The Sussex Downs Murder – Not Really A Review

24958623

For anyone who loves the English South Downs – and whodunnits – this book makes an interesting read.

On the one hand, it is a fairly average 1930’s detective murder mystery, although I have certainly read much worse, but on the other it provides some marvellous insights into the South Downs in the area specifically around Chanctonbury Ring in that time, which is really what took my interest.

Personally, I prefer murder mysteries involving ‘normal’ people, rather than the typical country house full of assorted Colonels and ladies and royalty and such-like, so popular at the time – other than the thought of bumping off the Upper Classes, of course! But this book delivers in that it is set on a downland farm, where the farmer goes missing, believed murdered. It even has, as a cover, an adaptation of one of the fabulous Leslie Carr railway posters of the 1930’s – what’s not to like?

The introduction mentions its ‘sense of place’, and the writing seems to me especially good at conveying an accurate feel of the landscape. One thing that comes over very strongly is the emptiness of the countryside at that time. The Downs have been sparsely inhabited since Roman times; before then, much of the population chose to live on the higher, drier, lands of the chalklands of South and South East England, away from the forested and frequently marshy lower areas where travel was difficult and clearance very hard work. After the arrival of the Romans, however, all this changed, and since then the chalklands have been left largely to a small population living mainly by farming sheep.

We now have many people visiting for leisure purposes and on fine days popular routes such as the walk to Birling Gap from Eastbourne (or from convenient car parks much closer!) may easily see hundreds of visitors striding along the footpaths and hanging off the edge of the cliffs taking selfies (other stupid ways to kill oneself are available). On the same day, though, nearby footpaths may see no visitors at all. It is still a sparsely populated area.

John Bude evokes this sense of emptiness well. His descriptions of the roads and paths on and around the area really allow the reader to feel this. His characters walk the lanes and roads of the downs frequently without meeting anyone else on their journeys. Farms and houses are ‘isolated’, and even at a time when most people would travel by public transport to cover any distance, the population is so small that when questioned by the detective on the case, a bus conductor can remember who was on his bus several weeks before.

There are four lime kilns near Washington, on the edge of the area described in the story, which I suspect were the inspiration for the lime kiln featured on the farm in the book. No spoilers, but you might well guess their relevance to a murder mystery.

But it is the descriptions of the roads and paths that particularly take my interest, roads and paths virtually empty of footfall or traffic even during the day, emphasising how lightly populated the area was, and still is today, to a degree. Other than popular footpaths such as the long distance South Downs Way, and those footpaths running between popular tourist spots, it is still easy to find solitude in this quiet area of the otherwise heavily populated South East England.

Review of You beneath Your Skin by Damyanti Biswas

YBYS high res front

First, a disclaimer: I received an Advance Reading Copy of this book with no obligation to post a review.

A psychological crime procedural novel set in Delhi, You Beneath Your Skin quickly paints a vivid picture of the streets, drawing the reader into a dark and desperate world. Although Indian society is divided into the haves and the have-nots more starkly than many, here the two worlds soon collide.

The central character, Anjali, is the divorced mother of a teenaged boy with a form of high-functioning autism that makes him extremely challenging and demanding. She is having a long-term affair with Jatin, who is both the Special Commissioner of Crime in the Delhi Police Force, and the married brother of her best friend, Maya.

Jatin has been charged with investigating a crime supposedly committed by an opposition member of Parliament, but while the government want a conviction, the politician has friends who will pull strings to ensure it is hushed up. The crime under investigation never made clear, but this conflict has resulted in pressure being brought on Jatin to have the case dropped. On top of this, a series of brutal murders are being carried out in the slum areas of Delhi, and although there are elements of the police and the wider establishment who don’t consider them worth investigating, Jatin and his team are determined to track down the perpetrators.

As the tension increases, and the investigations unexpectedly threaten to draw in more of the central characters, one of them is suddenly the victim of an acid attack. And from now on, there are two main storylines, one being the on-going police investigations into the murders, and the other following the victim of the acid attack and the search for reasons and answers to that.

The unfolding storyline, the large cast of different characters and the continuing atmosphere of menace is handled skilfully throughout. Both the brutality both of the criminal underworld and of the police themselves is an ever-present threat, as is both the desperation felt by the poor and the sense of privilege and entitlement by the rich and powerful. And throughout it all, the misogyny intrenched in Indian society overlays everything that happens.

Damyanti Biswas is a Delhiite, writing with the knowledge and authority of someone who knows their area intimately. This a remarkable achievement for a debut novel, powerful and fluent. I was hooked from the beginning, sympathising with the characters and intrigued by the twists and turns of this powerful plot.

Acid attacks are a horrendous phenomenon, scarring and disfiguring, and even killing the victim. I think that many people view them as almost ‘minor’ crimes, and assume that the victim merely suffers a bit of pain and discomfort, and a bit of damage to their skin, but these attacks can inflict injuries as terrible as the burns from fires, and cause almost unbearable pain. Yet partly because of the easy availability of corrosive liquids, they have become almost commonplace in some ways, being used as revenge for perceived slights and ‘dishonours’ as well as for gangland feuds.

This novel, as well as relating an excellent detective story, is also Damyanti’s vehicle to help bring understanding of this horror to the attention of the wider world.

I would certainly give this book five stars.

Nice To Meet You!

It’s been a difficult time. There’s been stuff. And we all know what stuff does, don’t we? Well? Don’t we? Yes, you at the back, boy! Tompkins Minor! Well, what does it do?

‘Gets in the way, Sir.’

Louder, boy!

‘GETS IN THE WAY, SIR!’

That’s right, Tompkins. It gets in the way.

012c

Stuff getting in the way.

100b

Stuff not getting in the way.

And with all this stuff flying around, stuff I’m finding it rather difficult to deal with, sometimes it’s as much as I can do just to leave a ‘like’ on a post. Even posting a comment seems too much like hard work, although I want to. So I press ‘like’ to simply show my appreciation of the post.

But I’m working on it. I haven’t gone away, I’m just a little snowed under with…stuff.

And because it’s a new year (oh yes, Happy New Year to you all. Have you broken all your resolutions, yet? I have.), I’m thinking it might be a good time to re-introduce myself to the blogging world. So, this is me:

I have published one novel, Making Friends With the Crocodile, which is set in rural Northern India and is about the way society treats women there (and, by extension, in most places still). This has had good reviews, and I’m especially pleased with the ones from Indian women, who obviously know a thing or two about the subject! It is available as e-book as well as Print On Demand paperback.

The first draft of my second novel, provisionally titled A Good Place, is completed and I shall begin to edit it at the end of February. This story is set in a fictitious hill station in Northern India populated by a mixture of the English who remained in India after Partition, a few English travellers, and, naturally, the indigenous Indians there. In the meantime I am also working on another novel, the first in a series of 3 or 4, provisionally titled The Assassins Garden and set in both Persia and India in the 1600’s. This one I like to think of as being a mixture of ‘The Arabian Nights’ and Neil Gaiman. It starts innocuously enough, but rapidly becomes darker. The later books will also have elements of Gothic fiction and Victorian Detective stories in them. Possibly rather ambitious, I admit, but I have already written quite a large proportion of several of them.

I also write short stories and occasional poetry. At least, I call it occasional, but I do seem to be writing more of it than I used to.

And then I paint. I try to sell some of these through my shop on Etsy, although in the past I used to exhibit regularly at exhibitions and in various galleries (and sold quite well!). Perhaps I should investigate that route again.

There are links to Etsy and to my books on the sidebar, if you wish to go and have a gander.

And, when I can, I travel. Preferably with my wife. India and Nepal are favourite destinations, but so too are places closer to home in the UK, especially long-distance walks.

But, that’s enough about me for the moment. Possibly a little more next time.

Review – The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

 

002

Late in the year 1327 Brother William of Baskerville, a Franciscan monk, and Adso, a Benedictine novice, arrive at a monastery in Northern Italy. Winter is rapidly approaching, and so is both a legation led by a notorious inquisitor and another that contains that inquisitor’s implacable enemies. William is to speak in intercession between them.

But once they arrive at the monastery, a series of brutal murders begins, and, at the request of the Abbot, William and Adso are drawn into the investigation.

Every detective story needs a detective, and in The Name of the Rose it is William of Baskerville, who indeed uses logic and observation to make deductions, much like a medieval Sherlock Holmes.

Untitled-Grayscale-01

As the plot develops, there are long theological debates centred around both the poverty of Christ and the question of whether Christ laughed. Questions I have little knowledge of, but which read as authentic to me. But these debates are central to the plot. On the interpretation of Christ’s poverty alone, men and women are accused of heresy and burnt at the stake.

But everything is centred upon the monastery’s library. This library is the greatest library of its time in Europe, containing innumerable rare, important and beautiful volumes. At the centre of the story lies a mysterious and forbidden book, and this book lies at the centre of the labyrinthine library where only the Librarian and his assistant are permitted. But are the murders being committed to get hold of this book or is there another reason? Could they, in fact, be connected with the predictions in the Book of Revelations?

Untitled-Grayscale-02

This is such a well-known book that I found I forgot it was a translation from the original I was reading. Much like the Bible, of course, which point is salient to the monks, and certainly in medieval times this interpretation was a matter of life or death to thousands.

But the translation of  prose does not pose the same problems as the translation of verse, and I don’t suppose the English translation is any different from the Italian original. But the potentials made me smile

As a long book, it provides a canvas for long descriptions, both of the abbey and the associated buildings – essentially a castle – and of the long debates between the monks and the other players. At times there is undoubtedly a temptation to skip some of these, but the reader is adequately rewarded for persevering in that the descriptions paint a powerful picture of the place and time, while the debates tell much about the importance of religion and the ridiculous interpretations of every word of the Bible that quite literally governed the lives and deaths of everyone at that time.

A word about the pace of the book, though. Some readers may find it a little slow (although if those readers skip the debates and longer descriptions it is as fast-paced as any other), but remember it is not just a detective story, it is also a historical novel and moves at the pace one would expect of a book of that genre.

I read this a very long time ago, and although I remember it as having been a very good book, I had forgotten just how good. I will unhesitatingly give it five stars.

And the meaning behind the title? Well, you need to wait until the end to find out, and then you need to understand Latin…

Grumble Mutter Whinge

It is the first of March, today.

Meteorologically, it is the first day of spring. So, that virtually guarantees what weather we will have today; the sky is overcast and grey, there is a bitterly chill wind blowing and a spiteful, thin drizzle.

Spring! Oh, humour!

Arf!

Admittedly, the astronomical calendar tells us spring doesn’t arrive until around the 20th March, so winter still has cate blanchett to do whatever it will.

So that’s fine; it sort of reflects my mood at the moment, anyway. But at least going out for a walk always lifts my mood a little, and today is no exception. I’ve been working on my new novel quite intensely for a while, and I suddenly need to step back from it for a week or two.

Come up for air, as it were.

ladakh 5 panorama

Not this one!

And so I go for a walk in the miserably wintery springy weather. Ten minutes or so through the streets brings me to the common – a wooded area on the edge of the town which, on good days, is a pleasant enough place to walk, even if it doesn’t have any convenient mountains or long distance trails.

On bad days, though, it is full of dog walkers.

That sounds a bit mean, you may say. And, okay, you’re right. It is. But in my defence, when I say full of dog walkers (and dogs), I mean full!

Untitled-Grayscale-01

This one!

It is not unusual to be surrounded by dozens of dogs running madly around, the air filled with strident shouts of ‘Gawain! Guinevere! Come here at once!’ ‘Will you come here!’ ‘Put that down!’ ‘Keep still and he won’t hurt you!’ and then some wretched little tyke suddenly tugging at your trouser leg with a mouthful of razor-sharp teeth, to be followed by another shout of ‘Keep still, I said!’ from a voice that could etch glass.

But not today, fortunately.

And having had my walk, I can sort out a couple of other things on my writing list.

Once I got back, I edited a short story I promised for a project for our writing group. Job done – tick.

Next, I’ll begin the edit of a very long short story that has been hanging around for ages. So long, in fact, that I mentioned it in the ‘My Writing’ section on this blog when I first set it up, a year and a half ago. Tut. It’ll be good to get that finished, anyway. It’s my first attempt at a traditional murder mystery, and I rather got lost in my own convolutions.

If I get it to the point where I’m happy with it, I might put it out as an e-book, just to see what people think of it.

Ahem…if anyone buys it, of course.

And, as a bonus, I had an idea for another short story while I was out walking, so hooray!

Now to barricade the door against all the angry dog walkers.