Crime Fiction Alphabet: V is for Vargas

This week’s letter in Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet is V.

My choice of book is The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas, translated from the French by Siân Reynolds. This is the first of her Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg novels.

From the back cover:

Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is not like other policemen. He doesn’t search for clues; he ignores obvious suspects and arrests people with cast-iron alibis; he appears permanently distracted. In spite of this his colleagues are forced to admit that he is a born cop.

When strange blue chalk circles start appearing on the pavements of Paris, only Adamsberg takes them – and the increasingly bizarre objects fround within them – seriously. And when the body of a woman with her throat savagely cut is found in one, only Adamsberg realises that other murders will soon follow.

My view:

As soon as I began reading this book I was entertained – the writing is fluent (unlike the translation I read of her later book Seeking Whom He May Devour) and easily conveyed the quirky nature of Vargas’s plot and characters. As the book cover summary describes, Adamsberg just doesn’t fit the usual detective profile – well, he is a loner, so that’s pretty standard, but apart from that he stands out  – an outsider from the Pyrenees, newly appointed to Paris as Commissaire of police headquarters in the 5th arrondissement. His colleagues don’t understand him, especially Inspector Danglard, who likes a drink and isn’t too reliable after about four in the afternoon.

Vargas goes into some detail both about Adamsberg’s history, appearance and characteristics, and about Danglard. Adamsberg is a thinker – but a vague thinker – he works mainly on intuition, whereas Danglard doesn’t trust feelings and gut instincts. He prefers to follow procedure, looking for clues and proof. Adamsberg claims that some people just ooze cruelty:

And most premeditated murders require the murderer not only to feel exasperation or humiliation, or to have some neurosis, or whatever, but also cruelty, pleasure in inflicting suffering, pleasure in the victim’s agony and pleas for mercy, pleasure in tearing the victim apart. It’s true, it doesn’t always appear obvious in a person, but you feel at  least that there’s something wrong, that something else is gathering underneath, a kind of growth. And sometimes that turns out to be cruelty – do you see what I’m saying? A kind of growth. (pages 17-18)

The chalk circle man intrigues Adamsberg and it is his meditation on his character that leads him to solve the mystery – but before that two other murders have taken place. Is the chalk circle man the killer, or is the killer using the circles to his own advantage? And why does he leave a lingering smell of rotten apples?

Adamsberg and Danglard are not the only eccentric characters – the book is full of them, all delightfully different including Mathilde, the marine biologist who prefers fish to people. She lets rooms to Charles, the beautiful blind man with a chip on his shoulder and to Clemence, the old lady who lives on the top floor. Clemence at seventy is still looking for the love of her life. She has an unattractive appearance with a bony face and sharp little teeth like a shrew-mouse and wears far too much make-up. I thought the interactions and conversation between these people was fascinating.

This is a very cleverly constructed and quirky mystery, and I was pleased that I did half guess the solution; I only half-guessed because there is a twist at the end which took me totally by surprise. I’ll certainly look out for more of Fred Vargas’s books to read.

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; First PB Edition edition (4 Feb 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099488973
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099488972
  • Source: Library book
  • My Rating: 4.5/5

Crime Fiction Alphabet: U

This week’s letter in Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet is letter-u

I’ve chosen Nicola Upson’s Fear in the Sunlight, the fourth novel featuring Josephine Tey, which I read on Kindle.

Summary from Fantastic Fiction:

Summer, 1936. The writer, Josephine Tey, joins her friends in the holiday village of Portmeirion to celebrate her fortieth birthday. Alfred Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville, are there to sign a deal to film Josephine’s novel, A Shilling for Candles, and Hitchcock has one or two tricks up his sleeve to keep the holiday party entertained – and expose their deepest fears. But things get out of hand when one of Hollywood’s leading actresses is brutally slashed to death in a cemetery near the village. The following day, as fear and suspicion take over in a setting where nothing – and no one – is quite what it seems, Chief Inspector Archie Penrose becomes increasingly unsatisfied with the way the investigation is ultimately resolved. Several years later, another horrific murder, again linked to a Hitchcock movie, drives Penrose back to the scene of the original crime to uncover the shocking truth.

My thoughts:

I have mixed thoughts about this book, good and not so good. Overall I enjoyed it but I found it confusing with so many characters, introduced very quickly in the novel, and it was difficult to distinguish who they all were, with the exception, of course, of Josephine Tey and Alfred Hitchcock. So, not well-defined characters.

However, the setting in Portmeirion is very well done and if you like lots of description that’s a bonus. I do like description, up to a point, but in this book I thought it intruded too much and held up the action. (Portmeirion is Sir Clough Williams-Ellis’s Italianate creation in the Welsh countryside. It’s also the setting for the 1960s TV series, The Prisoner, if you remember that as I do.) Set in the thirties it does give a good sense of the period between the two world wars with the shadow of the Great War still lingering and the threat of another war getting ever nearer. There is a general air of unhappiness, as Alma, Hitchcock’s wife says:

Perhaps it’s the times we have lived through, but we seem very good at destroying each other and not just through wars. We wear each other down all the time through little acts of jealousy or cruelty or greed. (location 1731)

And there are many such acts in Fear in the Sunlight as the murders pile up. I didn’t really have much idea what was going on until about halfway into the book when the writing became sharper, more focussed on the plot and characters.

I was interested in Nicola Upson’s inclusion of a discussion about writing, about mixing fact and fiction and also about the difference between a book and the film of the book. Here Josephine and Marta are talking about mixing fact and fiction, which is exactly what Nicola Upson does in her books:

‘Mix fact and fiction?’ Josephine asked, and Marta had to laugh at the disapproval in her voice. ‘How would that help restore the reputation of a much aligned man? No one would know what was true and what wasn’t.’

‘Exactly. That’s the fun of it. And a biography would only be your interpretation. At least calling it fiction is honest.’ (location 3548)

Josephine is at Portmeirion to discuss making a film of her book, A Shilling for Candles, with Alfred and Alma Hitchcock. She’s sceptical about the process of using her book as the basis for a film, but Alma tells her:

‘A film can’t just be a visual record of a book or it will never have a life of its own,’ she said.  … ‘It’s like any marriage, I suppose. The two things can coexist if they’re both good in their own right, and it doesn’t have to be one at the expense of the other.’ (locations 1612-1620)

I’ll try to remember that next time I get irritated at the way a film or TV drama alters a book.

I think that Alfred Hitchcock is really the main character and I don’t know enough about him to be able to distinguish fact from fiction in Fear in the Sunlight, nor do I know that much about the thirties either to judge whether that’s an accurate picture, but I have no doubt that Nicola Upson has done her research. Hitchcock seems to have been a complicated and difficult character, a practical joker and a manipulator:

An experiment in fear and guilt, he had called it, but an exercise in control would have been more accurate. Staging a joke, like making a film, was a way of holding on to power, and Hitchcock had discovered long ago that the manipulation involved in both helped him to forget his own anxieties and doubts. (location 1088)

As you would expect he is a master of suspense:

‘Fear of the dark is natural, we all have it, but fear in the sunlight, perhaps fear in this very restaurant, where it is so unexpected – that is interesting’. (location 3465)

  • Format: Kindle Edition (also available in paperback)
  • File Size: 821 KB
  • Print Length: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber Crime (3 April 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B007JVF6U2
  • Source: My own copy
  • My Rating 3/5

Crime Fiction Alphabet: T is for …

The Four Last Things by Andrew Taylor.

This is the first in the Roth trilogy, a tense and scary opening book. So chilling that I nearly stopped reading it and only continued because I couldn’t get the story out of my head and I wanted to know how it ended.

The complete trilogy is about the linked histories of the Appleyards and the Byfields. The books work backwards in time, with this first book being the last chronologically, set in the 1990s, and each book works as a stand-alone, self-contained story. Andrew Taylor states they are designed to work together, but they can be read in any order. The second novel, The Judgement of Strangers, describes events that took place during the summer of 1970, with the third, The Office of the Dead, ten years earlier again. But, having read the first book and the second, I think it is best to read them in that order, because there are people and things that happen that have roots in the second (and I suspect because I haven’t read it yet) the last book and it would spoil the story to know these in advance.

The Four Last Things tells the story of Lucy Appleyard, aged four, who is snatched from her child minder’s one cold winter afternoon. Her parents, Sally, a deacon in the church of England and Michael, a police sergeant, are distraught. Their fears mount as grisly body parts are discovered first in a graveyard and then in a church. A sense of evil and menace permeates the book, told from varying viewpoints conveying Sally’s and Michael’s terror and powerlessness. The characterisation is strong, so much so that I feared for Lucy’s safety and even sympathised with one of the kidnappers.

It’s not just the characters and the mysteries that kept me captivated reading The Four Last Things, because the settings are so well described and so atmospheric, so vivid that I could easily see them in my mind – the dingy London streets and alleyways, the old churches and graveyards, and the overgrown back garden of 29 Rosington Road.

The reason I found this book is so compelling to read is that, although there are horrific elements to it (although not in gratuitous detail) and it’s about the kidnapping of a little girl (which always horrifies me), it’s also a puzzle, posing questions such as why and how these events came about. And the answers aren’t all in this first book. There are tantalising glimpses of the kidnappers’ backgrounds and their psychological make-up, which in themselves are so disturbing. There are questions too about the parents – Sally wonders if there is a religious motivation behind the kidnapping, particularly after the incident in church where she is cursed by an old woman. And what is so troubling in Michael’s background, why is he so reliant on his ‘Uncle David’, an Anglo-Catholic known as Father Byfield? Where do the Reverend Francis Youlgreave and the parish of Roth fit in ? What had happened there when David was the vicar? It was these questions that made me pick up the next book as soon as I’d finished the first. I have just finished it this morning and have some of the answers, but also more questions. I’ll be writing more in another post on The Judgement of Strangers some time soon.

The title is a reference to a painting of the Last Judgement showing the ‘four last things’ identified in a passage in the Apocrypha as ‘Death and Judgement and Heaven and Hell.’ Sally comes to realise that ‘where hell is, there is Lucy.’

vaguely remembered watching a TV version of this with Emilia Fox and Charles Dance as two of the characters. Looking it up, I see that this was in 2007 under the title Fallen Angel. Fallen Angel is also the title of the HarperCollins paperback omnibus of the trilogy (formerly published as Requiem For an Angel). I think the books will stick in my mind longer than the TV version did. For me reading is almost always better than watching a film or TV drama.

A Crime Fiction Alphabet post for the letter T.

This book also fits very nicely into the R.I.P. VII Challenge.

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; (Reissue) edition (5 Feb 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007105118
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007105113
  • Source: my own copy
  • My rating: 4/5
  • Author’s website: Andrew Taylor

Crime Fiction Alphabet: S is for …

Maigret and the Ghost by Georges Simenon, which is my choice to illustrate the letter S in Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet.

Simenon wrote many Maigret books spanning the years 1931 – 1972, 75 novels and twenty eight short stories to be precise.

Maigret and the Ghost was first published in 1964 as Maigret et le Fantome. Inspector Lognon, a plain-clothes detective is shot in the street and is close to death, fighting for his life. The last word he spoke was ‘ghost’. It is soon apparent that this grumpy detective, who suffers from an inferiority complex, believing that he never gets the credit he is due, was visiting the apartment of a beautiful young woman every night. Chief Superintendent Maigret finds it hard to believe he has transformed into some sort of Don Juan. The young woman has disappeared.

Maigret investigates in his usual seemingly casual manner, registering impressions, which he knew would sooner or later ‘coalesce and become meaningful.’ Lognon’s wife insists that he was convinced he was onto something big which would bring him the recognition he deserved. Maigret’s investigations lead him into the strange world of art dealer Norris Jonker and his glamorous and much younger wife, Mirella. His search for the culprit brings him into contact again with the English detective he had first met in My Friend Maigret, Mr Pyke, now Chief Inspector Pyke at Scotland Yard.

I really enjoyed this short, concise detective story. Simenon writes such taut prose, straight-forward and direct, with not one word wasted. He conveys the nature of each character with precision, the dialogue is so realistic and the setting in a rainy Paris is so atmospheric. It’s almost like viewing a painting. Because his books are short (in comparison to today’s chunksters) the tension is easily maintained throughout and it’s so well-paced that I just  had to read it straight through from start to finish.

Although short Simenon’s books don’t lack detail or complicated plots. One of the things I like about them are the glimpses into Maigret’s personal life. In this book Madame Maigret is thrilled because he invites her out to lunch:

They couldn’t help exchanging smiles. The contrast between lunching at home in the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir and in the intimate atmosphere of the little restaurant struck them both at the same time. Madame Maigret especially was tremendously thrilled by it. (page 37)

She was also thrilled because she had been to see Madame Lognon and on telling Maigret about the visit he commented:

‘I fancy what you have just told me alters the whole complexion of the case …’

She stared at him, torn between incredulity and delight. For the rest of her life, that lunch at Chez Maniere was to remain one of her happiest memories. (page 40)

Georges Simenon was definitely a master of the detective novel.

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; New Ed edition (4 Dec 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141187271
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141187273
  • Source: library book
  • My Rating 4/5

I’ve read some of his other books –

Crime Fiction Alphabet: Q

For the letter Q in Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet I’ve chosen Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong.

I  ‘discovered’ Qiu Xiaolong in 2010 during a previous series of the Crime Fiction Alphabet when I wrote about his second book, A Loyal Character Dancer. Death of Red Heroine is his first book featuring Chief Inspector Chen. It won the Anthony Award for Best First Crime Novel in 2001.

Synopsis from the back cover

Shanghai in 1990. An ancient city in a Communist country: looking to the future for its survival. Chief Inspector Chen, a poet with a sound instinct for self-preservation, knows the city like few others. 

When the body of a prominent Communist Party member is found, Chen is told to keep the party authorities informed about every lead. And he must keep the young woman’s murder out of the papers at all costs. When his investigation leads him to the decadent offspring of high-ranking officials, he finds himself instantly removed from the case and reassigned to another area.

Chen has a choice: bend to the party’s wishes and sacrifice his morals, or continue his investigation and risk dismissal from his job and from the party. Or worse . . .

My thoughts:

I think this is as much historical fiction as it is crime fiction. There is so much in it about China, its culture and its history before 1990 – the Communist regime and then the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s – as well as the changes brought about in the 1990s after the massacre of Tiananmen Square. This does interfere with the progress of the murder investigation as Chen has to cope with the political ramifications and consequently there are several digressions and the pace is slow and lacking tension. As Chen is a poet as well as a policeman there are also references to Chinese literature which although interesting, don’t move the murder mystery forward. A fair amount of concentration is needed both to understand the background and work out the plot.

Chen is a reluctant policeman, he has a degree in  English literature and is a published poet and translator. However, he is a good detective and helped by Detective Yu begins to unravel the mystery. Having found a suspect it is really the motive that provides a stumbling block, that and the constant need to keep in mind the ‘interests of the Party’ that prevents a quick resolution.

I like the characterisation, Chen and Yu in particular are clearly drawn, distinctive characters, and the setting is superb. I also like the many descriptions of food (as there are in A Loyal Character Dancer), such as this dinner menu Chen lays on for a party in his new apartment:

For the main dishes, there were chunks of pork stomach on a bed of green napa, thin slices of smoked carp spread on fragile leaves of jicai, and steamed peeled shrimp with tomato sauce. There was also a plate of eels with scallions and ginger, which he had ordered from a restaurant. He had opened a can of Meiling steamed pork and added some green vegetables to make it another dish. On the side, he placed a small dish of sliced tomatoes, and another of cucumbers. When the guests arrived, a soup would be made from the juice of the canned pork and canned pickle. (page 12)

It’s a fascinating book on several levels and one I enjoyed reading. I’m a bit late catching up with reading Qiu Xiaolong’s books as there are now seven Inspector Chen books:

1. Death of a Red Heroine (2000)
2. A Loyal Character Dancer (2002)
3. When Red Is Black (2004)
4. A Case of Two Cities (2006)
5. Red Mandarin Dress (2007)
6. The Mao Case (2009)
7. Don’t Cry, Tai Lake (2012)

See Qiu Xiaolong’s website for more information about him and his books.

And for more ‘Q‘ books see Kerrie’s blog, Mysteries in Paradise.

Crime Fiction Alphabet: Letter P

It’s the letter P this week in Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet and I have another of Agatha Christie’s books to illustrate the letter.

If you haven’t read any of Agatha Christie’s books don’t begin with Postern of Fate. It’s the last novel she wrote, published in 1973, and it’s rambling and repetitive, with very little in the way of mystery. It’s the fourth of the Tommy and Tuppence Beresford mysteries and it begins with the ageing couple, now retired and living in a new home. I read it because I like Tommy and Tuppence and wanted to know what they were doing in this final book.

I liked the opening pages in which Tuppence is bemoaning the fact that they have so many books and there isn’t enough room to shelve them. They’d sorted out their books before they moved house, only bringing with them the ones they couldn’t bear to part with, but they had bought books from the previous owners of the house. Tuppence is sorting through them and in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Black Arrow she sees that some of the letters are underlined in red ink, spelling out an intriguing message: ‘Mary Jordan did not die naturally. It was one of us. I think I know which one.’

Naturally the Beresfords have to find out more and after talking to some of the local people Tuppence discovers that Mary Jordan had lived in the house during the First World War and there are rumours that she was a German secret agent. It appeared she had died from accidental poisoning. But they aren’t satisfied and want to know more. Whilst Tuppence continues talking to the locals, Tommy goes to London and talks to Captain Pikeaway, ex-head of Special Branch and the enigmatic Mr Robinson (who appeared in Agatha Christie’s thriller Passenger to Frankfurt). They discover some facts, and have lots of meandering discussions, but the denouement is very vague (at least I found it so).

Its interest for me lies in what the book reveals about Agatha Christie. Clearly she is remembering her own childhood when Tuppence is reminiscing about the books she had read as a child, listing them and exclaiming how much she liked them – books such as The New Treasure Seekers, lots of Stanley Weyman books (he wrote historical romances), The Prisoner of Zenda, Treasure Island and Kidnapped.

Throughout her life she was an avid reader and her books include many references to a variety of sources from Shakespeare to T S Eliot. The title of this book derives from a poem Gates of Damascus by John Elroy Flecker, quoted as an epigraph and by Tommy as he worries about keeping Tuppence out of danger:

Four great gates has the city of Damascus …

Postern of Fate, the Desert Gate, Disaster’s Cavern, Fort of Fear …

Pass not beneath, O Caravan, or pass not singing.

Have you heard

That silence where the birds are dead, yet something pipeth like a bird?

I think when Tommy and Tuppence are complaining about the difficulties of getting tradesmen to complete work on their new house Agatha Christie was writing from experience:

Electricians arriving in a kindly tangle of optimism and efficiency had stated work. “Coming along fine now, not much more to do,” they said. “We’ll be back this afternoon.” But they hadn’t been back that afternoon. Tommy was not precisely surprised. He was used, now, to that general pattern of labour in the building trade, electrical trade, gas employees and others. They came, they showed efficiency, they made optimistic remarks, they went away to fetch something. They didn’t come back. One rang up numbers on the telephone but they always seemed to be the wrong numbers. If they were the right numbers, the right man was not working at this particular branch of the trade, whatever it was. (pages 35-36)

Then there are her misgivings about the state of the country:

England was in a funny state, a different state from what it had been. Or was it really always in the same state? Always underneath the smooth surface there was some black mud. There wasn’t clear water down to the pebbles, down to the shells, lying on the bottom of the sea. There was something moving, something sluggish somewhere, something that had to be found, suppressed. (page 138)

But there is rather too much of this sort of digression in Postern of Fate and Agatha Christie comes across as disillusioned with modern life. Here, for example, she has Colonel Pikeaway complaining about the worship of money:

…big fortunes made out of drugs, drug pushers, drugs being sent all over the world, being marketed, a worship of money. Money not just for buying yourself a big house and two Rolls Royces, but money for making more money and doing down, doing away with the old beliefs. Beliefs in honesty, in fair trading. (page 249)

Although there are things I like in this book and I am glad I’ve read it, I think it must be my least favourite of Agatha Christie’s books that I’ve read.

Crime Fiction Alphabet: Letter O

Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet has reached the letter O.

I was surprised quite recently to discover that Baroness Orczy had not only written books about the Scarlet Pimpernel, but had also written crime fiction.

Emmuska Orczy (1865 – 1947) was born in Hungary and she and her family moved to London in 1880, where she went to the West London School of Art and then Heatherley’s School of Fine Art.  Several of her paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy. She married Montague MacLean Barstow in 1894 and encouraged by him, she began writing in 1900. As well as the Scarlet Pimpernel stories she wrote mysteries for the Royal Magazine and Cassell’s Magazine. She created one of the earliest female detectives in a collection of short stories about Molly Robertson-Kirk – Lady Molly of Scotland Yard in 1910.

The Old Man in the Corner
The Old Man in the Corner, Greening & Co. 1910, Design by H. M. Brock. From Flickr

Her book of short stories, The Old Man in the Corner features one of the earliest armchair detectives. It was first published in 1909, although she had written the stories before that and published them in magazines. The ‘Old Man’ sits in the corner of an A. B. C. (Aerated Bread Company) tearoom and relates the mysteries to Polly Burton of the Evening Observer. She was amused by his appearance:

Polly thought to herself that she had never seen anyone so pale  so thin, with such funny light-coloured hair, brushed very smoothly across the top of a very obviously bald crown. He looked so timid and nervous as he fidgeted incessantly with a piece of string; his long, lean and trembling fingers tying and untying it into knots of wonderful and complicated proportions. (Location 47 of 2760)

Tying knots in a piece of string seems to be essential to his deductive powers, for as he unravels the knots so he solves the mysteries. His philosophy is:

There is no such thing as a mystery in connection with any crime, provided intelligence is brought to bear upon its investigation.  (Location 29)

Very like Hercule Poirot, I thought, but the resemblance ends there. The Old Man’s sympathies are with the criminal rather than the police; he solves the mysteries just for the love of doing it, to discover the motive and method. He doesn’t pass his information onto the police and in most of the cases there is still an element of doubt.

The mysteries included in The Old Man in the Corner are:

The Fenchurch Street Mystery
The Robbery in Phillimore Terrace
The York Mystery
The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway
The Liverpool Mystery
The Edinburgh Mystery
The Theft at the English Provident Bank
The Dublin Mystery
An Unparalleled Outrage (The Brighton Mystery)
The Regent’s Park Murder
The De Genneville Peerage (The Birmingham Mystery)
The Mysterious Death in Percy Street

They seem to be the most baffling cases that the police had been unable to solve, involving murder, blackmail, forgeries and puzzling crimes. I enjoyed reading them, although they don’t overtax the brain.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 302 KB
  • Print Length: 186 pages
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0084BMM6W
  • Source: my own copy
  • My Rating 3/5