What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?
Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.
Monday, June 27, 2011
Mystery Monday: Some off-the-beaten-track British crime stories
Let's kick off today's discussion with the Lake District mysteries of Martin Edwards, a series that began with The Coffin Trail a few years ago. The protagonist of the series is historian Daniel Kind, who has done very well indeed hosting all kinds of TV history shows, and who has decided to flee his recent past and move back to the Lake District of England, where his estranged father, a policeman lived until his death. There his path crosses that of DCI Hannah Scarlett, a protégée of his father's, when he begins to have doubts about the guilt of a childhood friend who once lived in the cottage he is now renovating with his partner, Miranda, and who was widely assumed to be guilty of killing a young woman and leaving her body on ancient sacrificial stones. But Barrie died soon after, leaving the puzzle unsolved -- until Daniel and Hannah, now in charge of the Cold Case division, resurrect the investigation.
That's just the first in a series of what are now five mysteries (other titles include The Cipher Garden, The Arsenic Labyrinth, and The Serpent Pool) featuring Daniel and Hannah, each of which has done an excellent job in moving forward the characters and exploring fascinating cold cases, often incorporating everything from ancient Cumbrian myths to more recent history of the Lake District (like Thomas de Quincey's time there.) I recently read the most recent in the series, The Hanging Wood, which was published on this side of the Atlantic in April. In this, the daughter of a local farmer kills herself after making frantic calls to the police trying to persuade them to probe the long-ago-disappearance of her brother. As Hannah and her team begin to ask questions about the young woman's death, and investigate the people with whom her life was entangled, more mysteries emerge and more deaths follow. While the plot is reasonably standard for this kind of police procedural, Edwards has a real knack for character development and a tremendous sense of place. In this case, the investigation revolves around a local library and historical association patronized by the local gentry, members of whom have a few too many secrets that they are trying to keep, and it's fascinating to follow Daniel and Hannah's attempts to extricate the truth from them. While this isn't the strongest of the books (I'd opt for the first two or three, which are up around the 4.5 star mark), I wouldn't want to miss a new book in this series. That's how compelling Edwards makes his characters, who are so "real" that I'm quite convinced they are alive and working away in the Lake District right now. This was a 3.8 star book for me, and I'd recommend that you check out this series if you're at all interested in character-driven detective tales.
If history is a backdrop to Martin Edwards' mysteries, it is front and center in the case of Imogen Robertson's new series, set in the England of the early 1780s. It's a turbulent time; England is struggling in the final days of the American revolutionary war, and there is dissent at home, too. Here, Robertson has chosen as her main characters a "natural philosopher" with secrets in his past, Gabriel Crowther; he is enlisted, against his will, to help Harriet Westerman, the wife of a naval captain who has come to live nearby, when she finds a dead body almost on her doorstep. That happens in Instruments of Darkness, the debut novel that is now available in the United States and Canada; despite its small flaws (too many viewpoints and complicated relationships) I was fascinated by the author's ability to capture a sense of time and place. She does it again in Anatomy of Murder, in which she deals with themes as varied as the musical scene in 18th century London (including castrati!) and high treason; this was so very good that I didn't even blink when it came time to fork over Amazon.co.uk's astonishingly high shipping fees in order to get the third book in the series, Island of Bones. This is a more conventional tale, one in which the normally cool and collected Crowther must deal with the ugly secrets of his past in order to solve a more contemporary crime and in which Harriet's young son works with a "cunning man" to help his mother rescue an innocent victim and identify the criminal.
Again, Robertson's books have wonderful characters. Harriet Westerman is impulsive, sometimes too much so for her more conventional sister, who worries about the impact of her unconventional behavior (and the publicity she gleans for solving crimes) on the future of her children. Gabriel Crowther is an outcast of a different kind; he conducts experiments (including autopsies of murder victims) and tries to find scientific explanations for the phenomena he encounters in an age where science was only beginning to take hold. Both are fascinating people to follow through the three books; both also offer a window into a little-known period of history. I can't wait to see what Robertson has in store for them.
The common element in these books is the strength of the characters. I'm not that crazy about mysteries that are all action; on the other hand, give me a new P.D. James novel featuring the wonderfully complex Adam Dalgliesh and his diverse team of investigators and suspects, and I'll think I've died and gone to heaven. Neither of these novels reaches the level set by P.D. James, but both are crafting books that deserve a much wider readership than they appear to be getting. Even if you don't see them on the front displays at your local bookstores, it's definitely worth the effort to hunt them down and read them...