Books left: 5. Weeks left: 8 (In the words of Douglas Adams, DON’T PANIC)
Oh no, this was not his natural background, this heaving water which retained nothing on its surface for long. This was 11 January, and the genesis of the case, dated 3 October, was out here far from land. Life and the elements leave their records on the bush for years; but here on the sea life and the elements left no record for even such as he to read.
In all his bush cases he had many allies: the birds and the insects; the ground which was like the pages of a huge book wherein were printed the acts of all living things; the actions of rain and sunlight and wind. And greater than all these added together was his ally Time. And now of all his former allies only Time was with him.
Here lies another author I would never have discovered without working in ye olde secondhand bookshop and being familiar with its ‘literary crime’ section.
Books of this genre are characterised by their size, being neither the new-release “trade paperback” size or the pocket “A-formats” that generally follow. Literary crime novels are usually “B-format,” the same size as your literary fiction, and as they never fit in the general and crime fiction “troughs” so were generally poked into their own sad little section underneath that no-one saw. This was a shame, because these are some of the best books: a little off the beaten track in content as well as location, they represented the best of both worlds. Arthur Upfield proves that this holds true now as ever, a classic example of this rather unlikely genre: this Australian 1940s author’s hero is detective inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, investigator extraordinaire, bush tracker unparalleled and identified as was in those days called a “half-caste” Aborigine.
Upfield’s mysteries have earned their place as classics in Australian as well as crime fiction.
In this title “Bony”, as he prefers to be called, is asked to go to sea, a little swordfishing town called Bermagui on the coast of New South Wales, He must investigate a murder that appears to have occurred on the open water, and that has baffled the local and regional police.
I wondered for the first part whether I would be bored. I am not a particular fan of things angling or any stories that smell of the ocean – for someone who pities genre snobs, I sure do avoid general thrillers and seafaring fiction.
But the passion and suspense of hunting game fish, with all accompanying bloodlust, is masterfully done in this book. I, poor innocent, soon realised that swordfish were not the two or three-foot jobs I had imagined and I quickly became fascinated. I did a lot of Google-imaging before I was sated.
What begins as a charmingly dignified old-school mystery ends in a satisfying wash of adventure.
Without having even familiarised myself with Bony’s usual stomping-ground, I am delighted by the story of his being a fish (ha!) out of water.
When I am in my native bush, gentlemen … everything I observe, except the clouds, is static. On the sea nothing is static. A ship does not leave tracks on the sea.
And oh, the mystery! I was quickly sucked into this tale, with its distinctly Agatha-Christie type premise of a fishing launch, the Do-me, that vanishes without a trace, and the discovery of the murder of one of those aboard when we know she was seaworthy and those on her trustworthy. Like Marple or Poirot, Bony adores a puzzle such as this.
And so, having read all their reports and having gone through their collection of statements, I decided that this was a meaty bone on which to try the teeth of my brain.
It is certainly an out of the way case. I have to admit that I shy clear of crimes of violence where there are fingerprints and revolvers, bodies and missing valuables, and a nark or two in a thieves’ kitchen waiting to inform for the price of a beer. I like my cases minus bodies and minus clues, if possible. Which is why this Do-me case so attracts me.
Bony is like my beloved Poirot, too, in his immaculate turnout, grand manner and “abnormal vanity” and lack of bother about things like procedure or the chain of custody; “his custom [much like Poirot’s] being to fade away after having placed the key-stone of an investigation into position.”
A note on historical context – apart from the occasional alarming use of the word half-caste, which is to the modern reader the equivalent of throwing a grenade on to the page; and a slightly hair-raising instance of Bony’s “Aboriginal instincts” rising up in a time of extremity to allow a “primitive” rage to rise to the surface, these instances are in exception to the general tone of the book, which has minimal reference to Bony’s origins, apart from the occasional pointing out the lack of prejudice other characters greet him with once they witness his “educated” voice and elegant manners. Perhaps in the other books’ more landlocked settings the racial elements are more pronounced.
Add to Upfield’s masterful mystery and delightful hero a pretty turn of phrase, and like a swordfish, I’m hooked. (Sorry, I’ll stop.).
I have found another crime writer I love… as if I needed one.
More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac here.
Time off from The Curing of a Bibliomaniac is allowed, because my friend Sturdy lent me this alluring paperback and anything by J. K . Rowling, that is, Robert Galbraith, is essential reading.
My history as a crime junkie dates back to a time after I finished my uni degree, filled with postmodern literature, ye olde English literature, film theory, poetry, Shakespeare, Shakespeare in film, Australian fiction, Australian fiction in film, etc, etc.
This stuff was wicked, but it bruised my brain so severely that by the time I graduated I shuddered at the very sight of a Thinky Book.
Enter crime. The compulsive nature of crime serials by excellent authors such as Val McDermid, Colin Dexter, Lee Child, Ian Rankin and Frances Fyfield, to name but a few, served as a panacea to my aching soul, serving up quality reading material in a structure I could rely upon to be relatively unchanging.
Like a fool, I kept buying all kinds of books as well as these, hence large, slightly bibliomaniacal (is this a word?) collection of the unread. And the need for a cure. Hehehe. Searching for a cure for the unread. Get it?
But I digress. Suffice it to say that when a friend delivers a succulent new morsel such as this, I drop everything and snuggle down and say goodbye to society for a couple of days.
Silkworm did not disappoint – Galbraith’s writing is so deft and perceptive you can’t help but break into delighted smiles as you read, nodding in recognition, and sometimes even a giggle at some particularly incisive phrase.
The evocation of London is such that it makes you long to see it in front of you as Strike (central character, ex-soldier-turned private detective) does. Well, at least it was raining in Perth.
This is the second novel in the series, the first being The Cuckoo’s Calling, and as Sturdy says, there is some excellent character development in this instalment, with the promise of more to come.
The same thing struck me about Silkworm as The Cuckoo’s Calling: Galbraith inhabits diverse worlds with remarkable comfort, moving from poverty to riches, and detailing industries from fashion to publishing as though born to them.
This is a joy to read, a traditional, engrossing detective novel with everything it needs to be among the best in the genre: depth of character, tight plot, mood and style, with some deliciously shivery moments. It deserves to have real money spent on a physical book that takes up real space in your house.
If you’ll indulge me in a cringey metaphor, it’s more satisfying than a good meal, because generally after good food you feel a bit overfull and regretful, whereas this is a perfect portion that leaves you wanting more.
After continuing with How to Cure a Bibliomaniac, of course.
The book takes place over a single night after the death of serial killer Myra Hindley, partner of Ian Brady. Together, they committed the Moors Murders and earned themselves eternal hatred from all those who ever heard of them.
Thomson doesn’t name Myra Hindley; he doesn’t have to. The details that emerge make her identity clear.
It is the night before her funeral and Billy Tyler is a policeman charged with guarding her body overnight, as mob violence threatens from the emotional public around the mortuary.
But not only the public is feeling irrational fear. Billy’s wife Sue also feels that the corpse must be malevolent in some way. She begs him not to take the job.
However, being a sensible and stolid English chap, Billy accepts the job and does it faithfully.
And as Hindley begins to make her presence felt, Billy’s thoughts and memories, worries, and guilt over past temptations unfurl alongside it.
The idea is rooted in fact but wholly a product of the imagination. I have a particular soft spot for novels that do this: take reality and then do whatever the hell they want with it.
Thomson never trivialises the atrocious story of the Moors Murders, but uses it to explore the emotional reactions that people attach to such horrific crimes as these against children. He examines the way we relate to these events within our minds. He questions the differences between human beings once pretence and defense is stripped away and uncertainty allowed in. Where is the line drawn between sane and insane – murderous or law-abiding?
The structure is one of stretched and distorted time. Thomson takes readers on a journey of heightened psychological awareness in a way that calls to mind something like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Like Mrs Dalloway, it is the more powerful for its sense of limbo and existence outside ordinary time – and space, since the action in its entirety happens within one building and within Billy’s mind. This tightly controlled narrative drive swings between the present nothingness, Billy’s agony of waiting, the almost sensory-deprivation of the mortuary and Hindley’s locked cabinet, and the rich sensory world of the memory. These regular swings mark the passage of time throughout the night with with pendulum-like regularity.
Freedom is found in the words. Thomson ticks the poetry box by showing you pictures as memories and experiences, rather than telling you stories. For a book whose action basically consists of a man sitting in a room with a dead body, this is a compulsive read with a momentum all of its own.
Thomson’s restraint, and the sheer power of his imagination, are a formidable combination. His atmosphere is intensified by the scarcity of outside characters, apart from brief appearances by a couple of others and Billy’s wife, artfully sketched, that serve to heighten rather than relieve the almost unbearable tension and sense of solitude. These characters are not shallow; they are only quickly glimpsed, but Thomson shines a penetrating light upon their hopes and fears as much as on Billy’s.
The characters complement the atmosphere that is built in the mortuary, a still, awfully silent place. In a passage that echoes this feeling of solitude and connects it to the past, Billy remembers visiting the place Hindley and Brady buried their victims, feeling there as he does in the present:
“a silence that was eerily alive, like the silence when you answer the phone and there’s someone on the other end not talking.”
The book is, as you can imagine, driven and buoyed by sheer description, and Thomson is master of the language he commands. To give you a taste, he describes the chapel at the mortuary where people come to pay their respects or identify their next-of-kin;
“In this room people’s worst fears would become a reality, and the air was petrified, stale, glassy with shock.”
Details and feelings are magnified through reference to the senses. Thomson transports readers through time by describing Billy’s experience of his memories; what he smelled, tasted, saw, felt. Each memory ties to his thoughts about Hindley; what she has done; what it takes to make someone commit acts of horror. At what point did she become this person? Was it in childhood? Billy remembers an incident in his childhood, beginning with the innocent rebellion of illicit drinking with an older, naughtier friend, and ending in confusion and violence.
He remembers every detail, even the vodka.
“It was warm and slightly oily, and he shivered as it went down”.
Was a shot of vodka ever before so ominous? Yet when we hear this, we remember. We know, and we become afraid.
Thomson repeatedly calls attention to these connections between the past and present, memories and actions, through the the significance he attaches to ordinary physical objects, like Fanta, crisps and Hindley’s almost-final resting place: a cabinet with a cold handle. The objects themselves are unimportant, but Thomson understands that the way they interact with our emotions and senses triggers thoughts and memories – many of them things you would rather stay buried.
Death of a Murderer is marked by this feeling of things lying in wait, just underneath the surface.
Billy remembers his struggle to understand the murders when they occurred, and falls into the memory of another expedition into a favourite haunt of Brady and Hindley. Just before he decides to leave, he imagines a child holding the hand of an adult, slowly disappearing from view.
“The streams had frozen over; black water squirmed through narrow channels beneath the ice … once again, he had the feeling that there was something to be discovered, but it was like having a word on the tip of your tongue and knowing that you would never remember it. There were things here that couldn’t be grasped or squared away – not by him, in any case.”
I won’t forget this book in a hurry. I would recommend it to anyone, even someone disgusted by the concept.
I was, in fact, haunted by this book; sorry to use the word; but a book you still think about a year after you finish it certainly qualifies.
What gives the story its power is the unease at its core: the unanswered question, the mystery at its centre: Why?