The Sound of Breaking Glass by Deborah Crombie (2013)

I have  Christmas mysteries sitting unread on the shelf, and I might have picked one of them up when I was looking for a crime story to read last month, but I didn’t. Because there’s a series that I love, I knew that I was a few books behind, and the pull of another meeting was old friends was much stronger that the pull of seasonal trappings.

‘The Sound of Broken Glass’ is the fifteenth book in in the series that spins round Metropolitan police officers Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. When the series started, Duncan was a newly promoted Detective Superintendent at Scotland Yard and Gemma was his sergeant. They worked well together, they understand each other perfectly, and in time their their professional relationship grew into a deep and abiding love.

They kept that to themselves for a while, but they both new that they had to do the professional thing; and so they made things official, and their career paths separated.

That changed the character of the series. In the most recent books the story has followed one or other of the pair as they worked on a major case while the other played a supporting role; sometimes on the home front, occasionally with a sub-plot, and frequently with past experience of a suspect, a witness or a similar case that relates to the major case in hand. It works well.

This story begins as Gemma is returning to work after taking a period of parental leave to look after the little girl the couple has been fostering, since she was orphaned as the consequence of a crime in an earlier book. Duncan is taking his own period of parental leave and Gemma is settling in to a new job in a South London murder team.

It falls to Gemma to investigate the somewhat sordid death of a barrister, in a cheap hotel in Crystal Palace. The circumstances suggest a very obvious solution, but, as the police team carried out its investigations, it became clear that there was more to this case that met the eye. As is often the case in this series, the crime was the consequence of events that had happened many years earlier.

A schoolboy, the son of an alcoholic single mother, formed a friendship with the young teacher who had moved into the house next door. She encouraged him to work towards his dream of becoming a musician, until one day she disappeared without saying goodbye. He did become a musician, he was a witness – and maybe a suspect – in the Crystal Palace hotel murder, and Duncan knew him as witness in and earlier case and as the protégé of a friend.

The story in the present and the story in the past were well told and they were both compelling. At first they seemed so disparate, I couldn’t think how that would come together, but it gradually became clearer. The plot was very well constructed, and I really didn’t know it would play out until the very last pages. I turned the pages very quickly, because characters I had come to care about – and not series characters, the characters caught up in the story of this crime – were in jeopardy.

The characters are so well drawn that I can easily believe that they were living their lives in South London, before and after the events in this book; and that city is evoked just as well.

My only issues were that a significant suspect was introduced rather late in the story, and that a certain aspect of the latter part of the story felt rather contrived. Taken as a whole though, this was a very good police procedural.

When I read the last book in this series I was concerned that the balance between the personal and the professional was a little off, bit this time it was right. Gemma and Duncan built a family, with a child each from previous relationships and a child together, and they had a diverse circle of friends. This book moved on the stories of some of them, mentioned some of the others, and left some of them to get on with their lives. It worked beautifully, and I could happily read these books just to catch up with characters introduced in earlier books.

There were moments when I wondered if the family’s domestic life ran a little too smoothly; but I decided that following a couple who got on well and made their relationship, their family life and their professional lives work for them was a lovely change from the norm.

As the story wound down I thought that I could happily move on to the next book in the series very soon. An unexpected cliff-hanger on the very last page made that essential.

I’ve thrown the Christmas mysteries into a charity shop bag, and I have that book on hand …

Rustication by Charles Palliser (2013)

One day I shall read ‘The Quincunx’, Charles Palliser’s much lauded, neo Victorian debut novel; but it’s such a very big book that I know that I have to save it until I can give it the attention that I am sure it deserves.

I loved the novel that followed that one. ‘The Unburied’ wasn’t quite so long, and it was the most wonderful pastiche of the Victorian novel; a complex mystery, that came to light and was paid out to a conclusion when, in 1919,  records that had lain in the Thurchester Records Office were unsealed.

When I saw ‘Rustication’, another neo Victorian novel, not nearly as long as that one that came before, also drawn from documents held by the Thurchester Records Office.

It’s a much simpler affair: this one young man’s account of a dark time in his life, recorded in his diary.

Rustication In December 1863, on a wild and dark night, seventeen year-old Richard Shenstone, was travelling to a new home, a dilapidated and apparently haunted house in the Kentish marshlands. His family fallen terrible since he had left his old home for Cambridge, since his clergyman father’s sudden death; and he had been sent down – rusticated – for smoking opium and being involved, in a way he was disinclined to explain, in the suicide of a similarly intoxicated friend.

His mother was not pleased to see him; and she would not explain why he had not been called home for his father’s funeral, or why she had lost so much and been brought so much lower than she should have. All she wanted was for him to leave.

His sister, caring only for her own position, wanted the same.

He didn’t want to stay but he had nowhere else to go, and he wasn’t prepared to go until he had answers to his many questions about his family’s circumstances.

His mother and his sister maintained a cold silence; the only warmth in his new home came from Betsy, the new, young maidservant, who sometimes allowed him to make late-night visits to her garret.

It is not long after his arrival, that anonymous letters begin to circulate among his neighbours. The letter are obscene, they are threating, and it seems that they always contain at least a grain of truth. And there are attacks on animals, and other strange happenings, carried out in the dark of the night.

Shenstone is regarded with suspicion and so he sets out to find the culprit. He considers Miss Bittlestone, a poor relation of the local rectory family. He considers the enigmatic Mrs Paytress, who has only recently settled in the district, and whose history is unclear. And he considers his sister, Euphemia, who he comes to believe is involved with the  bastard son of the local earl.

But can he find the answers he needs before the net closes on him?

The plot is wonderfully complex; there are twists and turns, there are secrets and lies, and there are many questions of authenticity and reliability to consider. The atmosphere and the evocation of the period is pitch perfect, and the detail is so very, very rich.

But I found a great deal wrong with this book.

The story of the anonymous letters and the animal attacks is reminiscent of ‘Arthur and George’ by Julian Barnes. I know that story was inspired by real history, and that this book might have been inspired by the same history, but I didn’t want to read it again. Was the author not aware, or did he not care?

I also have to say that there was too much in this book that was familiar from other neo Victorian novels. It might be that I have read too many of them now, but I am inclined to think that Charles Palliser was once ahead of his contemporaries, but that he hasn’t moved forward, and that they have caught up with him now.

And then there was the diarist. His voice rang true, but I found it difficult to care for this self-obsessed, sexually obsessed young man, and his account felt so one-dimensional. There was a fine story of a troubled family at the heart of this novel, and it would have felt so much richer if only more documents had been archived with the account that I read.

The details of the diarist’s sexual fantasies were gratuitous. The animal attacks were not gratuitously described, but I really didn’t think that they were necessary at all.

I also have to question that diary itself. I didn’t believe that the young man at the centre of the story would have written in his diary as he did.

Of course he could be unreliable, the diary could be a fabrication; it’s an interesting possibility but I can’t quite believe it as that either.

But I really don’t want to go on thinking about this book.

I hate having to write so negatively, but, when I pick up a book that I expect to love and find much to hate I have to.

Charles Palliser still writes and plots brilliantly; but I have to question his choice of material and his attention to this book as a whole.