Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Ann Granger: A Rare Interest in Corpses (2006)

Published: Headline, 2006

A Rare Interest in Corpses initially appears to be something of a departure for Granger. She is best known for her Mitchell and Markby series, and has also written several novels about amateur detective Fran Varady; both these series are contemporary crime fiction (in the sense that they are set in the modern world; the Mitchell and Markby novels are rather old fashioned in tone). Here we have her first historical crime novel, set in Victorian London - not as popular a time and place as might be expected, probably because it is so strongly associated with Sherlock Holmes. In fact, the writer I was reminded of by A Rare Interest in Corpses was not Arthur Conan Doyle, but Anne Perry.

The central character, Lizzie Martin, is a doctor's daughter from the Derbyshire coalfields, forced to take a position as a companion to an older rich widow in London when her father's death leaves her penniless. When she arrives, she discovers that the woman who previously acted as companion to Mrs Parry went missing, apparently eloping with a lover, but, it now turns out, murdered and her body left in the huge building site that would become St Pancras station. Lizzie feels an obligation to a woman who had been in the same situation as she now finds herself to try to find the murderer - a task in which she is much aided by the reluctance of key witnesses to speak to the police.

I have in the past discussed an issue I have with a lot of crime fiction. The genre is very much dependent on plot construction, and in particular on the construction of plots where particular points remain obscure to the reader (though fairly presented) until the very end: the reader has all the clues, but should still be surprised by the revelation of the murderer. Constructing such a plot is quite hard, and a shortcut which is often used is to use a coincidence - an unlikely happening which is not justified by the rest of the plot (it is one thing for an mysterious lost cousin to turn up just at the time of the murder, but much more acceptable if the murderer lures that person there so they arrive on the scene in time to be implicated in a murder they would benefit from). Even when unmotivated coincidences are left in a plot - and it is true that coincidences really happen - they usually have some meaning in the plot itself, whether actually helping to point the way to the solution of a crime, or making it harder for the reader to see the real solution. Sometimes coincidences are used to promote the continuation of a series, as where a character finds a body in novel after novel. At the beginning of A Rare Interest in Corpses, there are two coincidences which really serve no purpose whatsoever. The first of these is that Lizzie, taking a cab from King's Cross station to her new home, is delayed by police removing a body from the half-demolished slums which were Agar Town and would become St Pancras (which is, for readers not familiar with London, immediately next door to King's Cross): this is the body of Madeline Hexham, her predecessor. The second is that the police inspector assigned to the case turns out to be someone she already knows, despite her belief that she is a stranger to everyone in London: he met her when he was a small boy working in a coalmine, where her father was helping with the aftermath of an accident; her father paid for his education, which he put to use in joining the Metropolitan Police. The second establishes a certain bond between Lizzie and the policeman, but not one which could not have been developed in other ways, while there seems to have been no motivation at all for the first.

I found these coincidences, which come very close together near the beginning of the novel, a big hindrance to enjoyment of a book by an author that usually I like a lot. Although I got more into it by the end, I still feel that A Rare Interest in Corpses is Granger's least involving novel. This is partly because the character of Lizzie Martin is not very different from either Meredith Mitchell or Fran Varady, though the forthright attitude they share is interesting in a Victorian pre-feminist context (though it is hardly original in historical crime fiction set in the nineteenth century: as well as characters in Anne Perry's novels, it is also shared by Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody).

A competent historical crime novel, but by no means Ann Granger's best work.

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