I know for certain that I would enjoy sitting next to Cynthia Harrod-Eagles at a dinner party. When introducing herself (I knew that she had written over 70 books), she informs me that her spare time activities are playing the trumpet and drinking champagne, adding "in one of which she shows no little talent." Curious that she refers to herself in the third person, but what the hey, I have always had a fondness for eccentrics. In addition to her passion for champagne and wine, I discover an interest in horses, architecture, and the English countryside. Since this is a birthday party for Readers and Book Lovers, and Cynthia, who by this time has invited me to call her Che, I listen attentively, of course, until, until... she floats one of the worst puns in recorded history. With indrawn breath, lips compressed, I turn to the person on my right. "Ellid, did you hear that? So bad it was almost good, huh?" From here after, I know that Cynthia Harrod-Eagles and I will be fast friends, and I already think of her as my old pal, Che.
It turns out that Che writes pretty good mysteries, in spite of the incredibly bad puns and plays on words. And now and then, she can get down right ugly in her portrayal of minorities. Loud buzzer here: Never read three novels in a series in one short week. Read them as they come out, several months or years apart. Bad habits will seem less egregious, the tortured play on words and the puns will seem lighter, perhaps more incidental, rather than a genetic defect. More about the dinner party later, on to the characters and plots of the Omnibus.
Here are the main characters:
Bill Slider: Detective Inspector who resists promotion because he likes working in the field rather than controlling a crime scene from an administrative desk. Unhappily married, he finds solace in his job. Slider (Che chooses her names carefully) is the fair-minded Everyman who always sees both sides of any situation, setting him at odds with his supervisors.Plot summaries:
Irene: Slider's unhappy wife, and the mother of their children, Kate and Matthew. Irene longs for Slider's promotion in her desire to belong to a more upscale group of acquaintances with whom she has begun to socialize. The Sliders have not had sex in, what was it? Over a year?
Jim Atherton: Slider's Detective Sergeant, and friend, who is something of a metro-sexual womanizer and the purveyor of ungodly puns. Atherton is sophisticated-style personified, educated, well-read, and loves to play with language.
Joanna Marshall: A material witness in the debut novel, Orchestrated Death. Slider and Joanna fall in love and their relationship takes center stage, often overshadowing the plot, and continuing as a major theme in the following titles.
Orchestrated Death: A young naked woman is found dead in an abandoned council estate apartment, with no clues except a strange mark under her chin, and the letter "T" cut on the bottom of her left foot. The mark under Anne-Marie Austen's chin indicates she was a violinist and leads Slider to her "desk" partner in an orchestra, Joanna Marshall. Suspiciion is cast upon Austen's ex-lover, another orchestra member, but when he is murdered, the investigation turns to Austen's travels to Italy and her favorite tins of olive oil. Really bad pun #1. Atherton: "Virgin Green, indeed. It sounds like a film title. Science fiction, maybe. Or pornography - but we know she wasn't interested in pornography." "Do we," Slider said incautiously. "Of course. She didn't have a pornograph."Meanwhile, back at the birthday bash, Che is describing the pate foie de gras we are sharing, telling me, and I can almost here her quoting from one of her books (none of which I have read yet): "His dinners are becoming famous, you know. Norma told me that last time she was invited he had real truffles in the pate. I don't think I've ever even seen a truffle. Have you?" Ellid whispers to me, "Death Watch, page 305: 'Nobody knows the truffles I've seen.'"
Death Watch: Dick Neal is found dead in a fire in a cheap motel, The Master Baker Motor Lodge, moderately respectable, "despite the inevitable popular corruption of its name to The Masturbator." Horrible pun #15. It looks like suicide, but Slider thinks not. As in Orchestrated Death, Slider is at odds with his supervisors and he continues his affair with Joanna, while disappointing his wife for refusing a promotion, which, in his mind, was offered to shut him up after had had made so much trouble over the Austen case.
Death to Go/Necrochip: I suspect the British and American publishers were at odds over which of these titles offers the best pun. A fish and chips take-away shop is the scene of a grisly murder: the chips (French Fries to us Americans) are hand cut on a machine in the back of the shop, and that little machine and a couple of sharp kitchen knives are the murder weapons. Some poor lad has been chopped to bits and distributted in the trash bags which are hung in the shed. Poor Ronnie Slaughter (uh huh), a young, hapless gay man, who runs the shop, is the prime suspect. When he commits suicide, the case is solved. Or is it?
To give Che her fondue, good food and drink are important to her, and she uses food metaphors in odd and interesting ways. For example: describing a pathologist during a postmortem: "Then with an electric bone-saw he cut through the cranium and lifted the top off the skull, much as he had taken the top off his boiled egg that morning, and with little more effort." And garlic, one of Che's weaknesses she tells me, is noticeably underrated. Looking down at the man on her left, she comments: "Under the table he had a truly amazing erection, and it couldn't be entirely because of the garlic." Slider, who cannot help himself, is in a similar situation, and by the end of the chapter, Che writes one of the best love scenes I have read in a mystery novel. In a magnificent passage, Che fuses the emotional and physical hungers vibrating between Slider and Joanna.
Slider and Joanna are the two fully developed real-life characters in these three novels, with Atherton acting as Che's third, and perhaps, most telling voice, in my opinion expressing views closest to Che's own. Throughout the books, you are usually inside Slider's head, and because he is often depicted as melancholic, doggedly conscientious, even-handed, and liked by everyone, it is usually up to Atherton to make the remarks about food, architecture, drink, and ambiguous sexuality.
Che's greatest strength is character description and development. She takes great care to describe the physical attributes and appearance of even minor, minor players. Here are Slider's thoughts on greeting a babysitter when he returns to his unhappy home in the suburbs: "Slider regarded her as marginally less competent to deal with an emergency than a goldfish, and this was not only because, short of actual self-mutilation, she had done everything possible to make herself ugly and degenerate as possible. Her clothes hung sadly on her in uneven layers of conflictingly ugly colours, her shoes looked like surgical boots, and her hair was died coke-black, while the roots were growing out blonde: a mind-numbing reversal of the normal order of things which made Slider feel as if he were seeing in negative." This character never appears again, but you've seen her, haven't you?, and you know how Slider thinks and assesses.
So there's lots and lots of good to offset the bad. But what about the ugly? Returning to the birthday party, sitting directly across from Che is a rosy, chubby man in his forties, about whom, when he is busy talking to the woman on his right, Che remarks: "he has the flat and hostile eyes of the aging homosexual." I turn a little rosy myself, thinking, she hasn't cottoned on to me, yet?
That little scene is not quite in keeping with the character Che is building for Atherton. Nor does it seem in character for Joanna to describe the same man as "our horrible old queen John," whereas it makes more sense for a lowly copper to call him a "raving bender." In fact, Che uses the adjective/noun "bent" throughout all three books. Occasionally she allows a character to say that "after all it is legal now." Che, for Rock Hudson's sake, get up to date, keep up to date. Underneath it all, I think Che is fascinated by homosexuality. Check out this little play-acting scene between Slider and Atherton: "Atherton ruffled his hair out of order. 'I haven't worked that bit out yet, he admitted. "Slider ruffled his hair back again. 'Only teasing.'" And yet there are few redeeming qualities attached to any of the "bent" characters she portrays.
Che takes a big step in making the homosexual theme pivotal in Necrochip. But she misses by a mile in getting it right. But I think she is trying, and I give her five for that. Unfortunately, she also stereotypes Asians and Blacks. Just a few ugly scenes, gratuitous in my opinion, implying that all Asians look alike, and that Blacks are ignorant and easily duped. In scamming two Blacks who believe they have bought cars that once belonged to Nelson Mandela, the owner says, " I never said I got 'em from Nelson Mandela. I said I got 'em from the Nissan main dealer." Che just cannot resist playing with words, even when the scene adds nothing to the story.
Well now, at the party, I am confessing to Che that I have actually read the first three mysteries in the Bill Slider series, and I wonder what will happen next? She replies blandly: "Will it be Slider who leaves Irene, or will Irene find happiness elsewhere? Will Atherton come out? Will Slider accept a promotion? Will Joanna discover that she prefers Atherton to Slider? Will Atherton and Slider discover that they are more than just friends? Stay tuned, she admonishes, and I believe I shall. Suddenly Che slips off her heels and jumps up on her chair, trumpet at the ready, and begins playing "Happy Birthday to You" for all of the Readers and Book Lovers gathered for the celebration. She adds a little flourish aimed at Limelite, who is sitting at the head of the table.
Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule
|DAY||TIME (EST/EDT)||Series Name||Editor(s)|
|SUN||3:00 PM||The Magic Theater||ArkDem14|
|SUN||6:00 PM||Young Reader's Pavilion||The Book Bear|
|SUN||9:30 PM||SciFi/Fantasy Book Club||quarkstomper|
|MON||8:00 PM||Monday Murder Mystery||Susan from 29|
|MON||11:00 PM||My Favorite Books/Authors||edrie, MichiganChet|
|TUE||8:00 PM||Readers & Book Lovers Newsletter||Limelite|
|WED||8:00 PM||Bookflurries: Bookchat||cfk|
|THU||8:00 PM||Write On!||SensibleShoes|
|FRI||8:00 AM||Books That Changed My Life||aravir|
|FRI||10:00 PM (first of month)||Monthly Bookposts||AdmiralNaismith|
|SAT||11:00 AM (fourth of month)||Windy City Bookworm||Chitown Kev|
|SAT||9:00 PM||Books So Bad They're Good||Ellid|