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.

The Wittiest Mystery of the Summer: Lindsey Davis’s “The Grove of the Caesars”

Some years ago, we took a short drive to to see an exhibition, Art in Roman Life Villa to Grave, at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. Best known for a superb Grant Wood collection and a collection of prints by Mauricio Lasansky, it was a little skimpy on the Roman side. But what really charmed me was finding Lindsey Davis’s witty Marcus Didius Falco mysteries in the art museum shop.

I am a great fan of Lindsey Davis, who, in my opinion, is the best of several wise-cracking writers who set their mysteries in ancient Rome. (I also recommend Stephen Saylor and David Wishart.) Davis’s writing is charming and witty, the plots seamless, and I love her new Flavia Albia series. Albia is the adoptive daughter of Marcus Didius Falco, an auctioneer and former private investigator (and the star of Davis’s first mystery series), and his equally smart wife, Helena Justina. Now that her parents are older, Albia has taken over the “informer” business.  Times are dangerous:  she is living in the age of Domitian.

Sometimes Albia is in the mood for a case, sometimes not.  Without looking for trouble, she stumbles upon a case in the Grove of the Caesars. While supervising her husband’s employees as they prepare a building site, the workers make an unlooked-for discovery: they dig up some musty, damaged scrolls, written by philosophers she has ever heard of. Albia wonders if they are originals or forgeries, and intends to find out; either way they could be valuable. (Romans  love a good forgery scandal!)  But then a horrendous second crime is unearthed; the body of a woman is found, one of several women murdered in the Grove of the Caesars over a period of years.

Davis manages to keep the dialogue light, even when the most ghastly crimes are committed. And Albia has a good working relationship with this particular branch of the police, who seem to adopt her as a mascot-cum-second-in-command.   In a common mystery trope, Albia’s investigations of the scrolls in bookshops and the murders in the Grove of the Caesars turn out to be related.

But the novel opens with Albia’s witty, exasperated. dissertation on  gardens.

I want to make a complaint. Poets are wrong about gardens. Your average poet, scratching away to impress his peers in the Writers’ Guild at their dusty haunt on the Aventine, the Temple of Minerva, will portray a garden as a metaphor for productive peace and quiet. In such secluded places, poets will say, men who own multiple estates engage in happy contemplation of weighty intellectual matters, while acquiring a glow of health. These landowners, idiot patrons of ridiculous authors, take pleasure from topiary cut in the shape of their own names, yet they avoid the slur of self-indulgence, simply because their box-tree autographs have roots in the earth.

You can’t get much wittier than that.   And the dissertation goes on…

I also like this quote from an auctioneer trying to sell the scrolls.

“Who’s read The Oresteia? Oh, we’ve got some clever ones in! …. Aeschylus, smart fellow, was the first writer to realise that if you write a trilogy, you will sell three times as much.”

I highly recommend this amusing mystery.