Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Peters and Rankin

I came across some of Ellis Peters' non-Brother Cadfael murder mysteries at an op shop in Devonport the other day, none of which I'd read or seen before. Decided to start with A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs. It's an Inspector Felse mystery, though since he's on holiday with his family in this one his detective work is minimal. The plot is neat enough, with a few surprises, though I thought I'd figured out the villain early on, and for once was right. Except that things weren't quite as they seemed, and Peters had one or two twists up her sleeve before the end.
The dialogue made things seem very dated - it was written in 1965. Perhaps the most curious thing was having both the 18-year-old and the 15-year-old boys in the story call their respective mothers Mummy.  Even among the middle-classes of that period I would have thought this was a little odd.  In this book the characters don't seem to have distinctive voices, and sometimes when Peters doesn't qualify who's speaking, you can't actually tell who's speaking from what's being said. It seems that it takes a much stronger character, like Cadfael, to lift the bar for Peters.  In the Cadfael books it's generally seemed to me that most of the characters had personality - as opposed to having it described. I find this with Agatha Christie too.  If one of her strong characters, such as Poirot, or Miss Marple, is missing, the tone of the dialogue goes downhill.  These strong characters somehow make the other characters take on more life.  Of course there are Christie books in which nothing comes alive, but they aren't the majority.
I finished reading another book I picked up secondhand, last night: Ian Rankin's Doors Open. Compared to the more well-known Rebus books (Rebus is another character who lifts everything around him) this is largely a lightweight story, though it has an intricate plot and some considerable violence towards the end.  But it shows that Rankin isn't going to die as an author if he's not writing about Rebus. Still, the main character here isn't as rounded as Rebus, and he and the other characters are mostly subservient to the plot. The characters aren't memorable, as Rebus is, but they do well enough given their own room to play in, and the story is very entertaining, especially the way in which the professional criminal (as opposed to the amateurs he's surrounded by) keeps us guessing as to whether he's actually got a heart with a leaning towards culture or not.
The plot centres around an improbable heist - pinching reasonably famous, and certainly valuable, paintings from the storage warehouse belonging to Scotland's National Gallery, replacing them with fakes and then pretending there was no actual heist at all. Of course it all unravels, and the best part of the book is seeing how the various individuals react to the unravelling.  If you've had enough of gloomy Rebus for the time being (and when you think you have you find you can still take more of him) try this one out.  You'll read it in great gulps.
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