Thursday, 24 May 2012

A Novel of Two Halves: Until it's Over by Nicci French

The experience of  discussing this book with members of my local crime reading group made me realise the importance of structure.  I go to see so many plays and films where the aim is to keep the reader guessing, so it's important.

In the first half of Until it's Over the reader learns about a  group  who share a house in North London. One of the four men bought the house while he was at university and then let off rooms to fellow students. Years have gone by and they are still together, mostly established in their careers. There are a couple of newcomers.

Astrid,  her late twenties, is a bit of a drifter who began working as a bicycle courier after a gap year. She's had a few failed romances and  a couple of  casual sexual encounters with one of the  other housemates, a sleazy photographer called Owen.  Then, within a few weeks, she's linked to  three separate murders. In addition, the landlord's new fiancee says she wants all the tenants to leave before she moves in.

I'd read two quite riveting novels by Nicci French - a portmanteau name for the team efforts of married journalists Sean French and Nicci Gerrard. Maybe that's one reason why  I took a more favourable attitude than other members of the library crime reading group. I arrived five minutes into the discussion, so was surprised that the hostility was already established.

It's what usually happens - people say straightaway whether or not they like a book and then justify their opinions, which opens up a discussion about plot,  characters and style.

The first, and main, objection concerned the structure.  It's truly a book of two halves, with an unexpected  switch in the point of view at the place where most crime  novel sag : in the middle.  There's a  sudden increase in the level  of interest, as the reader sees things from the murderer's point of view.

Someone said it's a common feature of crime novels - practised, for instance, by Val McDermid, or Ruth Rendell, but in those  the change of viewpoint happens in alternating chapters, not as a sudden switch half way through. 'We're just going over the same ground all over again,' someone said.

While that's true, there was quite a bit of satisfaction, for me at least, in having questions answered. Most importantly, I found out why Astrid had been present at the crime scenes  - accidently the first time - and why, in the end, the murderer had it in for her as well.

There's a lot more to object to - not least the slightly bizarre situation of seven people all living together in the same house for no reason other than they're too apathetic to move. It's true that accommodation in London is expensive, of course, someone conceded. People often have to live with their parents until their thirties. Again, they all seem to get on so well; they don't even have locks on their  doors. Maybe that's how things are in North London, said someone else. It's true there are two many poorly described characters, so we can't even remember who they are when they're mentioned again in the second half.

I think I was so bowled over by the structure, that I was prepared to overlook a lot. But  I had to agree that the denouemement, which made most people laugh because it was so unlikely,  stretched even my credulity.

So, sadly,  not up to the standard of The Red Room and Killing me Softly.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Pretentious in Florence: Mark Mills' The Savage Garden

Personally, I like my crime to have a more literary flavour than your average Agatha Christie affords , but Mark Mills could take a few tips from the 'Queen of Crime' with regard to plot development.  Nobody  in the library crime reading group liked this, a Dan Brown-style mystery/murder set  around a villa near Florence.

The main problem is that the murders happened some years before, during wartime, so there's no sense of urgency, although it does have some bearing on who is the rightful heir to ownership of the property. It's not particularly well-written and the narrator is too immature and lacking in character for us to empathise.

An indolent  Oxbridge student's tutor offers him the chance to complete a thesis in Italian garden design through a contact in Tuscany. The  Roman statuary dotted about within it seem to have symbolic meaning. Research into the poetry of  Dante and Ovid point to a murder.

His middle-aged landlady seduces the priapic youth  as as soon as he arrives but he's  more interested in the young virginal niece of the elderly female villa owner. His pheronomes seem so string that one even suspects the old lady will be involved at some point. The graphic sex scenes are not attractive and put most readers off the book.  I suppose  all the talk of Dante is educational in its way, althouhg it just seems like showing off.  The hero's  wastrel  bohemian brother turns up around page 200 and  promises to liven things up, but he soon disappears. Even the young man's parents in Purley, whom he despises for their mediocrity, have all too short a stay.

The book is praised on the cover for its setting, but I'd say read EM Forster's Room With a View or see the film starring Dame Judi Dench. A better mystery story is John Mortimer's Summer's Lease, which has also been made into a film.

Favourite Things : Launch of Linda Stratmann's The Daughters of Gentlemen

Some people like a good funeral. I prefer a nice book launch :
It's an excuse to visit a (usually) posh part of London
The bookshop ambience is convivial
The author gives a little talk about his/her next book
There's a chance to talk to friendly book-readers
Not least, there's free wine and nibbles

Daunt books on Holland Park Avenue is a 'really lovely bookshop', according  the person of whon I asked directions, having made the mistake of walking first to Notting Hill Waterstones. Notting Hill has more shops but Holland Park is more 'select' and foodie - it has both a Paul and a Patisserie Valerie, which some might think excessive.

Linda has written a lot of true-crime books but The Daughters of Gentlemen  is only her second work of fiction. As before, it stars female detective Frances Doughty and is set in Victorian Bayswater. Linda says her next book features that ubiquitous Victorian bugbear, the fear of being buried alive. The other ingredients sound a bit racy. I expect other readers enjoy as much I do the gradual uncovering of the dark forces underlying the respective veneer of Victorian society.

It was good to catch up with someone I'd first met at the launch of The Poisonous Seed, in which Frances worked in her father's pharmacy and was set on proving he hadn't done in one of his customers with cyanide. Or was it strychnine? Something fatal, anyway. In the current one she's called in to solve a crime in an a genteel school for girls and rather hopes it won't turn nasty. Fat chance!

After that I had a chat with a lady wasn't so old as to be Victorian, but had toughed it out as  the youngest of five children with a widowed mother who ran out of money when it came to her turn to go to university.

All this, plus wine and nibbles and a book signed by the author. Definitely one of my favourite things.