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Monday 23 October 2017

Mayhem and mystery

tHERE'S Nothing like a crime novel to keep you guessing as you EXPLORE the underworld

The pre-title - 'Peter Wimsey Investigates' - refers, of course, to Dorothy L Sayers' aristocrat detective Lord Peter Wimsey. There is something of a fashion these days for authors, who have established a track record, taking on the subjects of authors who have even bigger track records, and recreating their voices. I reviewed a disappointingly not-Sidney-Sheldon 'done' by Tilly Bagshawe last year. Having even greater affection for Lord P than I would for Sheldon's potboiling reads, I kept a stiff-upper lip and carried on, bracing myself for disappointment.

Well. Peter is a Duke now, and his wife Harriet, the woman he met when she was on trial for murder by poison, is now a Duchess. Harriet is still a writer of detective fiction, and Peter is still attracted to solving crimes. Both these characteristics come into play when they return to Oxford, in order that Peter solve a dispute in one of the colleges, and find more than they've bargained for - much as they had in Sayers' Gaudy Night, also set in Oxford, and perhaps her best, if not her most-loved, novel.

Paton Walsh does an exemplary job of tuning in to Sayers' tone, but there is a lack of depth to the mystery itself. One minute Peter and Harriet are busily dealing with murders, the next they are back going over and over the clues they've got. They seem to think they can talk the mystery into being solved.

Equally, family intrudes on to occasions, throwing off the rhythm of the narrative.

When it is solved at last, it feels rushed, an anti-climax, and a mere shadow of the original author's oeuvre.

Agatha Christie famously accused Sayers of having fallen in love with her fictional hero; one wonders if Paton Walsh is too sentimental about that hero's creator.

ABBATOIR BLUES

By Peter Robinson

Hodder & 
Stoughton (2014)

€20.85

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I failed to mention that the above was presented in hardback, in the now seemingly requisite 18-point type. I mention it because I received a press copy of Robinson's latest, set in about 8-point type. The ways in which we are receiving narrative are of course changing - sometimes, reading a press proof on my Kindle is like the tenth circle of hell. We are all adapting, and the standard of presentation is varying so wildly, it can be rather a head-wreck.

In addition to this economic typesetting, there was no jacket copy. This is interesting because I didn't know what was going to happen in this novel. Now, thanks to the synopses printed on the books, even mysteries give you some guidelines, but here I was truly embarking on a mystery, having no idea what the first several chapters were leading up to.

Reader, I hated that. I hated not having even the barest inkling as to where this all was leading. I would have made a dreadful detective.

What starts out as a search for the stolen tractor belonging to a posh hobby farmer turns sinister, and while I felt that much happier when I knew what the point was, those first chapters were an interesting exercise in not-knowing.

This is Robinson's 22nd DCI Banks novel. I haven't read any of the previous, and this doesn't inspire me to do so. I suppose that after such a long run, there is much that is taken for granted as regards the loyal fan base - that is, many blanks are filled in out of familiarity. I found the style to be as terse as a police report which, while appropriate enough, didn't make for fully engaging reading.

COP TOWN

By Karin Slaughter

Random House (2014) €18.75

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This is a stand-alone police procedural by Slaughter, famous for her modern-day crime novel series featuring the beautiful coroner Sara Linton and the dyslexic Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Will Trent.

This is one series that I have followed from the outset, and have to say, I was disappointed to learn that this one didn't have anything to do with them.

I wasn't unhappy for long: Slaughter is a good writer, full-stop, as well as having the necessary plotting, timing, and characterisation skills necessary in a good crime writer.

Here, she remains in Georgia, but has set the dial back to the early 70s, and focuses on three women who each in their own way are struggling to make it in the decidedly male atmosphere of an Atlanta police station.

Add Southern to the general misogyny of the place, and you've got a frustrating, often dangerous place - and that's just the good guys.

Slaughter visited this time period and these issues in 2012 in Criminal, but had gone back and forth in time; here she's staying put as Maggie and Kate try to negotiate this man's world, do some good, and tolerate each other. It's no 'all girls together' vibe, which adds to the authenticity.

It's a good read, and a great place to start to see if Slaughter's style 
appeals to you.

VICTORIAN 
MURDERESSES

By Mary S 
Hartman

Dover (2014 
reprint) €20.99

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This is subtitled: A True History of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes, and originally published in 1977, this reprint gives a scholarly look at the women of the title, who were all middle-class females with grudges, none of whom were made to pay - with their time or their lives - for their crimes. Sure, they got caught, but one reckons that they got away with murder quite literally because society just couldn't cope with the idea of vengeful women.

That they were reacting in many ways for being perceived as helpless, delicate flowers is a delicious serving of irony.

Hartman makes a choice to pair the women up, according to their crimes, which makes academic sense, I suppose, but as a narrative device it only works in certain cases.

If you prefer a non-fiction approach to your murder and mayhem, 
here, true crime meets truly elegant writing.

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