Tuesday, February 19, 2013

It was X in the Bedroom with the Candlestick: Written in Blood (1994), by Caroline Graham

Who dotted Gerald with the candlestick?
Actually, they don't have bedrooms in Clue/Cluedo, do they?  Or bathrooms?

I suppose they must all be on the upper floor (surely the Boddy mansion has an upper floor).

Anyway!  In the book under consideration here today, Caroline Graham's Written in Blood, the victim, Gerald Hadleigh, indeed is murdered with a candlestick--at his home, Plover's Rest, not long after a meeting of the Midsomer Worthy Writers' Circle, to which he belonged.

That's about where the similarity to the game Clue ends, however.

Although Written in Blood triumphs as a puzzle (see near the end of this review), much of the interest in it lies with Graham's amusing, satirical writing and well-conveyed characters.

Written in Blood centers on the members of the aforementioned Midsomer Worthy Writers' Circle, a group of would-be (some more likely never-to-be) authors in one of those classic English villages that make such enticing settings for horrible murders.

Besides Gerald Hadleigh, the group consists of Amy Lyddiard, her sister-in-law Honoria Lyddiard, Sue Clapton, her husband Brian Clapton, Laura Hutton and Rex St. John.

These people are, along with Max Jennings, the bestselling novelist they somehow managed to get to come and speak to them, and Graham's series characters Chief Inspector Barnarby and Sergeant Troy, the key figures in the novel.
  
Some fans of the long-running Midsomer Murders series, which originally was directly based on Graham's short series of detective novels, have complained that Barnaby and Troy (particularly Troy) are not as likeable in the books as on television.

Midsomer Murders Barnaby and Troy
I can well see this in the case of Troy--though I've never actually seen an episode of Midsomer Murders, bar The Killings at Badger's Drift many years ago--since Troy is a boorish, sexist homophobe who cheats (or tries to) on his wife.

Does Graham endow Troy with any virtues at all?  Well, he likes his two-year-old daughter--though that doesn't stop him from cheating on her mother--and he likes dogs.  That's about it, I think!

Yet there are times when Troy actually is funny, or I think so (but then I like Joyce Porter's Dover mysteries).

Here he is with Barnaby during the questioning of a suspect:

Troy was taking advantage of the lull to despatch as many Garibaldis as he was able without appearing to push them non-stop into his mouth.  He was starving.  Parched too (down went the tea), plus, needless to say, desperate for a fag.  He caught the chief's eye and replaced morsel number five on the plate.

Garibaldi ("squashed fly") biscuits

Then there's this, when the suspect is about to suggest that Gerald Hadleigh must have been killed by a burglar:

Here we go, thought Troy, pinching the final biscuit.  Altogether now, one, two, three: break-in, break-in.  Wasn't it a break-in?

In the books, Barnaby and Troy really don't like each other much at all, and their antagonism/indifference can be kind of amusing.

I liked this terse exchange between the duo, which takes place when Barnaby and Troy visit the law firm Jocelyne, Tibbles And Delaney.  While waiting for the murdered man's lawyer finally to appear, they encounter a striped cat curled up, fast asleep, on a chair (note that one of the novel's plot strands involves Barnaby and his wife having to take care of their daughter's rambunctious kitten, Kilmowzki):

Troy nodded in [the cat's] direction.
"Must be Tibbles."
"Don't mention cats to me."
"D'you think I've got time for a ciggie?"
"No."

another classic male police duo
Graham's team of Barnaby and Troy rather reminds me television's Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis and Ruth Rendell's Wexford and Burden (granted, a less personable version, especially in the case of the underlings).

Like Wexford, Barnaby is happily married and having to diet on account of his health (though unlike Wexford, he can understand computers).

Troy also partakes, methinks, of Reginald Hill's Dalziel, although there of course the roles are reversed, Dalziel being the man in the superior position.

Although Written in Blood was published in 1994, it already seems like an eternity ago!  I was struck by the fact that in the book women are virtually non-factors in the police force.  Indeed, part of the interest of this novel, I found (somewhat to my mortification), is that it already feels like a piece of social history.

Fortunately, there are interesting women characters among the suspects: Amy and Honoria Lyddiard, Sue Clapton and Laura Hutton.  In fact Graham grants three of these women character arcs.  We read Written in Blood not just for the puzzle, but because we become concerned about what will happen to these characters.

Laura was madly in love with the murder victim and joined the writing group just to get closer to him.  She's a sensible, successful woman (an antique shop owner), who was, however, becoming an obsessed stalker.

Amy Lyddiard and Sue Clapton are saddled with horrible household burdens: Amy, her repellent sister-in-law Honoria, and Sue, her repulsive husband Brian.

Graham is at her most scathing with Honoria Lyddiard and Brian Clapton, both of whom make Sergeant Troy look like a candidate for Mr. Congeniality.  Both are unbearable class snobs, Brian of the inverted variety.

some comprehensively devastating satire

Honoria is of the old gentry, and obsessed with her lineage (she's compiling a book on the subject).  Brian is a radical leftist, ashamed of his bourgeois upbringing.  He teaches avant-garde--and absolutely hopeless--drama to toughs at a local comprehensive school.  At times, this sub-plot starts to feel like it's running away with this long (435 pages) novel, but it's very funny and, at times, rather pathetically sad (incidentally, the way Graham portrays British comprehensive education is devastating, if anywhere close to the truth).

Brian is so self-deluding ("Brian, now so relaxed he had put his slippers on, was explaining [to Barnaby and Troy] how he had rejected Cambridge as too elitist choosing instead Teacher Training College in Uttoxeter") that one is tempted to feel sorry for him, but Graham gives Brian not a single reed of redeeming personal virtue for the would-be sympathetic reader to grasp.  Instead, all one's sympathies go to his long-suffering (and genuinely talented) wife, Sue.

There's pungent satirical lines scattered all through Written in Blood.  I feel I must quote some of them:

Barnaby could imagine [Honoria] on the seashore forbidding waves their approach.

The sergeant had no time for neurotic women.  To be fair he had no time for neurotic men either.

Expensive cut-glass misery was apparently fashionable everywhere.

And the net-curtain brigade, those invariable peepers at life's rich pageant.

There was a permanent obstruction in her throat that only liquids over forty per cent proof seemed able to bypass.

On top of all this, the puzzle in Written in Blood is excellent.  There's one aspect to it that I quickly grasped, but the bigger picture eluded me.  Realistically, I think the reader should be able to pare the suspect list down to three individuals, but the true motive is splendidly, though fairly, hidden, I think.  One might quibble about the way a couple characters behaved, but overall I was really pleased with the mystery's resolution.

My one real complaint is that there is a confrontation at the end that struck me as overly melodramatic (perhaps it played better on television).  I think that as a novel Written in Blood would have been stronger if this confrontation had been dialed down several notches.

Oddly enough, in some ways Written in Blood reminded me a bit of Freeman Wills Crofts' Golden Age police detective novel, Sudden Death (1932).  Its ending went over-the-top as well, in my view.

Also, as a matter of personal taste, there are a few instances of scurrility I could have done without (a couple images I'm still having trouble getting out of my mind, ugh!).

For me, then, Written in Blood may just miss the very top mystery drawer, but it's very good indeed and heartily recommended to fans of classic satirical English village mysteries, a noble line descended from some true Golden Age classics by Agatha Christie

Five of Graham's mysteries have been reprinted by Felony & Mayhem, so check them out, if you haven't!

9 comments:

  1. Curtis - I'm so glad you decided to profile this novel. I've always liked Graham's Barnaby very much as an example of a character with a bit of richness and depth but mercifully free of personal demons. I couldn't agree more about the differences in life between the time this was written and today, but as you say, the mystery is excellent and Graham does solid character studies in my opinion. And I do like the wit. Thanks for the reminder of a good read.

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    1. Margot,

      You are welcome!

      It is nice to have a detective whose personal life is not absolutely dysfunctional! There are as it is so many people with dysfunctional lives in the book, that Barnaby provides something of a safe haven for the reader.

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  2. I love that Troy is a chauvinist bastard! Would've been great to see the producers go that route in the TV series instead of the blandly handsome actor who was cast in the first season. Look at how popular HOUSE was. Sometimes an unlikeable character becomes a hit. I do get tired of hearing reader complaints that they "can't identify" with a certain character or won't read a writer's books because the characters are mean and nasty. I wonder how these people fare in real life when they are forced to work beside people who are disagreaeable, bigoted, eccentric, moody, etc. Do they quit their jobs? Transfer to another department? I guess entering a fictional world is all about living in fantasy for a brief moment and being free of the unpleasantness of reality can be a refreshing break for some people. Maybe most people the more I read opinions of "bad characters" on these blogs. I, on the other hand, can't get enough of the oddballs of fiction. They are so much more interesting than "nice" characters.

    I think I have this title in a box somewhere. Good to see that Graham returned to her roots as an excellent puzzle writer. One of these days I'll have to revisit her.

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    1. John,

      Yeah, it's not like there actually could be cops like Troy in real life, could there?!

      I like variety in detective fiction, but I think some people like to stay more in the comfort zone of "nice" series detectives. Whatever works for the reader, but I think Troy fits Graham's spiky writing style to a T.

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    2. Actually, Troy is considerably more realistic than P. D. James's police officers both in his attitudes and his background.

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    3. Helen,

      I think so too. Troy strikes me as quite believable, in the U.S. as well!

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  3. I've seen the TV production of this within the last year and I have to say that David Troughton did a wonderful job of bringing Brian Clapper to life; you can see the greasy sweat on this horrible little man's forehead as he stares at schoolgirls. That being said, I think Caroline Graham has a great talent for showing people as they are and deliberately not making a moral judgment about them, but inducing the reader to do so him/herself based on the facts in the books. She doesn't tell us that Brian Clapper is delusional for expecting people to believe he could have been accepted to Oxford; she merely shows him in all his self-absorbed pomposity and lets us laugh if and when we get the joke.

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    1. Noah,

      Brian really is one of the most memorable unsympathetic losers in crime fiction. Blech!

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  4. I hadn't read any of Graham's books until recently when I started Murder at Madingley Grange, which isn't part of the Barnaby series. Not too much of the whodunit has unfolded yet, but I'd certainly rank it as one of the funniest books I've read.

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