I enjoyed all three of these books, but they reminded me of nothing so much as the Golden Age of detective fiction of the 1920s and 1930s, in which amateur sleuths solve puzzling whodunnits. Like the Golden Age stories the settings are comfortable, the characters middle to upper-class and the writing often self-consciously ‘literary’. (A female voice was raised in a reboant cantillation of obscene abuse. That one’s from Exit Lines.)
What that ‘reboant cantillation’ really says is: ‘Now don’t go getting upset. People have been murdered, yes, but there’s no harm done. Sit back and enjoy the view.’ It’s a warm and cuddly view of crime, in which the puzzle takes precedence over emotion. There’s none of the bleak insight of Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. There’s no understanding of how middle-class frustration can lead to murder, as in PD James’ Death of an Expert Witness. There aren’t any of the cruel, selfish, very modern forms of crime in Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks books.
Dalziel and Pascoe are well-drawn characters who meet other well-drawn characters in entertaining mysteries. But all three books step back from the blood and mess of murder, from greed, fear, stupidity and loneliness, and lives left broken in the wake of crime. They live in Cosyland, where nobody ever really gets hurt.
I’m willing to bet there are hundreds – possibly even thousands – of more scholarly tomes on the subject of the British Empire. I’m afraid they’re not for me. Books packed with footnotes and quotes make reading them feel like homework; I always think I should be taking notes and getting ready for a test.
Jeremy Paxman’s Empire is terrifically readable, packed with great stories, and not so long you despair of ever reaching the end. (It’s a shade under 300 pages.) He hasn’t written a hatchet job on the empire, nor a hurrah for it. It seems to me to walk comfortably between the two viewpoints. Although, and at the risk of revealing myself as a pinko libtard Bremainer, I like his lament for a post-WWII Britain that never worked out how to go forward without an empire.
And it really is so very, very readable.
This description of 24 hours in 1943 and the experiences of those involved – German and British – in one RAF bombing raid of a small German town is so detailed, so meticulously researched, and so well-written, that you’re pulled right into all the lives and events described. Whether it’s the RAF crews collecting their sandwiches and thermos flasks of tea, and boiled sweets – and then nervously, nervously, waiting – for take-off, or the panic in a burning hospital with the patients still trapped inside, or what happens when a fighter plane is struck by a flock of birds in flight, you not only see it, you can practically reach out and touch it.
And that detail never lets up. The pain and the fear and the suffering, the panic and frustration and exhaustion are so vividly rendered that you long for it all to stop… and yet you can’t stop reading. Which I think is probably the point. You, the reader, can’t escape what’s happening any more than the characters on the page can. By the time you reach the final page you’ve come to know everyone involved – in all their human pettiness, greed, bravery and desperation – so well, in fact, that their death or survival lingers in your mind long after the book goes back on the shelf. It packs as much of punch now – after my fourth reading – as it did when I first finished it in 1972. There are very few books I can say that about.
I saw Ken Russell’s film The Devils when it first came out, in 1971, and it knocked my teenage self for six. It still does, so any chance to read anything at all about it is more than welcome. But packed as this is with interviews with cast members – living and dead – and with all kind of details about the filming and the critical reception (as well as theories as to why Warner Brothers refuses to release the film on Bluray, or in its director’s cut) there’s still something missing. To give just one example: the writer discusses Russell’s battles with the British film censor and the cuts demanded of him… but then doesn’t say what those cuts were. It’s like that all the way through: you read on always expecting a little more than you actually get. BUT… given how little there is in the world about this film, I’m going to shut up and be grateful for what this book does offer.
Pendergast – Aloysius Xingu Leng Pendergast – has skin as pale as moonlight, is always impeccably dressed (in black) and is independently wealthy. He has a knack for turning up (uninvited) at the scene of very strange murders and discovering the truth while surrounded (mostly) by self-serving know-nothings. This is because he knows everything.
He’s a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, a man who always has the right piece of information at his fingertips for precisely the right moment. Pendergast can quote obscure research on cross-pollination in Nebraska, discuss New York regulations for archaeological finds, tell you what a cabinet of curiosities is and identify the markings on a murder weapon at a glance.
Like Sherlock Holmes, Pendergast couldn’t possibly exist. But he is fun to read about. You turn the pages waiting for him to pull the next rabbit out of the hat of his impossibly arcane knowledge. The only trouble is, he doesn’t do this all the time. Both books begin with an investigation, then slip into fairly straight thrills and spills chases. And those are exciting enough, but they’re not Pendergast being weirdly brilliant.
Not that any of that’s going to stop me looking out for the rest of his adventures. He’s just too entertaining a character.
I imagine that this has been re-published to cash in on the success of Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks books. It’s set in Los Angeles, though, not Yorkshire and revolves around an actress being stalked by a psychopath from her past. This might have seemed fresh and exciting twenty years ago, when it originally appeared; now it reads a little like one of those moderately exciting made-for-TV thrillers that were common in the late 80s. Fans of PR will want to read it no matter what I say, but anyone who doesn’t know his books would do better to find an Inspector Banks story to start with. Or his standalone mystery, Before The Poison.
Lynda La Plante wrote the three Widows series for TV: great characters, blistering dialogue, terrific pace. She followed that up with Prime Suspect, which matched the same high quality over seven series. Both of them featured women as the protagonists, and that added a wonderful new perspective to the crime stories. So when I found this book – many, many years after publication, I must admit – I was expecting more tough female characters dealing with the ultra-macho world of the Mafia. It doesn’t quite work out that way.
The first 400 pages deal mainly with a man’s rise to the top ranks of the organization. When he dies, his wife and daughters-in-law are left facing all kinds of trouble from the mobsters and I thought, ‘Now we’re going to get the women fighting back!’ Not quite. What they mainly do is shout at each other. And argue about what to do. And then they shout at each other and argue some more. And some more after that. This goes on for roughly five hundred pages, with the odd murder thrown in from time to time to make you think there’s more to come than arguing and shouting.
I slogged through it all because I was curious to see how it ended, only to discover that when it does, it does so with the faint suggestion that now things are going to get really exciting. I see it has lots of fans on Amazon and Goodreads, but to me this reads as though L La P pounded out the pages to meet a deadline. And then moved on to something more interesting.