May 30th, 2019


A Whole Lot Of Mysteries

Books 1-5 of the Adam Dalgleish series by P. D. James,
I had a taste to revisit some of the murder mysteries that I used to read more of; it had been long enough that I wouldn't remember who did it. And I like British audiobook narrators. So I decided to go through the full series of some of the puzzle-mystery classics - who, I admit, had fuzzed together a bit in my memory, especially the difference between P. D. James and Ngaio Marsh. Anyway, I started with P. D. James and Adam Dalgleish. I only made it through five before deciding that I wasn't enjoying them. The puzzles are well-crafted - the clues are not sparse, are carefully placed and fit together nicely. The posthumous diary confession is a narrative cheat (it seems to fill the same role as the 'As you know, Bob' infodump, but for what the villain was actually doing and why), but it's not a puzzle cheat, so I forgive it. But the characters - I think there are different ways of going about assembling a cast of characters and then picking one to be the bad guy. You can't make everyone likeable except the villain. So you make everyone likeable, or no one. James chooses the second, but not as *dramatic* villains. Her characters seem to be more or less normal people, but with a thick, suffocating layer of authorial contempt on top of all of them. In particular, contempt around their love lifes, or lack of love lives. Characters are pathetic for wanting to be loved. Or for being unloveable. Or for loving too much. Or for being disabled, or old. Or for being ugly, or plain, or the wrong sort of pretty. Or for being weak, or frightened. I didn't like the way that it was seeping into me - I have enough (mostly self-directed) contempt already that I don't need to feed it.

So, on to the next.

All thirty-two of the Roderick Alleyn series by Ngaio Marsh (oof)
Marsh is kind of the opposite of James, and I am embarassed to have mixed them up. Her characters mostly range from likeable to silly, and Alleyn is sheer frivolity compared to the perpetually-stuck-in-existential-ennui Dalgleish. The plots of the earlier books are a little iffier than James - the first one I think suffers badly from a murder which could have happened as it did, but could not possibly have been planned in advance as it was. But that's one of the common problems of mystery novels, especially the puzzle-box kind, so it's hard to fault it much in a first novel.

The culture that I consumed growing up led me wrong in a number of ways. A lot of them are the unfortunate biases and -isms that I can't completely eradicate, but another is an inappropriate belief that while American society is in the present, British society is still full of aristocrats in country estates with servants at hand. Mysteries in particular like to inhabit the past, because the present (in particular, cell phones!) break a lot of plots and plot twists, but these inhabit a farther ago past - the first of Marsh's novels was published in 1934. Marsh's detective is a Scotland Yard Londoner, but Marsh was from New Zealand, and several of the book take place there. The fact that the technology and the social setting is nearly a century outdated slips by me like water, but the casual patronizing racism (in particular, the Maori are other, if not less) is a lot more jarring now than it was when I first read it. Progress in my -isms, I guess.

Some other random notes - in general, I found them fun. (I mean, I listened to all thirty-two, so I must have). There are a couple of plots that hinge on drug traffic, and I found them more boring than the others - partly because impersonal greed is less interesting as a motive, but partly because they go in a weird sixties anti-drug vibe direction that was hilariously dated. I just can't take "pad" seriously. It's definitely odd that 1930s Britain is "another time and place" and 1960s anti-drug homilies are "hilariously dated" - but avocado shag rugs are also hilariously dated and old hardwood furniture is antique, so there it is.

Also badly jarring (but, alas, not so outdated) is the appalling, continuously appalling, desription of a couple of fat characters. It only came up in a couple of books, or I probably would have had to give up, but there are several characters who are somewhat overweight. They are described as vast, elephantine, grotesque - and they tend to be referred to that way pretty much every time they are mentioned. It isn't always the case that fat = bad - two are bad guys, one is a classic battle-axe dowager - but like the Maori, they were never permitted to be normal people. (I say "somewhat overweight" because one of them is estimated as weighing sixteen stone, which I looked up and is 224 pounds American. Not that it would be more okay if they weighed more, but it made me take the adjectives far more personally than I did the racial ones.)

One of my pet peeves about audiobook production is when different narrators pronounce names differently. I wish the producers would use a pronunciation guide. (When it's a different producer, that's a different story, but it's all one publisher, and while the two main narrators correctly pronounce the character's name as "Allen", a couple of others say something much more like "Elaine".


The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham
Allingham is the only one of the four Golden Age Queens (Christie, Marsh, Sayers, and Allingham - PD James is later and not in the canonical list of four) that I had not really read before, and this is her first Campion book. It is much more of an action plot than a mystery plot, and it is weirdly funny to encounter it now. The villains are so remarkably well-behaved. Menacing people with guns is okay, but it appears to be a point of etiquette that if you have a gun pointed at you, you have to obey, but no one would be so gauche as to actually shoot under these circumstances. One villain is defeated by a fox hunting party - he does have a gun, but the depth of his fiendishness are that he shoots one of the dogs in order to show that he means business. The book also breaks one of the cardinal rules by introducing a pretty much unhinted motive (unless I missed it) in the denouement, and has a lot of annoying gender nonsense. Maybe I will continue to not do Allingham.
Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
Unlike the others above, this is a recent publication. It is two mysteries in one - one of them is a classic whodunit set in a classic small village in classic postwar England, and the other is a modern whodunit surrounding the death of the author of the manuscript of the first whodunit. It was really very nice. Both mysteries are well-done by all the conventions - and they tie together remarkably well.
The Word is Murder also Anthony Horowitz
I have an admission. When I first read The Princess Bride, before the movie, I believed the frame story - the one with a kind of unpleasant William Goldman who is disappointed that his kid doesn't like the book he loves and it turns out that it's because it has all sort of dense unreadable economic metaphor. Later, someone broke the news to me that the whole book was a work of fiction, including the fictional William Goldman. I mean, not that William Goldman is fictional, but the one in the book is. I felt unreasonably betrayed. Goldman had lied to me. It's weird. I don't have any problem with fiction being fictional. I don't have any problem with fiction with first person narrators. But when the author puts himself in as himself, I just automatically believe them. Horowitz does that here, and while I do not actually make the mistake of believing him, I still find it oddly unsettling. The mystery itself is reasonably good - I figured out the solutions to some of the smaller bits, and fell for some of the Watson traps before the fictional Horowitz does, which I guess means I was paying the right amount of attention. But I don't much like the detective - and neither does fictional-Horowitz, and he lampshades it by saying that he is not a likeable enough character to be one that he would have put in a book if he had gotten to make him up. Gah. Oh, also - and this comes up in both books! - any time someone asks you if you told anyone else you were coming here, you must immediately explain all the dead drop precautions that you already took, and you maybe also just ought to bonk the person asking on the head to save everyone trouble.
the Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy L Sayers
Another of the sources for the delusions I had in my youth about what modern Britain was like. Some scattered thoughts:
  • I do remember, when reading them the first time, that I was frustrated by how much I as the reader was expected to understand French. Other books use French as a seasoning - Hercule Poirot will call people "mon ami" and the reader is expected to understand what that means. Sayers will just drop in "Ah, mon Dieu, ça c'est plus difficile. Monsieur sait que les jours se suivent et se ressemblent. Voyons." And I can get through "Ah, mon Dieu" without help, but the rest is a blur. When I decided to revisit these, I thought "Oh, but now I have Google Translate." Unfortunately, French is not a language that lends itself to a non-speaker knowing how to spell it. (Looking through the Project Gutenberg transcript of Clouds of Witness to get that French sentence, I note that there is an entire letter in French, then translated in the text, that the audiobook is kind enough to not read in its French entirety, because I might have given up on the spot.
  • There's more trial scenes than in many of the previous authors' works. If the detective is an official policeman, like Dalgleish or Alleyn, then they're doing the initial trying-to-find-the-killer. Amateurs like Wimsey (even when they're hanging out with Scotland Yard friends) more easily venture into defending the arrested innocent.
  • Unfortunately, this series is insufficiently populated in the audiobook. I was okay skipping The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club because apparently nothing other than the mystery happens in it, but I can't bring myself to skip anything with Harriet, because she's the best thing in them, and felt it would be vaguely unsatisfying to read them in text instead.
  • I hadn't done Christie yet (because so so many of them), but she had a couple of books that broke standard convention. (When one is one of the standards of the convention, can one break convention? I guess so.) The narrator is the murderer, or the deeply creepy And Then There Were None. Sayers also does this, a little; I think her percentage of suicides and accidents is higher than is really conventional.
Agatha Christie
When I read them the first time through, I liked Poirot better than Miss Marple. I decided to give Miss Marple more of a try this time, and started with her. The twittering and fussing is still a little much, but I find that I am more okay with it now because (despite my blind spot to it taking place in the past) I get that she's playing up what people expect of little old ladies, as well as being a little old lady. Also, now I think my grandmother Polly looks way more like Miss Marple as described than any of the actresses who have taken the role, so I am fond of her for that reason.

Anyway, I got through nine of them (plus accidentally also listening to The Man In The Brown Suit, more of a thriller) before petering out, because I decided maybe it was time to do something else. Christie's puzzle box plots are the best of any of the ones listed here, but at a cost of character. The characters are certainly fun, but they're a bit like the characters Stephen King stocks the beginning of his horror books with - quirky and engaging, but usually not very deep, and also not very honest, in that the surface appearance need not have anything to do with the actual personality, if the plot requires it.

I might go back and listen to more, but dear God, she wrote eighty of these things, so I'm just going to post this now because otherwise it will be years.

(comments disabled on LJ; enabled on DW)