REVIEW: And Then There Were None, Part 2

And Then There Were None

And Then There Were None

Adapted by Sarah Phelps for the BBC

First shown 27 December 2015

As the ‘Previously On’ teaser begins, we come back to Soldier Island as the victims do. We’re left in no doubt of the adaptation’s status as ‘thriller’: the sinister music, the quickly cut scenes, the final shot of death.

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The adaptation in many ways brings out elements that in the book were under the
surface. To put it bluntly, everyone on television is a lot nastier. Armstrong’s sneering
dismissal of Vera is unpleasant to watch as he spits out the line:

“Miss Claythorne, I warned you against becoming hysterical”

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– but it’s utterly believable as extension of the weak, overly defensive character we see in the book.

This has good and bad aspects. It’s part of the medium that television forces interpretations onto the viewer, whereas reading the book we can make up our own minds.

“Rogers, did you take away any of these figures?” is a very simple line but can be anything in print: investigatory, quizzical, conversational, interrogatory, aggressive. On television, an actress can only play it one way – and the way chosen this time is near-panic. It’s a valid interpretation, but does make everything more black and white.

But there are good sides to this. The 20s attitude to women, the working class, is unspoken in the book. An adaption made in the 21st century lets us see quite how nasty this could be – worth remembering next time we snuggle up to a cosy rerun of Poirot.

“Who the hell do you think you are? I’m a doctor, and you’re just a secretary” snaps Armstrong. “It was dreadful news about Mrs Rogers,” Miss Brent says briskly to the recently widowed husband, “she was a wonderful cook”. Everyone looks on to injustice, and says nothing.

The bad side is that putting all of these extra interpretations into the mix, and making quite a lot of subtexts into text, only mostly works. For one thing, the removal of the shades of grey from many of the characters makes it difficult to get emotionally involved with the fate of anyone: they’re all so unappealing. Even General MacArthur, the most at ease with his fate and least malevolent, is still defined by his selfishness: he doesn’t mind death because he doesn’t have anything to live for. It never crosses his mind that whilst heis done with life, the same might not be true of the others, especially the far-younger Vera, Blore and Lombard. For another, both MacArthur’s and Lombard’s
treatment of Vera, the former patronising, the latter predatory, means that she starts the story already two steps away from hysteria. Tension has to slowly build or rise and fall. If it maintains the same pitch for too long the audience get bored.

Additionally, the sad fact is that both Rogers and Mrs Rogers aren’t very successful characters. Through them, we learn that it’s a cruel world and the cast are cruel people by the way the rich characters treat their social inferiors. It doesn’t leave very much room for
either Rogers or Mrs Rogers as people. Arguably there’s not much the adaptation could have done about this as they’re both offed pretty early on, but then the same could be said of Marston yet Douglas Booth crams a lot into about five minutes. It’s unfortunate that, after making some much of their lot as servants, they are ultimately in the adaptation only to serve a dramatic function.

And then we come to Miss Brent.

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It’s been mentioned earlier that the original version of the character won’t wash here, simply because Miranda Richardson is far too attractive to play the character as written in the book. So instead we have to have a different motive. And the one we get is that she’s a repressed lesbian.

It’s not that it isn’t a valid interpretation, and it is good when adaptations do new things. It’s slightly disappointing that, for more than one character, what was a complex set of motives in Christie’s original boils down to ‘sex’ when adapted for TV.

This is also true for the Lombard and Vera story. And it was probably inevitable that Aiden Turner was going to take his top off at some point. The problem is that, as we’ve seen, the script has gone all this way to emphasise how the social barriers of class and gender remain in place despite everyone dying left right and centre. We see Rogers
making the breakfast after the death of his wife, then Vera being the one to deal
with lunch as the only woman left alive, and we’ve seen how the expectations are so built-in to this society that no-one for one moment questions this.

And then we also have Lombard wandering around shirtless in front of the ladies. Not that the character is really one to care, but you would expect someone to say something at this point because the rest of the characters have not yet broken down completely.

[An aside: Philip Lombard, let’s remember, is on the island because he killed a group of men, 21 in all. When Vera asks him about it, we get this exchange.

“Did you really kill all those men?” “Yes, Miss Claythorne, I did. And more.”

…and then he keeps going on about wanting to kill his host and make U N Owen number 22. Was he lying or can’t he count?]

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In a sort-of defence, the whole thing is not exactly sexed-up. Other than Lombard and
Marston, for whom it is in character, nobody looks good. Wargrave, Armstrong and MacArthur are nondescript, Vera is downright dowdy. We see characters greasy-haried, in dressing gowns. There is nothing sexy about watching a panic-stricken, half-naked Lombard realise that the gun has gone missing: it just shows us that he is in disarray both
emotionally and physically. And you would certainly not get the line ‘Now, let’s wash the guts off the stairs’ in Poirot.

So when, as the characters search all the bedrooms following the disappearance
of the gun, we get a Romantic Moment between a dressing-gown clad Vera and Lombard – who, slightly less explicably, still hasn’t put a shirt on – we can rest easy in the
knowledge that there’s definitely Dramatic Justification.

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REVIEW: And Then There Were None – Part 1

And Then There Were None

And Then There Were None

Adapted by Sarah Phelps for the BBC

First shown 26 December 2015

The nation sits back on Boxing Day, stuffed full of turkey and chocolate, to
watch nasty, brutal murder. Classic stuff.

And Then There Were None is a rarity. It does not take place in cosy Christie-land, where the church clock chimes three as arsenic is served for tea. There are no glamorous parties, no girls with shingled hair. The key to Christie’s enduring appeal is partly escapism. The reader wants to be part of the settings of Death on the Nile, Murder on the Orient Express, or The Body in the Library – seeing the pyramids, drinking cocktails in the dining car, having afternoon tea with the Bantrys. And there is an essential safety to Poirot or Marple, or to any of the novels with a one-off hero or heroic young couple. It’s the same logic as Shakespearian tragedy, and the detectives play the same role as Fortinbras in Hamlet or Albany in Lear. There is disturbance (the murder), followed by uncertainity and chaos. Then our heroes turn up and order is restored: the murderer is caught, possibly the Young Lovers get together, and things carry on as they always have been.

And Then There Were None closes with everyone dead and a houseful of bodies.

Any adaptors set themselves a challenge. An inferior story can be rescued by nice costumes, a few minor rewrites and some featured guest stars. And Then There Were None is already a good story, but a fundamentally unpalatable one: it’s a nasty tale about nasty people, but one that ramps up the tension and sends chills up the spine on every re-reading. To make it more audience-friendly, Christie herself injected a Young Lovers subplot into the first theatre version: a decision that is justifiable to make a feel-good play, but one that hasn’t stood the test of time*. An adaption doesn’t just have to stay true to the appeal of the original, it also has to find something new to say, to do something in its chosen medium (TV, film, play, e.t.c) that couldn’t be done on paper.

So, does it work?

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We begin artistically. Shots of waving corn, followed by a close-up of
somebody’s eye. Quick, thrilling cuts introduce us to the characters.
Including the intro, it takes two minutes before we hear a line of dialogue.

For a moment, it seems like classic Christie: sunlight, a beach, a glamorous young girl with vermilion lips. Then we switch to the present day: dark colours, rain, and a thin, haggard girl standing in front of a window, sucking on a cigarette. It’s honestly a shock to find it’s the same person and we  know, immediately, that this is not going to be a nice story. This shows us in a matter of seconds what would have taken pages on paper. Even before she enters a grotty office to take the post of secretary on Soldier Island, we already know how far Vera Claythorne has fallen.

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Television can show us things that we can only infer from paper. Actors can bring new aspects to characters, aspects that were only implied in the original. Aside from a few clever visual gags – a close-up of the blind pull on the train makes it look like a hangman’s noose – we get to see things that there wasn’t space for us to be told in the novel. Our introductions to the characters are in little, telling vignettes, with an imperious Wargrave getting Blore to carry his suitcase as they arrive on the island, Lombard’s predatory eyes forcing Vera to move seats on the train, Marston’s car running Dr Armstrong off the road.

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Quite sweetly, we also see a couple of sympathetic moments from General
MacArthur. He’s quite thinly-sketched in the book, but Sam Neill gives him a humanity with his shy, earnest, pompous smile and the quietly chivalric way he chats to Vera after the boatman is rude to her. He even gets a small moment of heroism, staying calm while the others lose their heads as the action heats up.

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Anthony Marston is another cipher-in-the-book who becomes real on screen. Douglas Booth combines boyish good looks with charming, ruthless narcissim and is easily the most enthralling character in a scene.

Marston ran over two children and didn’t stop. When this is revealed, he asks ‘Who on earth are John and Lucy Coombes?’ with an air of pure bewilderment. A two-dimensional cut-out on paper is transformed into a glossy, arrogant rich boy who talks of ‘simpatico’ great chums, flings himself down on the chairs, leers at Vera, yet through all this maintains an air of childish innocence. His delivery of ‘Let’s be pals‘ as part of his ‘apology’ for running Armstrong off the road is BAFTA-worthy.

It’s an exceptional piece of casting. The same must also be said of Aiden
Turner as Lombard, who somehow manages to be dashing and sleazy at the same time. Lombard is clearly, unapologetically evil but enrapturingly so. Not once but twice we get a male-gaze from his angle directed at Vera. She shrugs it off, but it’s deeply threatening. The narrative makes it clear from the off that everyone on the island is guilty and every action, scene, shot and expression makes us feel part of the unsettling atmosphere.The lighting is cold, as are the big, empty rooms of the house. We see the bloodied bodies of children run over by a car. Wide camera angles mean the large house is made to look tiny against the expanse of the
island, the characters are small on the screen. Lines like “She’s been dead
about 14 hours…tell the others not to expect too much in the way of
breakfast” speak volumes in 19 words.

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That said, there are some missteps. Anna Maxwell Martin is a lovely looking woman with a rare, aristocratic, almost ethereal beauty. No amount of shaking hands and unflattering glasses will make her suitable for the role of browbeaten, meek, grotty skivvy Mrs Rogers. Emily Brent in the novel is a bitter, sexually frustruated, plain woman with a religious mania.

The unstated backstory in the novel is that Emily Brent found solace in
religious mania and self-righteousness because she was an ugly woman, inside and out, who was unable to attract friends or family: someone who lashed out at the world because the world did not want her. And in this role they cast Miranda Richardson.

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With all the acting in the world this doesn’t ring true.

Somehow, Richardson carries the portrayal off – it isn’t the Miss
Brent from the book, but the imperious, high-strung Lady of the Empire is a new and fascinating character in her own right. The same sadly cannot be said of Mrs Rogers. Bowed and scuttling, this portrayal is capital-A Acting and would work on stage. On screen, in close-up, it’s far too unsubtle and quite frankly unbelievable. There isn’t dramatic tension if a character starts the story so close to a nervous breakdown as Mrs Rogers clearly is; there’s nowhere to take the character. Both Mr and Mrs Rogers are too near parody, and you never forget for a moment that these are actors playing parts.

Fortunately, everyone else is so good that, for the moment, it doesn’t really matter.

*The flip side of this is that turning a ‘cuddly’ Christie into a cold story
doesn’t work either. The David Suchet Murder on the Orient Express is a case in point. The novel is the high point of cosy Christie: it has a genuinely
moral heart to it and takes place amongst fur coats and cocktails. The
adaption has the cast huddle shivering in a freezing train carriage while sympathetic characters break down and threaten murder, ending with a crisis of faith from Poirot of all people. None of these are inherently bad ideas, they just don’t fit with the theme of the original.

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.

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

** De gustibus non est disputandum.

Review: The Crime of Julian Wells

TheCrimeJulianWells

The Crime of Julian Wells

Thomas H. Cook

Mysterious Press, 2012

Don’t just book it, Thomas Cook it!

After finishing this book, the reader is left with an almost overwhelming desire to hit someone. The problem is that they will, quite probably, be unsure who. Because in The Crime of Julian Wells either the narrator is supposed to be a pretentious, boring twat or the author genuinely is a pretentious boring twat. The problem is that the only way to find the answer would be to read another book by the same author: which would require a streak of sadomasochism beyond most mortals.

The narrator, Philip Anders, is one of the most boring Everymen you’re ever likely to come across.  But this doesn’t matter, as he had an exciting best friend, the eponymous Julian. At least, we’re told that they’re best friends: their relationship seems more akin to a man and a loyal puppy. Julian, supposedly a dark and troubled genius, commits suicide one day by slitting his wrists in a boat in the middle of the lake. [There are several logical flaws here. Slitting your wrists in water goes back to slitting your wrists in a hot bath, and this is because the heat, rather than the water, makes your blood flow more easily. There is very little reason to row your boat out into the middle of a pond unless you were particularly worried that someone was going to find you and rescue you. In Julian’s case, this begs two questions: 1) why bother with the boat at all if you lived a solitary life alone and 2) why then commit suicide on the one day you’re sharing a house with your sister and she sees you rowing away?] Why did he do it? Does his suicide have anything to do with the ‘crime’ he keeps mentioning to anyone that’ll listen? Does this ‘crime’ have anything to do with the lovely but mysterious Parasol Marisol the friends met in Argentina? Do we care?

The mystery itself can best be summed up like this: some characters we don’t know and don’t care about meet the narrator and explain things relating to characters we never meet (and so don’t care about). This goes on for about seventy pages, until Our Protagonists – it’s stretching the point to call them heroes, as throughout the book they don’t actually do anything – finally end speaking to a former fascist general (despite being someone who spent their life professionally torturing people, he’s quite easily the most charming and appealing character in the novel) who tells them that Murder Mysteries Begin At Home. Well. That was pointful.

The novel appears to be trying to be an intellectual piece. We can tell this because every chapter contains a reference to a far better novel that is almost, but not quite, relevant to the situation the characters find themselves in.

 ‘In literature, the unopened envelope occupies a privileged place. Most famous, perhaps, is the one Angel does not find in Tess of the D’Ubervilles, and the lack of its discovery causes a deeper tragedy to unfold.’

It’s like being repeatedly battered over the head with an English Literature textbook. This reaches its height of page 188 of the UK edition where Loretta, Julian’s sister and the narrator’s love interest, reflects that she should have seen the warning signs of her brother’s depression. Fair enough; a very natural and human response. Indeed, we quite often miss obvious things until it’s too late. It is therefore extremely unfortunate that Loretta’s reminiscences go something like this:

‘You know, he said something quite disturbing a couple of days before he went out in the boat [to commit suicide]…Just as a matter of conversation, I said ‘So, how are you doing Julian?’ I expected him to answer the way he usually did, something like ‘I’m fine, Loretta, how are you?’ But instead he quoted that line from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. You know, the one where he says, ‘A thousand slimy things lived on and so did I.’…. I should have known that he was in a very bad place.’

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The poor man could have been balancing on the edge of the Golden Gate Bridge screaming ‘I have nothing to live for, I may as well just die!’ and this bright spark still wouldn’t have noticed. Just to add to her charm, Loretta also gets the worst luck with the endless pseudo-meaningful dialogue in the book, leading to lines like:

‘I guess we all leave a trail of little pebbles scattered on the forest floor,’ she said. ‘But I always wonder where those pebbles would have led to with Julian’.

Which is perhaps the most meaningless things ever put to paper. Julian, allegedly, is a genius. His particular talent is writing books that, apparently, cross the line between philosophy, history, religion and literary fiction: he writes life stories of serial killers. He claims that ‘the pain of others should not be made thrilling’: why he bothers to write about serial killers at all is therefore slightly unclear. But in showing Julian as brilliant, we stumble across another problem. You can, in a film, show a brilliant writer. You can, in a book, show a brilliant musician or artist. But you can’t tell us, in a book, that a character is a brilliant writer because we expect to see evidence. Cook makes the fatal mistake of showing us a sample of Julian’s ‘brilliant’ writing: suspiciously, it turns out to be very similar to the style of the rest of the book.  His supposed ‘genius’, coupled with the general pretentiousness of the novel, leads to statements that are not only terribly written by also thunderingly, thunderingly obvious.

‘The guilt of whipping a great man would be terrible’

‘Or an innocent one,’ Julian said.

‘It all comes down to people in the end, Loretta. All the global policies and grand schemes. They all come down to what we do to people, whether we help them or harm them.’

The reader is left with the horrible, horrible suspicion that the novel would only be useful if you needed a lot of quotes very quickly for a very bad English Lit essay. And this pretty much sums up the problem: The Crime of Julian Wells wants to mean something. Which is seldom a problem with mystery writing, but a very great problem with modern fiction, and it’s then that you notice quite how familiar the plot is. In the hope that pointing out the narrative’s failings somehow negates them, the narrator at one point reflects  that ‘this could not be the ending….as a literary route towards dark discoveries this one was way too familiar.’ He’s damn right about the second part because, in “modern classics” like The Secret History or The Sense of An Ending, we’ve seen all this before. The  ‘tortured pretentious individual does Something Bad , which later turns out just to be pathetic and sordid, then commits suicide and the story is uncovered by his curious and mundane best-friend and hanger-on’ should by now be its own genre.

Which means that we’d be able to categorise everything within it, then burn the bloody lot of them.

Because it’s not just that The Crime of Julian Wells is bad. It’s bad because it thinks that every little thing that makes it so awful should make it great literature. Much in the same way that you don’t know if the narrator is meant to be so annoying or not, The Crime of Julian Wells could only be called a success if, reading it, Cook really did intend for the audience to be cast into a state of great depression and general ennui.

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Review: He Wouldn’t Kill Patience

HeWouldntKillPatience

He Wouldn’t Kill Patience

John Dickson Carr (as Carter Dixon)

Heinemann, 1944

As motivational speakers are so fond of saying, we each have our own special talent. For John Dickson Carr, it was the ability to think up a series of increasingly unlikely ways people could be murdered alone in a room sealed from the inside. He’s the undisputed master of this, and He Wouldn’t Kill Patience doesn’t disappoint. The curator of a zoo is found dead in a locked room, sealed with paper from the inside: possibly murder, possibly suicide. Except that also found dead is one of his new specimens: and whatever he might have done to himself, the curator would never have hurt Patience the snake.

As a police officer in an Agatha Christie novels wisely said, most murders are dull:  domestic stabbings, shootings, poisonings, “accidents”, with a cast of two or three suspects at most. This makes detective fiction an improbable genre from the start, and howdunnits even more so. Locked room mysteries consequently have a tendency towards the slightly (very) bizarre from the get-go, and then we factor in the second greatest thing about John Dickson Carr: his genuine love of the eccentric and the arcane.  Writers such as Sayers or Innes sprinkle obscure quotations around like confetti and expect us to be impressed, but never once have they put a murder in a reptile house, with the Young Lovers investigating (a Carr staple, they begin at loggerheads despite never having met and end up a couple by the end) as the only descendants from rival warring families of magicians, the Quints and the Pallisers. Neither of these, naturally, are in any way vital to the plot.

He Wouldn’t Kill Patience wouldn’t know ‘gritty realism’ if it hit it over the head in a dark alley. Despite being set in the Blitz, the characters carry on their day-to-day lives as normal, even though there’s mention of longer-term effects. But neither of those things matter.  Because it’s killingly funny and one of those books that, while wearing its learning lightly (Crispin, take note), has a genuine intelligence and love of knowledge that shines through every page. It’s only a couple of paragraphs into the first chapter, paragraphs that centre entirely on the zoo doorkeeper’s complete loathing for humanity, that you realise that you’re reading a murder mystery written in the style of P G Wodehouse. Carr’s title as ‘Master of the Locked Room Mystery’ is well-deserved, but it causes us to forget that he can also do to other things if he chooses: character, and comedy. Sadly, his comedy is based on absurdism and so never mixes with character, while his character is based on cynicism and so never mixes with comedy. But it means, as the Young Lovers get into an argument on their first meeting and inadvertently set a poisonous snake loose in the reptile house, we get confrontations like this between Merrivale and the grumpy doorkeeper:

‘Don’t incite him sir! Don’t run from him! Stand still, I tell you! Just stand still and he’ll be all right!’

‘I ain’t got the least doubt of it,’ roared the travelling voice of the stout gentleman. ‘Given the proper amount of exercise, he ought to be absolutely O.K. The point is, what happens to me?’

Wodehouse-esque. Especially in that a) the brilliant dialogue is for the page, and this scene would be unworkable acted and b) that line is supposedly spoken as the obese Sir Henry is running for his life away from a venomous snake. Sir Henry Merrivale himself can sometimes fall prey to the disease of many Golden Age detectives: he’s a collection of eccentric characteristics, but never quite works as a character. I gave a copy to my dad as a birthday present [Five Minute Mysteries believes the adage ‘give as you wish to receive’, so its friends and relatives have grown used to being given a nice book each Christmas and birthday], and his one observation was that Merrivale’s background, in this novel at least, just doesn’t fit: a Sir who refers to women as ‘wenches’ and drops his haitches. It may well be that this is explained in other novels – I think The Judas Window mentions it – but it’s still jarring. And despite the brilliance of the opening scene, which works brilliantly by introducing the detective as a potential passer-by / antagonist, Merrivale always has the upper hand, and there’s never really a sense of peril. He’s Sherlock Holmes, but with a sense of humour. Which, in a way, fits, as Carr in essence has the humour or Crispin and the plotting of Conan Doyle, with the addition of lines like:

‘Death was flowing out of the windows, flowing away; but it left a corpse like a straw doll.’

But I say ‘as good as Conan Doyle’ advisedly. A writer such as Agatha Christie will lay out the clues in a way that the intelligent reader should be able to guess. Since no reader is ever going to be as intelligent as Agatha Christie, that rarely happens, but by the end of one of her novels you’ve suspected all the characters but you’re still surprised. Then, when you read it again, the solution seems obvious. With Conan Doyle or Carr, you’re surprised and you never see the solution coming, but that’s because it’s a conjuror’s trick, like a rabbit out of thin air. As with many Carr stories, there aren’t really any characters and the motive is spurious but then the solution itself is so utterly, brilliantly ingenious that it doesn’t matter, and it’s an entertaining read in its own right. Nowadays Carr is essentially out-of-print in mainstream bookshops, which is quite a shame. Because while he’s utterly, utterly esoteric, he’s also completely brilliant.

 *

Post-Script

Whilst anyone who calls J D Carr a misogynist is demonstrably an idiot, in approximately half of his books there’s a moment that makes you go ‘um…’, even though it’s almost always a sign of either villainy or simply a character taking the piss. Here, it’s in Merrivale’s romantic advice to Carey, one half of the story’s resident Young Lovers:

 “If she starts raggin’ you, son, you just wallop her one. That’s the way to treat wenches when they get out of hand”.

The past is another country. They do things differently there.

Review: A Venetian Reckoning; or Common Problems With Tourist Fiction

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A Venetian Reckoning

Donna Leon

Macmillan, 1995

One of the greatest things about Golden Age novels is that they seldom begin with a lorry full of Romanian prostitutes skidding on black ice then falling down a mountainside leaving no survivors.

If you are in any doubt that abuse, trafficking and selling of human beings as commodities is Bad Thing, then A Venetian Reckoning is the book for you!

But if you’ve already reached this conclusion independently, you may prefer to read something else.

There’s a formula for crime novels set in Italy. The covers show a touristy picture, photoshopped to look spooky, and praise from critics for depicting the dark heart of a beautiful city. We’ll get a decent sightseeing tour of [InsertTouristDestinationHere*], get drawn into the dark and nasty underworld of [InsertTouristDestinationHere], and hopefully get some mediations on the human condition and how justice is done in difficult conditions. All well and good. But another culture is as alien as the past, and tourist fiction runs the same risk as historical fiction. If the author isn’t a native of the time / place they’re writing about, they’re often more interested in the setting than the plot and this is fatal**. Research is a good thing, but it has to be worn lightly and, crucially, it should look effortless. You finish A Venetian Reckoning with a better understanding of the author’s opinions about corruption in Italian politics than you do about any of the characters, and you find out more about the mechanics of human trafficking than you do about the motives for murder. You can’t forget that this is a novel written as virtual tourism, especially when characters persistently philosophise about their surroundings in a thuddingly unsubtle way.

‘Why arrest anyone for murder…when the man who for decades had been the highest politician in the country stood accused of having ordered the murders of the few honest judges who dared to stand up to the Mafia?’

‘We once had an empire, now all we have…all we have is this Disneyland.’

Leon’s protagonist, Commissario Guido Brunetti, holds every virtue of the One Honest Cop. He loves his wife and daughter, works around his unhelpful superiors, is wearily cynical on matters of religion and politics and is utterly, utterly boring. He is almost saved by the Leon’s wry humour and the sheer quality of the writing. Almost, but not quite. A selection of unpleasant individuals die; their deaths are dutifully investigated; the murderer is eventually found; the situation is morally ambiguous; we end on a general note of senselessness and futility. The world is full of bad people and stupid people, and the one or two good people are fighting an unwinnable fight. This, perhaps, is an understandable moral to take away from corrupt systems, especially Italian politics.

The attitude to this, especially from a foreigner’s perspective, would be laugh or cry (tragedy, after all, is only comedy slowed down). It is perfectly possible for an Anglo-Saxon academic living in Italy and fascinated by the culture to write a very good series of Italian police procedurals, with a side-line in culture, humour, and a virtual tour of the country: the comparisons with Michael Dibdin’s better(-known) Aurelio Zen series were always going to be obvious. Like Dibdin, Leon seems to have written these novels partly as thrillers, partly because she seems genuinely fascinated by the culture, the setting, the idea of justice in a country of (perceived) corruption. But the two series give completely different impressions. Reading the Zen novels, you leave with a sense that, for all its flaws, Dibdin had a genuine affection for his host country and took joy in its eccentricities. You occasionally get the sense that Leon seems to think that Italy would be a perfectly nice place if it weren’t for all the Italians. The Zen novels had the sense that most people, though often brutal, selfish or vindictive, are fundamentally decent and just trying to make their own way in the world: the conflict comes when these ways collide. The main character was generally a decent and reasonably honest man who sometime got caught in events beyond his control, and sometimes found that the practical and common-sense thing to do wasn’t always the same as the Right thing to do. You consequently gained an understanding about how a corrupt system could be staffed by both bad people and by good people just trying to get shit done. In A Venetian Reckoning, you get an understanding about how a corrupt system is staffed by bad people just trying to get rich. But the novel also contains the confusing message that minor corruption is not corruption at all if you’re on the side of Truth and Justice.

And, like so, so, so very many modern crime novels, for its verisimilitude and cynicism A Venetian Reckoning comes with a fundamental Good People / Bad People divide. For all the corruption, murders, rapes and pointless deaths this leaves the novel with a curious sense of naiveté, almost like a fairy story. It’s not, consequently, a reflection on character or anything relevant to real life, just a particularly brutal morality tale.

It’s mildly diverting, though needlessly brutal. Read Dead Lagoon instead.

 

 

 

 

*The frequency rate seems to go: Venice, Florence, Rome, everywhere else. This initially seems confusing, as Italy’s second-most visited city, Milan, seems left out – until you realise that half of Milan’s tourist industry from within Italy, with Venice is nearly 20 points ahead in terms of international tourism. Tourist novels are, after all, written for foreigners.

**Much of Five Minute Mysteries’ admiration for Lindsey Davis comes from how good she is at not doing this.

Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling

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The Cuckoo’s Calling

Robert Galbraith

Sphere, 2013

Bloody hell, this is good.

To some, this may come as a surprise. You can argue that, based on the Harry Potter series, that J.K.’s strengths are world-building and plot, even say that this is proved by The Casual Vacancy which, a vaguely political Aga-Saga, literally lacked the magic. So much is tied to J.K.’s name that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to judge her writing on merit alone. And we expect more of the great J.K., with eight full-length novels under her belt, than we do from a first novel from an anonymous author; there is also a lot more mileage in putting the boot into the most printed author on the planet than a never-previously published former soldier. This is more than a reaction than a review as it’s not, as a consequence, really possible to judge The Cuckoo’s Calling alone after finding out Galbraith’s real identity. But what’s certain is that this is a good novel, and a decent detective story.

‘Well that’s what I thought,’ said Strike. ‘But I’m no expert on women and their clothes.’

The links to Rowling’s real identity are subtle, and quite hard to spot: the occasional not-quite-jibes at Gordon Brown become slightly more amusing in this light, while the names have the same fairy-tale eloquence that we saw in Harry Potter. This time, the joy is that it needs explaining how the characters came by them. Watch for the explanations as they appear.

[It is worth taking some time to try and find these before you read on, but…] As well as the use of stereotypical names, such as a plain secretary called Alison and a working-class girl called Rochelle, the novel features: Cormoran Strike, named after two predatory birds, the latter of which with the obvious double-meaning, who is assisted by a secretary named Robin (and she gets a joke associated with her name in the first few pages). Lula’s useless boyfriend gets the name Duffield, while we get the best placeholder name imaginable with the designer Guy Somé (flip the words around). An extremely unpleasant film producer is given the name Bestigui (Beastie-guy). Pushing the boat out a bit, the aristocratic guardian of Lula’s secrets is called Ciara (Tiara) Porter. Lula Landry herself takes the nickname ‘Cuckoo’, which gives the novel a name and the eventual solution a metaphor.

And it may well be J.K’s best piece of character yet. You could see quite a few of Rowling’s opinions of humanity in The Casual Vacancy, but it was a political novel so the audience were bored. In The Cuckoo’s Calling, her observations are secondary to the detective story, and consequently become a pleasure. The portrayal of the world of ‘models, rappers, fashion designers, druggies and illicit liasons’  is actually fairly complimentary; it’s in the portrayal of the hereditary rich that Galbraith really begins to snarl. It’s a joy to watch.
The same is true of the descriptions. Seeing the bulky ex-military Strike walking among the thin and industrious assistants of a fashion designer, we get the line,

‘Strike felt abnormally huge and hairy; a woolly mammoth attempting to blend in amongst capuchin monkeys.’

Beautiful.

‘Thread eyebrows. It’s like plucking, but with threads.’
Strike could not imagine how this worked. (Woman writing! Woman writing!)

While ‘we can tell a woman wrote it because of the descriptions of clothes’ is overstating the case, it is true that clothes are better described than Strike’s military past, which never quite rings true or seems real. Strike himself is the stereotypical tough damaged hero with money troubles, woman troubles, a streak of cynicism as long as the Thames and a heart as big as the Ritz, but he’s a cipher compared to the cast who surround him. Equally, something about Charlotte, Strike’s ex-fiancée, doesn’t quite seem right, but then she is, by design, a spectre. But it’s in the nature of detective novels that the detective isn’t (or shouldn’t be) the most interesting, as they’re the reader’s way of observing the interplay of character that culminates in murder.

Harry Potter had a bland lead because he was a normal way in to a very strange world populated by very strange characters, learning as the reader did. The Cuckoo’s Calling features the world of high fashion and higher money, not quite as odd as that of witches and wizards, but still the detective needs to be a more ordinary outsider. Strike’s past is implausible and he’s not very interesting, but he’s an inappropriate way to judge Galbraith’s skill with character. Strike’s new secretary Robin acts as the audience identification everywoman, but Galbraith makes her a very charming one and a character in her own right. If we call the city a character, then London here is not quite as well-drawn as it is in some other novels (read Rivers of London for how to do the city justice). It’s a novel set in London, not a London novel, but the sparkling bright mindset of the dying days of New Labour is brilliantly evoked.

But the rest of the cast more than make up for these quibbles: it may even be possible to ascertain Galbraith’s gender by the descriptions of women alone. Perhaps the best example of this is the depiction of selfish, generous, loving, desperate for love, loyal, untrustworthy Lula Landry, and it’s a testament to Galbraith’s skill with character that we know and understand all this is in spite of the fact that we never meet her alive. The novel could have done with more twists roundabout the middle, where we spend a long time running round London simply so (we suspect) Galbraith can spend more time with his characters. Like ever-so-many, the beginning is more interesting than the end, and the eventual explanation is a twist that we’ve seen before. Coupled with one major logical flaw that is acknowledged but not explained. But the motive, so so rarely for modern crime novels, is both logical and beautifully poetic at the same time.

Seen in light of J.K.’s other work, it’s good. It doesn’t have the imagination of Harry Potter, the political drive of The Casual Vacancy, and lacks the breadth of both. But it’s a solid detective novel, a good piece of writing and, overall, a delightful character piece. Read and enjoy.

Review: The Mystery of a Hansom Cab

 

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The Mystery of a Hansom Cab

Fergus Hume

Kemp and Boyce, 1886

A drunk gets into a hansom cab and leaves dead, killed by chloroform. A newcomer to town, nobody had reason to mourn him, especially his rival in love. However, his death proves to have more motives behind it than first seem possible.

The first thing that grabs you is the blurb which, like many back covers, promises a ‘mystery that will hold you, the reader, from page one right through to the end’.  And, as part detective story, part murder-procedural with revelations continuing right up to the final chapter, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab certainly delivers. The pity is that the sentence before this asks ‘How could a person travelling on his own in the back of a cab been chloroformed to death?’, which promises an intriguing locked-room mystery.

A locked-room mystery that holds you, the reader, right up until…the second page, where it is revealed that somebody got into the cab with him. Just to make things that little bit clearer, he does this with the full knowledge and agreement of the cab’s driver (who later reports the murder). Twenty-eight pages later, (in a two-hundred and thirty-nine page novel!), we find out that this man did not only know the victim, but was the victim’s arch rival. John Dickson Carr, this ain’t.

The faults of the back cover aside, this is actually a very good murder-procedural, even if it does seem to shift genres throughout. For the first couple of pages, this seems a detective story: we have the (not-so) mysterious murder in the back of a moving hansom cab at the dead of night then we meet our detective, but this is done in a refreshingly novel way. For information about the crime, we cut from newspaper report to the inquest to the newspaper again, by which time Hume has neatly imparted all initial clues / alibis etc, then switch pace completely, cutting to detective Mr Gorby.

‘Hang it,’ he said, thoughtfully stropping his razor, ‘a thing with an end must have a start, and if I don’t get the start how am I to get to the end?’

In every detail in his introduction, he’s the typical Golden Age detective: initiative and eccentricity. When we initially meet him, he’s expositioning happily about the case. Since he’s a conscientious and honest policeman, however, he’s doing so to his only trusted confidante: his shaving mirror. Within three pages, he’s off discovering unusual pockets in dress waistcoats, finding landladies and, like everyone else in 19th to early 20th century detective novels, perusing the personal columns in the local newspaper.

However, the role of Main Character quickly shifts away from charming Mr Gorby to the accused, Brian Moreland and his amore, beautiful debutante Madge Frettlby. The story shifts from the crime itself to the crime’s effects, especially on Young Love: it’s rather as if Poirot had appeared at the beginning of The Mysterious Affair At Styles, then retired meekly to the background to let everyone else sort out their domestic affairs on the main stage.  But the murder-procedural format has its charms and, as always in good Golden Age novels, the little vignettes of humanity seen in bit-part characters are enjoyable. Unlike other novels set in the world of millionaires and debutantes, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is not afraid to dip its toes into the murky waters of the Melbourne underclass. The passages set among the alcoholic, syphilitic victims of this glittering world are among the best in the book, and the two worlds intertwine nicely in a way that Christie would balk at. Even if one of the characters bears the slightly improbably self-critical name of ‘Mother Guttersnipe’.

The revelations keep coming, right up until the end, though the story has the same problem that The Moving Toyshop suffered from: when the crime is sold as a ‘how?’ question, then the ‘how’ question is solved very quickly, the reader becomes less interested in the who and the why. But this isn’t a detective novel but a novel about crime, and it’s almost worth buying for the glimpses into turn-of-the-century Melbourne society. Think Law And Order set in 19th century Australia. It’s a study in crime, and the way it affects the characters associated with it. The main characters pale a bit towards the end, but it keeps you reading and, for the most part, interested. Well worth a look.

 

Post scriptum

One of the 100 best crime stories of all time’  The Sunday Times

‘Fergus Hume…went on to write a further 140 novels, but none of them achieved any real success at all.’  The back cover

The one thing, sadly, that immediately grabs you about this book is the wordlessly depressing fate of its author (and the best possible counter-argument to the idea previously expounded here). We are told (by Professor Barrie Haynes of Toronto, recounted in the introduction by H. R. F. Keating) that about twenty of these are eminently readable, which somehow makes the pathos worse. (Neither Haynes nor Keating mention which twenty).  The Mystery of a Hansom Cab remains a curiosity today for this reason: the author who struck lucky once, but never again.

Review: The Soft Talkers

 

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The Soft Talkers

Margaret Millar

Penguin Crime, 1957

Detective novels where the detective element only appears in the last chapter have a tendency to be both bad and irritating, and The Soft Talkers is no exception. The reader is left with the impression that the author really wished to write a character study, and the result would undoubtedly be a fine (if a little dull) piece of modern literature, and the pseudo-literary title reflects this (the original American edition was The Air That Kills, which makes even less sense). But detective fiction sold whilst novel-length character studies languished unpublished, and thus we get messes like this. (See also Julian Symon’s The Kentish Manor Murders which manages to be a decent-ish thriller instead; and Lisa Scottoline’s Dirty Blonde, to which I won’t give the privilege of a review.) There’s nothing quite like reading a book, knowing everything there is to know about a select group of characters, but by the end just thinking…why?

This is made baffling by the fact that the author was once President of the Mystery Writers of America and, according to the back-cover blurb, “is generally regarded as the heiress-apparent to Agatha Christie”. But then even Dame Agatha inflicted the world with Endless Night and, at the warning “praise” of ‘the final chapter packs a knock-out punch’ (Daily Telegraph, and was that really the best quote they could find?) it would perhaps have been best to have put the book down and moved on to something else. Perhaps the purpose is to prove that the writer can write, and maybe it sometimes succeeds in doing so. But better authors can do both a solid plot and auteur writing at the same time, and when an author thinks only one is possible it’s simply disrespectful to the reader. And if a reader doesn’t have the author’s respect, the author doesn’t deserve the reader. It’s a brilliant work of something, but it’s not a detective novel.

And it’s the attempt to be both that makes The Soft Talkers not only a failure, but a baffling one. The plot is entirely character driven – no messing around with alibis, evidence or fingerprints – and written differently might have been an entirely character-driven success in the manner of Cards on The Table. And it’s a pity, because both the characters and the writing are so sharp they hurt. By the end of the first page we get the line

‘Esther knew where he was going, but she was the kind of woman who liked to ask questions to which she already knew the answers. It gave her a sense of security.’

and we know that this is a book where character counts. The portrayals of the middle-aged central suspects are so pathetic (in the traditional sense) that they’re almost painful. The vignettes of those involved in the murder: the Mennonite schoolgirl who wants to be an explorer, the widowed mother and her brash daughter, the spinster provincial teacher secretly eyeing up the investigating officer, the ex-wife who lives on bitterness and hypochondria, the parody of the investigative reporter who cons his way into a character’s house pretending to sell water softeners…only to be caught out when she asks to buy one. The detective figure, academic Ralph Turee, is enjoyable bland though his happy family life is significantly odd in a story where every other character is unremittingly nasty, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, or both. The book would have made an extremely good murder-procedural. But unfortunately it tacks a mystery onto the end.

Some people may read it and think that it’s a work of brilliance, but for all its skill The Soft Talkers never quite plays fair. You can read it as a description of run-of-the-mill people coping with life and death and it’s reasonable. But it’s an imperfect detective novel because we only know it’s a detective novel because of the green cover of Penguin Crime, and when we don’t know the genre the reader can’t play along with the writer’s game. It’s a very imperfect character study because the ending completely invalidates everything that has gone before – it’d be a better novel if it had skipped out the last chapter, a better detective story if it were a good ninety pages thinner around the middle. For a good story, get the scissors.

Review: The Ides of April

 

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The Ides of April

Lindsey Davis

Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99

Most golden-age mystery lovers will already be aware of Davies’ most famous creation, Ancient Roman detective Marcus Didius Falco. Unlike most writers of historical fiction, Lindsey Davis gave us characters that are believable, an Ancient Rome that you’d want to live in and stories that, with minor alterations, could happen anytime, anywhere: the essence of character-driven plotting coupled with a breadth and depth of research that’ll take your breath away.  With Falco’s story told, Davis moves instead to his adopted daughter Flavia Albia, your typical bright-spark sharp-talking tough-yet-damaged beauty just waiting for the right man to melt her heart. Vespasian’s Rome of hot days and sunlight has given way to the darkness of the Emperor Domitian, a darkness punctuated by occasional screams.

A serial killer stalks the streets, and for the honest (and not-so-honest) Roman maiden Albia is the only hope, supported by a varyingly-helpful supporting cast of city guards, family members (wisely, the lead cast of the Falco novels are fondly mentioned but never appear), love interests, doormen and bathhouse attendants. But, unlike in the Falco novels (which contained, on the page, the same supporting cast relayed above) Albia is alone. She lacks friends, her family don’t appear and, for a woman in a very brutal man’s work, the life of an informer is lonely and scary. And Albia is a lot less human than Falco was.

Even from the beginning Falco had a best friend, an ordinary supporting cast of an estranged father, interfering mother, irritating sisters and a brother he couldn’t quite live up to: a background the ordinary reader could identify with, coupled with a humour that never slipped. Albia’s background involves a dead husband, a vanishing lover, rape, life on the street, orphaned in a massacre as a baby, and is a woman in a man’s world. Falco’s background was a deliberate subversion of the clichés that Albia’s background embodies and something is lost as a result.  Albia lacks both the humour and the human element that made Falco so appealing, and the world she lives in is cold and brutal. Compare the first lines of The Silver Pigs:

‘When the girl came rushing up the steps, I decided she was wearing far too many clothes’

with the opening of The Ides of April

“Lucius Bassus was three years old when his mother took her eyes off him and he ran out of the house to play…he was knocked down and killed by a builder’s cart”

The distinction becomes clear: we’re not in Kansas anymore. The detective element, which is usually the justification for darkness in a plotline, is sound but never becomes sparkling, while the detective is obnoxious and almost relentlessly unlikeable.

And it takes a great deal of time to realise that this is not only a strength, but the entire point. Seen through the eyes of a woman, life in Ancient Rome is barbaric and unfriendly and, though the culprit is obvious and the final ending a twist rather than a revelation, the pleasure is entirely in the ride. Above all, The Ides of April offers something new. Albia is who she is because of her environment, and makes for a timely reminder that, with cosiness of the Falco novels is ripped away, Domitian’s Rome was not a nice place to be and ancient history at last reclaims its alien feel while keeping the timelessness of the characters. The later Falco novels (bar Nemesis) had become interchangeable, with Falco leaving behind a Rome we’d seen too many times before for an extended travelogue of tourist destinations, hampered by an ever-expanding family of supporting characters who were, by now, too established to be in any danger.

It’s a difficult trick, pulling off a new series in the same setting with a similar protagonist and Davis does it with aplomb. It’s easy to forget that the Falco series didn’t find its feet until the third or fourth book and The Ides of April is a very promising start to a series unlike anything we’ve seen before. Flavia Albia has some way to go as a character but what Ides shows, above all else, is the Lindsey Davis still has it, and that her Ancient Rome still has a lot more to give.