Weeks and weeks ago, those nice people at Simon and Schuster gave me a pile of free books which I was supposed to write about here. So far, I have only managed to read two of them, but since they were the two I was most interested in, and since they – and Death Comes to Pemberley, which I read at around the same time – are full of corpses, I thought I would bring them together under a single post with this opportunistic, bandwagon-jumping title.
(I have not read Bring Up The Bodies. I will, but not yet.)
Death Comes to Pemberley sounded like my perfect book. In case you haven’t heard about it, it is a murder mystery starring the principals of Pride and Prejudice, set at the marital home of Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy five years after that book ends. Is your mouth watering yet? What if I add that it’s by P.D. James? I was so excited about it that I actually read the hardback, which is very unlike me. With expectations as high as mine were I was always likely to be disappointed, and the fact that I was only a little bit disappointed shouldn’t be taken as a criticism of the book. I believed in all the characters as plausible versions of Austen’s originals, though whether this is because James caught them perfectly or because (as I began to suspect) they were drawn with fairly broad strokes to begin with, I am not certain. Never mind: it’s spookily atmospheric and very elegantly written, as you would expect.
But I was a little bit disappointed, because – avoiding spoilers – James breaks a central rule of detective fiction with a faintly staggering deus ex machina of a denouement that is not nearly worthy of her narrative powers. It works, sort of, but it puts the dramatic rules of the nineteenth century novel ahead of the fair-play rules of the twentieth century murder mystery, to, as I say, slightly disappointing effect. It’s a good book, it’s just not as good as I was hoping it would be.
On to The English Monster by Lloyd Shepherd, which I didn’t think I would write about because the author is a friend and I didn’t want to have a conflict of interest, but happily there is none because The English Monster is great. It’s an unashamed romp of a historical adventure with a smattering of the supernatural – which, whilst clearly meticulously researched, wears its learning lightly and rollicks along at a smartly entertaining pace. Like P.D. James (though, in a lot of other important ways, not like P.D. James), Lloyd is just a really good storyteller, and I am eagerly awaiting his follow-up. (I also know what all my friends and family will be getting in their stockings this year.)
The final part of this murderous triptych was The Bellwether Revivals, by Benjamin Wood. I had saved it for last because I thought I would enjoy it the most, based on the publishers’ description. It was compared to The Secret History, which as well as being a stupid and annoying book is fantastically gripping and thrilling, and as the author was a down-to-earth Englishman rather than crazy old goth Donna Tartt, I thought it might be a Secret History without the silliness, which would be kind of amazing.
Unfortunately, I found it almost entirely silly, with barely-sketched characters so implausible that I couldn’t begin to care what happened to them and a crazily pretentious view of culture and academia. The Bellwether Revivals carries its learning with the exhausted weight of a thousand and one laboured nights, and Benjamin Wood is no Scheherazade. He seems both nice and interesting, and underneath the silliness I think he is also a good writer, but this book didn’t do it for me.
Next up: some Stephen King, and Agatha Christie’s autobiography.