REVIEW: The Silkworm

The Silkworm

The Silkworm

Robert Galbraith

Sphere, 2014

For veteran and detective Cormoran Strike, things are looking up. After his debut in ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’, penniless and sleeping in his office, we meet him as he turns away clients, sleeping above his office. Strike roams around London, flirting with his secretary and drinking London Pride and Doombar, and all is good in the world.

Soon, however, Strike gets a call from a Leonara Quine, the long-suffering wife of author Owen Quine. Quine is a one-hit-wonder who has been sinking into obscurity for years. His latest manuscript is a vitrolic attack on anyone who has ever rejected him*, and is widely considered unpublishable. It tells the story of Bombyx, a thinly-veiled representation of Quine himself, who goes on a journey where nobody appreciates his talents and nobody understands him. Bombyx’s namesake is Bombyx Mori, the Latin name for the silkworm: a creature that has its insides boiled out to make something beautiful.

Bombyx Mori

Pictured: literary brilliance

To nobody’s surprise but Leonora’s, Quine ends up dead. Who dunnit?

The detective plot is solid but, as in The Cuckoo’s Calling and Harry Potter, the great joy is the world Rowling creates. This time we are taken us into the land of the literati, of champagne dinners and monstrous egos. You never get far from a moral element in Rowling’s work, and the satire that ran through The Cuckoo’s Calling like a stick of rock is here still. Within the first ten pages, we meet a corrupt peer, a nasty CEO, an entitled rich journalists and a stream of “wives who found post-crash city husbands a lot less appealing”. In Harry Potter the moral element was universal, children’s fiction-like: the good verses the evil. In Rowling’s other work we tip into class commentary, which doesn’t always come across as well: the page long rant about the Conservative legal aid reforms will doubtless be fascinating for American readers.

But when it is related to character and plot, Rowling is brilliant. There is a glorious satire on amateur authors with the introduction of Quine’s mistress, ‘erotic fantasist’ Kathryn Kent: but she is also a victim, a sympathetic character, and relevant to the plot. We also see a lot more of Charlotte, Strike’s erstwhile fiancee. In The Cuckoo’s Calling she was a spectre fleeing down a staircase: here, her character flickers into view as Rowling attacks the social mores of the upper classes. The portrayal of mental illness is raw and real, but it never gets too heavy-handed. The revelation about Charlotte’s attempted suicide comes as Strike reads the fake Tatler article detailing her marriage to the caddish Jago Ross. It’s both upsetting and absolutely hilarious.

Strike himself remains no angel. Throughout the book, we see him through other people’s eyes as well as his own, most particularly his secretary and sidekick Robin, and we see a man we admire but also who makes mistakes. We also get to see a bit more of Robin herself, who gets steadily more and more appealing as the book goes on. Little details build up steadily: we learn that ‘Cormoran’ comes from the name of a Cornish giant, we meet Robin’s small-town family. In typical Rowling style, we have great fun with the significance of character names: a stuck up writer named ‘Fancourt’ and ‘Quine’ itself which, according to Google, is a computer programme that prints nothing but its own programming. Quine is defended by his proud and courageous wife Leonora.

There is a much longer review in quite how good The Silkworm is, but what it hopefully boils down to how Rowling’s world and writing are rich and endlessly interesting. Coupled with a solid plot and some really good revelations in quick succession, this is a must-read. Strike is going up in the world and Rowling climbs with him, going from strength to strength.

J K Rowling

Magic!

*i.e. everyone

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REVIEW: Murder Yet to Come

Untitled

Murder Yet to Come

Isabel Briggs-Myers

Center for Applications of Psychological Type (republished)

For those not in the know, the Myers-Briggs type indicator (MBTI) is a way to classify personalities. According to Myers-Briggs, there are 16 types of personalities, each made up of four different traits: whether we are introverts or extroverts, whether we sense or intuit, think or feel, judge or percieve*. Its critics are vocal; its popularity is legendary; its accuracy is frightening.

And Isabel Briggs-Myers, the co-creater of the test, once wrote murder mysteries.

IBM

It’s easy to get a little too excited before picking up Murder Yet To Come. Myers-Briggs theorises that humanity only comes in 16 different flavours, but is fundamentally the same: Marple uses the same idea to great effect. The idea of a murder mystery written according to Myers-Briggs types is thrilling.

And this is what we are promised on the cover of the recently-republished copy, thanks to the “Centre for Applications of Psychological Type”.

What we get when we actually read the book, is a classic Golden Age romp that takes in locked rooms, hypnotism, the Wrath of Kali, a stolen cursed jewel and, disappointingly, Yellow Peril. Both the victim and the murderer are captial E-Evil. The victim is an eccentric millionaire who lives in an isolated castle and revels in the name of “Malachi Trent”.

diamond

That’s not to say that the book is bad. It isn’t, and was popular in its day. It’s just slightly odd that the murder mystery written by one of the most promient figures of popular psychology relies so heavily on locked rooms and an assortment of some of the worst traits of the Golden Age. The mysterious evil Oriental butler is a particular low point.

“Your feeling judgement is correct this time”

But, for the MBTI enthusiast, there is still a lot here. The above quote gives a misleading picture of the book as a whole, but is interesting in context. Unlike the normal set-up of detective along / detective plus Watson, Briggs-Myers opts for *three* protagonists: brilliant playwright Peter Jermingham, his trusty sidekick Mac, stolid policeman Nielsson. It’s in these characters that Briggs-Myers really shines, and here that Murder Yet To Come stands out from the crowd.

Jermingham is a genius led by intuition, following hunches that he can’t explain. He is wrong a good bit of the time, but then brilliantly, sparklingly right. Nielsson faithfully collects clues, finds evidence. Mac is content to follow Jermingham around like a loyal puppy.

The cast of victim and suspects are all dully two-dimensional. Yet the detectives themselves are prounced versions of MBTI types: INT, IST, ISF**. You get the sense that Briggs-Myers isn’t really interested in the mystery, but *is* interested in how her characters relate to each other and interpret information. All three characters are given their ‘moment’; all three compliment each other; all three *need* each other to solve the case. It’s an interesting study of personality, and refreshing compared to the omnipotence we see from characters like Poirot or even Wimsey.

As a murder mystery it’s sub-par. As an exploration of character it disappoints. As a look at how people work together and an understanding of gifts differing? Go for it.
*The theory behind Myers-Briggs is long and complicated and would be out-of-place explained here. Go here or here to find out more.

**There is an interesting lack of extroverted characters in the novel.

REVIEW: A Vicar, Crucified

Parke

A Vicar, Crucified

Simon Parke

Darton, Longman and Todd, 2013

Some books are shy. They have nondescript titles in small fonts and sit on the side-lines, patiently waiting to be picked out and asked to dance. Detective stories, on the other hand, jump out at you from your bookshelves screaming ‘Murder!’ ‘Mystery!’ ‘Death!’.

A Vicar, Crucified is one of these. The plot of the story is simple. The parish council of the windswept seaside village of Stormhaven get dissatisfied and crucify their village priest. Literally.

So far, so conventional. Brutality in detective stories is par for the course, barbarity isn’t shocking any more. Yet the murder, or even the mystery, isn’t the most intriguing part of A Vicar, Crucified.

Unusually for a book with such a dramatic title, A Vicar, Crucified is firmly a character piece. Every page oozes sarcasm, bite, and chilling observation of the world. The author, once a supermarket worker, once a comedy writer, once a vicar, knows his stuff: the descriptions of life in the church and parish community are golden.  We meet the Bishop of Lewes – ‘No-one can criticise anyone with a cross from Africa!’ – giving a firm telling-off to a mouthy overweight alcoholic priest, a figure whom we’ve all met before, in an aside designed purely to showcase these characters, before we even get to the crucified vicar himself, an arrogant unlikeable man who sums up his calling as ‘why the hell not?’.

And then we come to the book’s detective, solitary contemplative Abbot Peter.

Peter is the former Abbot of a desert monastery.  A thoughtful, bookish, introverted man, he cares little for possessions and his one desire in life is to be left alone. We can all sympathise. But his character doesn’t end here: like all introverted detectives, his great genius is people. He’s the son of a wandering Russian mystic (George Gurdjieff, the real-life inventor of the Enneagram; despite the moustaches, not in fact Poirot), and is an expert on the Enneagram personality system and its applications in his spare time.

He has to be wise with moustaches like that

For those unfamiliar, the Enneagram suggests that there are nine personality types, each with their own specific way of failing and healthy or unhealthy ways for these traits to manifest. Type Two needs to be needed, Type Three needs to succeed, Type Five needs detachment; read up more here.  And it is this, not the comparatively small manner of the crucified vicar, that makes the novel unique: the novel uses the Enneagram as a way to understand a murder mystery.

Good murder mystery books tend to be either based on logical puzzles (the dropped cigarette = suspect A, a la Holmes) or on human interaction, a la Marple and Poirot. But A Vicar, Crucified does it in an enjoyably blatant way: in Simon Parkes’s head, the murder is not about the clues but only about the people, and the murder is only a tool to see how these people interact. It’s an incredibly intriguing concept, and how the very best murder mysteries are done.

This is not to say that the novel succeeds entirely: it’s a first novel, oddly edited in places, and doesn’t quite focus enough on the murder and suspects to use the Enneagram concept as much as it could. There’s a reason why the main focus of Golden Age detectives is the murderer and victim; however interesting the detective, we have to spend less time with them than we do with the murder to follow the plot. In A Vicar, Crucified we spend a great deal of the time in Abbot Peter’s head. It’s an interesting place to be, but the novel does lose something for it, and sometimes we spend so much time exploring the character of Peter that we end up only being told, not shown, about the other suspects, and when the solution is revealed after all the time spent with the Enneagram it still feels a bit out-of-the-hat as we haven’t spent enough time with the character in question. And there is one big, great, socking flaw in the crime, which a keen reader may spot on the second reading. So…

It comes down to what you read detective stories for. If you read detective stories solely for the clues and the puzzle, perhaps avoid. But if you read them for the portrayals of life, human beings, human frailty and human satire, snap this one up now.

Your answer will likely depend on your Enneagram type.

Clear as mud

Clear as mud

We All Have to Review It Sometime: ‘Strong Poison’

Strong Poison

Strong Poison

Dorothy L Sayers

Gollancz, 1930

Philip Boyes is dead, killed by arsenic poisoning. His former lover, Harriet Vane, takes the stand. She has motive, means and opportunity; the whole country believe her guilty. All but one man: Lord Peter Wimsey.

Strong Poison is a much-reviewed novel, especially on the blogosphere, and it’s one where everyone wants their say. It is best-well known, perhaps the greatest, of the detective love stories. It is almost certainly the first where the author has a thinly-veiled substitute of herself take the stand for the murder of a thinly-veiled substitute of her former lover. For the Wimsey books, it’s a watershed: marking the turn from slightly better-than normal whodunnits to some of the best literary fiction of their age.

‘There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood.’

But all this overlooks one thing: Strong Poison is a damn good read.

At her very worst, Sayers is prentious, unreadable, and plotless. At her very best, she has a joie de vivre that’s at the heart of the Golden Age, and all the better for its utter irrelevancy to the plot:

‘This person we are going to see – has he a name?’
‘Now that you mention it, I believe he has, but he’s never called by it. It’s Rumm.’
‘Not very, perhaps, if he gives lessons in lock-picking.’
‘I mean his name’s Rumm.’
‘Oh; what is his name?’
‘Dash it! I mean, Rumm is his name.’

Quotes like these can seem irrelevant, but when you think closer you realise that they tell us the one great thing about the Golden-Age detective story:  its complete and unshakeable belief that the world is a place within which bizarre things happen. ‘Strong Poison’ does this more than most and it revels in it. Sayers’ comedic skills are far too underrated, and her great strength is her ability to laugh straight-faced. In her hands we get scenes that would be farce in Crispin and unthinkable in Christie, and the novel sparkles for its incidental characters. The evangelical Christian reformed cockney burglar is a particular treat; also in for a kicking are spiritualism, modern art, and bigoted people in general. Sayers is criminally uncredited as a satirist, and is all the better for targeting her guns on friendly sides:

‘A person who can believe all the articles of the Christian faith is not going to boggle over a trifle of adverse evidence’*

[On the reading of immoral books that everyone is mysteriously aware of the content of]:‘The paragraphs he quoted were filthy. Positively fithy’. ‘Well, it’s a good thing we’ve all read them,’ said Wimsey. ‘Forewarned is forearmed’.”

But then, we digress.

There is one other thing that people know about Strong Poison; or rather, one character. Harriet Vane; Oxford-educated crime writer, betrayed by her lover, early feminist.   It is very, very rare, almost unique, for a character so flamboyantly based on an author to work at all, let alone as well as she does in this, and it may be for one reason. Harriet Vane is not introduced as a particularly likeable figure.  She’s introverted, stubbon and distant, and she is going to die within one month unless Wimsey can clear her name. It’s the seriousness of this that gives ‘Strong Poison’ its strength. And yet, for all the soppy reputation Harriet’s romance with Wimsey has, for all the clichéd nature of her saviour riding in on a white horse, the actual human relationship is played with incredible bathos:

Wimsey: ‘What I mean to say is, when all this is over, I want to marry you, if you can put up with me and all that’

Harriet: ‘Oh, are you another of them? That makes forty-seven’.

Undoubtedly, the story of Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane has many faults. It forces both characters to compromise, it is based entirely on unlikely coincidence; both characters are entirely realistic about their feelings for each other and know that, really, their lives shouldn’t fit together. It’s one of the best romances in all fiction. According to this site Strong Poison was written to wind up the Wimsey books, with marriage as an ending once Dorothy had earned enough from them. Wimsey would propose; Harriet would accept; the series would end. Only, as in the best cases, the characters got out of hand. It’s an intriguing theory.
[Let’s get this one out of the way: we know that Sayers is writing at best what she knows, at worst wish-fulfilment. Like Harriet, Sayers had an affair with a writer who persuaded her to live with him on the grounds that he did not believe in marriage; she rejected her own principles for this, then he offered to marry her after all. She refused, eloquently. The (many, varied) references to what an untalented, pretentious git Philip Boyes was have a certain sting to them in consequence.]

‘But, by the way, you’re bearing in mind, aren’t you, that I’ve had a lover?’
‘Oh yes. So have I, if it comes to that. In fact, several. It’s the sort of thing that might happen to anybody’.

So, we know that Sayers is writing wish-fulfillment, but the more interesting question is how she does it. Sayers, to put it bluntly, didn’t particularly care about sex or give much significance to it. She had a husband, a lover, and a father of her son, and all of these men were different: but she never found a partner her intellectual equal. And this gives us the strength of the fantasy, if you like, in Strong Poison. Because, at its heart, the romance of Vane and Wimsey is a romance of two minds. In Strong Poison, the protagonists share barely three scenes together and it’s a triumph to Sayers’s writing that the stories, and the characters, are so real for all this.

We can blame Strong Poison for a lot. The ‘should-the-detective-have-family’ issue comes up a lot, and on the whole the answer is ‘no’; what you end up with is novels not detective stories. This is ultimately true of most of the stories featuring Harriet Vane, the apex being ‘Gaudy Night’; Sayers gets so interested in her characters she forgets her plot. And the classic Sayers works of detective fiction – ‘Whose Body’, ‘The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club’ and ‘Murder Must Advertise’ are all straight-up detective stories with a characterless lead. And ‘Strong Poison’ is the only good work of Sayers that combines romance with a very good detective story.

But then, the truly terrible works of Sayers, the unreadable or anodyne – Five Red Herrings,  Clouds of Witness, The Nine Tailors** – don’t feature Harriet Vane at all. Sayers’ strength, in all honesty, was not always detective fiction and she could become very pretentious at times and / or go off on a bit of a polemical tangent.

‘Harriet Vane’s got the bug all these damned women have, fancy they can do things’

This is particularly true in the portrayal of Philip Boyes here: not only a bounder and a cad, but also a prig and a hypocrite, a pretentious prat who thought he was a genius but really was mediocre, lives off his relatives, resents the success of his more talented partner, and generally would deserve a kick up the backside were he still alive. This is not to say that all this was not true of the real-life John Cournos, it’s not really possible to comment, but while authors putting people who have wronged them into fiction might well be cathartic, it seldom leads to a balanced portrayal of character.

But then, Sayers’s strength never was detective fiction; she wrote exceptionally good detective novels, with emphasis on the novel side.  So, how does ‘Strong Poison’ stand up as a detective novel? Not too badly. It essentially has one suspect, but somehow you never do read it fully knowing which is the guilty party, even though all is revealed four full chapters from the end. Because it doesn’t matter, because you care enough for Wimsey’s quest to save Harriet.  For all that, it is more of a howdunnit than a who, and more of a psychological exploration than anything else. Yet, unlike her successors, Sayers does this, and polemicism, very, very, well.

‘Damn it, she writes detective stories, and in detective stories virtue is always triumphant. They’re the purest literature we have’

Because, quite often, Sayers’s observations of people and the world were entirely right. And Strong Poison, despite all the praises and the criticism, retains one undisputable characteristic: it’s a marvellous read.

 _

* Sayers, a woman of many talents, moonlighted as a theologian and Christian apologist.

** De gustibus non est disputandum.

Why Russell James is Mistaken: Defending the Golden Age

Russell James wrote the best guide to detective fiction imaginable in The A-Z of British Fictional Detectives. Most other guidebooks simply aim to give you a general overview of the genre, often from a quasi-analytical perspective: authors and novels are split by date, by type, by top-ten lists and you leave with an overview of the whole that never shows you the details. James, on the other hand, takes the simple road. He offers an introduction to every [most] British fictional detective ever put to paper, even if he does have to dance around with nationalities a bit to include the works of John Dickson Carr. He offers brief descriptions, tells people what’s worth reading and what’s not: but what this gives to the reader is their own sense of what exactly detective fiction means, and how it got to be what it is. James’s work is an encyclopaedia, where all the other works of literary theory are just published blog entries.

But then nobody’s ever perfect. There are a few factual errors that only a truly sad and pathetic case would spot – drop a line to Five Minute Mysteries for a list – and surrounding the A-Z part of the book are a series of essays introducing the reader to each stage on the way to modern crime fiction: from 40s pulp fiction to modern thrillers. And it’s his essay on the Golden Age that is one of the most fundamentally wrong things ever put to paper. And, hopefully, by explaining why the Golden Age wasn’t bad we’re in with a chance of explaining exactly why it was good.

James’s thesis is essentially that the Golden Age was a blind alley, a misstep on the way towards modern crime fiction. Modern crime fiction challenges the reader, whereas the Golden Age was just nostalgia for the days when butlers buttled, people had smoked herrings for breakfast everyday, and they hadn’t invented sex yet. Reading it is therefore just escapism: and a particularly nasty kind of escapism because the Golden Age is set in a world where the many worked for the benefit of the few and all were expected to know their place. Quoted in P D James’s Talking About Detective Fiction – she agrees – is the Irish novelist William Trevor. Despite not being a detective novelist, his opinion on Golden Age fiction is worth setting down in full because it’s essentially the same argument:

‘These novels are, of course, paradoxical. They deal with violent death and violent emotions, but they are novels of escape. We are required to feel no real pity for the victim, no empathy for the murderer, no sympathy with the falsely accused. For whomever the bell tolls, it doesn’t toll for us…Rereading the Golden Age novels with their confident morality, their lack of any empathy with the murderer and the popularity of their rural settings, readers can still enter nostalgically this settled and comfortable world. ‘Stands the church clock at ten to three?’ And is there arsenic still for tea?’

From a socio-political perspective, the Golden Age is an abhorrent idea; an objectionable fairytale: where class struggles, inequality, misogyny etc. were swept under the rug in favour of afternoon cocktails and the odd genteel murder. But this is a moronic way to judge detective fiction because the setting of the Golden Age is secondary, always always secondary, to the story and the backdrop is chosen precisely because it’s so anodyne. In 1944 Agatha Christie published Death Comes as the End, a murder mystery set in ancient Egypt. And the first thing you notice is that the characters and their relationships and motivations are exactly the same as they would be in a novel set in the present day.   The Golden Age is essentially apolitical, though if you had to call it anything it’d probably be small-‘c’ conservative. Not because it’s right-wing, but because it believes in morality over the mythical concept of capital-‘p’ Progress.  Because the Golden Age isn’t interested at all in politics, yet remains fundamentally egalitarian in its belief that people are the same everywhere.  For the people that argue that the Golden Age should have been more interested in politics, you wonder quite how we’d view the Golden Age now: as a piece of history, something to be studied for GCSE coursework, something to be picked apart by English literature thesis: something completely boring, not loved by anyone. Political fiction never ages well, and it’s to the Golden Age’s advantage that it has nothing to say of political relevance. But this brushes over the more important fact: that the stories are simply, obviously, thunderingly moral.

Modern crime teaches us that the world is a worse, more horrible, more evil place than we can imagine, and that the only way most people can go about their daily lives without descending into drink or drugs (like most of the detectives who investigate it) is because they don’t know about it. Modern crime novels teach us that the world is evil, and that only stupid people are happy.  Poirot and Marple and Father Brown were perfectly aware of the existence of evil in the world, they just knew that there was also good. In Christie or Chesterton murderers are redeemable: it’s only in modern crime that we find psycopaths. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of the worst crime novels ever written for a variety of reasons, but the one to mention here is the good/evil divide in it: the goodies are the goodies, the baddies are the baddies and there aren’t any shades of grey in between. But in the Golden Age Father Brown walks with a murderer. Poirot warns the initially good not to let evil into their hearts or else it will come in and make its home within. Modern Crime would laugh at the idea that Evil exists as a force, but its villains are black to the core and without either redemption or any sense that they weren’t always that way. The Golden Age believes in Evil as something that exists, mainly in desperation or selfishness, and traps ordinary people – it, consequently, has a better understanding of ‘good’ than any other genre.

And, more than this, the Golden Age tells you that the world’s an exciting place.  Golden Age solutions are sometimes out-of-a-hat, but what they almost always are clever. Read a book like He Wouldn’t Kill Patience and you won’t find out anything about life in the Blitz, but will instead discover how air-operated dummies work.  P D James, in Talking About Detective Fiction, points out that the Golden Age makes use of the ‘ten thousand doors to let out life’ with victims being stabbed with icicles, licking poisoned stamps and battered to death by church bells: her tone is gently mocking. She points out that the murder methods in Sayers’s Unnatural Death and The Nine Tailors probably wouldn’t work in real life. Which is true, but nobody should read detective fiction to find out how to actually murder someone.  A method of death that’s applicable to reality is a far, far worse thing to read than one that’s outlandish precisely because the latter is supposed to be unbelievable. The Golden Age contains outlandish happenings because it truly believes that the world is a magical and interesting place where strange and outlandish things happen all the time – but in ways that reflect the real world.

Let’s take G. K. C. again, and this time look at a non-mystery story, The Napoleon of Notting Hill. For those that haven’t read it yet, it tells the story of an England five minutes into the future where democracy has become irrelevant and the King is elected by lottery as all politicians are the same. A workable system; until a King is elected who wants to split London into independent nations. Reading this description, the novel doesn’t seem overtly political, or even overtly relevant to anything. Initially, it just seems like a vehicle for G. K. C. to poke fun at the notions of progressiveness and civilisation (which he is) and how the most judgemental thing of all is to assume that you know what civilisation means and someone else doesn’t (which is true). But what makes the scene sing is the novel’s one tragic hero: the man who knows that wherever there’s a red sunset on a golden field, there’s Nicaragua. And that’s what carries the story: The Napoleon of Notting Hill is about patriotism, about the loyalty to a place or thing simply because it’s yours.

“When there is a field of marigolds and the red cloak of an old woman, there is Nicaragua. Wherever there is a field of poppies and a yellow patch of sand, there is Nicaragua. Wherever there is a lemon and a red sunset, there is my country. Wherever I see a red pillar-box and a yellow sunset, there my heart beats. Blood and a splash of mustard can be my heraldry. If there be yellow mud and red mud in the same ditch, it is better to me than white stars.”

Which brings us back to the magic of the world. Fantasy novels, from Harry Potter to Skulduggery Pleasant, have people finding another world that’s hidden from this one: others involve people being transported from one world to the next; science fiction and fantasy base themselves in another, more exciting, world than this. They teach us that there’s another exciting world that’s hidden from us: detective fiction teaches us that the world we’re in is the exciting one, we just have to see it.  It’s not fantasy, because the exciting thing about is just showing us more clearly something that we could see every day. In the Ball and the Cross, both the protagonists are the sort of people who today would spend all day locked in their bedrooms arguing on the Guardian’s Comment is Free: but to Chesterton they’re heroes, because they care about the world. Chesterton writes magical realism not because there’s any magic in the stories, but because he believes reality is magic. There are minor escapades involving hot-air balloons over St Paul’s or escaping from madhouses, but the driving force of the novel is that caring about things matters. Turnbull is a hero, but he’s a person you could (and probably do) meet today. You wouldn’t appreciate him but, to Chesterton, that’s your loss.

Chesterton makes you see heroes in the sort of people you’d loathe if you met them. John Dickson Carr tells us that snakes can’t move on a glass floor. Christie tells you that all people are the same; and that this is a good thing. And you may not find out how to kill someone from The Nine Tailors, but you will get an introduction to basic campanology. Golden Age fiction fundamentally believes that people are interesting, that most people are decent, that evil isn’t something that some people are predetermined to, like a particularly horrible atheist Calvinism, but a choice. And overall, that the world is a wonderful and consistently surprising place. A far better message than that the world is an evil place, and evil people are born that way.