At the beginning of July Col picked 1987 for us, and chose John Lantigua’s Heat Lightning from his Criminal Library, a ‘murder mystery set against a back-drop of 80’s Central American politics-civil war-strife with the murder of a Latina girl among San Francisco’s exiled Salvadoran community’.
‘Left wing guerrillas, right-wing death squads, police corruption, illegals, people smuggling, civil war, land grabs, disenfranchisement, suspicion, fear, massacres, uprisings, family feuds, lies, secrets, illicit romances, money, mental instability, nightmares, death.’
Lots going on then!
This month we had a little run of history mysteries. I began in the Victorian period by reading Peter Lovesey’s Bertie and the Tinman, in which the roguish Prince of Wales investigates the death of a jockey. An OK book but much too horsey for my liking, and of course, as a historical novel it taught me nothing about 1987.
Bev at My Reader’s Block moved on a few years from the Victorians and read Young Mrs Cavendish and the Kaiser’s Men, which sounds like it started well, but petered out towards the end.
…a historical romp through a spy-laden San Francisco shortly before America’s entrance into World War I. Mrs. Cavendish is Maude Teasdale Cavendish–currently a society columnist for The Globe, but she has hopes of doing more serious newspaper work. When “Hindoo” henchmen working for German spies kidnap her in a case of mistaken identity, Maude sees a chance to finally get her byline beside something more important than who wore what and when.
Forward a few more years. Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery also chose a history-mystery: Robert Barnard’s The Skeleton in the Grass.
We see the events of 1936 through Sarah’s eyes, but also via the educated and well-read Hallams, and the villagers. The King is spending time with a divorced woman. Civil war is breaking out in Spain. One of the Hallam sons goes to Spain to take part in the fighting. And during all of this, because the Hallams are pacifists, malicious pranks are carried out on the grounds of Hallam House. The last prank results in a death and the Hallams are the logical suspects. From that time on, life at Hallam House is less idyllic.
And a few years more, for James Ellroy’s 1940s noir The Black Dahlia, reviewed at The Game’s Afoot. Jose Ignacio enjoyed Ellroy’s…
gritty and realistic writing style. Certainly, It’s not a novel suitable for all sensitivities, occasionally, you may find yourself out of your comfort zone. But in a nutshell, it’s an excellent book superbly written. A must read if you like the ‘noir’ sub-genre and an impressive recreation of the times in which the story unfolds that I strongly recommend.
And finally on to the 80s with Joan Smith’s Masculine Ending as reviewed by Moira at Clothes in Books. Smith wrote ‘five excellent mystery stories with leftwing feminist academic Loretta Lawson investigating various crimes she comes across’. This book couldn’t be more 80s:
There is the simple fact that no-one has computers, it is hard to get in touch with people (it didn’t seem so at the time) or to find out details such as addresses. Answering machines feature hugely […] If you wanted to find out up-to-date news you had to wait for the next TV or radio bulletin. There is a smoking section in the cinema Loretta visits. Hard to credit in one way, but the flat she and the other professionals use in Paris has a shared squat toilet in the communal landing. All too convincing to those who used to visit the world’s most romantic city in the 1980s.
The Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel read Simon Brett’s Charles Paris in theatrical mystery What Bloody Man is That?
What is impressive is how Brett makes the formula work time after time. He is a very witty writer, drawing on his own experiences from all over the world of drama (and comedy) and his writing is a joy. Infused with such a delightful line in humour, his writing is guaranteed to bring a smile to the reader’s face.
What can be lacking at times are clues – Charles has a tendency to trip over the murderer, rather than solving the crime, but this time, there’s a logical line in deduction that leads to the villain, which is a nice bonus.
The Doctor also read Reginald Hill’s Child’s Play, noting:
It’s Hill’s writing and characterisation that make the book shine. The books tended to oscillate their focus from one lead to the other and Dalziel gets a lot of the spotlight here, as does Wield. A fair part of the non-mystery plot comes from the revelation (I don’t recall if it is stated overtly in an earlier book) of Wield’s homosexuality and the effect that it would have on his career (this is 1980s Yorkshire) as a policeman if it were made public. Hill isn’t blind to the fact that some people would see it as a massive issue, but Andy Dalziel’s reaction to it is what makes the book. It’s rather wonderful.
H. R. F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote takes a turn as an unwilling Great Detective in The Body in the Billiard Room, reviewed very intelligently at crossexamingcrime. Ghote is called to the Anglophile town of Ooctacamund (Ooty for short), where he finds his suspects still hankering after an idealised version of the Raj.
Ghote is not allowed for example, to be an Indian police detective, he has to be referred to as ‘India’s Poirot,’ a version of a Western ideal. This ties into the place of Ooty itself, which is another form of imposing a “British” way of life on another culture with its place names (including Charing Cross), its food, ‘Dundee Marmalade’ and social activities.
Heading further east, in a rare example of a Crime of the Century book being spotted in the wild, the Washington Post this month reviewed Yukito Ayatsuji’s The Decagon House Murders:
…part of a flourishing school of what are called “honkaku.” As Shimada Soji — a key figure in this movement — writes in an introduction to “The Decagon House Murders,” the term “honkaku” means “orthodox” and “refers to a form of the detective story that is not only literature but also to a greater or lesser extent a game.” Quoting Golden Age mystery writer S.S. Van Dine, he adds that it invites the reader to employ “a high degree of logical reasoning.”
Friend of the blog Santosh Iyer also reviewed The Decagon House Murders:
The novel is suspenseful and the solution does surprise. However, there is hardly any significant clue leading to the culprit. There is no way a reader can determine the murderer. Even the Police fail to arrive at the correct solution.
Bernadette at Fair Dinkum Crime came late to the party at Jon Cleary’s Dragons at the Party:
I don’t know if was via an early reading that jarred with my younger self’s sensibilities or due to some misunderstanding on my part of information gleaned from unknown sources but I somehow had developed the impression that John Cleary’s Scobie Malone novels were not for me […] I was truly astonished then to find myself utterly engaged by a protagonist of depth and character in a novel of intelligence and humour that observes its chosen slice of Australian society and culture with a keen eye and sharp wit. Who knew?
Back in the UK, Lucy settled down with a boxset of The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, but couldn’t get past episode one. It does sound like it gives a good picture of the times though:
In the 80s, we were going to remake everything – gender roles, housework and all. (Just like we tried to in the 70s and 60s.) I feel Rendell is struggling to be relevant […] It captures the atmosphere of ordinary English people leading ordinary lives in ordinary flats, houses, pubs, offices – thanks to real locations.
John at Pretty Sinister Books picked up Robert Crais’ The Monkey’s Raincoat, but was entirely underwhelmed.
Robert Crais spent close to ten years writing scripts for US TV cop shows before turning to novels. Baretta, Cagney & Lacey, Quincy, Miami Vice and a couple of others show up on his long resume. Aha! So that’s why the book seemed just like a TV show. Smart aleck dialogue, brand name dropping like some kind of verbal product placement gone wild, jokes based on TV pop culture, and two gratuitous sex scenes one of which seems completely out of character for the two people involved.
Finally, my second book for 1987 was Alan Moore’s Watchmen, a classic comic with a mystery at its heart.
Next time: I’m sticking with the 80s. In fact 1980…
The ones that got away (two of my favourites):