Book of the Week, mystery

Book of the Week: A Presumption of Death

Before we start, another quick reminder of last week’s World Cup avoidance books – which includes Juno Dawson’s The Gender Games, which would totally have been a candidate for BotW if I hadn’t given that accolade to Clean last month.  And I did deliberate for a while about what to pick this week.  I read some really good stuff, but quite a lot of it is already earmarked for other posts and I didn’t want to give up my other plans.  But it does seem in keeping with my long-professed love of Peter Wimsey that I should pick A Presumption of Death, even if I’m a little conflicted about it and it’s a much more qualified review than a whole hearted recommendation.

A slightly battered paperback copy of A Presumption of Death

This is the second novel in the Jill Paton Walsh Wimsey continuations.  I’ve totally read them out of order, so I’ve already read the two that follow it.  This is set just after the start of the Second World War and sees Harriet ensconced at Tallboys with her children and the Parker children and Peter is away on some mysterious war work abroad.  The village is adapting to the new rules of war time – evacuees have arrived in the village, there are land girls working on the farms and people are leaving for factory jobs or the services all over the place.  When one of the land girls is found dead in the street as the village emerges from an air raid drill, Superintendent Kirk asks for Harriets help with the murder investigation.  At first, she finds it a helpful distraction from worrying about what Peter is doing abroad, but soon she’s missing his help as she digs into the possible motivations for the crime.

This feels more like a “proper” Wimsey mystery than the two that follow it, but it’s still Not Quite Right.  I’ve only read Thrones, Dominations (the first continuation) once and it was six years ago, but I’m listening to it on Audible at the moment and I think that is more Sayers than this – but that’s probably unsurprising considering that with that first one Paton Walsh was finishing an unfinished Sayers manuscript, whereas with this just has extracts from The Wimsey Papers (a series of letters, written by Sayers from various of the Wimsey characters, that were published in the Spectator during the war) in it.  In fact I think most of the best bits of the plot come from ideas and information in the Wimsey Papers and most of the bits that I don’t like are the bits that Paton Walsh has done herself.  In fact the more I think about the book to write this, the more problems I have with it.

I did like the mystery and its solution, but I did have some parts of it figured out much earlier on than Harriet did – which is unusual for me in a Wimsey book and reminded me that it wasn’t a “proper” Sayers.  It was nice to see a lot of the characters from Busman’s Honeymoon again, but perhaps because of my extreme familiarity* with the audiobook of that, there were some bits that didn’t ring true to me, although that same extreme familiarity with the Ian Carmichael Wimsey meant that I could practically hear his voice saying some of the Peter lines!  There are some nice Harriet and Peter moments in here too – but the more I analysed them, the more I realised that the best ones were rehashes of earlier interactions from the other Harriet and Peter books.  I think there were probably a few anachronisms of language in here as well – there were a few bits that didn’t seem quite right to me, although I’m not enough of an expert to tell.

I suppose what I’ve worked out in writing this is how much I wish there were more Wimsey books, and how much I want to like the Paton Walsh continuations (even as I find issues with them) because I want there to be more stories about Peter and Harriet for me to read.  I’ve kept hold of my copy of this one for now – and I suspect I’ll come back and reread it after I’ve done another reread of the Peter and Harriet books to see how it holds up when they’re fresh in my mind.  I picked up my copy from the charity shop (as you can probably tell from the photo!), but the Kindle and Kobo editions is 99p at the moment, which is a much better price than it usually is – and so if you’re a mystery fan – and you’re not the sort of reader who is going to have your love for the series proper messed up if you don’t like this – then go for it. The next book in the series – The Attenbury Emeralds – is also 99p at the moment, but be warned, I really didn’t like the direction that that took the series in, so approach with caution.  I’m off to finish listening to Thrones, Dominations and then I’ll go back to Strong Poison and start Peter and Harriet’s story all over again. Again.

Happy Reading!

*As in I listen to it at least once a month – it’s one of my regular late night listens when I’m away from home, as are the other Wimsey audiobooks and some of the BBC Radio full cast adaptations.

detective, Series I love

Series I Love: Phryne Fisher Mysteries by Kerry Greenwood

Here it is finally – the post about Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series that I’ve been promising for so long!

Phryne was my discovery of the year in 2013 – I read the first book, Miss Phyrne Fisher Investigates* on June 1 last year – and by September I’d read the first 18 books in the series (books 19 and 20 took a bit longer because they initially fell outside my Kindle book cost limit as they were so new – although I stretched my limits on occasion for some of the others) reading them almost in one sitting.  I’ve just re-read the whole lot to see if they’re as good second time around – and they really are.

So who is Phryne?  Well  firstly, it’s pronounced Fry-knee (not Frinn as I had it in my head until she told some one how to say it!) and the Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher is a 1920s aristocrat, who spent her childhood in poverty in Melbourne before her father came into his title.  She returned to Australia in her mid-twenties to investigate a mystery for a friend of the family (and to get away from said family).  She liked Melbourne so much that she stayed and has established herself as a Private detective.  She’s smart, she’s pretty, she’s brave, she knows what she wants – and she has the money to do it.

There aren’t a lot of (good) female leading ladies in historical detective fiction**.  This is mostly because for the vast majority of history women haven’t really had the power to do much on their own – and it’s hard to construct realistic stories around what they would have been able to accomplish.  From this point of view, Kerry Greenwood has done a perfect job in creating Phryne.  The post-war period brought greater freedom for women, particularly if you had money – which Phryne does.  Greenwood has also given her a stonking – and realistic – back story which explains why Phryne has the attitudes that she does and also creates openings for stories that aren’t too far fetched.

And in a genre where men often get all the action in the bedroom, Phryne more than holds her own.  She may on occasion pine for a man – but not to marry, she just wants them in her bed!  Her lovers rarely last more than a book – but they always leave on good terms. Lin Chung is the notable exception to this rule – but I’m not going to tell much more than that because I don’t want to ruin it for you.

Like every good detective, Phryne has a gaggle of loyal helpers including her maid Dot (frequently described as a “good girl” who tries not to be scandalised by her employer), her adopted daughters (picked up during a case) and Bert and Cec, the wharfies-cum-taxi drivers-cum-red raggers.  And as she’s not actually a policeman, she has her own Inspector Japp in the form of Inspector Jack Robinson and his constable, Hugh Collins.

I don’t know a lot about inter-war Australia, but I can’t remember a jarring word or phrase in the books, and rarely has anything struck me as being too far-fetched.  There’s often a bibliography at the end to reassure you that the author really has done her homework. In fact the more I read about what people could get up to in the 1920s (Kenya’s Happy Valley, some of the Bright Young Thing’s antics), the more I think that Kerry Greenwood’s been positively restrained!

So, in short, if you like your period crime novels with strong heroines, interesting plots and a little bit of bedroom action (fairly subtle, not too graphic) and you haven’t read any of Phryne’s adventures, may I point you in the direction of Miss Phryne Fisher Investigates in paperback or on Kindle.  She’s well worth it.

 

*  The first book was originally published as Cocaine Blues – I’m assuming they changed it for the UK market to make it clearer that it’s the first in the series.  I can’t think of any other reason.  It’s still called Cocaine Blues in Australia.

**I’m planning posts on some of my other favourites as well – and I’m always looking for recommendations – please leave a comment if you have suggestions for more that I should read.