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The Wood Beyond by Reginald Hill
(Harpercollins pbk - £5.99)
The Dalziel-and-Pascoe novels, of which this is the fourteenth, deal with the activities of the 'Mid-Yorkshire' CID. The novels began almost traditionally but have developed into an original and technically inventive series. During the past 25 years Hill has turned Mid-Yorkshire into a mirror of England, and the reflection is rarely flattering.
The last two Dalziel-and-Pascoe novels have been slightly weaker than their immediate predecessors; Hill's sense of humour is a good servant but a bad master. The Wood Beyond, however, is an altogether darker and more satisfying affair, adorned with epigraphs from William Morris, Andrew Marvell, Virgil and John Major. Animal rights activists stumble horrifically on an ancient skeleton while attempting to sabotage a pharmaceutical research centre. Miles away, in that foreign land which is southern England, the funeral of Detective Inspector Pascoe's grandmother leads to his discovery of papers relating to his great- grandfather and namesake, who died at Passchendaele.
The skeleton proves to be the prelude to a modern murder. Superintendent Dalziel - Fat Andy to his friends and enemies, at least behind his back - embarks on a tragi-comic love affair with one of his suspects, despite his inamorata's appalling taste in whisky. Pascoe, meanwhile, is drawn inexorably into the life and dishonoured death of his ancestor, court-martialled and shot, apparently for cowardice pour encourager les autres.
Slowly Hill ties together the two lines of the plot. The connection between them depends on an unashamed coincidence of such splendid proportions that suspension of disbelief is as much a pleasure as a duty. The novel fills with echoes bouncing back and forwards between the past and the present. The two Peter Pascoes both hover on the edge of breakdowns as terrible truths emerge. Several other characters bridge the seventy-year gap with the letters and diaries of their forebears. Then and now, there are woods where no birds sing, where a man can drown in liquid mud. Then and now, people are killed to protect reputations and further ambitions. In the end, justice of a sort is done - even to Fat Andy. But on the last page the innocents are yet again led away to slaughter.
The Wood Beyond is ambitious in its architecture, its themes and imagery as tightly controlled as the plot they complement. It is also shot through with dark ironies and frequently very funny. The novel works as a literary Mickey Finn: you gulp down the entertainment, only to find that your host has slugged you with an uncomfortable dose of truth.
The Keys To The Street by Ruth Rendell
(Hutchinson - £15.99)
Mary Jago, delicate and lovely as a china figurine, donated her bone marrow to save the life of man she doesn't know, an unselfish action which caused her formerly considerate lover to turn into a violent bully. Now Mary is living alone near Regent's Park, looking after a gracious house for its owners. She decides to meet the man whose life she saved. He, too, lives near the Park - but in that area north of Euston Road where crack dealers prowl among decaying council flats. Gradually Mary's life becomes entwined with that of Leo, the man to whom in a sense she is now closer than a brother. Rendell is a writer with an almost Dickensian ability to draw characters from all walks of life and to show how their disparate lives intersect. There is Hob, for example, a crack addict who finances his habit by renting out his talent for violence. The elderly Bean, former manservant to a wealthy masochist, now works as a dog-walker for the affluent and lazy. Every day, he takes a pack of dogs into the Park. Bean loathes most of humanity, and he reserves his bile in particularly concentrated form for the homeless people who haunt the Park, a rich collection of eccentrics. Among them is Roman, a former publisher, finding in rootless anonymity a partial balm for personal tragedy.
Set against the backdrop of the Park, the narrative brings together the lives of these characters and of many others. Then somebody begins to murder homeless people, and suddenly no one is safe; nor are their secrets.
Ruth Rendell's novels are remarkable for the frequency with which she produces them and their consistent standard of excellence. It has to be said, however, that The Keys To The Street is not one of her best. The ingredients are wonderful - the characters, the haunting setting, the developing menace - but they fail to come together effectively. The plot has an uncharacteristically slapdash quality, as if bolted together at the last moment to provide a justification for the characters and the setting. The result is not a bad book - Rendell is incapable of that - but a slightly unsatisfying confection where the parts are greater than the whole.
Murder in a Cathedral
by Ruth Dudley Edwards
(Harpercollins - £14.99)
Dudley Edwards specialises in crime novels which cock a satirical snook at Establishment targets. Each book uses a different setting - Clubland, Oxbridge (the wonderful Matricide at St Martha's), the House of Lords. Her methods are slightly subtler than a Punch and Judy show but have a similar vitality.
Here she turns her attention to the Church of England. The High-Church canons of Westonbury Cathedral are shocked and fearful when a new dean is appointed - the Very Reverend Norm Cooper, a clap-happy Evangelist who could have given lessons in iconoclasm to a regiment of Cromwellian stormtroopers. Caught in the crossfire is David Elworthy, the gentle new bishop. Totally incapable of coping with the ferocious feuding of his clergy, Elworthy sends an SOS to his old friend and old flame, Baroness "Jack" Troutbeck, a woman of strong personality and Rabelaisian appetites. Troutbeck responds by despatching her protege Robert Amiss and her cat Plutarch (the feline equivalent of Attila the Hun) to the Bishop's Palace. The cathedral close is soon enjoying a crime wave of inner-city proportions.
This is a memorable and extremely funny novel, which bears approximately the same relationship to reality as Tom Sharpe's. The High Church faction is gay to a man. The average Evangelical is liable at any moment to seize a guitar and break into a song about being a twinkle in God's eye. Dudley Edwards deals in passing with other forms of religion - a brutal self-appointed shaman and his harem moves into the close; there's a sympathetic portrait of a woman priest; lesbians ullulate in the Lady Chapel; and in the Rev Bev there are glimpses of an even weirder evangelism than that practised by Dean Norm.
It is not easy to write good comic crime but Dudley Edwards is emerging as one of the stars of the sub-genre. In this novel, the plot takes second place. A minor irritation is the wealth of characters, many of whom have appeared in earlier books of the series but don't do much in this one. But these are quibbles when weighed against the book's virtues. Dudley Edwards' prose is literate and witty. And anything may be forgiven of a novel that makes you laugh out loud.
Letters of Dorothy L.Sayers 1899-1936:
The Making of a Detective Novelist
Chosen and edited by Barbara Reynolds
with a preface by P.D.James
(Sceptre 1996; £7.99)
Like so many of her generation, Sayers was a prolific letter-writer - and a good one, too. This selection from her correspondence amounts almost to an autobiography in the raw.
The first of the letters included here, an astonishingly mature production, was written to her mother when Sayers was five. The letters chart her schooling and her years at Oxford, her second home; they show the progress of her love affairs, usually unhappy, and her struggles to earn enough to support herself. While sending breezy reports about the joys of metropolitan life to her parents in rural Cambridgeshire, she contrived to become pregnant by a man who did not love her. She had the baby, a son, in conditions of secrecy and then farmed him out to the care of a cousin. Sayers took her material responsibilities towards her son very seriously but left his nurture to others. Here, too, is the record of her marriage, an increasingly unhappy affair. Perhaps in compensation, she became more and more absorbed in the life of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, allowing them the happy ending she could not achieve herself.
The letters show her struggling to make a career for herself at a time when there were few careers other than teaching open to educated women. They also reveal the emergence, almost by accident, of one of the most influential crime novelists of the twentieth century. It is clear that Sayers initially regarded detective fiction as a way of making money while constructing entertaining intellectual puzzles. But she was too good a writer to leave it at that: gradually she began to explore some of the other possibilities which the form offers. In Gaudy Night, perhaps for the first time in the genre, detection takes second place to the exploration of a serious theme: the overriding importance of intellectual honesty. The letters end in 1936, when Sayers was at the zenith of her career as a detective novelist - and about to begin a new one as a dramatist, translator, and Christian apologist.
Dr Reynolds provides explanatory footnotes, a valuable resource. The result is an absorbing book, full of unexpected insights into Sayers as a woman and a novelist.
Blood Lines by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles
(Little Brown, £16.99)
This is the fifth novel featuring Detective Inspector Bill Slider and his colleagues at the Shepherd's Bush nick. Slider is not a happy man, largely because his violinist lover Joanna is away rehearsing at Glyndebourne. He has less time to mope after a body is found in a lavatory at the BBC TV Centre at White City: Roger Greatrex, a loathsome cultural pundit who pursued a secondary career as a philanderer, has apparently cut his throat.
Needless to say, it's not as simple as that: a fellow critic, due to appear on the same TV chat show as Greatrex, had good reason to kill him. Two members of the programme's production team are telling lies, and they too have motives for murder. Then, another suspect emerges - one of Slider's colleagues, and a friend as well. Slider follows the investigation through a tangle of twisting possibilities,violent deaths and conflicting evidence until at last he finds the sad, mad and not entirely plausible truth - and with it an unexpected connection to Joanna.
The book opens slowly. It has a large cast of characters, too many adverbs and tendency to bludgeon the reader with coppers' argot. But things improve enormously once the story gets going. Blood Lines is an intelligent police procedural which generates real suspense. Slider is emerging as a strong, sympathetic character who gains in stature with each book. Harrod-Eagles is excellent on London and on the private lives of her characters; she observes with precision and is convincing about the little tragedies and secrets that fill the lives of so many people.
Time by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles
(Little Brown, £16.99)
Another dose of mayhem descends on Shepherd's Bush in the sixth Bill Slider mystery. Detective Inspector Slider's friend and colleague, the dashing Sergeant Atherton, is still nursing life-threatening wounds received at the end of the last book. Slider himself is not in the best of health for the same reason. His hopes of a quiet week are dashed by the bloody murder of Jay Paloma - a male prostitute and erotic dancer with an uncanny resemblance to Princess Di. Slider and his team delve deeper and deeper into a sinister sub-culture where whores consort with cabinet ministers at a club where the shagging of a papier-mache sheep is part of the evening's entertainment; where beat policemen are slugged on the head and left for dead; and where black-cab taxi drivers are the only trustworthy people in sight.
The result is a lively book set in a convincing version of modern London. Harrod-Eagles has a penchant for punning chapter headings which may not be to everybody's taste; and her copy editor really should be firmer with her prose. On the other hand, she writes with enjoyable gusto - one policewoman is "living proof that Barbie and Ken had sex" - and she handles both her plot and her theme with great skill.
Killing Time is a book which has much to say about the problems of modern policing and about jealousy. Readable and entertaining, it has an underlying seriousness of purpose which lifts it out of the ordinary.
Clinic by Johnathan Kellerman
(Little Brown, £14.99)
Kellerman specialises in serving up gruesome psychological suspense against a lurid but credible Los Angeles setting. The Clinic is the eleventh in his series featuring psychologist Alex Delaware and his friend Milo Sturgis, a gay detective with the LAPD.
To an outsider, Hope Devane seemed to have it all - brains, beauty, and wealth; a happy marriage and a tenured pyschology professorship gave her security; and a best-selling work of pop psychology had brought her fame and fortune. Then why did someone stab her three times - in the heart, the genitals and the kidney - and leave her body beneath a tree in one of Los Angeles' safest suburbs?
Using a combination of old-fashioned legwork and new-style psychology, Alex and Milo scrape away Hope's pristine veneer and uncover layer after layer of secrets, stretching back to her childhood. Why was a Beverly Hills Clinic paying her a six-figure sum? Why had she risked her career by setting up a University Conduct Committee which had less to do with justice than with punishing male students?
The truth, when it finally emerges by way of story crammed with drugs, sex, violence and organised crime, is genuinely shocking. This slick, grim thriller paints an alarming portrait of Los Angeles, a city of irreconcilable extremes where half the inhabitants own guns.
Purists may dislike Kellerman's style - he has a habit of writing in telegraphese and a penchant for one-sentence paragraphs, often lacking verbs; and characters make remarks such as, "She's a little intrapunitive, wouldn't you say?" Nonetheless, this strong, unpleasant story is powerful enough to make you ignore minor irritations. It's well worth trying Kellerman if you haven't already.
A Little Yellow Dog
by Walter Moseley
(Serpent's Tail, £7.99)
Its November 1963 and Ezekiel (Easy) Porterhouse Rawlins has been on good behaviour for more than two years. Hes off the streets and holds down a reponsible job with the Los Angeles Board of Education as a senior school caretaker. "I took care of my kids, cashed my pay checks, stayed away from liquor. I steered clear of the wrong women too."
In this novel, Easys fifth colour-coded outing, virtue has its own rewards in the voluptuous shape of Mrs Idabell Turner, far and away the most gorgeous of the teachers at the Sojourner Truth High school. Idabell seduces him on a desk just before morning school. But theres a price to pay: would Easy mind looking after her little yellow dog Pharoah, just for the day?
Thats when things start to go wrong. The dog takes a violent dislike to Easy. Idabell vanishes. A natty corpse in snakeskin shoes turns up in the school grounds. When Easy, hoping to return the little yellow dog, visits Idabells home, what should he find but another corpse, also dressed in snakeskin shoes? On the cheek of the second corpse is a big kiss in unusually dark lipstick.
All Easy wants is to get rid of that nasty little yellow dog. But in no time at all this innocent desire forces him to return to the life he thought he had left behind: to the gangsters and prostitutes and drug addicts that populate the steamy depths of the Los Angeles underworld.
The police, aware of his shady past, are gunning for him. The school principal wants to fire him. The body count rises relentlessly. The little yellow dog leaves turds on Easys bed. Raymond "Mouse" Alexander rolls through the plot like a grenade with its safety pin out. Mouse is Easys best friend and a wonderful ally in the battle of life; but the trouble with natural-born psychopaths is that you never quite know what theyre going to do next.
Mosley writes well, with excellent dialogue and a fine sense of time and place. On one level the book is classic noir crime fiction with violence lurking at every corner and a twisting plot which draws the reader through mean lives and mean streets. On another level, however, it is much more than this. It is typical of Mosley that he uses as the backdrop of this novel the assassination of JFK and with it the death of hope for the underprivileged of America. He constructs a moral universe seen from the perspective of the black urban poor. In doing so, he forces us to examine the underlying bias of our assumptions about justice and race. The important difference between Chandlers Los Angeles and Mosleys is this: Marlowe can afford to be a tourist in a world which grips Rawlins like a prison.
It is true that sometimes the tension slackens off - partly because of the large cast of characters and partly because of Mosleys penchant for cumbersome flashbacks. And Easy Rawlins, like so many hardboiled, soft-centred P.I.s, occasionally puts an uncomfortable strain on the readers willingness to suspend belief. He is a single father with a painfully PC attitude towards his adopted kids (former victims of child abuse, naturally). He wins the respect of hardened gangsters, hes a great lay, hes a genius in the kitchen and he can make small talk about the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. A Little Yellow Dog is a first-rate crime novel, but perhaps its hero is a little too perfect for an imperfect world.
Without Consent by Frances
Bantam Press £15.99
Patricia Highsmith suggests in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction that for many writers there is a particular situation which sets their creative juices flowing. Most of Frances Fyfield's novels revolve around the violence that men do to women. Without Consent is no exception.
This is the sixth novel in Fyfield's West-and-Bailey series. Prosecutor Helen West is on the verge of marrying her lover, Superintendent Bailey, though both of them have an almost pathological fear of committing themselves to another person. Then Detective Sergeant Ryan, Bailey's friend and protégé, is accused of rape by a woman who had originally come to him for help. Ryan's past record makes the accusation all too plausible; so too does his unwillingness to defend himself. Helen West is not surprised, and even Bailey, shocked and disappointed, is almost ready to condemn. In their different ways, West and Bailey deal professionally with rape, and know that the law all too often offers precious little comfort to its victims. But in this instance, who is the victim?
Gradually, however, another possibility emerges from the confusion of evidence and speculation. Ryan has been investigating the cases of a number of women who have made claims that they have been assaulted, without naming their attacker, and then withdrawn the allegations. As the novel progresses, Ryan, West and Bailey are drawn by very different routes towards a more sinister figure than the traditional rapist: a man to whom women willingly trust their bodies; a man who has the expertise to slip through the net of legislation concerning rape; a man who makes his victims his allies; and a man who by delving into the history of his dark trade has learned how to kill the most vulnerable of his victims without trace.
From the chapter epigraphs to the lives of minor characters, everything in this novel deals with aspects of rape - definitions, perpetrators, victims, the forensics, the prosecution, and, above all, the shades of guilt. Without Consent is the title: and what exactly constitutes consent is the central question of the book.
The novel is beautifully constructed, with an elegant twist at the end. (In a sense, it is almost too schematic: characters and plot fit the theme with suspicious neatness.) The story moves through a series of short, sharp scenes narrated in elliptical prose. Fyfield's writing seems to be getting better and better - condensed, precise, and sharp as a Sabatier knife. Among other delights, there is a bravura description of two women shopping for a wedding dress.
Overall, though, the novel is dark and bleak: Fyfield seems to hold out little hope for men and women finding happiness together, at least in a sexual relationship. An excellent novel, yes, but not for the psychologically squeamish.
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