15#: Josephine Tey: The Daughter of Time

Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (1951) is a true detective masterpiece. Written shortly before Tey’s death, the book offers a thoughtful reflection on the way that we construct, receive and understand history. The novel takes place almost entirely in a hospital bed, as Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant attempts to stave off his boredom whist recovering from a broken leg. In an attempt to alleviate Grant’s frustration at being kept from his work, friend and actress Marta Hallard suggests that Grant should distract himself by reading historical mysteries. When Grant dismisses this idea, she decides instead to humor his interest in physiognomy and profiling by bringing in portraits of various historical figures. He is immediately struck by the ambiguous image of Richard III, a King who has been much maligned in both history and art. Although Grant prides himself on his ability to discern ones character through a reading of their physical features,  he finds it almost impossible to reconcile the gentle image he perceives with Richards’s supposedly tyrannous and violent actions.

Questioning the reasons why Richard has been so vilified in history, Grant begins to investigate the King’s life, in particular the case of the Princes in the Tower. Immersing himself in historical documents, textbooks and testimonies provided by a researcher at the British Museum, Grant concludes that Richard could have not possibly murdered the princes. Not only does he doubt the supposed evidence, but he sees this heinous act as irreconcilable with the consistency and integrity of Richard’s character outside of this event. He concludes instead that the blaming of Richard for the deaths was part of a broader Tudor propaganda plan, a way to tarnish Richard’s name after he was supplanted from the throne. He makes similar summations concerning Richard’s supposed disfigurements (hunch back, withered arm), arguing that it would have been impossible to be the great warrior he was whilst suffering with these particular psychical ailments.

The novel ultimately explores the construction of history, particularly how certain events become cemented in the public consciousness.  In the process, it comes to the almost obvious and well trodden conclusion that history is written by the victors…..who would have thought it? Despite this, The Daughter of Time is a brilliant and thought provoking novel, one packed full of historical insight and still strangely gripping considering its almost claustrophobic setting. No matter how much you resist, you will almost definitely find yourself rooting for Richard by the end of the novel. As a detective novel, Tey’s text is excellent, but for scholars of Richard III – or history more broadly – the case exonerating the maligned King is perhaps a little shaky. Ultimately, Grant’s justification for Richard’s innocence is predicated on the somewhat faulty logic that ‘he does not look like a killer’. Although some of the evidence he unearths supports this view of the King’s character, as a reader you are still left questioning the value of such physiognomic assumptions.

Either way, The Daughter of Time is a fantastic book and a must read for fans of any form of detective fiction. The novel is all the more interesting in the context of the recent exhumation of Richard’s bones, after they were discovered buried under a car park in Leicester (oh the regal glamour). After years of academic jousting over the nature of, or truth behind, Richard’s deformities, the discovery that he in did in fact suffer from severe scoliosis is fascinating, particularly when placed in the context of the other events swirling around the rumor mill (i.e princes in the tower). Who was it that said there is no smoke without fire…..?

#16: Peter Ackroyd: ‘Hawksmoor’

At #16 is Peter Ackroyd’s unconventional historical mystery Hawksmoor (1985). The first thing to say about Ackroyd’s novel is that it can only be very loosely considered crime fiction. As is the case with much of Ackroyd’s work, Hawksmoor oscillates between two seemingly incongruous time periods and plot lines. The first of these is set in the early eighteenth-century and centres around architect Nicholas Dyer’s manic construction of seven satanic churches around the East End of London. Dyer is a fictionalization of real life architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, who was commissioned to construct these very same churches in 1711 as part of an attempt to rebuild London’s Christian architecture following the damage caused by the great fire. Unbeknownst to mentor Christopher Wren, Dyer draws on his deep fascination with the occult to inspire his design of the churches. Part of this involves undertaking human sacrifices on the site of each new construction.

Meanwhile, in the 20th century, DCS Nicholas Haksmoor is tasked with investigating a mysterious string of murders that have occurred on the grounds of the very same churches. The baffling nature of the crimes is further compounded by the bizarre lack of forensic evidence left by the killer. As you might suspect, one of the central themes of the novel is the circularity of time, as events from both time periods seems to swirl into a disorientating ‘perpetual present’. This becomes most forcefully manifested in the psychic resonance of London’s palimpsestic topography. As Detective Hawksmoor delves deeper into the source of the killings and history of the churches, the spectral spaces of the city become a potent source of convergence between different time periods and characters.

Part postmodern narrative, part historical novel and part detective text, Hawksmoor is a an original and thought provoking novel. A must for fans of both crime and history!

Review – Alien Covenant

★★

This is a little left field of my normal content, but i recently watched Alien Covenant and was gripped by a pressing need to discuss it. I’m a massive fan of the original Alien films (well, the first two…) and always find myself seized by an irrational excitement and apprehension every time a new film is scheduled for release. Unfortunately, more often than not this has led to searing disappointment. From cockney convicts to plot holes the size of space itself, it is fair to say that the Alien franchise has caused me more frustration than pleasure. It is not surprising then that i approached Alien Covenant with a certain trepidation, I certainly had very low expectations. This perhaps goes some way towards explaining why I generally enjoyed the film

Covenant is a direct sequel to Ridley Scott’s disastrous Prometheus, the Alien prequel film that Scott insisted was not an Alien prequel film….In this sense, Covenant represents a more clear-cut return to the franchise, centering around a colonization mission bound for the remote planet of ‘Origae-6’. When a sudden ‘neutrino burst’ damages the ship killing both the captain (a bizarrely short cameo for James Franco) and a number of the 2000 colonists in cryosleep, ship synthetic Walter (Michael Fassbender) is forced to wake the crew from stasis in order to undergo repairs and restore the ship’s power. Whilst doing so, the ship picks up a cryptic transmission from a nearby planet (we’ve been here before…). This leads to a discussion as to whether it is a good idea to investigate the source or not (lets face it, it never is). After assessing the habitability of the planet, new captain and religious zealot Chris Oram (played by the excellent Billy Crudup) decides to explore the source of the call, sending an expedition team to descend and assess the planet’s atmosphere, terrain and vegetation.

Of course, after landing it is not too long before a couple of expendable characters become ‘infected’. I don’t want to give too much away here, but there is a new dimension to the body horror in this movie that is both novel, grotesque and, well fun! In general I think the first third of the movie is excellent. The tension builds slowly, some of the characters are well fleshed out and the early action scenes are both gripping and atmospheric. It is when the movie attempts to reconnect with the events of Prometheus that it starts to lose its pace.

A few crew members down and unable to contact the mother ship, it is not long before the crew are rescued by David (again played by Fassbender), an older model synthetic who has been marooned on the planet since landing there with other Prometheus survivor Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace). In this section of the movie, Scott once again attempts to explore the philosophical implications of creation and existence and there are some interesting scenes containing the two synthetics ….so basically Michael Fassbender and Michael Fassbender. Unfortunately, overall this section of the movie is a little incoherent and fragmented. The tension seems to drain out of the film in minutes and the subsequent deaths seem both rushed and ultimately inconsequential. In some ways, the best thing about Alien Covenant is that, in revisiting the plot of Prometheus, it basically eliminates the need to ever watch the film again. The events of Covenant make Prometheus ultimately redundant, which, i cant say i’m too sad about.

The last third of the film is pretty much rip roaring action and i’m not sure this is Scott’s strength. The first third of the film feels much more like the original, whereas the final third seems to be attempting to emulate the action and adrenaline of James Cameron’s Aliens. There are a couple of other frustrating things about Covenant. For one, the CGI is pretty bad. Not Alien 3 bad…but still bad. It think practical effects have always been better in films of this ilk and the fast moving, headbutting xenomorph in Covenant just doesn’t have the threat and meandering menace of the one from the first film. There are also a few plot holes and continuity issues that really bug me. Without wanting to spoil too much, one character ends up with a facehugger attached to his face, which, you know, is fine. But the gestation period is so short. Viewing wise it seems to be in his chest for about 3 mins, which in the context of the narrative is probably an hour or two. This is so much shorter than Kane in the first film, not to mention Ripley’s marathon gestation in Alien 3 (the thing honestly seems to be in there for about 4 weeks). These kind of consistency things really bug me, but i guess its not that big a deal…is it?

Covenant ends on a nice cliff hanger and overall is good film. I certainly think it is the best entry in to the franchise since the original two movies. A lot has been said about the film being derivative, but in some ways i think that this accusation is a little unfair. There is a lot of novelty in the film and Katherine Waterston as ‘Daniels’ does an excellent job with a tricky role. I also enjoyed Danny McBride’s surprisingly layered performance as ‘Tennessee’. The film is not as good as the original two, that’s just a fact. But there is a lot here to enjoy if you are a franchise mega fan. It’s certainly the first Alien film in a long time that i haven’t wanted to ‘blow out of the goddamn airlock’….to quote Ripley.

#17: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: ‘The Pledge’

At number 17 in my countdown of 20 greatest crime novels is Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s haunting, meta-fictional mystery The Pledge (1958)Prior to writing the novel, Dürrenmatt had long been a vocal critic of the genre and its conventions. In particular, he found it difficult to reconcile the neat and tidy resolutions often found in detective novels with the inherent chaos and incomprehensibility of real life and real crime. It is no surprise then that The Pledge is a somewhat unconventional detective novel, one that deliberately defies the possibility of logical solutions.

The novel is structured as a frame narrative, one that begins with a fictional Dürrenmatt interviewing a former “chief of police in the canton of Zurich” as part of research for a detective novel. Rather than encouraging the author, the former chief of police criticises the institution of crime fiction for creating a fantasy of order and resolution that is inapplicable to the real world:

“People hope that at least the police know how to order the world—I can imagine no more pathetic hope—but unfortunately in all these detective stories there is another quite different swindle going on—I don’t even mean the fact that your criminals will be brought to justice. This delightful fairy tale is no doubt morally necessary.  It is one of the lies that keep the state going, as does the pious saying, crime doesn’t pay—whereas in fact you only have to look at human society to see the truth on that score”

The former chief of police gradually assumes the role of primary narrator and proceeds to tell a cautionary tail of a former police inspector, Detective Matthäi, who on his last day with the department is called to investigate a brutal child murder. Although a suspect soon comes forward confessing to the murder, Matthäi’s experience and instincts tell him that the real culprit is still at large. Having promised the victim’s parents that he would find the culprit and bring him to justice, Matthäi continues his own private and unsanctioned investigation into the crime, even after the case has been officially closed.

Suspecting a connection between the crime and other child disappearances and murders, what unfolds over the course of the novel is a paranoid and sombre tail of obsession, solitude and duty. Matthäi becomes entirely consumed by the hunt for the true killer, despite the fact that other’s dismiss the legitimacy of his investigation and see his obsession as evidence of some form of early onset psychosis. In may ways The Pledge is a heartbreaking novel, one that that is gripping despite it almost plodding pace. Without wanting to spoil anything, the ending to the novel is certainly one of the main reasons to read this text. It is both brilliant and utterly desperate and certainly magnifies Dürrenmatt’s clear frustration with the myth of resolution often propagated by detective fiction.

Although a little unconventional, The Pledge is an excellent novel, one that i think would please both purists and fans of more unconventional or ‘metaphysical’ detective fiction. Sean Penn’s adaptation of the book starring Jack Nicholson (also called The Pledge) is also worth a watch!

#18: E.C. Bentley – ‘Trent’s Last Case’

In at number #18 is E.C. Bentley’s comic masterpiece Trent’s Last Case (1913). Once described by Agatha Christie as ‘one of the three best detective stories ever written’, E.C Bentley’s classic ‘whodunit’ is often heralded as the prototypical ‘Golden Age’ detective novel. Featuring an urbane, genius detective and located within the typically closed, almost claustrophobic domestic environment, Bentley’s novel very much anticipates and heavily influences the later and more fully realized works of classic golden age writers such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers.

The central mystery of the text concerns the bizarre murder of entrepreneur Sigsbee Manderson, whose body is discovered on the grounds of his country house estate with a single bullet wound through the eye. No murder weapon is found, however the body does exhibit signs of a struggle, with scratches and bruises around the wrists. There are also seemingly inexplicable clues; Manderson’s pocket watch is discovered in the wrong pocket, his false teeth are missing and he is oddly dressed in a combination of day and evening clothes. This is of course a shocking sartorial irregularity according to Manderson’s servants, who all testify to him being such a neat and discerning dresser.

With the police unable to distinguish any clear suspects or discernible motive for the attack, charismatic artist and amateur detective Phillip Trent is summoned to intervene. Bentley immediately establishes Trent as a comparable figure to archetypal armchair sleuths such as Sherlock Holmes, able to solve the most impenetrable mysteries through a reliance on his superior powers of deductive logic and bizarre expertise in obscure fields of knowledge such as ‘good shoe leather’. Despite these superficial displays of genius, Trent is ultimately a comic figure, one who bumbles through the case misinterpreting clues and implicating the wrong suspects. A desperate romantic, he also makes the mistake of falling in love with a prime suspect – the dead millionaire’s widow, Mabel.

In many way’s Trent’s Last Case is more interesting for the ways it subverts the expectations and conventions of the detective format than for the ways it conforms to them. Not only is amateur sleuth Phillip Trent unable to successfully solve the central mystery, but the novel pushes the parameters of ‘fair play’ to such an extent that it is similarly impossible for the reader. Notions of logic and reason are replaced by chance and coincidence, whilst seemingly concrete clues become unstable and open to interpretation. Trent’s Last Case is  a witty and thoroughly enjoyable novel that has a complex and surprising denouement, one that deliberately defies logic and reason. The unforeseeable solution to the mystery ultimately leads Trent to bemoan the ‘impotence of human reason’ and vow ‘never to touch a crime mystery again’.

Despite such pronouncements, luckily Trent does return in both Trent’s Own Case (1936) and Trent Intervenes (1938) – the latter a collection of short stories. Featuring a number of satisfying mysteries that provide a welcome comeback for the charismatic and charming detective, these later stories nonetheless fail to replicate the ingenuity and originality of Bentley’s first Trent mystery. Over a century after its initial publication, Trent’s Last Case still remains a humorous, sophisticated and gripping masterpiece of detective fiction, with Trent himself still one of our most compelling, charming and multifaceted detectives. A must read for fans of ‘Golden-Age’ or ‘Country House’ detective fiction.

 

#19: Megan Abbott – ‘The Song is You’

In at #19 is Megan Abbott’s gripping neo-noir thriller The Song is You (2007). I first encountered Abbott whilst doing research for my PhD, after I stumbled across her excellent monograph The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hard-boiled fiction and Film Noir. Abbott’s passion for crime fiction is certainly stylistically palpable in her work. Heavily influenced by writers such as James M. Cain, Ellroy and Jim Thompson, Abbot manages to forge a prose style that is unique and engaging with a real attention to period detail. Although slightly more lucid than Ellroy, there is a comparable intensity to Abbott’s writing that makes it equally hypnotic.

Similarly to James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia (1987), Abbott’s The Song is You centres on the real life disappearance of a ‘bit-part’ Hollywood actress. In this case it is twenty-six year old Jane Spangler, a mother of one who vanished in 1949 under suspicious circumstances. As with much neo-nor fiction, Abbott depicts the sleazy underbelly of Hollywood celebrity, a ruthless, vacuous world saturated by sex, scandal and violence. Enter Gil ‘Hop’ Hopkins, a smooth talking ex-reporter turned Hollywood ‘fixer’ who is paid to disguise/ bury certain aspects of celebrities private lives in order to maintain their public image. Hop’s and Spangler’s worlds collide the night before her disappearance, when the slick ‘fixer’ parties with the Spangler and one of her friends in an L.A. bar. Hop ultimately leaves Jean with a couple of celebrities rumoured to have a predatory and violent reputation, after which she is never seen again.

Two years later, Hop is still consumed by Spangler’s disappearance and ravaged by guilt for his complicity in covering up the two actors potential involvement. Although he initially justifies his actions as being part of the job, Hop eventually undertakes his own unsanctioned investigation into the disappearance in an attempt to atone for his past transgressions.

The Song is You is an excellent novel. Abbott’s prose is sharp, suspenseful and packed full of brilliant dialogue. Abbott’s work also brilliantly rewrites the codes and conventions of previous noir fiction, as she places a greater emphasis on female perspectives and female agency. Although Hop is very much built in the tradition of ‘hardboiled’ masculine heroes, Abbott’s female characters exhibit a profound understanding of the patriarchal demands of their society (be that sexual or marital) and are celebrated for their ability to circumvent, manipulate and perform these expectations. All of Abbott’s characters have a depth and complexity and the denouement of the novel deliberately subverts the typical expectations of these kinds of narratives.

I really can’t speak highly enough of Abbott’s writing, so do check her out! Unfortunately, some of Abbott’s early novels are no longer in print so it might be hard to get hold of them brand new. You can still pick up The Song is You second hand pretty easily though. Also check out Die a Little (2005), Queenpin (2007) and Bury Me Deep (2009).

 

 

Review – Craig McDonald’s ‘One True Sentence’

I first heard about Craig McDonald’s series of historical mystery thrillers fairly recently via a review by fellow Ellroy scholar Steven Powell. In it, Powell draws some fascinating links between McDonald’s work and James Sallis’s ‘Lew Griffin’ mysteries – a series of compelling, unusual and beautifully written crime novels. Probably better known as the author of Drive (which was subsequently made into an excellent film by Nicolas Winding Refn), James Sallis is one of the most underrated – and one of my favourite – crime writers working to day, so this comparison was intriguing enough for me to pick up one of McDonald’s books.

McDonald’s novels follow the exploits of Hector Lassiter, a crime writer/amateur detective who finds himself swept up in some of the most violent and infamous events of Twentieth Century history. One True Sentence places us in 1920’s Paris, an historical milieu populated by bohemian artists and real life figures from ‘the Lost Generation’. Not long out of fighting in the First World War, Lassiter and best friend Ernest Hemingway are both jobbing writers struggling to make ends meet in Paris’s nepotistic and narcissistic literary scene. Whilst Hemingway labours to crack the ‘Great American Novel’, Lassiter secretly subsidizes his similarly lofty ambitions by writing trashy crime novels for pulp magazines back in the U.S.

The novel begins with Lassiter crossing the Pont Neuf on a freezing Paris night, when he is suddenly alerted by the sound of a body falling into the icy depths of the Seine below. This ultimately transpires to be the first in a long line of brutal murders of literary magazine editors that throws Paris’s artistic scene into disarray. Determined to halt this frenzy of killings, Gertrude Stein assembles a collective of prominent crime and mystery writers. Among these is Lassiter’s love interest Brinke Devlin, a seductive yet mysterious crime writer who Lassiter desires but cannot bring himself to trust.

Inextricably weaving fact with fiction, One True Sentence offers a vivid historical setting with vibrant and engaging characters. Lassiter in particular is an empathetic and complex creation and the relationships that he forms (most notably with Hemingway and Devlin) are both nuanced and authentically constructed by McDonald. The novel is also full of metafictional musings that constantly make you question the reality of what you are reading. One True Sentence is a crime novel about writing crime novels and – as the title suggests – the question of what is ‘true’ pervades the narrative throughout. This is certainly where you can see the influence of Sallis’s work on McDonald’s writing.

One the whole, the novel is well plotted and builds to a satisfying conclusion, but there are some issues along the way. For one, the body count is a little out of control. By the end of the text I could barely keep track of who had been killed and for what reasons. I also found aspects of the action a little bit repetitive, particularly the various scenes in Parisian cafe’s. Nonetheless, on the whole One True Sentence is a deftly constructed, humorous and intelligent novel that provides a vivid insight into a rich historical and cultural setting.

If you enjoy the work of writers such as James Ellroy, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane, McDonald is definitely for you!