Crime Fiction Pick of the Month: April

I read three crime fiction books in April: 

  • The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers
  • The Cabinetmaker by Alan Jones
  • Burial of Ghosts by Ann Cleeves

I’ve already reviewed The Cabinetmaker -based in Glasgow telling the story of a local cabinetmaker, Francis Hare, father of a murdered son, and John McDaid, a young detective on the investigation. It is an intricately plotted book which had me totally gripped.

Burial of Ghosts by Ann Cleeves is a standalone book, not part of either her Vera or Shetland series. Lizzie Bartholomew, a social worker is on leave after a particular nasty episode which has left her traumatised. After a brief holiday affair with Philip Sansom in Morocco, she is surprised when he left her £15,000 in his will. But there are certain conditions she is required to fulfil, which plunges her into a terrifying situation. This is largely a psychological study, focussing on Lizzie, as she relives her past in flashbacks.

CF Pick of the monthAll three books are good reads, but my Crime Fiction Pick of the Month for April is The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers, one of the Golden Age crime fiction writers. It’s a Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery, first published in 1934, by far the most complicated book of the three crime fiction books I read in April and the most fascinating for a number of reasons. It had me completely baffled, first the bell-ringing, and then the twists and turns and all the red herrings.

Wimsey driving through a snow storm ends up in a ditch near the village of Fenchurch St Paul in the Fens and is taken in for the night by the vicar. It’s New Year’s Eve (at some period in the early 1930s) and the vicar has arranged that the bell-ringers will ring in the New Year, involving 9 hours of bell-ringing. As one of the ringers is ill with influenza, Wimsey steps in at the last minute to take his place. I had never realised just how complicated bell-ringing is:

The art of ringing is peculiar to the English, and, like most English peculiarities, unintelligible to the rest of the world. To the musical Belgian, for example, it appears the proper thing to do with a carefully tuned ring of bells is to play a tune upon it. By the English campanologist, the playing of tunes is considered to be a childish game, only fit for foreigners; the proper use of bells is to work out mathematical permutations and combinations. (page 21)

A few weeks later Wimsey is asked back to Fenchurch St Paul to help solve the mystery of the dead man found by the sexton whilst he was opening up Lady Thorpe’s grave to bury her husband. The identity of the dead man is unknown, his face was mutilated and his hands had been cut off  – who was he, who killed him and why? And what is the significance of the enigmatic note found in the bell-tower? It’s not an easy crime to solve and involves Wimsey in a trip to France as he tries to identify the victim. An added complication is the mystery of the missing necklace, stolen from the Thorpe family but never recovered.

I think one of the things that makes this such a good read is that it’s not just crime fiction, not just solving a puzzle, but it is also a fascinating portrait of the Fens, of their bleakness and isolation; of society in the 1930s with its rigid class divisions into gentry, clergy and villagers. The last part of the book is dominated by the floods as the sluice gates failed to keep back the water flooding all the low-lying ground, despite the new drainage works. It reminded me of the floods in the Somerset Levels this last winter, with various water authorities disputing responsibility for the disaster.

Above all, it is novel in which everything works well together, the characters are individuals, their behaviour is true to their beliefs and passions, and their conversations are realistic. It begins with a leisurely pace, with lots of detail about bell-ringing, which sometimes seemed a bit unnecessary to me, but as the plot unfolded I realised that I was wrong and I needed to pay more attention to the detail. It is essential to the plot. After this leisurely start the pace picks up as Wimsey and the police try to untangle the mystery.

It’s a book that you have to read with care, paying close attention as it is easy to get swept along with Dorothy Sayers’ beautifully descriptive prose and skilful story-telling. This is the sight that greets Wimsey from the top of the bell-tower:

An enormous stillness surrounded him. The moon had risen, and between the battlements the sullen face of the drowned fen showed like a picture in a shifting frame, like the sea seen through the porthole of a rolling ship, so widely did the tower swing to the relentless battery of the bells.

The whole world was now lost in one vast sheet of water. He hauled himself to his feet and gazed out from horizon to horizon. To the south-west St Stephen’s tower still brooded over a dark platform of land, like a broken mast upon a sinking ship.  Every house in the village was lit up:  St Stephen was riding out the storm.  Westward, the thin line of the railway embankment stretched away to Little Dykesey, unvanquished as yet, but perilously besieged. Due south, Fenchurch St Peter, roofs and spire etched black against the silver, was the centre of a great mere. Close beneath the tower, the village of St Paul lay abandoned, waiting for its fate.  Away to the east, a faint pencilling marked the course of the Potters Lode Bank, and while he watched it, it seemed to waver and vanish beneath the marching tide. (page 294)

The Nine Tailors is the first detective book by Dorothy L Sayers that I have read (previously I’d read The Descent into Hell, extracts from her translation of Dante’s Inferno). It’s her ninth Wimsey novel and I intend to read more.

Saturday Snapshot

I had intended to post some photos of our holiday near Glencoe, but I’m so pleased with ‘these’ that I decided to do a bookish Snapshot instead.

‘These’ are … Book Darts

I first read about them a while ago and couldn’t find a supplier in the UK and then just the other day I was reminded of them by Stefanie’s post on Reading Accessories and searched for them again – and found they’re available in the UK  through Amazon!

Sometimes I use the very small post-its to mark pages I want to refer to again, but the book darts look so much better. They’re archivally safe and won’t mark or stain the pages and are so neat …

… compared to the post-its:

For more Saturday Snapshots see Alyce’s blog At Home with Books.

Friday Finds

Books I’ve come across recently that I’d like to read, from three favourite authors:

Isa and May by Margaret Forster.

Amazon: The curiously named Isamay, a would-be academic, is trying to write a coherent thesis about grandmothers in history – from Sarah Bernhardt and George Sand to the matriarchal Queen Victoria and other influential grannies – while constantly ambushed by the secrets her own family has been keeping. An only child, she is named after her grandmothers, Isa and May, who were there at her birth and who have formed and influenced her in very different ways. Jealous of each other, they both want to be first in their granddaughter’s affections. … this is an unusual story about grandmothers and their potentially powerful role in family life, about nature vs nurture, bloodlines and bridges across generations.

The Pattern in the Carpet by Margaret Drabble.

Amazon: This is a beautifully written and deeply personal book on the jigsaw puzzle and the part it plays in the puzzle of its distinguished author’s life. It is a mix of memoir, jigsaw history and the strange delights of puzzling. … In “The Pattern in the Carpet”, she describes the history of this uniquely British form of meditation, from its earliest incarnation as a dissected map, used as a teaching tool in the late eighteenth century, to the other cut-outs and mosaics that have amused children and adults from Roman times until today. … an original and moving personal history about ageing and the authenticity of memory; about the importance of childhood play; and, how we rearrange objects into new patterns to make sense of our past and ornament our present.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ Myths by Phillip Pullman.

Amazon: In this ingenious and spell-binding retelling of the life of Jesus, Philip Pullman revisits the most influential story ever told. Charged with mystery, compassion and enormous power, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ throws fresh light on who Jesus was and asks the reader questions that will continue to resonate long after the final page is turned. For, above all, this book is about how stories become stories.

Friday Finds is hosted by MizB at You Should Be Reading.

Bookmarks

monday-musingToday’s MUSING MONDAYS post is about bookmarks€¦
What do you use to mark your place while reading? Do you have a definite preference? Do you use bookmarks, paper, or (gasp) turn down the pages? If you use bookmarks, do you have a favourite one?

I love bookmarks.  I never, ever turn down the corners of the pages.

Here are just a few of my favourites:

chinese-bookmarksThese Chinese bookmarks are made of sliver-thin wood and belonged to my sister. She bought them when she visited China a few years ago.

I don’t always use bookmarks because I find they migrate and sometimes I can’t find them (I’m not very tidy). So I either remember the page number or use what ever is to hand – a till receipt, or one of those paper library slips, anything really so long as it’s paper.
more-bookmarksThese bookmarks are older – one from my graduation day at the Open University in 1996; an even older one from a local bookshop (I have several of these); a Millenium one; and one of my favourites of kittens, with a Lucy-chewed tassel.

 

 

 

Cross Stitch – Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire

For a change this post is not about books.

I like to do cross-stitching, but one of its disadvantages is that I cannot read and stitch at the same time. Other difficulties are that I cannot do it in the summer as my hands get too hot and at other times of the year I find the light is not good enough so I have to use a daylight lamp, which I don’t find very easy. Anyway, now that I’ve just finished reading The Testament of Gideon Mack, which I’ll write about soon, I feel it’s time to get stitching again after many months of inactivity. I have quite a lot of different ones on the go, some I’ve been doing for years. One of them is a kit to stitch Little Moreton Hall. The photograph above shows the minimal amount I’ve done. It’s quite hard as it is such a fine canvas and small stitches – I’m no expert. The Hall, a National Trust property in Cheshire is a beautiful timber framed Tudor building as shown in the photographs below.

Little Moreton Hall is one of the most impressive buildings I know, with its wonderful decorative timber framing and patterned glazed windows. It is marvellous to be able to visit such an historic building and many rooms are open for the public to look at and walk through. It looks top-heavy with its projecting upper storeys. The earliest part of the building dates from the 1440s and 1450s when the Great Hall and the East Wing were built. A third storey was added in 1560-70 during the reign of Elizabeth I, containing the Long Gallery, 68 feet long with a massive arched roof. Cross beams were inserted into the roof trusses in the late seventeenth century to stop the walls from coming apart. The walls are crooked and the floor is uneven, so you experience a truly precarious feeling walking along the gallery. When I visited it quite a few years ago the Long Gallery was not furnished, much as it would have been when it was first built, because the Elizabethans used the room for walking, daily exercise and games. It was very easy to imagine what it must have been like.

I bought the Guide Book, the Cross Stitch Kit and a small bay tree in a pot for the garden as souvenirs. I like to buy Cross Stitch Kits of National Trust houses and properties wherever I can find them. I now have a few including a view of St Michael’s Mount near Penzance in Cornwall, and an ornamental gate in the garden of Townend, a 17th century solid stone and slate farmhouse near Windermere in Cumbria.

I also like to buy bookmarks to stitch. They are much quicker to finish and have a practical use. I’ve decided to start the bookmark shown on the left in the photograph below even though I have several other kits I’ve started and not finished.