Tuesday 17 April 2012

Machines and Murder Mysteries

Another trip to Paris in the company of Chief Superintendent Maigret and an English honeymoon with Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane offered unexpected reading joys when I popped into the library to take some books back. Having tried (and failed) to find anything by Georges Simenon (with the exception of The Hotel Majestic, reviewed here), I was staggered to spot a copy of Maigret and the Ghost on the ‘Returned Books’ shelves. And there, alongside it, was a copy of Dorothy L Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon. So I pounced on them, and put them in the magical machine which is supposed to check books in and out. But nothing happened. Nix. Nada. Zilch. Fortunately we still have real people working as librarians, as well the machines, so I appealed for help, only to be told the books did not actually come from Tamworth... For one terrible moment I thought I would have to leave empty-handed, but it turned out there was no problem and once the assistant had fiddled around on the computer back I went to the machine, scanned in the card and books – and hey presto, the books are mine for the next few weeks.

Back home of course, I had to read them immediately, ignoring the Books in Progress and Ninepins, the latest novel from Rosy Thornton (sorry Rosy – you’re next, I promise!)

The Simenon, as ever, was wonderful. In this one Inspector Lognon – known as Grumpy to his colleagues – is shot in the street outside the apartment of a beautiful young woman where, apparently, he has spent the night. Before losing consciousness the wounded detective whispers the word ‘ghost’. By the time Chief Superintendent Maigret appears on the scene the beautiful young woman has disappeared, and no-one knows if Lognon was working on a case...

On the other side of the street is the home of wealthy art wealthy art collector Norris Jonker and his glamorous wife Mirella, but routine questioning convinces Maigret that the couple are not what they seem, and that the facts gathered so far may also have another interpretation. As usual the chief superintendent uncovers the truth in his usual methodical way, painstakingly fitting the pieces of the jigsaw together, aided by a dose of intuition based on his vast knowledge of people and they way behave and react, especially when under pressure. He himself remains cool, calm and polite, supervising his team as they check out every lead and examine every detail, however small and unimportant it may be – and he refuses to let himself be rattled or pushed around by people with money or position.

I particularly enjoyed the fact that his wife plays a larger role in this novel, providing help for the injured policeman’s carping, hypochondriac wife, and collecting vital information as she does so. All in all this was a really satisfying read.

Busman’s Holiday was excellent – it is the final, and I think, the best of the books featuring crime novelist Harriet Vane. I've written about Lord Peter Wimsey before in a review of The Nine Tailors (here), which I enjoyed immensely - but I always prefer the stories with Harriet Vane.  Here, she and Lord Peter are finally married and set off for their honeymoon at Talboys, a beautiful old house in the village where Harriet lived as a child. The sleuthing aristocrat has bought the house for her as a wedding gift and they decide to spend a quiet honeymoon there, away from the prying eyes of the press. But nothing goes as planned: when they arrive (accompanied by the incomparable Bunter and crates of vintage port), the house is shut up and the owner, who has told no-one of the sale, has disappeared... then he turns up dead, in the cellar, and the newly-weds find themselves in the spotlight as a murder investigation gets under way.

The dead man turns out to have been a thoroughly nasty piece of work, and trying to establish how he died and who killed him proves extraordinarily complicated as the plot twists and turns, and there are plenty of suspects, including the dead man’s niece, a policeman who was being blackmailed by the victim, and a gardener who was owed money by the dead man but has a cast-iron alibi.

Peter and Harriet set about solving the crime, aided and abetted by police inspector Kirk, who is as fond of literary quotes and allusions as the couple themselves, and there is a cast of local ‘characters’ with the most wonderfully apt names - the sweep is Mr Puffett, the niece is Miss Twitterton, which tells you exactly what she is like.

This novel is particularly interesting because it opens with a series of letters and diary entries from those who know Peter and Harriet, giving their view of the couple and the marriage, and it ends with an exploration of the effects of bringing a killer to justice. We see Lord Peter tortured by the knowledge that by catching the murderer he himself must carry responsibility for man’s death, and that knowledge is difficult to cope with. 


  1. I've never read anything by Simenon, I must look them out. I agree with you about Busman's Honeymoon, though I think it's just pipped to the post as my favourite Sayers by Gaudy Night - Peter and Harriet have such a human relationship. I'm also very keen on Murder Must Advertise though that might be because i worked in advertising myself.

    1. Victoria, it's a close call between Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon, but I think Busman's Honeymoon just has the edge. Sadly, the Maigret books seem to be out of fashion, and they're not always easy to get hold of, but I think they are well worth reading.