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September 27, 2006

We have had plenty of new Agatha Christies, do we now have a new Dorothy L. Sayers? After the Armistice Ball - Catriona McPherson

Posted by Helen Szamuely

After the Armistice Ball
by Catriona McPherson
London: Constable & Robinson, 2005
Hardback, 17.99; Paperback, 6.99

Every new female detective story writer appears to be a new Agatha Christie, especially if the action is set in some English village (everyone seems to forget the number of Christie books that are set in London or, even, abroad). It is, therefore, a relief to come across a writer who is already being described as the new Dorothy L. Sayers.

The Scottish Daily Mail in its review of the first book about Dandelion (Dandy) Gilver - her parents had been William Morris acolytes - wrote quite rightly that it was:

time for contemporary Scottish crime fiction to lighten up.
The review describes Catriona McPherson's work as "Tartan tweed" and urges it to give "Tartan noir" a run for its "dirty money". All those who have tried to wade through the dark and dank, deeply depressing thrillers about Scotland that make one wonder whether there are any normal human beings there at all, will sound a heartfelt "hear, hear" to that.

There are many reasons why this novel should be compared to those of Sayers. It takes place in the aftermath of the First World War; its title with its reference to the Armistice Ball calls to mind The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, in which all kinds of nefarious events take place on and around Armistice Day; there is a discussion of whose body might have been buried (Whose Body?, Sayers's first detective story); and there is a good deal of action revolving round a collection of fabulous jewels (Nine Tailors).

There is another reason for the comparison: like Sayers, McPherson produces a convoluted plot that, in the end, does not quite stand up to scrutiny. In fact, it stands up to scrutiny considerably less than, say, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club.

Of particular interest is the comparison in the way the Great War and its effects are treated by the contemporary Sayers and by McPherson who, one must assume, has been brought up on the poets and other negative descriptions. Catriona McPherson does not come out badly in the comparison. Famously, Lord Peter Wimsey had been buried in a landslide in the trenches and goes on suffering from nightmares for years afterwards. Many of his friends and acquaintances suffer from the effects of shell shock or gas poisoning. The world Sayers describes has been turned upside down by the war with few people managing to escape its effects, sometimes good, as in the position of women, but mostly bad.

In Catriona McPherson's world few people are suffering too much from the after effect of the Great War. Dandy herself had worked as a nurse and finds the post-War return to being a chatelaine in slightly straitened circumstances extremely dull, until she starts on her sleuthing career. Her husband had never been in any danger, having been seriously wounded in the Boer War. Her "assistant" Alec Rose had gone through some bad times and his elder brother had been killed but he does not spend too much time discussing matters. One wonders whether, in an odd sort of way, McPherson might be giving a very realistic picture of the immediate years after the Great War.

What of the plot and the style? As I said, it is very convoluted and works only if all disbelief is suspended, though there are a few logical strands. Some of the conversation, particularly between Dandy and Alec, is very unlikely for a married man and a younger man of the early twenties, particularly as the social sphere described in the novel is not the rather advanced or raffishly aristocratic ones of the Wimsey books.

Catriona McPherson is beginning to take her characters rather seriously, as Sayers had done. One of the more embarrassing aspects of later editions of the novels was a purported biography of Lord Peter Wimsey, written by his maternal uncle in a rather self-satisfied but unctuous style. Nothing like that with Catriona McPherson but she has set up a website for the characters and their lives, which is threatening to turn the forthcoming saga into a cosy (well, relatively cosy as the action takes place in draughty Scottish houses and castles) series of stories with a bit of detection. For the moment, Dandy Gilver with her Dalmatian, Bunty, is an amusing newcomer to the detective scene. Let us hope she does not drown in quaintness and charm.

Dr Helen Szamuely is a writer and political researcher as well as editor of the Conservative History Journal and co-editor of www.eureferendum.com.


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