The Summer of Folly & A Dalliance with Mysteries

On a 97-degree Wednesday, I am dejected by the consequences of human folly. The snapshot of my bicycle at the top of the sidebar, with the caption “Carbon treadprint,” seems naive now, doesn’t it? All those years of biking instead of driving – and people are usually so irritated by it – seem to have done little if any good. Even some SUV drivers may at this point have acknowledged it is rather hot this summer.

It is so hot that I need complete escape, and I am dallying with mysteries. Oh my God -what a pleasure to sit in the air conditioning and be spellbound by an unlikely crime novel, with lots of witty repartee, complemented by spare, unshowy prose.

I recently rediscovered Catherine Aird, author of the Inspector Sloan series. His Burial Too, published in 1973, shares many characteristics with Golden Age Detective fiction. The crime is committed off-stage, the characters are sufficiently well-sketched to seem real but have no off-putting psychological depth, and the emphasis is on solving the puzzle. This is my idea of perfect entertainment.

Set in an English village in Calleshire, it begins one morning when Fenella Tindall wakes up late and discovers that her father is missing. Since Richard Tindall, the director of a research and development firm, is absolutely reliable, and doesn’t stay out late, she and the housekeeper are convinced something has happened. But his car is in the garage, so the police think he has probably taken the train to London, and have no conviction that there is need to worry -until they find the body crushed under a marble statue in the bell tower of a church.

What makes this mystery so diverting is Aird’s quietly compelling prose, the sharp dialogue, and the ironic observations of Inspector C. D. Sloan. The sardonic Sloan often seems to be the only adult in the room. Only the old crones (I mean that as a compliment) who live near the church seem to have their wits about them – they saw and heard a few things the night of the crime. Certainly Sloan’s assistant, William Crosby, a recklessly fast driver who hasn’t got a clue what is going on, and at one point mentions Batman, is very little help.

This is great fun, and I love all her books!

A Comedy of Terrors by Lindsey Davis. I am a a great fan of Lindsey Davis’s witty Marcus Didius Falco historical mysteries, set in ancient Rome, and characterized by much wise-cracking. A few years ago I discovered her equally witty Flavia Albia series, in which Falco’s adopted daughter takes over the family detective business.

A Comedy of Terrors, set in Rome in 89 A.D., takes place the week before Saturnalia, a rowdy winter holiday which involved heavy drinking, mayhem and rioting, and role-playing among slaves and masters. It gives Flavia Albia a perfect over-the-top opportunity for comic musings. Flavia Albia loathes Saturnalia, and is also irritated by the schadenfreude of friends who think she won’t be able to continue freelance work as an investigator now that she and her husband Tiberius have adopted two orphaned nephews .

Resigned to the horror of the holidays, she escorts the two boys for holiday shopping in an iffy neighborhood said to sell the best sigilla (statues). And what does she find instead? The corpse of the vendor covered with blood . “Oh, pigshit. And you try telling a three-year-old and a five-year-old who have been promised horrible figurines that they can’t have them.”

Well, this turns out to be a Saturnalia prank, not a murder, so one does understand why Flavia Albia hates Saturnalia. But unfortunately her husband is investigating a new gang which is taking over the nut trade – yes, nuts! – and murdering vendors who won’t sell their moldy poisonous product – which has actually killed some of the consumers.

Flavia Albia, always a savvy snoop, surmises there is a connection between the nuts gang and a new client, the battered wife of a dubious loan shark from whom she wants to escape – and this connection puts Flavia Albia and her family in danger. Their sheep, a family pet, is stolen and its head left at the gate. This is the kind of hooligan in the nut trade. There are many twists and turns to the plot, but the main reason to read it is Davis’s humor. Flavia Albia always has something witty to say even while catching criminals.

Modernist Moods & Cozy Mysteries: Lawrence Durrell’s “Balthazar” and Catherine Aird’s “Henrietta Who?”

Life in the summer is different nowadays. There is less sitting on porch swings as Climate Change steals our creaky traditions.

The summers were always hot – I tossed and turned and sweated and was cranky for the duration of many past droughts and heat waves- but now the heat waves are longer, and air conditioning is a requisite of everyday life.

My reading has been lighter (and cooler?) this summer. I recommend turning on the AC and flinging yourself on the couch with a cozy mystery or something moody and poetic. We all need a portal to an exotic landscape or a different culture. Mine is usually through books.

So here are two novels I’ve recently enjoyed: Lawrence Durrell’s Balthazar, set in Alexandria, Egypt; and Catherine Aird’s cozy mystery, Henrietta Who?, set in Calleshire, an imaginary county in England.

LAWRENCE DURRELL’S BALTHAZAR. When I talk about Lawerence Durrell, I talk about The Alexandria Quartet, a masterly tetralogy which comprises Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea. After I finish one of these books, I cannot tell you “what it is about.” I absorb the mood, the heat and exoticism, the rich language, the absurd and grotesque characters, from the anemic exotic dancer to the transvestite cop, and the nearly psychedelic dissociation rendered by the steamy nature of Alexandria.

Our perceptions keep changing as we read these books: Durrell’s portrait of Alexandria is always in flux. In the first book, Justine, we meet the narrator, Darley, an English writer in Alexandria. He is madly in love with Justine, a beautiful, troubled, intelligent, promiscuous, canny, deceitful, exasperating woman who attracts men and women alike – and has sex with everybody, while deceiving her husband and lovers – and is not particularly concerned about the consequences. And at the same time we have compassion for her: she is a lost soul, searching for her missing daughter.

All men are in love with Justine, except the gay men, and she especially is attracted to writers . Justine’s first husband wrote a novel about her, which mostly centered on the Freudian analysis that did not work on her. Now Darley, living on an island, has written about her in the context of a portrait of the city of Alexandria.

I recently reread the second novel, Balthazar, which Durrell refers to as a “sibling novel” rather than a sequel to Justine. Darley learns that he has been mistaken about almost everything he thought he knew. Justine did not love him – she loved another writer (of course), and this writer adamantly did not love her, and told her so! Balthazar, a doctor with a mystic bent, has scribbled corrections and notes on Darley’s manuscript, which he refers to as “the Interlinear.” Darley has a sense of humor: the affair is over, and the new interlinear fascinates him. And the interlinear clarifies the story of Justine’s husband, Nessim, who is as haunted as Justine, and Nessim’s brother, Narouz, a very shy man with a harelip, who visits the city once a year during Carnival, always searching for Clea, a woman he has seen once. She has no idea who he is.

Steamy, surreal, tragicomic – it’s all there!

CATHERINE AIRD’S HENRIETTA WHO? is the second in Aird’s Inspector Sloan mystery series. It has all the elements of Golden Age Detective Series, except that it was published in 1968, which is perhaps too late for the Golden Age. Yet the crimes are committed off-stage, so we are spared the violence; Inspector Sloan stays calm and methodical, however ghastly the crime; and it turns out that the people of Calleshire have many secrets.

This thoroughly enjoyable mystery begins with the postman’s discovery of the corpse of Mrs. Jenkins, who was apparently killed in a hit-and-run accident on a country road. Nothing is as it seems: from the tire marks, the police realize that somebody deliberately killed Mrs. Jenkins, running over her twice. And when the post-mortem shows that Mrs. Jenkins never gave birth, the problem of her identity and that of her daughter Henrietta, about to turn 21, become the center of this quietly effective who-dun-it.