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.

First Chapter, First Paragraph: Burial of Ghosts

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

Today’s pick is a book that I mentioned in my post the other day on New Additions at BooksPlease. It’s Burial of Ghosts by Ann Cleeves.

It begins:

My nightmares feature knives and blades and blood. I don’t do falling down holes or being chased through deserted streets. And though I usually dream in black and white, the blood is very red, glossy, and it slides out from the rest of the scene, which is flat and dull. The worst thing is that when I wake, I realise it wasn’t a dream at all.

I’m in Blyth. It’s market day and I’m there to shop for Jess. There’s a stall where she buys all her fruit and veg – she knows the bloke who runs it and he always gives her a good deal. It’s mid-morning , with lots of people about. It’s not long before Christmas and everyone’s in the mood when they have to buy, even if the stuff’s crap, otherwise they feel they’re not prepared. A foggy, drizzly day, and cold with it. There’s a raw east wind which cuts into the skin. But it doesn’t draw blood. Not like the scissors I buy in Woolworths. I ask the assistant to take them out of the plastic packet to check they’re sharp. I run my thumb across the blade and there’s a small read line and then tiny, perfectly round red drops like jewels. I fumble with the money when I pay, not because of the cut, which is already healing, but because my hands are freezing.

What do you think? Would you keep reading?

Burial of Ghosts is a standalone book. It’s not a new book as it was first published in 2003 It’s now available in a new Pan paperback edition, which was published in September 2013.

Note: I see ITV are trailing series four of Vera when the first episode will be an adaptation of Harbour Street, the sixth and latest Vera Stanhope book. I really must read that one soon.

The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves

The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves is the first book in her Vera Stanhope series. I’ve been thinking (and writing) about my difficulties in reading books where I think the detail and description swamp the characters and plot, but I had absolutely no problems with that in The Crow Trap – I think Ann Cleeves has got the balance just right.

It begins with chapters about three of the female characters, Rachael, Anne and Grace all staying at Baikie’s an isolated cottage on the North Pennines whilst they carry out an environmental survey. When Rachael arrives at the cottage she is confronted by the body of her friend Bella Furness, who it appears has committed suicide. I was so drawn in by the character portraits and the vivid descriptions of the setting, that I almost forgot that this is a murder mystery. Then Grace is found dead and the mystery really begins.

There is a full cast of characters, all clearly distinct, and a very intricate and clever plot, with plenty of red herrings subtly masking the important clues. Vera is a great character and even though I do like Brenda Blethyn’s portrayal of her in the TV series, I prefer her as she is in the books –  a woman in her fifties, who looks like a bag lady. Here’s a description of her when she first interviews Rachael and Anne:

She was a large woman – big bones, amply covered, a bulbous nose, man-sized feet. Her legs were bare and she wore leather sandals. Her square toes were covered in mud. Her face was blotched and pitted so Rachael thought she must suffer from some skin complaint or allergy. Over her clothes she wore a transparent plastic mac and she stood there, the rain dripping from it onto the floor, grey hair sleeked dark to her forehead, like a middle-aged tripper caught in a sudden storm on Blackpool prom. (page 230)

And this description too:

Vera was wearing a dress of the sort of material turned into stretch settee covers and advertised in the Sunday papers. (page 406)

The identity of the killer foxed me. I kept changing my mind about who I thought it was and when it was revealed I was surprised, because although I’d worked out the motive, I’d got the circumstances completely wrong!

The My Kind of Mystery theme began on 1 February and this book really is ‘my kind of mystery’. A most satisfying book.

The Glass Room by Ann Cleeves

The Glass Room is the fifth book in Ann Cleeves’s Vera Stanhope series.

It’s going to be a contender for my best book of the year, because I loved it. It has everything I like in a crime fiction novel – setting, characters and a cleverly constructed plot. I didn’t guess who the murderer was but realised afterwards that all the clues had been there, skilfully woven into the narrative, hidden among the dead-ends and red herrings, so that I’d read on without realising their significance.

Set in the Northumberland countryside in an isolated country house, a number of aspiring authors are gathered at the Writers’ House, run by Miranda Barton, to work on their novels. It’s an old fortified farmhouse close to the sea, sheltered on the landward side by trees. DI Vera Stanhope’s neighbour, Joanna has gone missing and her husband, Jack is frantic to find her, so Vera, having tracked her down to the Writers’ House goes to see her, only to find that one of the visiting tutors, Professor Tony Ferdinand has been murdered in the conservatory, stabbed with a kitchen knife. And Joanna is the chief suspect.

If you’ve seen the TV series Vera, maybe you’ll have a vision of Brenda Blethyn as Vera, but that image gradually faded as I read this book. Vera is bigger, fatter, and ruder than the TV version, but above all she is a truly convincing character, exasperating and opinionated, and she can be a nightmare boss. She has no compunctions about breaking the rules, or doing things in her own way and she acknowledges that if any of the other detectives went freelance, playing the private eye, as she is doing in looking for Joanna, she’d give them ‘such a bollocking’. She cares deeply about her job and she does have a soft side, even if it is touched with cynicism:

And why had she agreed to do as Jack asked and chase around the countryside looking for Joanna? Because I’m soft as clarts. Because I like happy endings and want to bring the couple together again, like I’m some great fat Cupid in wellies. Because it would be bloody inconvenient living here without them next door. (page 10)

The interplay between the Vera and Sergeant Joe Ashworth is excellent. Joe isn’t as easily managed as Vera would want him to be and yet she likes that in him. And her relationship with the rest of her team leaves much to be desired, but she is human – and she gets results.

Alongside the mystery Ann Cleeves includes a commentary on writing and writers and on creative writing weekend retreats. This particular course shows the writing world in rather a bad light, as a place of people with huge egos, selfish and self- absorbed and with aspiring, insecure would-be-writers:

Writers were like parasites, preying on other people’s stress and misery. Objective observers like spies or detectives  (page 98)

All in all, this is a book I thoroughly enjoyed and one that kept me guessing to the end.

Ann Cleeves and Dead Water

I loved Ann Cleeves’s Shetland QuartetRaven Black, White Nights, Red Bones and Blue Lightning, so I was delighted to read her latest book, Dead Water, which takes the Quartet one step further. Actually, it’s the first book in a new Shetland Quartet, in which each book will be named after the four elements –  earth, air, fire and water. Each of the Shetland books reads well as stand-alones, but I think it’s better to read them in order as you can then follow the development of the main characters. And Dark Water does refer to events in earlier books.

In Dead Water Rhona Laing, the Fiscal, finds journalist Jerry Markham lying dead, drifting in a yoal, a traditional Shetland boat in Aith marina. Markham, a Shetlander visiting his parents, was apparently working on a story for a national newspaper – maybe about the development of renewable energy proposed for Shetland, or maybe his reason was more personal? Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez is not the man he once was, since the death of his fiancée and at first he takes a back seat in the investigations, led by Detective Inspector Willow Reeves (originally from the Hebrides) who is drafted in from the Inverness team to head up the investigation. But eventually his natural curiosity takes over and he decides to help the inquiry, and his knowledge of the local community is vital in catching the killer.

I really enjoyed Dead Water, a mixture of mystery and the creation of  totally believable characters, set in Shetland Mainland.  The book is well paced, with the tension steadily building and Ann Cleeves writes with clarity, so that you can easily picture the people and the places she describes. She gives just the right amount of detail for the reader to feel immersed not only in the story but also in the life of the islands – the history and traditions, and the changes brought about the development of sustainable energy.

Last Tuesday evening D and I went to Main Street Trading bookshop where Ann Cleeves gave a talk about how she first went to Shetland and came to know and love the islands. She also talked about her decision to write crime fiction based in Shetland, and how she first pictured a scene in the snow  which eventually became the first book, Raven Black, after hearing stories of the islands from an old Shetlander.

She also spoke about the new BBC TV Shetland series, which she told us is being broadcast in March, beginning with an adaptation of Red Bones. Admittedly Douglas Henshall, playing the part of Perez, is not her vision of Jimmy Perez, after all, Perez has long dark hair with Spanish ancestry in his blood, whereas Douglas Henshall is  redheaded Scot, but she is happy both with him in the role and with the alterations that have been made. As she explained, once she has finished writing a book it passes out of her hands and each reader has their own individual interpretation. She cannot see what is in the minds of readers, but she can see the director’s interpretation in the TV version of her book! I’ve seen the trailer and it does look good.

Ann Cleeves is an excellent speaker, just as she is an excellent writer. On her website you read about her books and the forthcoming series and also download a leaflet Discover the Mystery of Shetland which has a map, beautiful colour photos and a commentary from Ann about the real and fictitious locations in her books. It’s very good – I was given a copy last Tuesday.

Silent Voices by Ann Cleeves

Ann Cleeves has become one of my favourite writers this year and Silent Voices is one of the best crime fiction books I’ve read recently. Although it’s the fourth in her Vera Stanhope series it’s the first that I’ve read. I did watch some of the TV versions of Vera earlier this year but I missed this one, so the plot was completely new to me.

Synopsis (taken from the back cover):

When DI Vera Stanhope finds the body of a woman in the sauna room of her local gym, she wonders briefly if, for once in her life, it’s a death from natural causes. But closer inspection reveals ligature marks around the victim’s throat…

Doing what she does best, Vera pulls her team together and sets them interviewing staff and those connected to the victim, while she and colleague Sergeant Joe Ashworth work to find a motive. While Joe struggles to reconcile his home life with the demands of the job, Vera revels being back in charge of an investigation. Death has never made her feel so alive.

And when they discover that the victim had worked in social services – and was involved in a shocking case involving a young child – it seems the two are somehow connected.

But things are rarely as they seem . . .

My view:

When I began reading I could visualise and hear Brenda Blethyn as Vera, but gradually that impression faded away and the character of Vera began to take shape in my mind from the words in this book alone. Vera is a truly eccentric individual, intelligent, single minded and dedicated to her job, single and with no family responsibilities. She finds it difficult to delegate and is exhilarated by her job. In the following extract she has phoned Joe late at night:

Her voice was loud. She’d never really got the hang of mobiles, yelled into them. She sounded as if she’d just woken up after a good night’s sleep. Murders took her that way, invigorated her as much as they excited the pensioners he’d spent all afternoon interviewing. Once, after too many glasses of Famous Grouse, she’d said that was what she’d been put on the Earth for. (page 67)

The other characters are equally as well- defined. As well as creating memorable and individual characters Ann Cleeves conveys a strong sense of place bringing the Northumbrian countryside, towns and villages to life as I read. The plot is nicely complicated and although I had an inkling about the killer I was wrong, but looking back I could see where I’d been misled. Silent Voices is an excellent book, one that kept me turning the pages and exercising my brain.

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Pan (16 Sep 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0330512692
  • ISBN-13: 978-0330512695
  • Source: Library book
  • My Rating: 5/5

Crime Fiction Pick of the Month – June 2012

The Crime Fiction Pick of the Month meme is hosted at Mysteries in Paradise by Kerrie. I read 5 crime fiction books this month and my pick of the month is:

Red Bones by Ann Cleeves

Red Bones is the third book in Ann Cleeves’s Shetland Quartet. It’s set on Whalsay, where two young archaeologists, excavating a site on Mima Williams’s land, discover human bones. They are sent away for testing – are they an ancient  find or are the bones more contemporary? Sandy Wilson, Inspector Jimmy Perez’s sergeant is Mima’s grandson. He is visiting his family when late one night he finds Mima’s body. It appears she was shot accidently by his cousin Ronald, out shooting rabbits. Then one of the archaeologists is also found dead, and even though it appears to be suicide Jimmy and Sandy are not convinced, thinking it could be murder.

I really like these Shetland mysteries. They are complicated and slow-moving books that enable you to immerse yourself in the mystery. The characters have depth and the locations are superbly described. In this book Ann Cleeves explores both the history of the island, its close-knit community, its traditions and the intricacies of the close family relationships. In contrast to the rest of the series the novel is narrated by Sandy as well as Jimmy and consequently both their innermost thoughts and feelings are revealed.

Red Bones is currently being filmed for a two-part TV drama. More good news – Ann Cleeves’s website reveals that there is another Jimmy Perez mystery in progress  – Dead Water to be published in January 2013.

The four books in the Shetland series are: