Thursday, 23 June 2016

Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie: Part 2


published 1937
 
 
Dumb witness 4She was nearer fifty than forty, her hair was parted in the middle in Madonna fashion, her eyes were brown and slightly prominent.

She wore a sprigged muslin dress that conveyed an odd suggestion of fancy dress.
Poirot stepped forward and started the conversation in his most flourishing manner…

[Miss Tripp said:] "Sit here, won't you--no, please--really, I always prefer an upright chair myself. Now, are you sure you are comfortable there? Dear Minnie Lawson--oh, here is my sister." More creaking and rustling and we were joined by a second lady, dressed in green gingham that would have been suitable for a girl of sixteen.


"My sister Isabel--Mr.--er--Parrot-- and--er--Dumb Witness 2Captain Hawkins. Isabel dear, these gentlemen are friends of Minnie Law son's." Miss Isabel Tripp was less buxom than her sister. She might indeed have been described as scraggy. She had very fair hair done up into a large quantity of rather messy curls. She cultivated a girlish manner and was easily recognizable as the subject of most of the flower poses in photography. She clasped her hands now in girlish excitement.

"How delightful! Dear Minnie! You have seen her lately?"

"Not for some years," explained Poirot.
 
 
commentary: I’m now doing a second entry on this book, despite having described it in a recent entry as nobody’s favourite Christie.

Blogfriend Lucy Fisher got me going on a re-read. Her defence of the book included this:
I like this book for the social comment: the estate agents’ office, the feisty elderly lady who sees through Poirot, the back story of Emily and her sisters, the spiritualist who dresses like a little girl (haven’t we all met at least one of her?)
- And indeed the spiritualist sisters were so awful I did want to do an entry on them. There is an assumption that being mediums means they must also be vegetarians, wear strange clothes, and not have proper plumbing. Poirot and Hastings refuse an invitation to supper, and Hastings says:
“thank goodness, Poirot,” I said with fervour, “you got us out of those raw carrots! What awful women!” 

“Pour nous, un bon bifteck—with the fried potatoes—and a good bottle of wine. What should we have had to drink there, I wonder?" 
“Well water, I should think,” I replied with a shudder. “Or non-alcoholic cider. It was that kind of place! I bet there’s no bath and no sanitation except an earth closet in the garden!”

This all bears a remarkable resemblance to George Orwell’s frequent criticisms of the popular view of socialists – faddy foods and sandals and loose-cut clothes. Spiritualists and socialists don’t always go together.

GA mysteries also suggest that these identifiable women – hand-woven items of clothing are another giveaway – often ran cafes with weird décor and doubtful cakes.

Unexpectedly, Poirot does not dismiss spiritualism out of hand:
“What makes you say that spiritualism is tomfoolery, Hastings?”
I stared at him in astonishment. “My dear Poirot—those appalling women-" 
He smiled. “I quite agree with your estimate of the Misses Tripp. But the mere fact that the Misses Tripp have adopted with enthusiasm Christian Science, vegetarianism, theosophy and spiritualism does not really constitute a damning indictment of those subjects!...I have an open mind on the subject.”


Christie likes to use spiritualism, seances and mediums a lot, but usually as straight tools to sharpen the plot, the way the hocus pocus can hide what is really going on. But she also likes the atmosphere they create, and the hint of a question lingering in the air as to whether there might be something to it…

The top picture is from the NYPL.

The lower one, from Wikimedia Commons, is a medium, Mina Crandon, who was active in the USA in the 1920s: one of those who was investigated by Harry Houdini. There seems no doubt that she was entirely fraudulent, but her Wikipedia entry makes for fascinating reading and is highly recommended.

Earlier entry on this book here, endless Agatha Christie posts all over the blog – click on the label below.





















Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Tuesday Night Club: visiting academics and a venture to America




Our Tuesday Night group of fiction fans has chosen schools and universities as our theme for June.

Thanks to
Bev, as ever, for the excellentAcademic logo logo. She has also kindly offered to collect the links for the various pieces.

Here are the week 1 links.
And here are week 2 links.

If anyone wants to join in, just send a link to one of us or post it in the comments below.

After school mysteries in week 1, and Oxford vs Cambridge last week, I decided to look at a fairly obscure academic mystery – one that has a detective visiting an American University.
 

The Morning After Death by Nicholas Blake

published 1966


 
Morning aFter 2
 


Nigel sat them down for a photograph on the front steps. Peering into the magnifying view finder, he saw the four of them, tiny and sharp, in brilliant color. Reading from left to right: Chester, Mark, Sukie, Charles. Chester, with his small neat face and small neat body, a tentative smile on the one, gray-green English tweeds on the other. Mark, larger, not so tidy, corduroy trousers and a blue sports jacket, smiling broadly out of a round face. The streamlined figure of Sukie, gray eyes, black hair, vivid as a cardinal bird in her scarlet skirt and white sweater.


Charles Reilly, pushing out his sensual lips as if to shape a wisecrack or a line of verse. “A historic photograph,” said Nigel, happily unaware how the future would take up his innocent words.


 
Morning aFter 3
 
 


commentary: This book has always stuck in my mind for an unlikely reason: I have never had the slightest desire for an academic career, but when I first read it I suddenly thought ‘wouldn’t it be nice to be a visiting scholar, and go to an American university in New England somewhere and do some important research into one subject.’ I never did anything about it, and the only other thing I ‘remembered’ about the book (although see also below) was wrong: Nigel Strangeways is forever talking about Emily Dickinson (from whom the title comes), and he visits her home town of Amherst, so I had him down as a Dickinson scholar, but in fact it is mentioned exactly once that he is studying Herrick. He’s a private detective, so why? No idea. And he spends zero time doing research – far too busy solving a murder. And, rather bizarrely, being seduced by a young student. There is a sex scene, nothing too graphic.

One would guess that C Day Lewis (Nicholas Blake was a pseudonym) had done an academic year abroad in his role as a poet, and based the book on the experience.

I don’t think it was as obvious to me when I read it 20+ years ago, but now it seems plain that the crime is taking place at Harvard, in an individual Hall called Hawthorne House. The book culminates in the Harvard/Yale football match, where the murderer is chased to a standstill.

The murder isn’t that interesting – the circle of suspects is so small, no surprise is really possible. But the picture of life I did find interesting. It’s set in 1964 and some of the students are involved in the Civil Rights movement. Blake should really have missed out the student who disguises himself as a black man in order to evade the police, and there is an of-its-time but inexcusable attitude to an attempted rape. Strangeways observes that ‘academic Americans tended to fight shy of the kind of extramural gossip that was meat and drink to Oxford dons’, which seems surprising. Surely everyone likes gossip… There is quite a discussion of plagiarism, and about students and their supervisors and the questions over shared attribution of ideas.

There’s talk of the rise of business studies, and that computers are increasingly taking over work. A missing passport is treated very lightly, because ‘it’s no use to anyone else’ so not worth stealing. Nigel watches a man with a leaf-blowing apparatus in the quad – I’d have assumed that was a much more modern piece of kit. The speed limit outside the city is 50mph. And I discovered that I did have another memory of the book. This:
He had discovered on a previous visit [to a restaurant] that a chocolate ice, consumed with Bardolino [wine], imparted to the latter a delicious flavor of wild strawberries.
- which I thought the acme of sophistication when I first read it, and did try out.

One thing I wouldn’t have known back then is concerned with one of Strangeways’ remarks:

“‘ Love is proved in the letting go’— that’s what an English poet wrote.”

I now know this to be a line by Cecil Day Lewis himself - from a beautiful, heart-wrenching poem called Walking Away about leaving your child at school.

Blake describes the phenomenon of the Food Man, which surely must have been based on reality:
Suddenly there was the sound of footsteps beneath, and a yelling, bawling voice shattered the calm. “Food Man! FOOD MAN! Hot dogs! Coke! Coffee! . . .” Nigel still, after a week of it, leaped nervously in his chair every time he heard the appalling racket. Punctually at 10: 15 P.M. every night the Food Man cried his wares at Nigel’s entrance. Students, who had dined at 6: 30, rushed to fortify themselves against another hour of work. The Food Man was himself a student, who at the start of term had bid highest for the job and the modest profits it brought in— an example of private enterprise which would have shocked Oxbridge dons to the marrow. His bawlings could now be heard diminuendo as he went from entrance to entrance toward the far end of the court.
So there was plenty of sociological detail to enjoy in the book, and the look at academia was fascinating.

Other Nicholas Blake books have featured on the blog – End of Chapter and There’s Trouble Brewing. C Day Lewis had a long affair with blog favourite Rosamond Lehmann.

The pictures of students are from the LSE library in London – wrong side of the ocean, but this is always a wonderful resource for pictures of how studious young people actually looked in the past. 























Monday, 20 June 2016

Quantum of Solace – don’t be expecting the film



James Bond Book 8 is

For Your Eyes Only

 a short story collection published 1960 containing:


From a View to a Kill, 
For Your Eyes Only, 
Quantum of Solace, 
Risico, 
The Hildebrand Rarity
 
 
Quantum of Solace



[The story of a young married couple in Bermuda]

He cast about desperately for something that would occupy her and make her happy, and finally, of all things, he settled – or rather they settled together – on golf. Golf is very much the thing in Bermuda. There are several fine links – including the famous Mid-Ocean Club where all the quality play and get together at the club afterwards for gossip and drinks…

She took to spending all day at the Mid-Ocean. She worked hard at her lessons and got a handicap and met people through the little competitions and the monthly medals, and in six months she was not only playing a respectable game but had become quite the darling of the men members. I wasn’t surprised. I remember seeing her there from time to time, a delicious, sun-burned little figure in the shortest of shorts with a white eyeshade with a green lining, and a trim compact swing that flattered her figure, and I can tell you,’ the Governor twinkled briefly, ‘she was the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen on a golf course. Of course the next step didn’t take long. There was a mixed-foursome competition. She was partnered with the oldest Tattersall boy – they’re the leading Hamilton merchants and more or less the ruling clique in Bermudan society…’


commentary: I’d always assumed that the title Quantum of Solace’ was made-up for the 2008 Bond film – it sounded so very modern and uptodate. It turns out that the title wasn’t, but the entire plot was. Quantum of Solace is a story in this collection, and bears no relation whatsoever to the film, which is a sequel to Casino Royale (my Bond film knowledge is very poor, though I have now finally watched these two films – CR and QofS ).

As I trundle through the Ian Fleming books, I find Kingsley Amis’s James Bond Dossier to be invaluable: his description of Quantum of Solace is:
A Maugham-ish anecdote recounted to Bond. Not a secret-service story.
-which is a very fair description. (A character in the story has a fox-fur tippet, which I feel is a very un-Bond accessory, much more Maugham.**) It is melodramatic and unlikely, but genuinely interesting and unpredictable, you really want to know what is going to happen in this story of a doomed marriage. Bond triggers the story (after a semi-official dinner party in the colonies) by a casual comment on the marriageability of air stewardesses- although in fact:
Bond had no intention of marrying anyone. If he did, it would certainly not be an insipid slave. He only hoped to amuse or outrage the Governor into a discussion of some human topic.
And sure enough the Colonial Governor concerned launches into a story about a man who married an air hostess. This person has similarities with Bond in his history (ie the history that will later be revealed for Bond) so perhaps Fleming was experimenting. Rather sweetly, the romance begins because the lady concerned helps him with the great difficulties involved in flying – this man is a well-educated diplomat, but apparently has difficulties when mealtime comes:
She showed him how to deal with the complicated little cellophane packages, how to get the plastic lid off the salad dressing.
Those were the glamour days, eh? Anyway, no spying but I thought a pretty good story. Air hostesses do feature in Fleming: see entry on Goldfinger for a good illustration.

The other tales in the book entertained me less. From a View to a Kill has Bond on a motorbike, and a weird teenage wish-fulfilment of a beautiful woman scooping Bond up (she’s left her car double-parked, engine running) from a Parisian pavement café. According to the wonderful collection of Fleming’s letters, The Man with the Golden Typewriter, when he sent this to his editor at publishers Jonathan Cape the response – while very enthusiastic - included ‘quibbles about erroneous descriptions of flowers’ and the gentle correction ‘brown squirrels are generally, I think, called red squirrels’.

For Your Eyes Only has a woman with a bow and arrow, coming over all Katniss Everdene. Amis’s irresistible summing-up says it contains ‘M at his most unspeakable’ and that the motive for the crime in the book is ‘just luxuriating in villainy, really’.

Risico has a very weird and unnerving beach scene. TheQuantum of Solace 2 Hildebrand Rarity is about a very nasty man indeed, and reminded me of the recent TV adaptation of John Le Carre’s Night Manager. Both stories involve women showing themselves off in bikinis. This picture, right, (an advertising image from 1997) looks much more like something from the films, but Fleming does stress the smallness of the bikinis.

In the end the stories were not as satisfying as the novels – I’m looking forward to pushing on through to Thunderball now.

The golfing picture is from the wonderful Sam Hood collection at the State Library of New South Wales - a set of photos of everyday life that I have raided often for the blog, and can look at endlessly. Surely very much in the spirit of the description.

** Maugham and Fleming knew each other well, were on very friendly terms, and to some extent admired each other's work.













Sunday, 19 June 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie


LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES



published 1937


 
 
Dumb Witness
 

She came to the head of the stairs, stretched out one hand to the banister rail and then, unaccountably, she stumbled, tried to recover her balance, failed and went headlong down the stairs.

The sound of her fall, the cry she gave, stirred the sleeping house to wakefulness. Doors opened, lights flashed on.

Miss Lawson popped out of her room at the head of the staircase.
Uttering little cries of distress, she pattered down the stairs. One by one the others arrived - Charles, yawning, in a resplendent dressing gown. Theresa, wrapped in dark silk. Bella in a navy-blue kimono, her hair bristling with combs to “set the wave.”

Dazed and confused, Emily Arundell lay in a crushed heap. Her shoulder hurt her and her ankle - her whole body was a confused mass of pain. She was conscious of people standing over her, of that fool Minnie Lawson crying and making ineffectual gestures with her hands, of Theresa with a startled look in her dark eyes, of Bella standing with her mouth open looking expectant, of the voice of Charles saying from somewhere - very far away so it seemed:

“It's that damned dog's ball! He must have left it here and she tripped over it. See? Here it is!”
 
commentary: Is this one nobody’s favourite Christie? It’s competent and a reasonable puzzle – although the pool of suspects is very small, so it’s not going to be a big surprise at the end.

Blogfriend (and fellow Tuesday-Nighter) Brad Friedman recently did a highly recommended and amusing takedown of the book, ‘Deconstructing Second Rate Christie’ – and his piece and others’ comments on it made me feel I needed to re-read it.

It was slightly better than I remembered: but very much the stock selection of characters and arrangements – it is hard to think of any type or situation that isn’t done (probably better) in a different book, with the sole exception of the dog. And the dog is awful, wince-making, all that anthropomorphizing! (Yes I have a stony heart and am not a dog lover.) The characters are moved around like chess pieces (to use a clichéd view) – the elderly but sharp lady, the foolish spinsters, the fashionable and bored young woman – and there is no involvement for the reader, except a feeling of admiration for some of the plot devices.

Blogfriend Lucy Fisher said
I like this book for the social comment: the estate agents’ office, the feisty elderly lady who sees through Poirot, the back story of Emily and her sisters, the spiritualist who dresses like a little girl (haven’t we all met at least one of her?)
So I decided to read it again with that in mind.And these are the main points that arose:

1) Some good dialogue – this is a witness questioning Hastings:
“Can you write decent English?”
“I hope so.”
“H’m – where did you go to school?”
“Eton.”
“Then you can’t.”



2) And this:
“After all, this is a free country -”
“English people seem to labour under that misapprehension,” murmured Poirot.
3) Late on in the book, Poirot names the murderers from four earlier Christie books – he is making the point that murderers can seem pleasant enough. This always seems quite shocking, though to be fair it would probably only be a serious spoiler if you were reading another of the books simultaneously. Or have a very good memory for names.

4) A quotation that I have long remembered, but not the source – glad to find it after all this time:
“Turks are frightfully cruel sometimes.”
“Dr Tanios is a Greek.”
“Yes of course – I mean, they’re usually the ones who get massacred by the Turks – or am I thinking of the Armenians?”

5) The fabled clue of the brooch - under discussion regularly since the book was first published, when one of the reviewers mentioned it with disdain. It is slightly unlikely, but it’s not as bad as I remembered – I think we all imagine it took Poirot weeks and hundreds of pages to get the point of what is seen, but that is not so at all. He is a bit slow, but perhaps Christie was giving readers the chance to feel smart.

And would anyone wear a brooch on dressing-gown? Not impossible, though I was ready to say that I have been looking at photos of clothes of every kind, every day for the past four years, including many a kimono, and don’t recall seeing any such thing.

But voila – what should I find but the picture above? Here is a  woman in a very dark-coloured kimono, with a shiny blotch under her left shoulder, a blotch that could easily be a brooch I would say…. The picture is by William Merritt Chase, from the Athenaeum website .























Friday, 17 June 2016

Cross-Blog Reviewing: Francesca Duranti

 

Happy Ending by Francesca Duranti


published in Italy 1987 as Lieto Fine

this translation by Annapaola Cancogni 1991


 
villa 1
 
Lucca 3


Again, a project with writer and blog friend Christine Poulson (her blog is over at Christine Poulson: A Reading Life): sometimes we do lists, and sometimes we read the same book (previously: Tony & Susan by Austin Wright, and Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins). We are publishing our reviews on the same day – I’ll link to Chrissie’s when they are both up, suggest you read mine then go over there to compare notes. *** AND HERE IS HER REVIEW.

I’d never heard of book or author when Chrissie suggested this one: now I am surprised, as it must be the kind of book that is much recommended among friends, the kind of book I read a lot of.

It’s a fairy-tale, and quite schematic, and almost (but not quite) predictable - but still it is enchanting, beautifully written, and completely satisfying.

 
Lucca 1


We are in Tuscany, in the hills outside Lucca: one family owns three neighbouring grand houses, while opposite lives a single man, one of the narrators of the book. All have known each for years – there are issues, and doomed loves, and small feuds. It is summer, and the air is warm and still and silent, and everyone would like a little more happiness.


Lucca 2


Into this ruffled atmosphere comes a young man called Marco, a friend of the absent 20-something son of the big house. He’s a good-looking, attractive person: is he free-loading, is he over-confident and presumptuous? A cruel egoist? Or is he going to offer something to each person in turn – and will the results be good or bad? It’s a plotline we’ve seen before, and there is a clue in the title, but that didn’t stop me loving the book, and racing through it to see what would happen. And at the same time I wanted to slow down because the writing is so beautiful – and I think the translation must be a particularly good one.

It’s a voluptuous  combination of massive symbolism and a careful formula, along with beautiful details and description, and wholly convincing emotions and very human behaviour.

There are so many sentences I would like to quote. I loved Leopold, mystified by his American wife (‘the cheerleader from Ohio’) and her complaints:
His wife’s grievances [about her life in Italy] had almost always seemed to him both perfectly justified and totally absurd. They were like her hair dryers, her blenders, her toasters, and all the other supermodern gadgets she had brought back from America: wonderful but inoperable on the Italian electric outlets, at least without the intermediary of a transformer.
There’s the woman who is in appearance ‘somewhere between Botticelli’s Primavera and… Betsy Trotwood’ from David Copperfield.

These must surely resonate with anyone who has ever visited this part of Italy:


villa 3


One single note, relentlessly whirred by the cicadas, fills the valley; the scents of the country have all surrendered to the overwhelming fragrance of cut grass; and its colours, radiating as far as the eye can see in that large circle of which the Arnolfina [house] is the centre, have all been blurred and unified by the opaque yellow characteristic of the summer sun around three in the afternoon.

The large plane tree, the majestic curve of the driveway, the rose garden, the maze of hedges, the swimming pool [and the houses]. 

Right below my window, in the shady niche formed by the juncture of the tower and the facade of the house, the gardenias are in bloom.

The book slips down like a beautiful Lucca spritzer in the afternoon – it takes no time to read, but lingers in the memory, and manages to surprise the reader in some of the different ways in which the ending is achieved.

My only sorrow was that I wasn’t on an elegant chair outside a Luccan villa while I read it in the sunshine…


 
villa 2


The next best thing would be these photographs, which come from my favourite photographer: PerryPhotography. She lives in the area described by the book, and took the villa photos (from the top, 1,5, 6) specially for this entry, with the kind permission of the owners of the house, K & T Wynn. My thanks to them. She also took the photos of the city of Lucca (2,3, & 4). My thanks to her.

I hope Chrissie enjoyed Happy Ending as much as I did - here is her review - I am so grateful to her for suggesting it.
























Thursday, 16 June 2016

Booksellers’ Week: The Questions



Bookcase 1 sept


Independent Bookshop Week 2016 

Book questions


I’ve been tagged by Erica of the marvellous website The Bookshop Round the Corner - in the run up to Independent Bookshop Week, inspired by the Booksellers Association, she has moved a Youtube meme over to bloggers. Vloggers are taking part in an IBW Tag answering questions about books, and as Erica says – we can do that on our blogs! I loved reading her answers, and I love her bookshop-centred blog, and I recommend both very highly…

And now I am going to answer the bookshop questions:


1. What book(s) are currently in your bag?
Always a thick one and a thin one on the go, depending on which is more convenient for the journey and the bag. Right now the third of the Elena Ferrante Naples series is the thick one. The thin one is an obscure academic mystery called Landscape with Dead Dons by Robert Robinson – for a blog meme I am doing.

2 What’s the last great book you read?
What was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn. People have been telling me to read it for years, but I ignored them and it turns out I was completely wrong – it’s a fabulous book, a masterpiece.

3 What book have you gifted the most? 
Good question. I tend to have a standard couple of books that I give everyone, then it changes after 6 months. Recently I was dishing out Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a while back it was Nina Stibbe’s Love Nina, before that it was Where d’you go Bernadette by Maria Semple.

But if I had to pick one it would be


– that’s the one I buy up copies of whenever I see it for giving-away-purposes. It’s a phenomenal book. Sometimes I see it on someone’s shelf and I say ‘oh so glad to find another fan’ and they say ‘you gave it to me 5 years ago’ and then they usually admit they haven’t read it yet. One person at a time. ‘We are all the better for being loved.’

Bookcase 1 Oct


4 What’s your favourite independent bookshop?

I live in Winchester, and Wells bookshop in College Street (a couple of doors from the house where Jane Austen died) makes the choice easy. It’s everyone’s idea of an old-fashioned bookshop.

5 What’s been your favourite book recommended by a fellow book blogger?
Last year my friend Col of Col’s Criminal Library recommended Falling Angel by William Hjorstberg and I am still recovering from reading it. It is a quite extraordinary book. I chose this from the many excellent recommendations people have given me, because it is a book I would never have found or read on my own.

Bookcase 1 Nov


6 What’s your favourite bookshop memory?
I think I might have been 10. When I had my hair cut, there was a little extra time while my mother was having hers done, and I used to visit a bookshop a few doors away. I would then report back at a set time. While I was in the bookshop I would be looking at books and reading them and also sighing and wishing I had money to buy them. One time when I got back to the hairdresser’s, a friend of my mother’s was sitting next to her, and on being introduced to me gave me some coins and said ‘would you like to buy some sweeties for yourself?’ I thanked her manically and ran to the bookshop where I was able to buy 2 paperbacks, just picked them up and paid for them, and then I ran back. (The friend was wildly over-impressed by this, that I didn’t buy sweets, and that I instantly knew which books I wanted.) It was possibly the most dream-come-true moment of my entire childhood. Imagine.

7 What do bookshops mean to you? What do you love about them? Expectation and glory.


8 What are the books that made you? Which books have most affected or influenced you?

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. The entire works of Agatha Christie, and countless other detective stories. Joyce’s Ulysses. Proust. Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. Nancy Mitford, Marilyn Robinson, Ford Madox Ford, Rosamond Lehmann. Noel Streatfeild. Margery Sharp. Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy. The collected letters between Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh. Hundreds more.

Bookcase 1 Dec


9 What book do you recommend readers gift for Father’s Day?
The Man with the Golden Typewriter: the Letters of Ian Fleming. Completely riveting for anyone, an ideal present, you don’t have to be a fan, and has made me embark on reading all the James Bond books again.

10. What book is currently at the top of your TBR pile?
The Theoretical Foot by MKF Fisher. She is my favourite food writer of all time: this is a re-discovered ‘lost’ novel and I am really looking forward to it…


bookcase 1Jan
































Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Tuesday Night Club & Academia: Oxford vs Cambridge




Our Tuesday Night group of fiction fans has chosen schools Academic logoand universities as our theme for June.

Thanks to Bev, as ever, for the excellent logo. She has also kindly offered to collect the links for the various pieces.

Here are the week 1 links.

If anyone wants to join in, just send a link to one of us or post it in the comments below.






Late Scholar
not red brick
 
Last week I looked at some schools in crime fiction, and decided which school I would like to have attended. This week I'm looking at the two main crime-minded universities in the UK. There are, of course, academic mysteries in other universities – Joan Smith’s marvellous Loretta Lawson teaches at London University, and I have featured those 80s classics A Masculine Ending and Don’t Leave me This way on the blog.

And one of my favourite current series, by Elly Griffiths, features Ruth Galloway, a forensic archaeologist working at the (fictional) University of North Norfolk.

But for today I am going to look at the Big Two, based on a statistical realization. It’s this: Almost half the British Prime Ministers to date (26) attended Oxford University, while a mere 14 went to Cambridge, and no other university boasts more than three. And it sometimes seems as though academic mysteries follow that statistical pattern too, though I haven’t actually counted.

Oxford university:


I once went on a literary tour of Oxford which was tremendous fun, as I saw where the likes of Tolkien, Lewis Carroll and Shelley hung out. At the end I solemnly suggested to the tour guide that one important person was missing: he needed to tell people that Balliol College was the alma mater of Lord Peter Wimsey. He took this in good part, and assured me he would add it to his spiel…

So Gaudy Night (by Dorothy L Sayers) is a great of Oxford crime book, and one that would tell you much about the running of a women’s college (clearly based on Somerville) in the 1930s.

And I have a particular soft spot for Antonia Fraser’s Oxford Blood, for its so very 1980s look at the university.


oxford blood 2
80’s life and clothes, above and below….
Loretta Lawson

Margaret Yorke’s Patrick Grant and Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen are both busybody Oxford academics who go around solving crimes elsewhere too (because they are so clever).

Michael Innes liked an Oxford setting – see Death at the President’s Lodging – and wrote several straight novels about the university.

JC Masterman was the head of an Oxford college (Provost of Worcester – sounds like a posh dog’s name doesn’t it?) and wrote a couple of stilted university-based murder stories, including one called An Oxford Tragedy.

Inspector Morse’s cases often involve him with the university in the books by Colin Dexter and perhaps even more in the TV series.

Guillermo Martinez, an Argentine academic visitor, wrote The Oxford Murders – good fun, though a rather weird view of British life.

Cambridge University:


Still smarting from that Prime Minister statistic (one college in Oxford, Christchurch, has provided almost as many PMs as the whole of Cambridge), you’d think Cambridge would pull out the stops with the crime stories. And there are a few.

TH White is best known for writing The Once and Future King, and about goshawks. But he also wrote Darkness at Pemberley – a most extraordinary book that starts as an academic mystery and then rolls along to a Jane Austen location and then goes completely bonkers (other people like it a lot more than I did). This was my description of the early part:
The book starts well. There are two deaths in and around a Cambridge college. There is some funny business with a gramophone, which seems to show when one of the crimes occurred, and there are fully 3 map/plans: showing the college, a don’s room, and the position of the college in Cambridge (allowing us to work out that the fictional St Bernard’s lives on the site of the real-life Queens’ College). We get this truly faultless line:
“Why,” pursued the Inspector, “did the Master, who is a drug addict, post a letter to Beedon containing a blank sheet of paper with his signature in invisible ink?”


 - but it's all downhill from there in my view.

There is Q Patrick’s Murder at Cambridge – not his finest hour, and there is no room here to go into what that author-name is standing for. (There’s more in the blogpost, but you really need a Wikipedia entry on Patrick Quentin.) 

Glyn Daniel wrote the forgettable The Cambridge Murders. (I read it twice, under different names, without realizing it was the same book.)

Michelle Spring wrote some nice Cambridge PI books, some of them with university settings. Her Nights in White Satin features a May Ball in all its dubious glory. 

Margery Allingham’s Police at the Funeral is set in Cambridge, and there is a university connection with the fictitious St Ignatius College.

Cambridge does contain one of the finest bookshops in the world, Heffers, and the shop not only has a marvellous crime fiction section, but also produces a regular list of mysteries set in the town. And through one of those lists I discovered my favourite Cambridge author: our very own Christine Poulson, whose academic sleuth Cassandra James delighted me in Murder is Academic (has other names I believe)
 
Murder is Academic

-- it features a seance, guaranteeing my love for it – and then in Stage Fright, and Footfall. And, even more happily,  my blogposts on the three books led me to meet Chrissie online and we have now become great friends, and often co-operate on shared blog projects and memes.

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So - does anyone else have strong views on the two universities? It seems to me that Oxford definitely wins on sheer numbers of mysteries (though there are many from both places I haven't mentioned) but the two cities are more evenly matched in the (small) number of really great stories with a true sense of place. 

I am hoping that readers will pitch in below with their favourite additions to the Oxford/Cambridge lists, and suggest other universities that have good crime stories to offer.

And btw, I did not attend either Oxford or Cambridge, so there is no sentimental bias, though I did live in Cambridge for a few very happy years.