Levels of Gentility in Crime Fiction

You know how quickly I devour crime fiction and that my preference is for the subversive, disturbing and relentlessly noir. However, quite a few my recent reads have been of a gentler persuasion, almost an old-fashioned feel. In descending order of ‘gentility’, may I introduce you to…

BVERYflatMargot Kinberg: B Very Flat

Margot is such a supportive, knowledgeable member of the crime-writing and reading community, plus I have a soft spot for novels with an academic setting, so I’d been planning to get this one for ages. Not easy to order outside the US, but I eventually got my paws on it (and am now waiting to meet Margot in person, so she can sign it for me).

Serena Brinkman is a talented violinist at Tilton University, a small but prestigious college on the East Coast. She truly seems to be the golden girl who has it all – but then death strikes on the night of a major music competition. A former detective, now professor of criminal justice at Tilton University, is asked to investigate the apparently accidental death a little further. We are firmly in Golden Age detective era type of fiction here, although there are all the modern accoutrements of student life nowadays (including PDAs and online gambling). What struck me was how very polite and nice all the characters seem – genteel, in other words (although, obviously, they can’t all be, since one of them at least is a murderer). Even the flawed ones, even when misunderstandings occur.  It’s a book for readers who like a puzzle and a minimum of gore.

BirdCageFrédéric Dard: Bird in a Cage (transl. David Bellos)

Dard was one of the most prolific crime writers in France (and that’s saying something, given that Simenon was also writing there). Best-known for his nearly 180 San-Antonio novels (think a more satirical and realistic Bond), he has also written over 100 standalone novels and shorter series, many of them under various pseudonyms (clearly, the publishers couldn’t keep up with him!).

This is a bittersweet novel with a perfect 1950s setting, which reminded me a little of Pascal Garnier. Albert returns to his old neighbourhood in Paris after his mother’s death (having spent several years in prison) and is captivated by a beautiful woman and her young child, whom he sees eating alone in a restaurant on Christmas Eve. He becomes involved in a very complicated and dubious story with the woman, her husband and the Midnight Mass for Christmas. A clever puzzle and a rather quiet, gentle man who is clearly being manipulated, although we are not quite sure how.

bloodonsnowJo Nesbø: Blood on the Snow (transl. Neil Smith)

I was struck at once by how similar this novel is to Bird in a Cage in terms of premise and feel (rather than style or plot). A professional fixer (with some moral scruples) is asked to ‘fix’ the wife of his boss, but starts to feel sorry for her. Falls a little in love. This is a much more brutal story, far less ambiguous than Dard, and Olav is not as genteel or well-spoken as Albert, but it is a quieter book, with an old-fashioned atmosphere which we’ve not hitherto experienced with Nesbø. Bet you weren’t expecting him to come smack-bang in the middle of this post!

AngelisAugusto De Angelis: The Hotel of the Three Roses (transl. Jill Foulston)

Another Pushkin Vertigo release, I had high hopes for this one, set in a boarding-house in Milan in 1919, written in the 1930s and filled to the brim with unreliable characters with a dodgy past. However, I found there were just too many characters, all lying with no compunction and very little concern about plausibility. There were just too many things happening, insufficient clarity and psychological motivation. This was gentility of the cold-nosed, snobbish variety, not even a smidgen of warmth or attempt to make me care about any of the characters. And, as for those creepy china dolls…!

Deadly-Harvest-Vis-6-copy1Michael Stanley: Deadly Harvest

This is not the Botswana of endless cups of Redbush tea and astute yet gentle musings of Alexander McCall Smith. But it remains, nevertheless, a polite, traditional society with respect for rank and the elderly, even though we are dealing with some pretty horrible realities. Under the ‘quaint’ umbrella of traditional African medicine, muti, we find a profoundly disturbing superstition and increasing use of human body parts. As young girls go missing and the communities are too scared to talk, our beloved rotund Detective Kubu supports his feisty new recruit, Samantha Khama, who wants to find out just what is going on. Politics, traditions, family ties, AIDS victims and reactions to HIV-infected children, plus strong characterisation all form a delightful and far more believable alternative narrative of modern Africa. The authors scratch beneath the surface of the beauty, charm and nostalgia that the British Empire still has for Africa, yet carefully avoid making the country or its people the villain of the piece. One of my favourite series set in Africa.

For a more comprehensive review of the book and an interview with the authors, see Crime Fiction Lover.



25 thoughts on “Levels of Gentility in Crime Fiction”

  1. The Dard sounds very promising. Not a writer I’m familiar with, so I’ll have to check him out. (I do like the fact that Pushkin are unearthing some lesser-known writers with these Vertigo releases.)

    1. Yes, the Pushkin Vertigo titles are always worth a look – some are better than others, of course, but it’s nice to rescue those authors from oblivion.

  2. I have the two from Pushkin waiting to read. The Dard seems more enticing than the De Angelis.
    I’ve also looked at Margot’s books before, but they’re scarcer than rocking horse pooh on this side of the Atlantic! One day maybe!

    1. I know, it was so difficult getting hold of Margot’s book! Even in our day and age, and with the dominance of Amazon, it can be quite a challenge to get your mitts on certain books: I’ve been looking for a comprehensive Shirley Jackson which doesn’t cost a fortune (but there is no ‘collected works’, sadly).

    1. I’m not a fan of gore either – unless it’s truly, truly indispensable to the story (which it so seldom is) – but I do like psychological torture and dark, depressing moods. But occasionally my brain cries out for a bit of release, so Margot’s book is perfect for a lighter alternative.

  3. I may well have to take a look at Margot’s book. As the partner of an academic, I’m surprised more crime fiction isn’t set on campus. Seems to me to provide fertile ground!

    1. Isn’t that the case?! It’s very easy to start believing that nothing is more important than the RAE (research assessment exercise) rating and your list of publications and how to get your rival in the department shafted etc. Even though usually they are the mildest, politest, most unworldly people…

  4. Thank you so much, Marina Sofia, for the kind words and for including B-Very Flat here. It means a lot to me. And it is interesting the variety of books here that fall under the more general category of ‘genteel.’ Hmm……..that’s a lot of ‘food for thought,’ for which yet more thanks.

    1. Margot’s book is on my TBR pile, so thanks for including her book. I haven’t read any Michael Stanley books yet, I need to get to the first one.

      1. I really like them, for their combination of loveable main character with a happy family life, yet also really hard-hitting issues of that part of Africa.

  5. The Dard looks especially interesting among these. I read and liked the Nesbø a while ago and have a note to look out for anything by De Angelis. The rest look good too . . .

    1. Nesbo is a bit hit and miss for me: I’ve loved some of his books and others not so much. So far, I’ve really liked two of his standalones, so I wonder if I am suffering from a little Harry Hole fatigue.

  6. I have Bird in a Cage and am really looking forward to it. Currently reading CLINCH also from the Vertigo series. I liked The Hotel of the Three Roses more than you did but preferring it to The Murdered banker may have been part of it. I don’t think these series novels are quite the caliber of the rest of the Vertigo line.

    1. Yes, I think you’re right: so the decision to publish two of them surprises me (but perhaps the copyright was easier to get). Perhaps I should have made more of an effort to read the De Angelis in one go, but I would set it aside for a day or two to read other things (despite its brevity) and then find that all the characters and events had got muddled in my head. That normally doesn’t happen to me with other books… or should I accept my brain is not as young as it once was?

  7. What an interesting way to link these books Marina – I like the comparison of Margot’s book to the Golden Age despite more modern aspects creeping in and The Bird in a Cage sounds incredibly appealing. The Jo Nesbo books I’ve tried were just too brutal for my tastes – maybe I’m not quite as tough as I think I am? Or maybe it’s just that I’m more genteel?

    1. Yes, Nesbo can be very brutal, which is why this one surprised me: it had a very period feel to it, and more melancholy rather than gory: felt like Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

  8. I’m very fond of the gentler kind of crime fiction (though I like other sorts too). So will definitely be checking out the Dard and the Kinberg. Like Cleo, I’d avoided Nesbo, but maybe this is the one to try.

    1. Yes, it’s a more pleasant way in for Nesbo. The other one I would recommend is Headhunters. The funny thing is, both of them are quite different to the style (and narrative) for which he is famous.

  9. Does the Dard sound like a San Antonio or not? He’s got a prestigious translator.

    Some of the themes of Deadly Harvest are also present in Zulu by Caryl Férey.

    1. It doesn’t sound like a San Antonio – more like Jean-Patrick Manchette or Pascal Garnier. As for Deadly Harvest, it is a less shocking treatment of some of the same themes, indeed.

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