RICHARD MARSH – The Finchley Puzzle

Richard Marsh is best known for a creepy little horror novel called The Beetle, published contemporaneously with Dracula – and actually outselling it for quite a while. He would, however, stray into detective fiction occasionally but with much less success. In this story, he provides an early example of a female sleuth and his definite taste for sensation which really did ruin his detective stories.

Judith Lee teaches the deaf mute and, over the years, has become so proficient at lipreading that if she can see the mouth, she can understand what is being said. Now, I’ve been lipreading (not exclusively as I can still hear) pretty much since I was ten and I’m nowhere near as good as she is. I’m also confused as to why, if she is a teacher of the deaf, no mention is made of her sign language abilities? Admittedly, the crux of the story hinges on her lipreading skills rather than her ability to sign, but it would have been nice to know that she could do a bit.

The plot is convoluted and vaguely nonsensical but great fun regardless. The puzzle of the title involves the murders of an elderly French couple in Finchley in what is, essentially, a locked room mystery. This quickly develops into assassination attempts with explosive chocolates and a small but exceedingly deadly West African viper, and ends with our heroine disguising herself as a maid and the villain being bitten to death by a cobra.

You can see why it’s a rollicking good read, can’t you? And it is good fun, although the plot relies heavily on the reader’s ignorance about snakes and a whopping suspension of disbelief. I still haven’t worked out quite why Judith Lee merited not one but two assassination attempts – maybe that’s the real Finchley Puzzle?

WHEN DRESSES HAD NAMES

It sounds like something out of a glamorous Hollywood movie from the 1930s; the heroine is getting ready for a big night out with the handsome leading man but can’t decide what to wear. She turns to her friend, holding up two gowns. “Should I wear the Marigold or the Delilah?” Her friend turns her nose up at both. “Why bother, when the Tulip suits you so well?”

It’s not entirely beyond the realms of possibility. Charles James, a famous fashion designer of the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, used to name all his designs. I’ve set out below a few of my favourites.

butterfly-charles-james

This lovely little number is the Butterfly, and you can see how it got its name. Layers of tulle and net billow out behind a close fitting bodice to resemble the wings (complete with the different coloured layers creating a pattern) while the body is relatively plain, looking for the world like the thorax of an insect. I’m not sure I would wear it, but what an entrance you’d make if you did.

spiral-charles-james

The beautifully wearable Spiral dress, so called because it’s cut on the bias and looks like it’s slightly askew. I’d wear this any day of the week, even thought it is brown. It’s such a flattering shape and I love that neckline.

infanta-charles-james

I admit I’m less keen on this, the Infanta, although its much more my colour. It’s that neckline again – the bow and high collar feature seem fussy to me. I do love the pleating of the skirt though. I can only assume it’s inspired by Velazquez’s paintings.

diamond-charles-james

My personal favorite, the Diamond. I adore the cut, the colours and the beautiful neckline. I just need the occasion and a small fortune to buy one – these gowns were never cheap when they were made, and they’re certainly not cheap now.

I’m not convinced that James was unique in naming his designs, but I don’t recall seeing any other named designs from other designers. If you know of any, let me know – I’d love to look them up.

MARGERY ALLINGHAM – A Proper Mystery

I was surprised to find this in a collection of rural mystery stories, but in fairness, it is the kind of thing that you would find in a small village – and very much the kind of mystery that will be talked about and remembered for years.

The entire story takes place in the village pub and centres on the events of a fortnight previously, when the annual Flower and Gardening Show was ruined by the intervention of some wandering livestock. It’s something you can almost imagine – a well-meaning farmer moves his cattle to a nearby field against popular decision that to do so on Midsummer Night will result in certain disaster. When popular decision is proved right, recriminations ensue.

In fact, it’s not until the local policeman – himself a keen gardener whose entry in the Flower and Gardening Show was itself trampled – lets slip that he believes the interconnecting hedge was sabotaged, do we actually get any hint of foul play. Who in the village would be so callous as to create a gap in the hedge – on show day? It’s the kind of thing that starts blood feuds that last generations.

This story is a complete joy. There is no murder, whether or not there is a crime is quite debateable, but there is certainly mischief and a good puzzle which is solved at the end. It’s told with gentle humour and plenty of affection which, after the seriousness of some of the stories I’ve read lately, comes as something of a relief. Living in a rural village, I can well believe something like this happening, being talked about, reported in the local paper and perhaps even raised at the Parish Council.

I loved this, it’s a wonderful little story well written that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading.

A World Without Oil

clockwork-empire

One of the main aspects that Paolo Bacigalupi included in his vision of a 23rd century Bangkok in his novel The Wind Up Girl is that the world’s supply of crude oil and natural gas has long since run out. Power is provided by ever decreasing stores of coal (which does nothing for the rampant global warming – rising sea levels threaten the very existence of Bangkok throughout the novel), methane, elephants or good old fashioned pedal power. It’s a grim vision, if I’m going to be honest.

It’s also a vision with a very firm basis in reality. Coal, oil and natural gas are wholly finite resources and global authorities appear to have paid very little attention to what they will do when the inevitable happens. It’s almost as if they are in denial. The planet also cannot rely on nuclear power – quite aside from issues of safety and waste disposal, uranium and plutonium are also finite resources and will themselves run out eventually. What then?

The energy situation is not something that can be dismissed for future generations to sort out when the infrastructure needs to be laid now – and we really do need to be looking at renewables or sustainable sources of energy, such as solar power, wind power or hydropower. The specifics will need to depend on the country’s needs, but they are certainly things that can be developed and adapted alongside the changing climate.

I’m told that wind farms are ugly. Personally, compared to the average power station, I think they’re quite beautiful. It is a little unfortunate that in this day and age we really do have to consider them a necessity – unless you want to be the person paid to pedal constantly for eight hours a day to power someone else’s fridge?

ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE – The Case of Lady Sannox

Now here’s an odd little tale, the opening story of the British Library’s Crime Collection “Capital Crime”. A short story featuring neither Holmes nor – possibly – a crime (although I expect lawyers everywhere will enjoy debating this point), but with no shortage of deception and villainy. As a demonstration of Conan Doyle at his best, it’s up there with A Scandal in Bohemia – still my favourite Holmes story.

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away because I really do want to encourage people to read it. It’s not perfect – few stories are – and, to a point, it’s very much a product of its time – 1893. That said, it’s surprisingly modern. London was a cosmopolitan enough city even in the late 1890s that a doctor is unsurprised to be asked to see a patient from the Middle East, and get well paid for it.

The main flaw with the story is the surgeon’s descent into madness, which does strike me as being a little overdone, although remorse and guilt affect people in different ways. I do like the way Conan Doyle leaves his clues in plain sight; I found myself groaning on a re-read when I saw how obvious they all were! I really should have picked them up, but if I’m honest, I was enjoying myself a bit too much.

I’ve read a bit of non-Holmes Conan Doyle before, mainly the Professor Challenger stories, but this is closer to the great detective than to The Lost World. It’s tight, clever and really quite nasty – and almost totally forgotten. What an outrage – it’s an excellent little story and a great start to the collection.

Paolo Bacigalupi – The Wind Up Girl

bangkok

It’s been quite a while since I last read a dystopian novel set in the Far East. I think the last one was Rivers of Gods, which I read so long ago I’m going to have to re-read to remember the plot. It was set in India, that much I do recall. It’s pretty undeniable, though, that most post-apocalyptic or dystopian novels are set in more temperate climes – usually either Europe or the US – but surely the tropical heat and humidity, exotic wildlife and completely different cultures would be ideal for such genre fiction?

It was mainly the fact that Bacigalupi set his novel in Bangkok, a place I knew quite well from numerous visits, that actually got me reading it in the first place. Bacigalupi teaches South East Asian studies, so I think it’s fair to say that he knows Thailand extremely well. His depiction of a post-industrial Bangkok is so believable, I can smell it from here.

This is because Bangkok has a very distinctive smell – open sewers, durian, lemongrass and pollution from vehicle exhausts, mixed in a wall of heat and humidity that has a physical force which is literally suffocating. Bacigalupi doesn’t shy away from it at all – if anything, he revels in it and the stifling heat becomes an important part of the novel.

It’s always believed that there are two sides to Bangkok – the daytime, where industry, shopping, sightseeing and religion are more visible, and the night, which is distinctly sleazier. The near legendary sex trade around Patpong Road (as well as the night markets and street food carts) is shown in all its brutal honesty – as is the corruption, police brutality and muay thai dens. The disdain with which farang (foreigners) are treated is also centre stage. For anyone who has spent any time at all in Bangkok, this is realistic enough.

In fact, the one thing that isn’t already in place is the lack of electricity. Because this novel takes place in a world where oil has completely run out (which I’ll explore in another blog post), power is provided by a combination of methane, elephant and slave labour. This is another reason why I think there should be more science fiction novels set in the Far East and/or South America – they would be more adaptable and be able to illustrate any points the author would wish to make much more powerfully than continually destroying First World economies with gay abandon.

I’ve really enjoyed reading this book. It’s totally believable and also offered me a sense of nostalgia for travels long past. And reminded me why I really hate the smell of durian.

IS A MURDER REALLY NECESSARY?

Apologies for the slightly controversial title, but hopefully you’ll understand that it’s a genuine question. You see, I’m reading quite a lot of Golden Age (between the wars) detective stories at the moment, and almost all of them involve a murder. Modern detective novels are nothing if not worse – they seem to use the philosophy “why have one murder when half a dozen will do?”! Even so, I find myself wondering if devising a grisly demise or three really needs to be a prerequisite for a half decent crime novel.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle certainly didn’t rely on murders, although he didn’t shy away from them either. Only a few of the stories in his first Sherlock Holmes collection, The Adventures, feature a murder – the rest focus on blackmail, theft and deceit in all its forms and I think the stories are more fun for it. They are certainly more varied and show that there is more to crime than just killing. I have to say I think a well-planned and cleverly executed robbery or theft is as much fun to read about – and probably just as tricky to investigate – as a well-planned and cleverly executed murder, but nobody seems to want to write it.

Having now read Martin Edwards’ book The Golden Age of Murder, I think the blame can be laid squarely at the feet of the Detection Club, a group of successful crime novelists (including Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers) who wanted to raise the detective story out of genre fiction and into a realm where it could be appreciated as an art. To a point they succeeded – at her best, few can beat Agatha for spinning a good yarn – but in formulating their “rules” for a good detective story, they did imply that someone had to die, and preferably in the first couple of chapters.

I’m afraid I have to disagree. Aside from the (lately forgotten) gentleman thieves such as Raffles or Lupin, there just aren’t the non-fatal crime novels doing the rounds. Let me give you an example of how thrilling this could be, using a recent well publicised crime as a starting point:

Madame K, the wealthy society hostess, is robbed at gunpoint of her jewels including a large diamond engagement ring. The police have few leads – those they do have quickly go nowhere – and in desperation consult the Great Detective. He reviews the evidence, finds clues in plain sight that the police missed and eventually goes undercover to infiltrate the criminal gang preying on the rich and famous…

I admit it’s got a touch of the Sherlock Holmes about it, but I’m already dying to read this. Anyone out there fancy writing it for me?