March Crime Round-Up

N. J. Cooper

Treachery by S. J. Parris published by HarperCollins

After I’m Gone by Laura Lippman published by Faber UK, Wm Morrow US

The First Rule of Survival by Paul Mendelson published by Constable Crime

Mr Campion’s Farewell by Mike Ripley published by Severn House


All novelists have to invent voices unlike their own for the characters in their fiction, but some writers give themselves tougher challenges than others.  S. J. Parris uses the heretical monk Giordano Bruno as the sleuth in her bestselling sixteenth-century series and makes him more than convincing.

Treachery is the fourth in the sequence and sees Bruno accompanying a surprisingly unromantic, not to say petulant, Philip Sidney on a visit to Sir Francis Drake’s fleet.  Sidney is determined to take some kind of violent action that will prove his manhood to the sneerers at court, while Bruno, who answers to Walsingham, soon becomes embroiled in the investigation of murder, corruption, and a very nasty brothel.

Parris’s Bruno is an attractive man, full of wisdom and humour, as well as humanity.  Her research seems solid, even though Drake has some interestingly twenty-first-century ideas about the sexual exploitation of young women, and she uses an idiom that belongs fully in neither Elizabethan age but works for both.  Her technique is such that even a novel of over 500pp reads like a thriller.

Laura Lippman is equally successful in giving a convincing voice to her male sleuth in After I’m Gone.  Roberto Sanchez, Sandy, is an ex-cop, who now works cold cases for a measly $35,000 in Baltimore.  The novel has a complex structure, switching between 1960 and 2012, stopping off at several other years in between.  On one level it deals with the disappearance of Felix Brewer, wanted on charges connected to illegal gambling;  on another it reveals the whole story of his love for and marriage to Bambi, with whom he has three daughters.  When the body of Felix’s mistress turns up many years after his disappearance, Sandy must find the killer.  As the narrative sweeps through time and from Sandy’s voice to that of Bambi or one of the daughters, Lippman explores the many faces of love and betrayal.

Paul Mendelson’s sleuth in his impressive first novel, The First Rule of Survival, is Vaughn DeVries of the South African Police (SAPS).  Driven, unhappily married, hard-drinking and difficult, DeVries is disliked by both his superiors and many of his juniors.  He has been tormented for seven years by his failure to find three young white boys, who were kidnapped by person or persons unknown.  Now the abused bodies of two of them have been found and he has another chance to save the third, identify the kidnapper, and put himself right with his conscience.

The kidnapping of children for the sadistic sexual gratification of adults has become a familiar theme in some of the most graphically violent crime fiction, but Mendelson handles it in a different style.  While he never minimizes the horror the boys might suffer, he leaves all the detail to the reader’s imagination and generates the necessary tension only by means of DeVries’s passionate pursuit of elusive justice.  Few people in this novel have entirely clean hands, but Mendelson succeeds in making DeVries likeable, which is quite an achievement.

One curiosity this month (or perhaps next) is the latest instalment in the life of Margery Allingham’s sleuth, Albert Campion, a man of such distinguished ancestry that no one is ever allowed to use his real name.  Allingham herself died with her last novel, Cargo of Eagles, unfinished, and it was her husband Philip Youngman Carter, who completed that, before writing two Campion novels of his own.  He then left one unfinished, which has now been completed by Mike Ripley, who is therefore not only writing in the voice of his character, but also that of the character’s creator and her husband:  a serious challenge.

Ripley is a stylish and humorous crime novelist in his own right but he adds a modest note to Mr Campion’s Farewell, warning that he has ‘attempted to follow Pip Youngman Carter’s style and approach rather than try a pastiche of Margery Allingham at her sharpest and funniest, which would have been difficult if not impossible.’

The plot involves a peculiar secret society that appears to have ruled a small Suffolk wool town for many generations, killing or otherwise disempowering any individual who threatens its power, but the plot is not really the point.  Campion is now of ripe years, but still elastic and elegant in figure and recognizably himself.  His wife, the Lady Amanda Fitton, has changed a bit, but there are many pleasures to be had by anyone who loves the original novels.  Ripley makes play with the characters, settings and titles of those, while also neatly setting the scene in the late 1960s, even alluding to Adam Diment’s first novel, which I had thought I was the only one to remember.  Where Ripley departs most widely from Margery Allingham herself is in the lack of pathos in the novel.  Most of hers are saturated with her characters’ longing to be loved, and it is that, along with her unmatched wit and style, that make her novels unforgettable.

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