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[795] The Clocks – Agatha Christie

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The Clocks begins with a dramatic scene on 19 Wilbraham Crescent, home of a blind school teacher Miss Millicent Pebmarsh. On her floor lies a dead man, stabbed fatally—a respectable-looking elderly man. Nobody knows who he is (or so they say). As the mystery deepens, it seems whoever is behind the murder does not want the man identified. Apparently earlier in the day, a secretarial agency is rung up, a Miss Millicent Pebmarsh asks for a stenographer to be sent to the aforementioned address at 3pm. It’s particularly asked that a Miss Sheila Webb should be sent.

Miss Sheila Webb arrives for the appointment. To her utter shock, she discovers the corpse in the sitting room. She runs outside the house into the arms of a young man Colin Lamb, who delivers most of the narrative of the story. Miss Millicent Pebmarsh denies making the call to the secretary agency; it seems someone has deliberately arranged for the typist to be there at the Pebmarsh house. The profusion of clocks, four in all, that don’t belong to the blind woman, adds to the mystery.

As the gardens of several houses verge on to that of the crime scene, investigator interview all the neighbors, an array of interesting people who are not what they appear to be or that they reveal too much without knowing. Naturally they are all up on guard. But it’s unnatural that nobody has seen anything. There’s a bit of twist and turn, and the usual red herring. But The Clocks is a traditional whodunit in the sense that the simple truth is concealed with a careful and cunning use of words. An ordinary has been killed. Why? Here is someone, an ordinary, pleasant-looking man whose removal is necessary to someone. This is when Hercule Poirot’s bluff is called. He doesn’t appear on the crime scene but only lends his expertise to Lamb. He calls for meticulous examination of every suspect’s background, and encourages Colin Lamb to converse with them. To the keen reader, it is what people let slip that becomes the key to solving the crime.

246 pp. Pocket Books USA. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[787] Deception on His Mind – Elizabeth George

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“We persuade ourselves to believe all manner of falsehood when our self-interest guides us. Then, when the worst befalls us, we’re left to gaze back over our actions. We wonder whether one of them might have been the cause of disaster.” (Ch.17, p.443)

It’s a little too long, but Deception on His Mind is a rich and engrossing novel that portrays a contemporary England that is culturally complex and simmering with tension. It opens with a murder of a man, Haytham Querashi, recently arrived from Pakistan, who is to wed the daughter of a local businessman. His death triggers riot of Pakistanis demanding a thorough investigation on the matter and equal treatment on minority groups in general. Behind the pandemonium is Muhannad, the hot-headed Muslim activist whose sister Shalah is arranged to marry Querashi. But Shalah has her secret too—she is in love with an Englishman Theo Shaw, scion of a wealthy developer, and is pregnant. Since everything about an Asian daughter was to be safeguarded and kept in trust for future husband, from the molding of her mind to protection of her chastity, her being impregnated by a foreigner is a huge disgrace to her family. Even Querashi’s death does not end Shalah’s obligation to her family because she will have to marry whoever her family chooses for her. In the same way, the marriage is an advantage to Querashi, whose homosexuality must be hidden, as he didn’t want to bear the scorn of his people and his religion. If Shalah and Querashi’s secrets are safe with each other, who did Querashi know that could have murdered him?

Although the killing has racial overtones, other motives arise—love, jealousy, sexuality, religion, and greed. Smuggling, burglary, and other crimes also come to light. Everyone involved has the share of secrets. Hidden in the plot are subtle clues to the solution, which hinges on Muslim laws and family tradition, but stems from selfish desire The solution does come as a surprise, and sheds light in how we see ourselves in terms of the relativity of wrong-doing, and how we justify our behavior. Despite being a bit too long, the book is intriguing, as all sorts of secrets and surprises figure into a well-wrought narrative.

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

[782] The Echo – Minette Walters

“We are in terrible trouble as a society if we assume that any man’s life is so worthless that the manner of his death is the only interesting thing about him.” (Ch.21, 330)

The Echo is my second Minette Walters book after The Scold’s Bridle but this book is way more convoluted. A harmless man, Billy Blake, dies of starvation in the garage of a wealthy architect, Amanda Powell, with whom seems to have no connection. But a series of connections manifest as the sinuous plot winds on upon the probing of a journalist named Michael Deacon.

As the investigation thickens, so does the mystery of Billy Blake and the unusual asset of Amanda Powell, formerly Amanda Streeter, whose husband allegedly defrauded the bank and vanished. Billy Blake has a morality that is in conflict with social and legal definitions to right and wrong. His life echoes that of poet William Blake, who was obsessed with God. Blake has lived a life of self-purging, and has mutilated himself to evade identification. What has he done in the past that he has to erase all his traces?

The plot of the book only gets even more complicated, and Amanda is not what she seems. Her in-laws claim she has an affair with another man and together they conspire to defraud the bank and made a scapegoat of her husband by murdering him.

The book can be confusing at certain parts since some characters that are relevant to the plot are not fleshed out. But careful reading would pull you through. The consequence of these “unseen” characters is a sudden drop in dramatic immediacy. The themes of repentance and betrayal are written all over the pages but the course the story takes could stretch credibility.

351 pp. Jove Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[781] Pictures of Perfection – Reginald Hill

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“Haven’t you noticed it’s political parties and the religions with the clearest notions of the perfect society that cause the most harm? Once admit the notion of human perfectibility, and the end can be made to justify any moment of pain and suffering along the way? (Volume III, Ch.6, 199)

Disclaimer: this is an enjoyable enough read but not the one to start with the series. It’s a rather odd installment, very strange tale of a Yorkshire village, some prototypical English village, with its idyllic setting, its architecture, its antiquities, its society, its economy, all combining to offer something like that pastoral perfection; yet a closer examination reveals much about the place which is deceptive if not downright deceitful.

Pictures of Perfection begins with a grisly “murder” scene on the Day of Reckoning in which townfolks come to pay feudal taxes to the Squire. Then the narrative goes back in time to a few days before the crime and gradually deconstructs everything. A policeman constable Bendish has gone missing; and Sergeant Wield and DI Pascoe have been sent out to investigate what has happened to him.

During the course of this investigation, old, dark secrets, family feuds, disputes, break-ins, kleptomania,, clandestine liaisons are revealed. So are the crises of Enscombe, where the school is in deficit, and the village teeters on the brink of cataclysmic change. The key to the cop’s disappearance revolves around a painting and its forgery.

Given the huge cast and the intricate relations, there is very little story, and what there is is told in a strange, unconnected way. The twist at the end does little to save the book. While everything was needed for the ending, there was little sense of motion, of progress toward a resolution. It’s difficult to keep one engrosses and the pages are turning sluggishly.

340 pp. Dell Book. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Reginald Hill

Minette Walters (previous posts) leads me to Reginald Hill. Hill wrote mountains of prose, and all it was filled with the perfect quotability that only first-water hacks ever achieve. In Dalziel & Pascoe series I find the Hercule Poirot in the stout no-nonsense detective Dalziel. But in my current book, Pictures of Perfection, it’s the young, grim detective Wield that shines.

The book starts slow but it’s riddled with surprises. The small village of Enscombe is under siege as developers eye at the Green, which they want to convert into business centers. The local school is such huge deficit that it might face closure.

The book begins with Wield at the tail end of a very rare vacation, riding his big motorcycle (in full leather riding gear) through the seemingly idyllic village of Enscombe, where he’s briefly interrogated by an attractive young rural constable named Bendish, who learns to his dismay that he’s been laying the heavy hand on his superior on the force, much to Wield’s amusement – if you can discern it as amusement:

Wield barked the sound which friends recognized as his way of expressing amusement – though others often took it as a sign that the interrupted lycanthropic process suggested by his face was about to be resumed.

Wield no sooner reports back for duty at the station than he’s walking in on a complaint being made by one of the high-strung local grandees of Enscombe—a complaint about him, as a suspicious outsider who may or may not be connected with suspicious goings-on about town. The townsman, one Digweed, the bookseller (Tell Tale Bookstore) is astonished to find the mysterious stranger of his complaints actually working at the police station. Like most people who encounter Wieldy’s rather alarming thuggish appearance, Digweed has trouble believing there’s a trained professional underneath the surface, and he’s not diplomatic about saying so.

Needless to say, Reginal Hill paints a very British picture in the idyllic town of Enscombe. The town itself is inheriting a personality. The snobbishness, the class difference, the resistance to change, the skeptics about change. They are all encompassed in the community. There’s the old Guillesmand family that controls over half the property of town and to which townfolks owe annual feudal taxes.

[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