|THE RED HOUSE MYSTERY
A. A. Milne
Vintage Classics (www.randomhouse.co.uk/vintage/vintageclassics/)
Anyone who has perused Reader Dad at any point during its so-far short life could not help but notice that I like my fiction dark and, if at all possible, violent. So, it will probably come as something of a surprise (as it does to most people) that one of my favourite pieces of fiction is A. A. Milne’s classic, Winnie-the-Pooh. It’s one of those strange facts of life that just can’t be explained. I was unaware, until very recently, that Milne had also dabbled in the mystery genre, having published The Red House Mystery in 1922.
The Red House of the title is a country cottage owned by Mark Ablett. As the novel opens, we find Ablett entertaining a handful of guests, among them the young Bill Beverley. At breakfast one morning, Ablett announces to his guests – as well as his cousing Cayley, who plays the roles of secretary, confidante and business advisor – that his brother, the wastrel Robert, has returned from his 15-year exile in Australia and will be visiting the Red House that very afternoon. When Robert arrives, the guests are off playing golf, and only Mark, Cayley and the servants are present in the house. A shot rings out just as Anthony Gillingham arrives to visit his friend, Beverley, and along with Cayley, he finds Robert dead, lying on the floor of the office, and Mark nowhere to be seen.
In some ways, The Red House Mystery is an homage to the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with Gillingham taking on the role of Sherlock Holmes to Beverley’s ever-eager Watson. As the plot unfolds and we gain more information, Gillingham walks us through a number of equally plausible theories, and we learn the secrets that the Red House holds at the same time as our amateur sleuths. In other ways, the book is a playful satire of the entire mystery genre – Bill’s boyish keenness about the matter at hand, Gillingham – a man with a photographic memory – falling accidentally into the role of sleuth, and still managing to outthink not only the murderer but the police as well – but Milne manages to avoid cliche, despite the hidden passage and an abundance, of Christie proportions, of suspects.
When the final reveal comes, it’s not entirely unexpected, and sharp-eyed readers will have picked up on the clues Milne scatters throughout the story, but it’s no less satisfying a book for that – the joy of this novel comes more from the journey than the destination, and Milne provides us with a cast of likeable characters and an interesting enough mystery to keep us entertained throughout this light and entertaining whodunit.
The only thing that disappoints about The Red House Mystery is that it was Milne’s only foray into the genre. The book earns its “classic” status, and deserves a much wider readership that it presumably enjoys (I say presumably because it’s not a book I’d heard of until recently, but maybe I’m underselling it). If you’re a fan of a good mystery novel – cosy or otherwise – that exercises, in the words of one of Gillingham’s contemporaries, “the little grey cells”, then this should be top of your list.
Once you’ve finished, give Winnie-the-Pooh a(nother) read. You’ll thank me for it.
Eoin McNamee (www.eoincolfer.com)
Irish crime fiction is going through a golden era at the minute. Look at the wealth of crime fiction coming out of Ireland – both North and South – over the past handful of years, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more buoyant market anywhere else. From south of the border you’ll find names like John Connolly, Ken Bruen, Declan Hughes. From the North, a newer breed of writer free, now, to write straight crime fiction in which the Troubles, if they make an appearance at all, take a back seat to solid plots and good storytelling. Names like Colin Bateman, Stuart Neville, Brian McGilloway.
Eoin Colfer (as the tagline on Colfer’s own website says, “It’s pronounced Owen!”, in case you were in any doubt) is famous for his series of books about Artemis Fowl (I’ll come clean at the start and admit to not having read any of the Fowl books), and for writing the latest Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy instalment. Now, though, he turns his attention to crime – at some urging from the aforementioned Bruen, according to the book’s dedication – in the form of Plugged.
Daniel McEvoy is ex-Irish Army, ex-UN Peacekeeper, living in New Jersey after two tours in the Lebanon. Nowadays he works as a doorman in a seedy rundown casino in the small town of Cloisters, a town that survives simply because its casinos are closer to the Big Apple than are those of Atlantic City. Dan is tough, smart and bald – the latter a fact of which he is not particularly proud, hence the hair plugs which give the book its title. Within a handful of hours, Daniel has murdered the local Irish gangster’s right-hand man, misplaced his friend (but not, unfortunately, his voice, which takes up residence in his subconscious and keeps a steady stream of babble going throughout) and seen the murdered body of Connie, a hostess at the casino who was something of a friend with benefits. From there, the story moves at a frenetic pace, twisting and turning towards the surprising climax, all related from the first-person point of view in that unmistakable Irish voice.
From the first page, Colfer’s prose is enough to hook the reader. It doesn’t hurt that he opens on an ‘ass-licking incident’ at Slotz, the casino where McEvoy works, setting the scene – and the tone – for the rest of the novel. McEvoy’s voice is pure Ireland: that perfect balance between wise-guy and maudlin doomsayer. The story – by turns dark and hilarious – fits the voice well and pushes McEvoy to breaking point on several occasions, showing just what the man is capable of. Flashbacks are kept to a minimum, but they are included, mainly around the first meeting of Daniel and the doctor, Zeb, who is more salesman than doctor, and not particularly effective at either. The rest of the cast are as interesting and quirky as these two: Tommy Fletcher, who served with McEvoy in the Lebanon, a man from the heart of Belfast with an “accent to make the hardest hard man long for a mother’s bosom to nuzzle”; Irish Mike Madden, the big fish in a small pond who runs anything illegal in Cloisters; Jaryd Faber, the pointy/sweary lawyer who first runs afoul of Daniel after licking Connie’s derriere in the casino. And so many more that make this book an absolute pleasure to read.
Colfer has produced the perfect rollicking mystery. In tone, it’s probably closest to Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter novels or Scott Phillips’ The Ice Harvest, and I would recommend it to fans of both. There is comedy gold here – and Irish readers in particular will find more than their fair share of inside jokes – but the book is also plenty dark, and you’re never quite sure what’s waiting around the next corner.
It strikes me as a brave move for a man famous for his young adult fiction to branch out in a direction that is completely inappropriate for his usual audience, but with Plugged that move has paid off for Eoin Colfer. We should thank Ken Bruen for whatever part he played in the genesis of this novel. Plugged deserves a place with the best of modern Irish crime fiction and I, for one, hope we’ll hear more from Colfer in this genre before too long.
|NO-ONE LOVES A POLICEMAN
Translated by Nick Caistor
MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)
Argentina, December 2001. Against the background of a country in economic free-fall, we meet Pablo Martelli, a sixty-something bathroom appliance salesman with a history in the National Shame, an elite branch of the police force which lived up to their nickname during the dictatorship of the late ‘70s. After receiving a post-midnight phone call from an old friend, Martelli undertakes the long drive from Buenos Aires to the small coastal town of Bahia Blanca, only to find his friend’s corpse lying on the floor of his chalet. When the man’s daughter is kidnapped, Martelli is forced to investigate, and finds himself involved in a conspiracy that could bring down an already unstable government.
At its heart, No-one Loves a Policeman – the first of Orsi’s novels to be translated into English – is an old-fashioned hardboiled detective novel. Imagine Chandler’s Marlowe or MacDonald’s Archer brought up to date, aged a few years and relocated from the stifling heat of Los Angeles to the equally stifling heat of Argentina in the height of summer. Martelli, our first-person narrator, is a wise-cracking, gruff-natured man who it’s impossible not to like from the outset. He may be approaching old age, but he has a surprisingly modern view of the world and his insights, while amusing, are often spot-on. But at the same time, he has this history, this secret history, with the National Shame, for whom he killed his fair share of people, and from which he was ejected when he failed to toe the party line. We never discover exactly what the big secret is, and the reason for his discharge is decidedly ambiguous – was it because he went too far, or because he suddenly developed a conscience? This makes Martelli the epitome of the untrustworthy narrator, and I spent my time with the man wondering when he might stab me in the back.
The language is beautiful and evocative. The reader finds himself immersed in that troubled country, sweating along with the characters as the heat and the pressure build – mounting debts and no money to pay them because the banks don’t have the cash to cover everyone’s savings; a government in chaos, ministers resigning on a daily or weekly basis like rats abandoning the proverbial sinking ship. This background, and the style of writing, is reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s brilliant novella, No-one Writes to the Colonel (El coronel no tiene quien le escriba), which deals with very similar economic issues in Colombia forty years previous. Switching between narrative (“he said”, “she did”) and a love letter to a woman who abandoned Martelli when she discovered that he was a policeman (“you said”, “you did”), No-one Loves a Policeman is an exciting and captivating read.
The unsung hero here must be Nick Caistor (this is the second of his translations I’ve read in the past couple of months): no matter how good the source writing, a poor translation will ruin a perfect novel. That is far from the case here, and Caistor should be commended for a job very well done. Of course, credit is also due Orsi for constructing a complex story that is at once hardboiled mystery, political thriller and tale of unrequited love. He has given us a cast of characters who are vibrant and realistic, and a plot that – like the best of Chandler – requires a keen eye and a considerable amount of concentration.
In all, despite the questionable cover – there’s just something not right about that faux-Vettriano look – No-one Loves a Policeman is an excellent piece of crime fiction that should appeal to fans of the genre. I, for one, am already looking forward to Holy City which, according to the author bio, is forthcoming from MacLehose Press.
|ALTAR OF BONES
Simon & Schuster (www.simonandschuster.co.uk)
Thrillers and I have had something of a rocky relationship this year, going from one extreme (The Obelisk) to the other (Sanctus). Philip Carter’s Altar of Bones, I’ll say right at the outset, comes somewhere close to the Sanctus end of the spectrum. Carter is, according to the publicity material that comes with the book, the pseudonym of an international bestselling author. My natural curiosity, and five minutes online, was enough to reveal said author’s identity, and enough to make me dubious from the outset. While I won’t name her (go on, do your own digging if you’re that interested), I will say that she is an international bestselling author of romance novels (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s about as far from the fast-paced thriller genre as it’s possible to get).
Altar of Bones opens in a prison camp in Siberia in 1937. Lena Orlova, a nurse in the prison’s infirmary, affects a daring escape with her lover, one of the camp’s prisoners, and finds she has led them into the middle of a massive snowstorm which almost kills the man. She takes him to a cave and feeds him from the altar of bones, of which she is the Keeper, and quickly discovers his treachery.
The scene shifts to “Eighteen Months Ago”, and we find ourselves at the bedside of the dying Mike O’Malley. After revealing a dark secret, he urges his son Dom to find his brother, and together find the video tape that has kept him – and them – alive for the past forty years. Days later, Dom is also dead and his brother, Ry, is running for his life.
“Present day”, and we meet Zoe Dmitroff, a young lawyer who specialises in helping abused women. When an old woman is murdered in Golden Gate Park, the police turn up on Zoe’s doorstep. The old woman was Zoe’s grandmother, and she has died leaving the secret of the altar bones – along with the title of Keeper – to Zoe. Joining forces with Ry, she attempts to find out more about the secrets her grandmother died trying to protect, and ends up running for her life across Europe, towards the barren Siberian wastes.
Altar of Bones follows a set formula in thrillers of this type: on the one hand we have a group of people with a secret that must be protected at all costs. On the other, we have the group of people who know the secret exists, but not what it is or where to find it. Add in a few puzzles that a sharp-eyed reader may be able to solve before the characters (I’ll be honest, and say that this reader could not), and a handful of twists and turns and the formula is complete. Despite that, though, this isn’t exactly predictable.
As Zoe and Ry begin to dig into the mystery surrounding their respective families, we discover that they’re in danger from more than one set of hunters. Sure, the identity of “the big kill” is telegraphed long before the actual reveal, but that’s a minor quibble in such an intricate and involved plot. The characters and their respective histories are well fleshed out, quite possibly as a consequence of the scope (time-wise) of the novel. And Carter provides us with one of those bad guys who seems to take on a life of their own and stick in the readers memory, in the shapely form of Yasmine Poole – a truly evil piece of work, if ever I met one.
The novel suffers from some of the same issues that plague any “first novel”, and I’m guessing in this case they’re because of a writer who has decide to write well outside of her comfort zone (for which she should be applauded): the car chase through rush hour Paris traffic in which a car can keep up with a motorcycle; the comedy “car chase through a wedding cake” scene; and, perhaps most annoyingly, the author’s inability to call a car a car: you’ll find plenty of “Beamers” and “Mercs” in this novel, but there’s hardly a “car” in sight (which gets a bit old after not one but two Beamer-chases spanning multiple pages and, indeed, chapters). There is also plenty of evidence of the author’s previous life: long, meaningful glances and deep sighs, the sexual tension between the two protagonists laid on with a trowel. Any maybe “Carter” is conscious of her long-standing audience, so there’s nothing wrong with trying to lure some of them gently into this new creation.
In all, it’s a successful foray into the genre, and a worthwhile read for people who like their thrillers fast, smart and sexy. Without wishing to belittle it, or consign it to mediocrity, I’d call it the perfect airport novel, a great beach read. And perhaps the publisher thought so too, considering the timing of it’s release. But rest assured: it’s a chunky piece of fiction. No two-page chapters here. No movie written in novel form with a few extra words here and there to flesh out the action-and-dialogue skeleton. Philip Carter is the real deal and I think we can expect to hear more from him – or, indeed, her – in the near future.