Six Degrees of Separation from The Tipping Point to Five Red Herrings

I love doing Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month the chain begins with The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell, a book I haven’t read. The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behaviour crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. 

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

My chain is made up of a mixture of books that I’ve read or are on my TBR shelves and they are all crime fiction.

The Secret Place: Dublin Murder Squad:  5 (Dublin Murder Squad series) by [French, Tana]A Lesson in Secrets (Maisie Dobbs Mysteries Series Book 8) by [Winspear, Jacqueline]Dead Scared: Lacey Flint Series, Book 2 by [Bolton, Sharon]Time is a Killer: From the bestselling author of After the Crash by [Bussi, Michel]Five Red Herrings: Lord Peter Wimsey Book 7 (Lord Peter Wimsey Series) by [Sayers, Dorothy L.]

My first link in the chain is to the word ‘point’ in the book title – The Point of Rescue by Sophie Hannah, also a book I haven’t read. It’s a psychological thriller in which Sally Thorning has a secret affair.

The Secret Place by Tana French is another book about secrets that bind  a group of adolescent girls together in a girls’ boarding school when they become involved in a murder investigation. It’s the 5th book in the Dublin Murder Squad Series. Another book I haven’t read yet.

A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear – historical crime fiction set in 1932. Maisie Dobbs directed by Scotland Yard’s Special Branch and the Secret Service goes undercover as a lecturer at Cambridge University to monitor any activities ‘not in the interests of the Crown.’ Yet another TBR book.

Another crime fiction book set in Cambridge University is Sharon Bolton’s Dead Scared in which DC Lacey Flint is posted at the University, after  a spate of student suicides, with a brief to work undercover, posing as a vulnerable, depression-prone student.

Sticking with the theme of crime fiction takes me to my next link – Time is a Killer by Michel Bussi, a murder mystery set in Corsica. Clotilde is determined to find out what  happened in a car crash that killed her parents and brother 27 years earlier. There is a plan showing the Revellata Peninsula, a wild and beautiful coastline, where Clotilde’s grandparents lived, and all the key locations.

I think maps and plans are really useful in crime fiction. Another book that has a map is Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L Sayers. Lord Peter is on holiday in Scotland, in a fishing and painting community when Campbell, a local landscape painter and fisherman is found dead in a burn. The map at the beginning of the book helped me follow the action – I needed the map!

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My chain this month is linked by: crime fiction, books about secrets, books set in Cambridge and books with helpful maps. And in a way the books all link back to The Tipping Point as they all demonstrate how the little, minute things in the details of each case add up to help solve the crimes.

Next month (July 7, 2018), we’ll begin with Tales of the City, the first in the much-loved series by Armistead Maupin – yet another book I haven’t read or even heard of before!

New-To-Me Books August 2015

Aug 15 bksAnother visit to Barter Books in Alnwick resulted in another pile of books to add to my TBR shelves.

From top to bottom they are:

  • The Riddle of the Third Mile by Colin Dexter – to fill in my gaps in reading his Inspector Morse books. This is the 6th in the series – Inspector Morse isn’t sure what to make of the truncated body found dumped in the Oxford Canal. He suspects it may be all that’s left of an elderly Oxford don last seen boarding a London train days before.
  • Hangman’s Holiday and Other Stories by Dorothy L Sayers – the ninth in her Lord Peter Wimsey series, this includes  four Wimsey stories, six stories featuring Montague Egg (travelling salesman for Plummet & Rose, Wine & Spirits), and two more separate stories.
  • Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie – this is one of the last few books of hers I have yet to read. It’s historical crime fiction set in Egypt 4,000 years ago, written drawing on her experience of several  expeditions to the Middle East with her husband, Max Malloran, an eminent archaeologist.
  • The Blood Doctor by Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell) – one of her psychological thrillers, described on the back cover as ‘a chilling tale of ambition, obsession and bad blood.‘ I still have a lot of Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell books to read.
  • Call the Dying by Andrew Taylor – I’m jumping into a series with this book as this is the 7th in the Lydmouth mysteries and I haven’t read any of the others. They are all are set in and around a fictional town on the Anglo-Welsh borders in the years after World War II.
  • The Secret Place by Tana French – the 5th in the Dublin Murder Mystery series. I read the first,  In the Woods a few years ago and liked its psychological elements and the twists and turns.  In this book Detective Stephen Moran investigates the murder of handsome, popular Chris Harper when sixteen-year-old Holly Mackey brings him a photo of Chris with the caption, I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.
  • Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson – a complete change from crime fiction – a book I bought in Tescos for £1. It’s described on the book cover as  ‘a novel about love – love of women, love of literature, love of laughter. It shows our funniest writer at his brilliant best.‘ I felt like reading something different.

If you’ve read any of these books I’d love to know what you think about them.

Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L Sayers

Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L Sayers  was first published in 1931, the seventh Lord Peter Wimsey murder mystery. Wimsey is on holiday in Kirkcudbright and Gatehouse of Fleet in Galloway, Scotland, in a fishing and painting community where he is known and where he is

… received on friendly and even affectionate terms. He could make a respectable cast, and he did not pretend to paint, and therefore, although English and an ‘incomer’, gave no cause of offence. The Southron is tolerated in Scotland on the understanding that he does not throw his weight about, and from this peculiarly English vice Lord Peter was laudably free. True, his accent was affected and his behaviour undignified to a degree, but he had been weighed in the balance over many seasons and pronounced harmless, and when he indulged in any startling eccentricity, the matter was dismissed with a shrug and a tolerant, ‘Christ, it’s only his lordship.’ (page 2)

When Campbell, a local landscape painter and fisherman is found dead in a burn near Newton Stewart, it seems he must have slipped whilst painting near to the edge of a ravine, a steep and treacherous granite slope. At first it looks as though it was an accident, but  Wimsey is convinced it was murder and an autopsy reveals that Campbell was dead before he fell into the burn. Campbell was not a popular man, described as ‘ a devil when he is drunk and a lout when he is sober.’ There are 6 possible suspects – all of whom had quarrelled with or been assaulted by Campbell, all of them artists.

What follows is an intricately plotted story as Wimsey and the police investigate the mystery. It is complicated by immense detail about train times, routes, bicycles, moving the body, alibis, and varying styles of painting – I gave up trying to understand it all and just read along enjoying the puzzle.

The five red herrings are, of course, the five innocent suspects, and Wimsey introduces another possibility that it might not be any of the six suspects, when having heard the case against each of them, he announces that all the theories are wrong, before he gives his verdict. And then he sets in motion a re-enactment of the crime from beginning to end to show how it was carried out, down to the most minute detail.

Sayers doesn’t play fair with the reader in not revealing a clue Wimsey noticed at the scene of the crime whilst he was searching through the contents of Campbell’s pockets and satchel and announced something was missing. In an added note Sayers explained that Wimsey

… told the Sergeant what he was look for and why, but as the intelligent reader will readily supply these details for himself, they are omitted from this page. (page 21)

I didn’t ‘readily supplied the details’  for myself but eventually I guessed what it was. But overall, that is just a minor complaint and I thoroughly enjoyed this mystery, the characters are striking and the setting is well grounded.

Five red herrings map 001

There is a map at the beginning of the book that helped me follow the action and in the Foreword Sayers explained that

All the places are real places and all the trains are real trains, and all the landscapes are correct, except that I have run up a few new houses here and there.

and goes to clarify that

… none of the people are in the least like real people, and that no Galloway artist would ever think of getting intoxicated or running away from his wife or bashing a fellow citizen over the head. All that is just for fun and to make it more exciting.

The Gateway of Fleet website has an interesting page on ‘Dorothy L Sayers in Galloway‘, which states that she and her husband Mac Fleming first visited  Galloway in 1928 when they stayed at the Anwoth Hotel (mentioned in Five Red Herrings) in Gatehouse of Fleet and from 1929 they rented a studio in The High Street, Kirkcudbright next door to the well-known artist Charles Oppenheimer. They got to know Galloway well, especially the artistic community in Kirkcudbright and Gatehouse, on which her detective novel Five Red Herrings is based.

I realised after I’d read Five Read Herrings that it fits into a couple of reading challenges – the Colour Coded Challenge (a book with ‘red’ in the title) and the Read Scotland Challenge (a book set in Scotland).

Have His Carcase by Dorothy L Sayers

Have His Carcase, first published in 1932, is another brilliant book – completely different from the last book I wrote about (see my previous post) but just as fascinating and absorbing. It’s crime fiction from the **Golden Age (see the note below), that is between the First and Second World Wars, and is the second of Dorothy L Sayer’s books featuring Harriet Vane, a crime fiction writer, and the seventh featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. They first met in Strong Poison, in which Harriet was on trial charged with the murder of her former lover.

In Have His Carcase Harriet is on a walking holiday when she comes across a dead man, his throat cut from ear to ear, lying on the top of a rock, called locally the Flat-Iron, on a deserted beach. Fortunately she has her camera with her and takes several photos, which come in very useful as by the time that she can alert the police the body has been washed out to sea. It appears that he committed suicide. Wimsey arrives soon after and he and Harriet they set out first of all to identify the body and then to prove that it was murder.

It is an example of the puzzle type of crime fiction – incredibly complicated and seemingly impossible to solve. It involves numerous characters who are not who they first appear, complete with alibis, disguises and false trails. Sayers, helpfully included a schedule of things that Harriet and Wimsey noted about the victim and the suspects, which I found useful as this is a long novel that took me several days to read; with so much information I just couldn’t remember it all as I read the book.

It all hinges on the timing of the discovery of the body and the movement of the tides. As in The Nine Tailors (and in fact in all the books by Dorothy L Sayers that I’ve read) there is a lot of detail, all of which is essential to the plot; detail about the body, how it was found, how the throat was cut , and what the blood was like when Harriet found the body. In the hands of another writer this could have been too graphic for me, but I had no difficulty reading such detail at all!

Also added into the mix are Bolsheviks, rumours of aristocratic connections, spies and a secret code to be deciphered. There are jealous lovers, itinerant hairdressers, a schoolteacher with Communist sympathies, taciturn locals, an antagonistic future son-in-law and  gigolos and dagos. (Written in the early 1930s this is not a politically correct novel.)

An underlying theme is the relationship between Harriet and Wimsey as he is constantly proposing marriage and she rejects him each time. Although at one point, as they walked along the beach together in search of clues, it did look briefly that her resolve was weakening:

She suddenly saw Wimsey in a new light. She knew him to be intelligent, clean, courteous, wealthy, well-read, amusing and enamoured, but he had not so far produced in her that crushing sense of utter inferiority which leads to prostration and hero-worship. But she now realised that there was, after all, something godlike about him. (pages 213-4)

and then she came to her senses and laughed. Earlier she had noted his physique as they inspected the Flat-Iron in the sea:

‘And he strips better than I should have expected,’ she admitted candidly to herself. ‘Better shoulders than I realised, and, thank Heaven, calves to his legs,’ (page 104)

Here are some more of my favourite quotations:

I question this first one!:

To be tried for murder is a fairly good advertisement for a writer of detective fiction. (page 1)

and on seeing what appears to be a man asleep Harriet says:

Now, if I had any luck, he’d be a corpse, and I should report him and get my name in the papers. That would be something like publicity. “Well-known Woman Detective-Writer Finds Mystery Corpse on Lonely Shore.” But these things never happy to authors. (page 7)

Well, she got her wish.

Next, here is Wimsey remarking on his use of quotations, which he does throughout the book:

I always have a quotation for everything – it saves original thinking. (page 58)

and Wimsey to Harriet after she apologised for being ‘a rotten dancer’:

Darling if you danced like an elderly elephant with arthritis, I would dance the sun and moon into the sea with you. I have waited a thousand years to see you dance in that frock. (page 157)

I loved the complexity, the details, and the various solutions Wimsey and Harriet considered. It kept me guessing throughout the book right from the start – just who was the victim, even when he was identified there was more to it, who murdered him, why was he murdered and above all just how and when was he murdered. It’s brilliant!

**Note: I must get a copy of Martin Edwards’ new book The Golden Age of Murderinvestigating how Agatha Christie and colleagues in the Detection Club transformed crime fiction, writing books casting new light on unsolved murders whilst hiding clues to their authors’ darkest secrets.

It’s due to be published on 7 May.

Dorothy L Sayers: Strong Poison & Gaudy Night

I’m no longer attempting  to write about every book I read but I do want to record a few of my thoughts on two of Dorothy L Sayers’ books that I’ve read recently because they are both such good books. However, I doubt very much that I can do justice to either of these books.

Dorothy Leigh Sayers (1893-1957) was born at Christchurch Cathedral School, Oxford, where her father was the headmaster. She learned Latin and French at the age of seven, went to Somerville College, Oxford and in 1915 she graduated with a first class honours degree in modern languages. She is best known as the creator of Lord Peter Wimsey, but as well as writing crime fiction she also wrote poems, plays, essays, books on religion and was a translator – most notably of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The two of her books I’ve read recently are Strong Poison (first published in 1930) and Gaudy Night (first published in 1935), both featuring Harriet Vane, a crime fiction novelist, and her relationship with Lord Peter Wimsey, the aristocratic amateur detective.

The two first meet in Strong Poison, when Harriet is on trial for the murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. Wimsey, attending the trial, is convinced she is innocent and sets out to prove it … and falls in love with her.

From the back cover:

The Crown’s case is watertight. The police are adamant that the right person is on trial. The judge’s summing up is also clear. Harriet Vane is guilty of killing her lover and Harriet Vane must hang. But the jury disagrees.

Well, actually one member of the jury won’t agree that she is guilty – that is Miss Climpson, an elderly spinster, who just happens to run what Wimsey calls ‘My Cattery’, ostensibly a typing bureau, but actually an amateur detective/enquiry agency. Wimsey decides that Harriet is innocent, Boyes, who died poisoned by arsenic, either committed suicide or was murdered by someone else. It is Miss Climpson and her employees, mainly spinsters with small fixed incomes, or no incomes, widows without families, or women deserted by their husband, who do the investigations. This involves Miss Climpson posing as a medium and Miss Murchison learning how to pick a lock.

To sum up – this is a delightful book, full of strong characters, a mystery to solve, superbly written with humour as well as ingenuity.

And then there is Gaudy Night, which is even better than Strong Poison. I loved the setting in this book – Shrewsbury College, a fictional all female college, at Oxford University (based on Somerville College, Sayers’ own college). The action of the book takes place in 1935, five years after Harriet’s trial in Strong Poison. During those five years Harriet and Wimsey have had an ongoing ‘relationship’ in which he annually asks her to marry him and she refuses. They had also worked together on a murder at Wilvercombe, as told in Have His Carcase, a book I have yet to read.

Gaudy Night begins as Harriet decides to go back to Shrewsbury College to attend the Shrewsbury Gaudy (a college reunion involving a celebratory dinner), not sure she can face meeting her fellow students and the dons. It doesn’t go well – there are poison pen letters, nasty graffiti and vandalism causing mayhem and upset. Harriet is asked to investigate, under pretence of helping one of the dons to rewrite her manuscript that had been destroyed in one of the nightly attacks and researching the life and works of Sheridan Lefanu. Struggling to discover the culprit and afraid it will end in murder she asks Wimsey for help.

This is a complex novel, with many characters, some of whom I found difficult to visualise, whereas others were vividly depicted, their thoughts, actions and feelings clearly evident. I had no idea who the writer of the poison pen letters etc could be and I was completely absorbed in the mystery.

But what gives both books so much depth is the portrayal of life between the two world wars, the exploration of the role of women in society, particularly with regard to education and marriage and the importance of truth and honesty; not forgetting, the ongoing relationship between Harriet and Lord Peter Wimsey. Of the two books I preferred Gaudy Night, but both are excellent and a pleasure to read.

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.