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review 2018-04-20 22:28
A murder is committed -- and hilarity ensues.
The Moving Toyshop - Edmund Crispin
The Moving Toyshop - Edmund Crispin,Paul Panting
Quick Curtain - Alan Melville
Quick Curtain - Ben Allen,Alan Melville

Both Edmund Crispin's Moving Toyshop and Alan Melville's Quick Curtain are mentioned in the "Making Fun of Murder" chapter of Martin Edwards's Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.  Both are excellent examples of writers taking something as horrific as murder and turning it right around and into a farce, albeit (as Dorothy L. Sayers remarked in her review of Melville's book) at the expense of a realistic description of proper police procedure.  But then, a surfeit of realism isn't necessarily what either of these authors was aiming for.

 

Which doesn't mean that their observations on society, or the segment thereof being portrayed (academia in Crispin's case, the world of showbiz and the theatre in Melville's) aren't spot on satire.  In fact, if read in that spirit, they are, in many respects, as timely today as they were when originally written:

"Tuesday, June 18th, you will have noticed, was the great day [of the musical company's London opening].  On Sunday, June 16th, when most of the Blue Music company were still in Manchester [...], seven grim females parked seven rickety campstools outside the gallery entrance of the Grosvenor Theatre.

 

They were joined a little later in the evening by four more females and a lone male.  They unpacked sandwiches and munched.  They uncorked thermos flasks and drank hot coffee out of the aluminium tops of the flasks.  They discussed with one another Mr. Douglas, Miss Astle, Mr. Baker, Mr. Douglas's past successes, Miss Astle's last divorce, Mr. Baker's profile -- both the port and the starboard view.  They half slept.  They suffered endless agonies on their stupid, unreliable campstools; they each contracted stiff necks and shooting pains in the lower reaches of the spine; they were photographed for their pains by a man in a dirty waterproof and appeared on the back page of the Daily Post under the title 'Gallery Enthusiasts' Three-Day Wait for New Douglas Show.'  They were stll there on Tuesday morning, proudly in the van of a fair-sized queue."

 

(Alan Melville, Quick Curtain)

Harry Potter and Apple gadgets, anyone?

 

 

Edmund Crispin's Moving Toyshop concerns the temporary metamorphosis of a grocer's shop into (you guessed it) a toyshop for purposes of the concealment of the scene of a murder; a plan that goes haywire when one of the book's two protagonists, a poet friend of Oxford don (and star of this book series) Gervase Fen, accidentally stumbles into the temporarily morphed shop, shortly after the dastardly deed has been committed.  Crispin's particular forte were hilarious chase scenes, of which this book contains several, perhaps the most notable being the two amateur sleuths' chase after a young woman in the midst of the Oxford Händel Society's rehearsal of Brahms's Schicksalslied in the Sheldonian Theatre:

"The girl with the blue eyes and the golden hair was embedded in the very middle of the altos, and there was no way to get near her except through the basses, who stood nearby, behind the orchestra.  Accordingly, they hacked out a path between the instrumentalists, under the envenomed gaze of Dr Artemus Rains [the conductor].  The second horn, a sandy, undersized man, went quite out of tune with indignation.  Brahms thundered and trumpeted about their ears. 'Blindly,' the chorus roared, 'blindly from one dread hour to another.'  They knocked over the music-stand of the tympanist, sweating with the efford of counting bars, so that he failed to come in at his last entry.

 

The haven of the basses achieved at last, a number of further difficulties presented themselves.  The Sheldonian is not particularly spacious, and the members of the large choir have to be herded together in conditions not unreminiscent of the Black Hole of Calcutta.  When Fen and Cadogan, pushing, perspiring, and creating a great deal of localized pother, had penetrated the basses to a certain distance (Cadogan shedding wicker basket, bootlaces, and dog-collar broadcast as he went) the could literally get no farther; they were wedged, and even the avenue by which they had come was now irrevocably closed and sealed. [...]

 

Dr. Rains leaned his spidery form forwards across the rostrum. 'Professor Fen --' he began in a silky voice.

 

But he was not allowed to finish.  The girl with the blue eyes, profiting by this sudden focusing of attention, had pushed her way through the altos and was now heading at a brisk pace towards the door.  Unnerved by this fresh interruption, Dr Rains swung round to glare at her.  Fen and Cadogan got on the move again with alacrity, clawing their way back through the basses and the orchestra without ceremony or restraint.  But this process delayed them, and the girl had been out of the hall at least half a minute by the time they reached open ground.  Dr. Rains watched them go with a theatrical expression of sardonic interst.

 

'Now that the English Faculty has left us,' Cadogan heard him say, 'we will go back to the letter L.' The rehearsal started afresh."

I've yet to see the BBC TV adaptation of this, but if handled well, this is not the only scene that would have made for much hilarity, never mind the novel's otherwise somewhat thin plot.

 

Alan Melville's Quick Curtain is, as shown already in the excerpt further above, a satire on the world of 1930s theatre and showbiz, where a murder occurring at the focal point of a bestselling new musical comedy is investigated (with many quips and witty asides) by a policeman and his journalist son.  Obviously, this premise in and of itself is more than merely a little preposterous, even for the 1930s, but if you're able to get past this point (Ms. Sayers obviously wasn't) and past the fact that the central plot device has been used about a million times since, there is much to enjoy here -- and Melville, who knew the world he was describing inside out, certainly doesn't mince words when it comes to the characterization of the chief players who, like those of another theatre insider turned mystery writer of the day, Ngaio Marsh, are thinly veiled take-downs on several real life stars -- yet Melville (like Marsh) kept the allusions just on the right side of the generic and light-hearted, without ever descending into outright character assassination.  (Well, he was making a living in that very world himself, after all.)  And he managed to maintain his light, almost absurdist approach right until the end: Think a Golden Age mystery always ends with a pat and neat solution?  Think again.  Even if there is such a thing as a standard-issue conclave in the 23:45th-ish hour ...

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-04-11 18:33
Anger Management
Career of Evil - Robert Galbraith,Robert Glenister

Soooo ... turns out I listened to book 3 almost straight on the heels of book 2 after all, because I've had some fairly major anger and sadness issues to go through lately, and nothing helps in that process like a really dark-hued book, right?

 

As a matter of fact, it turns out that yours truly wasn't the only person in need of some healthy dose of anger management here.  I knew going in that this is a serial killer novel (that much is clear from page one); actually, though, the person ultimately revealed as the killer is only one of several seriously sick and violent bastards, all of whom have a major personal gripe with Strike and therefore pretty much auto-suggest themselves as suspects -- I mean, who other than someone pretty obviously out to make Strike's (and Robin's) lives hell would send them body parts and go stalking Robin, intent on ultimately killing her, too?  (No spoiler here btw.; this, too, is obivous right from the beginning.)

 

But speaking of Robin, in this installment she is having to deal with some pretty substantial anger management of her own in turn, and she's unfortunately not doing all that brilliantly ... in fact, for the better part of the novel she's behaving more like a sulking teenager than like a grown up woman.  We learn a lot about her background here, and about the reasons why she gave up university and kept on clinging to Matthew, her boyfriend of nine years, despite his obvious dislike of her work as Strike's assistant -- and up to a point I can empathize with her insecurities

(she's a rape victim and developed agoraphobia as a consequence, which it took her a full year to overcome and even so much as venture out again at all).

(spoiler show)

  However, I have decidedly more of a problem empathizing with her for throwing a major fit every time Strike doesn't go to the end of the world to treat her as a full-fledged partner -- and for her coming within an inch of fatally jeopardizing both her own and Strike's lives, not to mention his work, on several separate occasions as a result; not least towards the very end.  For an army / MP veteran with 15+ years of experience on the job as an investigator to accord that kind of equality to an untrained temp secretary who'd started in his office barely over a year earlier would be a ludicrous expectation under any circumstances, but even more so after she had repeatedly failed to follow his orders, thinking (wrongly) that she knew better, with disastrous consequences every single time. And no, Robin, you don't get to chalk that one up to your experience in university, horrific as it doubtless was.  Because this isn't a matter of anyone denying you your basic, inviolate human dignity -- it's a matter of (un)realistic expectations, plain and simple; and if you did have even the most marginal claim to the position to which you aspire on the job, this would be the first thing you'd realize.  I don't doubt that your experience created major insecurity issues, but if those are truly still overwhelming to this degree, Strike is even more justified than he is, anyway, on the basis of your lack of training and repeated misconduct, in not treating you as an equal partner.  For him to be able to do that -- and trust you with the blind assurance that true partnership in a dangerous job such as the pursuit of violent criminals would have to entail -- you would have had to demonstrate that such trust on his part would be justified.  You, however, have demonstrated the precise opposite.

And I can empathize even less with Robin for her petty bit of revenge on Strike at the very end, getting married to Matthew after all -- not because she's determined she really loves him and he is the man in her life now and forever, but simply to get back at Strike for sacking her ... for what had been her most blatant act of stupidity and professional misconduct yet.  I hope by the time we get to the beginning of the next book, which it turns out is due to be published sometime soon now, she's got a grip on herself.  And if her marriage had gone to hell in a handbasket in the interim, I wouldn't feel particularly sorry for her -- you don't marry for revenge, period.  Even less so a guy who you've realized is the wrong guy for you to begin with and to whom you're only clinging for sentimental reasons now (as you're very well aware, too).

(spoiler show)

So anyway, minus one star for Robin's temper tantrums, but full marks, as always, for the writing and for Strike's character development -- as well as for introducing us to a guy named Shanker, who I very much hope is going to make a reappearance or two in the future.  The serial killer plot isn't of the ingenious, never-seen-before-new variety, but more than merely competently executed, and I've also had quite a bit of fun touring Northern England and the Scottish borderland with Strike (and, in part, Robin) on the hunt for the killer.

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review 2018-04-07 23:22
A Wasted Opportunity
The Lake District Murder - John Bude
The Lake District Murder - John Bude,Gordon Griffin

John Bude, Martin Edwards writes in The History of Classic Crime in 100 Books, deliberately set his first three books in picturesque real life locations -- which then also appeared in the books' respective titles -- to set a counterpoint to the golden age mystery trope of concocting fictional country house settings at more or less remote distances from London.  If that truly was Bude's intention, then in The Lake District Murder, his second mystery and the first one featurling Inspector / Superintendent Meredith, he egregiously wasted a magnificent opportunity.  The Lake District is indisputably one of England's most striking regions, with its stark, towering fells (= hills / mountains), huge shimmering lakes, deep isolated valleys and ragged coastline.  Yet, although if Edwards is to be believed Bude was deeply familiar with the area -- and deliberately even chose its less touristy part as his setting -- none of this, nor any of the region's other characteristics, is invoked by way of setting the scene.  Even about nearby Carlisle, seat of the district police headquarters, we only learn that it's an "ancient walled city"; never mind the town's manifold charms, which you'd have to be blind to miss even as the most casual of visitors. -- Obviously, Bude wasn't writing a tourist brochure, but damnit, setting and atmosphere matter in fiction, and there are plenty of novels that skillfully exploit the austere beauty of the Lake District (and of its less touristy parts, at that) in setting their scene.

 

Bude's novels are in the tradition created by Freeman Wills Crofts in his Inspector French mysteries; i.e., they painstakingly "play fair" with the reader, which may result on occasion -- and certainly does here -- in an excessively detailed description of the steps undertaken by the protagonist investigator, to the point of getting bogged down with schedules, time frames, and the technical detail of machinery that, at least as far as I am concerned, tends to go straight over my head (in the present instance, even though I had some previous knowledge of the workings of at least part of the machinery involved).  Add to this a murder investigation that, not even 1/4 of the way into the book, gets seriously derailed by an investigation into a related criminal conspiracy (related, hence ultimately relevant also for the resolution of the murder, however completely sidelining the murder in terms of focus for the majority of the book) -- which ancillary investigation, in turn, likewise takes a huge detour before finally moving onto the right track -- as well as investigative methods that must make the fingernails of any modern reader with even the most marginal familiarity with real police work and criminal law roll up all the way to their cuticles in pain, and you've got ... well, let's just say a book that would have hugely benefitted from an unafraid editor's honest pruning but which, as it is, only ever impinged on my reading brain whenever the results of the past 100 or so pages' (or 3 hours') worth of painstaking investigation were summed up for another character's benefit.

 

I like Budes understated sense of humor, and I like Meredith -- or rather, I liked him until a comment (albeit from the authorial, not the character's perspective: not that that makes it any better if course) towards the very end of this book playing into the cliché according to which it is in woman's nature to respond to any profound shock by fainting (for perspective: we're talking about a very young housemaid who opens the door in the middle of the night to find a score of middle-aged policemen -- emphasis: men; emphasis: in uniform; emphasis: armed -- on the doorstep, who in turn, with nary a "by your leave", proceed to enter her employer's, and hence also her home, intent on arresting said employer, who thereupon instantly shoots himself).  So anyway, I will probably give Bude's writing another chance at some point.  But it's likely not going to be anytime soon, and the more books I read of the variety that define "playing fair by the reader" as holding back the protagonist sleuth's investigation so as to make it patently easy for the reader to follow along every step of the way, the more I am convinced that this is not "my" type of mystery.  There may be situations, even in the most ingeniously crafted mysteries, where such a thing may be necessary (think: Dorothy L. Sayers's Nine Tailors and Five Red Herrings), but by and large ... give me Hercule Poirot's "little grey cells", Sherlock Holmes's "observation of trifles", and a rousing surprise finale any day of the week.

 

I read this for chapter / square 6 of the Detection Club Bingo ("Serpents in Eden").

 

In the Lake Dsitrict:

On the road from Ambleside to Coniston / Castlerigg Stone Circle

 

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review 2018-04-07 21:51
Far from the Hundred Acre Wood
The Red House Mystery - A.A. Milne

 

 

... and yet, not anywhere near far enough into the territory of the writers whose company Milne sought with this book (or whom he obviously even thought to surpass).

 

In the introduction to The Red House Mystery, Milne writes that his editor had warned him to stray off the path expected of him by the reading public (namely, Punch satires and, ultimately, Winnie the Pooh, although The Red House Mystery predates Winnie's first adventures published in book form by four years); and that he -- Milne -- had therefore contented himself with authoring a single mystery novel, but that he had written this one exactly to the prescription that he himself favored: an ingenious Sherlock Holmes-style amateur sleuth with a Watson-style sidekick by his side "besting" the meticulous but plodding police but, unlike in Conan Doyle's tales, taking the reader along with them every step of the way instead of springing the solution on a wide-eyed reader in a big final surprise round-up.

 

The result, alas, is however not, as Milne hoped, the "ideal crime novel" but, at least to this fan of Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, an entertaining but somewhat bland novel that, despite the odd moment of mild frisson, entirely neglects the one element that most makes outstanding mystery fiction tick: namely, the battle between the reader and the protagonist sleuth.  This has nothing to do with "playing fair" with the reader: The great masters of the genre -- namely Milne's contemporaries Christie and Sayers -- didn't neglect to drop all the relevant clues throughout the book; they were just skilled enough to hide those clues so well that their relevance only becomes apparent when the solution to the mystery is finally unravelled.

 

Not so here: The identity of the murderer is fairly obvious early on, and since we're also let into the two amateur sleuths' mental processes and the reasoning behind their investigative steps down to the very last detail every step of the way, the whole thing resembles nothing so much as a leisurely stroll in the park -- mildly entertaining, but about as exciting as a pot of tea slowly and inexorably going tepid.  Even the murder itself, for all the characters' both express and unspoken protestations of the shock of seeing a human life suddenly and brutally extinguished, feels more like the opening move of a parlour game than llike a real and horrifying event.

 

Obviously Milne was a talented writer; it only takes one look at the Winnie-the-Pooh books, or his contributions to Punch (or his other essays, for that matter) to devine as much; and ultimately it's his writing that elevates this book from a 2- or 2 1/2-star read to a 3 star rating at least.  Also, as far as his editor's attempts to keep him on the beaten track are concerned, more power to Milne for seeking to break the barriers imposed on him and explore new authorial ground.  But if this is truly what Milne considered "the ideal mystery," then at least in the final result I'm afraid I am with his editor on this one: He was decidedly better off in the world of Punch and in the Hundred Acre Wood.

 

I read this for chapter / square 2 of the Detection Club Bingo: The Birth of the Golden Age.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-04-04 13:20
Jacobean Revenge Tragedy Has Got Nothing on This
The Silkworm - Robert Galbraith,Robert Glenister

Jesus H. Christ, where did that come from???   Oh man, talk about "leagues from Harry Potter" ... more like, in a different galaxy.  And I mean content-, not quality-wise.

 

It's no coincidence that every single chapter of this book is prefaced by a quote from a different 16th / 17th century revenge tragedy: This is not a book for the faint of heart, dealing as it does with

(1) a seriously twisted, depraved book [whose content is laid out in some detail] and (2) that book's author, who weeks after having disappeared is found murdered, with his now rotting corpse having been made the sick centerpiece of a [graphically described] scene that exactly replicates the end of his final book.

(spoiler show)

I have to confess it was at this point that I almost stopped listening, and it was only the author's s skill as a writer that pulled me back into the story and made me care about what happened next at all.

 

In terms of the technique(s) of crime writing and character development, this is even better than the first Cormoran Strike novel, The Cuckoo's Calling; and I admit one other factor that kept me glued to the book until the end was the very skillfully unraveled backstory of Strike and his ex-fiancée Charlotte, or rather, their final breakup.  If there had been one thing that had left me mildly unsatisfied at the end of the first book, it was not having learned what precisely was behind Charlotte's explosive exit from Strike's office, with which the first book opens, and the specific reason for which -- and the reason for their final dispute and breakup -- was at best hinted at in book 1.  Well, curiosity satisfied now, and boy is it ever. -- Now if Robin would finally get rid of Michael ... (That being said, I'm not sure I want Strike to be her next boyfriend, even though that seems to be where we are headed.  They work increasingly well together as a team, but Strike is carrying a heck of a lot of baggage, and I'm not sure at all that their professional relationship would benefit from a change of dynamics that would bring all of that baggage AND emotions into the mix as well.)

 

So, 4 stars with a golden ribbon on top for the writing and character development (not only of Strike and Robin, but also of this story's supporting cast of murder suspects and their respective entourage), and extra kudo points for the sheer chutzpah of ditching every last expectation that readers coming to this book straight from Harry Potter might be bringing, and for taking a full-blown, unflinching dive in the opposite direction instead.  That self-same latter dive is, however, also the reason why I'm subtracting a half star from my overall rating.  It's going to take some time and a considerable amount of mind bleach to rid my brain of the images

of that murder scene ... and the imagery of the [fictional] book inspiring it.

(spoiler show)
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