Ruth Rendell, also known as Barbara Vine, was a literary phenomenon. She wrote more than fifty crime novels and seven collections of short stories between 1964, when her first book was published, and her death, earlier this year, at the age of eighty-five. She received numerous literary awards and a life peerage. Although she believed that detective stories were an ‘inferior genre’, especially when compared with her psychological novels, she continued to produce conventional police procedurals featuring the quite unconventional Inspector Wexford. She once told me that she intended to kill him off in a book to be published posthumously. This is not that book. It is another of Rendell’s penetrating studies of ordinary people trapped in extraordinary circumstances. It is the story of a Londoner called Carl and the dire effect on him of a single, not-even-criminal act of omission. Carl has inherited a house in London. He lives downstairs and has a tenant on the top two floors. One day he lets an overweight friend take home some slimming pills found in his father’s bathroom, and fails to warn her that an overdose could be dangerous. She dies and Carl feels so much like a murderer that when his tenant starts to blackmail him, Carl gives in immediately. The story becomes ever more complicated, bringing in mistaken identity, extortion and kidnapping, while there are also some knowledgeable discursions on London’s bus network. This is not Rendell’s best work, more a reminder of her earlier achievements, but her countless admirers will seize on it with delight.
Returning from honeymoon to their newly decorated flat in Edinburgh, Grace and Mac find a dead body on the kitchen floor. The man, presumably a burglar, is unidentified and Grace finds his fate weighing on her mind. She is a photographer, who for some years has been consciously limiting the scope of her work for the sake of harmony with her quite dull boyfriend, now her husband. But when she eventually gets round to unpacking wedding presents she finds a note that gives her the first clue. She breaks away on her own in her quest for information about the dead man, boldly going off to various places in Europe with – inevitably – various attractive men, though the truth is not finally revealed until she is at home in Edinburgh again. An easy, enjoyable read – Tartan but not very ‘noir’.
There does not seem to be a halfway house: either you love John Grisham’s courtroom dramas – as I do – or you find them unreadable. This one is quite testing, though, even for a fan, for the titular lawyer’s clients, including a drug-addicted boy accused of killing two little girls and a gang leader on death row, are usually guilty. But even they deserve a fair trial – and without the rogue lawyer, they won’t get one. Actually, Grisham’s research-based portrait of the people who run America’s towns, justice system and police force leaves a British reader gasping. Can they really be so corrupt and their residents so prejudiced? Surely not: this is fiction… isn’t it?
This is the second episode in a series that could run and run. It’s a rich mixture of historical fact spiced up with fiction, set during the period of the Phoney War. Conrad de Lancey, last seen safely back home after failing to assassinate Hitler, is the son of a German mother and an English peer. Conrad has joined up but manages to escape square-bashing when the British Intelligence Service sends him off to secret meetings in Europe. Conrad is a distant crony of Churchill, but his father is an appeaser so determined that Britain should not fight that he will kill for the cause. Shadows of War is an enjoyable blend of careful research, plausible invention and some preposterous anachronisms. I don’t think anyone would have said ‘Give her space to sort herself out’ in 1939.
Elizabeth George is American, but her books are about England and the English, and sometimes the Cornish. Detective Inspector Lynley happens also to be an earl with a stately home somewhere west of the Tamar. He appears in this book only as the stooge of two strong women: his boss, an ex-lover, and his subordinate, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, whose stock in trade is being insubordinate. She persuades her superiors to let her investigate the murder of a well-known feminist writer in a Dorset village. But it’s an unlikely story: two London cops on the hunt in Dorset without local colleagues and sleeping in the victim’s house. The book also contains a perfectly odious matriarch whose attentions nobody seems able to escape and lots of apostrophe-scattered ‘yokel speak’: for example, ‘c’n’ for can, ‘bout’ for about. George has written some excellent, prize-winning books, and there are plenty of pages to enjoy in this long novel, but it’s far from being her best.
A survivor of the Great War, the blinded Frederick Rowlands runs a chicken farm in Kent, where he lives with his wife, Edith, and their two children. He is trying to put behind him not only the war, but also his involvement with crime, having previously worked as an amateur adviser to Chief Inspector Douglas of Scotland Yard. But when he is asked to help track down the murderer of a beautiful dancer, he goes back to London, visiting the nursing home in Regent’s Park where he was rehabilitated. He meets old friends and enemies, and finds that he is once again playing the unofficial role of Douglas’s chief aide. This is a vivid, detailed description of a particular time and place, and Rowlands comes to life in a way that few fictional characters do. I am glad to have discovered A C Koning, who has published numerous well-received novels. Her name was new to me, as was that of Arbuthnot Books, which has enhanced an excellent read with an unusually well-designed cover.
The setting is Sarajevo in 1944, so the story is predictably dark, full of torture, treachery and terror. Reinhardt is a German intelligence officer, newly assigned to the area, and immediately caught up in its complicated politics. Atmospheric, well informed and very well written, this is a remarkably good portrait of war and warriors.
Treats for Agatha Christie fans:
Tom Adams painted 150 cover pictures for Agatha Christie’s books. The originals are now valuable and collectible, and are all illustrated in Tom Adams Uncovered: The Art of Agatha Christie & Beyond, by Adams and John Curran.
Kathryn Harkup’s A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie, meanwhile, analyses Christie’s deadly but imaginary dispensary. She was never a traditional ‘little old lady’, like Miss Marple, being too busy, too observant and, actually, too substantial to fit that description. In addition, she had a professional’s knowledge of poisons, both those in the pharmacist’s locked cupboard and the more accessible toxic plants. What a lot of harm she could have done if she had switched from invention to action.