It’s strange how something about murder can be so comforting and cosy, but mysteries are often some of the most relaxing books I can read. And this was no different.
I’ve been solidly enjoying the entire series, and fought my desire to binge them, instead stringing them out a little to savour them, but alas, the time has come, and now I’ve read them all. I think they’re going to go down as some of my favourite detective books. They’ll never beat Holmes, because nothing will, but they’re up there with the Sidney Chambers books for sure. The whole thing is exactly the right combination of predictable and solveable, but challenging and interesting, with just the right amount of nostalgia and comfort thrown in. Imogen is a fantastic lead, and a lovely personality, as well as a plausible detective who doesn’t have to be crowbarred into situations (much like Sidney Chambers, she has an excuse to be prying into the goings on of the college and the students). Everything makes sense, and generally the two halves of the story, or rather the two stories going on side by side, fit together neatly and soon enough that the reader doesn’t get exasperated.
Obviously I went into this knowing it was the last one, which did cast a bit of a pall over thing, but on the whole, I think it’s probably the second best of the series. It’s definitely better than the third, which is the weakest, but I’m not sure where I’d rank it with the first and second. It’s not an ending, per se, though there are some ending threads in it, and I’m sort of glad about that? It doesn’t feel like it needs to wrap everything up with a happy ending, which the third book rather made me feel might happen, what with mostly being an endeavour in trying to solve Imogen’s romantic life. But The Bad Quarto pushes that back to the side (though still keeping it as an important part of Imogen’s life and personality), and focuses back more on the mysteries and the little bit of life in her college, which is what you want.
What was also rather more noticeable in this book, well, two things. One, that Paton Walsh acknowledges her debt to/links with Dorothy L. Sayers, referencing Gaudy Night more than once, and explicitly, as well as mentioning Sayers by name. And two, that she’s an English graduate. I double checked, but one definitely gets the sense of it in the text.
The title and main thread of the novel follow the death of a Shakespearean scholar and the production of an unusual version of Hamlet – the so-called “Bad Quarto”, a different edition to the usual version, often assumed to be the work of an actor writing from memory, or an audience member likewise – by a group of players and their somewhat mysterious benefactor. What this means, aside from the intricacies of the plot, is that Paton Walsh is expounding on the matter of Shakespearean scholarship and opposing critical views for the reader, and it becomes very clear very quickly that she is well acquainted with the in-fighting and back-biting of the academic world, as well as the substance of the critique itself. Particularly, the disdain for academic Marxists rings rather true, and is joyfully familiar in its tone. She’s clearly someone with a very affectionate, very knowing exasperation for the whole thing, and it’s just lovely. She also presents a variety of people in the scholarship – undergraduates, graduates, players and fellows or ex-fellows – with various views and takes on the issues, and doesn’t fall into any proselytising. She lets the reader sit with Imogen and not take sides, only take notes and wonder how everything fits together.
And it’s that comforting familiarity – of Paton Walsh for her subject and location and of this particular reader for the same – that really sells the book for me. The academic arguments feel real, the college feels real, the people feel real. I find myself with St. Agatha’s looking like a mashup between Newnham Cambridge and (strangely) Oriel Oxford, though the majority the former (rather unsurprisingly). I cast her story onto the familiar landscape, and it fits. Because she is very good at evoking a place, without constraining the reader with too many details. It’s about the feeling and the atmosphere, more than anything.
I haven’t really a lot to say about this book divorced from the rest of the series. She continues to do well what she’s done well in the others, and I continue to love them because of course I do. She writes a wonderful, capable, grounded but thoughtful female detective, in a setting I find familiar and with characters I find easy to understand. You always feel like you could have solved the mystery, even if you didn’t, and you get that growing sense of being close to a solution as the story reaches its climax. Everything eventually makes sense, and you can look back and see the details you missed and realise she gave you all the pieces you need.
In short, brilliant, comfortable detective fiction, and a shame there’s so few in the series. I will almost certainly buy them for myself at some point to reread.
A minor schedule change – I forgot to say in my last post I’d be reading Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb (ugh) next, as it’s our book club book this month. I was rather hoping I’d have blogged about it before, when a very… kind friend bought it for me as a birthday present, knowing I hate Hobb, but I think that post got caught in the great Sabriel pile-up, so I shall have to read it for the third time. My views may have changed in the last three years, but I somewhat doubt it. Then we’ll be back onto Hugos and Nebulas, and then onto tackling the shame and horror that is my somewhat creakily unstable reading pile.