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May 20, 2015

Happy Birthday, Margery Allingham!

Cargo of Eagles, by Margery Allingham

Today is Margery Allingham’s birthday.

Allingham, best known for the “Albert Campion” series, is the “queen of crime” critic Sarah Weinman has called “the most resistant to classification.” Indeed, Allingham’s writing, which began with frothy capers like The Crime at Black Dudley and Sweet Danger, grew quite dark in the post-war period. That something-for-everyone quality of her books got us thinking about our favorite Allinghams.

Maggie’s favorite is Hide My Eyes, a “chilling yarn about a psychopath and the aging woman who loves him.” Together with The Tiger in the Smoke, widely-regarded as Allingham’s best, Hide My Eyes resembles less classic golden era mysteries than the psychologically inflected writing of authors like PD James and Ruth Rendell.

Julia’s favorite is Traitor’s Purse, an earlier book with an arresting premise English novelist A S Byatt (who also counts this as her favorite Allingham) describes as “the single best idea I’ve met in detective fiction”:

During the phony war, Campion is knocked on the head and wakes with almost complete amnesia in a hospital. He spends the whole, taut novel not knowing who he is – nor who Amanda is, nor who Lugg is.
It becomes clear that he alone is in possession of a dreadful secret that threatens his country. He has to foil a plot at the same time that he has to discover who he is.
Because he is vacant he forgets to look vacant – “almost intelligent”, Amanda says he looks. Because he forgets to act a part he becomes a man of action. Because he forgets Amanda he realises he loves her. And of course he foils the plot. If I had to vote for the single best detective story, this would be it.

British writer H.R.F. Keating, in a 2004 article for Mystery Scene, declared More Work for the Undertaker, the first of the postwar Campions, to be his favorite (he listed it as one of the 100 best crime and mystery books in 1987). What Keating appreciates most is that novel’s impressive “galaxy” of characters, all of whom come across as “altogether lifelike, if a bit skewed by the chance oddness of their circumstances.”

We would love to know what your favorite Allingham is. And if you have yet to get started, now would be a good time to do so: All of our Margery Allingham titles are on sale.

May 18, 2015

Felony of the Week: The Becket Factor, by Michael David Anthony

The Becket Factor, by Michael David Anthony

Clearly, I have pulled on my curmudgeon pants today. I say this because my brain has been offering up a near-ceaseless litany of “things were better in the old days” – better when people drank COFFEE rather than “coffee drinks,” better when restaurants weren’t so noisy, better when a ticket to a Broadway show didn’t cost the equivalent of six months’ rent. (Ah yes, the old days. When black people couldn’t vote, single women couldn’t get bank loans, and gay people were routinely arrested. Let’s definitely go back there!)

Aside from coffee and affordable tickets, what else was better in those golden good old days? Espionage. Or rather, espionage fiction. Don’t get me wrong: Spook books have long had a trashy side (what, you thought James Bond was high literature?). And you know, I loves me some good trash. But over the past couple of decades, espionage has tilted so far toward the action end of things that, as a genre, it has become, mostly, hard-boiled with international settings. Take a snarky 35-year-old guy who knows how to shoot, put him in Istanbul, and hey presto.

I say “as a genre,” because of course there are exceptions to the rule (waving to Olen Steinhauer). And the truth is, I can enjoy one of those plot-driven, pedal-to-the-metal yarns as much as anyone. But my heart is really with somewhat slower-paced, more intricate stories, with more complicated characters and, often, a sense of the past extending its sticky fingers into the current chess-game. And those stories…I don’t see a lot of them being published.

Which is why I’m so happy to have reissued Michael David Anthony’s quiet, quirky trilogy, beginning with The Becket Factor. The books are quiet because, well, they’re set in and around Canterbury Cathedral, where folks tend to talk in hushed, reverent tones. And also because the gent at the heart of the story is well past his shouting years: After a long career in the Secret Service, Colonel Richard Harrison has retired to Canterbury to work a cushy Cathedral job and take care of his disabled wife.

If the wish for a peaceful retirement were ever to be granted, we’d be out of mystery fiction. Harrison is soon co-opted by his former boss into some freelance sleuthing, picking apart the web of intrigue that ties together a Bishop’s scandalous diaries, a murdered Canon, the highly contentious election of a new Archbishop, and the bones – dug up by a crew of construction workers – of Thomas Becket, the 12th-century martyr and onetime Archbishop of Canterbury.

“Echoes of Le Carré abound in this elegantly written first novel,” said Kirkus. And we say that for one week only, it’s on sale.

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May 8, 2015

Saying Goodbye to Ruth Rendell


This has been a week of big news in the mystery world. The last week of April is, every year, Edgars Week, when the Mystery Writers of America hands out its prestigious awards for some of the best books of the year. As always, this year saw some familiar and beloved names taking the trophies – (may we say congratulations, Mr. King?) and also some newcomers. The Edgars has an entire category devoted to first-time novelists, so the five writers on the shortlist are guaranteed to be unknowns – well, known to their friends and families, sure, but not to the wider reading public. The Edgars banquet, with its glitter and evening gowns (for real!) and its setting at a fancy-pants Manhattan hotel, has got to be the dandiest possible welcome for the five newbies, even for the four that don’t ultimately win. Nobody can guarantee them a career, but that Edgar nomination states clearly, in New York-neon letters, that they have earned the right to try.

That full-throated Hello is on my mind right now because this week was also the occasion of a significant Goodbye, with the death of Ruth Rendell, herself the recipient of three Edgar awards, along with a host of other prizes (including a CBE and a life-peerage; she was properly Baroness Rendell of Babergh), in a writing career that spanned more than half a century. The Web is full of passionate farewells to Rendell, appreciations of her work, and fond remembrances; I won’t intrude on what others are better placed to say. In truth, Rendell was never my writer. While I have often used “creepy” as a term of approbation – when discussing Sarah Rayne’s chillers, for example – Rendell’s brand of creepiness didn’t ring my chimes, though I read a number of her books if only to stay on top of important trends in mystery fiction. Because of this antipathy, I had to be coaxed and prodded and almost shamed into reading Anna’s Book (UK title: Asta’s Book), which Rendell wrote as Barbara Vine.

I’m so glad I gave in. Anna’s Book retains all of Rendell’s trademarks – the keen intelligence most of all, but also the quirky characters, the pinpoint settings, the plot twists – but wraps them, unusually, in sunlight. This is Rendell – and crime fiction – we’re talking about, so that sunlight is not the pure, scaldingly redemptive glare of an August afternoon. Rather, it’s a sort of dusty gold, an elegiac gilding that softens the cruelty of the story the way a sepia-toned photograph lends a beauty to even the stoniest features. I have no idea what was going on in Rendell’s life when she wrote this, if some blessing had fallen into her hands, a gift of warmth that she had never expected. But the book does read, to me, as though it’s a response to some new, fragile joy. It’s a delight. I plan to reread it this week, both as a tribute to a difficult, never compromising, ferociously intelligent writer – and as a real personal pleasure. And to follow, some of the Web’s great cache of Rendelliana.