cahoots, but their partnership among them is not known. Meredith, best friend of Jemima who is on her own investigation, knows the platoon of her old lovers, fellow lodgers and Jossie’s new live-in lady love—all play a part in the murder. They keep scrambling out of the woodwork and coincidences abound.

The investigation team is also laden with drama. Isabelle Ardery, a police superintendent with a drinking problem and complicated family life orders DI Barbara Havers to have a makeover and wear A-skirt and pantyhose for a more professional appearance. Her misjudgment in the pursuit of a renown musician is saved by DI Thomas Lynley, who returns to the fold from bereavement.

This Body of Death is a slow-churned mystery poised on murder, police malfeasance, false identity, and a long-ago act of violence. George has a fine eye for details, the writing is strong enough that it flows effortlessly once reader gets into the story. It’s a circuitous story full of convolutions, but the mystery plot weaves perfectly together from the many threads.

953 pp. Harper Fiction. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[771] Bodies in a Bookshop – R.T. Campbell

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“The trouble with bookshops is that they are as bad as pubs. You start with one and then you drift to another, and before you know where you are you are on a gigantic book-binge.” (8)

The premise of a murder in a bookstore is simply irresistible. The line above just sucks me right into it. Max Boyle, a student of botany, is the amateur sleuth who, while rummaging through a musty bookshop off the beaten path, finds the unexpected—the bodies of the old proprietor and another man. They were knocked in the head by a blunder instrument and were left to die in a gassed room.

Investigation revolves around people with whom the old bookseller deals in the trade. Soon it’s revealed that the proprietor himself had a flourishing business in stolen books and obscene publications. Could these shady activities account for his murder? The mystery further deepens as the identity of the other victim is unveiled. Cecil Baird is regarded unanimously a wicked man who made a living out of other people’s frailties. He made enough enemies to have been murdered out of revenge.

The murders are tied together closely, but there was no real cause for them. (155)

This book is fun and the outcome is hard to guess. There is the whole interplay with people who come to close contact with the victim but have no alibi. They are ordinary people getting mixed up in a murder and trying to dissociate from themselves. They tell the truth and answer the questions truthfully; but they won’t go out of the way to volunteer any information in case by doing so they become involved. A quick read with surprising but plausible outcome.

177 pp. Dover Thrifty Edition. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

“Bodies in a Bookshop” Found

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An usual scout at the used bookstore during lunch landed a rare copy of Bodies in a Bookshop by Ruthven Campbell Todd who, at the time of the Second World War, was a poet, scholar, and critic from Scotland. He wrote a series of detective fiction and was quickly, but unjustly, forgotten. His detective fiction is very difficult to come by; so this rare copy (not collectible though) would be a treat in time for the season.

The title alone is irresistible. The subject matter corresponds to the very circumstance in which I found this book—rummaging through musty old bookstore in search for the unexpected, except, thankfully, I didn’t find two bodies lie sprawled on the floor of the back room.

[763] A Site for Sore Eyes – Ruth Rendell

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” The house they stood in front of was described by those who knew about such things as a Georgian cottage and built of the kind of red bricks usually called mellow. But at this time of year, midsummer, almost all the brickwork was hidden under a dense drapery of Virginia creeper, its leaves green, glossy and quivering in the light breeze. The whole surface of the house seemed to shiver and rustle, a vertical sea of green ruffled into wavelets by the wind. ”

A Site for Sore Eyes tells three stories: Amidst the squalor of North London, in the hands of neglectful parents, Rendell describes in vivid details the cultural sewer in which Teddy Grex grew up. He becomes a gifted woodcrafter who appreciates everything beautiful. But he is also a psycopath capable of the vilest crimes. Francine is a mentally fragile girl who became mute after witnessing her mother’s murder. Then there’s Orcadia Cottage, greatly admired by Teddy, scene of a famous painting that is at the center of much of the story’s anguish.

These three seemingly separate stories gradually merge into one horrific tale. Rendell weaves a puzzle and as one tries to put together the pieces, the reader is captivated by her ability, her understanding of human behavior and her rendering everything into a mesmerizing whole. For once both Teddy and Francine are damaged people. Unloved as a child Teddy has grown to become a cold and indifferent young man who turns to beautiful objects for fulfillment. Francine is traumatized by the sight of her mother’s murder, making her vulnerable to the overbearing possessiveness of her stepmother, Julia. Teddy becomes obsessed with Francine after the first meeting…

This book is very dark and spooky. It is a crime novel, but one in which we see the crime happen in very brazen manner. But even the criminality is not what makes this book dark. Rather, the darkness comes from watching the three disparate (at first) characters live their lives in a broken society, one where privilege and poverty exist to keep the other in check. Both serve as a kind of prison, and in fact this book really is about prisons, both metaphorical and literal.

A Site for Sore Eyes paves the way for The Vault as the three stories converge toward the end but not resolved. There are a number of threads that come together in an inexorable way. It’s a chilling book but very humanized. This is the kind of book that keeps you guessing, and pushing you off the edge of the seat because of the blindspots imposed on the characters.

417 pp. Arrow UK. Mass Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]