Sunday, August 29, 2010

Poirot Loses a Client

A few years ago, I realized that I'd somehow missed several Agatha Christie mysteries.  I started reading her as a teenager, and by the time I graduated from high school owned copies of all her novels.  I've also read several of them (Death on the Nile, Third Girl, Sparkling Cyanide) multiple times, and because I tried to read them in order when I was about 15, I've read the first dozen or so.  Still, I've somehow missed a few along the way.

Poirot Loses a Client is one of those missing mysteries.  It's been on my shelf since about the time I graduated from high school (the print date for my copy is May 1986), but I've spent nearly 25 years passing it over for a fifth reading of Evil Under the Sun or a third reading of The Pale Horse.  Poirot Loses a Client is a middling Christie, entertaining but not overly memorable, so maybe it's best that I left it until I was older.

Elderly Emily Arundell lives in Market Basing with a fluttering paid companion and a dog.  While hosting her nieces, nephew, and nephew-in-law (all of whom are hard up for cash), she falls down the stairs.  She's not seriously injured, but the incident frightens her enough to rewrite her will and to ask M. Poirot for help.  Unfortunately, her letter to Poirot stays in her writing desk for two months, and is mailed only after her death from a liver complaint.  Miss Arundell's companion, Miss Lawson, inherits the bulk of her employer's estate, but we never seriously suspect her of murder.   No, it's the victim's four relatives we suspect, and Christie uses a clever device to identify the true murder.  Other than that, we get pictures of village life, Captain Hastings being veddy English, Poirot being Poirot, and a brief look at the Bright Young Things Christie depicted so well.  Poirot Loses a Client is the sort of book that you want to read curled up with a hot drink (and perhaps a cat) on a grey, dreary day, but it's still enjoyable on a commuter train as the hottest summer on record begins to turn the dial from "unbearable" to merely "swelter."

Whose Body?

Acorn Media has rereleased the early-70s Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, and I've just finished watching the first two.  I love the atmosphere - the clothes, the props, the attitude.  I think I could very easily have been the eccentric relative to some wealthy, titled family - for one thing, I think 'eccentric' sounds so much nicer than 'weird.'  

Lord Peter is clearly eccentric, and wealthy.  He has a fabulous flat, collects rare books, and owns a large private car in the early 1920s.  He also investigates crimes - not a gentleman's job at a time when gentlemen were defined by not having jobs.  His frightfully conventional brother, the Duke of Denver, abhors his hobby but their mother, the Dowager Duchess, takes a more favorable view.  It's the Dowager Duchess who calls Lord Peter when the architect reconstructing the local church finds a naked corpse with a pair of pince-nez glasses in his bath.  Lord Peter investigates, and finds that the body is probably not that of the affluent man he's been groomed to appear to be.  Also investigating the body is Inspector Charles Parker, who is investigating the case of a missing financier who roughly fits the description of the body in the bathtub.  The body is not that of Sir Ruben Levy, but Lord Peter finds too many coincidences to believe that the murders are unlinked.  

I've read Whose Body at least twice, so I know who did it, but that didn't diminish my enjoyment of the novel.  Sayers deserves her place as one of the grand masters of the golden age of mystery.  Her Wimsey novels are cleverly plotted, with memorable characters (and even more memorable names - Inspector Sugg, Sir Julian Freake) and the right balance of clues and obfuscation for the reader to solve the mystery but not feel stupid if stumped.

The Burgundian's Tale

It's been more than fifteen years since I picked up the first Roger the Chapman book, and I sometimes lose track of the time between stories.  It's been about seven or eight years in his timeline since Roger first helped Prince Richard, and close to two years since he's worked on a royal commission.  The request to solve The Burgundian's Tale could not come at a better time for Roger - he can't hide the relief at not having another child to support when his newborn daughter dies, and his former mother-in-law (his current wife's cousin) has taken ill and is staying with his family.   

It's the perfect time for Roger to walk through the countryside selling his wares, but Prince Richard has other plans.  His sister, the Duchess of Burgundy, has returned for a visit and her beloved servant (the son of another servant raised as her companion) has been murdered and Richard 'asks' Roger to solve the mystery.  The Burgundian's Tale is a murder in retrospect, and everyone sees the late Fulk Quantrill differently.  To his aunt Judith St. Clair (his mother's identical twin), he's a link to her past and now the heir to her considerable wealth.  To her stepdaughter, he's a potential suitor and to her stepson he's a competitor.  Edmund Brorder, a cousin of Judith's first husband, has the best motive of all, since he stood to inherit his cousin's shop until she rewrote her will.  The real motive turns out to be blackmail, not inheritance, and Sedly has written a tightly plotted mystery which leaves just enough clues to allow us to guess the murderer a few paragraphs before Roger tumbles into a trap.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Life Sentences

Laura Lippman created Tess Monaghan in the mid 1990s.  I was watching Homicide and willing to try a Baltimore based mystery.  Homicide has been off the air for a decade, but I've been faithful to Lippman's work, maybe because I see a little of myself in Tess.  I don't have the adoring, younger boyfriend, but I'm an only child,  have sort of fallen into my current career and have 'long hair' as a central part of my persona.  The rowing lessons, though, go the other way - I was inspired by Tess's hobby, and one of these years will simultaneously have the time and the money to join one of the boathouses.

Life Sentences is not a Tess Monaghan mystery - it's part of Lippman's series-that-isn't-a-series.  Like Lisa Scottoline's books centered on Bennie Rosato's litigation firm, the four (so far) non-Tess books are stand-alone novels loosely connected by recurring characters.  The protagonist is Cassandra Follows, a Baltimore native who wrote a best-selling memoir about her childhood and a less-successful follow-up.  While promoting an even less well-received novel, Cassandra hears a news story linking a current murder to an infant's disappearance nearly twenty years ago.  That child's mother had been Cassandra's classmate in grade school, and since she's going back to Baltimore to interview her father (a retired classics professor) at a fundraiser for her old high school, she decides to investigate what happened to Calliope Jenkins and her missing baby.   

I took a course called "History and Fiction" my sophomore year of college.  We read autobiographies in the final third of the course and discussed the difference between "bias" and "focus" and how two people will see the same event differently.  As Cassandra meets with old friends, she learns that lesson.  Everyone she meets remembers the past differently, and some of them are unhappy with how she's portrayed them.  Cassandra's, and everyone else's, bias fuel the mystery, sealing Calliope's fate with a mixture of racial and class prejudice.  Lippman unraveled this story with just enough clues for me to solve it along with Cassandra.  

This seems to be the Year of the Subplot for me, and there's one in Life Sentences, and unlike most of the other subplots I've encountered recently, I thought this one (involving Cassandra's father and the eventual need to re-evaluate her memoir) was interesting and complementary to the main plot.  My one problem with the book was the insertion of Gloria Bustamonte.  Gloria has appeared in Lippman's other stand-alone books and while she can be an interesting character, she adds nothing to Life Sentences.  Her few scenes could have been rewritten to feature other characters, or someone without baggage created for this book.  She's a minor distraction, though, and despite my initial reluctance (memoirs and memoirists don't interest me), I enjoyed Life Sentences.  I still prefer Tess Monaghan, but I'll keep looking forward to Lippman's other works.

The Price of Murder

Bruce Alexander participated in a panel on historical mysteries at Bouchercon in 2003.  The Price of Murder, the tenth book in the Sir John Fielding series, had just been published, so I found a new author with a decent sized backlist.  What I didn't know was that the series would end with the eleventh book, because Mr. Alexander died in 2004.  I think that's why it's been over two years since I last read a Sir John Fielding mystery - I know the series is about to end and I want to stretch it out a little longer.  Or maybe I was just a bit disappointed in book #9.

The Price of Murder, like several other books I've read this year, is a dual mystery.  The first is the murder of a small child whose body is found floating in the Thames.  She's the daughter of a prostitute who sold her, knowingly or not, to a pedophile, and then disappeared.  While looking for evidence in the missing woman's room, Sir John's assistant Jeremy Proctor meets the woman's brother, a well-known jockey named Deuteronomy Plummer.  He's an interesting character, and I enjoyed Alexander's detour into 18th Century horse racing.   He relies a bit too much on coincidence (the child's murderer breeds horses), but the excitement of the racing scenes make up for the predictability.  

I was disappointed, however, in the subplot.  Jeremy's fiancee Clarissa Roundtree meets an old friend who's now living in London and helping her mother run a boardinghouse.  Her brief disappearance and the trial of her alleged kidnappers is entertaining, but serves only to move up the couple's wedding date.  Alexander should have either integrated this story line more closely with the main plot or left it out.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Shape of Snakes

I have no idea why Minette Walters (or her publisher) decided to call her 2001 thriller The Shape of Snakes.  Maybe it's a reference to the untrustworthiness of old friends or the surprisingly manipulative behavior of the heroine, or maybe it was simply an eye-catching title.

M. Ranleigh (we never know her first name) and her husband Sam bought a small house in a soon-to-gentrify neighborhood in London in the mid 1970s.  The neighborhood contained a mixture of people - young couples climbing the ladder, families which had spent generations on the dole, the outwardly respectable man carrying on an affair with the prostitute across the street while his wife was dying of cancer, and Annie Butts, a biracial woman whose Tourette's Syndrome made her vulnerable to the neighborhood bullies.  One rainy night, Annie was murdered, although the cursory police investigation deemed it an accidental death.  Mrs. Ranleigh, who discovered the dying woman, refused to accept the verdict and over the next several months spiraled into depression, anorexia, and agoraphobia, eventually leaving the area to follow her husband to an overseas posting in an attempt to salvage her marriage.

Twenty years lager, the Ranleighs return to England, and at first it looks like a coincidence that their new family doctor treated Miss Butts a quarter century earlier, and that they live within a short drive of several of their old neighbors.  As Mrs. Ranleigh casually mentions former acquaintances and as we read the notes of the doctor who treated her for post-partum depression in the early 1980s, we realize that she has spent the past two decades trying to discover who killed Annie.  Her most valuable resource are gossipy letters and e-mails from her friend Libby, the ex-wife of her husband's friend Jock, which mix news of her former neighbors with tales of her rising career and Jock's boom-and-bust lifestyle, which has has gone bust by the time the Ranleighs return to England.  

I've read several of Walters's books, and in some ways she's a darker, more violent Agatha Christie with deeper characters.  Her books center on rather gruesome crimes, and but there's always a happy ending.  Here, Walters hides the identity of the killer well enough that even though I solved the mystery with a few pages left, I was shocked to discover 'whodunnit.'  The happy ending is Ranliegh's sense of peace, and how some of the supporting characters have happier lives in 2000 than one would have expected twenty years earlier.

Mary, Queen of Scots

I enjoy books - not just reading, the physical objects.  I like seeing how styles have changed over the years, and trying to guess the print date of a particular edition from the typeface illustrations on the cover.  My copy of Mary, Queen of Scots is very clearly an old copy.  For one thing, it's a pocket sized paperback - non-fiction hasn't been published like that in decades (to the chagrin of those of us who prefer paperbacks because they can be slipped into a pocket).  There's also the price ($1.50), the photo of Lady Antonia Fraser on the back (with a bouffant, heavy eye makeup, and large rings, making her look a bit like the character Jo Grant from Doctor Who) and the page advertising Deliverance, which is "Soon to be a major motion picture."  There's also my grandmother's name in pencil inside the back cover, with the date "3/18/71."  My grandmother died in 1983, so this book has sat on my shelf for more than twice as long as it sat on hers.

Mary, Queen of Scots was Fraser's first book, launching a career which includes an almost equal number of biographies and mystery novels, and she writes more like a novelist than a historian.  I mean that as a complement - I've read two of her other biographies and her style is clear and compelling, no matter how dry the details of royal ancestry may be.  Here, she vividly portrays Mary Stuart as both a headstrong young woman and a political pawn.  Like her cousin Elizabeth, Mary was a symbol of her faith in a time of religious upheaval but maintained a 'live and let live' attitude towards others' beliefs.  Mary, however, did not have the luxury of ruling a fairly powerful state or the education and brilliance of the English Queen.  Mary was bright and well read, if perhaps not well-taught in the art of statecraft, but Elizabeth was an extraordinary intellect who benefited from a comprehensive education.  

Mary also married three times, once as a child and twice due to poor judgment.  Crowned Queen of Scotland as a newborn, Mary was betrothed to the French Dauphin and sent to France at age 5 to be raised in the French court.  Her fiance, Francis, was a weak, unpleasant boy, probably unequal to the task of ruling one country, let alone two.  Two years after they married and after a year as Consort of France, Mary was Queen Dowager and soon returned to her own kingdom.

The Scotland Mary returned to rule in 1561 was not the same country she left.  The Protestant Reformation had taken hold in Edinburgh, and the mostly Protestant nobility did not want a Catholic (and to a lesser extent a woman) ruling their country.  Mary's attitude was more modern - she considered faith a private matter and was willing to let Scotland remain predominantly Protestant but tolerant of Catholics like herself.  As I read these passages, I couldn't understand how she was seen as a threat to the Protestant majority.  Maybe her years in France and the expectation that Francis would be the de facto ruler of Scotland left her unable to effectively communicate her temperate views, or maybe John Knox was just too powerful of a personality.  Regardless, Mary come across as more of a victim than a perpetrator of interfaith political battles.

Elizabeth I understood the pitfalls of marriage, especially for a queen, and managed to steer clear.  Mary, though, impulsively fell in love with and married her pretty-boy cousin, Henry, Lord Darnley.  Henry was petty, vain, and promiscuous.  The couple essentially separated when Mary was pregnant with the future James VI/I, after he was involved in the murder of her private secretary, David Rizzio.  Henry, who showed even less talent for conspiracy than Mary, betrayed the Protestant nobles behind the plot but the marriage was essentially over from that point.  Mary and her counsellors explored the possibility of divorce, but Henry was murdered while escaping from a castle which was blown up by political enemies.  One of those men, Lord Bothwell, then abducted and raped Mary, and then forced her to marry him.  Shortly afterwards, she was forced to abdicate her thrown and tried to escape to England.  There she became the tragic figure of history, the Queen locked in a tower until she was deemed too much of a threat to Queen Elizabeth's power and was tried for treason and convicted on the basis of intentionally misinterpreted and mistranslated letters.