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Finished: Dead Man's Folly by Agatha Christie,

This one was sharp, sad, and even a little creepy. The solution was improbable, but I didn't feel like it needed to be more probable. It was one of these books about imposture -- something Christie seems to come back to again and again. Ariadne Oliver is in fine form, maybe a little more scatterbrained than usual, but she fades into the background as the solution gets closer.

There are a lot of narrative asides about Poirot's ambiguous aging process. He's getting older, but no one really knows how old he is; he seems to belong to another time, and yet here he is anyway. Poirot books are always set in the present, and Poirot ages, but the latter doesn't correspond directly to the former. He "must be getting on in years" here (in 1956), but he and Ariadne Oliver will be "getting on in years" to about the same degree twenty years from now. I imagine he goes to sleep and wakes up whenever there's a new case to solve; he's only aged a day, but the rest of the world has gone on turning.

So it's weirdly poigniant when Poirot tells one of the survivor-suspects, "It is terrible how much I have missed in life." But then, I could say the same thing, and I live at the same rate as everyone else.

The Wisdom of Father Brown brought back Flambeau, yay! . . . it brought back Flambeau in a story that uses the Dreyfus affair as its example of a case in which diametrically opposed parties were somehow equally wrong or two sides of the same coin. Chesterton's biggest weakness -- which I'm going to go out on a limb and call a weakness instead of just "something I don't like" -- is that he can't seem to resist setting himself up as the Pox on Both Your Houses guy. He ALWAYS wants to play the iconoclast card and make the truth some unexpected third option or "the opposite of everything you think you know," and sometimes it just isn't. Not all dichotomies are false and not all popular notions are bullshit.

Flambeau is in a large number of these stories, and it's always good to see him. Even his completely gratiutous aside about lynching in (the mostly terrible and thoroughly racist) "The God of the Gongs" is potentially forgiveable, because he's immediately rebuked by Father Brown in a way that forces him to think about what he's just said. His remarks and opinions are challenged by other characters and by the narrative in a way Father Brown never is. None of the characters are developed much in any of these books, but because Flambeau is in a kind of moral apprenticeship wth his friend as mentor, he gets to be wrong repeatedly and even to learn from being wrong, while Father Brown is always pushed in front of the reader as a font of suspiciously Chestertonian wisdom even when his "knowledge of human nature" is obviously nothing but prejudice and generalization.

I don't know if there's really more racism in each new Father Brown book I read, or if it's just that it's been building up like a plaque. But I think I'm going to take a break from Father Brown for a while and maybe read something else by Chesterton instead. The short story format is definitely part of the problem -- there's just not enough room to spread out in these stories, no characters to care about in spite of everything, no complicated plots to follow through the thicket of slurs and "types."

I've started The Man Who Was Thursday instead, and it's charming and annoying in about equal measure. The opening description of an artists' colony is smug and sly and funny, and the eye-rollers start in the second paragraph:

Most of the women were of the kind vaguely called emancipated, and professed some protest against male supremacy. Yet these new women would always pay to a man the extravagant compliment which no ordinary woman ever pays to him, that of listening while he is talking.

Women being emancipated + treating men like fellow human beings does not actually = AN AMUSING AND MYSTERIOUS PARADOX, Chesterton. :\


Now Reading: A Death in the Small Hours by Charles Finch
I have to confess I was getting a little bored with The Most Comfortable Man in London in A Burial at Sea, which takes Lenox away from his comfortable home turf and into a lot of sea adventure and shipboard dining and new characters and Foreign Office assignments. I missed the usual dynamic and wasn't 100% sold on the plot, and it reinforced an element of Shielding Jane from the Squalor of Detection that I disliked. Own your murder-solving, Lenox!

A Death in the Small Hours is a return to form, but it's also an example of the development in previous books paying off. We've spent the past five books, more or less, setting up for this six-way taffy-pull of equally powerful loyalties, where Lenox is stretched between Parliament and detection, domesticity and action, city and country. Lenox takes his family to his uncle's country house at Plumbley, to work on an important political speech in peace. Unfortunately, the peace is being disrupted by vaguely threatening graffiti, and Lenox not-so-reluctantly agrees to investigate. Meanwhile, his apprentice/friend Dallington, recovering Upper Class Twit trying to redeem himself through detection (as if that trick ever works), is in the middle of his own probably case-related moral crisis, from which Lenox has to rescue him before he kills himself with too much absinthe. No sooner has he dragged Dallington out of the drunken-stupor room of his club than another telegram arrives saying there's been a murder in Plumbley, GET BACK HERE NOW. He's just stuffed Dallington into a train compartment because he doesn't know what else to do with him, and he's heading back to investigate the murder. Meanwhile, interesting facts about Victorian England keep trickling across Lenox's consciousness like raindrops on a train window.

Charles Finch's prose is not always the subtlest knife in the drawer, but it gets the job done. The pacing is great, especially in the most recent chapters when Lenox is moving back and forth between London and Plumbley, at the mercy of telegrams. The characters are familiar and likeable, and Lenox as an attentive new father is a lot more appealing than Lenox whining about his baby hunger to Jane and the reader. It could all fall apart by the end, but so far this is a good book in the Most Comfortable Man in London tradition.

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
lost_spook
May. 4th, 2015 04:47 pm (UTC)
I don't have much to say, but, you know, your reviews are a complete delight! ♥
evelyn_b
May. 4th, 2015 05:04 pm (UTC)
Aww, thank you, lost_spook!
osprey_archer
May. 4th, 2015 10:03 pm (UTC)
A Death in the Small Hours is one of my favorite Most Comfortable Man in London books: it gives the secondary characters lots of room, it has that nice taffy-pull of loyalties - and, unlike most books with a taffy-pull of loyalties, the conflict feels genuine; Lenox really does care about all these people and all these roles he plays, it's not just manufactured for drama.

Also "recovering Upper Class Twit" is the best description of Dallington. I love him and want to smack him in equal measure.
evelyn_b
May. 4th, 2015 11:41 pm (UTC)
I promised myself I wouldn't become an annoying Dorothy Sayers evangelist, so I am just going to note that everything in this comment is tempting me to break that promise, and leave it at that.

But yes! A Death in the Small Hours feels like it's cashing all the checks the previous books have written, while laying the groundwork for even more development of the same kind.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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