I sometimes think Agatha Christie ruined mystery fiction for me. She wasn’t a poetic writer, but her skill as a puzzle-maker is incomparable. Her plots are almost always unpredictable, and populated with simple, eccentric personalities who stay by your side every step of the way, yet still beat you to the answers.
The other “Queens of Crime”, who wrote in the genre’s early to mid 20th-century Golden Age – Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham – range between boring and unreadable for me. Sayers was a better prose stylist than Christie (or any of them) but I find her stories tedious and embarrassingly twee. (Lord Peter Wimsey, anyone?)
Marsh is also an okay stylist, but desperately dull. (I still recall The Nursing Home Murder as one of the flattest books I’ve read.) Allingham I haven’t read in a long enough time to pass judgement, though I don’t recall being gripped by her work. Christie, on the other hand, for all her snobbery and untextured prose, gripped.
This brings us to Anne Perry, an English author of historical mysteries. Her novella A Christmas Beginning, part of her Christmas series, paints beautiful pictures of rural Victorian Wales, and rich personalities responding to an oppressive social structure. In literary terms, she’s a better writer than Christie.
Yet the mystery she builds isn’t anywhere near as ingenious as those in Dame Agatha. Perhaps ingenuity isn’t the point, though. I once saw an interview with Perry where she mentioned choosing detective fiction because it gave her a formula with which to arrange her characters and themes.
Other modern crime writers, like Val McDermid, have said similarly. The genre gives you a detective, suspects and a corpse. In other words, a main character, supporting cast and motivation for them all to be around each other. The question, therefore, is whether Perry uses this formula as a springboard to something great.
In my opinion, she does. A Christmas Beginning is a great book, pitched somewhere between Georgette Heyer and Thomas Hardy. On the Welsh island Beaumaris, Inspector Runcorn, a Londoner, is holidaying. He unexpectedly meets Melisande, a widow who, despite her brother John Barclay’s disapproval, once helped him solve a murder.
Any hopes for a pleasant reunion, however, are dashed when Runcorn stumbles across the local vicar’s sister, fatally stabbed in the graveyard. She was, apparently, a spirited and independant woman, whose refusal to settle down into an arranged marriage strained the community’s patience.
The book’s tone is melancholic, though populated by warm and loving, or just likeable, characters. The only thoroughly detestable one is John Barclay, a cruel, self-involved snob whose surface courtesies mask deep contempt for those around him. He was, it seems, competing with a local aristocrat for the late woman’s hand.
Perry’s exploration of social issues is deep and serious. In the vicar’s sister she paints a portrait of a woman oppressed by an archaic social code which demands obedience from her, at the expense of her autonomy and happiness. She is, essentially, a prisoner, having been deprived of the chance to learn a trade and thus dependant on men.
Despite this, she was defiantly individualist until the end. Her sorrows are reflected in Melisande and other women Runcorn meets in the course of his investigation. Perry is a brilliant painter of history; Beaumaris comes alive with windswept hills, quiet churchyards and rich Victorian personalities.
The mystery proceeds at an orderly pace, and given its realist ambitions doesn’t end in one of those shattering Christie denouements. Dark revelations, however, do emerge and are surprising. Perry doesn’t shy away from subjects which writers living in the Victorian era could only have hinted at.
So, while she may not be Agatha Christie, she is Anne Perry, which is more than enough for this reader, who likes being led into the past. For a fireside read with strong characters, evocation of place, dark secrets and a happy ending, A Christmas Beginning is highly recommended.