Tuesday, 24 May 2005

Jane Stevenson: London Bridges (2000)

Edition: Jonathan Cape, 2000
Review number: 1294

Margery Allingham's classic novels are generally set in the most rural parts of Essex and Suffolk or in London. The latter had a particular atmosphere which is more or less gone from the genre: she specialised in eccentric faded gentility. Perhaps there is less of this about than there was in the thirties, and even thoguh there is still a great deal of crime fiction being set in England's capital, it is dominated by the police procedural. In Allingham, this air of eccentricity extended even into the police force - which brings me to the most obvious connection between her work and London Bridges. In one of her later novels, The China Governess, her policeman Luke becomes the father of a baby girl, who is mentioned in passing. Hattie Luke, now grown up, is one of the main characters in this novel, acting as a catalyst for the story.

The structure of London Bridges is simple, but unusual. Basically, the reader knows what is going on and who is responsible, but each major character only knows a piece of it - some isolated, odd, maybe mildly suspicious incident that is easily dismissed as one of the quirky things that happen to an inhabitant of a big city (they're about on a level with the sort of bizarre conversations strangers used to have with me on tube trains when I was a student in London). It is only because Hattie brings them together that one mentions something that strikes a chord with another, and they begin to compare notes.

Of course, this plot device uses something that I frequently object to in crime novels: co-incidence. There are links that might draw these people together (they are all to some extent involved in Greek culture, either academically or through the Greek community in London, or both), but it is still extremely unlikely. However, there is an excuse, in that the co-incidence is the whole point of the novel rather than being used to get over an awkward, poorly thought out, part of the puzzle as is usually the case in the crime genre. There must be crimes which go unnoticed because the people who know bits and pieces are never brought toghether; to do so (once) is an interesting idea for a novel.

London Bridges does not truly belong in the crime fiction genre - I think that not having to puzzle over who commits the murder rules it out. It is much more about character and atmosphere, too, than is usual in the genre, and that is really what makes it worth reading. The atmosphere here (and, indeed, the characters) are reminiscent of Margery Allingham, combined with generous helpings of a writer of the ilk of Iris Murdoch. Altogether, this is an intelligent, fascinating and absorbing read- I wish I'd come across Jane Stevenson five years ago.

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