Saturday 26 May 2007

Mike Ripley: Angel in the House (2005)

Published: Allison & Busby Ltd, 2006

This was my first read of one of the Angel novels, though it is in fact the twelfth featuring the feckless detective. In Angel in the House, Angel is faced with something that he has always tried to avoid: he has to get a job. Luckily (though not from his point of view) his partner Amy May buys a stake in a private detective agency, so that is where he goes to work. Soon he becomes involved in a bizarre case involving suspected missing Botox, as well as investigating potentially haunted mansions in South Cambridgeshire.

Most comic crime fiction is heavily indebted to Hammett and Chandler, whose hard boiled style is easy to parody (though not so easy to parody well). The Agatha Raisin books parody Christie and other stalwarts of the traditional murder mystery, but I find them unbearable. Angel is not really a detective from either school; in fact, he'd much rather not be a detective at all, and just be supported by Amy. So he blunders around, making inappropriate jokes, and getting into awkward situations. Generally, this is funny, though he is sometimes exasperatingly feckless. The balance is towards the right direction, however.

As a crime novel, the plot is not terribly difficult to untangle, particularly the hauntings. The mechanism behind the botox thefts is ingenious, however, and the central characters will keep even the most cynical genre fan happy through the novel. I wouldn't want to read several of them in quick succession, but I will look out for them in future, after a suitable interval.

Saturday 19 May 2007

Paul Magrs: Never the Bride (2006)

Published: Headline Review 2006

Since Bram Stoker's Dracula, Whitby has become indelibly associated with gothic horror. It is a town quite well suited to the role, with the popularity of Whitby jet for Victorian funeral and mourning jewellery, and the atmospheric ruined abbey on the cliff top which dominates the time. At the same time, Whitby is a part of the British seaside holiday tradition - which has opposing resonances of the old fashioned and safe. All this makes it an ideal setting for Magrs' debut, a comic gothic fantasy.

Brenda has recently taken over a bed and breakfast in Whitby, which seems to her to be the ideal place for her to live a quiet life. This is something that has not often been possible for her, as her lack of a surname and scarred features suggest. (Anyone who has watched any classic horror films will guess who she is long before Magrs makes it explicit.) But strange forces are at work, and soon she and her neighbour have to deal with demonic beauty treatments, fake Christmas cheer at a Whitby hotel, spiritualist TV programmes and other bizarre incidents. The general outlines of the plot are shared with many horror satires (the supernaturally unusual trying to live a normal life is, for example, the basic premise of Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but of course it's the inventiveness of the specific incidents that matters: and here they are very good indeed. The novel reminded me of other writers of comic fantasy who I like, notably Robert Rankin (particularly the Brentford Trilogy) and Tom Holt.

Generally, Never the Bride is very enjoyable, probably the funniest debut I have read since Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair.

Thursday 10 May 2007

David Dickinson: Goodnight Sweet Prince (2002)

Published: Constable, 2002

When one things of the British royal family in the later nineteenth century, the immediate image that comes to mind is that of the perpetually mourning Queen Victoria; perhaps secondly there are the mistresses of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. Less well known is the eldest son of the Prince of Wales, because he never actually succeeded to the throne, dying of influenza in 1892. The career of Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale (known informally as Prince Eddy) was much more scandalous than that of his father - he is a candidate for the most badly behaved royal in British history, a post for which there is a fair amount of competition. It has even been suggested that he might have been Jack the Ripper.

Goodnight Sweet Prince, the first in Dickinson's series of Lord Francis Powercourt detective novels, takes the death of Prince Eddy as its starting point, to weave a conspiracy theory to rival the wildest stories that concern the death of Princess Diana a decade ago (and one not mentioned in the Wikipedia article referenced above). In Dickinson's fictionalisation, the influenza was a story dreamt up as a cover for the murder of the prince, portrayed as a hedonistic bisexual syphilitic bent on debauching everybody with whom he came into contact; and the subject of blackmail paid by his father. Clearly, an excellent and popular choice of murder victim, and yet someone whose death requires careful and discreet investigation. Working out which of the various motives actually led to the killing is the main point of the story.

As a novel, Goodnight Sweet Prince is somewhat uneven. The title, for instance, takes a sarcastic tone alien to the rest of the narrative - and Prince Eddy is no Hamlet! The first few chapters are a little dull, enough to make me consider giving up reading the book; but in the end I felt that I enjoyed the novel. The mystery is interesting, the background well researched, and the scandal appeals in the way that conspiracy theories in general tend to - fun, no matter how far fetched.

Wednesday 2 May 2007

Agatha Christie: Destination Unknown (1954)

Published: HarperCollins, 2003

When Agatha Christie is mentioned, or when you pick up one of her books, it is crime that you expect to be the subject. But Destination Unknown is no murder mystery: it is a straightforward thriller. There are innumerable thrillers much like it: the defecting scientist was made the peg on which hundreds of similar novels were hung during the Cold War. When Dr Betterton goes missing, it looks to the British Secret Service as though his wife might follow him, when she books a trip to Morocco, ostensibly to recuperate from the stress. She is killed when her plane crashes, and so they recruit a woman of similar appearance to take her place - with the obvious problem that they might well be unable to protect her when she is finally brought face to face with a husband who will obviously not recognise her.

The plot is complicated by several other deceptions and impersonations, and a second air crash: although plotting seems to be generally considered Christie's strong point, this is not one of the best. It becomes overloaded, unbelievable and there are loose ends left dangling. The ending is peculiarly unsatisfying, as the young woman who has been the central character for most of the story plays a distinctly passive part in it, which is not only unconventional in the genre, but just doesn't work. I realise that I am now criticising Destination Unknown for pandering to the clich├ęs of the genre and for failing to follow the conventions simultaneously, but both feel like problems when reading the novel. This is because it seems over-familiar, by re-using thriller conventions which are tired (and which were surely tired even in 1954), while ignoring conventions which are useful structurally for adding to the tension and suspense which is a major reason for reading the genre.

Problems that are systemic in Christie's writing also occur here. The plot is convoluted and bizarre even by her standards, with far too many impersonations for it to be credible. Characters are one dimensional, even the central agent at the centre of the story and dialogue can be awkward. There are some especially poor specimens of reported thought. And yet Destination Unknown is a pleasure to read, in an undemanding kind of way; again, a trait common to much of the author's writing. In the end, Destination Unknown can be seen as an interesting but not entirely successful experiment in writing in a genre that was not natural for Christie.