Tag Archives: Crime

A Suspension of Mercy by Patricia Highsmith

The novels of Patricia Highsmith, with their focus on the darker side of the human psyche, continue to be a source of fascination for me. First published in 1965, A Suspension of Mercy is another of this author’s domestic noirs – probably not quite in the same league as the marvellous Deep Water or The Cry of the Owl, but still very enjoyable nonetheless.

The novel revolves around Sydney Smith Bartleby, an American writer of crime fiction, and his wife, Alicia, who dabbles in painting. The couple have been married for around eighteen months and live in a quiet neighbourhood near Framlingham in Suffolk – the idea being that a remote countryside cottage would prove a suitable environment for them to engage in their creative pursuits.

While the Bartlebys’ lifestyle may on the surface sound very appealing, it soon becomes clear that the marriage itself is far from ideal. Following a series of rejections from publishers, Sydney is struggling to finalise his latest novel; furthermore, the TV scripts he has developed with his writing partner, Alex Polk-Faraday, have also proved difficult to place. Moreover, Alicia has little faith in her husband’s ability to write successful fiction. This, together with the Bartlebys relatively meagre income – mostly the allowance Alicia receives from her devoted parents – means relations between the couple are somewhat strained.

Sydney, however, has a very active imagination, perhaps too active given the nature of his fantasies. He is continually thinking up scenarios for the demise of both Alex and Alicia, the latter proving to be a particularly rich seam of morbid fabrications.

Alex had died five times at least in Sydney’s imagination. Alicia twenty times. She had died in a burning car, in a wrecked car, in the woods throttled by person or persons unknown, died falling down the stairs at home, drowned in her bath, died falling out the upstairs window while trying to rescue a bird in the eaves drain, died from poisoning that would leave no trace. But the best way, for him, was her dying by a blow in the house, and he removed her somewhere in the car, buried her somewhere, then told everyone that she had gone away for a few days, maybe to Brighton, maybe to London. Then Alicia wouldn’t come back. The police wouldn’t be able to find her. (p. 33)

The couple’s problems are evident to those closest to them, their quarrels having being observed by Alex and his wife, Hittie, during their occasional trips to Suffolk – and by Mrs Lilybanks, the gentle old lady who has just moved in next door.

Now and again, Alicia goes away on her own for a few days, just down to London or Brighton for a breather from Sydney. It is on her return from one of these trips that she wonders if a more extended break might be in order, particularly when she suspects Sydney of deliberately refusing to come to a party just to annoy her.

‘You’d really like to kill me sometimes, wouldn’t you, Syd?’

He stared at her, looking tongue-tied.

She could tell she had touched the truth. ‘You’d like me out of the way sometimes – maybe all the time – just as if I were some character in your plots that you could eliminate.’

He looked at the half-peeled potato in her left hand, the paring knife in her right. ‘Oh, stop being dramatic.’

‘So why don’t we pretend that for a while? I can be gone for weeks. Work as hard as you like—’ Her voice shook a little, to her annoyance. ‘And we’ll see what happens, all right?’

Sydney pressed his lips together, then said, ‘All right.’ (pp. 69–70)

Having floated the plan, Alicia insists that Sydney should not try to contact her while she is away; she will get in touch with him when she wants to, but not before. Somewhat nonchalantly, Sydney agrees.

With Alicia gone, Sydney is free to immerse himself in the mindset of a murderer – possibly for research purposes, possibly for more sinister reasons. Allowing his fantasies to play out to the full, Sydney imagines that he has killed Alicia by pushing her down the stairs on the day of her departure. Moreover, the following morning, Sydney gets up at the crack of dawn, carries a rolled-up carpet (large enough to conceal a body) to his car, drives five miles to a secluded spot of woodland and buries it in a shallow grave. All the while, he behaves as if the carpet contains Alicia’s body, stiff and heavy following a night in the house.

As the weeks go by, many of the couple’s friends begin to express concern at not having heard anything from Alicia – surely she would have called or written to them by now? At first, Sydney implies that his wife has probably gone to stay with her parents, the Sneezums, down in Kent; but it turns out they haven’t heard from her either. (Alicia, as it happens, is holed up near Brighton, happily playing ‘house’ with her new lover, Edward Tilbury, whom she first at met a party some months earlier.)

Mrs Lilybanks too has her doubts, particularly as she was birdwatching from her bedroom window on the morning of the carpet episode, something she hints at when she drops over to see Sydney one evening. In this scene, Mrs L is enquiring about the carpet that used to be in the Bartlebys’ lounge, the very one she’d seen Sydney take to the car the morning after Alicia’s disappearance.

Mrs Lilybanks sat down slowly on the sofa, watching Sydney. ‘I really quite liked the old one you had here. I’d buy that from you,’ she said, forcing a chuckle.

‘But we haven’t got it. I took it–’ he smiled. ‘I took that old carpet out and dumped it. We didn’t want to give it house-room, and I doubt if anyone would’ve given ten shillings for it.’

Mrs Lilybanks heard her heart pounding under her green cardigan. Sydney had turned a little pale, she thought. He looked guilty. He acted guilty. Yet her unwillingness to believe he was guilty was keeping her from labelling him guilty, definitely. Now he was watching her carefully. (p. 116)

Soon the police become involved, and the finger of suspicion falls squarely on Sydney. The Polk-Faradays and Mrs Lilybanks are questioned about the nature of the Bartlebys’ marriage and Alicia’s state of mind at the time of her disappearance. The deeper the police dig, the worse it begins to look for Sydney: reports of the couple’s quarrels emerge, the burial of the carpet – albeit empty – comes to light; and Sydney’s notebook is found, a book which contains all manner of macabre fantasies on how to do away with one’s wife.

That’s probably all I ought to say about the plot; to reveal any more would spoil it, I think…

What I like about this novel and this author’s work in general is the exploration of the characters’ psychology and motives. In her 1954 novel, The Blunderer, Highsmith considers the possibility that any of us might resort to murder if pushed far enough. There is perhaps an element of that here too, although Sydney is not quite the ‘everyman’ we see in The Blunderer. There is something unhinged about Sydney and his overactive imagination, a blurring of the margins between the fantasies of his crime fiction and the mundane realities of everyday life.

While I couldn’t quite rationalise some of Sydney’s behaviour – there are several opportunities when Sydney could put a stop to the game that he and Alicia are playing, and yet he refuses to do so – I ended up going with it, largely under the assumption of there being some troubling mental health issues at play. Alicia ends up getting out of her depth, too. There comes a point when she can no longer face the shame of admitting she has been living in sin for several weeks, knowing that it would ruin her reputation and cost Edward his job.

In summary, this is a very intriguing novel, one that explores the dangers of allowing one’s fantasies to play out in real life. Definitely recommended for fans of this writer’s work.

A Suspension of Mercy is published by Virago; personal copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).

Fell Murder and Checkmate to Murder – two vintage mysteries by E. C. R. Lorac

Over the past few years, the British Library have been reissuing some of E. C. R. Lorac’s vintage mysteries as part of their marvellous Crime Classics series. (I jotted down a few thoughts about Fire in Thatch last summer, a book I very much enjoyed.) Lorac was the main pen-name adopted by Edith Caroline Rivett, who produced more than 60 novels between the 1930s and 1950s. Many of them featured the perceptive detective Chief Inspector Macdonald of the CID, including the two I’m reviewing here.

Fell Murder (1944)

The setting for this charming, unhurried mystery is the Lancashire countryside in the midst of World War Two, where the elderly Robert Garth is the head of one of the leading farming families in the district. Robert – a stubborn, hot-headed man by nature – is rather set in his ways, eschewing progressive developments in favour of more traditional farming methods. The old man’s obstinacy is a source of frustration for his daughter Marion, an industrious, hard-working woman who is keen to ensure that the estate remains profitable.

Also living at the farm are Robert’s second son, Charles, recently returned to England from Malaya, having lost pretty much everything; and a younger son, Malcolm, who is considered to be something of a weakling, more interested in poetry than working the land. The household is completed by Elizabeth Meldon, a switched-on Land Girl who helps with the farming activities.

Elizabeth Meldon studied her Garth kinsfolk with a cool dispassionate judgement. She saw the grim obstinacy of old Robert, for ever setting his face against any change: the energy and optimism of Marion, intent on learning new methods of farming and developing the land to its greatest fertility. In addition to the tug of war between Marion and her father was the constant irritation of the two ill-assorted brothers—Charles from Malaya, accustomed to native labour and as many cocktails as he cared to swallow, and Malcolm who was by nature more a poet than a farmer. “Never such a family of incompatibles,” said Elizabeth. (p. 32)

The novel opens with the return of Richard Garth, Robert’s oldest son, who left the district twenty-five years earlier following a disagreement with his father. The old patriarch had disapproved of his son’s choice of wife (now deceased), a rift that prompted Richard to move to Alberta to start a new life. Now Richard is back in England on a short break between sea voyages, not to see his family but to reconnect with the land he still loves very dearly. Nevertheless, when Robert Garth is found dead in one of the farm’s outbuildings, the sudden reappearance of the prodigal son seems all too suspicious…

Before long, Chief Inspector Macdonald of the CID is called in to investigate what clearly appears to be a murder. As is typically the case in these mysteries, there are plenty of potential suspects with various reasons for wanting the old man out the way – from Marion with her desire to have a greater say in running the farm to Richard with his long-standing grudge against his father to Charles who seems ill-suited to life on the estate.

What makes this mystery particularly engaging is the way Lorac portrays the farming community and local landscape. She writes lovingly about the details of day-to-day rural life during the war years, the rhythms and principles of working the land, and the blend of beauty and ruggedness of the terrain.

In Macdonald, Lorac has created a character with a deep understanding of country folk, particularly their fierce sense of community and suspicion of strangers. The detective seems to have an innate ability to connect with the locals, adapting his approach to gain their understanding and trust.

“…As I see it, coming here as a stranger, this crime is conditioned by the place. To understand the one you’ve got to study the other.” (p. 136)

In summary then, Fell Murder, is an enjoyable, leisurely mystery with a strong sense of place. Some readers might find the pace a bit slow and understated in tension, but I found it all rather charming. A very worthwhile entrant in the BLCC series.

Checkmate to Murder (1944)

Another wartime mystery, this one set in Hampstead on a miserable, foggy night.

As the novel opens, Lorac sets the scene in an artist’s studio where five individuals have gathered together for the evening. At one end of the main room, the temperamental artist Bruce Manaton is painting a portrait of his friend, André Delaunier, an actor dressed as a Cardinal, resplendent in his scarlet robes. Meanwhile, at the other end of the studio, two men are playing chess, wholly absorbed in the strategy of their game. Also present is Manaton’s sister, Rosanne, who shares the studio with her brother. Roseanne is preparing a meal for the party in the adjacent kitchen, slipping in and out to check on the blackout curtains and suchlike. It’s a scene somewhat reminiscent of the set-up in Hitchock’s Rope, where the housekeeper, Mrs Wilson, is helping with the preparations for the dinner party that forms the film’s centrepiece.

The Manatons’ gathering is interrupted by a Special Constable – a rather unpleasant chap named Verraby – who claims to have uncovered a murder on the premises. The victim is Mr Folliner, the owner of the building that houses the studio. Moreover, Verraby believes he has apprehended the perpetrator – Neil Folliner, the old man’s great-nephew, a Canadian soldier who just happened to be on the premises at the time.

At first, Verraby believes it is an open-and-shut case with Neil Folliner being the only possible suspect. However, when Chief Inspector Macdonald in brought in to investigate, the net of potential perpetrators widens, with the activities in the artist’s studio soon becoming the focus of attention. There are reports of old Mr Folliner having accumulated a lot of money before his death, all stashed away in a cash box in the house. However, there is no sign of the loot in the old man’s flat or on the alleged perpetrator, thereby creating another perplexing detail to add to the mix.

This is a very clever mystery in which points of detail prove crucial to unravelling the crime. From the position of the guests in the studio to the history of the building’s occupants to the weather and background noises – all these things play their part in the puzzle.

In Macdonald, Lorac has created a very engaging character, a detective who combines a thorough, dogged approach with a fair degree of humanity and sympathy. It is a delight to watch him go about his work. During his investigations, Macdonald is ably assisted by his colleagues, Jenkins and Reeves, both of whom add an element of camaraderie to the inquiry.

Finally, the wartime setting is beautifully evoked, creating an environment of suspicion, uncertainty and constrained resources – a situation well-suited to opportunistic crime. All in all, this is an absorbing, atmospheric mystery for a dark and foggy night – a most enjoyable contrast to the gentleness of Fell Murder.

My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing review copies. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via these links here and here to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website). 

Death in White Pyjamas and Death Knows No Calendar by John Bude

Two highly entertaining Golden Age mysteries for the price of one here, lovingly reissued the British Library in one combined volume as part of their Crime Classics series. (My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.)

Death in White Pyjamas (1944) is one of those lovely country house mysteries where everyone is a potential suspect, and the crime itself involves several unexpected twists. There is a wonderful theatrical quality to the narrative, partly because all the leading players are connected to the Beaumont, a modest repertory theatre off London’s West End. 

The theatre is largely financed by Sam Richardson, a generous, amiable businessman with an interest in the cultural arts. Having made his fortune in biscuits, Sam is using his money to prop up the Beaumont, endeavouring to broaden the audience and strengthen its reputation. Leading the creative side of the venture is theatrical director, Basil Barnes, a somewhat slippery character at heart. Nevertheless, despite his rather superior manner, Basil is very good at his job, frequently coaxing excellent performances from his diverse and temperamental cast.

Sam was pleasant to everybody. Basil was condescending. He always looked on actors and actresses, as he had explained to Mr. Richardson, as so much raw material, only some of it was rawer than the rest. (p. 19)

The action takes place in the summer as the members of the company gather together for initial rehearsals at Old Knolle, Sam’s country retreat. Rather conveniently, Basil has just purchased a cottage nearby, which he is in the process of refurbishing with the help of Deidre Lehaye, the talented stage designer who also works at the Beaumont. Deirdre too is quite the character. Cynical, provocative and barbed, she likes nothing more than to make mischief for other people, finding and exploiting their weaknesses for her own personal gain.

Deirdre smiled lazily. She loved discovering the chinks in other people’s armour and shooting her pretty feathered darts through the cracks. But Angela was easy, so very easy. It was much more fun drawing a bead on Basil because his armour, forged of a colossal self-conceit, was of a far tighter fit. In fact she often wondered if he appreciated her attempts to wound him. (p. 28)

Also present at the house are Angela, the innocent young ingenue from the provinces – one of Basil’s ‘discoveries’; Clara, the rather demanding established actress; Willy, the seasoned actor with a gambling habit; and Rudolph, the aspiring playwright who also happens to be Clara’s nephew.

Interestingly, the crime itself doesn’t take place until we’re about halfway through the novel, giving readers a chance to spend plenty of time with all the characters before one of them is dispatched. During a particularly eventful night, a body in white pyjamas is discovered by the lake at Old Knolle, prompting an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death.

Bude has a lot of fun playing with some familiar character types here, and there are several potential motives for murder swirling around in the mix from blackmail to revenge to various jealousies. Once the identity of the victim becomes clear, it isn’t too difficult to work out who might have committed the deadly act. What’s more interesting, perhaps, is the unravelling of events leading up to the death. In other words, how the murder was carried out and the underlying reasons behind it.

In summary then, Death in White Pyjamas is a most enjoyable mystery with a theatrical twist – a story of late-night assignations, midnight wanderings and secrets under wraps.

Death Knows No Calendar (1942), is another hugely entertaining novel – a locked-room mystery with a devilishly clever twist. As with Death in White Pyjamas, the whodunit element of the crime is pretty easy to figure out, but the howdunit proves much trickier for the investigators to unravel. 

The setting for this one is Beckwood, the sort of village where everyone knows everyone else’s movements. Central to the narrative are John and Lydia Arundel, a married couple who live at the Oasts – a property incorporating an artist’s studio where Lydia paints portraits. John, by contrast, seems content to live on Lydia’s money, his former career on the stage having stalled some years earlier. Nevertheless, he retains the superficial charm of an actor, something that is noted by at least one other resident of Beckwood.

He’d never made a name for himself and he’d certainly made no money. His marriage with Lydia had hauled him at a single pull out of obscurity and poverty and set him up in Beckwood as a person of some consequence. Not that Arundel was a bad mixer or in any way a snob. On the contrary, he went out of his way to be pleasant to everybody in the parish. But that was just the point—this affability was not natural, it was assumed, cultivated, a part of the actor’s stock-in-trade. (pp. 231–232)

As the novel opens, the Arundels are hosting a party to christen their new bar, a traditional Edwardian-style saloon recently installed in the couple’s home. All the movers and shakers of Beckwood are there. The local rector, Peter Swale-Reid, clearly has some history with Lydia – a flamboyant woman who has attracted multiple admirers over the years. Stanley Hawkinge is another of the host’s casualties – a man who secretly carries a torch for Lydia in a kind of silent devotion. Also present are the party are Lady Dingle and her beautiful niece, Honoraria; and Major Boddy, a retired military man and lover of detective fiction. 

Late one afternoon, Lydia is found dead in her studio which had been locked from the inside – a practice she always observed when working. At first, the presence of a gun suggests suicide; however, as more details emerge, the possibility of foul play cannot be ruled out – at least for Major Boddy, who, with his enthusiasm for crime fiction, is something of an amateur sleuth. When the Coroner brings in a verdict of suicide, Boddy remains somewhat doubtful. So, ably assisted by former batman, Syd Gammon, the Major sets out to investigate the circumstances surrounding Lydia’s death to solve the puzzle himself.

Unsurprisingly, several suspects emerge, all with potential reasons for wanting Lydia silenced or out of the way. However, the real joy of this mystery lies not in the unravelling of the crime but in the manner of Major Boddy’s investigations. There’s plenty of amusing military-style banter here, particularly between the Major and his batman, Syd.

The morning after the inquest Major Boddy came to a decision. Breakfast over, he crossed into the lounge and rang for Syd Gammon.

“Look here, Gammon,” he said abruptly. “Going to take you into my confidence. Need your help.”

“Very good, sir.”

“What was your opinion of the Coroner’s verdict, eh? Don’t be tactful. I want the truth. Understand?” “Yes, sir. Quite, sir. Well, sir, it’s my fixed opinion that Mrs. Arundel was done in by second party.” “Ha! Exactly, Gammon! Now the question is, will you fall into line with me in an attempt to expose this second party, eh? Investigate on the Q.T., what? Keep our suspicions under our hat.”

“Very good, sir.” (p. 303)

Major Boddy makes a most engaging and perceptive sleuth as he goes about gathering evidence before sharing the results of his enquiries with the police. He’s a decent chap – kindly, tactful and level-headed, especially as various secrets begin to emerge.

All in all, this is another splendid mystery from Jon Bude – a tale of secret meetings, shifting identities and a smattering of romance. Ideal comfort reading in these strange, unsettling times.

Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo (tr. Howard Curtis)

First published in French in 1995, Total Chaos is the first book in Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles Trilogy, a modern classic of Mediterranean Noir. It’s a crime novel with a socio-political edge, set in a city where violence, racism, social deprivation and corruption all come together to form the perfect storm, as reflected in the book’s title. 

The novel opens with a quest for revenge. Ugo has just returned to Marseilles, the city of his youth, to avenge the murder of his childhood friend, Manu – a hit that had been ordered by Zucca, a key player in the local underworld. Unfortunately for Ugo, the organised crime unit are on his tail; and when he makes a move on Zucca, a standoff with the cops swiftly follows.

Enter Fabio Montale, a neighbourhood cop who knew Ugo and Manu back in the days of their youth when all three were busting gas stations and drug stores for easy money. It was only when one of their holds-ups went horribly wrong that Fabio decided to get out, eschewing a life of crime for a spell in the army, and subsequently the police. Now Fabio finds himself standing over the body of Ugo, shot dead by Captain Auch’s unit in their crackdown on organised crime.

From this point onwards, the novel is narrated by Fabio, a wounded soul with a strong social conscience.

Ugo’s death was weighing on my mind. I felt suffocated. And alone. More alone than ever. Every year, I ostentatiously crossed out of my address book any friend who’d made a racist remark, neglected those whose only ambition was a new car and a Club Med vacation, and forgot all those who played the Lottery. I loved fishing and silence. Walking in the hills. Drinking cold Cassis, Lagavulin or Oban late into the night. I didn’t talk much. Had opinions about everything. Life and death. Good and evil. I was a film buff. Loved music. I’d stopped reading contemporary novels. More than anything, I loathed half-hearted, spineless people. (pp. 48–49)

Although Fabio isn’t officially on the case, he makes it his business to try to work out what happened to Manu, and ultimately to Ugo, the pull of their old childhood friendships proving hard to resist. There are many loose ends to be followed up, leads to be chased down. For instance, how did Ugo find out that Zucca had ordered the hit on Manu? Who told him? How did Auch’s team know that Ugo was back in Marseilles? When did they start tailing him? And did the police knowingly allow Ugo’s hit on Zucca to play out, thinking it would be to their advantage? These are just some of the key questions that remain to be answered.

As Fabio sets out on his mission, we follow his progress through the streets of Marseilles, complete with the sights, smells and tastes of this multicultural city. Racial tensions are rife, even amongst the different groups of immigrants. “Too many Arabs. That’s the problem,” reflects an Armenian shop owner following a run-in with some street kids.    

“Before, you bumped into an Arab on the street, he’d say sorry. Now he wants you to say sorry. They’re arrogant, that’s what they are! Shit, they think this is their home!”

I didn’t want to listen anymore, or even argue. It’s sickened me. I’d heard it all before. (p. 58)

The picture is further complicated when another individual goes missing. Leila, a languages student and close friend of Fabio’s, is found dead a few miles outside Aix-en-Provence, much to our protagonist’s distress. Like many others in the city, Leila was from a migrant family – an Arab whose father and younger brother now live in Marseilles. At first, the two sets of crimes appear to be quite separate from one another; but as Fabio digs deeper, the storylines begin to intertwine.

Two things in particular mark this novel out, elevating it to something over and above the norm. Firstly, there is Izzo’s portrayal of Marseilles, a visceral, earthy place – a cultural melting pot with a character all of its own. Honour plays a central role in the city, frequently proving itself to be a matter of life and death.

Marseilles isn’t a city for tourists. There’s nothing to see. Its beauty can’t be photographed. It can only be shared. It’s a place where you have to take sides, be passionately for or against. Only then can you see what there is to see. And you realize, too late, that you’re in the middle of a tragedy. An ancient tragedy in which the hero is death. In Marseilles, even to lose you have to know how to fight. (p. 39)

The novel is infused with the pungent aromas of the city, particularly the local dishes and other regional specialities. There are frequent references to herbs and spices (mint, basil, thyme, cumin and coriander), seafood (bream, bass and cod cheeks) and local wines/spirits (rosé, pastis and cassis). 

Secondly, but no less importantly, there is the characterisation. In Fabio, Izzo has created a compelling individual, a fully fleshed-out character for the reader to invest in. Like Izzo himself, Fabio is the son of immigrant parents, a representative of the interethnic mix that characterises Marseilles.

With his strong principles and firm belief in social justice, Fabio is considered to be something of an anomaly within the Marseilles police – more akin to a youth counsellor or social worker than a hard-nosed cop. Much of his time is spent in the projects, operating within a society that is becoming increasingly intolerant. It is here that the youths of the neighbourhood hang out, typically sons of immigrants with little in the way of jobs, hopes or futures to look forward to. Instead, they ride the trains, listening to rap music, using the walls and windows of the carriages as tom-toms, beating in time with the pulsating rhythms.

The kids were a bit confused. I guessed they didn’t have a leader. They were just fooling around. Trying to annoy people, to provoke them. For the hell of it. But it might cost them their lives. A bullet could so easily go astray. I opened the paper again. The one with the ghetto blaster started up again. Another started knocking on the window, but not so loudly this time. Testing the water. The others were watching, winking, smiling knowingly, nudging each other with their elbows. Just kids. (pp. 73–75)

At heart, Fabio is something of a loner, a man who tends to retreat into his own territory – perhaps more comfortable with his own rules and codes than those of a shared partnership. Nevertheless, there are various significant women in Fabio’s life: from the sex-worker, Marie-Lou, to the freelance journalist, Babette, to an old flame, Lole, a woman whose relationship history also encompasses Manu and Ugo. Moreover, there is the sense of guilt Fabio feels over Leila, the Arab girl who clearly wanted to take things further when the pair were together a year or so earlier. Despite being attracted to Leila, Fabio was mindful of holding back, fearful of getting involved with someone so young and emotionally vulnerable. Now Fabio is left wondering what would have happened if their relationship had gone further at the time. Maybe Leila would still be alive with a promising life ahead of her? It’s impossible to tell…

In summary, then, Total Chaos is a terrific noir, a compelling opening to a trilogy with a visceral sense of place. Highly recommended to loves of crime fiction with a sociological edge.

Total Chaos is published by Europa Editions; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

Recent Reads, the Vintage Crime Edition – Agatha Christie and Margaret Millar

A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie (1950)

A classic Miss Marple mystery – possibly one of her best, although I’ll let other, more seasoned readers be the judge of that.

The appearance of a most unusual announcement in the Chipping Cleghorn Gazette sets the residents of this sleepy rural village all of a flutter.

‘A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.’

Suitably intrigued, various friends of Letitia Blacklock, the owner of Little Paddocks, gather together at the cottage at the appointed time later that day. The belief is that some kind of parlour game will take place – the sort of murder mystery where guests adopt various roles, someone gets ‘killed’, and everyone else has to guess the murderer’s identity. However, Letitia herself knows nothing about it. Maybe her cousin, Patrick, also resident at the Paddocks, has arranged it all as a joke? It’s hard to tell…

Just as the clock strikes 6.30 p.m., the lights go out, leaving the drawing-room in complete darkness. The door swings open with a crash; a powerful flashlight is shone around the room; a man’s voice shouts ‘Stick ‘em up, I tell you!’; and a series of three gunshots rings out. When someone flicks open their lighter, it is clear that the intruder – a masked assailant – is dead. Turns out he is known to Letitia, although not very well – a waiter she had encountered while staying at a hotel who subsequently approached her, unsuccessfully, with a sob story for money.

At first, the police are inclined to believe the incident was some kind of botched attempt at burglary. But once Inspector Craddock starts digging around, it seems that theory doesn’t quite add up. Murder is suspected, a crime almost certainly committed by someone attending the gathering on the evening in question. Before long, Miss Marple becomes involved in the case, gently probing the suspects in her own unassuming way. Her technique of subtly dropping ‘innocent’ questions into the conversation is very effective indeed.

As ever with Christie, the characterisation is great, and no one is quite who they might seem at first sight. Living at the Paddocks with Letitia are her cousins, Patrick and Julia, her childhood friend, Dora (a complete scatterbrain), a widow named Philippa, and the German cook, Mitzi, a suspicious/paranoid woman whose family were killed in the war. Among the guests, we have a retired Colonel and his partner, two busybodyish ‘country’ types who share a house together, and a kindly yet forthright vicar’s wife.

I’d quite forgotten how funny Christie can be – she really is very amusing! Here are the two ‘country’ spinsters trying to re-enact the murder to jog their memories of the scene.

‘Tuck your hair up, Murgatroyd, and take this trowel. Pretend it’s a revolver.’

‘Oh,’ said Miss Murgatroyd, nervously.

‘All right. It won’t bite you. Now come along to the kitchen door. You’re going to be the burglar. You stand here. Now you’re going into the kitchen to hold up a lot of nit-wits. Take the torch. Switch it on.’

‘But it’s broad daylight!’

‘Use your imagination, Murgatroyd. Switch it on.’

Miss Murgatroyd did so, rather clumsily, shifting the trowel under one arm while she did so.

‘Now then,’ said Mrs Hinchcliffe, ‘off you go. Remember the time you played Hermia in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream at the Women’s Institute? Act. Give it all you’ve got. “Stick ‘em up!” Those are your lines–and don’t ruin them by saying “Please.”

As a writer, Christie uses dialogue to great effect – not only to move the action forward but to reveal telling insights into character too. It’s very skilfully done.

The mystery itself is supremely well-plotted (surely a given where this author is concerned). Various subtle clues are dropped in along the way, from the significance of names and identities to the importance of little details in the drawing-room layout. The resolution, when it comes, is suitably twisty and satisfying, with Miss Marple’s deductions proving vital to Inspector Craddock’s investigations.

The post-war setting is beautifully evoked too, particularly the sense of a country undergoing social change. Fifteen years earlier, England was a different place, where everyone in the village knew who everyone else was. But in the late 1940s, things seem very different; nobody quite knows who anyone is anymore, especially as so many people effectively ‘disappeared’ during the war, making an individual’s real identity somewhat challenging to verify.

There were people, as he [Inspector Craddock] knew only too well, who were going about the country with borrowed identities—borrowed from people who had met sudden death by ‘incidents’ in the cities. There were organizations who bought up identities, who faked identity and ration cards–there were a hundred small rackets springing into being. You could check up–but it would take time–and time was what he hadn’t got…

A Murder is Announced ticks all the boxes for me, one of those mysteries where everyone is a suspect and longstanding secrets are revealed.

A Stranger in My Grave by Margaret Millar (1960)

This wasn’t quite as satisfying for me, so I’ll aim to keep this summary reasonably brief.

The novel’s premise is an interesting one. Daisy Harker is tormented by a recurring nightmare, a dream in which she comes across a gravestone bearing her name and date of birth. According to the inscription, thirty-year-old Daisy died four years earlier in December 1955. Convinced that something highly significant must have happened on that date, she employs a private detective, Steve Pinata, to help her reconstruct the day as fully as possible. Maybe then she can deal with whatever consequences it throws up and hopefully move on.

Daisy is married, but her relationship with husband Jim is not a happy one. Jim and his controlling mother-in-law, Mrs Fielding (who lives in a cottage 200 yards from the Harkers’ house), treat Daisy like a child, casting her in the role of ‘happy innocent’ – a fact Daisy finds very frustrating. While Jim is somewhat sceptical about the wisdom of Daisy trying to uncover the meaning of her dreams, he plays along with it, just to keep her occupied.

As Pinata begins to investigate Daisy’s movements on the day in question, more information comes to light, bringing other characters into the mix. Perhaps the most notable of these is Daisy’s father, Mr Fielding, something of a drifter and alcoholic who been absent for the last three years.     

For the most part, the central characters are well drawn, particularly Pinata, an orphan whose parentage and family history are largely unknown. (Millar has a longstanding interest in issues of race and gender inequality.) Daisy, however, seems more lightly sketched. She is never much more than a cypher for me – someone to hang the narrative around as opposed to an individual with a real sense of depth. The plot too is rather convoluted. At 300 pp. this mystery could have benefited from a bit of filleting here and there to help keep things pacey and tight.

Millar’s prose, however, is very good. This author can write! Her dialogue is excellent; it’s well-crafted and naturalistic. There are some nice sinister touches along the way too, indications that Jim may be controlling the situation, effectively keeping certain information hidden from Daisy’s view.

I should play along with her, Jim thought. That was Adam’s advice. God knows, my own approach doesn’t work. (p. 74)

If you’re interested in reading Margaret Millar, then I’d suggest you try either Vanish in an Instant or The Listening Walls – both very good. They’re tighter than Stranger, and more satisfying as a result.

A Stranger in My Grave is published by Pushkin Press; my thanks to the publisher for kindly providing a review copy.

The Doomsters by Ross Macdonald

It’s been a while since I last read anything by Ross Macdonald – an American writer who is now considered to be one of the leading proponents of hardboiled fiction. These novels typically feature a tough, unsentimental style of crime writing in which the protagonist – usually a private eye – battles against the systemic violence and corruption that exists within families, corporations and other powerful institutions. Several of Macdonald’s books feature Lew Archer – a detective with a conscience – a fundamentally decent man in pursuit of the truth, even though he’s almost certainly going to get roughed up along the way.

The Doomsters (1958) is book #7 in the Lew Archer series – a solid entry but probably not up there with the best. It does, however, contain some very interesting elements, enough to make it an essential part of the set for fans of the genre – more of this later. In addition, it also features several aspects that will be familiar to readers of the Archer novels. More specifically: twisted, dysfunctional families with dark secrets to hide; wayward children seemingly intent on manipulating situations for personal gain; highly damaged individuals with complex psychological issues; and finally, elements of greed, murder, blackmail and guilt.

As the novel opens, Archer is woken from his sleep by a caller at the door. The visitor is twenty-four-year-old Carl Hallman, an escapee from a mental institution who has been given Archer’s details by a mutual friend. While a pre-breakfast client is the last thing Archer needs at that particular moment, his curiosity gets the better of him and he invites the young man in.

Carl swiftly reveals that he was committed to the State Hospital shortly after the death of his wealthy father, Senator Hallman, some six months ago. Moreover, Carl’s elder brother, Jerry, doesn’t want Carl to be released – it turns out that Jerry, along with the family physician, Dr Gartland, was the driving force behind Carl’s incarceration. (While Carl’s wife, Mildred actually signed the relevant papers, the committal appears to have taken place following pressure from Jerry and Gartland.) According to Carl, it seems likely that Jerry and his wife Zinnie paid Dr Gartland to have him put away, possibly for the rest of his life, leaving Jerry free to benefit from the bulk of his father’s estate. There is even a suggestion that Jerry may have been involved in his father’s death – initially thought to have been due to heart failure, but the circumstances surrounding the incident could be considered suspicious.

Having digested all this, Archer persuades Carl to accompany him back to the hospital, leaving the detective free to do some digging. Tired and confused, Carl reluctantly agrees, only to overpower Archer en route, making off with the detective’s car in the process. With Carl on the run again, Archer finds himself embroiled in a complex web of manipulation and deceit. All too soon, Jerry is found dead – shot twice in the back with his mother’s old gun, a weapon thought to have been in Carl’s possession. Despite Carl being the chief suspect, Archer has enough sympathy for the young man to carry on investigating the situation – as far as Archer sees things, the powerful and corrupt may be trying to frame the damaged and vulnerable in this family.  

I won’t dwell on the plot for too long, save to say that for the most part it’s pretty compelling with a good level of intrigue along the way. That said, the resolution to the various crimes feels somewhat convoluted and laboured, requiring several pages of explanation in the form of a confession of sorts.

Nevertheless, what makes this such an interesting entrant in the series is the degree of self-realisation Archer experiences towards the end of the investigation. Firstly, there is a sense that our protagonist is coming to terms with the fact that not everything in this world is black and white; there are shades of grey in the fight against crime, just as there are in so many other aspects of life.

I was an ex-cop, and the words came hard. I had to say them, though, if I didn’t want to be stuck for the rest of my life with the old black-and-white picture, the idea that there were just good people and bad people, and everything would be hunky-dory if the good people locked up the bad ones or wiped them out with small personalized nuclear weapons.

It was a very comforting idea, and bracing to the ego. For years I’d been using it to justify my own activities, fighting fire with fire and violence with violence, running on fool’s errands while the people died: a slightly earthbound Tarzan in a slightly paranoid jungle. Landscape with figure of a hairless ape.

It was time I traded the picture in on one that included a few of the finer shades. (pp. 237–238)

Secondly, Archer must face up to an element of culpability or guilt, specifically in relation to the crimes that have just taken place. It transpires that Archer was approached three years earlier by someone from his past – a man Archer didn’t want to associate with as it reminded him of former transgressions, things he had hoped to leave well behind. Had Archer listened to this man at the time then maybe some of the tragedies involved the Hallmans could have been prevented. It’s an interesting twist, one that ends the novel on a contemplative note.

As ever with Macdonald, there is some nice characterisation, especially with the female members of the family. In this scene, Archer is observing Mildred, Carl’s birdlike wife.

She listened with her head bowed, biting one knuckle like a doleful child. But there was nothing childish about the look she gave me. It held a startled awareness, as if she’d had to grow up in a hurry, painfully. I had a feeling that she was the one who had suffered most in the family trouble. There was resignation in her posture, and in the undertones of her voice: (p. 38)

The sense of place is evocative too, capturing the cultural ‘feel’ of the Southern California setting. (Archer’s world-weary demeanour is also conveyed here, particularly at the end of the passage.)

The Red Barn was a many-windowed building which stood in the center of a blacktop lot on the corner. Its squat pentagonal structure was accentuated by neon tubing along the eaves and corners. Inside this brilliant red cage, a tall-hatted short-order cook kept several waitresses running between his counter and the cars in the lot. The waitresses wore red uniforms and little red caps which made them look like bellhops in skirts. The blended odors of gasoline fumes and frying grease changed in my nostrils to a foolish old hot-rod sorrow, nostalgia for other drive-ins along roads I knew in prewar places before people started dying on me. (p. 174)

So, in summary – not a perfect entrant in the Lew Archer series, but an intriguing one nonetheless. One for completists, perhaps?

The Doomsters is published by Vintage Crime / Black Lizard; personal copy.

The Listening Walls by Margaret Millar

Last year I read and enjoyed Vanish in an Instant (1952), a tightly-plotted murder mystery by the Canadian-American crime writer, Margaret Millar. The Listening Walls is a later work – published some seven years after Vanish in 1959. If anything, TLW is a more accomplished novel, certainly in terms of its premise and insights into the secrets and petty disagreements of suburban life. Certain aspects of the story reminded me of novels by other American crime writers I love and admire – in particular, Patricia Highsmith and Dorothy B. Hughes. All of these writers – Millar included – seem to share an interest in their characters’ psychology and motivations, the difference between an individual’s public persona and their underlying inner world.

The Listening Walls opens in Mexico City where Wilma Wyatt has persuaded her closest friend, Amy Kellogg, to accompany her on a get-away-from-it-all kind of holiday as a break from the routine of their lives in San Francisco. Oddly enough, the two women couldn’t be more different from one another; while Wilma is intolerant, rude and domineering, Amy is shy, submissive and mouse-like, frequently embarrassed by her friend’s disdainful treatment of the Mexican chambermaid.

Amy Kellogg, standing by the window, made a sound of embarrassed protest, a kind of combination of ssshh and oh dear. The sound was Amy’s own, the resonance of her personality, and an expert could have detected in it the echoes of all the things she hadn’t had the nerve to say in her lifetime, to her parents, her brother Gill, her husband Rupert, her old friend Wilma. She was not, as her brother Gill frequently pointed out, getting any younger. It was time for her to take a firm stand, be decisive and businesslike. Don’t let people walk all over you, he often said, while his own boots went tramp, crunch, grind. Make your own decisions, he said, but every time she did make a decision it was taken away from her and cast aside or improved, as if it were a toy a child had made, crude and grotesque. (pp. 11–12)

For Wilma, the break is supposed to be a chance to get over her recent divorce and other life events; however, in truth, she seems more interested in complaining about the standards of service at the hotel than trying to relax or forget about her cares.

At an early point in the story, there is a dramatic development at the hotel when Wilma falls to her death from the balcony of her bedroom, a room she has been sharing with Amy. Moreover, Amy is discovered lying unconscious in the same room, presumably having fainted from shock following the incident involving Wilma. As a consequence, Amy is admitted to hospital for a few days to recover; meanwhile, her husband Rupert, a bored yet moderately successful accountant, travels to Mexico with the aim of accompanying Amy home.

As the story unravels, layer upon layer of mystery is revealed. There are reports that the two women were observed drinking heavily in the hotel bar before the fatal incident, something that seems entirely out of character for Amy if not for Wilma. The presence of a freeloading barfly, an American named O’Donnell, was also noted and considered to be somewhat suspicious. Then, most worrying of all, Amy disappears from her home immediately following her return from Mexico City, leaving a letter of explanation with Rupert to be delivered to her overbearing brother, Gill.

Gill, for his part, refuses to believe Amy’s reason’s for taking off so suddenly – namely, that Wilma’s death has prompted Amy to reconsider her life, sparking a need for independence and a break from the reliance on others. In short, Gill is convinced that a) Rupert is hiding something, and b) Amy’s letter is a fake, possibly extracted under duress; so, he hires a local PI, Elmer Dodd, to investigate the situation further.

That’s probably enough in terms of the plot; to say any more at this stage might spoil things, but there’s plenty of intrigue at the heart of this story to maintain the reader’s interest.

For a crime novel, the characterisation is refreshingly nuanced. With the possible exception of Elmer Dodd, no one is quite who or what they might seem on the surface. As the story plays out, different facets of their personalities are revealed, mostly through the uncovering of various motivations and behaviours. The minor characters are nicely judged too, from Rupert’s devoted secretary, the idiosyncratic Miss Burton, to Gill’s private eye, the level-headed Elmer Dodd.

Millar’s style is very engaging, with a good balance between descriptive passages and dialogue to move the action along. The atmosphere is well conveyed too, especially as the novel approaches its denouement.

Along the ocean front waves angered by the wind were flinging themselves against the shore. Spray rose twenty feet in the air and swept across the highway like rain, leaving the surface sleek and treacherous. Dodd kept the speedometer at thirty, but the thundering of the sea and the great gusts of wind that shook and rattled the car gave him a sensation of speed and danger. The road, which he’d traveled a hundred times, seemed unfamiliar in the noisy darkness; it took turns he couldn’t remember, past places he’d never seen. Just south of the zoo, the road curved inland to meet Skyline Boulevard. (p. 160)

Some readers might find the final solution to the mystery behind Wilma’s death and Amy’s disappearance a little convoluted. Nevertheless, I’m happy to go with it, especially as the ride along the way is so enjoyable, full of potential clues and red herrings to fox the reader. There are some darkly comic touches here and there too, nicely incorporated with the rest of the narrative.

All in all, this is a very welcome addition to the Pushkin Press/Pushkin Vertigo list; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

My books of the year, 2019 – favourites from a year of reading

2019 has been the year of the big series for me. I’ve read more books than ever this year, mostly due to being laid up at home for the best part of three months while recovering from a major fracture. Not an experience I wish to repeat, but it did give me the time and mental energy to work through some lengthy sequences of books, many of which feature in my highlights of the year.

Regular readers may also recognise one or two familiar names – Penelope Fitzgerald is here again, as is William Trevor. Nevertheless, there are several *new* entrants too – with books by Anita Brookner, J. L. Carr and Laura Cumming, to name but a few. (I’ve been reading more memoirs this year, a trend reflected in the range of choices included here.)

Anyway, without further ado, here are my favourites from 2019 in order of reading – a baker’s dozen of brilliant books. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to others. I’ve summarised each one in this post, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Look at Me by Anita Brookner

Perceptive, engrossing and enigmatic, Look at Me – Anita Brookner’s third novel – is something of a minor masterpiece, probing as it does the inner life of a lonely young woman who experiences a brief period of renaissance, only to be scarred by the torrid experience. Frances is drawn into the seductive world of a glamorous, bohemian couple, then cast aside like a discarded toy. Few writers can capture the acute pain of social isolation and dashed dreams quite like Anita Brookner, and this novel has to be one of her best, most nuanced explorations of these themes.

At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald

Set in a London stage school in the early 1960s, At Freddie’s is another of Penelope Fitzgerald’s marvellous tragicomedies. Many of the familiar elements from the author’s early novels are here – isolated women; hopelessbefuddled men; precocious children – all caught up in a somewhat eccentric, idiosyncratic community. Once again, Fitzgerald has drawn on some of her own experiences in writing this book – in this instance, her time spent as a teacher at the Italia Conti drama school during the decade in question. An excellent novel, both darkly comic and poignant, shot through with a deep understanding of the foibles of human nature.

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

A magnificent twelve-novel sequence exploring the political and cultural milieu of the English upper classes in the early-mid 20th century. Impossible to summarise in just a few sentences, Powell’s masterpiece features one of literature’s finest creations, the odious Kenneth Widmerpool. It’s fascinating to follow Widmerpool, Jenkins and many other individuals over time, observing their development as they flit in and out of one another’s lives. The author’s ability to convey a clear picture of a character – their appearance, their disposition, even their way of moving around a room – is second to none. Quite simply the highlight of my reading year.

More Was Lost by Eleanor Perényi

A remarkable memoir by the American-born writer, Eleanor Perényi. In essence, the memoir covers the early years of Eleanor’s marriage to Zsiga Perényi, a relatively poor Hungarian baron whom she meets while visiting Europe with her parents in 1937. It’s a gem of a book, both charming and poignant in its depiction of a vanishing and unstable world, all but swept away by the ravages of war. By turns beautiful, illuminating, elegiac and sad; a rare book that feels expansive in scope yet intimate in detail all at once.

Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marias (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

I wasn’t sure about the first book in this trilogy when I read it back at the end of 2018, but after a longish break from the series my perseverance with it paid off. Widely considered as Marias’ masterpiece, Your Face Tomorrow is a tremendous achievement, a thought-provoking treatise on truth, betrayal, coercion and culpability. When viewed as a whole, the narrative raises some key questions about the nature of violence, particularly whether the final outcome can ever justify the means. An intricate series that remains frighteningly relevant today.

The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St Aubyn

Another of my recuperation reads, this sequence charts the turbulent life of the central character, Patrick Melrose, from his lowest and darkest moments to something approaching recovery and self-repair. It is a story in which the sins and failures of fathers and mothers shape the lives of their children in the most destructive of ways. When read as a series, the novels are bruising yet immensely satisfying as they give the reader such a deep insight into the central character’s inner life, complete with its anxieties, complexities and self-destructive tendencies. By turns astute, painful, shocking and excruciatingly funny, this is a fiercely intelligent examination of dysfunctional families.

A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr

A sublime, deeply affecting book about love, loss and the restorative power of art. Set in small Yorkshire village in the heady summer of 1920, Carr’s novella is narrated by Tom Birkin, a young man still dealing with the effects of shell-shock following the traumas of the First World War. Above all, this is a beautifully written novella imbued with a strong sense of longing – a sense of nostalgia for an idyllic world. Best read in summer to reflect the book’s atmosphere.

Love and Summer by William Trevor

Set in the idyllic countryside of Ireland in the 1950s, Love and Summer is a gentle, contemplative novel of lost love and missed chances. Trevor perfectly captures the rhythm of life in a small farming community, the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business, where any deviation from the expected norm is noticed and judged. It is a world populated by lonely, damaged individuals, people who expect little from life save for a simple existence with few opportunities or openings. Beautifully written in a simple, unadorned style; fans of Colm Tóibín would likely enjoy this one.

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (tr. Gillian Harcourt)

I loved this. A beautiful, dreamlike novella shot through with a strong sense of isolation that permeates the mind. Originally published as a series of short stories, Tsushima’s novella focuses on a year in the life of a young mother, recently separated from her somewhat ambivalent husband. There is a sense of intimacy and honesty in the portrayal of the narrator’s feelings, something that adds to the undoubted power of the book. Themes of isolation, alienation and disassociation are heightened by the somewhat ghostly nature of the setting – an apartment located in a commercial building where the mother and child are the sole occupants at night. Strangely unsettling in tone yet thoroughly compelling.

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

This is a challenging book to summarise in just a few sentences, particularly given the twisted nature of the narrative (I’m not even going to try to describe it.) Once again, Spark has crafted an unforgettable story that disturbs as much as it intrigues, leaving the reader both unsettled and fascinated by her somewhat distorted view of the world. She is a remarkable writer – uncompromising in terms of vision, style and the execution of her art. Utterly brilliant and completely bonkers all at once – a book that will likely divide opinion.

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

This absorbing memoir revolves around the story of Cumming’s mother, Betty Elston – more specifically, her disappearance as a young child, snatched away from the beach at Chapel St Leonards in 1929. What I love about this book is the way Cumming uses her skills as an art critic to shed new light on the unanswered questions surrounding her mother’s childhood. More specifically, the importance of images, details, perspective and context, in addition to hard evidence and facts. A remarkable story exquisitely conveyed in a thoughtful, elegant style.

Childhood, Youth, Dependency by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Tiina Nunnally, Michael Favala Goldman)

When viewed together, these books form The Copenhagen Trilogy, a striking series of reflections by the revered Danish writer and poet, Tove Ditlevsen, who grew up in a down-at-heel district of Copenhagen in the years following WW1. The books chart Ditlevsen’s lonely childhood, awkward adolescence and troubled adult life in a style that is simple, candid, striking and elegant. There is a frankness to the author’s account of her life, one that gives the books a sense of intimacy and immediacy that feels hard to resist.

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Just as good if not better than its predecessor, Olive Kitteridge. Here we find Olive in her mid-seventies to early-eighties, dealing with the challenges of everyday life in her own inimitable way. While there are many things to love and admire about this book, it is Strout’s insight into the fragility of our existence that feels most affecting. There is some brilliant writing here about the loneliness and terror of old age (the anxiety is palpable), the realisation of lost opportunities and past failings; and ultimately the fear of death itself. This is a profoundly moving book – a highly perceptive portrait of a genuine individual and the small-town community in which she lives.

So, another very satisfying year of reading for me. I really have read some excellent books in 2019. (My one regret is not having enough space to include a favourite crime/noir novel of the year – if I had to choose, it would be The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith, a writer whose books never fail to disappoint me.)

All that remains is for me to wish you all the very best for the festive season and the year ahead – may they be filled with plenty of bookish delights!

The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith

Regular readers may be aware of my fondness for Patricia Highsmith and her interest in the psychology of domestic noir. Her 1957 novel, Deep Water, remains one of my favourites, along with the Ripley series of course. The Blunderer (published in 1954) sees Highsmith in familiar territory, exploring themes of guilt, obsession and the possibility that an ordinary, everyday man might resort to murder if pushed far enough. It’s an intriguing novel, one that will suit lovers of dark, well-crafted fiction with a psychological edge.

The story opens with a swift yet brutal murder, on the face of it a seemingly perfect crime. The perpetrator is Melchior Kimmel, a cuckolded husband who murders his wife on the sly while the latter is on a bus ride from Newark to Albany. To establish a suitable alibi for the night in question, Kimmel buys a ticket at his local cinema, seeks out an acquaintance in the audience who will recall his presence, and then slips out of a side door unnoticed. All that remains is for Kimmel to drive in the direction of Albany to intercept the bus during a rest stop. Once there, he lures his wife, Helen, away from the other passengers and kills her, dumping her body by the highway before returning to Newark.

When the crime is reported in the newspapers, it catches the eye of Walter Stackhouse, a frazzled, thirty-year-old lawyer whose life is being made a misery by his wife, Clara, a successful yet neurotic real estate agent. Clara dislikes pretty much all of Walter’s friends whom she has systematically driven away with her lack or tolerance and unreasonable behaviour. In fact, the situation has got to the point where Walter is no longer invited or expected to be able to go out with the boys, such is Clara’s hold over him. While Walter still finds Clara physically attractive, he is becoming increasingly fed up with her behaviour, especially once she resorts to tantrums or flare-ups. So, when Walter meets Ellie, a generous and attractive young woman who is sympathetic to his situation, it’s not long before the two of them embark on an affair.

While Walter can only fantasise about killing his wife, Kimmel has committed the deed in reality – a point that Walter successfully guesses when he sees the article about Mrs Kimmel in the papers. Thus begins a chain of fateful events as our protagonist becomes increasingly obsessed with Kimmel and his potential involvement in Helen’s murder. The more Walter thinks about it, the more convinced he is of Kimmel’s guilt – to the extent that he decides to take a trip to Kimmel’s bookstore in Newark to have a look at the man himself. In essence, Walter wonders whether he might be able to tell if Kimmel is a murderer just by observing him.

Having found the store, Walter orders a book from Kimmel as a ruse for his visit, but he also makes the mistake of mentioning Helen’s death, a point that immediately puts Kimmel on his guard…

Walter looked at the broad, plump back of Kimmel’s right hand. The light from over the desk fell on it, and Walter could see a spattering of freckles and no hair at all. Suddenly Walter felt sure that Kimmel knew he had come to the shop only to look at him, to assuage some sordid curiosity. Kimmel knew now that he lived in Long Island. Kimmel was standing very close to him. A sudden fear came over Walter that Kimmel might lift his thick slab of a hand and knock his head off his neck. (pp. 72–73)

Then, in a dramatic twist of fate, Walter’s wife, Clara, takes a night-time bus trip to Harrisburg to visit her dying mother. Still obsessed with the details of Helen Kimmel’s murder, Walter stupidly follows the bus in his car, just as he supposes Kimmel would have done on the night of his wife’s murder. However, when Walter tries to find his wife at the rest stop, Clara herself is nowhere to be seen, so he drives home and goes to see his lover, Ellie.

Events take a turn for the worse the next morning when Clara’s body is found at the bottom of a cliff near the rest stop in question. At first, the death is thought to be suicide, a conclusion that fits with Clara’s rather neurotic temperament and medical history. However, once the zealous detective Corby appears on the scene, things begin to look a lot more uncomfortable for Walter, especially once his interest in the Kimmel case comes to light.

In a complex game of cat-and-mouse, Corby begins to play Walter and Kimmel off against one another, primarily in the belief that at least one of them will crack under pressure. Kimmel in particular stands firm; nevertheless, he remains furious with Walter for his reckless behaviour. In effect, Walter’s blundering actions and insatiable curiosity about Helen’s murder have effectively led the police straight to Kimmel’s door. Without the titular ‘blunderer’, Kimmel might well have been home free.

As the suspicions surrounding Clara’s death increase, Walter becomes increasingly isolated as his behaviour, and ultimately his innocence, are called into question – not only by the police but by his closest friends too. Unsurprisingly, the situation intensifies, especially once Walter’s obsession with Kimmel is made public. Even though Walter didn’t actually kill Clara, there comes a point when he virtually imagines having done it, so exhausted is he by Corby’s relentless questioning.

Walter got into his car and headed for Lennert. He should have a brandy, he thought. He felt jumpy, on guard, against what he didn’t know. He felt guilty, as if he had killed her, and his tired mind traced back to the moments of waiting around the bus. He saw himself walking with Clara by some thick trees at the side of the road. Walter moved his head from side to side, involuntarily, as if he were dodging something. It hadn’t happened. He was positive. But just then the road began to wobble before his eyes, and he gripped the wheel hard. Lights skidded and blurred on the black road. Then he realized that it was raining. (p. 104)

The Blunderer is a very effective noir – intriguing, well-paced and compelling. Once again, Highsmith demonstrates her ability to explore the psychological motives and behaviours of a seemingly ordinary protagonist, an everyman trapped in toxic marriage. In this instance, she is particularly strong on exploring the point at which idle curiosity tips over into an unhealthy obsession, signalling the point of no return. There is an inherent dichotomy in the central protagonist’s personality, which is both fascinating and believable; even though Walter knows something is a truly dangerous idea, he goes ahead and does it anyway, irrespective of the consequences. In some respects, this mirrors the push-pull nature of Walter’s relationship with Clara, the dynamic between attraction and repulsion that has characterised their situation in life.

A strange sensation ran through him at the touch of her fingers, a start of pleasure, of hatred, of a kind of hopeless tenderness that Walter crushed as soon as his mind recognized it. He had a sudden desire to embrace her hard at this last minute, then to fling her away from him. (p. 96)

This is a great choice for fans of dark, psychological fiction, particularly Highsmith’s The Cry of the Owl or Strangers on a Train. Those of you familiar with the latter may find certain similarities between the two novels, especially in terms of the exploration of obsession, guilt and fate, not to mention the ongoing fascination with murder.

The Blunderer is published by Virago Press; personal copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).

Mini Reviews – Barbara Comyns and E. C. R Lorac

A couple of additional mini reviews of recent reads – this time novels by the wonderfully off-kilter Barbara Comyns and the British crime writer, E. C. R. Lorac. Enjoy!

Mr Fox by Barbara Comyns (1987)

I discovered this little gem of a novel a few months ago via Heaven Ali’s excellent review, which you can find here. It’s very much in the style of one of Comyns’ earlier novels, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (1950), a book that made my ‘best of’ list back in 2017.

Like ‘Spoons’, Mr Fox features a rather childlike young woman who relates her story in an unassuming, conversational style. As the novel opens, Caroline Seymore and her three-year-old daughter, Jenny, have just been offered a place to live by their ‘friend’, Mr Fox, who makes his money via various underhand dealings – mostly tarting up dodgy cars plus some black-market activities here and there. (The novel is set at the start of WW2.)

Caroline has been on her own with Jenny for the past three years, trying to make a go of sub-letting rooms in a London house having inherited the lease after her mother’s death. Unfortunately for Caroline, the bailiffs and debt-collectors are rapidly closing in, leaving her virtually no other option but to accept Mr Fox’s offer however awful that may be.

I knew so little about him [Mr Fox] really. Perhaps he was an awful vicious man, or maybe he was cruel and bad-tempered or mean; perhaps he hoarded things like string and candle-ends in boxes under his bed, or he might even get drunk and beat people. Then I remembered all my creditors and thought perhaps I’d better risk all these things. Nothing could be worse than all those summonses and bowler-hatted debt collectors. (pp. 27-28)

Mr Fox is an odd little man; kindly and generous one minute but prone to moody behaviour the next. In particular, he finds Jenny’s constant chattering somewhat annoying, frequently disturbing the household when he wants to enjoy a rest. While Caroline doesn’t share a bed with Mr Fox, she is expected to cook his meals – another aspect her benefactor finds fault with. As a consequence, Caroline often feels sad and homesick, even though she has no other home to speak of. There are times when Caroline longs to escape from Mr Fox, but realistically there is nowhere else where she and Jenny can go.

With the advent of war looming on the horizon, Mr Fox decides they all need to get out of London for a while, so he shuts down his dodgy garage, securing a job in an aircraft factory instead. But life in the isolated town of Straws proves terribly grim for Caroline; it’s a shabby, dismal place where no one seems to have any spark or money.

I became more and more depressed and never bothered to carry my gas mask any more. It wasn’t the war that depressed me so much but life at Straws. It was the most dreary, lonely place in the world, and it made Mr Fox unbearable. He became frightfully bad-tempered and nervy and had completely changed from the dashing kind of crook he used to be; leading an honest life didn’t suit him at all. (p. 76)

As Ali has already written about this slim yet very affecting book, I’m not going to dwell on the plot, only to say that we follow Caroline and Jenny as they try to make their way in an uncertain world – sometimes aided and abetted by Mr Fox, other times not. Instead, I’ll try to highlight a few things I liked about the novel, just to give you a feel for the style.

Like Sophia in Spoons, Caroline is a very engaging narrator, the childlike naivety and innocence adding greatly to her charm. There are times when Caroline’s matter-of-fact tone of voice may seem at odds with the horror of the situations she is describing, but in practice this style of delivery makes her predicament feel all the more horrific. (In an effort to earn her keep with Mr Fox, Caroline spends a terrible week working as a dance hostess in a ghastly club, a role she is ill-equipped for with her innocence and simplicity.)

In spite of the rather bleak subject matter – poverty, homelessness, a desperate reliance on the kindness of others, particularly men – Comyns lightens the tone with some nicely judged humour. There are several moments when Caroline is unintentionally funny, coming out with the most wonderful turns of phrase such as this description of a man who invites her for dinner after they meet in the club.

I came through the main entrance of Rules after getting rather entangled in the swing doors. But there he was, looking like a bulldog crossed with a hot-cross bun. (p. 51)

Comyns’ evocation of wartime London is superb, replete with air-raid sirens, explosions and bombed-out houses. There is a truly terrifying scene in which Caroline has to run barefoot while shielding Mr Fox’s dog, desperately trying to find shelter during a chaotic raid. Moreover, what comes through very strongly from the narrative is the fluid nature of civilian life during the war. Caroline and Jenny are almost always on the move, barely able to stay more than a few months in any single place. The transient feel of everything – jobs, houses, possessions, even life itself – is both palpable and striking.

I absolutely loved this little novel by Comyns, which is by turns funny, evocative, honest and poignant. The ending in particular is very affecting, perfectly capturing the opportunistic nature of Mr Fox – a man forever on the make, constantly on the lookout for the next lucrative deal.

Fire in the Thatch by E. C. R. Lorac (1946)

I’d been looking to read E. C. R. Lorac (Edith Caroline Rivett) for a while, particularly following positive reports by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and one or two other readers on Twitter. So, I was delighted to find a copy of one her novels, Fire in the Thatch, in a local charity shop fairly recently, especially as it was in near-perfect condition. Happily, my first experience of this author’s work was a great success, definitely one I’d recommend to others.

In short, Fire in the Thatch is a very entertaining entrant in the British Library Crime Classics series, a traditional Golden-Age novel to brighten a dull weekend. When Little Thatch cottage is destroyed in a fire, killing its new tenant, the reclusive army veteran Nicholas Vaughan, the dogged Chief Inspector Macdonald is drafted in to investigate.

Set in the beautiful countryside of Devon, this is a thoroughly intriguing mystery with interesting, distinctive characters (many of whom are shadowy), and a deep-rooted sense of place. Lorac demonstrates a real appreciation of the farming community’s passion for the landscape and traditional customs. These aspects of the novel are beautifully portrayed. The writing is excellent too, very engaging and precise.

Hayley at Desperate Reader has posted a lovely review of this, as has Guy, so I shall direct you to their posts. In the meantime, I’ll be keeping an eye out for more books by Lorac, particularly those featuring Macdonald, the rather engaging detective at the heart of Thatch – Lorac’s compelling portrayal of this determined character is one of the book’s many delights.