Bruce Robinson May Love Jack But He Hates The Victorians

jack

Considering how much credit I’ve got on my Amazon account at the moment, it really was rather naughty of me to have bought this in Waterstones, but I justified it by picking up a couple of Lego Batman figures while I was there*. It’s also had very good reviews, was longlisted for a number of awards and was recommended to me while I was reading the blurbs on the back by a little old lady with a mauve rinse as being “the best of the lot”. So it wasn’t much of a contest really.

Now, I have to confess that I’ve only read the first chapter (and it’s a rather thick book) but I’ve already alternated between outrage, horror and a couple of giggling fits. Bruce Robinson, a wonderful American screenwriter, wastes no time in stripping the veneer off Victorian values and showing them up for the hypocrites they were. He does it with a caustic wit that I can see myself quoting rather a lot for the foreseeable future. If I may offer a few quotes:-

“Reactionary nostalgia for the proprieties of Victorian England is unfortunate, like a whore looking under the bed for her virginity.” (That’s the opening sentence. What a start.)

*In 1888 you could f*** a child for five shillings, but you couldn’t read Zola. What the Establishment didn’t like about Zola was his treatment of the working class, who he had the French neck to represent as human.” (I rather like Zola as well.)

“MPs call themselves ‘Honourable’ because no-one else would.” (Ouch)

I have not come across a book so righteously – and rightly – angry in a very long time. I think in this era of right-wing Little England mindset (and I daren’t know what to think about the other side of the pond, apart from it being quite terrifying) this kind of “Victorian values” thinking is all too common. It’s lovely to have a blunt, honest appraisal of what it was really like, and what bloody appalling double-standards were applied, even if this is meant to be a book about a murderer. It may yet be – I’ve got another twenty chapters to read yet. If they are half as good as the first one, I’m going to be delighted.

And I really must buy that little old lady a cup of tea next time I see her. She really does know a good book when she sees one.

* I got Commissioner Gordon and Mr Freeze.

DUDLEY AND STEPHENS – A VARIATION ON THREE MEN IN A BOAT

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This is an old case from the mid-1800s but is interesting because it raises quite a few questions about what constitutes a defence to murder. It also continues a theme I have previously broached on here, which some people may find offensive. It doesn’t bother me much as I don’t eat meat anyway.

After a shipwreck in the mid-Atlantic, Messrs Dudley and Stephens found themselves adrift in a small boat with the 18 year old cabin boy, Richard Palmer (there was a fourth man with them, but he played no part in what happened next, so I’m ignoring him). After a week, they had run out of food and had minimal fresh water left, and there was nothing on the horizon to indicate that there was a chance of rescue. So they decided to draw lots on the principle that the loser would be murdered and eaten, to give the others more chance of surviving. No prizes for guessing who drew the short straw.

So, Dudley and Stephens promptly slit the poor lad’s throat and proceeded to live off him until they were finally rescued about three weeks later. They were near to death when they were picked up and freely admitted what they had done, but claimed they had killed the boy “out of necessity.” Unfortunately, the Court disagreed that it was ever necessary to kill anyone, so Dudley and Stephens were found guilty and hanged.

Now I was thinking about how this principle applied, especially since many years later, the survivors of an air crash in the Andes were acquitted of the same charges in very similar circumstances – but then the penny dropped. The Andean crash survivors hadn’t killed anyone. They survived by eating people who had already died, so they hadn’t committed murder and consequently could not be liable.

Clearly, it seems to be the Court’s way of thinking that in such a situation, a person would simply have to starve, unless they can show that the person they are eating died without their assistance – which could be tricky, given where most of the evidence will end up. That said, it’s worth bearing in mind in case you ever find yourself stranded on a life raft with someone you don’t like very much and you’re miles from the nearest takeaway.

Conan Doyle – Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle

“I suppose that I am commuting a felony. but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. This fellow will not go wrong again; he is too terribly frightened. Send him to jail now, and you make him a jail-bird for life.”

Originally, I was going to write about the title – I mean, unless you know a fair bit about gemstones, you may be puzzled as to what a blue carbuncle really is. Let me immediately put you out of your misery – it’s a sapphire cut en cabochon and looks something like this:

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No, the thing that has really struck me about this Sherlock Holmes story – from the original collection, the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – is actually just how revolutionary and prescient Holmes is in not handing the villain over to the police. He clearly has an opinion that the role of prisons play and it seems has rather a low opinion of them. Whether or not he is right is a debate that still rages amongst criminologists and penal theorists today, but at the end of the nineteenth century, such opinion was well nigh seditious.

Most prisons are large, cold, unforgiving places, frequently overfilled and understaffed and where – to all intents and purposes – the friends one makes inside depend on how well you fare. It is often said that prisons make criminals; I don’t know if this is true, I haven’t looked at the statistics recently. It is also possible that many of the people who are currently in prison probably shouldn’t be there – although equally and likewise, there are a few people not in prison who probably should be.

In sitting in judgment, Holmes has stated that James Ryder ought not go to prison; the fact that his crime has been discovered by Holmes, and that he has lost both the gem and a good Christmas goose has shown that his crime did not pay, is enough to set him on the straight and narrow for life. But there was another criminal in the mix who was forgotten – Lady Morcar’s made was Ryder’s accomplice, as Holmes states earlier in the story, but nothing is said about her fate. Will she make a second attempt to steal her mistress’s jewels, and will she be more successful without the simpering twit that she ended up with in this adventure?

We are not told, and I think the story loses nothing by this. However, I look forward to the sequel where the emerald bracelet disappears and is found in with the Christmas sprouts.

The Height of Luxury

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Reading about the Detection Club, I discovered to my glee that for a long time I had something in common with Agatha Christie (we don’t share it any longer for reasons that will become obvious) – one of our longstanding ambitions was to travel on the Orient Express. It was a journey from Istanbul to London, returning from a trip to see her second husband, Max Mallowan, an archaeologist in what is now Iraq, that Christie conceived the setting for one of her most famous stories. I, unfortunately, have yet to set foot on the train, although I often see it ready for boarding in the summer at Victoria Station.

Even Michael Palin’s been on the Orient Express – it formed the first part of his journey Around the World in 80 days and, if I remember, he disembarked at Venice, rather than going on to Istanbul. As far as I’m concerned, it is the ultimate in luxury long-distance train travel. Having done my fair share of long-distance train travel over the years, I’m quite looking forward to doing some more in a bit of luxury.

I’m not sure that it’s changed much since Agatha’s journey – although I doubt many murders are carried out in the sleeping carriages these days.

Arsenic in the Sugarbowl?

crockery

If you haven’t already read Shirley Jackson’s final novel, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”, please be reassured that the title of this post gives nothing away. In fact, if you haven’t worked out the identity of the murderer in the first fifty pages or so, perhaps you need to read a bit more Agatha Christie – because it’s really quite obvious, I’m afraid.

In fact, the character I’m more interested is one of the survivors of that event – Uncle Julian Blackwood. Now it would be very fair to say that he’s a bit of a strange old bug; confined to a wheelchair since the murders and apparently with a tenuous grip on reality. Jackson seems content to suggest that Julian’s afflictions are a direct result of his recovery from arsenic poisoning, but this doesn’t seem right to me. Admittedly, everything I know about arsenic comes from reading a lot of Victorian crime histories (it was a great favourite in those days, as it was easy to get hold of and administer) and, of course, the Great Agatha, but she much preferred cyanide. Still…

Before the murders, Julian was apparently fully ambulant and happily married, although having to live with his brother and his family due to being somewhat impecunious. Yet when the reader first sees him, he’s confined to a wheelchair (and frequently confined to his bed), on a restricted diet and often unable to recognise the two women he sees on a daily basis – Constance is often mistaken for his late wife, while Merricat is simply not recognised at all.

Julian’s vagueness is reinforced by his frequent questioning of Constance – “did it really happen?” His memory is failing and he keeps copious notes on the murder and the trial. He says he is writing a book about it, but tellingly reveals on page 62:

“I really think I shall commence chapter forty four,” he said, patting his hands together. “I shall commence, I think, with a slight exaggeration and go on from there into an outright lie.”

Is he actually writing the definitive version of events, or simply his version of events? When Miss Wright visits unexpectedly, he takes considerable glee in showing her the dining room and entertaining her with his account of the fateful night – which he seems to remember very well indeed. I can’t help but think this is Jackson taking a sideswipe at Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”, but I digress.

My point is that I have never seen portrayed anyone survive arsenic poisoning to suffer from such limb paralysis as to render them virtually immobile or any apparent symptom of dementia – from what I can gather, that isn’t how arsenic works. I can only assume, therefore, that it wasn’t just arsenic in the sugarbowl. Given that both Constance and Merricat are well versed in herbal toxicology (which they must have learned from somewhere, so I’ll open the suspect list to include the rest of the family), it wouldn’t be too much to assume that some kind of natural neurotoxin was added to the mix – at least, this would explain Julian’s symptoms much better. Whether it was added to ensure that the family died quickly, or by someone who didn’t realise that the arsenic was already there, isn’t elaborated on by Jackson, so I’m afraid we’ll never know.

I don’t think Hercule Poirot would have taken much time over the investigation though.

THOMAS BURKE – THE HANDS OF MR OTTERSHAW

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Oh my goodness. Not being a fan of hyperbole as a rule, I admit to taking a bit of a dim view of Ellery Queen’s assertion that this was the best crime story ever written. Now I’ve read it, though, I’m very disinclined to argue. It’s flipping brilliant and easily the best story in the Capital Crimes collection – and this collection has some fantastic stories in it.

Written in an easy, conversational style – a mix of film noir voiceover and a chat with a clever storyteller – it recounts the Madden End Murders, which were committed by a serial strangler who seemed to appear and disappear at will and which remained unsolved. The mystery is, however, finally cleared up but not before a fantastic twist in the final couple of paragraphs that really took my breath away.

To say any more really would be spoiling it.

I don’t know why this story isn’t better known. It’s a complete masterclass in setting and suspense in short story writing, and deserves to be used as a role model of what can be achieved in short fiction. So, friends and readers, do your bit – buy a copy of Capital Crimes and read this story (you can read all the others as well, while you’re at it). You won’t regret it one bit.

GLADYS MITCHELL – OUR PAGEANT

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I’ve always believed Gladys Mitchell to be a bit of an acquired taste. Some of her novels are very good, but some are not and you do have to like her style of writing to really persevere. That said, this example of her short fiction is a lovely example of just how different Mitchell can be.

This story is, essentially, a murder mystery, but I get a very strong feeling that the question of who killed the lead Morris dancer in the middle of the parade is a bit of a sideshow. (Clue – it is who you think it is). This story is more a love letter to rural village life – already on its last legs by the time she was writing – and the weird and wonderful traditions maintained by a few stalwarts. There is clearly a lot of affection here.

Village pageants are, these days, very few and far between and I think that’s quite a shame. The villagers in this story, however, wouldn’t be out of place in BBC’s Dibley but Mitchell steers clear of caricature – just – by showing how important these traditions were in creating a community. This story, like Margery Allingham’s “A Proper Mystery”, is less about the crime and more about village life. For once, it seems out of place in an anthology of mystery stories.

And yes, I enjoyed it a great deal. Maybe Gladys Mitchell is a taste I am acquiring after all.