Under Investigation at the Summer Readaround – 28 July 2021

What is the collective noun for a group of detectives? Answers please on a postcard, as they used to say.

Anyway, we had a group of seven detectives offering pieces of work, thanks to our host, Linda Brown, whose idea it was to give us all detective pseudonyms.

I was first to present evidence, in my guise as Miss Marple, with a first draft of a history article, on the subject of Sir John Steell, whose statue of Robert Burns we had stumbled upon in Central Park, New York, two years ago. This experience led me to explore the eminent sculptor whose name was unknown to me, and who lies in an unmarked grave in Edinburgh despite having had international fame in Victorian times and been appointed Sculptor to Her Majesty the Queen during Victoria’s reign. Valuable advice was offered regarding ways of finding out more about why such a successful artisan should have nothing to commemorate his life.

Susan (Precious Ramotswe) was up second, with a chapter of her Y.A. novel Children of Ruin in which a distraught Jasmine is experiencing memory loss and terror, during a sleepless night in a cell before being put on trial. Her crime? Susan revealed that it is Jasmine’s attempted act of kindness towards an elderly woman which has resulted in her imprisonment, in a medicated state which leaves her unable to recognise her own reflection. This taster of the end-of-days tale gave us a desire to know more.

Our third offering was from Father Brown (otherwise known as Damaris) who shared another of her Rural Umbrian Tales. Entitled Bad Blood, this engaging piece revealed the sympathetic relationship between elderly grandmother Serefina and her ‘babante’ (or carer) Lena. The Italian care system offers this as a subsidised way of helping people remain in their homes, as they age, but is often regarded as an imposition, disliked by those it is designed to help. Lena is, however, respectful and invaluable, in complete contrast to Serefina’s only son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren who are purely in contact with her for their own financial gain. We cheered as the piece ended with the elderly woman taking control of her life and making her true wishes about her preferred heir, legally binding.

Following our refreshment break, we resumed with Cadfel presiding (aka Linda). In Five Go Gallivanting in the Woods, she took us on a merry jape down memory lane. Eight-year-old Linda, and her five friends, explore the Newmills countryside, comparing it – and the wildlife – to nature described in the 1950s Ladybird Book of Trees, a book given to her by her grandmother. In many ways, Ayrshire does not much resemble the illustrations and descriptions but, well-equipped with note book, magnifying glass and caramels, the intrepid adventurers have a fine day out, “avoided cows” and “dodged thistles”, and celebrate their successful identification of an oak!

Continuing the crime genre, Anne (Hercule Poirot) provided us with another chapter of her suspense-filled novel. Detective Inspector Ogilvie and his Depute, Bentley, go to interview the Headmistress of the Knox School for Girls, as part of their investigation of the murder of Emma Howard, a teacher at the school. This extract is an exercise in the use of fine detail to create character, not only of the police officers but more particularly of the Headmistress, and the school, itself a character, with its gallery of past headmistresses (mostly unsmiling), the tea trolley in the study with hidden sweet treats, and the dents on the well-used chairs. The senses are well employed to conjure atmosphere and mystery.

Agatha Raisin was next to offer evidence (Jean). Sadly, technology was playing up for Jean this evening, with a dodgy internet connection making her unable to see any of us, though we could see and hear her. Undaunted, she gave us a delightful, little nugget of island life called Heard in the Village. Written in first person, this tongue-in-cheek observation of community interaction springs from a real experience of meeting a fellow islander, who is bearing news. But what kind of news? The woman’s general demeanour and hesitancy alerts the listener to prepare for something bad or shocking. The listener’s relief is tangible when she spots “the hint of a smile” and learns the news that “cream teas” are to be served in the village. The piece ends reflectively, speculating that had the news been weather related, it might have been more valuable. The subtle title refers to code often used by islanders to suggest that some pronouncements should be taken with a pinch of salt!

Our final detective was none other than Kirsty Sherlock Holmes. (Did you not know his full name?) The Ferryman is a short story the start of which Kirsty shared. The idea is a fascinating one, with the main character Charon, the ferryman of Hades, from Dante’s Inferno, still ferrying the newly dead on the Styx to their ultimate destination. But it is the use of contemporary back stories of the three newest ‘ghosts’ which brings this tale to life, combining as it does the unexpected juxtaposition of modern elements, like mobile phones and TicTok, with the nine circles of Hell. Most clever of all was the use of the second person in the narration, giving the ferryman an ethereal dimension and the sense that he too is trapped.

Thanks for hosting a most enjoyable evening, Linda.

Carolyn O’Hara

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *