Sunday, 3 June 2018

Some Small Crime Fiction Reviews..

First is The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett.
It’s tempting to describe this as a very funny and original book at the beginning and end, but a disappointingly predictable thriller in the middle. I’m conscious that’s probably not fair, because it’s predictable only from my having read Leslie Charteris and been exposed to various books and films along ‘Perils of Pamela’ lines, all of which came later. Bennett’s plucky young heroine and the things she gets herself into were undoubtedly more original when he was writing in 1902, but a modern reader of thrillers is going to be able to see the next thing coming, and very possibly much of the ending, a long, long way off. 

Nest of Vipers – Gladys Mitchell.
I don’t know if it’s just coincidence but this is about the third or fourth book I’ve read* where it’s implied that Dame Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley intends to let a murderer off. It’s also the first one where I wholeheartedly agree with her. 

Mitchell is never a scrupulously fair author – there’s a definite lack of omnipotence in her narration, and new elements can suddenly be introduced two thirds of the way into the narrative in the most frustrating way. It’s also not unknown for Dame Beatrice to take leaps in her logic which don’t seem to be anything to do with what she’s learned, and her attitudes can be controversial and extraordinary. But these aren’t meant to be Ellery-Queenesque puzzles, and when she pulls it off as a story – as she does here – none of that matters.

* (full disclosure – I’ve read about 8 of Mitchell’s books, in no particular order, all reprinted by Vintage and all borrowed from various libraries)

Singing in the Shrouds – Ngaio Marsh
I’ve read this one before and don’t think I cared for it much. Not as much as Artists in Crime or Death in a White Tie or A Surfeit of Lampreys or Death at the Dolphin (I had a serious Marsh binge in the early to mid 90s, and read almost all her books, getting them on order from a specialist crime fiction shop in Central London run by a man with no concept of customer service or basic admin or any of the other things you need to, you know, run an actual shop. Which meant that I stopped, ridiculously, with about 4 unread books left.)

Having decided to give Shrouds another go I found a competent story, not at all undermined by the fact I’d read it before. It's set on a sea going ship and Marsh does a good job of making many of her passengers a little odd and repressed in different ways - ways that wouldn't matter, really, if it weren't for the fact that there's a serial killer on board the boat, and so those quirks and oddities take on a much more sinister aspect.

I don't feel that Alleyn covers himself with glory in this one, and the decision of the captain not to tell 'the ladies' what is going on, even though they're the ones in danger, is frankly ludicrous. He should have been arrested at the end of the book alongside the murderer.

Death of a Ghost – Margery Allingham
With some authors you know what you’re getting before you open a book. But apart from Albert Campion, that amiable cipher, and probably (although not always) some perfectly competent police officers, Allingham likes to ring the changes each time.

If follows, therefore, that some of her books I really enjoy and some of them leave me cold.
This was one I really enjoyed. I liked the small family of mostly unrelated people who had carried on in the same unfashionable house after the death of the painter Lafcadio (the thing that had brought them together in the first place), and who celebrated his legacy every year with the unveiling and sale of one of the pictures he had left for the purpose. 

I even liked the murderer – although the second murder is a real tragedy. A small, pathetic tragedy but all the sadder for that.   

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