Monday, April 06, 2020

Footsteps in the Dark

Footsteps in the Dark / Georgette Heyer
BBC Audio, 2008, c1932.
During this strange work at home time, I have discovered that I like audio books after all. They've never worked all that well for me in the past, but if I listen while sewing I find that I can do it. And what do I love most? Mostly classics and old mysteries, things I don't have to concentrate too hard on. 

I came across this Georgette Heyer mystery in my library's collection and despite the ridiculous cover, it was quite entertaining. Of course, Heyer is much better known for her Regency romances (which are wonderful). But she also wrote some more contemporary mysteries, of which this is one. 

Like a proper gothic influenced mystery, there is a big old house, presumptive hauntings, and women in danger. The Priory at Framley village has been inherited by siblings Peter, Celia and Margaret. Along with Celia's husband Charles, they head to the Priory to check it all out and see what they should do about it. For some reason, their old aunt comes with them -- she's the best kind of older English woman who is indomitable and generally fearless. 

Once they arrive, they realize that they aren't all too welcome in the village, and that people are afraid of The Priory. They dismiss this as nonsense, being modern urbanites. But then they actually see the apparition known as The Monk, and find a skeleton tumbling out of the priest hole at the top of the stairs. 

There are many suspicious townsfolk - from a harmless seeming entomologist, to a drunken French painter, to a man who skulks around their grounds and is actually known by the name of Michael Strange. Charles is urbane and witty, never taking much seriously, and Peter is slightly more stolid: together they approach the police and try to solve the mystery of what's happening. Celia is rather weak and helpless, and Margaret is a little less so although she conducts a rather secret affair with one of the suspects who she has immediately fallen for despite knowing nothing about him (although he does turn out to be a hero, which the reader can predict early on). 

There are ghosts, betrayals, money, criminals, history, deaths, romances, hidden passages, misunderstandings, melodrama, and more. This story is much of its time, and Heyer brightens up the melodrama with her usual wit and interplay between characters. Unfortunately, it is an adequate book at most; compared to her shining Regencies it does not stand out. There were so very many mysteries being written by English women in the 30s. This one is about middle of the pack, not brilliant but still readable, unlike some other lesser names I've tried in the past. If you are looking for a quick entertainment and not expecting anything too grand, this is worth a try. 

The audio version that I listened to is narrated by Maureen O'Brien, who does a fine job with only a couple of stumbles in voices for different characters. It was entertaining, and a fun one to listen to and try to puzzle out (not too hard to guess the villian before the ending, fyi). 


Sunday, April 05, 2020

Death at the Bar

Death at the Bar / Ngaio Marsh
London: Fontana, 1982, c1940.
253 p.
I really wanted to like this book. Read hard on the heels of my Sayers extravaganza, it sadly just did not quite measure up. I don't connect with it as well; it doesn't have the lighthearted charm and cleverness that Lord Peter has.

The plot here is quite ingenious -- impossible for a reader to figure out, though, until told the details, and the characters are just not quite as engaging or believable. Plus the romantic triangle subplot is far too retrograde for my comfort.

The plot is as follows: a group of guests are staying in a small hotel in a coastal town that it is difficult to get to; there is really only one way in or out. One evening there is some drinking and then a game of darts ensues (aside: are darts the best game of choice in a drinking establishment?). One of the men, a lawyer, is hit with a dart and scratched, but suddenly dies. It's discovered that the tip of the dart has been poisoned. But by whom, and how, and why? The mystery is a tangle and nearly everyone seems a likely murderer, from cousin to pretty girl to old lady to random male guest. It's impossible to make out, from the reader's perspective. 

Some of subplots continue quite misleadingly -- there are suspicious actions by all, whether because of romantic entanglements or shady connections with townspeople. There are the requisite red herrings and old women to meddle in the investigation.

While the mystery is nice and tangly, and the setting itself is pretty great, I found the narrative a bit plodding and the characters unappealing. The motives and alibis are all fairly weak, and the detailed exposition just went on and on! 

When the 'who dunnit' was finally revealed, I wasn't all that interested anymore. The punny title, since the death takes place in the bar of the hotel, and it is a laywer who died, is about the most obvious part of it all. Perhaps I'd like another Roderick Alleyn mystery better than this one -- although it is a 1940 story it is missing the spark of lightness found in many other stories of the era. If you've read and enjoyed any title in this series, let me know which one I should attempt next to change my mind about this detective and his complicated cases.

Friday, April 03, 2020

Busman's Honeymoon

Busman's Honeymoon / Dorothy L. Sayers
New English Library, 2003, c1937.
451 p.
This is the final volume in the Lord Peter Wimsey series, and it shows Peter and Harriet on their honeymoon.

Gaudy Night was such a lovely book, really perfection. The series should have ended there, at its high point. This book, unfortunately, for me, is a real anticlimax. 

In this novel, the newlyweds head off to a house in the country, where they find an unprepared, unwelcoming dark house. They can't understand why, but go in anyhow. Then, a few days later, they find the body of the owner in the cellar. 

So two fine detectives ignore a strange situation, and then find a body days later. I can understand being distracted by being a newlywed, but really! The mystery is slow and miniscule here, the focus is on Peter and Harriet and their relationship. There are lengthy sections in which their repressed emotions are struggling to escape, which leads to an overheated and sometimes slightly incomprehensible flight of Sayers' predilection for quotations. 

While it was delightful to see more of these two wonderful characters, I did feel that once the marriage happened, the tension between them that was holding the stories tautly had disappeared. This story is pretty weak and sentimental in comparison to most of her other stories, at least to my readerly eyes. 

It's not terrible -- there are some clever bits and the murder weapon actually made me laugh a bit, it was so unexpected and slightly silly. There are lovely parts, but overall I found it too sentimental and ridiculous. It was nice to finish the series, but I'd recommend that you read this one only in order, and only if you want to find out what happens to Peter and Harriet once they've settled down together. 



Thursday, April 02, 2020

Have His Carcase

Have His Carcase / Dorothy L. Sayers
New English Library, 1977, c1932
444 p.

In my Sayers reading spree last spring, I managed to read all of her books. But I've missed talking about a few of them so am going to try to remedy that this week! 

Have His Carcase is the second book that Harriet Vane features in, coming straight after Strong Poison and before the masterpiece of Gaudy Night. It's a strange one, that doesn't quite measure up to the other two.

Harriet, having been saved from the gallows by Peter in Strong Poison, needs to get away from the stress and infamy. She goes for a solo walking tour on the coast, only to stumble across a dead body on top of a rock on the shore. The body belongs to a professional dancer at the hotel nearby, and when Harriet reports this death after some obstacles in getting to a telephone, she is of course suspected. She was the person who found the body, after all, and she was a recent murder suspect up for trial. 

She thinks she can handle it all, but Peter appears to help out as soon as he hears of it. He was driven by concern for her, but Harriet's independence sees it as patronizing. They spar the entire book in emotional exchanges, with Peter still asking her to marry him periodically. 

The mystery itself is one of those that isn't quite fair to the reader; an integral part of the solution is withheld for a very long time. And there is a lot of dithering and an interminable chapter going over the code that they've discovered the dead man used in his clandestine correspondence -- explaining it, showing how it works, and on and on. Just say they've figured it out, and move on! 

Eventually, of course, they solve the implausible crime, and then the question becomes more focused on what will become of Peter and Harriet as a pair. If you are reading these because you are interested in the relationships (as I am) then you will enjoy it and it will fill in some of that story for you. If you are more interested in the mystery itself, it's not as good as others. 

I still like this book -- and the tv version too -- and would reread it for the wonderfully drawn seaside setting and the growing levels of understanding between these two main characters. If you are reading through the entire series, you obviously must read this in order. It makes a lot more sense in the context of the four Peter & Harriet books of the series. I liked it; didn't love it as I do the other two already mentioned, but still found it a good read overall. 

Nearly done the series now!



Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Lord Peter: Two Final Collections

In the Teeth of the Evidence / Dorothy L.Sayers
NY: Harper, 1993, c1939.
224 p.
In the Teeth of the Evidence is another strange little collection of stories. Only two Lord Peter stories, then five Montague Egg, and the remainder just standalone mystery stories. It's a good variety though, and some of the single stories are really funny as well -- The Inspiration of Mr. Budd in particular, in which a barber has a brilliant idea about how to make the criminal on the run who is currently in his shop much more identifiable. The Lord Peter stories are dark and a bit gory (ie: he identifies who the figure burned in his garage is), while the Montague Egg ones are similar to the last set -- someone on Goodreads compared him to Jessica Fletcher, which I think is a more apt comparison than any other I've seen -- people turn up dead around him, and he just happens to figure it out. 

Certainly a mixed set of stories that present differing atmospheres and themes, though all clearly by Sayers. Even her so-so stories can be better than many other writers. While this isn't my favourite of her books, there are still a couple of stories that I'd go back to reread. Worth exploring, anyhow!

Striding Folly / Dorothy L. Sayers
NY: Hodder Stoughton, 2017, c1972.
176 p.
And now for this sad collection, Striding Folly. It was published many years after the rest, seemingly collected from random bits laying around as Sayers was becoming popular again. And it shows. This is not one to seek out. 

It is made up of an essay on Sayers, some info about the character of Lord Peter himself, and then three short stories. The first only has Peter stepping in at the end to solve the mystery, rather deus ex machina. The second, The Haunted Policeman, is to me the only one worth reading, and even it is flawed. Lord Peter, after the birth of his second son, is up late and encounters a policeman doing his rounds who has seen something very mysterious on their street. Elements of misdirection and possible supernatural elements lift this one up to something readable. The final story, Talboys, set at the house where Peter and Harriet had their honeymoon, features their children and is dreary and sentimental. 

At some point, a story is exhausted, and authors should just stop writing. Once Peter and Harriet marry, the overarching story is done. Nothing after that is really interesting. Perhaps Sayers herself had lost interest by this point; in any case, this is one example of short stories in a mystery series that just don't work. You can easily skip this one. 

Monday, March 30, 2020

Lord Peter Wimsey: Shorts

Lord Peter Views the Body / Dorothy L. Sayers
NY: Harper Collins, c1993, c1928
336 p.

Short stories in a mystery series are always iffy. I found that Lord Peter Views the Body (considered #4 in the series but really a standalone) was a fun collection of 10 short stories and two novellas. 

The very first story, The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers, started us off with a bang. A sculptor in America is trying to take revenge in a horrific way; Lord Peter prevents the second part of his terrible revenge from occurring. Using science and gothic tropes both, this story is fascinatingly macabre. I am sure I read it somewhere else, probably in an anthology at some time. A classic! The last story, really a novella, is also strong. The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba features a vast gang of criminals with a mask wearing Master Criminal leading them all. Lord Peter infiltrates the gang, nearly finding it fatal. Again, a startling use of technology for 1928! A complex and fun story, although I can't quite place where it might sit in Lord Peter's timeline. 

The remainder of the stories in this collection vary. One or two are overly complicated (like the crossword puzzle, argh -- skipped through it) and others are entertaining. It's a pretty good collection, and shows other sides of Lord Peter and Bunter. I still prefer longer form from Sayers though. 

Hangman's Holiday / Dorothy L. Sayers
NY: Harper Collins, 1993, c1933
191 p.

Now on to the second title, Hangman's Holiday -- considered #11 in the series but again definitely a standalone. Only the first four stories feature Lord Peter. Of those, two feel like they could have anyone as a lead, although they are quite interesting, they don't necessitate Peter's particular character. The other two really highlight the high society, clever puzzles that Peter is excellent at, and were really fun.

The remaining 8 stories introduce Montague Egg, a travelling salesman and observant crime solver - I hesitate to consider him a sleuth, as he is just an amateur who happens to see things and put them together in the course of his job. He is like a type of Poirot in a way. I found his stories amusing and clever. While they are all quite different, they are the type of story you might expect from Sayers. From blackmail to poisoning to murder in the night, it's all there. 

These two collections are fortunate additions to Sayers' series (and a good intro to another character, Monty Egg). I found them both light, clever and enjoyable, which I didn't expect. Sometimes short stories work after all!


Friday, March 27, 2020

Tell Me A Riddle

Tell Me A Riddle / Tillie Olsen
NY: Laurel, 1976, c1961.
128 p.

This brilliant collection is made of four classic short stories:  "I Stand Here Ironing," "Hey Sailor, What Ship?," "O Yes," and "Tell Me a Riddle".

You may have read one of these stories anthologized in some textbook for high school or university -- I had never come across one of them, so found this little paperback a real gem of a discovery. 

Tillie Olsen tells four stories of motherhood and women's lives in poverty, with no romanticism. There is no noble suffering, just the realities of women having to live for others; the five children in the first story, or a husband's wishes, as in the last. These are stories of families who are scraping by, making do, and about what it does to them.

In the first story, a woman (not sitting still, never sitting still) muses about what she might have done that has caused her oldest daughter to have such troubles already. In the second, an alcoholic friend of the family is staying with them between ports - his addictions colour their lives while he is there. In the third, a daughter in this same family experiences growing up and losing her best friend when they hit middle school; while they are still at the same school, she's white and her friend is black. And it does matter, now. 

The final story, the title one, is the longest, and Olsen's masterpiece. It's the story of a Russian emigrĂ© couple, now in their elder years (incidentally, they are the grandparents of the family from the previous two tales). The husband wants to sell their house and move to a retirement community with his fraternity. The wife, meanwhile, does not. She wants to stay in her home and finally have some peace and quiet. To settle, to rest. And then she gets seriously ill. This story is genius; told sparely, with piercing insights and enough pathos (but not easy sentimentality) to bring you to tears, it is brilliant. I'd recommend that you find this one and read it however you can. 

While I don't always read a lot of short story collections, I'd most definitely recommend this one. It's one I'll be going back to.