Joan Smith finds period pieces from the golden age of the detective thriller in her pick of the latest murder mysteries
Sunday Times, 1 April 2012
There’s a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for period drama these days, not just on television but in crime fiction. It’s easy to understand the appeal of a well-written story set in the 1930s, when a generation scarred by the first world war partied wildly in spite of their realisation that another conflict was coming. But it also happened to be the golden age of the detective novel, exemplified by novelists such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Josephine Tey, whose novel A Shilling for Candles was turned into a film by Alfred Hitchcock.
The negotiation between Tey, Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville, forms the backdrop for Nicola Upson’s Fear in the Sunlight (Faber £12.99/ebook £9.99). It’s Upson’s fourth novel featuring Tey as an amateur detective and easily the best of the series, which mixes real and fictional characters. Tey was a successful playwright as well as a novelist and her circle includes the Motley sisters, based on real-life siblings who made theatre costumes, and the fictional Scotland Yard detective Archie Penrose.
Fear in the Sunlight is set in Portmeirion, the Italianate holiday village created by Clough Williams-Ellis in Wales, and it resembles a film set: there’s a piazza, gothic ruins and a bell tower. Hitchcock decides to enliven the weekend by playing practical jokes on his guests, who include actors and actresses desperate for a role in his next film — but he’s upstaged by a killer. In real life, Tey was an intensely private person and she makes a sardonic observer of the world-famous director. The novel injects new life into the serial-killer genre, as well as offering an elegiac commentary on Tey’s sadly truncated life (she died aged 55).
There’s more period drama in Winter at Death’s Hotel by Kenneth Cameron (Orion £12.99/ebook £6.99), which begins with Arthur Conan Doyle, inventor of Sherlock Holmes, arriving in New York in 1896 for a lecture tour. With him is his first wife Louisa, whom he has to leave behind when she trips over a carpet and breaks an ankle. Her en-forced stay in the city coincides with a series of gruesome murders of young women, and Louisa is convinced that she saw the first victim in her hotel, just hours before she was killed. She’s shocked by her husband’s lack of interest in this clue, and by the reluctance of the New York police to follow it up.
Louisa is a fascinating creation, chafing against her injured leg and her husband’s benign neglect. She joins forces with a newspaper reporter, a young woman who’s trying to make her way in a man’s world, but their breathless pursuit of the killer turns into something much more sinister. Conan Doyle’s wife is a clever choice as the novel’s central character, embodying the fears and aspirations of women of the period, and the ingenious plot does not diminish the horrors she has to confront.
Donna Leon’s Venice is as familiar as her main character, Commissario Brunetti, but her latest novel sends him on an uncomfortable journey to the mainland. Beastly Things (Heinemann £17.99/ebook £18.77) begins with the discovery of a man’s body in one of the city’s canals, and Brunetti remembers seeing him at a farmers’ protest a few months earlier. The dead man turns out to be a vet and his death seems to be linked to his job in a slaughterhouse on the outskirts of Mestre, where Brunetti is confronted with the miseries of the modern meat industry. Leon’s novels are always humane but they proceed at a stately pace and lack the ingenuity of the best modern crime writing.
Parker Bilal is the pseudonym adopted by an Egyptian literary novelist, Jamal Mahjoub, for his debut as a crime writer. The Golden Scales (Bloomsbury £11.99/ebook £11.99) is a vivid, energetic work that follows the career of an exiled Sudanese police inspector, Makana, who now lives on a run-down houseboat in Cairo. Makana has been driven out of his own country by corruption and religious extremism, and he’s reluctant to get involved with the millionaire owner of one of Cairo’s most popular football teams. But the team’s star player has disappeared, and the owner is insistent that he doesn’t trust the Egyptian police. Set in 1998, the novel shows the extremes of wealth and poverty in Egypt before the Arab spring, while Makana’s personal history offers heartbreaking insights into loss and exile.
The North Yorkshire coast is the setting for The Other Child (Orion £12.99/ebook £12.99), a complex and unsettling novel by the German crime writer Charlotte Link, translated by Stefan Tobler. When a student is battered to death in Scarborough, the police have few leads until an elderly woman is murdered in a similar fashion on a farm outside the town. The second killing follows a disastrous engagement party at the farm, where the owner’s daughter, Gwen, has agreed to marry a man she barely knows.
Everyone at the engagement party falls under suspicion, with the exception of Gwen’s only close friend, a newly divorced doctor from London who spent most of the evening in a nearby pub. Emails to Gwen’s father from the second murdered woman throw a startling light on their shared past, when evacuee children from London were billeted on the farm. This is a brilliant novel with compelling characters, and it’s a shame that the climactic scene is marred by Link’s lack of knowledge about when the British police are allowed to carry guns.
Finally, I can think of no better way to mark the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens than to recommend Tom-All-Alone’s (Corsair £12.99/ebook £7.99) by Lynn Shepherd. This terrific Victorian mystery begins in dense fog, like Bleak House, and has an unemployed detective reluctantly obeying a summons to the rat-infested London churchyard of Tom-All-Alone’s. The corpse of a newborn baby awaits him, marking the start of a case whose Dickensian horrors are twinned with a sophisticated understanding of the nature of sexual predation.