“Another three seasonal volumes are threatened,” sneered the anonymous reviewer in the Private Eye piece on Ali Smith’s autumnal offering. Au contraire mon ami, on the contrary mate, on your bike pal. For it is the anticipation of three more books in Ali’s seasonal series, while there is still a world to win, that puts a spring in the step and banishes the winter blues, and the knowledge that her Summer will be a stunner where the sun shines brighter than Doris Day, and so on.
Perhaps it is something to do with a childhood obsession with Willard Price’s Adventure series, or the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery books, but linked works, themed books, specific sets, appeal enormously, whether it is a series of comic novels by David Nobbs, or Tom Sharpe, or Richard Gordon, or Stephen Potter, or P.G. Woodhouse, whether it is a collection of connected books by R.F. Delderfield or Olivia Manning, or something newer by Pat Barker or maybe Eoin McNamee’s Blue Trilogy. But it is series of crime novels that are the real passion here.
There is a lovely line in Robert Harris’ sumptuously elegant Conclave where the central figure, Cardinal Lomeli, confesses that his “guilty recreation was detective fiction”. It is a lovely word that to describe such books: recreation. It is a little like the word “entertainments” Graham Greene used about some of his novels, to suggest a split with serious literature, which presumably he later regretted. But recreation captures it perfectly.
It is, surely, impossible not to have incredible admiration for someone like Georges Simenon and his Maigret novels, which are adored here, and the way they were churned out with impeccable regularity, with not a word too much, not an unnecessary human movement, with so much space, and yet the artistry and craft is extraordinary, with lovely touches like chapters being the same, delightfully short (which presumably people like Len Deighton and Barry Gifford emulated) length throughout a book.
It may be a little late in life, perhaps, but in recent years the works of the crime writing greats, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey, Ngaio Marsh, and in particular Margery Allingham, have become something of an obsession, and working one’s way through their books, which are wonderful exercises in ease, elegance, eccentricity, enterprise, entertainment, and experimentation, reading them on an irregular basis, in an erratic way, has been a real delight.
The local library has recently added to its stock a glut of Agatha Christies in new HarperCollins paperback editions, which has been very welcome. But the other so-called “queens of crime” are not at all well-represented on the shelves. But that is the transient nature of libraries, as names come and go. There is now little or no sign of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown books, or indeed any by George Mackay Brown or Shena Mackay, And when was the last time a William Wharton novel was seen on your local library shelves?
Part of the thrill of going to the library, and browsing in the crime section, is looking out for writers to follow, discovering new series of detective stories, often in a random way by picking something up out of curiosity or because a name rings a vague bell. Sometimes it can take up to two or three books in a series before the writing and characters really take a grip. A lot of it depends on what is available, but when loyalty to a series takes hold, it is great fun to look out for new or missed titles.
Recent favourites among series or characters to follow include Ann Cleeves’ Jimmy Perez, Peter Lovesey’s Peter Diamond, Gillian Galbraith’s Alice Rice, Jason Webster’s Max Cámara the anarchist detective, Valerio Varesi’s Commissario Soneri, Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg, William Brodrick’s Brother Anselm, Peter Murphy’s Ben Schroeder, Elly Griffiths’s Ruth Galloway and her Mephisto & Stephens series, Arnaldur Indriðason’s Detective Erlendur, and Jørn Lier Horst’s William Wisting. It is highly likely no more new novels in some of these series will appear, but they have all been a delight.
Another series that has recently become addictive is Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler collection of novels. Serrailler is a policeman very much in the tradition of Adam Dalgleish and Morse, which is fine. And Susan Hill is such a great writer. Though, in the strange way logic works, part of what made the series attractive was the similarity of the name to Ian Serraillier, whose short novel The Silver Sword was a favourite in school. In fact, The Silver Sword should still be required reading for anyone who turns a blind eye to what went on in WW2 and to the plight of refugees today. It is a beautiful and very powerful little book, a little like Susan Hill’s A Kind Man and The Black Sheep.
Getting to know the characters in series of detective novels can almost seem like becoming familiar with them “personally in person” (as Montalbano’s desk sergeant Catarella would say). The characters become friends, familiars, and their stories act as a tonic, a balm, both soothing and stimulating. It is lovely when patterns emerge, and formulae take shape.
Somehow the best crime novels also give a great insight into and reflect (often modern) life better than most of the highly-praised novels featured prominently in the reviews pages of the broadsheets. It is perhaps something to do with a quicker turnaround time, enabling crime novels to be more topical.
Particular favourites in this respect are the Bryant & May novels by Christopher Fowler, and the Montalbano series by Andrea Camilleri, which, alas, were up and running for a long time before their magic was revealed here. Both sets of series have very specific locations, London and Sicily, but each tackle wider world issues, like the banking crisis and corruption, and the global refugee crisis.
The aged detectives from the Met’s Peculiar Crimes Unit and the irascible head of the Vigàta police are wonderfully disrespectful, unorthodox, anti-establishment, subversives inside the system, who are non-careerist, insolent, funny, eccentric, erudite, and the books in which they feature are full of references and clues, in turn stimulating a thirst for knowledge.
In the most recent novel in Christopher Fowler’s series, Strange Tide, his character Arthur Bryant muses about London and its people: “I would like to say its people have more compassion now, because they know how others have to live. I fear that for every stride forward there is always someone who would have us take another step back.” That seemed very much a phrase which was begging to be written down in this blue Banner notebook.