Monday 14 October 2019

The Brontes, the Mitford sisters, Agatha Christie - Authors turn detective in latest crop of crime fiction

The Brontes, the Mitford sisters, even the queen of crime herself, Agatha Christie, do their best to bring the bad to book, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Jessica Fellowes, niece of 'Downton Abbey' creator Julian
Jessica Fellowes, niece of 'Downton Abbey' creator Julian

Eilis O'Hanlon

Great novelists think like detectives. They amass clues. They probe motives. They uncover secrets. So it makes perfect sense to turn great novelists into fictional sleuths as well.

That's what happens in The Vanished Bride (Hodder & Stoughton, €21), in which the Bronte sisters set out to solve the mystery of a young wife who's gone missing from her home in 1840s Yorkshire.

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It's the first in a projected new series by author Rowan Coleman, using the pseudonym Bella Ellis. The book is suffused with an obvious love of Bronteana, and one of the pleasures of the book is the way these "lady detectors" pursue the investigation according to their different natures.

Charlotte's the rational one; Emily is passionate and fanciful; Anne, who "wore her mildness like a kind of disguise", is the hardest of all to bring to life, but really comes into her own in the course of the book. The dialogue is a bit clunky, but it's huge fun, and explores feminist themes without being didactic.

The concept of having famous authors solving mysteries is not entirely unique. Jessica Fellowes, niece of Julian, creator of Downtown Abbey, also writes a series in which the famous Mitford sisters are called upon to solve crimes in high society.

The latest, The Mitford Scandal (Sphere, €19.60), focuses on Diana Mitford, often called the most beautiful of the siblings, and is set around the time of her first, brief, marriage to Bryan Guinness of the equally famous brewing family, before she dumped him for fascist leader Oswald Mosley. The glamour and political intrigues of the 1920s are seductively rendered.

The same goes for Andrew Wilson's Death In A Desert Land (Simon & Schuster, €23.79), third in a series in which the queen of crime herself, Agatha Christie, is called upon to play detective. This one is set in Baghdad in 1928, where Christie investigates the death of fellow traveller and writer Gertrude Bell.

The real Bell died of an overdose, accidental or deliberate no one knows for sure. Wilson ingeniously reimagines it as a possible murder. The Middle East was one of Christie's own favourite locations, and the no-nonsense, plain speaking Agatha in this series is a consistent delight.

These novels make a refreshing change from more gruesome contemporary fare, which often relies on shock value rather than the old-fashioned virtues of a good whodunnit. That surely explains too the lingering appeal of the classic Golden Age detective fiction now being reissued in handsome paperback editions by the British Library.

George Bellairs's tales about Inspector Littlejohn of Scotland Yard appeared regularly from 1941. The latest to be re-issued is The Body In The Dumb River (British Library Publishing, €12.59), which begins, as all such novels should, with a knock on the door at 3am to announce a murder. James Lane was a "harmless little fellow, by all accounts", but it turns out that he had a secret life. Don't they all?

Bellairs's work is described in the introduction as offering "unpretentious entertainment", which perfectly sums up their enduring appeal.

John Dickson Carr, "master of the locked room mystery", was cut from the same cloth. He was one of only two Americans to be admitted to the celebrated Detection Club, whose ranks included Christie and Dorothy L Sayers. Carr's debut, It Walks By Night (British Library Publishing, €12.59) is, surprisingly, the first of his many books to be reissued by the imprint, and centres on a man who's found beheaded in... a locked room in Paris.

A writer who elegantly combines the traditional pleasure of a solid whodunnit with more contemporary sensibilities is Elly Griffiths, pen name of author Domenica de Rosa. Her most famous series centres on Ruth Galloway, a forensic archaeologist who lives on the bleak fens of Norfolk in the east of England and who finds herself drawn into various murder investigations.

Less well known is Griffiths's other series set in post-war Brighton, the author's home town these days, which pairs up Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens with stage magician Max Mephisto, old friends from the war.

The books are marketed as examples of the so-called "cozy crime" genre, which is scorned by some critics, more drawn to the hardcore extremes of modern thrillers, but their appeal is timeless. The period detail is beautifully done.

The latest instalment, Now You See Them (Quercus, €16.95), jumps forward a few years, and finds Stephen now a superintendent, and Mephisto in Hollywood. They're brought back together by the funeral of another old friend. The shift to a 1960s of Mods and Rockers may disappoint some, but Brighton remains as alluringly seedy as ever.

Ann Cleeves has become one of the most famous names in crime fiction, thanks to the Shetland mysteries, which have been filmed, brilliantly, by the BBC, and the Vera Stanhope books, brought to the screen by ITV with Brenda Blethyn in the title role. She's now embarked on a new series set in North Devon, where she spent much of her childhood.

The Long Call (Macmillan, €23.79) introduces Detective Matthew Venn back to his local area to secretly observe his father's funeral, just as a man with the tattoo of an albatross is found stabbed to death on the beach.

Naturally, the mystery takes him right back to the heart of the strict religious community he tried so hard to leave behind.

It's not as compelling as her other books, but the vivid sense of place which Cleeves brings to all her writing shines through.

Finally, Nicci French is back with a new novel, The Lying Room (Simon & Schuster, €15.99). The hook draws one in immediately: "A woman looks down at a murdered man. She doesn't call the police."

Why does Neve Connolly keep the discovery of a corpse to herself? Is she protecting someone? Could she be the killer?

Nicci French is the absolute doyenne of psychological suspense, and this latest novel again ticks all the boxes. It's perfect autumnal reading.

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