Tag Archives: series detective

The Methods of Sgt Cluff: Gil North (1961)

The Methods of Sgt Cluff, from author Gil North, is the second Cluff novel following hard on the heels of Sgt Cluff Stands Firm. What the hell is happening to the Yorkshire market town of Gunnarshaw? Sgt Cluff just wrapped up the case of Amy Wright when the body of Jane Trundle, the young chemist shop assistant is found one rainy night. Just as there was criticism of the victim, Amy Wright for marrying a younger man in Sgt Cluff Stands Firm, in The Methods of Sgt Cluff, some residents of Gunnarshaw think that Jane Trundle, who had big ideas beyond her station, “asked for it.” The story, peppered with signs of vanishing small town life which include the rag-merchant and the cobbler, focuses on the sharp, impenetrable lines of class distinctions. The market town is changing with new council houses built on the edges of town.

methods of sgt  cluff.jpg

We see some repeat characters here: Annie, Cluff’s housekeeper, Inspector Mole and young Constable Barker, who knows he’s not earning any points with Mole for sticking close to Sgt Cluff. This murder investigation turns out to be an eye opener for Barker in terms of seeing the lives led behind closed doors.

He thought he had been better off as a uniformed constable. He wondered where the glamour of crime had got to, the fights and adventures in the novels he’d read. He rubbed his hands together in a washing motion, as if a sordidness he had never imagined had dirtied him.

In common with the first novel in the series, The Methods of Sgt Cluff is also a very cinematic book, but whereas the writing was occasionally clunky in Sgt Cluff Stands Firm, author Gil North (1916-1988, real name Geoffrey Horne) is clearly feeling much more comfortable with his subject matter. There are some strong, descriptive passages of the rugged, unforgiving landscape.

Class plays a large role in the investigation. Inspector Mole still can’t accept that Cluff is a plain clothes officer, and he also can’t accept that the chemist, Greensleeve, a man of considerable standing in the town, should be considered a suspect. In the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, we saw class trumping suspicion as Scotland Yard caved to these gentlemen sleuths, or conversely, the upper class frequently being eliminated as suspects–not so with Sgt Cluff–although the old ways are still present; it’s just that Cluff pays no respect to class. The plot, rather interesting coalesces around three houses. Sgt Cluff, a man who’s very sensitive to atmosphere, visits the shabby, tiny home of the victim, and ever a compassionate man, he now understands the victim’s desperation:

Nothing that happened in any room of this house would go unheard in another, or fail to have its meaning interpreted. Where was privacy for the people living in it? How could they get away from each other? 

And then later Cluff visits the wife of one of the suspects, the chemist Greensleeves. Mr and Mrs Greensleeve are an affluent couple who live in a pretentious, prestigious home, and while it’s a grand house, there’s something terribly wrong. Cluff, who’s very sensitive to atmosphere, can’t wait to get out of the house:

The walls around him contracted, oppressive, and the atmosphere of the room hung about him like a material fog, heavy with long-standing hostility. 

In comparison, there’s Cluff’s country home, supervised by the indomitable Annie. It’s a comforting, welcoming place:

He investigated the oven attached to its attendant cylinder of gas, discovering in it a meat and potato pie large enough to feed both Barker and himself three times over. A pantry overflowed with pastries, yellow buns, Eccles cakes, apples buried in crisp crusts, tarts smothered in jam. 

Gil North is clearly much more comfortable and relaxed with this novel; he seems to have hit his stride with his main character, Cluff, and with this second Cluff novel, there’s a nice, unexpected twist when it comes to the murder.

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Sgt Cluff Stands Firm: Gil North (1960)

“Of course it couldn’t be murder. Not in Gunnarshaw.”

When the body of married woman, Amy Wright is found in her gas-filled home, everyone in the small Yorkshire town of Gunnarshaw assumes it’s a case of suicide. After years of nursing her ailing mother, Amy, a woman in her 40s, married a man many years her junior, a ne’er-do-well and a known womanizer. The consensus of the town is that Amy’s death is the sad conclusion to a bad mistake. Everyone from the police surgeon to Inspector Mole tells Sgt Cluff that Amy’s death is sad, yes, but nothing to get worked up about. But Sgt Cluff, a Yorkshire man of very strong opinions, is deeply troubled by Amy’s death.

sgt-cluff-stands-firm

Sgt Cluff Stands Firm from Gil North shows a world in flux. The market town of Gunnarshaw has many houses in which bedrooms have been converted into that perennial luxury: an indoor bathroom. Cottages are being demolished to make way for businesses. This is a time when suicide is illegal, before the birth control  pill became “available for all” on the NHS. This was also the end of the age when it was common for children to nurse their ailing parents until death.

In Cluff, we have a hero who hates his car, loves his dog (who accompanies him on his investigations), a solitary man who’s bonded to the land and has a solid moral core when it comes to right and wrong. Cluff isn’t entirely convinced that Amy’s death was suicide, and yet even if it was, can justice be brought to the callous husband who pushed her so far? Cluff takes a holiday to pursue the case, and that means keeping a close eye on Amy’s philandering husband in this tale of marital strife and revenge.There’s more than a dash of misogyny in the novel–but this is clearly not from the author but from some of more ungracious characters who pass judgments on Amy who is seen, by some, as foolish for marrying a man so much younger than herself in an ‘well-she-asked-for-it’ sort of way. The author makes it easy to delineate characters into those we should like and those we should dislike by their treatment of Cluff’s dog.

Sgt Cluff Stands Firm is the first in a series of 11 novels. Gil North (1916-1988) whose real name was Geoffrey Horne was, like his protagonist, from Yorkshire, and his Cluff books were very popular in the sixties, spawning a television series. Sgt Caleb Cluff, a heavy-set bachelor who lives with a Persian cat and a dog named Clive (one in a series of Clives) is a solid character who inspires respect from the locals and fear in the baddies. Inspector Mole, Cluff’s superior, dislikes animals and is a snob. He is “at a loss to understand how the Sergeant had made the plain clothes branch.” Mole underestimates Cluff, and yet Mole also dismisses the darker aspects of the Amy Wright case in his eagerness to end the investigation. According to Mole, “there’s nothing to get excited about,” and even the police surgeon chalks the woman’s suicide up to “the menopause.

This is a short, cinematic novel–not really a whodunnit. Instead the plot shows two people who made marriages for material gain–a young, ambitious woman who married a much older farmer, and the sleazy Wright who married Amy for the security she offered. Cluff is positioned in the novel, unusually for a policeman, as a wrathful, vengeful man who intends to get ‘justice’ for Amy–a woman who was neglected and ignored by everyone who knew her. As a crime novel, Sgt Cluff Stands Firm is an unusual pick for British Library Crime Classics, but then that’s part of the attraction of the series which introduces readers to British crime classics that were formerly OOP. While there’s nothing earth-shattering here, it’s a competently plotted novel–although I did find some of the descriptive sentence pacing on the annoying side:

He was meagre under his gaberdine raincoat, his knees pointed, his shanks like sticks under their covering. His eyes were shifty, never still. His lips were hardly perceptible. His nose was sharp like a ferret’s. He gave the impression of being suddenly trapped. He opened his mouth. His teeth were needles.

The novel’s strength comes in the force of Cluff’s personality and battle between good and evil. Analytically, given the times, Cluff could be seen as a bastion of moral values. He doesn’t approve of a young woman in the book who appears to be a quasi-prostitute, so perhaps Cluff’s popularity was partly in response to what was perceived as the erosion of morality in the 60s. We have no doubt that crime would run amok in Yorkshire if not for Cluff’s impressive presence, and as always with a series, it’s affection for the main character that guarantees success.

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Death on the Riviera: John Bude (1952)

“You’re sure… you’re quite sure it isn’t another woman?”

“Good God! before breakfast? Don’t be crazy.”

In 2015, I read John Bude’s 1936 novel  The Sussex Downs Murder, and Death on the Riviera, published in 1952, came much later in Bude’s writing career. This later novel is much more confident, and Bude (Ernest Elmore 1901-1957) seems much more relaxed with his characters, even throwing in a little light humour. Bude’s series detective, Inspector Meredith, pursues a case of forged currency in France, and this allows Meredith to enjoy the climate, deal with French police, British expats, driving on the right side of the road and language obstacles.

The novel opens with Meredith and Acting Sergeant Freddy Strang travelling to France via ferry in hot pursuit of a team of currency forgers. Scotland Yard recently seized a note that contains the signature elements of master forger, Chalky Cobbett. Chalky who “was pulled in just before the War after flooding the West End with spurious fivers” has been out of prison now for 4 years but suddenly vanished. Then “a flood of counterfeit thousand franc notes” appeared on the Riviera with “Chalky’s touch.” Since the forgery ring preys on wealthy tourists and their “hundred quid travel allowance,” Meredith’s investigation indicates that the Riviera may be a hot spot of activity.

Death on the Riviera

Action centres on Menton and the Villa Paloma, owned by wealthy socialite and widow Nesta Heddderwick, a middle aged woman with a soft spot for “many improvident young men.” Is it then any wonder that her home has become a no-cost refuge for a handful of males raging from artist Paul Latour and dissipated Tony Shenton? Meredith and Strang arrive in Menton to liaise  with French police, and as luck would have it, Strang’s amourous adventures lead to suspicions about the inhabitants of the Villa Paloma.

Murder does occur, but it occurs relatively late in the novel, and this gives the reader plenty of time to enjoy the humour to be found in Nesta’s despotic treatment of her mousy companion, and artist Paul Latour’s latest “masterpiece.”

But, mon dieu! a cod’s head capping the naked torso of a woman balanced on two cactus leaves and garnished with a motif of lemons and spaghetti.

One of the characters references the fact that it’s ten years post Dunkirk, and there’s the feeling that the post WWII boom has created a new sort of crime wave with affluence feeding various types of crime. Not only are forged notes floating all over the “gilded coastline” of the Riviera, but smuggled American cigarettes, a new problem for French police, are also a hot item. Bude explores the tight-knit ex-pat community and the way in which simply being British seals relationships that would not exist in England. At one point, Meredith visits a British Major who lives on the Riviera

it was like stepping out of France into an infinitesimal but unmistakable scrap of the British Empire. It was as one would have expected–regimental groups; a rack of sporting guns; a couple of stuffed salmon; a mantelshelf crowded with silver cups and trophies; and everywhere about the room the indiscriminate lares et penates of the Colonel’s extensive sojourns in the Orient.

This is a novel of its times, so there are a few comments about women being more gullible etc., when there’s a male character who’s every bit as gullible but who is seen as trustworthy, reliable, and a rock solid bastion of society. Bude feels confident enough with his characters to even introduce the question of whether or not Meredith has “been reading too many detective yarns.”

I didn’t quite buy the motive for murder, but in this well-paced tale, the author effectively shows how crime and bad behaviour invite murder into the mix. There’s a great intro from Martin Edwards which includes biographical details including the author’s writing routine and his favourite holiday destination: Menton.

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The Murdered Banker: Augusto De Angelis

“Each one of us has a secret, and the man with one he can admit to is fortunate.”

Last year, I read and review a few titles from the new Vertigo Crime imprint from Pushkin Press. Naturally Vertigo had to make the list–along with She Who Was No More and The Disappearance of Signora Giulia. 2016 brings me to The Murdered Banker (1935), an Italian crime novel from Augusto De Angelis. This novel features series detective, Inspector De Vincenzi, who’s working late one night when an old friend, former classmate, Aurigi, unexpectedly turns up at the police station in an agitated state. Aurigi’s visit seems to be a curious coincidence when De Vincenzi receives a call regarding a murder that has taken place in Aurigi’s apartment…

the murdered banker

The murdered man, who has been shot, was a banker, and Aurigi was deeply in his debt. Aurigi should, by rights, be arrested for the crime, but for Inspector De Vincenzi, that solution seems too easy. Yet there are many reasons that Aurigi should be implicated in the crime. After all the banker was shot in Aurigi’s apartment, and Aurigi was heavily in debt to the victim and apparently had no means to settle his debt. Aurigi’s engagement to society beauty Maria Giovanna was predicated on his wealth which makes Aurigi an even bigger suspect. Yet when a  small golden phial of poison is found in the kitchen of Aurigi’s apartment, Inspector De Vincenzi starts to believe that more than one tragedy lies in the murder….

In that room, in that apartment, a heavy, gloomy atmosphere hung over everything like an invisible weight-something monstrous, inhuman. And not only the mystery of the body, but some other unthinkable thing. He felt it. Not only was Aurigi mixed up in it–the friend with whom he’d studied at school and who was a poet like him-but everything, all of if felt strange.

That’s a promising quote, and it’s easy to imagine that the solution to the crime is going to be something intriguing, different, memorable. Unfortunately, the solution, while involving a complex chain reaction between various characters, never quite lives up to the quote.

The Murdered Banker is the first in the Inspector De Vincenzi series, and although the series character is interesting and has a unique humane approach to crime, this is not a particularly strong novel. The book starts strongly but then weakens as attention is focused on the various characters who live in or visit Aurigi’s apartment. As the plot unfolds, the scenes could be stage sets for a play. One of De Vincenzi’s methods, for example, is to lead various characters, without warning, to the dead body, so that he can monitor their reactions. This may have more impact on the stage than it does on the page.

This is one of those crimes where the reader doesn’t really know what is going on, and the inspector seems to have ideas which he hugs to himself and doesn’t disclose. The stage is set, however, for some interesting series characters, including Maccari who is troubled by the dead and is only three years away from retirement. Still The Murdered Banker is the first in a series, and the first novel is often the weakest, so I’m looking forward to the next title: The Hotel of the Three Roses.

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Translated by Jill Foulston

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Crucifixion Creek: Barry Maitland

Crucifixion Creek is the first novel in the promised Belltree Trilogy written by Barry Maitland and featuring Homicide detective, army vet, Harry Belltree. Belltree is the son of Australia’s first Aboriginal judge of the NSW Supreme Court who was killed along with his wife in a mysterious car accident three years previously. There’s just one clue that festers in Belltree’s brain–a swipe of white paint on his parent’s demolished car and a “patrol car reported seeing a white tow truck further down the highway.” Everyone tells Harry that he needs to move on, but his brother-in-law, builder Greg, suspects that the reason Harry became a homicide detective resides in the deaths of his parents.

The novel opens with a hostage situation which ends badly in Crucifixion Creek, but this is just one in a series of incidents which take place in the drab, mostly deserted neighbourhood inhabited and dominated, with just a few exceptions, by a Bikie Group known as the Crows. One of the murders drags Detective Belltree, already under a cloud in the department, under closer scrutiny “for a fitness for duty assessment,” but it’s ambitious reporter Kelly Pool who works for the Bankstown Chronicle who begins to connect the seemingly random events.

crucifixion creek

With Belltree very personally involved in one of the murders, he steps beyond orthodox police work and begins a parallel investigation of his own. This involves his wife, Jenny, blinded in the same accident that killed Belltree’s parents. Before the accident, Jenny was a researcher for a law firm, and now with a special computer, she still works part time from home. Belltree, driven by the imperative to investigate the connection between the recent killings and the murder of his parents, relies on his wife’s computer skills.

This brings me to the one beef I had with this novel. I can understand someone being a whiz at computers, but Jenny’s abilities strain credulity–some of it I could buy but some of her hacking seemed to exist to further the plot, so much so that I almost abandoned the novel. It’s to the novel’s sheer readability that I pushed on, and I’m glad I did.

Strong on atmosphere and characterization, Crucifixion Creek argues that we never really know anyone or just what they’re capable of. Belltree has a number of revelations regarding his brother-in-law, Greg March, a man who appeared to have a lucrative business and plenty of money, yet Greg, who maintained an affluent lifestyle in an architectural wonder of a magazine-worthy home, had many problems which all began and ended with money. Greg March’s accountant may or may not be bent, and here he is in a poky, smelly little office–another character who’s making ends meet and who may be open to making money on the side.

The accountant’s office is in a suburban shopping centre, above a fast food outlet. Sam Peck is a small, rotund, cheery man and he has a bag of golf clubs sitting in the corner of his office, like a promise to himself. This, together with the smell of old grease that seems to have saturated everything, does little to fill Harry with confidence.

This is a very dark, tense, fast-paced crime novel, a story of twisted power and absolute corruption with blurred lines between conflicting loyalties, justice and the law. Belltree never hesitates to cross those lines; there’s no moral quibbling as he plunges into the very personal investigation of his parents’ death. Initially his brutality is shocking, but it meshes perfectly with the rest of the novel.

While this story of shady moneylenders, crooked politicians and meth-dealing bikies ends, it’s clear there are still loose ends for Harry Belltree to pick up in book 2. I’m in.

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Thumbprint: Friedrich Glauser (1936)

“Everyone is at least half mad and any investigation has to take that into account.”

German 2015I’ve had a handful of Friedrich Glauser novels on my bookshelf for some time, and German Literature Month was the perfect time to blast off with the first book from the series featuring Sergeant Studer: Thumbprint. My copy, from Bitter Lemon Press, has a short biographical paragraph about the author and an excerpt from a letter written by the author in 1937. Glauser, a morphine and opium addict, was born in Vienna in 1896. He served in the Foreign Legion (there’s a Foreign Legion novel apparently that I would love to read,) was sent to prison and spent years in psychiatric wards and insane asylums. He died of a stroke in 1938 at the age of 42. He left behind a body of work that includes 5 Sergeant Studer novels which are all set in the 30s. Given Glauser’s history, I knew I had to read his work.

Thumbprint begins with Sergeant Studer discovering that the man he has just arrested for murder, an ex-con named Erwin Schlumpf, has attempted suicide in his cell. Studer, acting on intuition, returns to Schlumpf’s cell and resuscitates him–perhaps it’s this act which sparks Studer’s determination to discover the truth behind the crime Schlumpf is accused of. It seems to be an open-and-shut case, and while all those involved in the judicial machinery are happy to close the books on this murder, Studer isn’t satisfied that Schlumpf is guilty. Schlumpf is accused of laying in wait for salesman, Witschi, robbing him and committing murder in the process. It doesn’t help Schlumpf’s case that he was seen later that night at a tavern spending a large amount of money….

ThumbprintThis first chapter which opens with Schlumpf’s attempted suicide is called: “A Man Has Decided to Call it a Day,” and that should give you an idea of the type of humour here. One of the best aspects of this police procedural is the main character, Studer. He’s odd and unconventional. When he travels to the country village of Gerzenstein to investigate the murder which is supposedly already solved, Studer senses that the village is a close knit community full of secrets and lies. Studer has far better relationships with all the ex-cons employed in a local nursery than the so-called respectable, upstanding citizens of Gerzenstein. There’s a lot that’s odd about the case. The accused killer, for example, is in love with the victim’s daughter, and the victim who’d dabbled in various investment scams was heavily in debt. Why aren’t the victim’s son and wife mourning? And what about the insurance policy on the victim’s life? Why are the ex-cons hired by the nursery owner willing to help while the locals give Studer the cold shoulder?

While Studer is an unconventional, outwardly unimpressive detective, obviously favouring the underdog, Studer can also be his own worst enemy. After saving Schlumpf, he begins questioning the magistrate in charge of the case, and manages to move the magistrate from a stubborn, snotty lack of cooperation to impressing the magistrate into listening about the holes in the case against Schlumpf. This is all achieved by Studer’s understanding of human nature and adjusting his attitude in order to get under someone’s skin.

The examining magistrate broke off, though he couldn’t have said why himself. The man on the chair before him was a detective, a simple policeman. He was middle-aged and there was nothing special about him: a shirt with a soft collar, a grey suit that had gone slightly baggy in places because the body inside it was fat. He had a thin, pale face with a moustache covering his mouth so that you didn’t know whether he was smiling or not. And this simple policeman was sitting there in the chair, legs apart, forearms resting on his thighs, hands clasped …

The magistrate himself couldn’t have said why he suddenly adopted a slighty warmer tone.

“You must realize, Sergeant, that it looks to me as if you’ve exceeded your authority.” Studer nodded and nodded. Of course, his authority! “You handed over this Erwin Schlumpf to the prison officer, all according to regulation. What reason did you have for going back to see him again? Your return, I have to admit, was highly opportune, but that is not to say that it is covered by police authority. You have been with the force long enough Sergeant, to know that productive collaboration between the various branches of the legal system is only possible if each ensures to stay strictly within the limits of its own authority …”

That word: authority. Not just once, no, three times. Now Studer knew where he stood. That’s a piece of luck, he thought, they’re not the worst, the ones who keep going on about their “authority”. You just have to be nice to them and let them see you take them seriously and you will have them eating out of your hand.

That’s a really long quote, but it gives a sense of the author’s style but more importantly, it gives a strong presentation of Studer’s character. He can read people–the problem is, however, that while his readings are accurate, he can’t keep in the appropriate role, in this case, of obsequiousness. He’s too sincere, too intense a thinker, so while he adopts the appropriate role, he always slips out of his contrived character when he starts thinking.

Thumbprint is at its best in its emphasis on the psychological aspects of the case and in the character of Studer, a man who’s both endearing and admirable. On the down side, too much of the solution piles up in the last few pages, but I enjoyed this enough to commit to the rest of this unique series.

Translated by Mike Mitchell.

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Murder by Matchlight: E.C.R. Lorac (1945)

Murder by Matchlight from E.C.R. Lorac (real name Edith Caroline Rivett 1884-1959) takes place during the London Blitz and features the author’s series detective Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald. For both setting and plot development, the author capitalises on the Blitz–not only for the bombing but also for the massive human displacement which occurred. At 160 pages, this is a mystery from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction that starts with a murder which occurs almost immediately. Although marred by coincidence, it’s clear from the cast of characters that the author had a lively sense of humour and a strong interest in human nature.

The novel begins on a dark night in London. It’s during the blackout and thirty-year-old Bruce Mallaig, suffering a disappointment, lingers in Regents Park. It’s a “moonless night,” but Mallaig is very familiar with the park and deep in thought, he sits on a park bench when he suddenly hears footsteps close by. The newcomer has a torch, and when Mallaig sees the man climb over and then hide under a bridge, he’s aware that something peculiar is afoot. Then another man arrives  & calls out “anyone about?”:

Next he struck a match and lighted a cigarette. Bruce had a momentary glimpse of a thin pale face, rather whimsical, under the shadow of a trilby hat. “That chap’s an Irishman,” said Bruce to himself, remembering the voice he had heard–even those two words gave the brogue away. […] The Irishman finished his cigarette and flung the end away, so that the lighted tip made a tiny glowing arc before it fell into the damp grass beyond. A moment later he lighted another match, and Bruce rubbed his eyes, wondering if he were dazed by the bright splutter of light in the intense darkness. It seemed to him that beyond the small bright circle of matchlight there was another face in the darkness–no body, just a sullen dark face. The Irishman had bent his head, his cupped hands were shielding the match flame, and then he shook it to and fro and the light went out.

A murder occurs and initially, innocent bystander, Mallaig is a suspect. Once Chief Inspector Macdonald is on the scene, however, Mallaig is an observant witness who, handled delicately by Macdonald, proves to be invaluable. The murdered man is indeed Irish but in time Macdonald discovers that the victim was using an assumed name and had a troubled past with Sinn Fein. Since no one seemed to know the victim other than his fellow residents at a third rate boarding house, Macdonald decides to pursue the case there, among the theatrical residents.

murder by matchlightThere’s humour to be found in the characterizations of the various residents: “conjurors and illusionists” Mr and Mrs Ramses, variety actress Rosie Willing, Carringford, an advisor to a film company, hard-as-nails actress Odette Grey, and gregarious housekeeper Mrs Maloney. Through interviews with the residents, Macdonald begins to piece together a picture of the dead man’s life. Initially identified as John Ward, the victim was a shady character, unemployed with possible connections to the black market, a man who believed in “living easy and letting other folks foot the bill.” He relied on his charm and lived by his wits until apparently someone was motivated to commit murder. Mr Ramses is a particularly colourful character as he’s also a ventriloquist. The residents to the police seem to be “Bohemians,” and we see how Macdonald adjusts his interview techniques and encourages people to talk as he wades though the class structure.

the door was opened by a plump highly coloured lady dressed in a puce coloured, wadded silk dressing gown and jade green mules garnished with dispirited ostrich tips. Macdonald had much ado to keep his eyes from studying the intricacies of her hair curling arrangements. for the coils and adjustments and spring-like contrivances reminded him of a dismembered wireless set.

The author capitalizes on war displacement to illustrate how the murder victim could so easily switch identities and apply for a new ration card:

A man turns up from nowhere, possessing nothing: he says he has been bombed out and has lost his home, his family and his entire possessions. It’s happened in so many cases. How many people bother to substantiate the story?

There’s a certain glibness about the crime itself which expands into a complaint about the “Irish problem” in general, so the book reflects the prejudices of the times. The world is not worse off for the death of the victim, and the emphasis is on the various people who knew the dead man–an “able mind gone to seed.” For its tight plot and well-used setting,  Murder by Matchlight is an enjoyable little mystery for those interested in detective fiction from this era.

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Laidlaw by William McIlvanney

“Your opinion of me worries me exactly as much as dandruff would a chopped-off head.”

Laidlaw from Scottish author  William McIlvanney’s is the first book in a series featuring Glasgow based police detective, Laidlaw–a man with a very definite philosophy about crime and criminals as well as an attitude that doesn’t make him popular with many other officers. With Laidlaw hot on the track of the murderer of a young woman, D.C.  Harkness is assigned as Laidlaw’s new partner. Harkness is fresh from under the wings of Laidlaw’s enemy D.I. Milligan who gives Harkness the warning that Laidlaw is a loose cannon, “less conventional,” an “amateur” who bridges the divide between the law and the criminal far too often.  According to Milligan, Laidlaw engages in “free-lancing,” and “becoming a traveler,” this rogue D.I.  goes deep into the city. Milligan doesn’t want Harkness, his protégé, to pick up Laidlaw’s bad habits. Milligan sees a huge gap between himself and the criminal world while he thinks that Laidlaw doesn’t see the same divide:

I’ve got nothing in common with thieves and con-men and pimps and murderers. Nothing! They’re another species. And we’re at war with them. It’s about survival. What would happen in a war if we didn’t wear different uniforms? We wouldn’t know who was fighting who. That’s Laidlaw. He’s running about no-man’s land with a German helmet and a Black watch jacket.

Harkness is initially loyal to Milligan and that makes him suspicious of Laidlaw and his tactics. Gradually, however, as Laidlaw and Harkness negotiate some of the shadier corners of the Glasgow underworld, Harkness learns why Laidlaw and Milligan despise each other. Laidlaw sees Milligan as a “walking absolute,” a man full of destructive “false certainties.” As the murder investigation continues, Harkness develops a grudging respect for his new partner and begins to question his own world view:

But there are two basic kinds of professional. Harkness saw that in a moment of self-congratulatory illumination. There’s the professionalism that does something well enough to earn a living from it. And there’s the professionalism that creates a commitment so intense that the earning of the a living happens by the way. Its dynamic isn’t wages but the determination to do something as well as it can be done.

Laidlaw was the second kind of professional. Harkness realized it was a very uncomfortable thing to be because, in their work, ‘well’ involved not just results but the morality by which you arrived at them. He thought of Laidlaw’s capacity to bring constant doubt to what he was doing and still try to do it. The pressure must be severe.

Laidlaw is an excellent, strong first entry for the rest of the series (The Papers of Tony Veitch, Strange Loyalties ), so thanks to Max for mentioning this book to me some time ago. The crime under investigation is the brutal murder of an 18-year-old girl who went out for an evening to a disco with a friend and never returned home. Her body is found, and her father, Bud Lawson, a bitter man  whose “face looked like an argument you couldn’t win,” wants revenge. Laidlaw deals with her hostile father, her grieving mother, the Glasgow underworld, and the murdered girl’s secrets. Laidlaw is an interesting character–a mass of acknowledged contradictions, and as a detective this sometimes makes him unpredictable. With a difficult home life, and wife Ena who “liked to bounce her ammunition off the children to get to him,” Laidlaw has secrets of his own.

laidlawWhile the novel is titled Laidlaw and Laidlaw appears to be the main character, Harkness, as a character slightly off the centre of this crime tale, is, for this reader, every bit as interesting as Laidlaw. Laidlaw is a man who’s approaching his fortieth birthday, almost mid-career, plagued with personal problems but bolstered by deeply ingrained philosophy. He’s already well on his life’s path. In contrast, Harkness is a brand new DC, and when the novel opens he’s spending Sunday afternoon with his long-time girlfriend, Mary and her family. While Harkness’s life may appear to be mapped out, in reality, it really isn’t; there’s plenty of time to change, and the partnership with Laidlaw introduces niggling doubts into Harkness’s mind about his perceptions of self and just what he wants from life. He’s already experiencing mild dissatisfaction with the future he knows he’ll have with Mary:

It was a nice place but it bothered him the way houses that have been made self-consciously attractive always did. The whole experience, the talk that had lost all awareness of its one arbitrariness, the carefully arrived at prettiness of the rooms, was like being trapped inside somebody else’s hallucination.

Laidlaw makes some fascinating observations on the subject of crime solution and asks how far should one be willing to go to solve a crime while also exploring the failure of the authoritarian approach.   

Finally, an observation to all you crime writers out there. This book begins with chapter about an anonymous man, who turns out to be the killer, as he runs for cover. At this point in the novel, the reader has no idea what is going on, and to be honest the beginning doesn’t exactly pull you in. If anything it’s annoying, and as a reader, my advice to any crime writers would be to avoid this sort of vague opening from a panicked psycho.

NB: There are a few conversations in Scottish dialect that may present a bit of a challenge for foreign readers

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The Purity of Vengeance by Jussi Adler-Olsen

“There are people in the world who deserved not to breathe. People who strove only toward their own selfish goals and never looked back at the destruction they left in their wake. A few came to mind. The question was what price should they be made to pay in consequence?”

The Purity of Vengeance is the fourth Department Q novel in the very popular Danish crime series by Jussi Adler-Olsen. I read the first, The Keeper of Lost Causes, and liked it so much I committed to the rest of the series. But numbers 2 and 3, The Absent One and A Conspiracy of Faith escaped me, so a little chagrined, I turned to the fourth novel in the series, hoping that I hadn’t missed too much….

The purity of vengeanceFor anyone new to the series, the lead character is Detective Carl Mørck, once the department’s best homicide detective, but now a pariah thanks to an incident that left one detective dead and another paralyzed.  Haunted by guilt, Mørck blames himself for what happened as he failed to draw his weapon in those crucial seconds. Considered bad for the department’s morale, he didn’t seem to be good for much, and so he was assigned to the newly created cold case department, Department Q. This may sound fancy, but in reality he was relegated to the basement and given a pittance for a budget. My interest in the series was captured by Mørck’s situation. I’d love to work on cold cases, alone in a basement, far, to quote that famous author, from the madding crowd.  Will Mørck sink to everyone’s lowest expectations or will he adapt and accept the challenge?

To everyone’s surprise, it hasn’t been so easy get rid of Mørck. Initially his attitude was to drift towards retirement, but he’s become engaged in the solution of cold crimes. He’s solved some long forgotten cases, has managed to gain some respect, and he’s even hobbled together a couple of weird sidekicks. There’s Assad, whose murky origins include contacts with the criminal underworld and a taste for unconventional techniques and weaponry.  Even though this is book 4, Mørck is really no closer to uncovering Assad’s secret past, but there are a couple of events that draw Mørck deeper into the mystery of Assad’s origins. There’s also prickly policewoman Rose in our trio of investigators.

In The Purity of Vengeance, Rose brings Mørck’s attention to the disappearance of a Madam, Rita Nielsen who disappeared into “thin air” in Copenhagen in 1987. The initial investigation yielded no clues whatsoever, and while Mørck isn’t interested at first, Rose’s persistence triggers his instinct for detection, and so the case begins. A survey of all those missing in that year uncovers an interesting trend–several of those missing appear to be linked by the infamous camp at Sprogø–not exactly one of the finer moments in Danish history–this was a camp ostensibly to ‘reform’ girls and women of their so-called socially deviant behaviour, but a large number of those women were sterilized against their will.

The story goes back and forth in time with Mørck in the present trying to track down leads on Rita Nielsen. We are also taken back to the 1950s and events that ruined the life of Nete Hermansen, but we also see her in the 1980s, living with the ruins of her life and the consequences of what others have done to her.

The book includes several sub-plots–vital clues emerge in the case which left one of Mørck’s partners dead and the other paralyzed, and Mørck’s crude, big-mouth cousin is implicating Mørck in the death of his uncle. Then there’s Mørck trying to pursue a relationship with psychologist Mona even as his long-estranged wife announces her imminent re-marriage and tries to wrangle a great deal of money from her soon-to-be-ex. And we also see Doctor Curt Wad behind The Purity Party in 2010 as it prepares to enter a role in Danish government. According to the party’s critics, Denmark will see a repellent political agenda which includes “moral norms, ideas, and ideologies that lead the mind back to an age most of us would be loath to return to. To political regimes that deliberately persecute minorities and society’s weak: the mentally handicapped, ethnic minorities, the socially disenfranchised.”

The book’s main interest comes in this glimpse into Denmark’s past as once again, we see a society reel in, harness and brand women–mostly for what was termed as being “feeble-minded.” One of the subtleties of the book is the way in which Curt Wad tenderly nurses his wife to the end, preserving her life when others may have deemed the quality of her life long gone, so we see a man who sits in judgment of those he classifies as inferior–life terminated for some and extended for others. The book throws this idea out there but doesn’t overwork the comparison between Wad’s crusade for the so-called purity of Danish society and his private life. Another subtle idea in the novel is the ‘purity’ of revenge and deciding who should live and who should die. The person who turns to murder as revenge may have arguments for wrongs done to them, but is taking the lives of others ever justifiable–even if they are maggots in the human race–when one murders those who’ve ‘wronged us’ what does that make us?

On the annoying side, however, flu, sweeps through the police department and eventually makes its way down to the basement. All the references to sniffing, snotty noses dripping all over the place became a little tiresome after a while. I also found Mona, Mørck’s new squeeze to be an incredibly repellant character–doling out favours to Mørck in a rather pavlovian style that is demeaning. I hope he dumps her in the next book.

As a crime book, The Purity of Vengeance steps outside the norm for the way in which it shows how people can become criminals without breaking the law, and by this I’m referring to the character Nete Hermansen, and the way in which “things had gone off in the wrong direction,” and then suddenly she is classed as a delinquent, “a clear-cut case of social retardation,” and marked for life. Sprogø was an all-too real place that existed from 1923-1961, and the irony cannot escape the reader that while most of the women were sent there for what was seen as sexual promiscuity, The Purity of Vengeance shows women there sexually exploited by their jailers and the society that expelled them. One of the book’s greatest strengths is the way the author juggles the multiple sub-plots, jumps in time, and ties all the characters and time periods together so smoothly. I knew exactly who I was reading about and exactly what year I was in and author Jussi Adler-Olsen saved an unexpected zinger for the end.

Translated by Martin Aitken

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No Man’s Nightingale by Ruth Rendell

Wexford is back in No Man’s Nightingale, the 24th novel in the Wexford series from British author Ruth Rendell. When the book opens, Wexford is firmly entrenched in retirement and working his way through Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This makes him a sitting duck for the annoying, gossipy cleaner, Maxine, so when he’s called in as a civilian by his old protégé, Detective Superintendent Mike Burden who’s investigating a murder case, Wexford gladly sets Gibbon aside and begins sleuthing. The local vicar, a mixed race widow, a single parent named Sarah Hussain has been strangled at the vicarage. Since there’s no sign of a break-in, it’s assumed that she knew her killer. Sarah was a controversial figure, progressive in her attitudes and approach to the parishioners, and she made many enemies in the conservative town of Kingsmarkham. But there’s also the possibility that the killer was someone from Sarah’s murky past. The issues of racism and sexism are raised repeatedly throughout the story, and both Burden and Wexford self-correct their attitudes at several points.

No man's nightingaleEven as he sympathizes with Burden’s wariness of the press and the pressures of the job, Wexford finds himself at odds with many of Burden’s conclusions, and so while Burden pursues one line of inquiry, Wexford goes in another direction. The two men regroup and exchange notes throughout the novel, and as the case wears on, the divide between Burden and Wexford widens. There’s even a few moments when Wexford finds himself rather pettily launching snide comments at Burden, and even though Wexford is aware of it, there’s part of him that can’t help sinking to that level.

Ruth Rendell excels at creating social situations that explode into violence as the pressure builds, and here there’s a sub-plot involving the Wexford’s cleaner, Maxine. This situation presents Wexford with a moral dilemma in which he must weigh the consequences of betraying a confidence: “Crises of conscience, if that was the way to put them, had never come his way before, or not to such an extent.” The dilemma reinforces the fact that Wexford is no longer a policeman. People confide in him in ways that they would not consider if he was still actively employed as a detective. This is something that Wexford is still trying to adjust to, as we see throughout the novel. Also during the course of his unofficial investigation, he steps into two entirely different marriages, and because he doesn’t have the barrier of ‘authority,’ he’s made privy to the inner workings of two completely toxic relationships.

When for years you have had authority, it is hard to lose it, suddenly to find that powers you took for granted have disappeared overnight and, perhaps more to the point, stayed disappeared.

As in other Wexford novels, we see glimpses of Wexford’s family–daughter Sheila in London is not involved in this story, but Wexford’s troubled daughter Sylvia and her son Robin are present and become involved with the murdered woman’s daughter, Clarissa. Wexford’s wife, Dora is also here as the bastion of tolerance and support, but even she is pushed to annoyance by her husband’s refusal to let go of his former life as a policeman.

I’ve seen mixed reviews of the book–some readers enjoyed it and others felt that it is time to let Wexford ‘retire.’ The murder aspect of the novel is flawed; the question of exactly who killed Sarah Hussain is, of course, pursued until the end of the novel, but as a character, she remains murky, and the final element involving Clarissa seemed a little too forced given the earlier build-up.

In spite of the book’s flaws, for this reader, picking up a Rendell novel is like returning to an old friend. No Man’s Nightingale is really more about Wexford than the solution of the murder, and I liked that approach as, after all, Wexford is a major character for Rendell. Here we see him in retirement, and as a result of a life devoted to police work, he has zero hobbies beyond reading. Dora has a social life, and the point is made in the novel that she knows Kingsmarkham residents that her husband does not. Wexford has an enormous adjustment to make–he is no longer a figure of authority, he is no longer to be feared, and he can no longer lead an investigation, so he must sit back and watch as the police manage the investigation badly and people die as a result. The complexities of the relationship between Burden and Wexford are seen through the mentor-protégé prism which has now shifted leaving many uncomfortable moments. Wexford itches to order Burden to pursue a particular angle in the investigation, but he cannot, so instead Wexford is reduced to responding with nasty, almost, ‘I told you so’ comments. At various points in the novel, he’s forced to confront some uncomfortable facts–he finds himself calling a witness into question as it “was well-known that elderly people’s memories often behaved in a peculiar way,” and yet this man is a contemporary of Wexford’s. Ultimately, No Man’s Nightingale is about aging and letting go, gracefully, and as always, Wexford has one eye on the game, and one eye on himself, so he reflects about his life with his usual wise observations.

Strange, Wexford thought, how words which when uttered or written pierced to one’s very soul could later on not just be reflected on with wry humour but actually make one laugh.

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