Tag Archives: detective fiction

Wibble wobble

WOBBLE TO DEATH by Peter Lovesey, 1970; my rather battered edition, 1980.

Bookcase 3, shelf 6, book 27

Sometimes life just gets in the way, and so do self-imposed rules. The rules of this project dictate that I must read what the dice select.

Life, on the other hand, has ensured that I just haven’t had the time to give The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England my full attention. Actually, I probably never will, and it was never my area of archaeology, so why I’ve got this title baffles me. It’s time to overturn those self-imposed rules (I knew this would happen sooner or later, but I’ve been so good that making the decision was difficult) and roll those dice again.

Phew – detective fiction! Extremely tatty, pages-falling-away-from-the-binding-because-I’ve-read-it-so-often detective fiction. I love this book.

Actually, I love Peter Lovesey’s books. Some more than others, but I have been known to track them down in France, where classy detective fiction is properly valued  (I even found one on a station bookstall, and Un flic et des limiers (aka Bloodhounds) kept me thoroughly entertained during a boring journey). But the Inspector Cribb titles are my favourites, and that accounts for the shocking condition of this one. Some are, at last, being reissued, so it may be time for a replacement, but for ages it was only available – even through Abebooks – as a large-print edition. Shameful…

Ahem.

Wobble To Death is the first of the Sergeant Cribb books, and was originally published as the result of a competition.

Submitting it was cheeky, because the book itself is set in a competition – an six-day endurance walking contest in Victorian London (‘for cruelty, knuckle-fighting don’t compare with it’), in which a star contestant is knocked off.

It’s immaculately plotted, but that’s not what draws me back. It’s the context, I think: the meticulously researched world of London in 1879. Of course the quality of the writing and the tightness of the plot are essential, but the whole atmosphere of this book – and of the others involving Cribb – is something I find addictive.

The basic setting may seem unlikely (most of us only know of similar contests from They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?), but such races were not unusual, and Wobble to Death was inspired by Lovesey’s interest in the history of athletics.

But it’s everything else you want from a good who-done-it as well, not just the interesting result of thorough research and understanding. It grabs me right from the very start, from a cold November Monday midnight – the wobble starts at 1 a.m. – in Islington.

‘The 12.05 a.m. trundled out of Highbury and Islington station and along the line. Its rhythmic snorts were replaced by unmechanical sounds. Harsh, stomach-wrenching coughs echoed in the tunnel leading to the platform. Then the clatter of heavily shod boots and shoes. The unexpected influx of midnight passengers massed at the barrier, every one muffled to the eyebrows and topped with a cap or bowler. A ticket collector, scowling under his cheese-cutter, came out to draw back the grille. They filed through, out of the booking hall and into a dense fog.’

That unprepossessing collection are the Press, come to report on the contest. By Tuesday, one of the main contestants is dead. Accident, a consequence of the disgusting conditions in the Agricultural Halls? The result of doping (yes, it was happening over a century ago)? Deliberate interference? And when Sergeant Cribb – and his long-suffering assistant Constable Thackeray – are called in to investigate, a whole series of revelations expose a variety of deceptions. Oh, and a murderer. In the end…

I am glad I bent the rules. Normally I hesitate about re-reading detective fiction, but this – and Lovesey’s other books – doesn’t suffer if you can remember who did it. As it happened, I couldn’t – or not until the last few pages, anyway. Whether that matters or not is the mark of a truly good murder mystery.

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Elementary (or not)

THE SIGN OF FOUR, by Arthur Conan Doyle, originally published in 1890; my edition, 1982

Bookshelf 3, shelf 4, book 34

I suppose it had to happen – Sherlock was inevitably going to put in an appearance, especially as I have noticed that the dice seem to select this area of bookshelves more than others (they’re not weighted – honest).

I was quite glad to get this particular Sherlock Holmes book, though, as I’d not re-read it in ages. It’s one of the ones I loved most and may even have been the one I read first – or was that Hound? Either is a rattling good tale and a great introduction to the world of 221b Baker Street.

The Sign of Four is the second Sherlock Holmes book, and like the earlier A Study in Scarlet, it’s a full novel and not a collection of short stories. And like that book, it is also divided into two halves, though not so crudely. Again, one is the crime and the pursuit, and the other is the background. But unlike Scarlet (at least, that is, for me), it’s a cracking read. And it still is.

One of the joys of coming back to this book is the delight I’ve been able to take in discovering all the best Sherlockian clichés developing and maturing with rapidity. Yes, the Baker Street Irregulars had appeared in Scarlet, but here they are again, more developed. 

Here’s Holmes’ cocaine habit – ‘a seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to try it?’ – and terrible attitude to women, reported by – as always – Dr Watson:

‘I would not tell them too much,’ said Holmes. ‘Women are never to be entirely trusted – not the best of them.’
I did not pause to argue over this atrocious sentiment. 

And here are some of his most famous – and frequently misquoted – statements:

‘How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?’

Hansom cabs clatter along gas-lit streets through a deepening fog (but of course – and happily as I write this the fog outside my house is getting thicker and thicker), and through it all winds the river, scene of one of the great chases in detective fiction.

So what of the plot, what of the story of the governess, the mysterious Indian pearls, the summons at night and the strange and terrifying death of Bartholemew Sholto at Pondicherry Lodge, Upper Norwood? Well, on one level it’s sensationalist hooey, but it’s enormous fun and – and this is a big ‘and’, because it’s far from being generally true of the detective genre, even today – it hangs together and makes logical sense. And it’s exciting, and I’m not giving away any spoilers!

I’ve been thinking about why it works so well. One reason is that though it is sensationalist – the chase, the fabulous jewels, the Andaman Islander with his poison darts – it is also deeply atmospheric:

It was a September evening and not yet seven o’clock, but the day had been a dreary one, and a dense drizzly fog lay low upon the great city. Mud-coloured clouds drooped sadly over the muddy streets. Down the Strand the lamps were but misty splotches of diffused light which threw a feeble circular glimmer upon the slimy pavement…

Another reason why the Sherlock Holmes stories still appeal is that they are rooted in a real world; London’s streets and buildings are frequently named and some things are still recognisable to Londoners today – such as the way that you can look down on a foggy city from the ‘heights’ of South London, and see only hints of it, tall buildings poking through the murk. It all builds – the criminal and his Andaman accomplice are tracked along a route that can still be followed; Holmes, Watson and Miss Morston (the governess) are taken in a cab along roads down which you can still drive – and creates a real world, one which barely seems fictional. And this, I am convinced, is largely why the Sherlock Holmes stories have such an appeal, even now, well over a hundred years since they were written. That and the perennial reason of reader satisfaction at a problem ingeniously solved.

Incidentally, reading The Sign of Four and contrasting it with another book emphasised something which has been bothering me slightly during my dice-reading exercise: language and attitudes which are now offensive.

I have just put the other book, written in the 1940s, to one side because of this. I don’t think I’m being over-sensitive, and obviously it was once just about acceptable – in some sectors of society – to sprinkle around words which are now (and even were, sometimes, then) offensively racist in your work. Writers are creatures of their time, and their work inevitably reflects this, but it can make a book unreadable today. At first I was worried about this in The Sign of Four, with its partial setting during the Indian mutiny, and it wouldn’t be written in this way today. But it surprised me at the end. The Andaman Islander, having been referred to by Conan Doyle / Watson in terms which make him seem more of a monster than a human being, finds his defender in Jonathan Small, his companion: yes, he’s been problematic – killing someone probably counts as problematic – but ‘he was staunch and true, was poor Tonga. No man ever had a more faithful mate.’ The book I rejected, written fifty years later, would never have been so generous.

Detecting Cornwall

WYCLIFFE AND THE FOUR JACKS, by W J Burley, published in 1985 – and WYCLIFFE AND THE TANGLED WEB, also by Burley (but of course), published in1988

Bookshelf 15, shelf 4, books 10 and 11

It’s a bit like Cheddars – you can’t just eat up one detective story; you need more. Well, I do anyway, and the same applies to sequences of novels (heaven only knows what will happen if the dice select one of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books). Oxfam may have been where I found these rather lovely yellow-jacketed Gollancz hardbacks to fuel my addiction.

So not one tiltle here, but two.

Why do we read detective fiction, I wonder? Why is it so very popular?

I think it partly appeals to our puzzle-solving instincts, and partly to our desire to see order come from chaos, and you can’t get more transgressive than murder.

But of course there’s more to a good detective novel than the solving of the crime. Otherwise reading one would be little different to completing a sudoku, only with extra blunt instruments.

Of course you need a stonkingly good plot. But you also need believable characters, sympathetic or not – and your main detective really does not need  to be alcoholic, addicted to drugs or a complete screwball – and you need an interesting setting. Often the best crime writers tend to explore a particular location over several books, and it’s best when it’s one which readers ‘think’ they know, but which the writer then reveals in all its actual grimness or hypocrisy. Think Morse’s Oxford or the Edinburgh of John Rebus.

In the case of the Wycliffe books, it’s Cornwall. 

That’s hardly surprising: Burley (1914-2002) was a complete Cornishman. But though he always sets the Wycliffe books in a recognisable area, he’s also at pains to distort it slightly so there’s no risk of any confusion between fiction or reality. A necessary precaution when you live in the community you’re writing about – especially if you write about nasty little murders and sins coming home to roost…

The first of the two, Four Jacks, is set in the Roseland peninsula. For me, this is one of the books which most conjures up Cornwall, partly because it’s set in the summer, and partly because the landscape is so lovingly described. And it’s a Cornish Cornwall despite the holiday setting – not the Cornwall of the visitors who basically form a backdrop to the action, walking around in the distance and taking, in the case of Tangled Web, boat trips on which they witness arguments. That particular book is set in a version of Mevagissey.

I must admit that I don’t know the Cornwall of the 1980s well enough to comment on how accurate Burley’s representation of it was, but I do know small communities – small rural communities – and they hardly change. Burley has, in many ways, got them sussed. And Wycliffe, Burley’s main detective, understands them too:

‘…he had been brought up in the narrow world of family feuds, squabbles over land, and the conflicting interests of landlord and tenant.’

(This is a world – Tangled Web – in which it seems perfectly reasonable to put an elderly aunt in the freezer when she dies at an inconvenient time. And I don’t find it exaggerated one bit.)

And then there are the ‘incomers’ like the unpleasant David Cleeve – he’s the focus of Jacks – though he is an extreme case: a famous writer with a dodgy past. For me, though Cleeve may be the focus of the book, the peripheral characters are where my interest lies: the Borlases, brother and sisters, whose niece is murdered by accident; Laura Wynn, the new-age protester against an archaeological dig… they can be major or minor, but they’re sketched in well. For instance, Jack Polmear, pub landlord, barely appears – but I’ve met a Jack Polmear or two, he’s so convincing.

Ultimately, however, the appeal of Burley’s books for me lies in the motivation behind the crimes. It’s never overly melodramatic, exaggerated or ridiculous. It’s often derived from mistaken assumptions and muddle, which strikes me as being realistic (though I may be operating under a muddled and mistaken assumption myself, of course). I think it is probably this aspect of his work which has led to comparisons with Simenon. That, and the fact that he’s not at all repetitious.

In many detective novels you can work out who did it well in advance, not because of any clues the author may have dropped – that’s acceptable, and part of the game – but because it’s always the weak young man or the person with the cast-iron alibi or the person who wasn’t even there. That’s not true of Burley’s Wycliffe books at all; yes, you can find clues and shout at Wycliffe ‘It’s a synonym for John!’ or ‘She’s lying!’, but there’s no preordained plot device.

What they do have is a good central detective (who was, I think, well played by Jack Shepherd in the 1990s TV series), an excellent supporting cast and a well-planned, atmospheric plot.

For those who also appreciate W J Burley, there’s a small website which celebrates his work – check it out. If you’re interested in the technical side of planning detective novel, there’s a page on there specifically looking at how he plotted out Wycliffe and the Tangled Web.