[L]et me try to define what it is that the readers of Sunday papers mean when they say fretfully that ‘you never seem to get a good murder nowadays’. – George Orwell, Decline of the English Murder
This is the fifth book by Guy Fraser-Sampson I’ve reviewed. The first three were his Mapp and Lucia novels Major Benjy, Lucia on Holiday and Au Reservoir. I enjoyed all of them and it was obvious Guy had read Benson’s original books with care because he mimicked Benson’s style perfectly although not slavishly. The fourth book was a detective novel, Death in Profile, which, while set in the present, was written in the style not of an individual author but a genre, the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction; so we’re talking of the likes of Agatha Christie (Poirot and Miss Marple), Ngaio Marsh (Roderick Alleyn), Dorothy L. Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey) and Margery Allingham (Campion) to name the four Queens of Crime but there are plenty of others like, for example, Ronald Knox (creator of Miles Bredon) who argued that a detective story “must have as its main interest the unravelling of a mystery; a mystery whose elements are clearly presented to the reader at an early stage in the proceedings, and whose nature is such as to arouse curiosity, a curiosity which is gratified at the end.” [bold mine]
As I mentioned when I reviewed Death in Profile I really haven’t read much crime fiction at all but I have watched an awful lot of it on TV and still do. We’ve only just finished the last series of Father Brown (created by G. K. Chesterton) who predates the authors above but as Dale Ahlquist reminds us in his lecture ‘The Innocence of Father Brown’ “whenever you think of the great detectives of mystery fiction’s golden age—Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, Miss Marple, Ellery Queen, Philo Vance, or Nero Wolfe—remember their parentage. Remember that they had a father. His name was Father Brown.” Father Brown is not naïve but then neither is he cynical; he’s decent and thoughtful. Most importantly he’s observant. It’s what distinguishes detectives from readers of detective fiction because if the clues are “clearly presented” the reader should have every bit as much of a chance of solving the mystery as the detective even if we do mostly fail to put the pieces together. What’s irritating—and Christie’s particularly guilty of this—is holding back the vital clue right until the dénouement; that’s unfair. As Joan Acocella notes in an article in The New Yorker:
[I]n truth, the guessing that we are asked to do is almost fruitless, because the solution to the mystery typically involves a fantastic amount of background material that we’re not privy to until the end of the book, when the detective shares it with us. Christie’s novels crawl with impostors. Letty is not really Letty; she’s Lotty, the sister of Letty. And Hattie isn’t Hattie. She’s a piece of trash from Trieste, who, with her husband, Sir George, killed Hattie (who was also married to him) and assumed her identity. The investigator digs up this material but doesn’t tell anyone till the end.
Let me be clear then: everything you need to solve the first murder in Guy’s new novel is there on the page and if, like me, you can’t add two and two don’t gripe. The second murder is different in that the crime was committed in 1937. No one expects the murderer to even be alive. Or any witnesses. What keeps us interested in this second case is working out how it’s connected to the first and the link is tenuous: the first victim had been researching the building in which the corpse of the second victim is discovered. Surely though this is nothing more than a bizarre coincidence. As is pointed out in the novel, however, “[J]ust because there’s a coincidence doesn’t mean there’s a correlation […] Correlation is not causation.” That said, “Jung said that coincidence is all around us but … most of the time we don’t realise it.” Besides this is fiction. No one can sneeze in a novel without me thinking, Aha! Foreshadowing!
‘Agatha Christie: genius or hack?’:
Christie is certainly a kind of genius, but one cannot help feeling she would have been better off employed in Bletchley Park as a code-breaker, or working for a manufacturer of board games. Her plots, while highly ingenious, are also wildly improbable, if for no other reason than that the characters who drive them are not characters at all, but marionettes, jerking lifelessly on the ends of their all too visible strings. Her worst fault, however, is that we never feel the slightest twitch of sympathy for, or empathy with, the victim, lying there in the library in a neat puddle of blood. Who could possibly care?
In this respect Guy falls into line. The body in the library (actually it’s a museum) is never more than that, as is the body from 1937 which turns up in a suitcase. We learn bits and bobs about them, wee details necessary to keep us interested and also to misdirect us, but never for a second did I find myself caring about them. Neither is real. No one really died. They’re simply clues, a part of the puzzle.
The first murder is exactly the kind of thing you’d expect to see one of the detectives on Death in Paradise being tasked with solving. We never witness the actual murder; a body is discovered, maybe a little blood, nothing gruesome like we’ve got used to in the likes of Dexter. There are only a handful of suspects and all have watertight alibis. In the building when the body was discovered we have Karen Willis and her boyfriend Peter Collins (both of whom were introduced in Death in Profile) who’ve visited the museum to see an exhibition of works by Constable and then we have the buttery staff; the assistant manager, Jack Bailey; his wife Sue and Professor Hugh Raffen. Since Karen Willis is a detective sergeant she’s immediately ruled out and can confirm where her boyfriend and everyone else in the buttery was at the time of the murder so we’re left with three possibilities unless a stranger happened to wander in, a “passing tramp,” for example, “a regular device in Golden Age detective fiction.” The victim is one Peter Howse and his only living relative turns out to be a nephew who has a decent motive and isn’t the slightest bit upset when he learns of his uncle’s passing but, of course, denies any involvement and the police have no way to place him at the scene of the crime or thereabouts.
Isokon building on Lawn Road, Hampstead, a concrete block of thirty-four flats designed by architect Wells Coates which opened on 9 July 1934 as an experiment in minimalist urban living and is now widely recognised as one of the finest achievements of Modern Movement architecture. The building’s list of illustrious former residents includes Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus and, surprise, surprise, Dame Agatha Christie. On the surface this seems of as little relevance to the murder enquiry as the fact Professor Raffen has been working on a book about Britain’s vanishing railways until that is a body is discovered behind a wall that shouldn’t have been there in a basement at the Isokon.
What follows is a police enquiry that’s probably far closer to a real life investigation than anything penned by Miss Christie or her contemporaries. If anything it’s a little dull and by the numbers which is what, I imagine, most police work is like: suspects are interviewed, doors knocked on, phone calls made, superiors kept appraised, lines of inquiry followed and dots joined. What is interesting is the more we learn about the 1937 murder the more light is shed on the death of Howse until the identity of the murderer becomes blindingly obvious and we all know to be wary of the obvious culprit in any murder mystery. There’s always someone early on in an investigation that we can point the finger at and it’s never him just like it’s never the narrator (Ronald Knox’s First Commandment of Detective Fiction) except in the case of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd where it was.
The problem with rules is that they encourage predictability. If a Chinaman appeared in any of Father Knox’s stories you could immediately rule him out (Rule #5) and so why bother with one? Rules also encourage expectation. One thing I hate about so much detective fiction is its formulaic nature. I know on TV if a show’s in two parts at the end of the first part we’ll very likely be left with a second death. What I liked about Guy’s handling of these two deaths is how he uses our preconceptions of how a Golden Age novel should play out to put one over on us.
A Murder of Quality.
As I noted at the start of this article most detective writers tend to get associated with one character (or in Christie’s case two) and one of my concerns when I reviewed Death in Profile was this: “[W]hat we have here is an ensemble cast with no charismatic lead but that’s not really an issue because the story drifts from one character to the next seamlessly and efficiently like handing over a baton in a relay.” I did wonder if a shining star would come to the fore in the second novel but no one really stands out. I found myself lumping all the males into a single amorphous blob: the detective. It probably didn’t help that I could remember little or nothing of the first book although that’s nothing to do with Guy’s writing; I forget everything. There are numerous nods to the first novel and they did help jog my memory but not enough. At the start of the book the publisher has added this comment:
Miss Christie Regrets is the second volume of the Hampstead Mysteries. Readers are invited to sample the series in the correct order for maximum enjoyment.
I have to agree. Yes, the murder-solving stands alone but the relationships of the police officers have moved on and if you haven’t read the first book there’s room for confusion especially when it comes to the… let’s go with open love triangle… involving Karen Willis, Peter Collins and Bob Metcalfe. Romance subplots are common enough—and that is all this is—but it does serve to flesh out the characters a bit and it’s interesting to see them develop. Christ! They’re so British. I was somewhat sorry to see Guy was unable to utilise Peter Collins as much as he had in the first book. I’m a big fan of the oddball consultant—from Sherlock Holmes to Lucifer—but Collins really doesn’t get much chance to shine here. Maybe next time.
One thing I liked about Christie is that her characters age and so by the time we get to Curtain Poirot is an old man. In an interview in 2016 Guy talks a bit about his relationship with his characters:
One could get into a very arcane discussion about what is or is not a ‘series’. In my view it should be one long narrative spread across several books. Very few detective ‘series’ would qualify under this description, though Wallender might be an obvious one which does, mixing professional and personal issues. I can see the argument for writing stand-alone books featuring the same characters because then it doesn’t matter in which order people read them but again, I wanted to be different.
I wanted to create a cast with whom the reader can empathise, and care about what happens to them as they go through life. In order to do this, you have to set them against a personal background. The more of the books you read, the more deeply you will understand, and hopefully like, the characters.
I do have to say that this book did feel as if it was a part of something bigger and not simply the second in an on-going series. I’m genuinely curious to see where these characters go. Several reviewers expressed regret at not having read Death in Profile first.
The third book in the series, A Whiff of Cyanide, will be released on 2 June 2017 and I’m quite looking forward to it.
Guy Fraser-Sampson is an established writer, previously best known for his Mapp and Lucia novels, which have been featured on BBC Radio 4 and optioned by BBC television. His debut work of detective fiction, Death in Profile, the first in the Hampstead Murders series has drawn high praise from fellow crime writers as well as from readers on both sides of the Atlantic.
He currently works as a board adviser (and sometimes invests in) various entrepreneurial businesses, and has previously held various senior level investment positions, including a spell as Investment Controller with the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority and ran for several years the international operations of a leading US fund manager. For the past several years he has been designing and teaching a number of post-graduate modules at Cass Business School in the City of London.
Guy appears regularly on radio and television in the UK and is also in demand as a keynote and after dinner speaker.
He is married with two grown-up sons and divides his time between London (NW3 naturally) and East Sussex.