Class is a standard ingredient of the British detective novel. In earlier years, crime fiction featured titled sleuths and aristocratic or at least bourgeois victims and suspects. Calling his analysis of the genre Snobbery with Violence (Alan Bennett’s phrase), Colin Watson emphasised the importance of class distinctions in the genre half a century ago. But the world of crime fiction has turned upside down since then. Successful contemporary crime writing, particularly the currently fashionable subgenre ‘domestic noir’ (Natasha Cooper’s phrase), finds space for every kind of character apart from, with the odd exception, a posh one. If featured at all, such a person will probably prove to be the criminal. The odd one out is Inspector Lynley, the protagonist of the American author Elizabeth George’s crime series, who happens to be an earl who lives in a castle. Class distinctions in crime fiction do still survive in historical mystery stories. Perhaps that is the reason there are at present so many of them.
Chief Constable Melville Macnaghten, London’s most senior detective, looks to Oscar Wilde and his friend Arthur Conan Doyle, the narrator of this novel, for help in tracking down Jack the Ripper. ‘You are a poet, a Freemason and a man of the world. All useful qualifications for the business in hand,’ Macnaghten tells the playwright. It is 1894, and the notorious killer has returned to London. Brandreth’s Wilde, a flawed but fascinating character, is very much the man who once said, ‘I put all my genius into my life; I put only my talent into my works’. He has appeared now in six mystery adventures, all very engaging and full of the agreeable wit for which Brandreth is famous. Although the subject of this book is as brutal as the worst of contemporary criminals, Brandreth’s Wilde mysteries are civilised, accomplished and clever.
Professor Olivia Sweetman is a historian, a television star, a wife and a mother – one of the superwomen of contemporary society. We see her first at the launch of her latest book, a study of a Victorian woman doctor and the obstacles she had to overcome in order to qualify and work. Olivia has been helped with research by the enigmatic Vivian, the housekeeper and helper of Lady Burley, who owns the diaries, letters and the rest of the material on which Olivia’s book will be based. But Lady Burley lives in a care home and has left all decisions to Vivian, who takes an increasingly active and ever more sinister part in Olivia’s work and life. I found The Night Visitor utterly gripping, as Olivia wrestles with her demanding work and her equally demanding family, with the jealous and clinging Vivian and with the historian’s definition of objective facts: ‘We’re always reaching for the truth, but we have to invent the stories that get us there.’
For some now forgotten reason I missed Ruth Ware’s first two books, though did not miss the passionate praise they evoked. So when this book, Ware’s third, arrived, I was interested and optimistic – and, gradually, disappointed. The story concerns four women who were best friends at boarding school but who have hardly seen each other since. Seventeen years on, when one of them sends an SOS to her one-time friends, all three, rather implausibly, drop everything and rush down to the crumbling tide mill where Kate lived with her late father and still lives, despite physical and financial difficulties. There is a good deal of remembering the past, and many hints of sinister undercurrents; in fact, the story seems quite repetitive, especially when the narrator is feeding or tending to her baby. No doubt Ware’s many fans will love this convoluted tale. Newcomers to her work, myself included, might do better to start with her earlier books.
It was a real pleasure to be reintroduced to Kate Shugak, the private investigator in Dana Stabenow’s long-running series set, most convincingly, in Alaska. Kate’s family are Aleuts, the indigenous people of the Aleutian Islands, off the coast of Alaska. Sexy, clever and brave, she has been recovering her health after a previous adventure ended badly and feels just about up to hunting for a geologist who has disappeared into the wilds of Alaska. And wilds they really are – an unforgiving environment on which human predators cast their greedy eyes and where equally dangerous wolves and other creatures that are native to this wilderness roam. Stabenow’s writing is not at all didactic, but her readers will learn a good deal about living on the edge of the world. This is a clever, colourful, credible tale – warmly recommended.
This is one to love or loathe. Its subject is the nature of friendship; its characters are fourth-year students; its style is almost too literary, with Shakespeare quoted several times on every page. The book opens with Oliver leaving prison. He has served ten years for the murder of one of his best friends, part of a group of seven inseparable drama students. During their years at a ‘classical conservatory’ in Illinois, they have become so immersed in Shakespeare that their conversation consists mostly of quotation and often blank verse. Things go wrong when Richard, for the first time, is not chosen to play the lead part in the final year play. Suddenly the group’s harmony is shattered and, as the academic year proceeds, the students find ever greater flaws in their relationships, and their behaviour becomes increasingly outrageous. Although it is cleverly plotted and beautifully written, this book has rather too much adolescent emotion and far too much thespian obsession for me. But anyone who likes Donna Tartt’s books will love If We Were Villains too.
For obvious reasons, this collection of the great crime novelist Dorothy Sayers’s reviews of other peoples’ crime novels is probably of more interest to me than to my readers. But Sayers never wrote a boring word. This book contains two years’ worth of reviews for the Sunday Times, representing a prodigious quantity of reading and writing. Sayers was a remarkable woman and writer, so her journalism is worth attention. She read very many books, and she comments on them with trenchant wit and sensitive understanding. She was courageous in her candour about books and their authors, even those by friends and fellow members of The Detection Club, the organisation of which Sayers herself, Martin Edwards (who has written a fascinating introduction) and Simon Brett (author of the foreword) are or have been president.