Category Archives: Book reviews

Peter Wimsey, every time

lighthouseI’ve been reading P. D. James again, I’m not quite sure why but I don’t really need a reason: I often re-read books I’ve enjoyed. And I love her books, they really were worthy descendants to the Holy Trinity’s creations, by which I mean the novels of Dorothy L. Sayers (the true queen of crime in my view) Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. I would add Josephine Tey to that list but she doesn’t qualify for holy trinity status, as her output was more limited than those other ladies’ and she is generally less known by the reading public. Still, that’s not particular relevant and I will write about the fabulous four instead without further ado.

So I read several of P. D. Jame’s novels featuring Adam Dalgliesh, in reverse order of their publication, and therefore going back in time in the life and work of Commander Dalgliesh (as he becomes): The Private Patient, The Lighthouse, The Murder Room and now I’m going to move on to Death in Holy Orders. I’ll see how far my James retrospective reading binge will take me to: I enjoyed the earlier novels too but I have a preference for the more recent ones. Thinking about this, I realised that, romantic that I obviously am, I enjoyed the appearance of Dr Emma Lavenham in the later novels.

That in turn set me thinking about the love interests in my favourite classic British whodunnits. Their authors were all women and they each had male sleuths, who all became pretty famous literary figures. I’m not forgetting that  Christie also created Miss Marple (and Tuppence as well as Tommy), Sayers gave us Katherine Climpson and Cordelia Gray is the private investigator at the heart of two of James’s earlier novels. But I’m going to focus here on the (male) famous private investigators and policemen all crime novel lovers know well, and also on their (female) partners when there is one: Hercule Poirot, Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane,  Roderick and Agatha (aka “Troy”) Alleyn, Adam Dalgliesh and Emma Lavenham, Alan Grant.

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Going back to my James-fest, it struck me afresh that Adam Dalgliesh may be exceptionally good at his job, a considerate boss and an accomplished poet but he’s a bit boring in a too-good-to-be-true sort of way.  I felt that the introduction of a new love interest in the later novels was welcome with its addition of another strong female character (James had always provided plenty of those, notably Kate Miskin). But in a way, it doesn’t change anything much. Dalgliesh may be passionately inlove but he is still exceptional in every way … and still rather boring.

Hercule Poirot’s love life, if any, is pretty much a blank slate, and if you are so inclined, you may imagine what you like about it. For my part, his portly physique, über careful dressing bordering on dandyism and, of course, his ridiculous moustache place him outside the realms of romance. I admire his sagacity, his insight into human nature and the way he uses his little grey cells but I am neither disappointed or pleased that Christine apparently gave him no partner. He does seem to be the perfect bachelor (notwithstanding the allusions to his admiration for the Russian countess who appears in a couple of stories, after all, a hint at unrequited love being is fda prerequisite for a confirmed bachelor, obviously).

Roderick Alleyn, although a perfectly nice chap, is also quite an ordinary sort of bloke, in a well-educated, faintly aristocratic sort of way. The most interesting thing he does, apart from solving a range of baffling crimes of course, is to court and eventually marry “Troy”, a renowned artist. I feel that Marsh put a lot more effort into the psychological portrait of Troy than in that of her husband. Love scenes are more than chaste, in fact Troy displays active apprehension about the whole romance thing. I think it’s clear that Marsh was gay although she depicts gay characters very unsympathetically in her novels, especially Death in Ecstasy. Thinking about it, it’s only gay men that she treats harshly, there is no hint of lesbians anywhere (unlike in Tey’s novels, especially in Miss Pym Disposes). Perhaps she indulged in “queer bashing” as a defence mechanism against any suspicion as to her preferences or perhaps she really, really didn’t like gay men. Anyway, Alleyn, although perfectly nice, does not really stir the heartstrings, at least, not mine. Marsh dutifully makes him conspicuously handsome and has an assortment of female murder suspects trying to woo him, usually actresses, Marsh’s first love being the theatre. The problem is it’s never very clear why they should bother.

I love Alan Grant, he’s by far the most interesting of my male sleuths here, but his love life is also pretty dull. It appears to be practically non-existent, although an adolescent passion for cousin Laura is described in Singing Sands and there is always the possibility of romantic involvement with Marta Hallard (an actress again), which is always resisted, without much effort it seems. Ho hum, another bachelor it would seem. However, whatever Alan Grant is missing in the romance department he makes up for in the weirdness of his thought processes, although of course I mean Tey’s brilliantly rendering of these thoughts. She was a brilliant writer, the Franchise Affair and Miss Pym Disposes feature no Grant, or very little, he makes a cameo appearance in The Franchise Affair, and they are both just as wonderful as the “Inspector Grant” books.

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So we’re left with Lord Peter. I think every bookish adolescent needs a literary crush and he was definitely mine. There is evidence Sayers that had a crush on him too, at least for a time, and there is also evidence she got bored with him and in fact stopped writing about him, perhaps when she no longer needed to, from a financial point of view. One theory about Peter Wimsey’s looks is that they are borrowed from John Cournos, a man with whom Sayers in fact had a very unhappy love affair, another is that they are the features of Eric Whelpton, a close friend. In any event,  Wimsey’s physique was actually a bit of a disappointment for me, I’ve never been particularly attracted to very blond men and the fact that he was a bit on the short side was a little disconcerting too. Still, at twelve or thirteen or so, I was quietly satisfied that I had a mind above mere appearance (hah!) and I fell for his easy chatter, the “piffle” Harriet mentions very early on in their acquaintance, the fact that he was (completely unrealistically) multi-talented: an accomplished pianist, a fine brain with a first in history from Oxford to prove it, business-savvy (with a little help from Freddy) and in fine physical shape: a consummate rider and diver into shallow ornamental fountains, oh yes.

But even today, he stays my favourite. And as with Marsh, Harriet Vane is the main reason for that. She is a wonderful character, perhaps a depiction of Sayers herself or perhaps the herself she aspired to. Anyway Harriet has a lot in common with her creator, including the rather important facts that she makes a living from her crime novels and that she has a first from Oxford too, except that hers comes from the fictional Shrewsbury College whereas Sayers got hers from Somerville College, one of the first women’s colleges in Oxford. More importantly, the arrival of Harriet coincides with much more character development of Peter from Sayers and the love interest becomes an integral part of the stories, rather than the adjunct they are in all the others I have mentioned.

So here you have it, Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane win the award for the best literary couple in crime fiction, hands down.

 

 

 

Amour à durée indéterminée de Sophie Delenclos

Liz, qui s’est séparée de son mari, vient de décrocher un nouveau poste de RH dans une grande boîte. C’est le boss lui-même qui l’a recrutée, un vrai tombeur dont le charme certain est assorti d’une réputation de cyborg. Ce qui n’est pas plus mal dans la mesure où elle est là pour booster sa carrière, pas pour remplacer son ex. D’ailleurs, elle ne tarde pas à trouver des distractions très agréables en dehors du bureau et elle profite à fond de sa nouvelle vie.

Inutile de préciser que je me limite ici à un bref résumé du début du livre, qui va nous livrer par la suite une action bien rythmée faisant intervenir les protagonistes qu’on attend, et puis aussi ceux qu’on ne voit pas venir … On voyage aussi pas mal en Europe et on apprécie rapidement Liz, une femme qui sait ce qu’elle veut mais qui s’interroge quand-même, genre un peu comme nous toutes, quoi ! Et puis, je lui octroie un bon point supplémentaire pour avoir le bon goût d’apprécier les whiskys tourbés d’Islay.

ADI

 

Pour une fois, le cadre professionnel est parfaitement crédible et très bien décrit. D’ailleurs, je ne sais pas si j’ai préféré la description des nouveaux collègues de Liz, ou celle de ses amies. Au fur et à mesure de l’avancement de l’intrigue, elle va devoir apprendre à composer avec les premiers et ménager les réactions des dernières …

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

I absolutely loved this book, by an author I had never heard of: Kamila Shamsie. I picked it up simply because it was on the Booker Prize long list (I’m amazed it hasn’t been shortlisted) and the blurb drew my attention. It contained a spoiler, which is annoying, as it meant I guessed what was going to happen quite early on. However, I can’t say that it really spoiled my enjoyment of this novel, which is a retelling of x and I won’t be giving too much away if I say x is a character in ancient Greek mythology, a vast and very rich seam of story-telling.

Home FireThe first scene takes place in an airport where a British woman misses her plane to the US, because of a security interview. We learn that she is of Asian origin and on her way to study for a PhD in sociology at Amherst. Isma has a younger sister and brother, who are twins, and they are orphans. No one really knows what happened to her father, except that he died on the way to Guantanamo. According to Isma, he “tried his hand at many things in his life – guitarist, salesman, gambler, con man, jihadi – but he was consistent in the role of absentee father.” So absent in fact that Aneeka and Parvaiz, the twins, have no memory of him at all. Since their mother’s death, they had all been living in the same neighbourhood as Aunty Naseem, until Isma went off to study in the US.

While there, Isma strikes up an awkward friendship with Eamonn, also British, who turns out to be the son of an MP back in the UK. The story which then unfolds in a variety of locations involves a love triangle and a nearly love triangle, plenty of dramatic action and lots of heartache for all the protagonists.

I think I enjoyed this book so much because I found it to be beautifully written, full of meaningful introspection, wry dialogues and wonderful descriptions. I loved how Kamila Shamsie infuses very British cosiness in a scene that takes place in a North American café, how she crafts the plot to reshape the ancient tale that inspired her, how there is a humour and pathos in equal measure. Above all, I love how she takes us in the mindset of a troubled young man, of a passionate young woman, of an ambitious politician, of his sweet son.

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As an aside, Parvaiz is a sound engineer and collects interesting sounds. I read this book while on holiday in the Alps. I had cursed the cowbells on my first day because I found them annoying but I performed a complete U-turn the next day, when I found myself practically in the middle of a herd of cows (Ok, there was an electrical wire between me and them). I completely fell for the charm of the jangling, random, discordant yet weirdly harmonious and soothing music they made; I now think they would have been a perfect subject for Parvaiz and much nicer than what he ends up recording …