Books: Essay

And Then There Were None

Shylashri Shankar is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
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Four storytellers redeem the modern whodunnit by defying the familiar props of the genre

AN ANCIENT MANUSCRIPT by Aulus Gellius entitled Nodes Atticae, an anthology from the 2nd century AD, contains the following line: ‘Treat your friends as if they were your future enemies.’ While the sentiment is thoroughly un-Christian, it underpins the goings-on in the English and American villages of the books reviewed this week. One might also wonder how treating friends as future enemies would cohere with, in WH Auden’s phrase, the Eden-like setting of village, particularly an English one. Wonder no more, as Sherlock Holmes would say, “The lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” Auden, too, would not disagree with the sentiment that sin exists in the village. For him, the classical detective story is like a modern mortality play, in that it ritualistically presents the discovery and the expulsion of guilt through the agency of the detective. In fact, Auden suggests that the typical reader of detective stories is a person who suffers from a sense of sin, and to have a sense of sin means to feel guilty. However, if we take Aulus’s words to imply that a murder is committed either against current or future enemies (ie, an enemy in some part of the timeline) the experience of sin and guilt is more problematic. How is one to experience guilt if the person who is murdered is an enemy at some point? These are some of the issues taken up by Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders.

First off, the editor-protagonist heartily agrees with Holmes and with Aulus’s phrase. ‘Why do English villages lend themselves so well to murder? I used to wonder about this but got the answer when I made the mistake of renting a cottage in a village near Chichester… I soon discovered that every time I made one friend I made three enemies and that arguments about such issues as car parking, the church bells, dog waste and hanging flower baskets dominated daily life to such an extent that everyone was permanently at each other’s throats. Emotions, which are quickly lost in the noise and chaos of the city, fester around the village square, driving people to psychosis and violence.’

Anthony Horowitz gives us two stories—the manuscript of a bestselling crime writer Alex Conway featuring a series character being read by the editor (Susan Ryeland), and the second one is the story taking place in Alex Conway’s world. We discover a delicious assortment of characters in the manuscript, where the murder is set in a 1950s village in Somerset. The local landowner, Sir Magnus Pye, a thoroughly dislikable creature is murdered, and before that his dreadful busybody of a housekeeper is found dead at the foot of the stairs. The housekeeper is a busybody, and seems to have uncovered quite a few secrets in the village, in some cases by appearing like a ‘friend’ but behaving like an enemy. Her employer, Sir Magnus, is loathed by everyone in the village for different reasons. His twin sister has been forced by her brother to work for a living as a governess because she missed being the first-born by 12 minutes. His wife is having an affair. He has alienated several locals (all with their own secrets) by selling a piece of the woodland to a builder. So it is not surprising that he is found murdered. The fiancé of the ne’er- do-well mechanic-son of the housekeeper wants to find out if the mother too has been murdered, and hires Atticus Pünd, a German refugee (ex-inmate of a concentration camp) detective modelled on Christie’s Belgian Hercule Poirot.

Horowitz achieves a splendid pastiche of Agatha Christie’s mysteries as we, along with Atticus Pünd, uncover the secrets of the victims and the motives of the villagers with Germanic efficiency. Horowitz’s strength lies in his playful tinkering of the genre and particularly Dame Agatha’s fondness for nursery rhymes, which creates a rich tapestry of emotional connections between the characters spiced with greed, anger, disdain, obsession, fear and musings (by the editor, Susan) on the commandments of the Golden Age detective genre. Then Horowitz tweaks the commandment. The last chapter of the manuscript is missing, and the author, Alex Conway, turns up dead, complete with a suicide note.

Suicide or murder, wonders Susan, and proceeds to investigate in a much more chaotic style. Is the clue hidden in the manuscript? Who hated Conway enough to kill him? Well, it turns out, quite a few people. Alex Conway, we discover, was disconcertingly similar to Magnus Payne. He too had many enemies.

Horowitz’s strength lies in his playful tinkering of the genre and dame Agatha's fondness for nursery rhymes

Horowitz’s book does not stand up in comparison with Keigo Higoshino’s Malice, which takes a smaller universe of characters and a single time-zone and conducts a similar exercise. Perhaps it is because Horowitz’s book has twice the number of characters and a dozen suspects in the same number of pages. This detracts from Horowitz’s ability to do justice to the motives underlying the murders in the pages of the manuscript and of the book. Old hands will discover the identity of Conway’s murderer well before the end, and experience some dissatisfaction with the solution to Payne’s murder. Nevertheless, Horowitz is to be lauded for creating a beautifully crafted and sly rendering of a golden age whodunnit in the 21st century.

FRIENDS, MORE THAN enemies, populate Sidney Chambers’s world. The clergyman-protagonist (now the Archdeacon of Ely) of James Runcie’s new installment of The Grantchester Mysteries, Sidney Chambers and the Dangers of Temptation, is not in a happy frame of mind. ‘This was due to persistent toothache, his imminent renunciation of alcohol for Lent and the fact the recent television series, All Gas and Gaiters had made fun at the expense of his beloved Church of England, concentrating quite specifically on a hapless and drunken archdeacon.’

Runcie based his series on his father, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. In an interview, he said about the main character Sidney Chambers: “He would be a fictionalised version of my father, sharing his love of humanity, his ability to think the best of people [while sometimes fearing the worst], his cheerfulness and his love of the ridiculous, as well as his sadness and disappointment in the face of human failing.”

We meet a familiar cast from the earlier books in the series—his East German wife, Hildegard, his former curate, his policeman friend, his best friend whom he had hoped to marry in the first part of the series, and so on. The six short stories are sweetly Christian in essence—quaint yet realistic about the fluctuating tide of good and evil within a person. You know your parishioners and are aware of their propensity to do good and evil, to be a friend and to be an enemy. You do not judge them in an Old Testament way (wrath of god, thunderbolts, etc) but in a more Christian fashion (man is flawed and one must take the weaknesses into account). ‘Treat your enemies as if they were your future friends’ might be a better epitaph for the Sidney Chambers novels. The first story begins with an attractive divorcee from Grantchester who pleads with Sidney to save her 18-year-old son from a commune called Family of Love. Never one to resist the lure of a damsel in distress, Sidney embarks on an investigation into the commune where he discovers several not-so-savoury things about the damsel. Subsequent stories deal with the tribulations of Sidney’s friends, and in the process we get lovely tidbits of Sidney’s philosophical struggles. ‘Sidney prayed again and tried to meditate on the complications of love. Surely it should be kept at its simplest. He loved God spiritually, he loved his wife physically and spiritually, and he loved everyone else differently but intensely… There was no dilution in the intensity of that love, no boundary. He just needed to be better; as a priest, as a friend and as a man.’ But it is not the sickly sweet style of moralising. Sidney is self-aware. ‘No, I am very flawed,’ Sidney replied [to a statement that he was a kind man]. ‘I can assure you of that. I just try to make people aware of my failings before it’s too late.’

Runcie’s stories are not about sampling quiche on Lazy afternoons. This is Britain of the 1960s: Flower power, the Beatles, Pink Floyd and the moon landing

The Grantchester Mysteries is about a wild stampede during the revelries of May Week in Cambridge when an heirloom necklace goes missing as friends congregate in the meadows, and Sidney meets Roger Waters of what would later be Pink Floyd. In The Trouble with Amanda , Sidney’s former flame’s (Amanda) marriage is in peril when her husband’s first wife (the inmate of an asylum) is found dead. All signs point to Amanda’s husband, and it is up to Sidney to unravel the threads. The Return involves the reappearance of Sidney’s old housekeeper’s husband, who had disappeared during the war. Ronnie claims to have lost his memory but Sidney thinks Ronnie has been leading a double life. In A German Summer, the summer when Apollo 11 astronauts prepared to land on the moon, Sidney and his family are on a two-week visit to Rugen Island in East Germany where Hildegard had spent her childhood bicycling under its chalk cliffs and playing on its long stretches of silver sands. Mum-in-law joins them and makes complimentary sounds about Hildegard’s old beau, who is the owner of the villa where they are staying. Sidney, though, is nosy, she says. “Neugierig,’”she proclaims in German. ‘You can see him thinking about other people all the time and judging them. I don’t like it,’ says mum-in-law. Sidney, who understands German and resents this moniker, then promptly shows his nosiness by trying to solve an old crime that everyone else wants him to ignore.

Runcie’s stories are not simply about sampling quiche and lemon syllabub in the garden on lazy sunny afternoons, or a pint in the pub. This is Britain of the 1960s; the era of flower power, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and the moon landing. Runcie tackles weighty issues too. Love and Duty touches upon blackmail and homosexuality in the church. After attending a Pink Floyd concert, Amanda asks Sidney to find out what is making Leonard, Sidney’s former curate, frightened. Grief and fear are balanced with humour. ‘Do they sing at all?’ Amanda shouted into Sidney’s ear [during the Pink Floyd concert]. ‘Or are they just going to wail?’ Runcie offers us another pleasurable installment, a world where four o’ clock meant tea and garden picnics, and where one’s friends will never be future enemies. For those who prefer the watched world rather than the written one, the ITV television series Grantchester is a fine rendition of Runcie’s charming clergyman.

FOR THE NEXT book, we must travel across the ocean to Martha’s vineyard. In Before the Fall by Noah Hawley, Aulus Gellius’s dictum—treat your friends as if they were your future enemies— epitomises the investigative basis of the narrative. In this case, acquaintances too would fit that dictum. Scott Burroughs, a struggling artist who paints catastrophes and an acquaintance of Mrs Bateman, is offered a lift back to New York from Martha’s vineyard on the Bateman family’s private plane. Minutes after takeoff, the plane crashes into the ocean. Of the eight passengers and three crew members, only Scott and Bateman’s four-year-old son, JJ, survive. Scott, a ‘recovered alcoholic, and a struggling artist who’s never been able to keep a single lasting relationship’, somehow swims with a dislocated shoulder and carries JJ on his back to the shore. Bateman was a powerful CEO of a news channel (accused of manufacturing news), so obviously there is tremendous interest in whether the crash was deliberate or an accident. JJ only speaks to Scott, and the developing relationship between the recovered alcoholic and the traumatised child is handled beautifully by Hawley.

Back stories can slow down the book, but Noah Hawley's light touch works. We establish a connection with each character

Hawley is proficient in immersing us within the back story of each character on the plane. Bateman’s daughter had been abducted and a couple of years ago, and though she was rescued, the abductor was never found. Their Israeli bodyguard, also on the plane, had an unsavoury past. Bateman’s close friend, ‘a blue eyed shark’, was going to be indicted for money laundering. The flight attendant was trying to extricate herself from a love affair with the co-pilot. These back stories could have slowed down the book, but Hawley’s light touch works. We establish a connection with each character, while the pace is kept up by investigations launched by the FBI agent who is governed only by facts, and an unethical journalist who decides to target Scott as the perpetrator. The book fits more into a literary fiction genre than a whodunit, and that’s why the solution to the mystery ultimately does not matter as it would have in a crime fiction novel.

Sometimes it seems as if bestselling writers leave their bodies and someone else occupies it and writes a book. Harlan Coben has joined the list

AMONGST SUCH A veritable bevy of swans, Harlan Coben’s Home is very much of an ugly duckling. Sometimes it seems as if these bestselling writers leave their bodies for a break and someone else occupies it and writes a book. It has happened to Lee Child (some of the later Jack Reacher books are execrable), and now, Coben too has joined the list. Home is a city-based thriller and part of a series starring Myron Bolitar. The premise of the book is interesting: two children, friends, are kidnapped in the US at the age of six; one of them resurfaces 10 years later in London’s Kings Cross. The uncle (Win) of one of the children recognises the boy, now a teenager, soliciting on the street corner. Turns out, someone has sent him an email telling him to go there and wait. But from then on, the telling of the tale becomes leaden. Win is a killer and extremely wealthy, and he summons his best friend, a footballer (Myron Bolitar) who had to quit the sport after an injury. The repartee between them is excruciating—lots of inside-jokes to which a first-time reader of the series (me) goes ‘huh?’ The thoughts of these main characters are quite pedestrian. ‘Only Win would use the word “urinate” in a completely natural way in a non medical setting.’ Or ‘Myron Bolitar, Master of Deduction, strikes again.’ Or :

‘You are not going to like this.’

‘Oh, then please stall and sugarcoat it for me.’

‘More sarcasm?’

‘More stalling?’

I had to skip quite a bit, to retrieve the thread of the tale. Win and Myron rescue the boy from the clutches of the local gangster, Fat Gandhi, but there is no sign of Win’s nephew. The mystery surrounding the nephew’s whereabouts is well crafted, as is the question of who had sent the email marking the spot where the first boy was found, which is linked to a soul-searing conclusion involving Aulus Gellius’s dictum. If only Coben had taken more trouble to make the characters pitch perfect, it would have been a ripping swan-like thriller.