Monday, July 11, 2022

Summer mysteries

Five Books asks for recommendations of "The Best Summer Holiday Mystery Books." Two classics:

Dorothy L. Sayers’ Have His Carcase:
In Strong Poison, Harriet is a detective novelist on trial for murder. She has been researching methods of murder for a book she’s writing, and ends up accused of the murder of her ex-lover. Wimsey investigates and eventually extricates her from that situation. In this book, she’s trying to get away from it all after having been at the centre of that terrible media maelstrom and the court case. She’s taken herself off on a solo walking tour of the south coast of England. She wants to get away from murder, death, the press, everything. She stops to have her lunch on a beach one day when she’s walking, and she sees a rock out in the low tide zone, and is a bit confused by what she sees. She goes to investigate, and finds a man lying dead on the rock with his throat cut.

It is a locked room or impossible crime mystery in as much as she was sitting there the whole time, she could see the whole beach, and no one approached either by sea or by land. Yet here is this man lying there, still warm, blood still flowing. It’s impossible. How can it happen?

It all unfolds from there, really. She walks to the nearest town to tell the police. And because she is eminently practical, she realises this is going to be a huge story: detective novelist just cleared of murder discovers newly-murdered man. She calls the papers herself and sells the story—she can at least profit from it. Then Lord Peter Wimsey turns up to help investigate what has happened.

The title, in true Dorothy L. Sayers fashion, is an obscure reference to the writ of habeas corpus, which says that you can only hold an inquest for a body if the body is present. If there’s no body there, you can’t proceed with the prosecution of a crime. The tide has come in and gone out again, taking the body with it. If Harriet hadn’t been there to take notes and photographs—because she had her little camera with her for her holiday—the police probably wouldn’t even have believed anything had happened. ....
Agatha Christie's Appointment with Death:
Agatha Christie has a couple of really famous overseas mysteries featuring Hercule Poirot—Death on the Nile being one, and the other being Murder on the Orient Express, which isn’t set in summer but it’s still a holiday mystery. I’ve never been able to understand why Appointment with Death isn’t up there with those two, because it also features Hercule Poirot, and he’s on holiday—this time in Petra in Jordan, where he has gone on a sightseeing tour to the famous monuments with a party of other tourists. He doesn’t know them.

It’s a perfect closed circle, because the archaeological site is sort of inaccessible, unless you come with guides. Once you’re there, it’s hard to leave—I think it’s just in the desert, so you couldn’t just walk off on your own.

A very unpleasant woman, a matriarch of a family, is there with several of her children and her spouses. They all have to kowtow to her. She’s very cantankerous. Later, she’s found dead, and there are only a handful of people in the valley who could have done it. Hercule Poirot happens to be there, he investigates, and so on.

It’s a great set-up for a mystery that draws directly from Christie’s own experience of travelling in the Middle East. She was very familiar with that area, so the setting is very precise and well described, you really feel like you are there. ....

Caroline Crampton, "The Best Summer Holiday Mystery Books," Five Books, July 11, 2022.

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