Six Degrees of Separation – From Austen to…

Chain links…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to start with the book that Kate gives us and then create a chain of six books, each suggested by the one before. For once, this month’s starting book is one I’ve actually read!

Sanditon by Jane Austen. Sanditon is a fictional little village on the south coast of England, and local landowner Mr Thomas Parker dreams of turning it into a health resort like its bigger neighbours, Brighton and Eastbourne. The current fad among the fashionable is for sea-air and sea-bathing, both promised to cure any number of ills. Mr Parker and his wife invite the young daughter of a friend to visit, Charlotte Heywood, and it’s through her sensible eyes that the reader sees the inhabitants of Sanditon, with all their foibles, kindnesses and hypocrisies.

Sea bathing at Brighton

So many options for a chain! Should I take the probable romantic lead, Sidney Parker, and head off to the tragic romance of Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities? Or head to Brighton and Elly Griffiths’ great Stephens and Mephisto series? No, I think I’ll see how health care has developed in Eastbourne in a great true crime book…

The Curious Habits of Doctor Adams by Jane Robins. In 1957, Dr John Adams, a general practitioner from Eastbourne, was tried for the murder of an elderly patient, ostensibly because he hoped to inherit her Rolls Royce. The investigation leading up to the trial was a press sensation, with rumours abounding that Adams had murdered as many as 300 patients. This book tells the story of the investigation and trial, and Jane Robins asks the reader to judge whether the eventual verdict was right or wrong – was Adams a mass-murderer in the mould of Harold Shipman or was he a maligned man?

Dr John Adams

My verdict: Guilty as sin!

Adams’ doctoring happened while the NHS was still in the process of settling in, but the medical man in my next book was pre-NHS, and before medicine became so strictly regulated…

The Murder of a Quack by George Bellairs. Nathaniel Wall, an elderly, well-regarded bonesetter, is found murdered in his surgery, and the local police promptly call in Inspector Littlejohn of the Yard. Today we’d think of Wall as an osteopath primarily, though he also dips into other fields of medicine including the more “alternative” one of homeopathy. The local qualified doctor is a drunken incompetent, who strongly resents that so many locals prefer to visit the “quack” Walls rather than him. It’s an interesting comparison of the skilled but unqualified practitioner and the feckless professional, with all the sympathy going to the former. Plus it’s a good mystery!

The only link I can come up with here is to another doctor – this seems to be becoming my theme for the month! This time we’re off to Holland to meet reluctant General Practitioner Marc Schlosser in…

Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch. Marc has a reputation for being willing to help out with the occasional prescription for drugs that might not be strictly medically necessary. His patients think he’s wonderful and caring (or so he tells us) mainly because he allows twenty minutes for an appointment and appears to want to listen to what they want to say. But the reader has the dubious privilege of seeing inside Marc’s head, and we soon learn that he’s rather different to the image he projects.

Occasionally I’ll ask someone to undress behind the screen, but most of the time I don’t. Human bodies are horrible enough as it is, even with their clothes on. I don’t want to see them, those parts where the sun never shines. Not the folds of fat in which it is always too warm and the bacteria have free rein, not the fungal growths and infections between the toes…

Another doctor I wouldn’t give any awards for caring to is the philandering hero of my next book…

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. Separated from his family by war, Yuri Andreevich Zhivago is torn between his duty to his wife and family and his adoration of the lovely nurse Lara. Unfortunately, he seems to suffer from severe commitment issues alongside a healthy dose of narcissism but, fortunately, he’s such a wonderful, intelligent, incomparably talented poet and sensitive human being (we know this because he tells us himself) that all the people he abandons throughout his life still adore him, because they recognise his innate superiority to all other mortals.

He’s such a charmer…

However, he could not very well say to them: ‘Dear friends, oh, how hopelessly ordinary you and the circle you represent, and the brilliance and art of your favourite names and authorities, all are. The only live and bright thing in you is that you lived at the same time as me and knew me.’

Ooh, I say! Oops, I mean… Omar Sharif as the Doctor. Wonder if he does housecalls?

There must be some good doctors out there surely? Ah yes, of course!

The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut. Having retreated to a remote country hospital following the messy break-up of his marriage, Doctor Frank Eloff is in a reasonably contented rut. The hospital is in a homeland in South Africa that ceased to exist when apartheid ended, so that now the town is sparsely occupied and the hospital has very few patients and only a tiny staff. But one day a new doctor shows up – young Laurence Waters. Idealistic and somewhat naive, Laurence wants to do good, and his presence becomes a catalyst for change. This is a story of disillusionment – of a man and of a country.

Unfortunately we spend more time with the depressed and apathetic Frank than the idealistic Laurence, but surely my last doctor will redeem the reputation of the profession, in…

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. Hercule Poirot has retired to the village of King’s Abbott to grow vegetable marrows. Roger Ackroyd is a wealthy man and a leading light in the community, but he’s not always generous to his many dependants. So when he is found dead in his study there are plenty of suspects. Dr James Sheppard is first on the scene of the crime and once Poirot becomes involved in the investigation the doctor finds himself acting as his unofficial assistant.

Dr Sheppard and his delightfully nosy sister Caroline add much to the fun of the book, and Dr Sheppard has a spotless reputation as a caring physician in his small community. Phew! Glad I found one good doctor at last…

* * * * *

So Austen to Christie, via the health resort of Eastbourne, doctors, doctors, doctors, doctors and doctors!

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

Look over there…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Hercule Poirot has retired to the village of King’s Abbott to grow vegetable marrows but, as we all know, wherever that man goes, murder is sure to follow. Roger Ackroyd is a wealthy man and a leading light in the community, but he’s not always generous to his many dependants. So when he is found dead in his study there are plenty of suspects. Dr James Sheppard is first on the scene of the crime and once Poirot becomes involved in the investigation the doctor finds himself acting as his unofficial assistant. It is through Dr Sheppard’s eyes that the reader follows the case.

This is one of the most famous of the Poirot books and many people consider it to be the best. I always have a hard time deciding on “best” Christies because so many of them are so good, but this would undoubtedly make my top 5. However, it’s one of those ones that’s got such an amazingly brilliant solution, like Murder on the Orient Express and a couple of others, that once read never forgotten, so I tend to re-read it less often. I found on this re-read after many years, though, that although I remembered the solution very clearly, I’d actually forgotten most of the plot, so it still made for an enjoyable revisit.

Mr Ackroyd had been upset earlier on the day of his death by the news that wealthy widow Mrs Ferrars, with whom rumour suggested he was romantically involved, had died apparently by her own hand. At dinner that evening, he told Dr Sheppard that he’d received a letter from her which he hadn’t yet read. When his body is discovered later, no trace of the letter is to be found. Also missing is young Ralph Paton, Mr Ackroyd’s stepson, and when he fails to show up the next day suspicion quickly falls on him. Ralph’s fiancée, Mr Ackroyd’s niece Flora, begs Poirot to come out of retirement to prove Ralph is innocent. Poirot gently points out to Flora that if he takes the case he will find the truth, and if the truth turns out to be that Ralph is guilty, she may regret her request. Flora is sure of Ralph, though, so Poirot agrees. The local police know of his reputation and are happy to have him work with them.

Agatha Christie

“My dear Caroline,” I said. “There’s no doubt at all about what the man’s profession has been. He’s a retired hairdresser. Look at that moustache of his.” Caroline dissented. She said that if the man was a hairdresser, he would have wavy hair – not straight. All hairdressers did.

Part of the fun is seeing Poirot and his methods through Dr Sheppard’s eyes. Though he’s amused by the detective’s appearance and mannerisms, Sheppard soon begins to appreciate that Poirot’s unusual methods often get people to reveal things that the more direct questioning of the police officers fails to elicit. Poirot is of a social standing to mix as a guest in the homes of the village elite and, since gossip is the favourite pastime of many of them, including Sheppard’s delightfully nosy spinster sister, Caroline, they make him very welcome in the hopes of pumping him for information. Sheppard also has inside knowledge of all the village characters and their histories, useful to Poirot and entertainingly presented to the reader. The gossip session over the mah-jong game, for example, is beautifully humorous – so much so that it’s easy to overlook any clues that might be concealed amid the exchange of titbits of information Caroline and her cronies have managed to gather.

But that is certainly not the sort of information that Caroline is after. She wants to know where he comes from, what he does, whether he is married, what his wife was, or is, like, whether he has children, what his mother’s maiden name was—and so on. Somebody very like Caroline must have invented the questions on passports, I think.

Hugh Fraser

Christie is always brilliant at misdirection, and this book may be her best example of that. Is it fair-play? Yes, I think so – I think there are enough clues to allow the reader to work it out, but they’re so beautifully hidden I bet very few readers will. However, unlike a lot of clever plotters, Christie always remembers that to be truly satisfying a mystery novel needs more than that. In this one, the Sheppards are really what make it so enjoyable – the doctor’s often satirical observations of Poirot and his fellow villagers, and Caroline’s good-natured love of gossip. Combined with Poirot’s little grey cells and eccentricities, they make this not only a triumph of plotting but a highly entertaining read too. And, as always, Hugh Fraser is the perfect narrator. Great stuff!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

The Crime Fiction Handbook by Peter Messent

the crime fiction handbookAn academic approach to crime fiction…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

This is an academic analysis of crime fiction looking at how it has evolved since its inception, which Peter Messent dates back to Poe’s Dupin tales. Messent discusses the different types of crime fiction which he categorises as Classical, Hard Boiled, the Police novel and Transgressor fiction and shows how each category affects and is affected by wider aspects of society such as gender, race and politics. He gives particular importance to the increasing urbanisation of society in the development away from the straightforward murder mystery of early crime fiction towards the more noirish approach of many writers as the 20th century progressed. In the final section, Messent looks in depth at certain books in each of the categories, relating them to his previous analyses.

the murder of roger ackroydThe book is interesting if a little dry at times. While occasionally I felt that Messent was over-analysing or reading things into the texts that weren’t completely justifiable, on the whole his arguments were convincing and well supported with evidence. His analyses are based largely on American fiction with a substantial minority of British writers, especially from the classical era, but with very little from other countries. Messent accepts this himself as a weakness of the book, pointing out that there is so much crime fiction that an exhaustive analysis would be difficult. He expresses the hope that the work he has done in this book will be seen as a jumping off point for future academics to extend the arguments beyond the authors he has chosen.

the big sleepOverall, I enjoyed the book, particularly the final part with Messent’s reading of specific texts such as The Big Sleep, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd etc. Any crime fiction enthusiast will be familiar with the majority of the texts he has chosen and this helps to put his analyses into context. Recommended for anyone who would like to look a little more deeply into the place crime fiction has carved out for itself in literature and, indeed, in the wider context of society as a whole.

Peter Messent is Emeritus Professor of Modern American Literature at Nottingham University.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link