(1) Thursday 1st January
I always forget how different this book is from the LOTR trilogy. It’s quirky and light-hearted, rather than epic, although there is a tonal/register shift later on when it becomes less self-consciously a story for children. It’s wonderfully enjoyable, told with wit and adventure and wisdom and depth. There are echoes and tastes of the later stories too, with references to the wider perils threatening Middle Earth, the Necromancer, and the fading of the Elves and the lost glories and great legends of earlier ages.
(2) Thursday 8th January
We’re in New Zealand for this one, the immediate predecessor to Died In The Wool, but it’s for all intents and purposes an English country-house murder; all the suspects under the same roof in a fairly remote part of the world, with the focus on establishing whereabouts, alibis and possible motives (almost everyone has one, naturally). Alleyn is in New Zealand hunting Nazi spies – I couldn’t help wondering whether this was really a big problem in NZ c.1942, but I don’t know – and spends the entire novel in disguise, his identity kept secret from the reader as well as from the other characters. There is a clever device at the heart of the story, viz. the killer’s concealed knowledge of the victim’s colourblindness, and the tale is well-told, with a smart Shakespeare clue whose significance I ought to have seen. The murder is more incidental than usual in Marsh books – there is plenty of genuine human interest quite separate from the question of whodunit.
The setting is beautifully evoked, too, and NM shows a real knowledge of and respect for Maori culture. But the ending feels like an anti-climax, despite some neat revisiting of earlier plot points (the incident on the bridge with the signal), and we’re never given any real insight into why Herbert Smith is a Nazi spy. Is he a Nazi by conviction? Is it for money? Blackmail? I also felt it to be slightly implausible that Questing could have been forced to keep silent by Smith in the manner described. NM’s resolutions always suffer by comparison to Christie’s, I feel, despite her equal or perhaps even superior technical ability as a writer. Her power of character description is certainly superior.
(3) Wednesday 14th January
Overture To Death
An archetypal English village mystery; so archetypal, in fact, that I couldn’t help wondering once again whether there was an element of self-satire. The map on the first page showing the manor house, the church and the rectory; the squire, the vicar, the young lovers, the gossipy and frustrated spinster busybodies, the adulterous doctor, the flashy young widow from That London – all the locations and dramatis personae of a proper old-fashioned no-nonsense whodunit are present and correct. The elaborate murder method – a pistol rigged up with pulleys inside a piano to shoot the pianist when the soft pedal is pressed – adds to the sense that the tongue is never too far from the authorial cheek.
It’s written with Marsh’s usual panache and lightness, and is fairly and carefully clued with a good denouement. A certain snobbery about the “lower orders” bubbles away in parts, but it’s mostly innocuous, even if there is something of the stock rural peasant about the poacher who provides some sort-of vital testimony. As usual the romantic scenes feel a bit much and as usual A Young Man’s Honourable Refusal To Reveal A Secret turns out to be a bit of a damp squib.
(4) Wednesday 21st January
Surfeit of Lampreys
A family murder, this time – or so it initially appears. The Lampreys are impoverished aristocracy, an eccentric and ramshackle bunch, the six children and wife of a younger son, and their ghastly uncle is gruesomely murdered in the lift of the block of flats where they live. The background is well-drawn and the characters entertaining, and the clueing is scrupulously open-handed (the stuff with the PC on the Embankment is clever), but there’s not much interest suspense-wise. The reason for this is that, although there are nominally about a dozen suspects, you get the sense that most of them – the good-natured Lampreys and their house guest, from whose POV a lot of the novel is told – are ruled out ab initio in the Marsh formula. It felt to me that the only credible suspects were Lady Wutherwood, various servants and (only just) the Lampreys’ nanny, which leaves a slightly anaemic mystery. At a couple of points I thought we might be being set up for some smart Christie-esque twists – particularly with the absence of Lady Kit and the bailiff in the kitchen – but that didn’t happen. I enjoyed the slightly gothic-inflected finale, which seems fitting given the horror of the murder.
A somewhat unsatisfying read overall, perhaps because the Lampreys take up so much of the story but are essentially irrelevant to the crime, and it’s not always easy to like them as much as Marsh clearly does (that said, she does put some fair and quite damning criticism of them into the mouth of the murder victim, but that said(!), he is a thoroughly unpleasant character).
(5) Wednesday 28th January
The Last Superstition: A Refutation Of The New Atheism
A scholarly and knowledgeable polemic in defence of classical metaphysics, the immortality of the soul, traditional morality and the existence of God. Enormously enjoyable, satisfying and convincing. Feser is particularly keen to rehabilitate Aristotelianism and the pre-modern conception of an ordered, intentional universe.
I do wish, though, that he had stuck more closely to philosophical argument and resisted the temptation to take frequent sideswipes at the New Atheists. In a lengthy preliminary chapter he gives the “Four Horsemen” and their various acolytes and followers a lengthy kicking, which is fun but much too long. A robustly conservative politics also intrudes irritatingly at points, with numerous snide references to “sodomy” and irrelevant derision of people concerned about climate change, vegetarians, and supporters of what he calls “animal rights”. I never thought I could get bored of people being rude about Ditchkins et al., but apparently it is possible. It was especially annoying that so much room is taken up with invective because some other parts of the book, especially the section on the problem of evil, felt rushed or underdeveloped, with a lot of “this argument is developed at more length in such and such a book” or “there’s a lot more that could be said, but…”
I would love to be able to wholeheartedly recommend this book to a liberal atheist, because it states an important case that isn’t often made. The defence of Aquinas’ arguments for God is very valuable, as is the criticism of poor theistic arguments. It makes clear a lot of things that I don’t think most atheists/materialists understand about the rationality of religious belief, and it raises some stern questions about the coherence of atheism and materialism. But I think the polemical parts are overdone and sometimes mean-spirited, and risk alienating even an open-minded sceptical reader.
(6) Monday 2nd February
The Hollow Man
John Dickson Carr
Ingenious and satisfying locked-room mystery. Skilfully constructed, and a good deal of fair clueing; the final solution stretches the suspension of disbelief, but not quite beyond breaking point. Although it was published in 1935, slap-bang in the Golden Age, the style and atmosphere are much more reminiscent of Conan Doyle or Chesterton – we are in the world of the old-fashioned gentleman sleuth, the denizen of oak-panelled rooms and gentleman’s clubs, the aficionado of good open fires and fine cigars and cosy pubs. Not for nothing has Dr Gideon Fell been compared to GKC. The only thing that really marks it out as being set in the inter-war period, apart from the incidental chronology of the plot, are a few mentions of cars. Otherwise it is set in a vaguely timeless London, where streets are foggy and alleys are gloomy and the city feels lonely and uncanny. There is a slightly surreal darkness to the background that is much more akin to Victorian drama than to the essentially lighthearted conventions of the Golden Age, but it’s none the worse for that.
There’s also a playful proto-post-modern interlude, when Fell alludes to their being characters in a book, and talks the investigators through the many different kinds of solution to a locked-room mystery. It’s funny to think that even in 1935 the genre was, if not quite exhausted, then clearly approaching a saturation point. There are some clever clues in this section (as I realised in retrospect!) and a daring discussion of how audiences are invariably disappointed by the explanation of an impressive illusion – it’s almost as if JDC is daring us to feel let down by his own solution!
The only weaknesses are the not-very-sparkling dialogue and characterisation, and the sometimes slightly verbose and stodgy prose (as befits a book which seems to take inspiration from literary Victoriana). Fell is also wrong about the value of suggestion and understatement in ghost stories, but this is a very minor point.
(7) Wednesday 11th February
The Mystery of the Yellow Room
Apparently this novel has a towering reputation in the annals of detective stories. Indeed, in his discourse on detective stories in The Hollow Man, Dr Fell calls it the best of all. It was voted the third best locked-room mystery of all time. I do not understand this assessment. There is some smart clueing, some likeable characters (Rouletibaille is a cross between Tintin and Holmes), and the resolution of the locked room elements is not without a certain cleverness, but it depends for its credibility on a frankly ludicrous contrivance, viz. that the victim of the attack knows the identity of the attempted murderer but will not tell anyone because of our old and not very well-liked friend A Terrible Shameful (sic) Secret From Long Ago. The motive of the attacker is also unclear, and his background as a moustache-twirling Moriarty-esque Master Criminal who has somehow inveigled his way into the Sureté is just, well, a bit of a let-down. Professional criminals in murder mysteries are profoundly uninteresting, as well as agin The Rules.
There’s a problem with Mlle. Stangerson, the intended victim. Her character is all over the place. She’s supposedly this super-smart scientist, dedicated to her work, the intellectual equal to her father, but she is portrayed like the worst kind of swooning, pathetic melodramatic heroine, “losing her reason” at the end purely for the convenience of the plot.
(8) Sunday 1st March
Off With His Head
A curious and intermittently eerie village mystery, set in tiny and isolated South Mardian in a freezing midwinter. It is nominally a decade or so after the Second World War, and lip service is paid to the march of time, but like most rural Golden Age mysteries its temporal anchor is loose. It could as easily be the mid-Twenties as the mid-Fifties.
I’m not sure this is one of the stronger NM books. It just felt a bit formulaic, despite the background of pagan-inflected folk-dancing. The set-up is imaginative and intriguing – it’s the “in plain sight, but no-one saw” type of murder – but the solution, though not without clever elements (a couple of which I successfully worked out), creaks dreadfully at the edges. The young lovers are hard work, as usual, as are the rustics; the former also undermine the suspense of the novel because Marsh never, ever makes either half of a young couple the killer. And why don’t they celebrate Christmas in South Mardian? The action of the book takes place immediately after the winter solstice – i.e. 21st December – but no-one mentions it! (this may of course be an attempt to emphasise the peculiar pre-modern culture of the village, Wicker Man-style).
(9) Friday 6th March
Pedestrian cosy whodunit set in a small Kentish village – a Scottish gardener poisons his employer for an inheritance. Little deviation from the usual Alleyn formula. A certain amount of interest in the attempt to gently reconcile the Golden Age to the modern world – Concorde! Jeans! Pop music and TV! – while retaining its essential form and conventions, but the plot is underpowered.
(10) Sunday 15th March
I think I must be on a run of some of the weaker Marsh books. This one had an intriguing set-up, and a promising start with the Alleyns heading off to a remote house in the New Zealand wilderness, which is beautifully portrayed. I like Troy, although the Alleyns’ relationship can be a little too cute at times. But it seemed to run out of juice well before the end, and the explanation of the murder’s background stretched the suspension of disbelief and was not quite in accordance with The Rules. There was one central bit of somewhat interesting detection, but the story lacked some of the complexity and cleverness that I prefer, and more might have been made of the setting. Is the problem perhaps that Alleyn is a bit dull, too much of the Boy Scout and the perfect gentleman?
(11) Tuesday 24th March
Her last book, and probably the last of hers I’ll read for a while. As usual, it’s well-written and sometimes funny, and as usual the characters are enjoyable, but as usual the solution lacks a certain something. NM just doesn’t have Christie’s genius for plot, her wiliness, her ability to pull the rug out from under you in the last act. And here we have, once again, her recourse to a murderer who is apparently insane, or at least acting from an insane motive; a sword told him to do the murder because the victim insulted the sword, or something. This always strikes me as a bit of a cop-out.
(12) Saturday 28th March
Bloody Sunday: Truths, Lies and the Saville Inquiry
Fascinating and even-handed look at the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday. Murray does a good job of explaining what happened on Bloody Sunday, as far as that can be established with any certainty, and how the Saville Inquiry reached its conclusions. His moral judgments are clear-eyed; he clearly loathes brutality and cruelty regardless of the perpetrator’s political background, and is impatient with excuse-making and double standards. Significantly, it’s not easy to tell whether he takes a view on the political status of the Six Counties. Those to blame for Bloody Sunday of 30 January 1972, and the villains of the Troubles more generally, are not so much denounced as allowed to condemn themselves from their own mouths through their numerous lies and evasions. Murray follows Saville in laying the blame for the actual killings on the Paras of Support Company and their immediate superiors like Col Wilford, but is also rightly damning of the violent Republicans who stoked the atmosphere of violence and distrust in Derry in the early Seventies, and who used Bloody Sunday as a propaganda tool in their campaigns. The book closes with an account of some of those who people who lost loved ones on the day but refused to pay back evil for evil. The implicit contrast with those who took up Semtex and the Armalite is striking.
The book is full of engaging cameos, including the ever more peculiar David Shayler. The thoughts about the possible identity of INFLICTION, the still-unidentified MI5 agent in the PIRA, are very interesting indeed.
(13) Monday 6thth April
The Secret Life Of Bletchley Park: The History of the Wartime Codebreaking Centre by the Men and Women Who Were There
Chatty, entertaining, informative and rather moving social history of BP, told mostly through the reminiscences of people who actually worked there but with a good deal of background historical detail to put those stories in their context. There are enlightening pen portraits of some of the key figures – including Dilly Knox, Alastair Denniston, Edward Travis, Gordon Welchman, Tommy Flowers (the mechanical genius and designer of Colossus) and of course Alan Turing – as well as an interesting focus on everyday life at Bletchley and the effect on the BP workers themselves of their time at the Park. The vignette about John Herivel (who worked out a vital crib early in the war, the so-called Herivelismus) feeling unable to tell his dying father of his vital work, despite the father having expressed disappointment at Herivel’s lack of contribution to the war effort, is heartbreaking.
This isn’t a book about the actual mechanics and process of codebreaking, about the nitty-gritty of the work, and there’s not a huge amount of detailed analysis of Bletchley’s role in the war. But there are other books about those things.
(14) Tuesday 14th April
The Meaning Of Conservatism
Closely argued defence of traditionalist political conservatism. First written in 1979 (this edition 2001), Scruton sketches a vision of a particularly British conservatism focused on what he calls the “third-person plural” – the community, not the individual. He dismisses the contractual idea of the state and society as being too concerned with consciously chosen links of affection and obligation, when in fact we are born into pre-existing links. Perhaps surprisingly he does not make a great deal of hostility to the state per se, arguing instead that the state is a sort of ongoing communal expression of the national will and character – with conservatism valuing the nation and continuity above party – and that even civil society cannot be completely conceptually separate from the state (perhaps I did not fully understand the point here). Scruton stresses the importance of independent institutions with “purposes internal to themselves”, using examples as varied as football clubs and the armed forces, and the importance of property as a way of preserving private, independent life and reducing the problem of alienation and atomisation. I really liked the chapter on the importance of “home” and the family as an example of a place where we find shelter and learn to live within bonds of love and obligation that we ourselves did not choose (as we must in the conservative vision of the state). There are reasonably conventional, though convincing, defences of the monarchy and the hereditary House of Lords as bulwarks against faction, neophilia, hasty legislation etc., and a persuasive re-iteration of the Burkean point about society being a contract between the dead, the living and those yet unborn. He is sceptical about democracy, questioning its special legitimacy as a source of authority (he has useful thoughts about power and authority, seeing much of social life and politics as a way to imbue sources of power with authority in the state, e.g. trade unions).
Scruton situates authentic conservatism away from the rhetoric of individual liberty and free markets, singing the praises of the common law and emphasising the need to understand all freedoms and rights within the matrix of institutions and customs that have come down to us. He criticises both Marxism and liberalism, and his point about liberalism’s acidic scepticism eventually undermining everything that makes liberalism possible and intelligible is very well made indeed.
It’s a good book, though Scruton’s style isn’t always easy and there’s a lot of abstraction and generalisation. I might perhaps have liked a little more detail, and there are all sorts of lines of thought that need more fleshing out and unpacking.
(15) Tuesday 21st April
Police At The Funeral
A much more enjoyable read than the first Campion novel I read a while back. An authentic old-school whodunit, somewhere between a country house mystery and a village mystery (it’s set in Cambridge, but that location is underused and university towns more or less count as villages for these purposes); no gangsters or villainous Jews here. It combines the traditional lightness of the Golden Age, and its comforting and enjoyable conventions, with a macabre and intriguing puzzle. Campion is a likeable presence, with a pleasing air of enigma around him, and the situation is well-drawn and well-clued. On the down side, one always feels a little bit cheated when a murderer turns out to have done it just because he’s mad. Also, the heroine is a bit wet, and we have all the usual stuff about women not being able to cope with difficult situations without their brains melting, plus a particularly egregious instance of A Terrible Secret From The Past That Isn’t Actually That Terrible At All – in this case, someone married a woman who was a “bad sort” and they had a mixed-race baby for some unclear reason.
(16) Thursday 23rd April
The Crime At Black Dudley
Didn’t finish this, which is highly unusual for me. Not a whodunit so much as a rather dated and melodramatic potboiler, with an improbably well-organised international gang of criminals operating from an English stately home, secret passages aplenty, and English gentlemen leaping into book-lined studies to rescue helpless women from the clutches of sinister Germans levelling revolvers. People act improbably or stupidly in order to move the plot along, and the final “twist” (I read the last couple of chapters) is almost entirely unclued and hammy.
(17) Tuesday 28th April
Notes Towards The Definition Of Culture
Extended essay defending what you might call “elitism” in culture – which Eliot defines broadly as all that makes life worth living – and arguing for the development of a social and educational system that supports and nurtures traditional high culture (although he is not dismissive of “low” culture, merely insistent on its being carefully distinguished from high culture). The style can be a little fussy, but I am very sympathetic to his overall thesis – that we must defend high culture, that religion is inseparable from, and vital to, a flourishing culture, that traditional institutions and families should be defended as bastions of culture, that politics should be kept away from culture. There are also interesting thoughts about the way in which developed religions almost inevitably lead to doubt and conscious reflection, and the fact Europe’s culture can only persist with the support of Christianity – a prediction vindicated by history since 1948. The thoughts about the purpose of education are extremely important, unfashionable then and even more so now. He is very much opposed to the purely instrumental view, or the attempt to equalise educational institutions and pathways and abolish all privileges. Eliot was plainly not a reactionary or unthinking traditionalist – such a person could not have written Four Quartets – but he seems to have seen the danger of the totalising state very early.
(18) Sunday 7th June
Superbly readable and enlightening biography of one of our most consequential monarchs. A good general history of Henry VIII’s reign, well-balanced between the diplomatic, military, religious, political and personal aspects of his four decades at the top, although there is particular focus on three topics: foreign policy, the Henrician Reformation and the King’s Great Matter. Jack is clearly sympathetic to the old cause, praising Catherine of Aragon and St John Fisher in particular, but rightly enthusiastic about many aspects of the early sixteenth century reform movement (e.g. the new learning of the humanists and the desire for a less worldly church) and clear-eyed about the need for change in the English Church. Indeed in the Foreword to this 1997 edition, he suggests that pro-Catholic revisionism about the vitality of the pre-Reformation Church, which only really took off after this book was first published in 1969, has gone too far. There is a great deal of detail about diplomatic manoeuvring with France and the Empire – perhaps too much – and the chapter on the canon law of the divorce is a totally absorbing tour de force. The sections dealing with Henry’s religious policy are fascinating too. I would perhaps have liked to see a bit more detail about some other aspects of Henry’s reign – the final elimination of dynastic competitors like the Poles, the huge administrative changes, the building projects, the improvements to the Navy etc. These are discussed, but not always at great length – I suppose Jack thought they might distract from the central biographical project.
(19) Tuesday 9th June
The Pale Horse
One of the better late Christies, based on the clever idea of a murderer for hire dressing up his crimes in supernatural mumbo-jumbo to throw people off the scent. Some smart clueing and eerie scenes, albeit there are echoes of earlier works in which AC uses the supernatural as camouflage for a firmly naturalist criminal plot (cf. The Sittaford Mystery, Dumb Witness, and a few of the short stories). The plotting isn’t as tight as it might be (a recurrent problem in the later years), and perhaps there are a few too many coincidences, but a good read overall.
(20) Sunday 14th June
After The Funeral
One of the best Poirot mysteries. Very fine clueing (you notice this strongly on rereading), good characters and a clever-simple plot, with genuine emotional resonance and a real sense of immersion in a particular kind of world.
(21) Thursday 25th June
Freeman Wills Crofts
Complex and well-constructed mystery, with a more realist tinge than most Golden Age whodunits (this was written in 1920 and set in 1912) – it’s really a sort of proto-police procedural, with several POV changes as different investigators take a hand, rather than a true cosy GA whodunit. There are only really two suspects in the frame, so it’s fairly clear where the book is going by about two-thirds of the way through, but the plot is clever enough, and the tale well-told enough, that you can forgive that. One might quibble with the numerous scenes of prosperous middle-class men offering each other post-prandial cigars in front of fires in oak-panelled studies, in the true late Victorian style, and a good editor might have trimmed it down a bit; the pace is ponderous in parts, and there seem to be a lot of fairly similar scenes of investigators asking waiters and clerks what time so-and-so had his breakfast on the 16th last, or having good dinners in Parisian cafes. Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable novel, albeit the murderer’s scheme is almost comically convoluted. I’ll read more FWC.
(22) Monday 29th June
The Monogram Murders
This is the first official Poirot revival that the Christie estate has ever sanctioned, and Hannah was a good choice. She has managed to capture a good deal of the classic Christie feel without resorting to pastiche or mere imitation; there are subtle nods to several AC tropes, notably the mystery in the past that must be understood and the call for help to Poirot that is not all it seems. This is a well-clued whodunit in the grand tradition, with a few minimal modernist touches (the cufflinks in the mouth business feels like something from the more edgy procedurals that have to some extent replaced the “cosy” in the affections of the crime-story reading public).
(23) Sunday 12th July
Trent’s Last Case
Enjoyable if rather dated, marred by some jarring changes of tone, some rather syrupy romantic melodrama and a completely unbelievable central plot point (the idea that a wealthy man would kill himself simply to get a man hanged for his “murder”, on the basis of a barely explained animus, seems preposterously implausible). There seems to be some disagreement over the extent to which it should be regarded as a spoof of the detective genre. I’ve seen it suggested, though without exact citation, that Bentley did not like the Conan Doyle stories, thinking Holmes humourless, and set out to gently send them up. But then this book was apparently highly praised by Christie, Sayers, Chesterton and PD James, and is clearly an ancestor of the Golden Age classics (even if it keeps one foot in the late Victorian style). The story is well-told and there is some good clueing, albeit the final solution depends on not one but two characters finally Sitting Down To Reveal All, meaning that there is no way that even a conscientious reader could reasonably be expected to puzzle it out. The final reveal is almost post-modern in its abruptness and humour.
The idea that this is one of the greats seems to me wrong. It may be an influential book, but the kind of tropes popularised here were developed and refined to greater effect by later writers.
(24) Tuesday 14th July
The Red House Mystery
I wonder whether I might have enjoyed this more if I hadn’t first read Raymond Chandler’s withering criticisms of it in The Simple Art Of Murder. He excoriates it as an example of the mannered, unrealistic, contrived English whodunit which depends on an intricate but utterly implausible plot being solved by a facetious but brilliant gentleman sleuth who outwits dull local flatfoots. Perhaps I would have done, but this is not a great example of the Golden Age mystery, despite being praised as such in some quarters. There are clever touches – a good clue about driving and a nice bit of deduction involving shadows and sounds – but Chandler is surely right that the plot depends on a series of manifestly implausible events or actions. It does not live up to its best moments or ideas, and it’s when reading books like this that you come to admire the plot mastery of someone like Christie, who trod with great skill the fine line between ingenious complexity and implausible contrivance.
The central conceit is that it would be possible to pass off the body of Mark Ablett, a bookish English country gentleman, well-known in his locality, as that of his brother, Robert, who has supposedly just returned to England after fifteen years’ riotous living in Australia (in fact Robert has been dead for three years). No-one seems remotely suspicious that the body before them looks like Mark, who has “gone missing”. There is no mention of how a positive identification of the body as Robert is made; the police make no attempt to trace the movements of the supposed Australian since his arrival in England, or investigate his background in Australia -this book is presumably set at the time when it was published, 1922, so effective communication with Australia is perfectly feasible even if cumbersome.
Then there is the curious fact of the police simply disappearing from the story, despite there being a murder and a disappearance to investigate. This is common in stories featuring amateur detectives, though it is usually explained more carefully. One can overlook an unconvincing explanation if the rest of the story is sound, but that is not the case here. I raised an eyebrow at the secret passage, the stupid servants, and – of course – the ornamental women. The two main amateur detectives, if not quite ciphers, are far from rounded. Their dialogue has not aged well and relies heavily on that overdone ironical lightness which features so often in stories featuring English gentlemen in the first half of the twentieth century. PG Wodehouse made great comedic hay of it, but in stories that are at least nominally serious, it can be wearing.
(25) Friday 17th July
The Middle Temple Murder
Gripping mystery yarn following the investigation of a murder committed in the unlikely but atmospheric setting of the Inner Temple. Not, perhaps, a true Golden Age whodunit – there is little real clueing here and no limited circle of suspects – but enjoyable nevertheless, with a sprawling plot involving crime in the past and hidden identities, whose improbability generally stays within acceptable levels.
Its faults are largely those of its sub-genre (i.e. books featuring a particular kind of male investigator, moving in a world of clubs and the Yard and bachelor’s apartments full of brandy and cigars, with women absent, unimportant or decorative). The otherwise taut and exciting final act lapses into melodrama; there is a considerable reliance on coincidence and luck; the female love interests are perfunctory and hopelessly underwritten. The ending is very abrupt (it seems to stop rather than end). Also present and correct is the irritating plot device whereby a character is made, for very flimsy reasons, to conceal information that would be extremely helpful in resolving the mystery, even at risk to his own neck, purely to prevent a premature resolution.
(26) Saturday 18th July
1215 & All That: A Very, Very Short History of Magna Carta and King John
Rollicking and highly readable gallop through the story of the Barons’ War and Magna Carta, and the Great Charter’s later importance in English law, written with Ed’s good sense of narrative, his dry humour and his eye for an amusing historical detail. A lot of the stuff about the early Plantagenets is familiar to me from Dan Jones’ book, but there is still some fascinating new detail here. Learning about the cruelty, violence, caprice and treachery of the post-Conquest kings and their elites is a strong corrective to romanticism about the “Age of Chivalry”. The Lionheart in particular was plainly not the preux chevalier of folk memory, while John appears to have been quite as morally corrupt as his popular image suggests (although there is of course an element of caveat lector when reading medieval sources, which were often written with strongly partisan intent). Ed’s view of Magna Carta itself is moderately Whiggish, though not a simplistic Our Island Story presentation, and tempered by realism about early modern myth-making and the (frequently cynical) Golden Age-ism that lay behind royal commitments to freedom and the rule of law. He also stresses – and I would like to have read a little more on this theme – the input of the Church into the earliest attempts to limit arbitrary rule.
(27) Saturday 25th July
The Hog’s Back Mystery
Freeman Wills Crofts
Well-crafted, intriguing and involving. A fine blend of Golden Age and early police procedural, with the same focus on painstaking investigation and the details of individuals’ movements as The Cask. I preferred this, I think – the story seems tighter and more focused, and feels more suspenseful. The final solution is ingenious and satisfying, albeit it depends on the murderers executing an extremely intricate and time-critical plan with total precision, and the investigator Inspector French does have a few big strokes of luck in his detection. I think the setting – in a part of the world I know reasonably well – helped its appeal for me.
(28) Wednesday 29th July
The Decagon House Murders
One of the earliest mysteries in the Japanese shin honkaku – or “new traditionalist” – movement, published in 1987. Fascinating to see that the Japanese are fond of the orthodox whodunit. Ayatsuji places himself firmly and self-consciously in the Golden Age tradition, riffing on the plot and ideas from And Then There Were None, and naming the central characters – who are members of a mystery fiction club – after great mystery writers. It’s not post-modern as such, there’s no breaking of the fourth wall or any real narrative monkey business, but it has some of the darkness and realism of later detective writing. It’s enjoyable and unsettling and odd, and is fittingly bookended. However, the somewhat convoluted final solution, while clever and just about solvable for the reader with a bit of luck, isn’t much clued and relies almost entirely on a “Well Inspector, before I’m hanged, let me explain to you how I really did it”-type device.
I was about to add that this would make a good film – but it is actually unfilmable as written without giving away the final twist.
(29) Friday 31st July
The Long Divorce
Enjoyable if unremarkable village mystery, told with wit and wry humour. Amusingly sketched Swiss teacher, naively preoccupied with psychoanalysis, bumped off by local religious fanatic and butcher who has authored a spate of poison pen letters and fears exposure (in a not very satisfactory subplot one of the village doctors sends an anonymous letter with the aim – realised – of forcing its recipient into suicide). The setting is well done, and the sense of time and place cleverly evoked. A well-developed and interesting professional single woman is always welcome in this kind of tale, albeit she is married off in the end. The detection is good, and the clueing fair; I could have done without the melodramatic incident in which a young girl almost falls under a train, which feels like it’s from another book entirely and does not add much to the story.
(30) Tuesday 4th August
Pleasingly atmospheric but rather turgid family mystery. Not really a true detective story – we don’t really follow the investigation as such, but rather see things from the perspective of one of the suspects. That’s a strength in one sense, as we get plenty of psychological suspense and some good characters, including a few wonderful grotesques, but it means that there isn’t a strong narrative thread, and the young heroine is actually rather fragile and irritating, lying to the police for reasons that strain credibility and falling in love with a dramatically convenient but implausible alacrity. The brittle and forced lightness of her dialogue with her young swain has not aged well. Her sister is also a typical old-fashioned detective story woman, swooning and irrational and having mental breakdowns at the drop of a hat.
The solution is guessable, but almost entirely unclued, and the painstaking phonetic rendering of the Scottish detective’s accented speech is a minor annoyance.
(31) Tuesday 11th August
I think this is one of my favourite Marsh novels. Very entertaining and atmospheric set-up, with Agatha Troy sent off to a preposterous stately home to paint the portrait of a dreadful old theatrical baronet, who is then poisoned after a birthday dinner with his mostly awful family. Jiggery-pokery with wills, mix-ups with bottles of poison, sinister practical jokes, exhumations in country churchyards on cold autumn nights; it’s all here. The family are well-drawn and amusingly grotesque, although if I were Marsh’s editor I might have suggested one or two of them be cut. The portrayal of Sir Henry Ancred’s much younger fiancée is admirably nuanced. The reunion between Troy and Alleyn after the latter’s absence in New Zealand during the war is fairly well done, although the attempt to set up possible difficulties between them feels a little half-hearted and contrived.
Plot-wise Marsh doesn’t have the masterly touch of, say, Agatha Christie. The final reveal is rather abrupt and a little under-explained, and doesn’t quite feel like it’s emerged organically from the story in quite the way that AC’s denouements generally do. There’s no real clueing of the murderer’s identity, no sense that if you went back through the book you could see how the evidence points a certain way (Marsh sort of acknowledges this when Fox reassures the death penalty-opposing Troy that the actual case against the murderer is quite weak). The social attitudes are very much of their time – there is some pretty grim snobbery from the upper-class Ancreds and some dubious attitudes towards the “Difficult Children” who share Ancreton with them, and the stereotypical gayness of Cedric is laid on with a shovel. But Marsh has some great fun with trendy psychology.
(32) Wednesday 19th August
Death At The Bar
Enjoyable, tricksy little number set in a small and isolated Devon village. Very much of its genre, with the Scotland Yard men summoned to an out of the way country spot (albeit by a pub landlord, rather than the more normal dutiful but uninspired local superintendent) where a usefully limited number of suspects must be investigated for an intriguingly improbable crime that appears to be merely an accident – as usual for Marsh, it’s a grotesque affair, a man poisoned just after a dart goes through his finger. But it’s bright enough and puzzling enough to sustain interest, despite a dreary love story, and the ending is better than usual for Marsh, with a well-drawn cameo by a distinctly eccentric Chief Constable livening up the proceedings. There’s considerable dash and authorial confidence in the way she holds the solution right up to our faces throughout the book, while surrounding it with enough trickery to distract our attention from the fact that she is doing so. The sort-of subplot about leftist politics is entertaining in parts but like most lefties in Golden Age mysteries the Coombe Left Movement is rather caricatured.
Some critics of Marsh think that her mysteries tend to suffer once Alleyn arrives on the scene; there’s something to this. He’s not an especially interesting character in and of himself (though the interplay between him and Fox is often quite fun, in a Wimsey-Bunter sort of way), and Marsh’s descriptions of investigation can be quite drily forensic.
(33) Thursday 27th August
In The Hour Of Victory: The Royal Navy at War in the Age of Nelson
A fascinating idea for a book: take the recently rediscovered dispatches from seven key fleet battles of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, compiled in a beautiful single volume by the Admiralty after Napoleon’s death, and use them as a jumping off point for a sparky narrative history of what is perhaps the Royal Navy’s greatest ever series of victories: Glorious First of June (June 1794), Cape St Vincent (February 1797), Camperdown (October 1797), the Nile (August 1798), Copenhagen (April 1801), Trafalgar (October 1805) and San Domingo (February 1806).
Willis reproduces and discusses many different documents regarding the various battles – flag officers’ official dispatches to the Admiralty, boatswain’s reports, a letter home from a French commissariat officer in Egypt, and always the so-called “butcher’s bill”, which has an obvious human interest but can also be used as evidence for the extent, duration and nature of a ship’s involvement in the action. The potted character studies of the (very different) fleet commanders and captains are invariably worth reading – in fact, you could wish they were a little longer and more detailed – and the placing of the action at sea into the wider context of the war is welcome. There is plenty here that I didn’t know, for example the striking historical snippet that the Spanish launched no new warships between 1798 and 1853, and the intricate diplomatic and strategic background to the Battle of Copenhagen, while I was only dimly aware of Camperdown having happened at all and had forgotten quite how remarkable a sea officer William Bligh was. The passages outlining the weaknesses of the French and Spanish ships – they tended to have thinner and more vulnerable hulls and poorer handling than King’s ships – were enlightening. The story of HMS Implacable was completely new to me.
She began life as the French Duguay-Trouin, laid down in 1797 and captured at the Battle of Cape Ortegal (Sir Richard Strachan’s post-Trafalgar mopping-up operation), and subsequently commissioned into the RN. She performed 40 years’ active service after Trafalgar, and survived another century as a training ship, before being scuttled in the Channel in 1949 as a full restoration was judged too expensive(!) in the post-war world. She remained a commissioned ship, like HMS Victory, for her entire 144-year career in the Andrew, and was flying both French and British colours as she went down. Her stern gallery survives in the NMM at Greenwich.
Willis emphasises the vital role that the RN’s public image, as well as its concrete achievements, played in maintaining the public support that was essential to the eventual British victory, and there is some useful, though brief, background about the workings of the naval bureaucracy and particularly the Secretaries to the Admiralty.
A splendid example of well-written popular history, honest about the problems of reconstructing naval battles, though there a couple of glaring proofing errors (Nelson was not a Rear-Admiral at Trafalgar!) and there seems to be some disagreement about whether Sir Edward Berry was removed from the active list after San Domingo, as Willis asserts – Wikipedia has him taking command of two further ships and a Royal Yacht before his retirement.
(34) Thursday 27th August
Asabiyyah: What Ibn Khaldun, the Islamic father of social science, can teach us about the world today
Brisk Kindle Mini explaining and developing the sociological theory first developed by Ibn Khaldun, centring on the idea of asabiyyah, which translates as something like “fellow feeling” or “group identity” and which appears to be a prerequisite of successful states. It is distinct from clannishness, which limits solidarity much more closely to relations. EW argues that one of the reasons why the Middle East continues to be violently dysfunctional, and why liberal democracy has not taken root there, is that there is relatively little asabiyyah – Arabs do not feel strong primary loyalty to nations, and trust of those from outside the tribe or clan tends to be in short supply. There are few independent institutions in civil society that command strong allegiance, in the way that there are in Western democracies. I’d like to read a longer book on this.
(35) Tuesday 1st September
The Orthodox Way
Well-written and informative introduction to Orthodox Christianity, with particular reference to Orthodoxy’s distinctive personal devotions and emphasis on apophatic theology. Orthodox personal piety lays strong emphasis on the radical unknowability and otherness of God, and the need for total transformation of the whole person through asceticism, constant prayer and renunciation. Among the most interesting parts are the explanations of how and why Orthodox theology diverges from the Latin tradition, notably in its subtly different view of original sin and the Immaculate Conception. Ware suggests, presumably in line with Orthodox teaching, that the IC is “superfluous, rather than erroneous”. I’d like to see a longer and more detailed discussion of this point, but I think the gist of it is that the Orthodox don’t believe that we are conceived with the stain of sin already on us, so that there was nothing from which Mary needed to be preserved.
(36) Wednesday 9th September
Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village
A wonderful book, documenting the stories of people living in rural Suffolk in the late 1960s. “Akenfield” is not a real place; the name is a portmanteau of Akenham and Charsfield, two real-life villages close to Ipswich, and the stories seem to come from people living in a variety of places in east Suffolk. The youngest contributors are seventeen; the eldest are in their eighties, meaning they were well into adulthood by the time of the First World War. This makes for a wonderful spread of perspectives. All human life is here – a churchgoing gravedigger who doesn’t believe in Christianity, an Oxonian incomer and poet seeking to overcome urban alienation, a Scottish farmer who moved to Suffolk in the 1930s, a lay magistrate reflecting on her 25 years on the Bench, retired farm workers who can remember the days when the rural economy was still semi-feudal (this seems to have persisted well into the interwar years). There is tragedy and joy and humour and pathos and bathos. Blythe lets people tell their own stories – many of the recollections are given a brief introduction, but he describes people with humanity and tolerance and an admirable lack of sentimentality.
All the vignettes have their own texture and focus, many of them dealing with the details and routine of particular trades and professions (I very much enjoyed the blacksmith and the shepherd), but common themes do emerge. These include the pretty grim life endured by the rural working poor right up until the Second World War, not least because of their treatment by landowners, and the gradual improvements in pay and conditions obtained by organisations like the National Union of Agricultural Workers; changing patterns of social life brought about by car ownership, greater opportunities, greater prosperity and post-war liberalism; the massive changes in farming practices during the mid-twentieth century which altered the physical geography of the villages and significantly reduced demand for labour, especially unskilled labour; and the abandonment of the land for the cities by large numbers of young men in the post-war decades of near-full employment. Many of the contributors allude to the growing numbers of middle-class incomers settling in the countryside.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the way in which different people assess things so differently. In particular, assessments of how the communal life of villages is changing vary a lot. Some people think community life is in decline, even terminal decline. Others describe a vibrant local scene, with clubs and associations and churches thriving. There are also interesting contrasts in how people view “the Sixties”, the changes in the landscape, and the changes in livestock farming practices (what we’d now call intensive farming is the big new thing; several people mention contracts with Birdseye and the vet ponders the ethics of battery farming).
This was probably an important book for me to read – a warning about the perils of being too blindly nostalgic for the pre-modern rural idyll.
(37) Saturday 12th September
Francis Illes (Anthony Berkeley Cox)
Entertaining and blackly comic spin on the village mystery. One of the earliest of the “inverted whodunits”, so-called, in which the interest of the story lies not so much in the identity, method and motive of the murderer, but in how (and whether) their scheme unravels and they are brought to justice. The novel also represents an evolutionary stage between the traditional puzzle whodunit and the modern thriller, focused on psychology, suspense and the seething hatred and casual adultery below the veneer of civilised village life as much as – or more than – it is on plot and mystery.
We know from the get-go that Dr Edmund Bickleigh is planning to murder his wife in the hope of marrying his mistress Madeleine. What is particularly well done is the gradual revelation of the disconnection between Bickleigh’s perception of the world and reality, the extent of his own denial about the darker parts of his nature, and his fundamental sense of inadequacy and (consequent?) egotism. The novel playfully invites you to pity and even sympathise with him, without ever downplaying the enormity of his crimes. The final twist – he is acquitted of the crime of which he is actually guilty, only to be hanged for a crime he did not commit – has echoes of Forester’s Payment Deferred and is fitting and darkly amusing, but didn’t leave me completely satisfied, as I’m not sure he would have been convicted of the second crime. Are we supposed to think that Madeleine may have some hand in Denny Bourne’s death?
(38) Friday 18th September
Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy
Freeman Wills Crofts
Workmanlike rather than brilliant entry in the Crofts canon. A secluded house on the Yorkshire Moors burns down, killing three people, including an immensely rich old miser who kept his considerable fortune on the premises. French goes north from the Yard to solve the crime, which turns out to be a sinister (and somewhat convoluted) conspiracy with roots in another crime years before. I actually worked out the solution to this, although “worked out” is the wrong phrase – it was, rather, an informed guess based on the apparent narrative trajectory towards a “twist” rather than a deduction. It’s not particularly well-clued in the traditional Golden Age sense, but it’s enjoyable to follow French’s dogged investigations. There is a certain charm in mysteries which hinge on problems completely obviated by modern science – here, notably, the impossibility of definitively identifying a badly burned body. The final chapter, the denouement, falls a little flat. It’s a simple third person narrative of the murder plot and its execution, supposedly based on the murderer’s confession, but it reads too much like a separate factual account rather than being integrated into the story of a novel as a conversation, or perhaps a Poirot-style “here’s how it was done” lecture. Crofts occasionally inserts some rather ham-handed and intrusive moralising, as in “French was now determined to find the monster who did this”-type statements or the confirmation at the very end that the villain was hanged.
(39) Monday 19th October
God’s Secret Agents
Readable and lively account of the Catholic underground in Elizabethan and early Jacobean England. Very good general introduction to the issue (I read it with an eye to research for my novel idea), and lots of telling and striking vignettes about the hidden lives of the priests. The extent of the conflict between Jesuit and secular priests on the mission was also new to me. However, Hogge seems somewhat indulgent of the English government, insisting against rather a lot of evidence to the contrary that Elizabeth and her ministers did not really want to use violence or torture against Catholics. It is undoubtedly true that we must judge people at least partly by the standards of their own times, but that is not the same thing as diminishing their responsibility for what they did.
(40) Wednesday 21st October
Clutch of Constables
A thriller rather than a whodunit, and not a classic. A distant cousin of Christie’s Orient Express, the central idea – a gang of crooks take a cruise together for nefarious purposes and kill a fellow passenger – is entertaining but stretches the suspension of disbelief and isn’t very excitingly developed. There’s also a shortage of clueing, some rather convenient “accomplices did it!” smoothing over of logistical problems, and the narrative device of telling part of the story though a lecture that Alleyn is giving some time later doesn’t really add a huge amount (nor was I quite sure whether a letter posted on the evening of one day in rural England could have reliably reached San Francisco by the morning of the day after next). Then there is the problem I always have with thriller-type murder mysteries, which is that professional criminals just aren’t very interesting; there is a strong whiff of dated, hammy melodrama accompanying the figure of the Fiendish Super Criminal Who Has Escaped From The Police On Every Continent And Is A Master Of Disguise. Having a whole gang of villains further undermines the appealing dynamic of the traditional detective story. That said, Troy’s appearance is welcome and the setting is highly atmospheric and well-described, even if the map in the front doesn’t really make sense. The racial stuff has dated badly too; although Marsh meant well, the black character is clumsily handled and made a sort of paragon. And why were writers back in the day so keen to tell us that dark-skinned characters have white teeth?
(41) Wednesday 28th October
Marsh’s whodunits nearly always start well, and this is no different. Roderick Alleyn Jr. has come to a small island (unnamed but clearly a fictionalised version of one of the Channel Islands) to write a book, only for his retreat to be interrupted by a drug-smuggling conspiracy and the murder of a local woman. Alleyn pere arrives on the scene to investigate with the loyal Fox.
But her books also very often lose their way in the second half, with poor clueing and loose plot leading to an unsatisfying denouement, and this happens here. Roderick Jr’s flirtation with the wife of a family friend strikes a very odd and implausible note. Great swathes of the novel are taken up with the rather boring heroin-smuggling subplot, which feels like a misguided attempt at topicality (the book was written in the mid-1970s) and has literally nothing to do with the murder. The villains are crudely-drawn, almost cartoonish, and the portrayal of the drug-addicted Jones very hackneyed.
The portrayal of the murder victim as a one-dimensional, sensual, stupid good-time girl leaves a bad taste in the mouth. The identity of the murderer is plausible, and guessable, but again there’s not much sense of the solution being woven into, and emerging from, the book’s overall narrative. If he hadn’t left a posthumous confession after killing himself, it’s hard to see how he would have been found out at all, given the state of the evidence. He is at least a memorable character, a half-mad religious extremist.
(42) Saturday 7th November
One Summer: America 1927
Bryson has carved out a niche for himself as an engaging and versatile non-fiction author. He made his name as a travel writer, but actually this year’s The Road To Little Dribbling is his first true travel book since Down Under (2000). In the last fifteen years he has written, inter alia, a short African travelogue for charity, a volume of quasi-memoirs, a book about Shakespeare, the excellent popular science explainer A Short History Of Nearly Everything, and the social history At Home, which examined the development of private life using his Norfolk Rectory home as a jumping-off point. One Summer adopts a similar conceit, using the world-changing events of the eventful summer of 1927 to open up a wider examination of the United States in the 1920s. In fact, come to think of it, The Life And Times Of The Thunderbolt Kid did the same thing with Bryson’s childhood experiences and the 1950s.
Two dominant themes of the book are aviation and baseball. May of 1927 saw Lindbergh’s record-breaking transatlantic flight from New York to Paris, which changed everything for the then small and underdeveloped US aviation industry, and that year’s baseball season was an astonishingly successful one for the New York Yankees and in particularly their batters Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, who transformed baseball forever in the 1920s with their powerful hitting. I never knew the full context of Lindbergh’s flight – the Orteig Prize – and the extraordinary number of pioneering aviators attempting various feats of daring, often with fatal consequences.
But there are lots of other strands too – the growth of the sensationalist press, the crazy and unsustainable economic growth of the 1920s, Prohibition and crime (especially the Sacco and Vanzetti case, and the anarchist terror campaigns), the rise of the automotive industry (with a special focus on Henry Ford, who seems to have quite outstandingly odd), and the increasing power and influence of Hollywood (1927 was notable for the first “talkie”). We are also introduced to many of the key political figures of the time – Presidents Harding, Coolidge and Hoover, for example – and some of the movers and shakers in finance who made the mistakes that helped lead to the Wall Street Crash, notably Charles Rist, Montagu Norman, Hjalmar Schacht, and Benjamin Strong, representing the central banks of France, Britain, Germany and the US respectively, who met on Long Island in summer 1927 and made the disastrous decision to lower interest rates. Bryson has long had an eye for the eccentric and memorable character, and there are plenty to choose from here. Almost everyone of consequence in the US in the 1920s seems to have been at least a little bit peculiar, unpleasant or monomaniacal.
The over-arching narrative of the book, insofar as there is one, is the emergence of the United States as the world’s financial, cultural, and political powerhouse. If the twentieth century was the American century, then the 1920s were the point at which it became clear that this was going to be the case. It’s an endlessly interesting book, if perhaps a little overlong and unfocused. I also found myself wishing for a glossary of baseball terms at times.
(43) Wednesday 18th November
This was another frustrating read from Allingham. Not really a mystery so much as a thriller or adventure story, with a suitably unbelievable set-up, shadowy financiers pulling the strings of hired toughs, and an extravagantly implausible McGuffin. The dated Thirties potboiler with vast gangs levelling revolvers and suchlike just isn’t a genre I particularly enjoy. A rather good setting – an isolated Suffolk village, site of a demolished manor house – and some excellent moments, but in general it seemed unfocused and overstaffed (you could almost feel Allingham trying to keep an eye on all ten members of the goodies’ team and give them things to do). Campion is constantly on the verge of being much too irritating to be a good central character. The army turning up at the end to save the day was like something out of a Famous Five, and the subplot with the sinister doctor, though entertainingly macabre, felt like something from another book entirely, and fizzled disappointingly. However, there is a very good female character, who is mechanically-minded, independent and courageous.
(44) Thursday 26th November
Blandings Castle and Elsewhere
A dozen short stories, mostly featuring Blandings, but also a single Bobbie Wickham tale and some Mr Mulliner stories, which I’ve not encountered before and were highly entertaining, if not quite as wonderful as the Blandings saga. Sheer escapist bliss, joyously funny and good-natured.
(45) Tuesday 1st December
Galahad at Blandings
An unread Blandings! It’s the usual wonderful nonsense about love affairs and monstrous aunts and comic misunderstandings. Having read most of the Blandings novels now, there is a perhaps just a hint of repetitiveness here, but it barely matters.