Posts Tagged ‘Midsomer Murders’

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Detective fiction is a funny thing. The moment of most conflict and drama generally takes place outside the narrative, often before detective has been called in. The narrative arc is pretty formulaic: scenes are inspected, witnesses interviewed, discrepancies explored. And the conclusion is pretty predicable: the culprit is identified and society made safe from him or her. And they can become self-parodic: the body count in the various villages around Midsomer and Cabot Cove and St Mary’s Mead; the stereotypes of the detectives – the lonely genius of Holmes and Morse, the cantankerous Inspector Frost, the rebellious Luthor; the implausibility of the amateur sleuth.

But they are beloved!

And I love them.

They are the form of writing where the relationship between the reader and writer is at it’s most active and mutual. It is a dance, a tango; it is a battle of wits; it is a running joke. The reader is constantly building his own narratives, reconstructing the clues presented to him, re-evaluating the interviews. We judge and weigh up both the characters and the writer: we know that the early obvious suspect is a red herring with another 300 pages to read or another hour to watch.

And this book is a hymn to these classic, golden age cozy novels and their modern television counterparts – perhaps unsurprisingly as Horowitz has written for Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War and written two new “official” Holmes novels as well as taken on Bond.

The novel is, as they say, a book in two parts: the first half is a presented as the ninth Atticus Pünd novel by Alan Conway – echoes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot abound in Pünd: dapper, clever, gentlemanly, foreign and a consultant to various police forces in 1950s England; the second part is a contemporary investigation by editor Susan Ryeland into the death of Conway himself and a search for the missing final chapters of his book.

Ryeland as a narrator is herself steeped in detective fiction and the novel is a delightful homage to and pastiche of the cozy detective novel – eschewing the darker notes that have grown with the growth of “nordic noir”.

Whilst well crafted and engagingly written, it is not a deep portrayal of character: Susan as a character and narrator was a little two-dimensional and her relationship with Andreas was not terribly fleshed out; the characters within the Atticus Pund novel had no more depth. In both parts, the characters felt like little more than chesspieces moved around and into place by the writer.

And there did seem to be an awful lot of summarising and of recapping of the information given in the previous couple of hundred pages which, ironically, could have been edited out quite happily. And the opening chapters which methodically showed every main character’s reaction to the first death in Conway’s novel felt somewhat formulaic and by-the-numbers.

Horowitz played with a range of different voices in the novel: Conway’s narrative voice in the Pünd novels, his true voice and his somewhat pretentious derivative literary voice; we hear snippets and extracts from these and from his sister and a rival would-be writer. It did come across as a little smug in parts, a little too self-consciously clever. Did he name his author Alan Conway after the conman who impersonated Stanley Kubrick? Did he rely on plant names for his characters in the same way that Susanna Ryeland, working for Charles Clover, derided Conway for doing? Invented interviews between Horowitz and an author who doesn’t exist promoting a book that Horowitz wrote himself…

It’s a great, fun read and a cosy winter’s treat, like an open fire and mulled wine. But it’s no literary masterpiece.

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Anthony Horowitz, for me as an English teacher is almost synonymous with his teenage spy Alex Rider. Although probably with fewer helicopters, assassins and explosions. And more writing. The series is a very boy friendly, speedily paced series of novels which are one out go-to series for reluctant boy-readers. So it was with some surprise and not a little interest that I discovered, on reading the afterword essay following The House Of Silk, that his career includes Midsomer Murders, Agatha Christie and Foyle’s War.

Apparently, this is the first officially sanctioned new Holmes novel – sanctioned by the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Estate. And what is clear from reading it is that Horowitz knows his Holmes! Knows him well! So well he even includes a quiz at the end of his afterword. I got 6 / 10. Could do better. He also includes frequent references to other novels and short stories: The Red Headed League. The Hound of the Baskervilles. The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans. These are all explicit and fleeting, nothing which would put off a newcomer to Holmes but a pleasing nod to the canon for those readers familiar with it.

Horowitz’ tone and structure is also pretty authentic. I mean, I don’t profess to be a Holmes expert, but the familiarity of the opening scene – Holmes at 221b Baker Street astounding Watson with his deductions as we await a fateful knock at the door – takes you straight back to The Hound of The Baskervilles. Similarly, the length of time spent without Holmes, his disappearance from the narrative, the intertwining of two apparently unrelated plots, the time devoted to other characters giving their own stories in their own voices all felt delightfully familiar. In fact, if anything, characters seemed to be falling over themselves to tell their stories.

I usually don’t worry too much about spoilers but a Holmes novel does require a certain delicacy, I suppose. So let’s instead look at some of the ingredients Horowitz has added to his mix: an art dealer haunted by a vengeful figure from America; a corpse discovered in a hotel room; the Baker Street Irregulars and a charitable school; and, of course, the eponymous House of Silk. We also have the familiar cast: Lestrade, Mycroft and Mrs Hudson. And a mysterious nighttime assignation with an unnamed yet urbane criminal figure. As Horowitz’ sequel is named Moriarty, I think we can make certain assumptions!

These last few years have been golden ones for Holmes fans: BBC’s Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman is a delight; Robert Downey Jr’s films are fun. Horowitz’ Holmes, though, does seem far closer to Jeremy Brett than his more modern counterparts. I have to say that, in my head, some of Holmes’ dialogue was read in Brett’s lugubrious tones. Stiller, calmer than the somewhat frenetic Messrs Cumberbatch and Downey. Maybe hearing Brett’s voice intone Holmes’ words is a tribute to Horowitz’ writing; maybe it just reveals how impressionable my mind was when, as a child, I saw Brett in The Hound of The Baskervilles.

So, returning to Horowitz, I thoroughly enjoyed this. It was, possibly, a little too self-conscious of its place as part of the canon and maybe a little too reverential. But perhaps that is the nature of all pastiches: without that reverence for the source material it would become a novel featuring Sherlock Holmes rather than a Sherlock Holmes novel.

Speaking of Sherlock Holmes novels, it transpires that a lost Holmes short story has been discovered in Selkirk, Scotland, written to raise money for a bridge. See here for the full report.

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I’ve enjoyed various Susan Hill novels: The Woman in Black and The Little Stranger in particular and so it was that I was looking forward to picking up on the Simon Serrailler crime series which I hadn’t come across before. In honesty, I picked up A Question of Identity first which is the seventh in the series first and then – before starting that one – picked up Various Haunts Of Men to see where the series started.

This is a delightfully and unashamedly British crime novel. It’s not even set in London but in the leafy Cathedral town of Lafferton to which our main protagonist, Freya Graffham, has retreated after escaping a difficult marriage.

The town of Lafferton is familiar and comforting but I was expecting and hoping for something more from it somehow. More character; more presence; more atmosphere. The Hill and its brooding Wern Stones and its various dog walkers, joggers and cyclists was lovely: knowing how ritualised such people are with a strange balance between icy aloofness and civil courtesy, Hill created these encounters effectively. I, personally, would have liked the cathedral itself to have had a more prominent role, looming over or protecting the city. We visit it occasionally and glimpse it through windows but I’d have liked to have felt it.

There are some elements that jar a little too. The neighbouring village of Starly, in which had bloomed a New Age community of acupuncturists and psychic healers, hypnotherapists and a psychic surgeon did not strike me as a realistic community and the alternative therapies sub-plot was not resolved. In fact some very significant issues – and the concurrent efforts put into both the writing and reading – were left just hanging. Completely. Perhaps Hill – who I know is a very competent and careful writer, a narrative craftswoman – has left these threads to be picked up in the subsequent book or books. But, judging this as a standalone novel, I felt just a little cheated. Other themes were similarly touched upon, I suspect, to be revisited later: the relationship between Simon Serrailler’s parents; the absent third triplet; his relationship with women.

In terms of plot, the novel revolves around the disappearance of a number of women (and a man and a dog). It’s not until halfway through that these disappearances are even confirmed as anything suspicious and the novel does span a period of perhaps six months.

It was a pleasant change that Hill eschewed the current vogue of hyper-violent death and torture described in intimate and graphic detail. Even when death does occur, Hill is discrete and the violence is minimal and implicit.

It is true that the killer is fairly easy to predict here. From about half way through. But I don’t think that was the point of the novel: it is that very British thing, a character-driven novel. Simon Serrailler, the eponymous character of the series, is only really seen through the prism of other people’s eyes: Graffham’s or his sister, Cat Deerbon’s. He therefore remained distant and enigmatic and we only really heard his voice a couple of times in the final pages. He was charming without being a charmer; he broke hearts but was no womaniser; he was cool and controlled but still passionate and inspired passion in others.

This was not a breath taking book but it was a good read and a solid introduction to an intriguing set of characters. There are obvious parallels with Morse or Midsomer Murders but Lafferton and it’s collection of sympathetic and eccentric and enigmatic characters are distinctive.

Will I continue the series?

There’s certainly enough there to intrigue me enough to keep going!

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