The Literary Warrior returns after bloody battles with frustration and boredom, restored to mental vigour by immersion in some delicious (if murderous) mysteries. It is a puzzle that we British should so often talk of murder mysteries as ‘escapist’. But perhaps that is because our chosen genre focusses less on the violence and gore, and more on the intricacies of detecting the wrong-doer. ‘Cosy’ is the negative judgement of those who like their murders painful, prolonged and bloody (one might wonder about the condition of their psyche). But cosy was not how I would describe the books I chose to escape with.
Many of them were on my shelves, old green Penguins that I turned to as old friends. Michael Innes, for example, erudite and witty, pitting ruthless university dons against an intelligent Inspector Appleby in The Weight of the Evidence or Death at the President’s Lodging. Or Cyril Hare, a prolific writer of clever mysteries the reader could only solve if they were familiar with the idiosyncracies of English law: in his other life, Hare was a judge. Wonderful stuff: Tragedy at Law in which the victim is a judge himself, or Tenant for Death.
It is a mistake to suppose that these early Penguins were/are written for simpletons, capable only of digesting gentle dramas akin to Midsomer Murders. On the contrary, they were written by intelligent, erudite authors and designed for readers who like their entertainment clever. Women became particularly successful in this genre.
Margery Allingham was a prolific writer of witty, clever mysteries during the interwar years, introducing the gentlemanly Albert Campion as her sleuth. I reread several for their restorative powers, including Sweet Danger a quirky and witty thriller which has the added bonus of introducing Amanda Fitton, aviatrix and future wife of Mr Campion; and More Work for the Undertaker, very funny and highly evocative of London just after the war. Agatha Christie called Allingham “a shining light” – and she was.
I did not re-read any Agatha Christie this time, even though we have almost every title she wrote on our guest room shelves. But I did turn again to the wonderful Ngaio Marsh. We have early editions of her work, but I could only find collections on line, for example Inspector Alleyn Collection Book 3, which includes Singing in the Shrouds, Off with his Head, and False Scent. Marsh was familiar with the theatrical scene which informs two of these tales, and her portraits of self-styled creative artists are witty and very funny. Delicious style.
My favourite of all the mystery writers during the interwar heyday is Dorothy L. Sayers, and most especially the saga of Lord Peter Wimsey’s love for Harriet Vane, starting with Strong Poison, in which the unlucky woman is accused of murder, through Have His Carcass to the wonderful Gaudy Night (which proves that a tender, believable account of love can enhance the unravelling of a mystery) to their somewhat incredible but entertaining honeymoon in Busman’s Honeymoon: A Love Story with Detective Interruptions. As pure self-indulgence in recuperative mode, instead of reading the first three volumes, I watched not one, but three glorious box sets of BBC videos starring Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walters, both perfectly cast for the roles.
Perhaps the funniest and wittiest of all the whodunnit writers I have come across is Sarah Caudwell, whose first book Thus was Adonis Murdered was published in 1981. Her sleuth is Prof Hilary Tamar, who avoids academic research by visiting former pupils now practising law in Lincoln’s Inn. Julia, a first-class tax lawyer whose own life and finances are in permanent chaos, is accused of murdering a tax inspector while on holiday in Venice, and her friends rally to her aid. The plot is clever, but the dialogue and narration are of a high order – witty, somewhat malicious and very, very funny. Caudwell published six mysteries, each as good as the last, but died at far too young an age. Definitely a writer who should be more widely known.
For escapism, I have been concentrating on books which leave you feeling good, so cannot include otherwise brilliant modern writers like Val McDermid, Barbara Vine or Minette Walters. To read any of them, I need to be on top form, as they tend to leave me, at least, shaken and not a little stirred.
But a new discovery for my Books to Escape With is author Marissa de Luna and her Goan Detective Arthur Chupplejeep. A delightful new setting – rural Goa, in western India – and a fine new detective who is clever, but has been banished to the sticks by superiors who found his refusal to be bribed or otherwise corrupt put them in a painful position. Very nice. So however cowardly he is in his dealings with his fiancee, Christabel – and we realize he is terrified of commitment – we also know he is fundamentally a Good Guy. And his naive but very willing side-kick, Police Officer Pankaj, is proud to work with such a man.
In Under the Coconut Tree, Chupplejeep’s investigations into a sudden death uncover village gossip and scandal, unusual relationships and criminal activity, including drug smuggling, but none of the dangling threads lead to a plausible murder. The final outcome is both surprising and absolutely fitting. All the evidence was there, but only Chupplejeep saw it.
And finally, a new twist on school stories and whodunnits, Robin Stevens’s two schoolgirl detectives in Murder Most Unladylike. In a plausible scenario, our heroines Daisy and Hazel find they are the only people who know that a murder has been committed, because the body disappears before they can report it. Obviously they need to find out who dunnit, before the murderer gets them too. Very enjoyable and perfect escapism.