Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Charlotte MacLeod: It Was an Awful Shame (2002)

Edition: Five Star, 2003
Review number: 1401

Of all genre writing, it may be the case that crime short stories are the most difficult to pull off, despite the pioneering example of Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Sherlock Holmes short stories remain among the best of this type. To fit a convincing description of a crime, several suspects, their motives, means and opportunity, as well as the solution, into a few pages is not easy. To make them funny as well is so difficult that to try seems almost like showing off.

And in this collection, Charlotte MacLeod manages to do this without apparent effort. Not only that, she is often able to convey an enviable sense of place: most of the stories are set in a New England clearly dear to her heart. The stories are also rather old fashioned, and portray an upper class New England that almost certainly became extinct before the Second World War (the original publication dates for the stories are between 1963 and 1989, mainly in the first decade).

The quality of the stories is variable, but there are no really poor ones in the collection. However, the ordering of the stories does leave something to be desired for newcomers to the author (as I was when I picked up this book in the library). MacLeod wrote two long series of novels with recurring characters, and fans will be pleased to know that both make appearances in this collection. The problem is that the first two stories here are from one of these series, and don't really stand alone too well, and this is an off putting start for those readers not familiar with the novels. The stories from the second series work much better, appearing later on and apparently coming near the start of the series' internal chronology. These series characters made me think of Dorothy L. Sayers' short stories, which are not particularly distinguished (and certainly not as good as MacLeod's), but which are collected in such a way that Lord Peter stories draw the fan into reading each of the collections. There, too, a certain knowledge of Lord Peter is assumed, but not perhaps as much as MacLeod does in the first two here. The first story, which provides the title for the collection, also deals with the childish rituals of a fraternity lodge, and so seems particularly removed from real life.

Similarly, the level of humour varies between the stories. Some of the best moments, such as the magnificently silly spoof The Mysterious Affair of the Beaird-Wynnington Dirigible Airship and the Wodehouse-style combination of goat, shotgun, helium balloon, trousers and halibut in Fifty Acres of Prime Seaweed, are not likely to be quickly forgotten by any reader.

The old fashioned air occasionally reminds me of O. Henry or P.G. Wodehouse: very old fashioned, and similarly cosy. In no way could MacLeod's stories be described as gritty reflections of the mean streets of modern America. That is not necessarily a bad thing; there should always be a place for expertly written, light and fun reading, even if it occasionally strays into the twee. My rating: 7/10.

1 comment:

Hannah Stoneham said...

Very interesting and candid review - thank you for posting. I always wonder about the ordering of short stories. I have just read Are they changed, Are they dead? which is a collection of new short stories by Marjorie Ann Watts - (I hope to write a proper review soon) - I thought that they were good - in some cases really good - but there was something a little awry with the ordering - the best stories having been placed in the middle/at the end. I can see your point about crime fiction being very difficult to do as a short story - so well done Charlotte MacLeod!

Thanks indeed for sharing this lovely post.