Hazel McHaffie

Agatha Christie

Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer. The name brings a warm glow to my day. In my teens and twenties I was a huge fan of her Regency novels and snapped them up whenever I saw them second-hand.

Some for one shilling each, as you can see. Others the princely sum of two shillings and sixpence! I owned and read all except one of them, I think, and marvelled that a girl of 15 could write something as good as The Black Moth, initially to amuse her convalescent brother, but later published in 1921.

By the time she died in her seventies, she was the acclaimed author of over fifty books, but in spite of being a huge fan of hers, I confess that till this week, I’d never read one of her twelve murder mysteries. Time to remedy that and relax my mind at the same time, then. I’m in sore need of undemanding recreation right now. Think shades of Upstairs Downstairs meets Agatha Christie. The book is Why Shoot a Butler?

And indeed it’s a complete mystery why anyone would choose to murder Dawson, the trusted old butler of Norton Manor – a stately old fossil. Frightfully keen on the done thing, found with a bullet through his body on a remote road. Three murders and two burglaries keep the bumbling police totally confused while a scornful, enigmatic and imperious barrister, Frank Amberley, unravels a complicated and involved plot of much more significance then the murders themselves.

So why does Amberley keep quiet information about a female person found at the scene of the butler’s death? What is so important about a book borrowed from a dusty under-used library? What is the strange young woman at Ivy Cottage concealing, and why won’t she confide her secrets? Who is the sinister new butler who appears out of nowhere bearing unverified references? Who exactly is to be trusted?

This time around I’m much more aware of literary issues with Heyer’s writing, much as I thoroughly enjoyed the witty dialogue and element of suspense. But after all, this one was written in 1933 – language, publishing, social mores, well, pretty much everything really, was very different back then.

Nowadays most editors would pounce on a lot of nitpicky points, from frequently changing points of view within chapters, through to numerous typographical errors. Modern authors are taught to keep the choice of words pared down to avoid distraction: he ‘said’ – not he ‘expostulated’, ‘ejaculated’, ‘retorted’, ‘interposed’, ‘asseverated’. The prose should show emotion not spell it out – bin the adverbs – ‘tetchily’,  ‘grumpily’, ‘maliciously’, ‘tranquilly’. It would take a brave or foolhardy man to call a fiancee ‘dear old soul’, ‘old thing’, today, I rather think. So, a product of its day, then, but a diverting read for all that, despite all the anomalies and anachronisms. And in the character of Frank Amberley I was forcibly reminded of all the rude, supercilious, entitled cads in Heyer’s romances who rode roughshod over other people’s finer feelings but nevertheless won the heart and hand of the fair lady.

Thank you again, Georgette Heyer, you lifted my spirits and took me away from twenty-first century problems. Exactly what I needed. And now, of course, I’m wanting to read the other eleven mysteries.

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Stephen King, master thriller-writer

Yep, I’m sure regular followers of this blog will have been wondering, when will she ever get to the king of thrillers!  ‘America’s greatest living novelist‘! ‘When it comes to grabbing an audience by the throat and giving them no choice but to keep reading, King has no equal.

Well, I can confess, in the safety of my own blog pages, that my first experience of Stephen King proved decidedly underwhelming.  Under the Dome simply wasn’t for me. Too far fetched. Too long-winded. A ‘so-what’ kind of book. So I deliberately gave myself time to distance from that before returning to give him a second chance.

Mr Mercedes is a very different kind of tale, billed as an ‘expertly crafted example of the classic race-against-the-clock thriller’. And I’m wanting the very best examples to hone my own skills. So, bring it on. A masterclass would be very helpful.

It starts off with a massacre. A twelve-cylinder Mercedes is driven through thick fog into a concentrated crowd of desperate people all queuing at a job fair. The driver is still at large. But shortly after his retirement, Kermit William Hodges, lead detective on the case, receives a letter from the man responsible, taunting him. And we have the kernel of the story, the cat and mouse chase, each goading the other, a race to prevent another mass killing.

And yes,now I could quite understand what makes Stephen King a giant among thriller writers. It’s the whole package really, but it might be helpful if I single out a few features.

The first stroke of genius is in the first chapter. King introduces three of the victims of the Mercedes massacre in the last few hours of their lives. In a few pages he makes us care about the young cash-strapped mum Janice Cray, and her croupy baby Patti, and the kindly stranger called August who lends them his sleeping bag while they wait for the job fair to open. It puts a human face on the tragedy. We’re shocked when these three lives are obliterated by the grey Mercedes careering into them. We want justice for them.

Then there are his main characters. With simple but deft strokes he fleshes them out, unlikely heroes and psychopathic killer alike, little by little letting us see into their past, follow their present, dread their future. No overload, no long-winded description, but four dimensional.

He’s also a past master at dropping in a sinister or significant fact without padding or fanfare, so the picture builds subtly and contributes exponentially to the spine-tingling tension. He doesn’t even hide the identity of Mr Mercedes from us. In Chapter 11, Brady Hartsfield is exposed in his natural habitat, selling ice-cream to innocent kids, solving computer glitches for naive technophobes.

And amidst all the sordid facts and coarse language and accumulating horror, King even drops occasional pearls of literary delight.

She has the bright, inquisitive gaze of a crow with its eye on a freshly squashed chipmunk.

… an apartment … with rooms as big as a political candidate’s promises

She frowns, transforming her face into a walnut shell with eyes

They’re wondering if I’m riding into the Kingdom of Dementia on the Alzheimer’s Express

… she sits hunched in her bar of sun, a human parenthesis in a fuzzy blue robe

And I love the delicious irony of Retired Detective Hodges considering the possibility that Mr Mercedes is actually a woman. ‘He supposes it’s technically possible, and it would make a neat solution for an Agatha Christie novel, but this is real life.’

Unputdownable indeed. I could never aspire to his heights but I can learn from his skills.

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Down memory lane

Picture postcard HolcombeThis is the life! This week I’m rediscovering my childhood haunts – this time with grandchildren in tow.

Sand and sea on the doorstepWestcountry numbers amongst its famous writerly offspring: Agatha Christie, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Golding. Hoping a little of their magic will rub off on me!Agatha Christie's holiday home

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