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What I Read: The Mystery of the Downs by Rees, this time again in collaboration with John R. Watson. It has a recurring character in the detective, Crewe, and some of the same lineaments of stock character types, internal police rivalry, misleading circumstantial evidence, suspicion falling on each character in turn, etc, but feels entirely different from the other three I've read. One reason is the length; it felt like half the size of the others and there were far fewer torturous twists and turns, as well as much less repetition/recapitulation, as various police officers and detectives tell each other what they've each discovered. (Not to say there wasn't any!) Another reason is that the central mystery (apart from whodunit) was solved not through deux-ex-machina-like deduction by the impassive detective, but involved the breaking of a ridiculously intricate cipher.*
     The main reason why I place it in a different zone is the presence and characterization of WWI soldiers. The plot, in fact, revolves around it. We are told early on that the protagonist suffered badly from shell-shock and mustn't be reminded of the War (echoing the protagonist of The Hampstead Mystery), and that two of the other characters are friends because they were captured and tortured by the Germans. In the end we see that the two had betrayed their company by luring them into the range of the German machine guns and the first character is the only survivor. They escaped eventually and have reframed the story to make themselves out to be heroic. He kills them in revenge, saying that their duty was to die under torture, if need be, before collaborating. 
    It struck me that they are all three repeatedly described as young men to the point that it almost becomes excessive: the corpse of one has 'the youthful contour of his neck' as pretty much the only personal description. In fact they are the only young men in the book, everyone else male being middle-aged or older, and by the end of it two are dead and the third, who killed them, wants badly to die. He says, 'But I do not care about that. I have finished with my life; I do not care what becomes of me. When I recall what I have been through over there in France, when I think of the thousands of brave men who have died agonized deaths, when I see again the shattered mutilated bodies of my men in the shell-hole with me—I want to forget that I have ever lived.' It's such a strong depiction of a lost generation for whom the events and mores of war are more distinct and real than those of the peacetime they inhabit. The same character says 'I do not regret what I have done. As I said before, if I had to go through it again I would not hesitate to shoot him. Perhaps it is because I have lived so much with death while I was at the front that human life does not seem to me a sacred thing. These two men deserved death if ever men did.' It's also so unexpected in what should otherwise feel like your standard-issue mystery novel. 
   I have the tenuous impression that the authors were themselves men who had survived fighting in the war and know exactly what they're talking about. It  struck me that none of the other characters is given the chance to scoff at or question the nervous high-strung walking remnants of the young soldiers who went out to the trenches, and this has to have been a deliberate choice by the authors, who must have met plenty of unimaginative huntin', shootin' and fishin' types who'd expect every young man to come back cheerily talking about having had 'a jolly good war'. All the description of the war is unalloyed horror: machine guns, unheroic deaths, treachery, fear, pain. But at the end of the day. this does not have anywhere near the quality of engagement or writing of The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, or Pat Barker, let alone Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon. The authors want to show something about what the war was really like, enough to puncture the tales of rosy heroism or patriotic fervour, but they stop far short of the kind of brutal honesty of Barker or the WWI poets. They just want to write a thriller, not lay bare the tensions of a post-war world, as Sayers did. But even this much must have had some effect on the first readers of this book; I'd love to find some contemporary reviews or reactions.  
Currently Reading:
If you discount the usual work stuff, nothing at all. It's a very strange feeling. 

Up Next: Probably nothing much because of travel. I'll keep some work reading handy on my phone but won't have a computer to read anything else. Part of me wants to buy a new Allingham in physical form, but I know I'll inhale it on the plane itself and after that it'll be dead weight to lug around through the rest of the trip. I won't want to give it away.
I'd actually bought a dense non-fiction book specifically for travel; it seemed likely to last me through the whole trip. But then I wound up enthusing about the cover design at work, and the press people borrowed it to see if they could reproduce the effect. I'm unlikely to get it back before I leave.

*This is not a plus point. I couldn't follow the unraveling of the cipher at all, and I'm inclined to blame poor writing. I'm not usually someone who will say eg: that I could never be bothered with the bell-ringing details of the code in The Nine Tailors or that the timetables were too boring in Five Red Herrings, I've plodded through a LOT of this kind of stuff, but I just gave up here and let it wash over me, much like the character Crewe was explaining to; like him, I kept wanting to ask, 'so does that mean you've solved it?' after every tedious list and table and meaningless string of characters. Maybe it would have been more engaging if everything didn't hinge on knowing obscure facts about the Bible, 
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June 2017


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