Tag Archives: village life

Till Death Do Us Part: John Dickson Carr (1944)

I’d never read John Dickson Carr before but took up a challenge from The Invisible Event to read one of this author’s books and post a review on November 30, 2016, to commemorate Carr’s 110th birthday. My pick: Till Death Do Us Part–selected on the merits of its title alone. John Dickson Carr (1906-1977) was an American author who lived in England for several decades of his life, and this novel, set in an English village, features Gideon Fell, arguably (according to everything I read) the author’s most famous character. This is a story of blackmail, murder, and deceit which takes place over the course of just a few days.

till-death-do-us-part

The novel opens at a charity fête on the grounds of Ashe Hall, home of the local gentry. We’re thrown right into the action as playwright Dick Markham, a creator of  “psychological thrillers,” and his fiancée Lesley Grant arrive on the grounds. There’s a storm brewing (literally and figuratively), and after an unfortunate moment at the rifle range, Lesley slides off to visit the fortune-teller, who just happens to be “one of the greatest living authorities on crime” Sir Harvey Gilman, the Home Office Pathologist. Something strange occurs between the fortune-teller and Lesley; she leaves the tent hurriedly and upset. A few moments later she accidentally shoots the fortune-teller, who is subsequently hustled off for medical attention.

That evening, Sir Harvey Gilman, wounded and resting, insists that Dick Markham visit, and Dick is told that Lesley is actually a three-time murderess, a poisoner who has killed two husbands, polished off another lover and very possibly intends Dick to be her next victim. Sir Harvey insists that Lesley, so far, has been too slippery to be caught and punished for her crimes and so he enlists a reluctant Dick to help him.

The next morning, however, Sir Harvey is found dead with a hypodermic needle containing prussic acid–and this is exactly the MO that Sir Harvey, now the victim, attributed to Lesley….

Before too long Dr Fell arrives on the scene and takes over the case aided and abetted by Inspector Hadley. Dr Fell is a large man (think Sidney Greenstreet), given to eccentricities. Till Death Do Us Part is the 15th Carr novel to feature Fell. There’s nothing here about a personal life; he appears around the halfway mark of the book, and mostly grunts, sending significant glances towards Inspector Hadley. I was a bit disappointed in the great detective.

I enjoyed the subtext involving Dick Markham’s behaviour with Cynthia Drew. Everyone in the village predicted a match but when Lesley arrived six months earlier, Markham had eyes for no one else. There’s an undercurrent of disapproval in the village against Markham for disappointing Cynthia. The obvious sexual attraction between Markham and Lesley does not exist with Cynthia–nonetheless Markham, a character I rather liked, gets himself in quite a bit of trouble with his gallantry.

Poisoner’s Mistake was proclaimed from one wall, Panic in the Family from another. Each an attempt to get inside the criminal’s mind: to see life through his eyes, to feel his feelings. They occupied such wall space as was not taken up by stuffed shelves of books dealing with morbid and criminal psychology.

There was the desk with its typewriter, cover now on. There was the revolving bookcase of reference works. There were the overstuffed chairs, and the standing ash trays. There were the bright chintz curtains, and the bright rag rugs underfoot. It was Dick Markham’s ivory tower, as remote from the great world as this village of Six Ashes.

The solution to the crime is wrapped by Fell who hugs all of the information to himself and then does a Grand Reveal at the end–this happens to be something I dislike in my crime books, and since I’ve never read this author before, I can’t say if this is usual or not. The set-up, the writing, the atmosphere were all great fun. I tried finding John Dickson Carr at the library, but the cupboard was bare. Have other readers out there found this author at the library?

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The Glimpses of the Moon by Edmund Crispin

I lean more towards hard-boiled crime than cozy mysteries, but occasionally, I need a change of pace. The Glimpses of the Moon by Edmund Crispin is a cozy mystery with all the hallmark features: an amateur sleuth, murder in a bucolic village setting, and most of the violence off the page. In common with many cozies, The Glimpses of the Moon is also quite funny, and it’s no easy feat to mesh humour with murder, but author Edmund Crispin (1921-1978), whose real name was Robert Bruce Montgomery, manages to blend the two elements very neatly in a novel that is full of memorable scenes and characters. While many of the characters are caricatures–the types we’d expect to find in a dull, sleepy British village, others give the novel a unique flavor.

the glimpses of the moonIn The Glimpses of the Moon, Crispin’s series sleuth, Oxford don, Gervase Fen, on a sabbatical, rents a country cottage in Aller hamlet with the idea that the peaceful country life will be conducive to his research into “the post-war British novel.” The novel opens with Gervase enjoying a pint at the pub with one of the locals, the Major, when they are interrupted by a journalist named Padmore who is sniffing around, asking questions about a murder that took place two months earlier. Padmore, a bit of a rum character who has little experience covering crime, has written an almost-finished book on the murder of a local man, the very unsavoury and much disliked Routh, generally agreed to be a “horrible man.” beheaded by eccentric “mad as a hatter” loner Hagberd. While no one regrets Routh’s passing, there seems only to be speculation that it took this long for someone to finally kill this obnoxious and cruel man. The solution to the crime is apparently sewn up, and the police are satisfied that they’ve caught the killer. Much to Padmore’s dismay however, he discovers from the semi-lucid Gobbo (the modern-day equivalent to the village idiot), that Hagberd couldn’t have possibly killed Routh as Hagberd was chatting with Gobbo at the time of the murder.

Since this startling revelation occurs in the presence of both the major and Gervase Fen, the men initially try to establish whether or not Gobbo–hardly the most reliable man in the village–is correct or not. But a few casual interviews  only seem to cloud the matter, and then another headless corpse appears … horror of horrors… at the village fete!

The plot is loaded with colourful characters. Apart from Gobbo, there’s cleaner Mrs Bragg, “a big henna-ed woman who shrieked with happy laughter,” the very snobby Mrs Leeper-Foxe whose late husband left her a “fat income from factory farming,” an unworldly eccentric Rector who lives in a “huge, lowering mid-Victorian erection” called Y Wurry , and Ortrud, a sturdy, tireless German nymphomaniac who brings her lovers back as temporary lodgers to her husband’s pig farm. He, in the meantime, consoles himself with his pigs who appear to be named after heroines in Thomas Hardy novels.

An Amazonian woman almost as tall as her husband, she had great physical strength and an emphatic Junoesque figure. (“Those bosoms, don’t you know,” the Major had once pronounced, more in amazement than in admiration. “Prodigious things–dazzling-flesh-bulbs.”) Her inexpressive Nordic head combined dark eyebrows with cheese-coloured hair put together in a complicated bun at the back, like pallid worms transfixed in mid-orgy.

Until recently, Ortrud wasn’t the only man-eater in town. Local lass, Mavis Trent also had a reputation for taking lovers and dropping them, but she was found dead under somewhat strange circumstances. Is there a connection between the death of Mavis Trent and the murder of Routh? Here’s the Rector on the subject of Mavis–a woman he’s obviously thought about quite a bit:

“Mavis was a nympho, I suppose, but calling her that gives a wrong impression. She never seemed to flirt or ogle or any of that stuff. But then, she didn’t have to, or anyway, not obviously; she was just naturally cheerfully sexy, with a sort of built-in spontaneous come-hither which gave you the idea, very powerfully, that making love to her would be all fun and no complications. It was, too–or so I gather. Damn it, I was quite taken with the girl myself. Not that I’d have married her, of course (she didn’t seem interested in making a second marriage, come to that), and of course, me being a cleric and not approving of all this promiscuity anyway, there was no question of an affaire (besides you can’t stay properly fit if you keep fornicating all the time). Even so, I still got the impression that she wouldn’t have minded nabbing me, on a temporary basis,” said the Rector, with obvious gratification. “So you can see, she wasn’t what you’d call choosy.”

Edmund Crispin’s characters are a motley bunch who mingle due to proximity and yet while they all seem to inhabit their own little worlds,  they collide on a number of issues: animal cruelty (which seems an appropriate issue since the story is set in the countryside) and sexuality. It’s as though unleashed in the countryside, people in and around the village of Burraford have resorted to their animalistic natures and all social rules are ignored–not by everyone, of course, but this ‘rule breaking’ seems to have led to murder and Gervase becomes embroiled in the hunt for the killer while trying to write his book and care for all the animals that reside at the cottage he rents. One of the complaints I read about Crispin’s work is that some readers found his allusions a bit tedious. In The Glimpses of the Moon, Gervase Fen is constantly rattling off names of authors (muttering to himself), but I enjoyed these intrusions. On a note of caution, however, foreign readers may find the small patches of dialect impenetrable.

Review copy

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King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher

Last year, one of my favourite reads: The Northern Clemency, came from the mind of British author, Philip Hensher, so naturally I was delighted by the news that he’d written another book. While The Northern Clemency, as the title suggests, is set in the north of England and spans several decades in the lives of various characters, King of the Badgers, yet another marvellous novel from Hensher, is set in Devon.  

Now before you start thinking ‘Devon, how quaint’ and memories of picturesque coves, pretty postcards, donkeys and cobbled streets start bouncing in your brain… STOP! Think again. This is a Hensher novel, and that means a study of the pettiness and quirks of human nature, a dissection of human relationship fraught with barbed humour. I loved every page of it. I read one blurb which compared King of the Badgers to Thackeray; another offered a comparison to Eliot. For this reader, King of The Badgers is a 21st century Trollope. Those who’ve read Trollope’s Barchester Towers will remember that the drama begins when the position of Bishop becomes vacant. This sparks a fallout of petty rivalry and politics as the claws appear and various people vie for the job. In a similar fashion, Hensher also puts his characters in a social petri dish and watches the action, but in King of the Badgers, the action is initiated by the disappearance of China, an eight-year old girl.

King of the Badgers is set in the small fictional Devon town of Hanmouth. To visitors, Hanmouth is an incredibly picturesque town set on the Hain estuary. Hanmouth seems to offer the sort of idyllic quaint life that no longer exists elsewhere in Britain, and the local shops reflect an almost-Disney-like facade of a bygone world. There are “three historic pubs,” one of the few butcher shops left in Britain, “knick-knack shops, “amateur jewellers making a go if it,” an  “Oriental emporium,” a dozen antique shops, a junk market, a fishmongers, a used book shop, and a “specialist cheese shop” which boasts such delicacies as “lesbian bleu d’ Auvergne.”  Hanmouth may sound the ideal place to live– indeed it does attract newcomers, disparagingly called “Grockles” by the locals, but as the novel plays out, Hanmouth, a veritable Peyton Place of over-mortgaged homes and nasty, snobby people, is revealed to be a seething hotbed of gossip, rabid class divisions, adultery, dogging dates, orgies, and relentless social preening.

One of Hanmouth’s leaders of society is university lecturer, Miranda–a powerhouse of a woman whose innate snobbery hides behind her “post colonial” theories and the “collecting box for an African cause” located prominently near the front door. Miranda, who specializes in Regency woman poets, leads and dominates the local book group, and directs the Hanmouth Players in productions of such atrocities as The Bacchae or Woyzeck:

She was aware of the dangers to a woman of her size and age of flowing red and purple velvet, of ethnic beads  and the worst that Hampstead Bazaar could do. She would not, like most of Hanmouth’s women, be inspired by Dame Judi Dench on an Oscar night, and she dressed , as far as possible, in the black and white lines and corners of the fat wife of a Weimar architect.

Just who you are in Hanmouth is dictated by your address, and the streets are sharply delineated by geography. With just four main streets, the most expensive homes are located at the town centre and afford  “at its most expensive, unfettered views of the estuary and the hills beyond, crested with a remote and ducal folly-tower.”  The highly desirable Dutch-gable houses are the homes of the nouveaux riches, while the second street harbours the throughly affluent, solid and conservative middle-class. The third street is the niche for the local “bohemians,” and things go downhill from there until you hit one of the seedier suburbs that are not “Hanmouth proper.” This is the section for the riff-raff, and it’s not considered part of Hanmouth at all–a handy division as it turns out. Nothing much happens in Hanmouth–well at least nothing much appears to happen in Hanmouth until the small town makes the headlines with the disappearance of China, the daughter of slatternly hairdresser, Heidi O’Connor, a resident of one of Hanmouth’s scummier suburbs. China, left at home with her siblings, slipped down to the shops and never returned:

“In any case,” Heidi said to the police later, quite calmly, “I knew China hadn’t gone to visit her friends for one straight and simple reason. She doesn’t have any friends. She’s not been a popular girl, ever. They bully her, I expect, because they say she’s fat and she smells. I don’t think she smells, but at that age, it’s always some reason they’ve got to pick on her, isn’t it? I knew she hadn’t gone to visit a friend. To tell the truth, I thought at first, China, she’s playing some trick on her brother and sister. I’ll tan her hide, I thought at first.”

When the book begins, Heidi and her gormless live-in lover “a moon faced reprobate” named Mickey, the epicentre of a media storm, are having the times of their lives. Meanwhile, the unbalanced zealot John Calvin, the chairman of the Hanmouth Strand Neighbourhood Watch Committee, and the self-appointed, self-righteous  liaison, agent and spokesperson for Heidi O’Connor takes the disappearance of China as the excuse to crackdown on the local population, and he demands the installation of even more CCTV cameras. As the case of the missing child grows bigger, most of Hanmouth’s residents are more concerned with the image Heidi O’Connor gives of Hanmouth than the implications that they may have a child abductor in their midst. The greatest critics of the case are snobby Miranda and her book club crowd. The topic is up for discussion at the book club meeting:

“The thing I truly object to, Kitty said, “and I know this sounds trivial and I don’t care if it sounds a bit snobbish, but I do care about this. It’s that the whole world now thinks of Hanmouth as being this sort of awful council estate and nothing else, and Hanmouth people like this awful Heidi and Mickey people. Absolutely everything you read in the papers is about how they live in Hanmouth, and frankly, they don’t. They live on the Ruskin estate, where I’ve never been and I hope never to go anywhere near.” 

While most of the characters are an unpleasant lot, by far the most sympathetic characters are two outsiders, middle-aged Catherine and her retired husband Alec who, lured by the promise of picture-postcard-perfect vistas, make the mistake of moving to Hanmouth from St Albans. The book notes their forays into the real estate market and their diminishing expectations which end with the purchase of a flat–built, it seems, to deliberately ruin Miranda’s view from her million-pound plus Dutch gable home.

The book, which is divided into more-or-less into three sections, also follows the glum efforts of Catherine and Alec’s overweight, social reject gay son, David, to get the semblance of a social life. David can’t acknowledge his distress or sense of abandonment when his parents take off for Hanmouth. One subplot concerns David’s visit to Hanmouth with the very attractive Italian waiter, Mauro in tow. Mauro, under financial obligation to David,  agrees to pose as David’s lover with mixed results. David and Mauro spend an awkward weekend attending Catherine and Alec’s flatwarming party only to leave in order to attend an orgy.

In King of the Badgers, author Philip Hensher appears to be fascinated by the dichotomy between personal and private lives, and the sensitive distance between the two which is vulnerable and in increasing danger of being trespassed. It’s interesting to note that in spite of the plethora of CCTV cameras in Hanmouth, no visual record exists of China’s disappearance, yet this doesn’t stop the rabid puritanical John Calvin (is his name any coincidence?) from demanding even more CCTV cameras, eventually violating the ‘sacred’ idea of   “an Englishman’s home is his castle.”

The issues of personal and public life is prominent throughout the novel and goes far beyond the installation of CCTV cameras. There’s Miranda–a woman who lives very much in the public eye who’s guilty, as Dickens would say, of “telescopic philanthropy” saving coins for Africa while her husband leads a double life, and their daughter Hettie, disliked and mostly ignored, silently and sulkily tortures her dolls:  “Child Pornography,” “Slightly Jewish,” “Dead in Childbirth” and “Shitface.”

The book has no shortage of well-drawn characters–including Sam, the owner of the artisanal cheese shop and his gay lover Harry, whose looks, money and peerage leads the locals to punctuate his name with the well-worn phrase “what-a-waste.”  Sam, a member of Miranda’s book club, seems to attend just to stir the pot and replenish his wickedly funny observations of the local haute-ton. He  “relished [these] moments of embarrassing social disposition.” Here’s a scene from the book club meeting in which Sam stokes the disdain towards the family of the missing girl:

“I saw a newspaper photographer in a boat in the middle of the estuary, taking photographs,” Sam said eagerly. “Out there in Brian Miller’s ferryboat. Taking a photograph of the church and the strand and the quay. That’ll turn up in the Sun as a photograph of Heidi’s home town, I promise you.”

“As if that family could live somewhere like this.”

“Or, really, more to the point, as if they would ever contrive a story like this if they did live on the Strand,” Miranda said. “One may be cynical, but one does think that moral attitudes and truthfulness and not having your children kidnapped for the sake of the exposure don’t go with deprivation. It’s material deprivation that starts all this off.”

“They’ve got dishwashers, Miranda,” Bill said. “They’re not examples of material deprivation . But you’re right. You don’t hear about children disappearing from Hanmouth proper, do you? It’s just bad education, ignorance, idleness and avarice.’

“And drugs,” put in Sam. Don’t forget the drugs.”

As the novel continues, its characters forget the disappearance of China and dreams up fantasies that she’s off having a grand time in Butlin’s, and so as readers we are taken along for the ride and we too become mired in the petty dramas of life in Hanmouth. Some characters get their comeuppance, but for most, life carries on…

That should give you a taste of what you have in store in King of The Badgers. This a novel that seethes with gossip, hypocrisy, snobbery, false lives, and sheer pettiness, and I loved every bitchy minute.

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