Sunday, July 31, 2016

Agatha Christie – ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ / John Bude – ‘The Cornish Coast Murder’ / Margery Allingham – ‘Sweet Danger’

It’s the referendum’s fault. I was reading a long, digressive novel about England in the 1830s when it happened, and felt so sickened by everything English that I switched to Proust instead. And then… I don’t know, a twitch upon the thread? These books are nothing if not English. It’s partly to do with Alistair Fitchett’s ‘beverage and a book’ photos on Facebook, which show some of the beautiful book covers modern editions of golden age detective fiction books are treated to (particularly by British Library Crime Classics) next to a tempting-looking cup of coffee. Dripping quietly into the consciousness. It’s partly S.’s enthusiasm too: we went to the Ironbridge Bookshop recently, which has the most amazing selection of old colour-coded Penguin paperbacks (pictured on their cover photo), and she declared her intention to one day have a library of these old crime books, like the one she remembers in her house aged 12, inherited from a great-aunt. It was M. who suggested Margery Allingham, whose detective novels, he said, have a bit more about them than detection, plus the unusual feature of a central character who ages for as long as the books continue, from 1929-65. We couldn’t think of another fictional character who does that.

The Cornish Coast Murder is the most conventional of these books, with a murder at the end of the opening chapter, a police investigation aided by an amateur-sleuth vicar (Reverend Dodd), which potters around methodically, making for an alarming sag in the middle of the book until inspiration strikes the vicar and things finally start moving (this is the kind of thing Conan Doyle inserted gangster novellas into his Sherlock Holmes novels to avoid). The opening chapter is nicely metafictional, with Dodd and his doctor friend Pendrill enthusing over detective fiction before a phone call interrupts their evening with the news that Dodd’s neighbour Julius Tregarthan has been shot. Shot in his own sitting room, through the French windows:
Three shots had starred the glass – one high up in the right-hand fixed window; one about six feet from the base of the door; and the third midway in the left-hand fixed window.
The curtains are open, though it is dark. Beyond the windows is a garden, a wall, a path, a 15-foot cliff and then the sea. Some gravel from the other side of the house lies under the windows. The only footprints found belong to Tregarthan’s niece, Ruth, going away from and then coming back to the house’s side door. Did she shoot him? Did her boyfriend, Ronald Hardy, seen in the vicinity at the time but now missing? Did the gardener, Cowper, creep along the wall from his room next to the sitting room and do it? This stuff goes on for too long, and it is not until Chapter 16 that anyone thinks to [SPOILER ALERT OF SORTS] relate the bullet holes in the wall to the holes in the glass, which rules out all of the theories which have been proposed up to that point. They definitely should have got Scotland Yard in. Also: the class-ism (servants are stupid), sexism and Christianity are all a bit stomach-turning.

By comparison, The Mysterious Affair at Styles is as light as a soufflé, and any stupidity is intentional:
‘Mr Hastings – you are always so kind, and you know such a lot.’ It struck me at this moment that Cynthia was really a very charming girl! Much more charming than Mary, who never said things of that kind.
Agatha Christie’s misdirection is on another level to John Bude’s, as one might expect, and involves Hastings blundering along drawing obviously incorrect conclusions from Poirot’s enigmatic pronouncements because one of the suspects for the poisoning of Mrs Inglethorp, John Cavendish, is his friend. The one thing you can guarantee is that the opposite conclusion to the one which Hastings draws is not going to be correct.

Sweet Danger is a much stranger proposition. For example:
        Amanda regarded him coldly. ‘You admitted the car looked very well outside the house,’ she said with dignity. ‘You’re probably one of those people like Hal who don’t believe in appearances. But I do. Appearances matter an awful lot.’
        ‘Oh, rather,’ said Mr Campion. ‘I knew a man once who carried it to excess, though. His name was Gosling, you see, so he always dressed in grey and yellow, and occasionally wore a great false beak. People remembered his name, of course. But his wife didn’t like it. Of course, he had perfectly ordinary children – not eggs – and that was a blow to him. And finally he moved into a wooden house with just slats in front instead of windows, and you opened the front door with a pulley on the roof. It had a natty little letter box on the front gate with “The Coop” painted on it. Soon after, his wife left him and the Borough Council stepped in. But I see you don’t believe me.’
        ‘Oh, but I do,’ said Amanda. ‘I was his wife. Come and see the mill.’
Unlike The Cornish Coast Murder, Sweet Danger doesn’t hang about exploring things methodically. Unlike The Mysterious Affair at Styles there isn’t even a murder (yes!), only a fiendish conspiracy which Campion is out to foil, to do with the inheritance of an estate which is almost impossible to prove, and which Big Business (not the bull from Cold Comfort Farm, but ultra-rich Brett Savanake and his henchmen) are determined to cream off, defrauding the worthy, impoverished family. While the plot does rest on the old fashioned and conservative assumption that hereditary wealth and status must be preserved, it at least does so in an interesting way, and there is more than a whiff of asset stripping about Brett Savanake’s plans, which feels contemporary. As does the way in which Amanda Fitton and her two siblings make money from the mill which is the only part of their legacy remaining before Campion’s arrival. They use it to run a dynamo, and charge radio batteries for the neighbourhood. They also run their own electric car (‘electric brougham’ is how it is described, and such a thing did exist), which – then as now – has issues with range: ‘you can’t go more than five miles in it’. And… witchcraft. All within a plot with a smooth momentum which never even dreams of sagging, keeping the reader agreeably perplexed, not just at the mechanics of who might have done what, but at the porous boundaries that this particular detective novel has allowed itself. An unlocked-room mystery would seem to be the best kind.

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