Story Behind The Mousetrap

Behind every murder mystery, like it or not, there is a murder, often fictional, sometimes real.  After reading my review of the Berlin Kriminaltheater performance of Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap,” Jessica Best, of CardiffRead, reporter for the South Wales Argus, a newspaper in my home country,  sent me an article she wrote recently about the actual murder behind Christie’s well-known play.  This is not the murder that is shown on stage, but one that occurred in 1944 and gave Christie the idea for the plot.  Jessica Best has given me permission to post her article here. Background to the play, foregrounded here is a seventy-five-year-old man who remembers the reality, and has written a book about it, Someone to love us.  As Jessica tells us, he saw the play for the first time last year.

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Newport man tells his tragic story behind Agatha Christie classic

8:30am Thursday 14th October 2010

By Jessica Best

A NEWPORT man whose shocking mistreatment at the hands of his foster parents inspired West End play “The Mousetrap” has published his remarkable life story at the age of 75.

Terence O’Neill was born in Pill in 1934, but taken into local authority care when he was four-years-old along with his older brother Dennis.

In July 1944 the two boys were sent to live with Esther and Reginald Gough in Shropshire, where they were starved and given daily beatings.

Within six months of the brothersí arrival, 12-year-old Dennis was dead – killed after a savage beating from Mr Gough.

The Goughs went on trial in February 1945, and 10-year-old Terence gave evidence.

Reginald Gough was convicted of manslaughter and sent to prison for six years, while Esther Gough was found guilty of neglect and imprisoned for six months.

The trial shocked the nation, and Agatha Christie wrote a radio play called “Three Blind Mice” based on the case. This was eventually developed into The Mousetrap – the longest running play in theatre.

But despite his story being told on stage for 58 years, Mr O’Neill has now written his own life story.

“Someone to Love Us” was published by HarperCollins earlier this year, and has already sold 30,000 copies.

Mr O’Neill, now a great grandfather who lives in Bettws, said it had taken 18 years to write the book about memories which are still painful for him.

He said: “It’s been very upsetting, but I thought it was a story my children should know. When I had the book in my hands for the first time I couldn’t believe it, and the reception has been fantastic.”

He added that so many readers have come to visit Dennis’ grave in St Woolos cemetery since the release of the book the family have now set up a book of remembrance there in his honour.

Mr O’Neill also went to see The Mousetrap for the first time last month, after only learning of his connection to the play four years ago when his nephew was studying the Goughs’ case as part of a social care course.

He said: “It was a fantastic play. I was quite choked.”


Copyright South Wales Argus.  Hyperlink

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Agatha Christie in Berlin

Longest Running Cozy in the World: Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap has been running uninterruptedly in London since November 25, 1952.  Last night I saw it here in the Kriminaltheater in Berlin.  This theater, with its repertoire of murder mystery plays, from Arsenic and Old Lace to The Hound of the Baskervilles, sits in the heart of old East Berlin, Friedrichshain,  right off the Karl-Marx-Allee, now an up-and-coming Bohemian center of the new Berlin.  And what is this theater’s biggest hit? Die MausefalleThe Mousetrap, a quintessentially English murder mystery, set in a chilly guesthouse, Monkswell Manor, outside London, shortly after the second world war.  On the repertoire of the Berlin Kriminaltheater since January 2001, it has already had 150,000 visitors, and soon, on June 17, it will have its thousandth performance.

How does one explain the success of this play?  The performance I saw last night, in the German translation of Horst Willems, struck me from its first moments on as authentically British, at all events, the kind of “British” that one thinks one remembers from childhood.  I am a native Briton who “remembers” the days of post-war austerity, and when I came out of this German theater, and took the U5 subway back to the Alexanderplatz,  I “heard” the dialogue in my head as having been English—very English, I would say, as a Welshwoman. I seemed to hear the  dulcet tones of BBC English coming out of the big old wireless in the corner of the hotel lounge where the play is launched by the news-reader reporting  the murder of a woman in Paddington.  And then the middle- to upper-class English spoken by the eight characters who gradually assemble onstage: the young couple who have just opened the guest house, the guests who arrive in a snow storm, one by one, and the police inspector who skis in last and sets about interrogating them.

Very English, it all seemed to me, German as it was, and very true to the times, all the characters as they arrive rushing into the room and making straight for the open fire to warm their hands in front of the flames, and then throughout the play competing unashamedly for the one comfortable chair that stands in front of the fire. Only the song, Three Blind Mice, sung and whistled at intervals in the play, with sinister effect, did not come off as well in German, because the threatening monosyllabic three beats of Three Blind Mice are diluted by the extra syllable that has to be put into the German Drei kleine Mäuse. And does the German audience really feel, as I did, the accumulative horror of the well-known children’s rhyme to which we little girls used to skip in the post-war streets?

Three blind mice/ Three blind mice/ See how they run/  See how they run/ They all run after the farmer’s wife/ Who cut off their tails with a carving knife/Did you ever see such a thing in your life/As three blind mice/Three blind mice.

It never struck us children as being horrific, but here a note left on the first offstage murder victim claimed that there were “three blind mice” to be murdered; it is gradually made clear that the murderer and the two potential next victims are here onstage before our eyes, and so gradually the creepiness of the song steals over us.

But why is this play such a huge and lasting success, in cities as different as London and Berlin? It is—what?—just an ordinary, one might say, routine murder mystery, with the usual unlikely coincidences that one takes for granted. A group of characters marooned in a country house,  a detective with reasons to suspect them all, twists and turns of the dialogue that make first one then another seem guilty, characters turning on each other and exposing pieces of their past in their responses to the increasingly tense interrogations,  one more murder,  a reconstruction of this crime, and then finally the exposure of the murderer, which still, I believe, comes as a surprise, despite the years during which this murderer has been exposed on the stages of the world. It is a tradition at the end that one actor steps forward during the curtain calls and asks the audience to keep it a secret.  And in our modern world where no secrets may  be hidden, I can still be shocked that Wikipedia actually reveals the ending. (I urge all readers of the blog to resist turning straight to Wikipedia).

So why then is this play such an ongoing success?  Highly professional actors in the Kriminaltheater, certainly, all with a gift for comedy.  The theater full of people of all ages.  And yet every night on television people can see more exciting and sophisticated and shocking mysteries. In Germany, the “Krimi” genre is highly popular on TV, practically every night one or another “Soko” (Special Unit) drama, each with a different team of well-equipped crime hunters. Why then do people still find pleasure in an old-fashioned detective story played out on a small stage with one modest stage-set and a group of well-spoken, eccentric, but hardly exciting characters?  Maybe the reason lies not far from the reason that “cozy mysteries” are nowadays so popular in paperback and e-book:  “A fun read that engages the mind”–one of the definitions referred to by Patricia Rockwell, recently interviewed on this blog,   in the website of her publishing house, the CozyCatPress.   Well, yes, and  the Mousetrap, the Mausefalle, certainly has what are called the negative characteristics of the cozy: “not violent, profane or sexually graphic.”

Amazing, is it not, that of a play with one brutal murder offstage and another onstage, we are still inclined to say,  it is not violent?  True, it is not the violence in the play that engages the mind or provides the fun, it is the process of detection.  This does not incite the cruel part of our imagination. We can feel excitement in the challenge of guessing who committed the murder,  and yet safe in the inexorable steps towards justice. But is all this in fact a trivialization of the horrors of murder?

Be that as it may, here in the heart of old East Berlin, the actors of the Kriminaltheater will  soon be engaging the mind and providing the fun of the Mausefalle for the thousandth time.

Perhaps I will go again.

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Vienna Mysteries, Not Cozy: Frank Tallis Quotes

Pastries and Perversion: To whet your appetite for my upcoming review of one of Frank Tallis’s great mysteries, here are some quotations from his work.  He has in less than a decade written six striking psychological thrillers, set in turn-of-the-last-century Vienna. I am going to write in this blog about the fifth novel–fully out in the U.S., i.e. on Kindle as well as in book form–with the U.S. title, ViennaTwilight (UK, the more appropriate title, “Deadly Communion”).  Perhaps you’ll also read one of his novels in the meantime, if you haven’t already.

 From the Daily Telegraph (London), about ViennaBlood:

 The layers of Viennese society are peeled away as delicately as the layers of each mouth-watering Viennese pastry that the portly Rheinhardt makes it his business to devour.

From ViennaTwilight:

 . . . Rheinhardt looked troubled: “Sometimes I wonder whether some minds are so deranged that nothing useful can come out of their study: Krafft-Ebbing’s Psychopathia Sexualis has sold thousands of copies and because it is a scientific work, respectable gentlemen read it without scruple. Yet do they really read those cases—page after page of horror, sickness, and moral degeneracy—to improve their understanding of mental illness? I think not. They read the Psychopathia Sexualis because it is sensational and it arouses in them a dubious prurient excitement  (p. 266).

. . .When the cake arrived, a baroque creation festooned with complex embellishments, he [Rheinhardt] was grateful that the cook had not succombed to the culinary equivalent of modernity. The pressure of his fork forced generous applications of chocolate cream to bulge out between the layers of sponge, and when he took the first mouthful of the dobostorte, the sweetness and intensity of the flavor produced in him a feeling of deep satisfaction (p. 114).

Sigmund Freud is a character who appears in all these novels, and in an essay appended to ADeathinVienna , Tallis quotes from Freud’s paper, “Psychoanalysis and the Ascertaining of Truth in Courts of Law:”

In both [psychoanalysis and law) we are concerned with a secret, with something hidden . . . .In the case of the criminal it is a secret which he knows he hides from you, but in the case of the hysteric, it is a secret hidden from himself . . . . The task of the therapeutist, is, however the same as the task of the judge: he must discover the hidden psychic material (p.469).

I hope you will be back to join in the discussion of  “Vienna Twilight”

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Interview with Patricia Rockwell

 I came upon the cozy mysteries of Patricia Rockwell by a happy chance on Twitter, and was intrigued by them for various reasons.  I  am grateful to her for agreeing to be interviewed, and I hope to find out how she herself views her novels, how she categorizes  them, what reading public she reaches and hopes to reach with them.

DJ.  You are a life-long academic, turned mystery-writer: I wonder what gave you the idea of writing murder mysteries when you gave up teaching. Were there other kinds of novels that you thought of writing?  Why mysteries?

PR. I always have read and enjoyed mysteries.  Apparently, I read and enjoyed mostly cozy mysteries, but I didn’t realize this until after I actually wrote one and a publisher informed me that that was the type of book I had created.  Throughout my academic career, I did a lot of writing–but it was dry, academic writing.  When I took a break from this, my first choice was always to read mysteries.  I never really cared much for long, epic historical novels or romances–although I’ve read my share of those.   I can’t imagine writing any other than a mystery because I really like creating the puzzle that is contained in every mystery.  That’s the first thing I figure out long before I ever start my actual writing–just what is the puzzle, that is, what makes this crime (usually a murder) not just an obvious one where the culprit is arrested and sent to jail, but one which baffles the police and the amateur sleuth (along with the reader) has to figure it all out.

DJ.  I find your use of acoustic technology a most original and effective aspect of your plots.  Your character, Professor Pamela Barnes, teaches acoustic technology in the Psychology Department of a  small university. You were yourself in Communications. Did you also teach acoustics?  When did you begin thinking of it as an aid to crime detection?

PR. Actually, Pamela teaches courses on language and vocal behavior (which I did) and she uses acoustic software to analyze her data (which I did).  Professors that actually teach students the subject of acoustics are usually housed in Physics departments.   I realized early in my reading of cozy mysteries, that most cozy heroines had a specialized career or hobby that afforded them a particular insight into crime that they would not have had otherwise.  I believe Pamela’s keenly attuned ear (she loves sound as she mentions at the end of FMFM) makes her observe (or rather hear) clues that other investigators might ignore.

DJ. Were there other areas of your academic expertise that you have since used in your novels? I note , for example, that you have done research on such topics as sarcasm and deception; these might seem to be good sources of inspiration for a mystery writer.

PR. I have one of my secondary characters (Willard Swinton) do some deception research that he brings into some of their investigations.  I can see where deception research will probably be more worthwhile in crime detection than sarcasm research.   Even so, if any readers can think of a way to include sarcasm research in a cozy mystery–please let me know, because I know more about sarcasm and how it’s produced than is probably healthy.

DJ. You come from an academic background and many of your characters are, very convincingly, university types. But you choose to place yourself firmly in a mystery-writing tradition that is not notably intellectual, namely, the “cozy mystery” tradition. Your publishing company is even called CozyCatPress.  Could you perhaps define what the term “cozy mystery” means for you?

PR. I have to laugh at this question, because after a life of interacting with “university types” I can tell you they make wonderful fodder to populate cozy mysteries.  Every stereotype–and then some!  You are right, cozy mysteries are not “high literature” but I’m retired now and I intend to have fun and cozy mysteries are fun!

DJ. One of your cover blurbs on SoundsofMurder describes the novel as a “fun mystery,” and I would agree. I read it quickly, turning the pages rapidly, and enjoying the detection process and the easy interplay among the characters.  Do you have any problems with the idea of murder being a source of fun?  The actual murder in this first novel is a quite horrible one in its way, and there are some moments of fear and suspense when our sleuth, Professor Barnes, returns from time to time to the scene of the crime, but on the whole the horror of the murder does recede from the mind as one follows the twists and turns of the plot. What do you think about this?

PR. I’m so glad you responded this way because that’s exactly the way I want readers to react.  That’s why the murder happens (as they say) “off-stage” in “Sounds of Murder.”  You don’t actually experience the murder take place.  You just see the body afterwards through Pamela’s eyes.  And yes, I try to add lots of fun and humor.  I try to flesh out the characters and make them real and likeable–or at least believable.   Now, it’s a bit different in my second book, FMForMurder, because you not only experience the murder take place, but–well, I’d better not tell you that.  However, the person who is killed is not a main, nor even a secondary character in this book or the previous one, so I really don’t think readers will be too upset (although I got a fan letter recently berating me for killing him off).

DJ.  The “cozy mystery” field is, I would suggest, a rather crowded field these days, particularly since the growth of easy and cheap self-publication through e-books.  I suspect that for you, as for me, writing the novel is more fun than trying to sell it.  How do you find the process of promoting your books?  Merely tedious?  In a way embarrassing, i.e. the “selling of oneself?” Or challenging?  Forcing  you to master new skills, and if so, what are they?

PR. Promoting your books is challenging and often tedious.  I would rather be writing than selling, but on the other hand, when your book is doing well, it’s very gratifying.  I do find that my books (and many other books) have found new life on the Kindle.  My sales there have risen dramatically, whereas, sales of print copies are very slow.  I find it especially difficult to get my books in local bookstores, although that is slowly starting to change.  The new skills I’ve learned I would say involve using social media such as Facebook, Twitter, etc.  These avenues are free and open many new avenues for independent publishers and authors.

DJ.  Who, in your experience, actually reads “cozy mysteries?”  A lot of people, obviously, and one is told that many of them are women.  You have already written and  published two. Whom do you reach with these novels?  When you write, do you have an audience in mind?  For whom, in your heart of hearts, do you actually hope you are writing?

PR. There is a fairly good-sized audience for cozy mysteries–typically middle-aged to older women mostly, although some younger women too.  I find very few men read these types of books–or if they do they don’t admit it.   However, more than the gender/age breakdown, what I find truly interesting is the breakdown that I see between people who only read cozies in print and those who only read ebook cozies.  Sometimes I go to book signings with a stack of paperback copies of my books.  The ladies (sometimes a gentleman) buy the paperbacks after careful consideration.  It’s a major purchase.  This group is often totally oblivious to ebooks.  Readers who buy ebooks often have totally given up on paper books, and are snapping up as many ebooks as they can at the cheapest possible prices in an attempt to fill their Kindles with reading material. 

DJ. Are you already engaged on a new writing project?  Is there anything you would like to tell us about this?

PR. My third Pamela Barnes acoustic mystery will be out in a few months.  It is entitled “Voice Mail Murder.”  In it, a philandering football coach is found stabbed to death in a hotel room.  His cell phone is found next to the body and on it are voice mail messages from three unidentified women–evidently the man’s mistresses.  The police believe that one of the three women is the killer but they are unable to determine who they are.  They ask Pamela to listen to the voices on the cell phone in an attempt to help them solve the murder.

Also, I’m starting a new series, more of a humorous cozy mystery series.  It’s the “Essie Cobb, senior sleuth mysteries” series.  The first one is “Bingoed” and concerns an elderly gentleman who falls into a coma after winning a game of bingo at an assisted living facility.  Essie Cobb, a ninety-year-old resident of the facility and her pals smell something amiss with the man’s sudden collapse and they decide to investigate. 

DJ. Any other comments?

I’m almost done with my fourth Pamela Barnes mystery.  This one is called “Stump Speech Murder” and it’s all about a young politician who is accused of killing his wife.  The police are called to the couple’s house when she phones 911 and reports her husband is trying to break in after they have a fight.  When officers arrive, they find the husband kneeling over his wife’s dead body, the murder weapon–a bloody candlestick–lying on the floor.  It certainly looks like this politician won’t win the forth-coming election and will probably spend the rest of his life in jail.  Not unless, Pamela can ferret out what really happened.

DJ. Thanks very much, Patricia! Looking forward  to the new novels as they come out.

Posted in cozy mystery, mystery, review | Tagged | 5 Comments

Two Cozy Mysteries by Patricia Rockwell

Sounds of Murder 2010 and FM for Murder  2011, are Patricia Rockwell’s first two cozy mysteries.  I encountered them by chance, like so many things these days, on Twitter. 

They are both published by Rockwell’s own small publishing house, the CozyCatPress.  I bought and read the first in paperback and the second on Kindle.

As a life-long academic turned mystery writer myself, I read the first mystery by former Professor of Communications, Patricia Rockwell, with more than academic curiosity. Can an academic really hack it in the world of professional mystery-writing for the mass audience?

How, I wondered, would she deal with all the new tasks required by this kind of writing? Moving the story along at the fast pace that, we are told, mystery-readers demand,  creating the necessary suspense in the plot, making her characters live for the reader, liking them enough herself to draw them with sympathy, yet making it plausible for one of them to have committed murder, putting them in a realistic drawn setting without loading the story down with excess description . . . how would she manage all of this, and more?

I very soon stopped thinking of the novelist and her tasks because, after a page or two, the story itself drew me in, and I was rapidly turning the pages with all the other mystery readers to see what happened next.  The strength of this first novel is the plot.  Right at the beginning, a professor of psychology, Pamela Barnes, with a specialty in the use of acoustic software, finds a murdered colleague in a computer lab, and the story immediately takes off and flies all the way to its very clever solution, the professor using her expertise to unmask the murderer.

Yes, this is, I suppose, what is called a “cozy mystery,” in that apart from the initial murder there are no gruesome scenes or violent behavior or language. The initial murder is in itself horrible enough, but as usual in this kind of mystery the focus is on the detection process which, oddly enough, usually takes one’s mind off the details of the act itself.  And there are numerous scenes of cozy domesticity in the happy home of Professor Barnes, where her husband, Rocky, not only loves her warmly and passionately but does all the cooking. A distinctly cozy  touch is the appending of some of Rocky’s recipes to the novel.

There is also—I would say, fortunately—a  little human nastiness in the story since we are also firmly rooted here in the genteel but back-biting world of the university.  This is an out-and-out murder mystery, however, not a disguised exposé of the underbelly of academe, and there are moments of high suspense and genuine fear.  I did not guess who the murderer was, so never quite knew to what extent the sleuth/heroine/professor was endangering herself in her own attempts to unravel the mystery, a good means of ratcheting up the suspense.  I was curious to find out which of these cultivated, intensely competitive academics had actually committed the murder. Anyone outside academe who might think that issues of tenure and promotion lack drama will be quickly disabused of this notion when following the twists and turns of events in the Psychology Department of  Rockwell’s Grace University.

The story over, I emerged from my absorption in the plot and the atmosphere, and thought, yes, Patricia Rockwell did manage very well the presumed tasks of the professional mystery-writer. I would rate this as a successful first mystery, likely to sell to habitual mystery readers.  It is marred only by some sloppiness in editing, and a sometimes artificial attempt to adapt to narrative techniques as if, for example, an overly eager creative writing teacher had gone through the manuscript crossing out “he said/ she said” and putting in unlikely variations, “he/she squeaked, smirked, scowled…etc.” Such small flaws do not prevent this novel from being a good read, and I expected to find them ironed out in the second novel of the series.  I was not disappointed in this.

FMforMurder, the second one, is editorially more polished.  It is another “Pamela Barnes acoustic mystery” and I wondered whether Patricia Rockwell could again pull off the use of acoustic technology to solve a murder case. This might sound like a dry and technical method of detection, but it is not.  On the contrary, once again, the plot hinges on matters of sound, and once again,  it is the ingeniousness of the plot, rather than any in-depth character analysis, that draws the reader in, builds up the tension and constitutes the strength of the novel. As in the first novel, the gradual uncovering of acoustic clues leads inexorably and excitingly to the identification of the murderer.

The prologue throws the reader, without explanation, into an actual radio broadcast in which a disc jockey, ominously called Black Vulture, regales his after-midnight audience with (to me largely impenetrable) talk of “goth” music, vampires, alternative rock and such like. I hurried through this, somewhat annoyed at having to take in such nonsense, but soon realized that it was not non-sense after all—it set the scene very deliberately for the story of the disc jockey whose appalling patter about blood, coffins and torture, interspersed with ads for local businesses, ends with an actual gunshot, right there on the radio.

The scene is set, the crime is—literally—recorded, and Professor Pamela Barnes and her colleagues and students in the Psychology Department of Grace University have another acoustic mystery to solve.  Some familiar colleagues from the first novel crop up again, as does the family of Professor Barnes, and that is very nice (and cozy).  One likes to see familiar faces.

But the narrative technique of this novel is more complex than that of the first. Thrown by the prologue into the recording studio and the murder itself, we are then carried back and forth, chapter by chapter, between two time frames, one five days before the murder and one beginning the day after the murder. I did not care for the designations “past” and “present” to describe these two time frames.  I would have preferred it if the dates had simply been given and the reader left to work out the sequence. I did also find the dialogue and depiction of Professor Barnes and Co. in the time after the murder more convincing and realistic than the dialogue and depiction of the Bridgewater family in the other time frame, perhaps because the ambiance of the university is more familiar to me (and to Patricia Rockwell?) than that of a carpet manufacturing business. However what was really impressive about this narrative technique was the way the two time frames gradually came together, the second time frame culminating in the murder itself, at which point everything became clear, and it only remained for the characters of the two time frames to come together and the murderer to be caught.

Again, as in the first novel, I did not at all guess at the solution which was ingenious but plausible, and seemingly inevitable. This is, in my view, one mark of success for the solution of a murder mystery: Inevitability without predictability.  And Patricia Rockwell has done it again.

I would call these novels five-star cozies.  I read them quickly, one after the other, and I will be happy to pick up the next Pamela Barnes escapade when it comes out.  I suspect they will get better and better.  They look to me like precisely the kind of novels that will do well with the mystery-reading audience looking for a fast and entertaining read.

I am very happy that Patricia Rockwell has agreed to be interviewed for this blog, and I will post the interview on Friday, May 20.

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Quotations: And other people say . . .

Dorothy L. Sayers

Death in particular seems to provide the minds of the Anglo-Saxon race with a greater fund of innocent amusement than any other single subject.

Quoted  by P.D. James in TalkingaboutDetectiveFiction (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, Toronto, 2009, p. 3.)  

and  P.D.James goes on to comment:

 . . . to judge by the world-wide success of Arthur Conan Doyles’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Poirot, it is not only the  Anglo-Saxons who have an appetite for mystery and mayhem.  It seems that this vicarious enjoyment in “murder considered as a fine art,” to quote Thomas DeQuincey,  makes the whole world kin.

Arthur Conan Doyle has Sherlock Holmes say, in  The Sign of Four:

Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science, and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism , which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.

What do you say?

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Cozy Murder Mysteries: A Contradiction in Terms?

When I  first encountered the term “cozy mystery,”  I had already written one murder mystery.  Someone asked me, was mine a cozy.  I really didn’t know.

 I have read murder mysteries from time to time throughout my life—all of Dorothy L. Sayers when I was young, the novels of P.D. James as they came out. Mysteries were on the whole peripheral to my reading habits, but when I happened upon mystery writers whom I liked, I read all their books, just as I would have read all the books of any other author who appealed to me. In later years, for example, I came upon the Venetian mysteries of Donna Leon, and have read most of them, and later still the Viennese mysteries of Frank Tallis—I am at present reading his most recent, Vienna Twilight.  Running these authors through my mind when I came across the term “cozy mysteries,” I thought, well none of them are cozy, surely.

Maybe Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, however, she might fall into the cozy category. But why? What was the difference? There are those who will tell you that cozy mysteries usually take place in picturesque towns or villages. That fits Miss Marple, or, to take an American example, Jessica Fletcher of TV fame in the distinctly cozy Cabot Cove settings of “Murder She Wrote.”

Wikipedia tells us that “cozy mysteries are a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously.” Violence is certainly downplayed in the appellation itself, “cozy mysteries.” You do not encounter the term  “cozy murder mysteries” as often, probably because, when you get down to it, murder itself cannot actually be cozy, and yet, in all honesty, “mysteries” do usually hinge on murder. Calling them “cozy mysteries” does not alter that fact.

The last novel discussed in this blog, William Ryan’s “The Holy Thief” was anything but cozy, and I had problems, as I said in my review, with the degree of violence described in the text.  But perhaps any shock at this is nothing compared with what you might feel if you allowed yourself really to contemplate the enormity of thousands of people, and a great many of them women, curling up of an evening with a cup of hot chocolate to chortle over the ins and outs of a cozy murder.

Next week I am going to write about the novels of Patricia Rockwell, a self-declared cozy-mystery writer, and she has agreed to be interviewed for the blog. I am looking forward to this and hope you will drop by to see what she says.  Thank you, Patricia!

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Quotations: And other people say. . .

 . . .on other historical mystery/thrillers . . . these came to mind after reviewing William Ryan’s “The Holy Thief” . . .

Hans Fallada wrote in his 1946 Foreword to his great postwar novel of the Nazi years in Germany, “Jeder stirbt für sich allein ” [Everyone dies alone]:

Many readers will think that there is an awful lot of torturing and dying in this book.  The author takes the liberty of pointing out that this book deals mainly with people who fought against the Hitler regime, them and the people who persecuted them. In these circles in the years 1940 to 1942, and before and after, there was a considerable amount of dying.  About one third of the book takes place in prisons and mental hospitals, and in them dying was in full swing. The author often did not want to paint so dark a picture, but more light would have been a lie.

This is my own translation from the Rororo 1990 German edition of this book,  originally written and published in 1946.  I shall be returning to this novel and its recent translation by Michael Hofmann Every Man Dies Alone later in this blog.

John LeCarré wrote in his 1989 introduction to his first greatly successful novel, “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold:”

It was the Berlin Wall that got me going  . . . I will never forget the time when a disgusting gesture of history coincided with some desperate mechanism inside myself, and in six weeks gave me the book that altered my life.

What do you say?

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Review of William Ryan’s “The Holy Thief”

There is a great book club in my native Wales, called CardiffRead.  They meet once a month and communicate electronically in between. This month they are reading  William Ryan’s  The Holy Thief  (Minotaur, New York, 2010).  I bought this book to join, long-distance, in their discussions.

It is a brave man and a daring writer who would set a detective novel in Soviet Russia in the year 1936, particularly if he is neither a Russian nor a bona fide scholar in Russian history.  In his “Author’s Note,” William Ryan makes only the modest claim that he has done his best “to recreate Moscow accurately in this book.”   The Holy Thief  is a very gripping, very disturbing, very well-written piece of fiction.  Does it matter whether William Ryan really presents an accurate picture of Russia in the terrible days of the 1930s purges or not?

Perhaps it is because they were such terrible days that it seems to matter. I often found myself asking as I read, is this real? Is this the way people thought and talked in the days when many still hoped for a new and better world under Communism, even while they were suffering agonizing poverty and deprivation and, in innumerable cases, undeserved persecution?  I haven’t enough knowledge to answer the question myself, but Ryan certainly conveys a vivid impression of bitter cold, of poverty, of misery, of unspeakable cruelty, and in the midst of it all he creates an amazingly likable, even admirable, police-detective, Captain Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Militia, who comes to life as a man struggling against great political odds to pursue the ends of justice as he sees them.

I read the horrific opening pages of the novel thinking I couldn’t possibly go on reading it, such was the degree of gruesome cruelty described.  These pages are italicized to set them  off from the rest of the narrative , and they do what many murder mysteries do: They present the reader right away with the murder on which the whole mystery rests. The scene described in these pages is, however, so hideous a portrait of torture that ever after on the occasions where I saw italicized pages cropping up in the novel, I dreaded them and wanted to skip them.  But they are crucial to the development of the plot, so somehow, with half-closed eyes, I skimmed through them.  I imagine that these pages would make the novel unreadable for some readers. I dislike the thought that they might make the novel attractive to others.  But there they are, and they are only one example among many in this novel of man’s inhumanity to man that characterizes Stalin’s Russia as shown here.

Uninitiated readers may well find themselves, as I did, looking up a number of the characters to find out who was a historical figure and who was not.  Of course, we know that Isaac Babel, who figures prominently in the plot, was a real writer, and we can easily find out that various other minor figures are too, such as Yagoda whose statue is removed from the Petrovka Street headquarters in the opening chapter of the novel and who really was head of the Security Service, later discredited, denounced and executed.  Even Stalin himself makes a cameo appearance in Ryan’s mean streets. The mixing of real and fictional names add a certain authenticity to the story,  but  can be problematic.  How does one to react to Babel, for example, as a lively, sometimes almost comic, character in a fictional plot when at the back of our heads is the knowledge that Babel himself was tortured and executed in 1940?

Ryan is setting out to give as much realistic detail and background as he can.  In the opening chapters, he delineates gradually and cleverly the various Soviet agencies and social entities involved in the plot: the People’s Militia, dealing with “everyday” crime, the NKVD, the secret police dealing with state security, their strong-arm men, the Chekists, and then on the other side the criminal element, opposed to the Soviet State, and preying on it as well as preyed on by it, the Thieves.  He interweaves the religious element in some of its complexities: The communist policeman, our Korolev, is himself a believer, as are the vicious representatives of the underworld, the anti-communist Thieves. Ryan manages to make all this clear without footnotes, his explanations incorporated naturally into the narrative.  The persnickety reader may turn back from time to time, as I did,  to sort out the patronymics, to check on who people are, which side they seem to be on, but less than half way through the book one has it down, and can concentrate on the plot.

It is a mark of Ryan’s strength as a story-teller that in such a context, he engages our interest in the personal relationships of Captain Korolev, the ups and downs of his investigations and the gradual uncovering of particular murderous villains in a generally villainous time. There are enough twists and turns in the plot to satisfy most mystery readers who like to be tested in their ability to track down and identify the villains.  And when all’s said and done, Korolev is a big enough and likable enough character to carry the action convincingly through all the horror, and all the wealth of detail in the scene-setting.  I ended up wanting to see Captain Korolev at work again.

If you have ever sensed a moral  dilemma in “enjoying” a fictional mystery based on the horrific act of murder, then you will perhaps feel this dilemma intensified in such a powerful novel as this where the mystery is rooted in one of the gigantic horror stories of history.  But this is a moral dilemma of the armchair variety. The one faced by Korolev himself is a matter of life and death: How to deal as a policeman with seeming evidence of criminality in the state system to which he owes personal and professional allegiance, deeply rooted in principles nurtured through a lifetime of defending the Soviet Union in war and in peace.  What will William Ryan do with Korolev’s dilemma, as the thirties grind on into more and more terrible times?  This is the question that will definitely bring me back to his second novel though I quake at what I may find there.

A stunning debut, a five-star novel qua novel, whatever its standing as a historical study, great for a book club, food for more than a month’s thought and discussion.

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Quotations: And other people say . . .

 Erik Routley:

In a perfect world there will be no need for detective stories: but then there will be nothing to detect. Their disappearance at this moment, however, will not bring the world any nearer to perfection. The high-minded would say that the removal of this form of relaxation would free the energies of the literate for the contemplation of real mysteries and the overcoming of real evils. I see no reason to count on that.

Quoted by P.D.James in her recent splendid little book, Talking about Detective Fiction. Alfred A.Knopf, New York, Toronto, 2009. p. 159

Janet Hitchman:

What she (Dorothy L.Sayers) could see ahead in 1938 was the coming war, and this appalled her. Wimsey, with his facetiousness, his dabbling in this and that, did not fit in, and the detection of crime for amusement, no matter how scholarly the sleuth, did not fit in either.

 From her biography of DLS, Such a Strange Lady. Harper and Row, New York …, 1975. p.112, describing the time when Sayers gave up writing her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries.

What do you say?

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