Contemplating a Classic
“How did the mushroom expert come to poison himself with deadly fungi? The documents in the case seem to be simple love notes and letters home, yet they conceal a clue to the murderer who baffled the best minds in London”.
11/12/18As you will have figured by now, we in the library crime fiction book group, read books by genre, rather than all reading one book and then discussing it. This makes for fun meetings, where I certainly always learn something new and find different books to read than my normal ones.
We have in the past read classic crime fiction and recently we decided to read something without a named detective. (More difficult to find than you would think).
So, I decided to try and find something which could combine the two genres.
When I was young, I was introduced to crime fiction by my father who was a real aficionado. Which is why I now like reading it – along with other kinds of fiction too. In those days the choice of authors was considerably smaller than now, especially the ones that were translated and therefore accessible to me. One of his favourite authors was Dorothy L Sayers, who therefore for a time also became my favourite. But more to the point her books taught me that crime fiction could also be well written literature.
Sayers lived in the first half of the 20th century. She was a crime fiction writer but also a poet, a translator and a writer of Christian essays. Virtually all her crime fiction features her noble sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, a clever man with a silly flippant manner. But one single books of hers is different in that it has a crime but no detective to solve it. This one. The Documents in the Case.
The book is set in the 1920s. The story revolves around a middle-class suburban household somewhere in the London area. We have the older man, a middle manager of some sort, who has remarried a young, beautiful, rather petulant and sulky ex-office girl, described as a suburban vamp. As most married women at the time she has left her job and is bored to tears. The husband is immensely proud of her, but is utterly unable to show it; he puts her down at every opportunity. In the household is also her companion, a no longer young spinster of the nervous sort, obsessed with sex and men. Into this unhappy house comes as lodgers two young men, a writer and a portrait painter. The inevitable happens; the wife begins an affair with one of them, the husband dies a gruesome and painful death after having eaten poisonous mushrooms, in spite of being an expert on them. The dead man’s adult son suspects foul play and sets out to find the killer. The crime is fiendishly clever, difficult to spot, and like much of the classic crime fiction it is all tied up so very neatly at the end.
The book is written as a series of letters (the documents in the case) between the husband and the adult son, between the writer and his fiancée, between the wife and her lover and between the companion and her sister, these last revealing just how neurotic the spinster is and showing how she slowly sinks into madness. The son assembles these documents and from them he solves the crime. And here I shall say no more for fear of revealing too much.
It is a very cleverly plotted book, the writing is miles above the usual crime fiction, in fact as well as a mystery it is also a literary feast. The writer Minette Walters says of it: 'She combined literary prose with powerful suspense, and it takes a rare talent to achieve that. A truly great storyteller'. I can say no more, other than: pay attention to all the details and read it again if you need.
Oundle Library’s Crime Fiction Book Group is free to attend and lots of fun! We don’t have a set reading list. Instead, we agree a ‘theme’ for the month and choose the books and authors we want to read within that. Why not join us for our next meeting on Friday, 14 December at 2.30pm in Oundle Library? You’ll be very welcome.