Tag Archives: mystery

blaugust #17: thrill me.

“The thriller proper is a work of art as delicate and precise as a sonnet.” – Margery Allingham

A couple of weeks ago, The Guardian published a review of Traitor’s Purse by Margery Allingham, in anticipation of a special edition that Folio Society¬†will release next month. I am, as previously blabbed, a huge fan of mysteries – particularly the old school British classics. Margery Allingham is definitely in that category, and I’ve read several of her Campion¬†stories. Albert Campion is the traditional old school detective hero: a brilliant peer who prefers the life of a gumshoe to the social grind. I am oversimplifying, because that makes him sound insufferable and he’s not – he’s startling and fresh and likable. Allingham is a wonderful storyteller, but she’s also a magnificent writer – sharp and clear, short and precise, funny and oh, when you aren’t really ready for it from a clever, witty thriller, so human and devastating. The Guardian piece had some great background on her, as well.

I’d never read Traitor’s Purse, so on the strength of this very loving review, I got a copy from the library. I finished it last night. I won’t rehash the review here, because it’s already been done perfectly, but the book was everything it promised. A perfect thriller that manages to be both a departure from the other Campion stories, and also utterly canonical. The descriptions of place are drawn with a very fine hand, using wonderful words in just not quite expected ways:

“A broad road, still paved and flanked with squat houses, rises slowly to the Corn Exchange and the Nag’s Head Inn. The hostelry, fourth oldest in the country, is three storeys high and its centre gable, gallant but drunken, leans appreciably westward, lending the whole structure a note of ancient and irresponsible festivity both laughable and endearing.”

Ancient and irresponsible festivity. That’s the most vivid description I’ve ever read of an old and lilting English building.

“He had no idea where he was and the velvet dark was warm and faintly anaesthetic…Another door brought them to a flight of wooden stairs and a surprising change of atmosphere. It was still warm, but the air now smelt of paper and floor-polish and the gentle, exciting odour of old wood.”

Who gets to put the words gentle and exciting together to make the exactly right description of a smell? Margery Allingham, that’s who. Go thee to the library for some books.

(This is day 17 of the Blaugust initiative; I’m a survivor!)

blaugust #05: see a belt buckle, pick it up.

I love mysteries. Both the big, thorny kind you can consume as media, and the tiny, ordinary kind that happen in the world and are often never even noticed. Like, what happened to the wearer of a pair of running shoes and one single sock that I found, neatly lined up like they were nestled in a woodland closet, on the path to the train? At the moment, I’m reading a mystery novel called Shinju by Laura Joh Rowland, I’m listening to a Nero Wolfe book of short stories by Rex Stout, and Phil and I are working our way through Alfred Hitchcock Presents on Netflix. I would have said I was at mystery capacity, definitely fulfilling my quota, all sold out. I would have been wrong, though, because there is no podcast on that list.

Enter Mystery Show, by Starlee Kine. I’m a longtime Starlee fan, ever since seeing her work herself into a frothy, wickedly barbed whirlwind of hate over The Walking Dead at a storytelling event several years ago. She is super sure about what she thinks about stuff, and she goes right ahead and does things that I think are outside the realm of reasonable human behavior. This makes for fantastic stories. So when I heard about her new podcast, I got really excited. I’ve been saving it for a good, quiet day at work and yesterday I had one. I listened to five of the so-far six episodes, all in one gulp.

mystery show

The premise: there must be a mystery. It must be a real life mystery. It must be something that cannot be solved on the internet. She will take it on and track it down. Some of these mysteries are genuinely mysterious, like the pilot episode in which a woman rents a video from a store in neighborhood and when she goes back to return it the next night, the store is closed, the shelves are empty, and all the windows are papered over. Other episodes have less compelling premises, such as episode 5 when Starlee is asked to find out once and for all how tall Jake Gyllenhaal really is. I don’t care at all how tall Jake Gyllenhaal is (although, if you start typing his name into Google, the second suggested string that pops up is Jake Gyllenhaal height; this is a hotly contested issue of much interest, apparently). I stayed riveted to the entire episode anyway. She’s a great storyteller, and she really is going out into the world and tracking down leads with a notebook and a voice recorder. It’s fascinating and funny and audacious, and I wish I’d thought of it.

Episode 3: Belt Buckle was by far the best. It had everything: an intriguing artifact, chance meetings, soul mates, a typical Swiss cowboy, and the most moving and pleasing solution you could ever hope to get. If you ignore the whole rest of this post, if you hate mysteries, if you think podcasts are a fad, listen to this one anyway, please please. It’s so good.

I’ve got one episode left to go before I’m out and have to wait for new ones, so I’m going to save it until the next one pops up. For a mystery emergency. In case I finish my book, and my audiobook, and that other book I picked up from the library today, and all 30-something Hitchcocks. What, it could happen.

(This is day 5 of Blaugust. Check it out.)

125.

“Penny.”

“Mmm?”

“Have you seen those slaps around town that are pen and ink drawings of a woman, very simple and graceful lines? She’s wearing a bamboo hat.”

“Yeah, I love those.”

“Did you notice that they’re all viewed from behind except the ones that are along the riverfront on the east side? You can see her face in those.”

“No! Really? That’s a mystery.”

Pepper kicked her leg out behind her and slammed the oven door shut, hands full of hot pies. “Well, now you’ve done it. You used the word.”

exit music, by ian rankin

Mysteries are like water to the living organism of my reading life. I read about three mysteries to every one book in any other genre. And I’m kind of picky about them, which makes it difficult to keep the shelves properly stocked. Generally, I prefer something in the classic puzzle vein to police procedurals, but once in a while I find a police procedural series with a great sense of place and good solid satisfying characters (and that doesn’t make me too queasy – I have a weak stomach for lurid forensic detail, however perfectly written. Serial killers and torture are out.).

I went about reading Ian Rankin all backwards. He’s been on my list to check out for a while, and when I was shopping for vacation books before Christmas, I picked up Exit Music. It’s the last book in his Inspector John Rebus series. I knew that when I bought it, and I’m not sure why I chose this particular title, but I did and I read it last week.

A good sense of place can make or break a mystery. Even if the setting has nothing to do with the details of the plot, it sets you up to be invested in your detective for the long term. The Rebus novels are set in Edinburgh, and the scene is perfectly judged. Heavy-handed description isn’t Rankin’s thing, but he draws the city beautifully and shades it in with a dose of politics that I found fascinating.

John Rebus and his partner are also nicely crafted – complex and difficult, but again brought to life with a minimum of word fuss. There’s plenty of backstory to the series – it didn’t seem necessary to have read the earlier books to be invested in this one, but Rankin alludes to past events often enough to make me want to go back and read the rest of the series. Lean, subtle and satisfying.