Wednesday, January 24, 2018

good old-fashioned fun: Murder in Little Shendon, by A.H. Richardson

Every so often I tend to overdo in my reading life, and that happened to me toward the end of 2017.  It's not so much the number of books I read, but more the intensity of what I read, and by the end of the year I was actually burned out.  Add to that a number of real-world stress-producing events here, and it was time for a mental battery-recharging, week-long vacation.  I took a number of books along, nothing too heavy, and this novel was included in the stack.  It was exactly what the doctor ordered -- an old-fashioned, old-style British murder mystery -- no sex scenes, no gratuitous violence, no overly-complicated plotlines -- just quiet, solid reading fun, a brain relaxer and mental palate cleanser before I start moving up the reading-intensity scale again.  

Serano Press, 2015
249 pp
my copy sent to me from the publisher, thanks!

The victim in this case has left behind nearly an entire village's worth of people who may have wanted to kill him, so the story turns out to be an old-fashioned whodunit.  It seems that the now-deceased Mr. Bartholomew Fynche, who owned an antique shop called "The Bygone Era," had so many enemies that trying to figure out exactly who dealt the fatal blow that caved in his skull "fully an inch or two" is going to be a tough job for Inspector Burgess.  A phone call to his superintendent results in a pair of reinforcements: first, Sir Victor Hazlitt, whose eccentric aunt lives in the village and who knew the victim; second, Beresford Brandon, well-known actor with an "interest in criminology" whom the Superintendent feels may be of use to Burgess since people  in Little Shendon might open up to him.   Hazlitt stays with his aunt at her home while Brandon takes lodgings at the local village pub, where his job is to listen and collect gossip that might be helpful. It's an unlikely match, really, but it does seem to work, especially because Brandon has a way with people, some of whom in turn are awed by the fact that they're in the presence of a famous actor.  Between the three of them, they are determined to get to the bottom of this murder, sifting through witnesses, clues, and above all, Fynche's past to do so.  A second murder, however, complicates their task.  

Since there are so many people who could have done the dastardly deed, Murder in Little Shendon moves very slowly through witness questioning and scenes between the characters that definitely have something to hide from each other and from the police.  It is, in fact, a very slow-burning kind of mystery novel in which the author takes her time so that by the time of the big reveal, we know all the secrets in this little village except, of course, for the biggest one of them all.   She also builds on the fears among the inhabitants of Little Shendon that it is indeed one of their own that has committed these two crimes, and how this knowledge affects all of these people living in this closely-knit village.   

I have to say that I never guessed the identity of the culprit, which is always a plus; I enjoyed the slow pace of the story that offers time for thought in terms of my favorite pastime of armchair detecting, and many of the characters were eccentric enough to be invested in them.  On the other hand, while I was happy not to have guessed the who, it seems like the backstory of this character given at the end just sort of came out of nowhere without even the slightest hints being given anywhere else.   I found that sort of off-putting, but that's just a personal thing, since I have this need to sort of ferret out what sort of secrets lurk in characters' backgrounds through smallish sort of hints planted here and there that make for an "aha" moment when all is revealed.  Overall, it was a fine vacation mystery and I'm very happy to have had the opportunity to have read it -- as I said, it was absolutely what the doctor ordered: a slow-paced sort of throwback to the old-style British murder mystery with no flash, no gimmicks, no police angst, an unhurried pace, and plenty of red herrings. It would be perfectly at home on the shelves of cozy readers, for sure!

Thanks so much to Kelsey, and to the author for my copy of this book. It was just good, old-fashioned fun. 

Friday, January 5, 2018

The Accident on the A35, by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Contraband, 2017
256 pp


I'm sort of waffling about posting about this book here since technically it's not exactly a crime novel, but since the main character is a detective, this seems like the relevant place.

I have to give this book and its author serious applause.  If my 2018 reading year maintains this sort of quality, oh what a great year it will be.

Anyone who's read Burnet's The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau knows that the author set that story based on one single event from which everything else flowed.  That happens here as well, as Detective Georges Gorski is on scene to investigate a fatal accident on the A35, involving 59 year-old Bertrand Barthelme of 14 Rue des Bois, Saint-Louis.  Looking over the car, he finds nothing that might "communicate something to him," finishes his investigation, and leaves it to the Road Accident Investigation Unit to finish up. He goes to inform Barthelme's widow about the death; he also breaks the news to her teenage son Raymond.  When the two of them come in the next day to identify the body of the deceased, Mme. Barthelme reveals to Gorski that something's been troubling her: her husband had told her he was dining in town, so there would have been no reason at all for him to have been on the A35 where the accident occurred.  Gorski decides that it would "not be inappropriate to make some discreet enquiries" about what her husband had been doing before the accident, and starts looking into his whereabouts.  This won't be easy, since the deceased's colleagues and acquaintances seem rather reluctant to speak to him. At the same time, what little he finds out only makes Gorski more curious. And then there's Raymond, whose relationship with his father was strained at best, who rummages through his dad's desk -- what he finds there will set him on his own path of discovery.

Reading The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau convinced me that Burnet was channeling Simenon; while carrying on in that vein in Accident on the A35,  he now brings in some of the existentialist flavor of Sartre with a side of Camus.  The alienation, the desire for freedom, the internal darkness is all there, running throughout the entire novel.  Burnet has really done a great job with the character of Raymond, who exemplifies the existential angst of doing and feeling what he wants to as opposed to conforming to social expectations; the same is true in the case of Gorski with the added problems of a failing family/home life and career which is anything but satisfying.   Add into the mix that these dramas play out within the confines of the claustrophobic town of Saint-Louis, and what may have started as a detective story turns into much more of an examination deep into the realm of the human psyche. And it's not pretty, trust me. 

One more thing:  the metafictional nods in the introduction and epilogue work very nicely this time; I was less keen on them with the previous novel but this time they add an entirely new dimension to the reading of this book.  I can't and won't say why, but all becomes very clear.

Feel free to disagree, but this book tops The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau which I didn't think could be done because that one was so good.  Don't expect your average, run-of-the-mill detective story here -- this book is something that transcends the mundane and the ordinary.  It's so refreshing these days to find an author who rises well out of the mainstream and moves his work into literary territory, and that is precisely why I'm so drawn to his work. It's also why I'll  keep buying and reading Burnet's books as long as he continues to write them. 

highly, highly recommended