The Adventures of Mr. Joseph P. Cray

By E. Phillips Oppenheim

E. Phillips Oppenheim, or Oppy as Wodehouse called him, was a prolific writer of the best kind of adventurous spy trash. Most of his work seems to center around the First World War and the intrigues leading up to it. Russian princesses. Stolen plans. Impersonations. Champagne. Monte Carlo. Blue Train. Sinister spies. Damsels in distress.

  • Author: E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • Title: The Adventures of Mr. Joseph P. Cray
  • Pages: 288
  • Published: 1925
  • Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Fun, in other words. Innocent, old-fashioned fun.

On the other hand, it’s as politically incorrect as you can get. No publisher would be able to print these books nowadays, which means that I have to scour the second hand bookshops. I mean, not only are the heroines often wimpy, silly, oh-Robin types — the bad guys are fleshy Germans with Jewish-sounding names, people are length-and-girth-coded (tall is important, small is unimportant and nasty, fat is evil, lissom is good), but white is good and black is primitive and often bad.

Anyway, it paints the picture of the first decennia of the twentieth century, when the British Empire was an empire still, and when a European War was seen not only as inevitable, but sometimes even desirable.

In the volume under advisement, the title hero, Joseph P. Cray, has just returned from a year’s service in a YMCA tent in the battlefields of France, at the end of WWI. He longs for a drink, having been dry for a year, and gets as fast as he can to the best watering hole in London. And then a series of adventures start. Some of the adventures read a lot like the Saint’s adventures; but in the last few, it’s Joseph P. Cray who is bested by the rogues, instead of the rogues by him. Refreshing.

The House of Death

By Paul Doherty

I wish I could write as fast as Paul Doherty… This father of seven children, headmaster of a big comprehensive school, writes mostly historical mystery novels under a variety of pseudonyms. Lately, though, he seems to have started to use his real name for almost all his output. Paul Doherty, Paul Harding, Michael Clynes, Ann Dukthas, C.L. Grace, and Anna Apostolou — it’s all the same author.

  • Author: Paul Doherty
  • Title: The House of Death
  • Pages: 276
  • Published: 2001
  • Publisher: Constable
  • ISBN: 1-84119-302

I’m quite fond of his output. Some of his output. I rather like the Brother Athelstan series, first published under the name Paul Harding, which its sympathetic treatment of the protagonist and his religious life. The Brother Athelstan books also seem to feature quite carefully constructed plots, interesting characters and a nicely balanced structure.

The Hugh Corbett books, on the other hand, don’t appeal to me. They are so sloppily and hastily written that the books often become completely incomprehensible at a third to a half of the text. It took some convincing to get me to believe that Paul Harding and Paul Doherty were the same person.

The more standalone novels, like The Rose Demon feel more ambitious. The Rose Demon in particular is a strong and sometimes terrifying book. And Domina reads like a badly translated Life of Caligula in places, with word-wooze for a filler.

The House of Death is stronger than Domina, with an interesting, sympathetic protagonist, a well-rendered portrait of Doherty’s  interpretation of Alexander (although I sometimes wondered whether Paul Doherty hadn’t confused Lord Vetinari and Alexander the Great). The mystery plot is superficial; the underlying spy story unconvincing. But the pacing and the interaction between the characters manages to make up for those problems, somehow, somewhere.

The historical, or perhaps world-building, details, like the description of a doctor’s work, or an emperor’s megalomania are strong points. Perhaps not everything is completely accurate, although I don’t doubt Doherty has done his research, but it was fun to read.

And that’s important, too…

Striding Folly

By Dorothy L. Sayers

Striding Folly is the last collection of Lord Peter Wimsey short stories. As a collection, it wasn’t published during Dorothy L. Sayers’ lifetime; it is copyright by Anthony Fleming, her son, and its meager pagecount is eked out by a horrible introduction by Janet Hitchman whose main criticism of DLS is that neither she nor Harriet Vane conformed to her (Janet’s) ideas on what is good clothes sense. I feel that Janet Hitchman is more like Helen, Duchess of Denver than she knows herself…

  • Author: Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Title: Striding Folly
  • Pages: 124
  • Published: 1972
  • Publisher: New English Library
  • ISBN: 0450033406

Anyway, there are only three stories in this small collection: Striding Folly, The Haunted Policeman and Talboys.

The first, Striding Folly, is a confused and confusing story that mixes nightmares and chess in a wholly unsatisfactory way. I haven’t reread it for this note.

The second story, The Haunted Policeman, is quite nice. We almost witness Bredon, Lord Peter’s firstborn, being born. At least, we see the doctor descend the steps, and Bunter tells us that all is serene in the young master’s bedroom. And then off goes Lord Peter to help a policeman who saw things that couldn’t be. Nice story, but a bit messily told.

The last story, Talboys, is a sweet little bit of fluff about Puffett’s peaches and Bredon who’s caught a grass snake. There’s wit and humour in it, and it is a nice read. No harm in it.

Busman’s Honeymoon

By Dorothy L. Sayers

If there’s one book I reread and reread, it’s Busman’s honeymoon.  Ostensibly a murder mystery, but in fact a love story with detective interruptions, I first encountered it when I was courting Irina. This is significant, because I feel that I’ve learnt a lot about the metier d’époux from the Wimsey-Vane marriage tribulations. And whenever I feel a certain book is not soothing enough, I do not fall back to the Looking Glass, but to Busman’s Honeymoon.

  • Author: Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Title: Busman’s Honeymoon
  • Pages: 379
  • Published: 1964 (1937)
  • Publisher: Penguin Crime

It is also a book I have owned four copies of: one copy of the original play, one Italian edition (but of the English text), and a New English Library paperback and this dingy green Penguin. The NEL paperback now resides with Mary Kuhner.

Busman’s Honeymoon is one of the books I can quote ad-lib from; which is a fine irony, since Dorothy L. Sayers has evidently let herself completely be overtaken by the novelist’s habit of quotation. Not just the conversation between Lord Peter, Harriet Vane and Inspector Kirk, which conciously plays with quotations, but the rest of text is riddled with them. So I can never be sure whether I am a quoting DLS or some literary lion DLS quoted for me…

This re-re-re-reading brought me some fresh insights: it’s apparent from a slip of the tongue of inspector Kirk that miss Twitterton is actually Noakes’ daughter. Subtle shades of meaning in sentence fragments made me wonder a bit. (I should note down those impressions when reading, because by now I’ve forgotten them, of course. Grumbl.

Anyway, if you haven’t read this — read it. If you haven’t read any Sayers, though, start with Strong Poison, because otherwise nothing will make sense to you. I know it didn’t make sense to me when I tried to read the book in an awful, cruelly abridged Dutch translation when I was about twelve years old, and hadn’t any inkling of the backstory.

Oh? A plot synopsis? Well, H.V. and P.W. get married. They’re dogged by press hounds, so decide to escape to the quaint Elizabethan cottage they’ve bought in a small village. The morning after the bridal night, the corpse of the previous owner is found in the cellar. When P.W. and H.V. work on the case, they learn that possessiveness is a horrible thing in a marriage.

Superdetective Blomkwist leeft gevaarlijk

By Astrid Lindgren

My favourite Astrid Lindgren books (and one of my all-round favourites, at that) were those about Superdetective Blomkwist: Mästerdetektiven Blomkvist, Mästerdetektiven Blomkvist lever farligt and Kalle Blomkvist och Rasmus. Of course, my Swedish being what it is, I’ve never read these book in the original language, but rather in the praiseworthy translation by Rita Törnqvist-Verschuur. And now my daughters have reached the ripe ages of seven, seven and nine, I’m reading the stories to them.

  • Author: Astrid Lindgren
  • Title: Superdetective Blomkwist leeft gevaarlijk (in De Bende van de Witte Roos)
  • Pages: 142
  • Published: 1987 (1951)
  • Publisher: Uitgeverij Ploegsma
  • ISBN: 90 216 0548 1

I did the first book, simply called Superdetective Blomkwist, before I started Fading Memories, so I’ll just note that it it’s a delightful introduction to a delightful miniseries. A fine and complete story, redolent of the good smells of a rather idyllic Swedish countryside village. The book, having been written in 1946, is surprisingly fresh and up-to-date in all respects but one.

I’d better get this one complaint uttered before I continue the regularly scheduled eulogizing. Briefly it’s this: if you read this book to your children, you have to be ready for the bits where Astrid Lindgren waxes poetic about the beautiful innocence of small boys and little girls. You can safely skip it, because nothing in the descriptions of these children shows them to be innocent, innocuous, naive little poppets.

If they were, they wouldn’t be able to do what they do. Which is, briefly, while waging the bloody war between the White and the Red Rose, finding the clues that are needed to lock up a murderer. The superdetective from the title is Kalle Blomkwist, the thirteen-year old son of the grocer, who, in part I, solved a jewelry robbery. In this book it’s he, who through his avid reading of Dorothy L. Sayers Lord Peter Wimsey books (and other detective novels) knows how to perform Marsh’s test — surely no mean feat for someone of his age.

Eva-Lotta Lisander is the only female knight in the armies of the Roses (but remember that this was written in 1951), and she discovers the corpse, having asked the murderer for the time just a few minutes earlier. Anders Bengtsson is the son of the cobbler, and he’s the leader of the White Rose.

Opposed to this fairly standard children’s gang (see for instance Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens) is the Red Rose, which consists of Sixten, Benka and Jonte. And these gangs war for the possession of a mystical stone called, in translation, the Bommeldrom.

It’s this stone that proves to be the prime mover of the plot. The story mostly flows about naturally, and it’s only after the ‘real’ end that we get stuck with unlikely coincidences. Not that my kids noticed…

And there are nice touches, such as when Kalle puts a key back in a lock to faze the Red Roses. That key is later used to lock up the murderer. Astrid Lindgren was a master of the craft, unsurpassed, even superior to our own Annie M.G. Schmidt, and she has no equal in the English world.

All of Astrid Lindgren books I’ve read have been translated from the Swedish by Rita Törnqvist-Verschuur (who is an author of children’s books in her own right), and only someone who has read her translations knows how execrably bad most recent translations are. Really, I don’t know who got a rottener deal, J.K. Rowling or Diana Wynne Jones. It is impossible, I find, and I am rather good in reading books to an audience, to read the long, bland, convoluted sentences in the Dutch translation of Harry Pottter without tripping over the lack of rhythm or the idiotic translations of some names.

By contrast, reading Superdetective Blomkwist leeft gevaarlijk is easy. The sentences flow over the tongue. Every person has a clearly defined voice. The vocabulary is correct. The names aren’t translated, unless they have a clear meaning (as in ‘Japie Stompvoet’). I’m already looking forward to reading out part III.

It’s a pity that this book is not available in English, as far as I can ascertain. So you’ve got a choice: learn Dutch or Swedish. But read the book.

The Monster of Florence

By Magdalen Nabb

The most recent Magdalen Nabb I’ve read — though not the most recent, Magdalen Nabb is still writing, and Some Bitter Taste was published in January 2003. The Monster of Florence is the work of a matured author. It’s no longer an easy murder mystery with a cute detective. It’s terrifying.

  • Author: Magdalen Nabb
  • Title: The Monster of Florence
  • Pages: 347
  • Published: 1996
  • Publisher: Collins Crime
  • ISBN: 0-00-232505-5

If you delve through the Fading Memories archives, you will find that I read my first novel by Magdalen Nabb in December 2002. That was Death of an Englishman. By a queer coincidence, that was also the first book Magdalen Nabb wrote.

The Monster of Florence is the fifth I read — a month or so after reading the first. Magdalen Nabb has been writing novels for over twenty years. And it is not for nothing that I wrote ‘novels’ and not ‘detective novels’. The Monster of Florence is still about Marshall Guarnaccia, who still suffers from sunlight. But that shtick is no longer important.

Magdalen Nabb has allowed Guarnaccia to develop in a fully rounded character. A likeable, middle-aged man. No hero, but tenacious. Not smart, but intelligent and sensitive. Someone who doesn’t want a promotion because he’s content with his position. Who loves his wife, who loves his sons, who is someone people tell things too. In this book, it is Guarnaccia’s reaction to the disgusting crime he has to fight, that is paramount. And his reaction to the despicable way the crime is handled.

The backstory for this novel consists of a number of sick-making sex murders committed in Florence between 1968 and 1985: real murders, committed by a real — monster or monsters — other words fail. Murders that apparently have never been solved, perhaps because of the involvement of high-placed persons.

In this book. the Chief Public Prosecutor is going to retire, and he doesn’t want to leave the Case of the Century unsolved, as a particularly disgusting blot on his copybook. So he orders a certain Simonetti to solve the case. Simonetti is determined to solve the case: he has picked a victim, sorry, suspect already. All the team Guarnaccia is part of has to do is prove that this person, a rapist who has raped his daughter, has committed the murders, too. And that turns out to be easy enough. For someone ambitious with few scruples.

I won’t give away more of the plot; I don’t mind spoilers, but you might.

There’s also a nice little sideplot, unconnected to the main plot — at least as far as I can ascertain — about a young boy who inherits a studio and a painting from his father. The only reason this plot is part of the book, I think, is to contrast different styles of abusive fathers.

Like I said, this book is a mature work. It is complicated, deep and terrifying. I didn’t know I still had innocence to lose; but I lost some. There are a number of presumably original, or at least original-sounding, sections from police reports and handbooks, and there were many of those that I simply couldn’t read. I felt I would never be able to see a stretch of countryside or a village again.

On the other hand, Magdalen Nabb is still experimenting with form, I think. Often, different scenes, bits of scene or disjointed thoughts of the Marshall are placed after each other without a clear connecting narrative. The whole book is confusing, but in a way that matches the confusion of the Marshall. I do not claim that I have ‘got’ everything there’s to be ‘got’ — for instance, I’m still not sure who committed which murder. But I don’t care about that.

I cared about Salvatore Guarnaccia hugging his boys when they return from Christmas in Sicily. And I cared about him talking to a woman, a bar girl, who was witness, as a twelve-year old, of the first murder, and who needed the Marshal to talk with. I care about the way Teresa cares about her husband.

The Marshall Makes His Report

By Magdalen Nabb

Marshall Salvatore Guarnaccia is at his best with ordinary people and their ordinary problems. That’s his job, after all. He likes it, and he likes doing his job in Florence. Which makes it a very frightening proposition to be investigating a murder (or a suicide) in the highest circles.

  • Author: Magdalen Nabb
  • Title: The Marshall Makes His Report
  • Pages: 223
  • Published: 1991
  • Publisher: HarperCollinsPublishers
  • ISBN: 0 00 232401 6

Or at least circles high enough to get him shipped off to some forsaken corner in the heel of Italy’s boot, to keep the peace amongst the sheep. The husband of the Marchesa Bianca Maria Corsi Ulderighi Della Loggia is found dead in his gun room. But he cannot have died there, so foul play is suspected. How utterly, unspeakably, despicably foul only becomes apparent around page 180.

Between the Marshall mysteries I reviewed earlier and this one, Magdalen Nabb has matured a lot as an author. This book is far more ambitious in its technical construction. The action is often interrupted by nightmares and dreams and streams of self-conciousness (and I mean that exactly as written). The book itself starts at the end, and then seamlessly moves into the past, and continues until it arrives at the end again, and then continues for a bit. If I read it right.

Possibly because of the rather inane typography by HarperCollinsPublishers (who, in 1991, already were hep to the IT industries preferences for silly CaPitaLisation and Italisation), or because Magdalen Nabb bit of a bit more than she could chew, technically, or just because I’ve got the flu and am as fuzzy-brained as a small furry creature from Alpha-Centauri, I found the technically advanced bits more distracting than helpful in building atmosphere.

Which is a bit of a pity, since this book is chock-full of interesting people, people I really cared about. The murder of ___ is intensely sad and made me miserable; but the appearance of little Fiorenza gave a lot of hope for the future.

As always, Magdalen Nabb’s forte is in the description of these characters, each unique, and all touching a real chord &mdash coupled with the very strong and sensitive handling of the Marshal, this book is as much a psychological tour de force as a mystery novel. One to buy, definitely. The reviewed copy was a library book, but I want my own.

Some people will read it just for the descriptions of Florence, others for the descriptions of Florence food, and those are welcome bonuses, and certainly the description of the palazzo of the Marchese as seen by a bunch of tourists is very striking — but the main attraction remains the description of the people living there.

Amateur Night

By Kathrine K. Beck Marris

Apparently, in Book 1 (which our library doesn’t have) Jane da Silva gets stuck with the detective agency of her rich, but dead uncle. Only if she fixes a really hopeless case, she’ll inherit the money. This book is about her second attempt.

  • Author: Kathrine K. Beck Marris
  • Title: Amateur Night
  • Pages: 279
  • Published: 1993
  • Publisher: The Mysterious Press
  • ISBN: 0-89296-480-4

K.K. Beck Marris is not popular, it seems. While I read a paper copy, a quick web-scan shows that her works are pretty exclusively e-published nowdays. That means the books are quite cheap, but whether that’s enough to garner sales…

The problem is, ‘Amateur Night’ is not really good. It’s moderately well-constructed, with passable prose, and a decent protagonist. However, even if you add everything up, you still end up several points short of ‘good enough’.

The plot centers around Jane da Silva, who has to prove worthy of her uncle’s inheritance by solving a hopeless case — i.e., getting a convicted murderer out of quod because he didn’t do it, even if everyone else thinks he did.

She selects the case of a certain Kevin, a junk who ran into a pharmacy with a gun, ran out without the gun and left a dead woman. Cleverly, he didn’t do it, but… No, that would be a spoiler.

The opening chapters are pedestrian; the rest of the plot develops with all the vim and vigor of a snail stuck in molasses. Nothing much happens, it seems, despite another murder and an attempted murder.

Almost every character is, in potentio, interesting and engaging, but they all fall flat on the floor, from the curious Art Deco tenement building owner to the artsy stripper.

In the end I started skipping, and skipping, and then skipping even hard, only backtracking from a misguided sense of duty. I certainly won’t check Kathrine’s work out again.

Hangman’s Holiday

By Dorothy L. Sayers on Wednesday January 15, @10:07PM

I knew I’d read the word bromide somewhere, and still I couldn’t get it right in a silly intelligence test that tests English, or more accurately, Latinate English vocabulary. But how can this bit of trivia be relevant to a book notice of Hangman’s Holiday? Simple — this is the book where I read the word. Second story, page 41.

  • Author: Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Publisher: New English Library
  • Published: 1974 (1933)
  • Pages: 188

Dorothy L. Sayers is, of course, the second-most famous author of mystery novels and short stories: Agatha Christie is the most famous of the breed. But DLS’ books are often deeper than Christie’s, and very often more literate, too. This means that DLS’ novels are not for everyone; she expects you to be able to read enough French to know the difference between a masculine and a femine article (in the story ‘The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question’ in Lord Peter Views the Body). And, apparently, scatters words like bromide through her texts. I, for one, am glad of that: most of my English vocubulary seems to originate from her books.

What of the collection under advisement? DLS’ short stories always bordered a bit on the fantastic, not to say on the improbable. While most novels fit neatly into a Lord Peter Wimsey timeline, stories like ‘The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey’ don’t seem to fit. That, however, has very little to do with the quality of the stories on their own, and Hangman’s Holiday contains several of my favourite stories, such as ‘The Image in the Mirror’ or, again, ‘The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey’.

Both ‘The Queen’s Square’ and ‘The Necklace of Pearls’ are Christmas stories, and I’ve never been very excited by them. That’s it for the Lord Peter stories; but then we get to the Montague Egg stories. I must confess a weakness for this commercial traveller in wines and spirits. He is cheerful and bright, and, as it were, always on the spot.

We have ‘The Poisoned Dow ’08’, ‘Sleuths on the Scent’, ‘Murder in the Morning’, ‘One too many’, ‘Murder at Pentecost’ and ‘Maher-shahal-hashbaz’
with Montague Egg here. Especially ‘The Poisoned Dow ’08’ is a favourite, with its very clever murder weapon and finely drawn character, even of the victim.

The final two stories in the collection are ‘The Man Who Knew How’ and ‘The Fountain Plays’. These are very much also-rans, keeping an uneasy middle ground between mystery and horror. I like horror, sometimes, some kinds, but I’m not really fond of these stories.

It’s hard to be fresh about the stories in this collection: not only have they been around for seven decades, I first read them about ten years ago, and I guess there hasn’t been a year since that I didn’t re-read them. I will probably re-read them again, and again until the paperback falls apart. And then I’ll buy a new copy. But I will generally stop two stories before the end of the book.

Blood Relation

By Andrew Taylor

(review by Irina)

Yet another part of my Quest for the Ultimate English Mystery Novel. I actually realized when I was on page 15 or so that I’d read it some years ago, but could only remember one scene – not a good sign. Not that the book is at all bad, just not memorable.

  • Author: Andrew Taylor
  • Title: Blood Relation
  • Published by: Victor Gollancz, London
  • Year: 1990

It turns out that this isn’t Andrew Taylor’s first novel by far, and that he’s even written some more books with the same protagonist. I’d probably pick them up in the library or buy them second-hand for one euro or less as a nice undemanding read when tired or miserable.

There’s nothing actually wrong with the book. The plot is interesting, the background well thought out (and means more to me than the previous time I read it, because large parts of it are set in the publishing world; I hadn’t started writing seriously then), the good guys are likeable, the bad guys are hateable, the in-between guys are ambiguous, just as it should be. It’s not even so predictable that it becomes boring: the ending has a nice unexpected twist that makes everything fit.

It’s set comfortably in England (and partly in Wales), without the foreign local colour that seems to be fashionable but tends to put me off when I pick up a book. The conversations are natural. There’s human interest.

But it doesn’t have “a certain je ne sais quoi” and, frankly, je ne sais quoi.