Crimes Literary Supplement

Winter had come; I spent June and July reading epic fantasy – an earnest but often humourless genre, with fine, even sublime, passages in obese tomes that are themselves only sections of trilogies and quartets. Tad Williams’s Memory, Sorrow, Thorn (all 3200 pages), Tolkien, and the first volumes of Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic. (Its first book, set in Justinian’s Byzantium, has a remarkable encounter with the numinous; I couldn’t warm to the second.)

The detective story, on the other hand, needs only a couple of hundred pages, while some of the finest examples are short stories  – beginning, of course, with the immortal Holmes. If fantasy requires several hundred pages (and a thirty-page appendix), Doyle could convey a world in a paragraph, with references to the Trepoff murders in Odessa, to sinister tragedies in Trincomalee, to Vatican cameos, to remarkable worms, and to Sumatran megafauna. The Holmes stories are bigger on the inside than they are on the outside. Hence, perhaps, some of their appeal for Moffat and Gatiss?

MURDER MAKES MURDER (Harriette Ashbrook, 1937)

How it does so is told too much back to front. The problem is that this is a detective story. As a mystery, it’s brisk enough, but little more than competent. Its chief interest lies in the emotional drama  – which is only revealed at the end, and hence undeveloped. Under the traditional detective story lies the potential for an exploration of the lengths to which love (sexual, spousal, parental) can drive people. It ought really to have been an Ilesian crime novel, with far more sympathetic characters than Johnny A. and Dr. B. As such, it might have been devastating.

THE MEMORY OF BLOOD (Christopher Fowler, 2011)

Or Puzzle for Puppets. Mr. Punch, it seems, is murdering his way through the entourage of millionaire theatre owner Robert Kramer, beginning by tossing the baby (no bathwater) out the window. Fowler belongs to the generation after Symons, and understands that crime can be clever and funny. (A pity that attitude isn’t prevalent; we might be spared so much dour Scandinoir.) This is a stronger detective story than the previous two entries in the Bryant & May series, although it lacks the high concept brilliance of The Water Room or Ten Second Staircase. Bryant’s fascinating insights into the meaning of Punch lead us to expect a more ingenious ending; the murderer is rather too down to earth and predictable. We are entertained, but not pleased as Punch.

MURDER EN ROUTE (Brian Flynn, 1930)

The victim is strangled on top of a bus on a miserable night … but nobody approached him. Purists will appreciate this for combining an impossible crime with methodical Humdrum detection, an Austin Freeman plot, and a car chase. Some of the sleuthing is excellent, particularly the scenes where Bathurst investigates the bus and lists several telling points, then reconstructs the crime. But like most Twenties British detective stories, it isn’t a whodunnit; there is only one evident suspect. It is also irritatingly long-winded; too much of it is told by a prosy, sententious vicar. Skimming is essential. Bathurst’s solution is logical and fair, but I anticipated many of the points, including the culprits (the only possible ‘Surprise!’).

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