Monday, 6 April 2020

My Year in Books 2020: March

So... this post is a little late, and a little short. I probably don't need to explain why, do I? Looking at social media, it seems lots of people have been reading loads during the coronavirus lockdown, but I just haven't been able to. A combination of working-from-home stress and a struggle to concentrate has left me finding it very hard to just lose myself in a book. I'm hoping I can get my reading mojo back soon, but for now here are my reviews of the three novels I read in March.

In case you're interested, here's a catch-up on my other posts so far this year: January, February

Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne (1931)

As you may remember from previous posts, my mother-in-law has been keeping me well supplied with British Library Crime Classics over the years. I save the Christmas-themed ones for December (naturally), but this month I was in the mood for a couple of the less festive titles. Murder of a Lady is subtitled A Scottish Mystery, as it takes place in a gloomy old castle in the Highlands. Mary Gregor, sister of the laird of Duchlan Castle, has been found stabbed to death… in a locked room. Inspector Dundas is called in to investigate, and he’s soon joined by Wynne’s amateur detective Eustace Hailey. There’s a pervasive air of menace around Duchlan Castle, as well as references to local superstitions about evil fish creatures. More interestingly (for me, anyway), there are contradictory statements about the character of the deceased. Was Mary Gregor a paragon of selfless virtue who devoted her life to looking after others? Or was she more of a controlling puritan? Wynne’s novel is certainly carefully plotted, but it lacks the deeply immersive sense of place that characterizes many of the BL Crime Classics. There are a lot of comments on the character of ‘the Highlands’, but I didn’t get a really strong sense of Duchlan Castle. I found the character of Mary Gregor quite intriguing though, and I enjoyed the way the family’s past is slowly – and reluctantly – revealed. Fans of Golden Age crime might raise an eyebrow at the final explanation, however… you have been warned!

Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Croft (1938)

Another BL Crime Classic next, but this is quite a different type of novel to Murder of a Lady. As is explained in Martin Edwards’s excellent introduction, Freeman Wills Crofts wrote a number of ‘inverted’ crime novels in the Golden Age, where the focus is on the murderer and his motivations, rather than on the whodunnit puzzle. Antidote to Venom is along these lines. George Surridge, the director of Birmington Zoo, is a man who has rather lost his way in life. He has money worries, and his marriage is starting to fail. (The book’s blurb also states that he is concerned about an outbreak of disease at the zoo, but this is a tiny bit misleading, as it isn’t really a major plot point!) George starts to imagine rather questionable ways of getting out of his predicament, and the reader would be forgiven for thinking that they know the direction the story is going to take. However, Crofts plays a little game of bait-and-switch, and things take a rather different turn. I really enjoyed the unexpected nature of the narrative, and the fact that, despite us feeling like we know exactly what is being planned an executed, there is still a perplexing little puzzle to be solved. George Surridge is an engaging character as well, though he is utterly frustrating at times. I almost found myself shouting ‘Oh George, don’t do that!’ as various points in the book. Slightly unusual, but really compelling – and a definite recommendation from me.

The Woman in Blue by Elly Griffiths (2016)

I’m not sure how it’s happened, but I seem to be determined not to read Elly Griffiths’s Dr Ruth Galloway novels in any particular order. This doesn’t seem to be a problem for this series though, as each one only contains very minor references to the previous ones, and I’m not sure any of them would count as spoilers. I do keep losing track of where things are up to in the private lives of the detectives, but I can usually work things out based on the ages of the many many children they all keep having (seriously, has any detective team in fiction ever been this fertile?!). The Woman in Blue sees Griffiths’s archaeologist drawn into sinister events around the pilgrimage sites of Walsingham. An old friend – now a priest – gets in touch with Ruth to ask for help with anonymous letters from someone who clearly doesn’t like women priests; Cathbad thinks he had a vision of the Virgin Mary while house-sitting; DCI Nelson and team investigating the murder of a young woman, whose body was found in a graveyard. Are these things connected? When another woman is found murdered – a priest, this time – it seems very much like they are. In terms of the mystery plot, I think this one might be my favourite of the series so far (though I am aware that I’ve said that before). I loved the evocative details about Walsingham, and there were some neat clues too (some I spotted, others I didn’t!).