Saturday, 30 August 2014

Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil by James Runcie

It takes a fair amount of confidence to tackle a plot involving a serial killer who targets priests within the confines of a short story. This may be the reason there are only four stories in the latest book of Grantchester Chronicles, so that Sidney can get to grips with some meatier cases.
    As the title suggests, evil, and quite a lot besides, lurks in Sydney's thoughts as he becomes caught up in the first case, which has someone bumping off the local vicars. It all begins when a pair of dead doves is left on Sidney's doorstep. Soon after, the first vicar is killed, suffocated, and a claw-like symbol carved on his chest. Quite a grim beginning.
    We have a dark and evil criminal for the first story, but there is still plenty of Sidney's episcopal ramblings of thought and quips from housekeeper Mrs Maguire, as well as the joys of Sidney's marriage to Hildegarde to lighten things up a bit. It's a pity Sidney's new domestic arrangements mean Mrs Maguire has to find employment elsewhere, because I always enjoyed her way of putting Sidney and his curate in their place.
    The next story has a painting stolen in broad daylight from the Fitzwilliam Museum - a Sickert, showing a circus performer, and not the most valuable piece in the museum by a long stretch. Or does it have a particular value to the thief? And did the briefly naked French girl singing through the gallery have a connection with the heist?
    This story is a bit more fun, with Sidney catching up with his old gal pal, posh Amanda, the art expert, and a trip across the channel with his backgammon buddy, Inspector Keating. It's amazing Keating is such a successful police officer, since he is often so bereft of clues, he frequently needs to call on Sidney to worm secrets out of witnesses with his cosy priestly manner.
    The third story has the unlikely scenario of Sidney, along with his ageing dog Dickens, taking the part of the vicar in a film version of The Nine Tailors, one of Dorothy L Sayers more memorable whodunits. An army chum of Sidney's is the director, and of course there is plenty of off-set shenanigans plus a murder made out to seem an accident. This murder is particularly cunning, with a method I have never come across in my many years of mystery novel reading.
    The fourth story is a bit shorter, and is a Christmas story involving the theft of a newborn baby, which gives Sidney many opportunities to ponder the birth of Jesus and miracle of new life. He'll follow his instincts and be more than usually sensitive to wrap this one up, while at home change is also afoot.
    The Problem of Evil offers a collection of cosy mysteries, full of gentle wisdom and humour, with a background setting of early-sixties Britain. The Beatles are on the radio, the Cold War is in full swing, and there's loads of Cambridge atmosphere. I particularly like the pub where Sidney and Keating play backgammon and can only imagine what fun the people turning it all into a new television series will have.  It is sure to look gorgeous.

Monday, 25 August 2014

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

'Tis done! I have turned the last page of The Luminaries, one of the larger novels I have read in some time, a book which put me in mind of Dickens, with its varied cast of characters, atmospheric setting and complex plotting.
    The story begins when Walter Moody, a young man lately of Scotland, arrives in Hokitika to chance his luck on the goldfields. He steps into a hotel lounge, and finds himself in the midst of a group of twelve men from all walks of life who have gathered to discuss the death of one man, the disappearance of another and the possible attempted murder of a prostitute. There is a large amount of gold involved as well as scullduggery, fraud and revenge.
    It is late January, 1866, and the reader might be forgiven for imagining we are in the northern hemisphere as the weather is wild and wet, and miserable. But actually this is summer. For we are on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, in a town just starting to flourish because of the gold rush, a frontier town with a treacherous bar where ships regularly founder and lives perish.
    Each character: the shipping merchant, Balfour, who is worried about a missing chest - the bank clerk, Frost, who has frittered away the commission on the sale of a deceased estate that perhaps shouldn't have been sold; the chemist, Pritchard, who has probably imported the opium that may have been involved in the crimes discussed; to name but three - has a story to tell that will become one part of the jigsaw that will produce a picture of what happened.
   And this picture takes time to describe, so the reader must sit back and be patient, like Walter Moody has to, and let the story be told. This accounts for the first three hundred and sixty odd pages. Each chapter has one of those little summaries that begins "In which ..." rather like you might find in a Victorian novel, and this is a big help in case you lose your way. With such a large cast of characters, this can easily happen.
    During the next chunk of the book, the reader finally gets swept along by the events that happen next, and the action really picks up with a court case and retribution to follow. The last chunk of the book winds back to the beginning with short abrupt chapters, in which the "In which" intros are often longer than the text that follows, and the story oddly enough seems to end quite well, even though we are nearer the beginning.
   The Luminaries is wonderfully written, recreating the West Coast gold rush and the odd types that might well have turned up there when there was nothing left to lose. With its rich prose wrought with care, engaging characters and a few decent nasty ones, and with its many layers - I didn't even get started on working out the significance of the astrology references - it is the kind of book you can happily read again and again - each reading offering up new riches. I wouldn't like to say if it was the best book on last year's Man Booker shortlist, but I for one was certainly not disappointed.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Fallout by Sadie Jones

Sadie Jones has a talent for recreating a particular time and place - previously Cyprus in the 1950s, as well as post war Britain - and giving each book an authentic feel. Add some well-rounded characters and a tense plot and her books are hard to put down. Fallout, her latest, keeps up the trend with a story about four talented young people in the world of theatrical London in the 1970s.
    Luke, aka Lucasz and Lucas (his father is Polish and his mother, French), grows up in a dead-end Lincolnshire town, smart enough for Oxbridge, but reluctant to leave his needy parents - his mother lives in a mental asylum nearby, where he is a frequent visitor and never gives up on her, unlike his father who drowns his sorrows in drink and leaves all the cooking and household chores to Luke.
    Quietly Luke fills notebooks with his scribblings, collects pop music - Dylan earns his undying respect - and reads plays. He thinks he'll go on working in the paper factory as a clerk until he bumps into Leigh and Paul, just up from London and lost, looking for a local playwright. Leigh and Paul are theatre people, and because it is raining, Luke jumps into Leigh's mini, the better to direct them to the rough pub they are looking for. The three strike up a friendship, and Luke sees kindred spirits, unlike anyone else he has ever met before.
    The encounter is enough to jolt Luke out of his dull Lincolnshire routine. He throws in his job, packs his typewriter, heads for London and with nowhere to stay, looks Paul up in the phonebook.
    Meanwhile, Nina is the fatherless daughter of a failed actress, brought up by a dully sensible aunt. When she turns fifteen she decides her life must include acting and living in London, where she turns up on her mother's doorstep. She leaves an aunt who loves her but can't show her any affection for a narcissistic mother who is controlling and leaves Nina no room for friendships or for being herself. Mummy particularly dominates any attempts Nina has with relationships.
    Nina is very damaged, has little confidence but develops that fragile look that suits particular roles. Leigh is also damaged by her father's infidelity which destroyed her childhood, but copes by developing a tough outer shell that doesn't easily let anyone else in. Only Paul has had a happy and boringly ordinary childhood, except that his love for the theatre doesn't sit well with his father's more pragmatic ambitions for his son.
    Luke enjoys his friendship with Paul and Leigh, but avoids any deeper relationships, having numerous flings with the young actresses he meets. He believes his mother's mental illness stands in the way of anything deeper. When he meets Nina, all of this is turned on its head.  
    With intense and talented characters like these and the setting of 70s London where all the old rules are fast disappearing, there is plenty of scope for drama and character development. Ultimately this is a story about creative ambitions, as well as friendship and love. This is a very intense novel, almost claustrophobic, and a gripping read - not my favourite by Sadie Jones, but still well worth a look.