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.

audiobooks, books, fiction, Series I love

Audiobooks

Hello, my name is Verity and I am bad with silence.  I am not good at being left alone with my own thoughts.  No idea why, but the fact remains that I need something to listen to when I’m walking somewhere, or trying to go to sleep, or taking a shower.  As a teenager, I listened to hours of news and sport radio as I did my homework.  When I did my year in France as a student, it took two months for my brain to get good enough at French that I could go to sleep listening to French talk radio.* These days, now I work in news, I tend to want to listen to something that’s not to do with the job when I’m on my way home or trying to go to sleep. So audiobooks have become my friend – I’ve had an Audible subscription since I first started doing the mega train commute, and now my one book a month subscription has evolved into a big old library.

But as I looked at my collection the other day, I realised that it’s mostly made up of books that I’ve already read, and that I listen to the same books over and over again.  And I got to thinking about why that might be.

Firstly I think it’s because I listen for comfort.  Some of my audiobooks are like old friends.  Novels that I love that I can re-read by listening to them at times when I can’t be physically reading a book.  If I’m going to sleep, I don’t want to be surprised, or scared – and I don’t want to lose my place if I fall asleep before the off timer runs out.  So I’ve probably listened to Dorothy L Sayer’s Busman’s Honeymoon (the third audiobook I got from Audible) 100 times in the four years that I’ve had it.  I’m not exaggerating.  When I was little, I had this story tape of Paddington Goes To Town (I can’t believe it’s on YouTube – it’s made me all nostalgic) – and my mum used to joke that if you set her going and then turned the tape off, she would be able to keep going until the end.  I think I’ve got to the same stage with Busman’s Honeymoon.  I’ve listened to the various Peter Wimsey mysteries so many times, that when I read the book now I hear Ian Carmichael’s voice in my head.  I have one (Murder Must Advertise) that isn’t read by him and I’ve listened to it maybe three times – because the voice isn’t right.  Instead I listen to the BBC radio adaptation of it, which is shorter, but has Carmichael in the cast playing Wimsey.

The second reason is because some of the time, I’m not giving my audiobook my full attention.  If I’m listening on the train, I’m probably reading a proper book at the same time.  I’m listening to the book with half an ear – but when I get to where I’m going I’ll stop reading and listen to it properly – and if I already know the book’s plot I won’t be confused because I’ve missed a major plot point.  If I’ve got an audiobook I haven’t already read, I’ll make sure that the first time I listen to it I do it when I can give it my full attention – like when I’m washing up, or doing the housework – or walking somewhere.  Once I’ve listened the whole way through, if I liked it, it’ll go into rotation.

Of course this preference for things I’ve already read brings with it its own problems.  My sister and I hated the first couple of Harry Potter films – because the actors were all wrong for the visions we had in our head and that happens to me a lot with book adaptations on TV and on film.  Audiobooks are slightly better, because I can keep the picture in my head of what the characters look like – it’s just the voice that’s got to be right.  So my Miss Marple audiobooks are read by Joan Hickson (who’s not as good on audiobook as she is on TV, but she’s still better than any of the alternatives) and my Murder on the Orient Express is read by David Suchet (it’s actually the same version that we used to listen to on tape in the car on the way to Bournemouth/Devon for our holidays all those years ago).  But sometimes the voices are Wrong.  In the early days of my audible membership I got a lot of Georgette Heyers – read by various people – and had issues with a few (notably These Old Shades) because the readers were just somehow inexplicably Not Right.

But for all those occasions there are some narrators that are just Right – take Stephen Briggs’ Discworld narrations.  He’s perfect.  He makes the Discworld sound even better on audiobook than it does when you read it on the page.  He gets it right.  Dwarves are always Welsh in my head now.  There was a slight slip in the audiobook of Raising Steam, where Adorabelle Dearheart’s accent has changed slightly from the previous two books she features in – but you’d only notice that if you’re like me and listen to one of the Moist books at least once a month!  I have one of the Nigel Planer Discworlds – and apart from the fact that it’s a really poor cassette to digital transfer (I complained) – it’s just not the same.

I’ve been experimenting recently – with a couple of the Miss Fisher Audiobooks (I get a special rate because I already own the kindle copies) and some of the abridged Inspector Alleyn books.  The jury is still out on the Phryne ones – I’m yet to listen to one with a lot of men in it  – and I’ve discovered that although I prefer Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alleyn narration, the other options are ok too – partly because the series covers so much time and has so may different characters.  I’m debating whether to try the Daisy Dalrymple audiobooks and the Gail Carriger ones too, but haven’t plucked up the courage yet.

I also have a collection of non-fiction books that are helpful when we go on holiday – The Boy is also bad with silence, and on those occasions he’ll demand something to listen to to go to sleep to.  I have a selection of non fiction for that purpose – and some Agatha Christies that he likes.  It’s also become a tradition that if we’re driving on holiday we have to listen to some of the brilliant Cabin Pressure  – which in case you’ve never encountered it is a radio comedy about a charter airline starring Benedict Cumberbatch (again) – on the way. I dare you to resist this level of genius

or this in fact

Anyway.  Back to the audiobooks.  I’m open to recommendations – what else should I be listening to?  Is there anything I should be avoiding?  And does anyone else have a problem with being left alone with their own thoughts?!

Background noise to the composition of this post has been provided by the Overture to Gypsy, Murder on the Orient Express Suite by Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, a medley of the incidental music from the James Bond films, Patti LuPone singing Anything Goes and this beautiful version of Ol’ Man River from last year’s Last Night of the Proms:

*Music doesn’t help me go to sleep.  My brain needs something to think about to stop me from overthinking things.  I can’t explain it better than that.

Classics, detective, Series I love

Series I love: Lord Peter Wimsey

I have a rather complicated history with detective stories.  When I was 11, I scared myself silly by forgetting I’d put a pillow in my bed to confuse my sister while I was downstairs watching Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple with my parents.  Once I’d seen Miss Marple on the TV, I promptly read all the Agatha Christie books that my mum owned, bought more with my pocket money and then in a fit of angst over death (in particular my own), gave all my purchases to the jumble sale and hid mum’s copies out of sight.  I know.  I was a strange child.

After that, I left detective stories alone for probably about five years.  Then a friendly librarian, who found out that I was a bellringer, pointed me in the direction of The Nine Tailors, which I duly read, enjoyed and then forgot about – although by this point I had started reading Agatha Christie again.

Fast forward nearly 10 years and I’m living in Essex, working the early shift at a radio station, a bit lonely and hitting the library hard.  I don’t know if I started reading them because I was reading Margery Allingham (who had lived locally) and seen comments that Albert Campion had started as a take-off of Peter Wimsey, or because I’d seen a recommendation, or because I happened across them in the stacks at the library and remembered I’d enjoyed The Nine Tailors, but I did rediscover them and boy did I love them.

My little local library didn’t have many books in the series – and once I’ve found something I like, I want to read them all, as quickly as possible.  So I started buying them in the local book shop.  But it didn’t have many in stock.  So I picked up a few second hand paperbacks from my friendly book dealer who happens to do detective stories as well as classic school stories, then I started buying the ones that I’d read at the library (because I *had* to have the whole set) and so my rag tag collection was born.

Lord Peter Wimsey books
My Dorothy L Sayers collection

For those who have had the misfortune to have never come across Lord Peter Wimsey, he is the archetypal gentleman detective – much copied and never equalled.  The second son of the Duke of Denver, born in 1890, educated at Eton and Oxford, he is a bon vivant with a private income who solves mysteries because he can.  But Peter is troubled – he’s battle scarred after the First World War, with shell-shock and a fear of responsibility; which sits badly with sending men to the gallows.  He’s much more than just an idle rich man with a vaguely foolish face – which is the image he likes to project to the world.   Assistance comes principally from his faithful valet Bunter (who had been in his unit in France) and Chief Inspector Charles Parker of Scotland Yard.  The books were published between 1923 and 1937 – and Peter ages in real time as the series progresses.

 

Four books
The four books that feature Lord Peter Wimsey and the mystery writer Harriet Vane

My favourite four books are what I call the Peter and Harriet Quartet – that is Strong Poison, Have His CarcaseGaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon – the novels that feature Harriet Vane, first encountered in the dock at the Old Bailey on trial for murder – who Peter falls in love with and pursues across the next three books.  As well as my paperback copies, I have all four as audiobooks or radio plays – and they run in high rotation on my generic mp3 device on my journeys on the train, on my lunchbreaks and late at night when I’m staying away from home and need something to listen to to get to sleep.  I didn’t read them in order – Have His Carcase came first, then Busman’s Honeymoon, Strong Poison and finally Gaudy Night.

I’m firmly convinced that Busman’s Honeymoon is probably the most romantic detective novel in existence.  In the dedication at the start Sayers writes:

It has been said, by myself and others, that a love-interest is only an intrusion upon a detective story. But to the characters involved, the detective-interest might well seem an irritating intrusion upon their love-story. This book deals with such a situation.

And to me, that pretty much sums it up perfectly.  Busman’s Honeymoon is a perfectly formed detective novel (I didn’t figure out who did it until the reveal) but also is a beautifully romantic story about the start of a couple’s married life.  And if you’ve read the three books that lead up to it, it’s the perfect end to a long and sometimes painful courtship, which must have felt tortuous to readers when the books were first published – because Strong Poison was appeared in 1931 – and Busman’s Honeymoon came out six books later in 1937.

Gaudy Night is the weakest of the four when it comes to the detective plot – it’s not an actual murder but a poison pen mystery and actually has very little Peter to a lot of Harriet.  But it’s still a very good book and you learn a lot more about Harriet, her life, her side of the courtship and what she was doing while Peter was solving the mysteries in the two novels of that part of the series that she doesn’t feature in.  Strong Poison and Have His Carcase have two of Sayers’ best puzzles – they’re utterly ingenious and perfectly plotted.

Among the other novels, my favourite is Murder Must Advertise, where Peter – under the psedonym of Death Bredon – goes to work at an advertising agency where one of the copywriters has fallen to his death, leaving a letter hinting at scandalous goings on in the firm.  Sayers was herself a copywriter for a decade – and the book is a fascinating glimpse into the world of advertising in the early ’30s as well as a really very clever murder mystery.

Peter Wimsey
My collection (unusually for me) has several different styles of cover

I could write at even greater length about the wonders of these novels, but this post is already massively long.  I hope that if you’ve read this far and you haven’t ever read any of Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, you might be tempted to go and try one.  My recommendation as a starting point would be Strong Poison or Murder Must Advertise, although equally Nine Tailors or even the very first book Whose Body? would be a good introduction. Don’t start with Busman’s Honeymoon (I’m not even linking to it to deter you further) as you’ll regret it if you don’t read Peter and Harriet for the first time in the order in which they were intended – I know I do and as soon as I had finished Gaudy Night for the first time I went back and read all four again in the right order!

As usual, my links are to Foyles –  because I love them, their Foyalty points, their order in the morning and pick it up from a store in the afternoon feature (which even gives you discount) and I’ve found that for this sort of book (ie not a mass-market new release) they are often cheaper than the alternatives – but equally you can find Lord Peter in your high street bookshop, at major online booksellers and often in charity shops.  They’re also widely held by libraries because they are, after all, classics of the genre.

Go – discover Peter – and enjoy.