A Summer’s Worth of Crime Fiction

Summer isn’t over yet, of course, especially not in Arkansas. But my summer almost is. Administrative duties begin this week, and the first day of classes is only three weeks away. I’m sure I’ll dispose of a few more crime novels before the semester really starts to pinch, but for now here are a few thoughts about some I’ve read lately:

Gallows View—Peter Robinson (1987)

The first in the long-running Inspector Banks series, and a pretty good debut. For a while there I read the new installments of this series religiously. I’m a few behind now, not sure why, they’re always solid, often much better than that, and Banks is likeable enough, a kinder, less tormented Rebus. I don’t always need to know so much about the music he’s listening to, though. I’d never read the first five or six, though, and it’s interesting to compare the later installments to the first one. Robinson has become a better writer, but already here he shows a light touch in explaining the story of Banks’s move from London to Yorkshire. And his pacing is good, too. At 250 pages this book is the right length. I’ve bemoaned many times the bloat in crime fiction, with novels regularly topping 400 pages. In fact, Robinson himself has since succumbed to this tendency. Still, meeting Inspector Banks has reignited my interest in the series and I plan to read the next few.

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The Strangler Vine—M . J. Carter (2014)

This first time novel by a historian begins what promises to be a very good series. Someone recommended this in the TLS Summer Reading series, and I’m glad I followed up on it. William Avery is a young soldier recently arrived in India in the 1830s. Languishing in Calcutta before joining his regiment, he is charged with accompanying Jeremiah Blake to find a well-known poet, the Walter Scott of Anglo-India, who has gone missing. Blake is a shadowy figure who is employed by the East India Company but lives in disrepute in the “native” part of the city, and in fact seems to have repudiated the Company altogether. Avery is naïve, a bit complacent and blustery, though a good sort. Blake is mercurial, expert in a dozen Eastern languages, an expert at tracking people who don’t want to be found. There’s an extended “meet cute” in which Blake is contemptuous of Avery and Avery horrified by Bake before each comes to appreciate the other, work as a team, etc. Avery is disabused of his faith in the Company; Blake regains some of his faith in the human race. So far, so conventional. Fortunately, Carter doesn’t push the Holmes/Watson comparison too hard. And her knowledge of the period is impressive. She describes the 1830s as a time when an earlier openness on the part of Company officials for India’s cultural traditions was hardening into something more dogmatic and oppressive, an incipient White Man’s Burden. The book drags a little at times, especially in the middle third, usually when Carter tries to burden her story with too much information. But the ending is genuinely moving and I look forward to the next installment, which, it seems, will be set somewhere quite different. (Already out in the UK—Book Depository order necessary? Hmm…)

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Invisible City—Julia Dahl (2014)

I read this because it’s ostensibly about the Hasidic community in New York. But it’s actually about the newspaper business in the era of social media, which interests me a lot less. Dahl’s portrayal of an insular world in which wrongdoings are overlooked in a tacit understanding between community leaders and secular officials is fine as far as it goes. But Rachel Aviv’s New Yorker piece from last year explores the same topic much more probingly. It tells you something that a few later I can’t even remember the protagonist’s name, but she has a complicated back-story that allows her access to this relatively closed world. I didn’t find that story interesting enough to want to read the just-released follow-up.

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Oblivion—Arnaldur Indridason (2014/2015 English translation Victoria Cribb)

Indridason is one of my absolute favourites and I always order his books from the UK since they come out a year earlier there. Some are stronger than others, of course, but this one is particularly good. A couple of years ago, Indridason concluded his series centered on his melancholy detective, Erlendur. But then he had the idea of writing about Erlendur’s early days. Last year’s Reykjavik Nights showed us Erlendur’s life as a traffic cop in the early 70s. In this follow-up, set a few years later, Erlendur has become a detective. He investigates two unrelated crimes, one recent and one from twenty years earlier. The resonances between them—they are linked only thematically, in relation to the American military presence in Iceland after the war—are intriguing but not hammered home. I’ve written before about my love of Iceland, so maybe this stuff interests me more than most people. But everyone ought to appreciate how almost insistently low-key these books are. Indridason is especially good at showing how awkward it can be to investigate crimes in a small country, where everybody almost knows everybody else.

Dissolution—C. J. Sansom (2003)

I’m not much of one for classical/medieval/Renaissance-era historical mysteries, but I quite liked this first installment of a series centered on Matthew Shardlake, a hunchbacked lawyer working for Thomas Cromwell in the 1530s who increasingly finds himself torn over his master’s methods. At least I liked it until I read Jenny’s damning but compelling complaint about the implausibility of importing what are essentially 19th/20th century narrative protocols on to the Early Modern period. After that I liked it less. I might continue with the series anyway, though: the first one was definitely readable, and I enjoyed the counter-perspective on Cromwell, who I only know from Hilary Mantel. This book is fine, but it’s no Wolf Hall! Think Sansom is tired of hearing that yet?

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The Red Moth—Sam Eastlake (2013)

Found this while in Canada and it seemed like the kind of thing that might be hard to get in the US, plus I’m a total sucker for WWII crime/espionage fiction. The inspector is a Finn who once worked for the Tsar and then was recalled from Siberian exile and put to work for Stalin. It’s all most implausible—Stalin is even a character, which doesn’t work out too well: I get that the point is that he’s not a frothing madman, but the picture of him as simply a malign functionary is fairly preposterous. A perfectly adequate vacation read, but I doubt I’ll be getting to the rest of the series anytime soon.

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Ngaio Marsh—A Man Lay Dead (1934)

Marsh is one of the most famous Golden Age British crime writers along with Christie, Allingham, and the utterly glorious Tey. This is the first of her Inspector Alleyn series. It’s not perfect—Marsh can’t quite seem to figure out what she wants Alleyn to be like: is he nice, is he brooding, is he a bit callous?—but it’s thoroughly enjoyable, a classic country house murder with a hint of espionage. Read it—it absolutely stands the test of time. Looking forward to reading more of her work.

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5 thoughts on “A Summer’s Worth of Crime Fiction

  1. That’s a lot of crime fiction! What an interesting variety. I’ve got a couple of Indridason titles on hold thanks to you and Miss Bates. I used to just love Ngaio Marsh but haven’t reread any of them for ages. And like you, I always intend to keep up with Peter Robinson, but somehow I never quite do. They are good enough that maybe it’s kind of nice knowing I have them in reserve?

    • Love the reserve idea–that really fits with my experience.The Canadian angle interests me too: I’m bemused to see the Toronto Star, on the front cover of this omnibus edition of early Banks novels that I’ve got, calling him “one of the most completely realized detectives in Canadian crime fiction.”
      I’m guessing there’s no need to read Marsh in order? I have a copy of Death at the Bar I picked up at a library sale and I think I’ll try that one next. Have you read Allingham? She’s been on my list for a long time.

      • I think his relationship with Troy is the only sequential element of significance. I remember liking her a lot. I haven’t read Allingham. I have weirdly limited patience for crime fiction considering how often I teach it.

      • Funny. I’ve often thought of teaching a course on crime fiction but I don’t think I have much to say about it; I just devour the stuff compulsively.

  2. Pingback: Recent Reading: Romance, Reykjavik, and Relatives » Novel Readings - Notes on Literature and Criticism

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