What I’ve Been Reading – Classic Detectives

I am still finding that I can’t bear much what my friend calls ‘jeopardy’ in my reading, so I’ve been retreating more and more into comfort reads. I am currently working my way through the Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy L Sayers – in order, and with hardly a breath in-between. (You can read my reviews of the first two books here.) As I said before, one of the things I’m finding fascinating is watching Ms Sayers change and develop as a writer, but I’ll be honest, the event I’ve been waiting for with bated breath since opening the first one, is the arrival of Miss Harriet Vane, a woman I worshipped as a teenager, and wanted to be!

Unnatural Death is book three in the series, and here I felt that the author really started to come into her own as a writer and as a creator of crimes. This is a very different book from the previous one (Clouds of Witness), with an ‘unsolvable’ crime to challenge our eponymous sleuth and his gang, and the introduction of a fabulous new assistant in the form of Miss Climpson, who I particularly loved.

In this book, Peter Wimsey the man is less to the fore, though there are a few pointed reminders of his troubled past – for example, in his reaction to seeing the body of one of the victims. This is much more of a whodunnit, which a great cast of characters and a real conundrum of a crime. There are, as I have commented on previous books, issues for the modern reader with what we’d see as racism, but if you are prepared to put those into the ‘place and time and overlook’ box, then they don’t detract too much from the story – though I must admit I do still find my toes occasionally curling. Interestingly, at the heart of this story is a relationship between two women (actually, there is more than one, but I’m referring to the first victim) which Sayers treats with real empathy and sympathy, as do many of her characters, and which felt quite modern. It made me wonder more about Ms Sayers, about whom I knew very little at the time of reading, though I found out more when, by pure coincidence, up she popped in the excellent series about murder mysteries by Lucy Worsley on the BBC.

And so on quickly to The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, with a quirky, darkly comic murder. Lord Peter is becoming more and more fed up with being seen as the buffoon, and a little more of the darker side of his character begins to emerge as a consequence. But everyone, from Detective Parker to Bunter and the cast of colourful characters is suffering to some degree from the consequences of the Great War, and I love that Sayers never forgets this. Then again, why would she, since she was living through it herself!

There’s a distinct change to Ms Sayers’ voice in this book, a new confidence, and much more character exploration. Her thoughts on women’s position in society, on their suppressed voices and feelings, are really starting to come through too – in other words, to be a bit historical boring, the social context is starting to play a much more significant role.

I did feel that this book could have been longer. The denouement felt rushed, and I’d have liked to see more reaction from the other protagonists. But then I read on to an excerpt of the next book and shouted (quietly) with glee, for Harriet Vane finally appears…. 

Strong Poison brings Harriet into Lord Peter’s life at a time when he is in need of emotional rescue. Of course Harriet isn’t going to do that too easily though – when we first see her, she’s in the dock and on the verge of being found guilty of murder. Thanks to the fabulous Kitty Climpson though, she gets a re-trial, and Lord Peter has never been so determined to find the real culprit.

There was, I think, a marked difference in this book compared to the series so far. Sayers speaks out loud and clear for women through Harriet’s situation in a way that I suspect must have been quite shocking. Harriet has lived with her lover openly and even worse, she’s refused to marry him when he finally condescended to ‘make an honest woman of her’. The excellent Harriet then becomes a fallen woman, in the eyes of the world, needless to say, though not Lord Peter – and here, Ms Sayers tells the world how it ought to be, I think, for when Harriet tells Peter that she’s had a lover, he simply says that so too has he. Of course later, he does inadvertently cast it up at her, and we can see that their courtship isn’t going to be easy – but then that would be boring.

As to the crime – this was one of Peter’s trickier cases, relying on him pulling all the strings with his detective friend (and Parker gets his reward in a very satisfying way) as well as requiring the doughty Kitty Climpson to come into her own – I love her, and I love the Cattery, it’s so very subversive.

And so on to Five Red Herrings, and another experiment with style. While I admire the writer for constantly trying new ways of telling a story, I don’t love all of them, and this is one that didn’t really hit the mark with me. I’ll admit a large part of this was because I jumped into the book hoping that Peter’s romance with Harriet Vane would progress, and was very disappointed when she didn’t even merit a mention, never mind make an appearance. Given how incredibly smitten he was at the end of the last book, I did find that strange.

However, the main thing that didn’t work with me was the railway timetables which were the essence of this book. I am assuming that Ms Sayers set out to write a ‘classic’ whodunnit, and to make it as impenetrable and complex as possible. She did that. I very quickly lost track of which red herring was which, where they were supposed to have been and why they were suspected. Thankfully Lord Peter was on hand to give me plenty of much-needed recaps, but all the same, by half way through, they were interchangeable to me. They didn’t have much personality, and the secondary characters that so often bring such colour to the other books were well and truly side-lined. The whole point of this book was the conundrum that was the murder mystery, and not much else was given page room. Even Lord Peter, though he was less of an oaf, was rather more of a cypher.

So, not a favourite and not one I’d read again, but on I went, to the next one in the series all the same. Have His Carcase is another of those ‘game changer’ books in the series. According to the preamble in the edition I read, Ms Sayers had finished with Wimsey in the last book. Then a very unhappy marriage a few years later made her return to him – and to give him the promise of a happy marriage with Harriet Vane to compensate for her own personal troubles!

So, this is a much longer book than the others so far. It opens with Harriet, and puts her at the centre of the crime – though not, this time, accused of committing it. Enter Peter stage right, protective and fascinated, and we finally see the two beginning to work together. There’s a lot about their relationship in this book, and there’s a great deal to show that Peter really does ‘get’ Harriet in a very modern way. He becomes endearing in this instalment too, and much more mature – for the first time, in an outburst of frustration, we get his own opinion of himself and his true understanding of the situation between them. I sooooo loved him for that.

However – this is also a bit of a whodunnit-thon, and I felt a bit too much of one. There was an awful lot of toing and froing of theories, and too much consultation between the various police officers and Wimsey for my personal taste – to the point where it became pretty unbelievable, to be honest. There was way, way too much code-breaking detail. And too much tide calculations. So I did feel that the overall book could have been edited down just a wee bit.

That said, I thoroughly enjoyed it. And of course (WTG Ms Sayers) I can’t wait for the next one.

I was introduced to Kerry Greenwood’s Miss Fisher series through the TV show, and was surprised (and pleased) to find the books much darker, and obviously more complex. (You can read my reviews of the first two here.) Seeking a break from Lord Peter Wimsey, I returned to the series, with Murder on the Ballarat Train.

Miss Fisher is a tough cookie, the supporting characters (with the exception of Dot) also harsher, more realistic and less romantic, though no less endearing. Jack, for example, the detective of gorgeousness from the tv series (which always reminds me of Moonlighting – showing my age here) is not a detective of gorgeousness in the books. He’s a homely man, a sound copper, but there’s nothing in the least bit sexy about him. Will that change? One of the reasons I know I’ll read on to the end.

I raced through this story. It delivered exactly what I wanted: more of Phryne; a crime that wasn’t too complicated; lots of colour; a few bawdy laughs; and a few more waifs and strays added to the permanent cast. It’s not one of those books that keep you thinking or musing, but it leaves you with a nice satisfied smile at the end of it and you know, that’s surprisingly rare – or so I’ve found. Just what I needed. 

Finally, a completely new to me author that I discovered through Twitter, and who has been recommended by a few friends. Brighton Belle by Sara Sheridan is quite a different take on the female investigator, with a different time period too.

Mirabelle Bevan is trying to rebuild her life after working in intelligence during WWII. She’s lost her job, and she’s also lost the man she loves – and ironically, she can’t actually talk about either. So she’s working as assistant to a debt collector in Brighton, when her boss disappears. Mirabelle is bored, she’s depressed, she’s bitter and resentful, she’s not in a good place, but she’s in the perfect place to investigate, and not to care about the risks she’s taking.

There’s a complicated plot with untold twists and turns, and a tiny few too many co-incidences – though the book help me despite those, so I’m not going to carp about them. There’s a detective (of course) who is intrigued by Mirabelle (of course). There’s a sidekick (of course) who is a black female insurance clerk (sooooo NOT of course). The concentration camps, those in charge and those who suffered from the Nazi pogroms are at the core of this story, but they don’t take over, and I really admired that – the points were really well made, the horror was there though not graphic, and I think that made the points even better.

This is a detective novel, but it is grounded in serious history, and the history was really well done. Sexism and racism are also really well done – subtly made points, but part of the story, no tub thumping. I read this at a pace. I enjoyed every minute of it. I’ll definitely be going back for more.

These are just some of my reviews. You can read them all, good, bad and indifferent, over on Goodreads.

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  1. It’s decades since I read Dorothy L Sayers and after reading your reviews, I’ve realised I can’t actually remember much about the stories, so I think I may start a re-read! Thanks for the inspiration.

    I started reading the Phryne Fisher stories several years ago and loved them. Then I got caught up in the television series. I’ve found it hard to go back to the books because of the way they altered things for the tv series.

    Sara Sheridan is a totally new writer to me – so thanks for a new writer. I see she’s written about 8 books in that series, so if I like her, I’ll have a treasure trove of a back catalogue to read!!

    Like you, I have been seeking comfort and emotional solace in books that allow me to escape. I keep buying the thrillers and crime fiction that I usually enjoy (like Denise Mina, Peter May and Ian Rankin), but sadly, I have yet to read any of them!!

    I’ve also been gorging on old favourites, including Georgette Heyer, Phyllis Whitney, Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels and Paula Allardyce. Such a joy to fall into a totally different world.

    1. My word of caution on the Peter Wimsey series would be on some of the language. Some of it is truly shocking to modern ears, though of course it’s contemporary to Sayers. But if you can get past that (and in places, I must admit, it still jumps out at me) then they are worth reading. Like you, I couldn’t remember much about them, and I think my memory was also coloured by the tv series from the 70s I think.

      Paula Allardyce rang a bell with me. I looked her up but couldn’t see anything under her various names that I remember. However I’m sure I read her. My mum is a huge classic crime fan, and had masses of well-thumbed paperbacks that I worked my way through, so I’m sure that’s where I came across her – and I’ve just remembered Ngaio Marsh too.

      There’s nothing like a comfort read, and like you I’ve been turning back to old favourites more and more. In fact, on my next book blog I cover that very subject. I must admit, I didn’t like Peter May’s first, even though it was set on the Butt of Lewis, where my mum’s family come from, and in fact I have actually met a couple of her relatives who play key roles in the stories (under other names). I found his plot way too complex, and for me he committed the heinous crime of unveiling a key fact right at the end that made it impossible for the reader to guess whodunnit. Ian Rankin, I’m more fond of, and as a person and interviewer, I love him. I watched an interview with him and Marian Keyes about his latest book and was very intrigued. Though like you, I’ve not actually read it yet!

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