Summer of Mystery

I weighed my Kindle down with some light mystery reading this summer, having bought about eight PD James novels in the recent 99p sale, supplemented with some non-Slough-House Mick Herron, and the first in Ellis Peters’ pre-Cadfael Felse series.

The first PD James was the first, Cover Her Face, first published in December 1962, so it’s more or less exactly the same age as me. This, then, was the first outing of Adam Dalgliesh, a detective chief Inspector in the Met, who is called in to investigate a murder at a manor house that has hosted a village fete. I remember listening to a radio adaptation of this novel fairly recently on BBC Radio 4 Extra. I also read, in quick order, Unnatural Causes (book 3), and Original Sin (book 9), which brings the series into the 90s, although it’s hard to say when exactly. I’ve got a couple more Dalgliesh novels to read, but I also read An Unsuitable Job for a Woman,which was the first of James’ attempts to introduce a new detective character. This doesn’t seem to have taken, as there was just one more outing for Cordelia Gray.

I suppose you’d call these some variety of “cosy crime”. But even if that description is inaccurate or unfair, the feeling of coziness comes from the sense that these stories take place in a very closed, underpopulated version of England, which is very white, very middle class, and quite incestuous — because it seems everybody knows everybody. Dalgliesh drives to Suffolk in the 3rd book; it’s 1967, and you really feel as if the county and its roads are mainly empty, its coastal areas stark and desolate. It could almost be 1867.

Different times! And that’s the source of the escapism, I suppose. It’s a world in which the lead detective writes poetry — at least to begin with — and is known to the kind of people who write and publish books, study at Cambridge, and so on. He’s actually not in the books all that much, which rather reminded me of Agatha Christie’s light touch with Marple. I quite enjoyed them, although some of the attitudes — especially to women — are old-fashioned. You’re never not aware that you’re reading something written 60, 50, 40, 30 years ago.

Talking of the past, I absolutely love the Brother Cadfael series of books. Ellis Peters’ evocation of time, place, and season are absolutely beautiful, and crusader-turned-monk Cadfael is a great character. Before she started on Cadfael, in 1977, the prolific Peters wrote thirteen books about a more contemporary detective, George Felse (and family). These started in 1951, and the first novel, Fallen into the Pit, was set more or less at the time it was written, in the valleys of Wales shortly after the second world war. She waited 10 years before writing a second, but having read the first, I’ll probably try some of the others, which are available as ebooks thanks to their revival by the publisher Head of Zeus.

Fallen into the Pit begins with the murder of an unpopular Displaced Person, a German, who is characterised as a “former Nazi” but is in fact nothing of the kind. Nobody cares much that he has been killed (strong Cadfael vibes there, about what justice looks like when someone who deserves to be killed is murdered), but suspicion falls on a local schoolteacher, a war veteran who shows all the signs of PTSD. And then a second body turns up, but it’s not until the third that a motive for the killings becomes clear.

Some readers might find these books a bit odd to read, as at least half of the detective work is done by Sgt. Felse’s 13-year-old son and his best friend, the unfortunately nicknamed Pussy, also 13. Different times! Although I could see this book being adapted for television very successfully. It is strange, though, that the (fairly bloodless) killings are mixed up with a kind of children’s adventure: some tonal issues. It struck me that this book was somewhere between an Agatha Christie and an Arthur Ransome, so I was fine with it, but I can see why others weren’t. Just imagine John Walker and Nancy Blackett, transplanted to the coalfields of Wales, investigating a killing with the assistance of Captain Flint.

I wonder if Peters took ten years to produce the second because she was waiting for young Dominic Felse to get older? In real time! Anyway, my understanding is that later books feature the whole family: with mother Bunty, too, getting into the murder game in a couple of the series.

Anyway, they’ll do for when I run out of Cadfaels. 

The Summer of Mystery Continues. Although! Watch this space for thoughts on Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future…

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