Tag Archives: Ruth Rendell

More Angel Food: two favourite authors and two new ones

I took loads of books out of the library to cover me over Christmas, and I still haven’t read them all.  I’m very short of time this week, more so than usual, because my blog writing time has been taken up by a long letter to the Chairman of John Lewis – part complaint, part praise but that’s maybe for another time.

I thought I’d just do a quick list and even quicker reviews of my some of my recent reading. I originally set out to write about nine books, but am stopping at five as once again, I’m running out of time.

I’d been really looking forward to reading these first three books – I was thrilled to discover that there were some books by my favourite authors that I had yet to read.

Tigerlily’s Orchids – Ruth Rendell. One of my favourite authors, though I prefer her when she writes as Barbara Vine.  This book is more Vine than Rendell, similar in that respect to The Keys to the Street, but that’s where the comparison ends. Some interesting characters but some I soon tired of.  Overall it was disappointing, especially as the main premise was so obvious and easy to spot.

The Vault – Ruth Rendell. Much hyped and reviewed.  Linked to her earlier novel A Sight for Sore Eyes. I knew I should have re-read that book first but, although I have nearly all the Rendell and Vine books, I couldn’t find it and was too impatient to wait. I don’t generally like the Wexford books; this was no exception. Since I couldn’t remember much about the first book, I spent the whole time wondering when I was going to be reminded of the earlier crime. That didn’t happen until the very end.  I don’t know if that made it better or worse for someone who hadn’t read the first book.

Blue Monday – Nicci French. This was also much hyped but with justification. I love the fact that, like most of the French books, this one is set in London. At first the plot seemed fairly pedestrian – small boy goes missing and at the same time a psychiatrist is faced with a patient whose dreams seem to indicate some guilty knowledge. But the plot deepens. The characters are very well drawn. It’s difficult to end a book well, especially a mystery/detective/thriller. This one has the most wonderful twist in the tail, which makes for a great ending.

The next two authors were unknown to me although I don’t know how I missed Derby Day as it was on the Booker shortlist.

Derby Day – D.J. Taylor. Subtitled ‘A Victorian Mystery’ this lives up to the description in spades. The book feels authentic from page one.  I could really put myself in the scene. D.J. Taylor brings the era alive, I really related to the characters and felt as if I would understand them as easily as I would someone living today. I haven’t even finished this book – I’m about three quarters of the way through and am just as engaged as I was at the beginning. From looking at the chapter headings I know there are still some surprises to come – and we haven’t even reached Derby Day yet.

Any Human Face – Charles Lambert. The late and much missed Beryl Bainbridge said ‘Charles Lambert is a seriously good writer.’ I totally agree. The book moves from the mid-80s to 2008 and back again, with a side step into the early 60s. Beautifully put together, each section revealing a little bit of the story, until they combine to show the links between apparently unrelated crimes. This is always a brave thing to do as the author must rely on the reader staying with it even though this may demand some patience. The setting is Rome, but a part of Rome the tourists don’t see, the seamy fringe of Rome’s gay scene.   The characters are engaging especially the colourful and poignant Birdman.

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Death comes in many guises. But if death by carrot sounds just plain silly, try a blow to the head from a frozen fish!

Our relationship with food is complex – we love it, hate it, overindulge in it, deprive ourselves of it. Whether we see it as a pleasure or a curse, we all have an opinion about it. The Internet is stuffed with blogs about bacon, cup cakes and capons.  With food fads and fashions and freakish diets – recipes for unachievable weight loss that may even lead to disaster.

And that’s just what food has proved to be for some. From the ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’ to the Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919, food has been the cause of many deaths in film, in literature and indeed in life.  Far from life imitating art, with food it’s often the other way around.  For every fictional death by espresso machine or garlic canapé there’s a real life death by cocoa or carrot. Yes, really!

La Grande Bouffe, a classic film from 1973, sees a group of friends get together with the express purpose of eating themselves to death. Distributed in the UK as ‘Blow Out’, its comic depictions of sex and gluttony were highly controversial. Nevertheless, whether deliberately or not, some of the crowned heads of Europe have equalled, even surpassed, that level of gormandise. Take our own dear Henry I, for example, said to have died after stuffing himself with lampreys, his favourite food. His tastes appear somewhat peculiar, since lampreys are an extremely ugly, primitive fish that feed on the blood, body fluids and muscles of bigger fish.  Thankfully, they’re not something we’re likely to find at the fish counter in Waitrose.

Fast forward to 1771 for yet another monarch setting a bad example. Remembered by Swedish schoolchildren as ‘the king who eat himself to death’, Adolf Frederick died after scoffing an enormous dinner. If the lobster, caviar, sauerkraut, smoked herring and champagne didn’t do the damage, then maybe the pudding was the coup de grâce. Greedy Adolf finished his meal with Selma, his favourite food – a sweet spiced bun, stuffed with almond paste and whipped cream, served with hot milk. Nice. But fourteen bowls of the stuff! No wonder he didn’t make it to 1772.

Perhaps these monarchs brought misfortune on themselves, but that’s hardly true of the victims of London’s Great Beer Flood. Though maybe there are worse ways to die. Death by carrot or death by beer? No contest, I’d say. The tragedy happened at a brewery in London’s Tottenham Court Road on October 17th, 1814. Some huge vats ruptured, sending a wave of beer gushing into the streets, destroying homes and a nearby pub. Nine people died but, although the Meux Brewery was prosecuted, no one was held responsible. An early example of the need for a corporate manslaughter law.

The Boston Molasses Disaster in 1919 gave a whole new meaning to the saying ‘meeting a sticky end’. On an unseasonably hot day in January, a storage tank exploded, sending a wall of molasses coursing through part of Boston, Massachusetts. Between 8 and 15 ft high, travelling at around 35 mph, it killed 21 and injured 150. The force flung people and horses into the air, hurled a truck into Boston Harbour, snapped the girders of the elevated railway and swept buildings off their foundations. People were ensnared in the sticky mess as if they were flies on flypaper.

If that could form the plot of a zany horror movie, death by carrot sounds downright silly. But this unassuming vegetable, generally considered to be good for you, can in fact turn out to be lethal. And not just in implausible fiction.  Perhaps the craziest carrot death is that in the opening scene of the movie, ‘Shoot ‘Em Up’ when Clive Owen brings down the baddie with a stick of carrot. Less well known is the sad case of Basil Brown, a 48-year-old health food enthusiast. Having swallowed excessive amounts of vitamin A and drunk ten gallons of carrot juice, he ended up bright orange.  And dead. So be sensible – stick to your five a day.

Of course, most crime related to food is fictional. Not to be outdone by the vegetables, meat also figures in these tales.  Fish too. There’s the infamous Roald Dahl story, ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’, where a wife bludgeons her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, swiftly defrosts it, roasts it and serves it up to the investigating constabulary. A great way to destroy the evidence.  There’s a similar idea in an episode of ‘Murder She Wrote’. Here the weapon was a frozen fish, which, after it had served its purpose, was served for lunch.

Although the murderer is generally unmasked in the end, the primary aim in detective fiction is to fool the reader. Which leads to some truly ingenious plots. Like cleverly using the victim’s own weakness to engineer death by anaphylactic shock. Strictly speaking not all allergies are food related – bees are not food, not in Europe anyway. Honey is though, and so are peanuts. Ruth Rendell used a bee sting in ‘To Fear a Painted Devil’, as did H.F. Heard in ‘A Taste of Honey’ and Julie Parsons in ‘The Courtship Gift’. In ‘If Looks could Kill’, Kate White used peanut butter.

In that case the victim didn’t die; such deaths are not that easy to pull off, even in a book. So a word of advice – don’t try this at home. As to that death by garlic canapé, I cheated. The victim was a vampire. And the unfortunate who met her death at the espresso machine? She was fictional too and she was electrocuted, not scalded or smothered by coffee. However, truth is stranger than fiction. In 1975, in the charmingly named Peachtree City, Georgia, two kitchen workers thought it might be fun to throw cocoa power at each other.  The room was small. The powder got in their lungs. They died. But don’t let that put you off your hot chocolate – unless of course you’re in the habit of inhaling it!

©  Clodagh Phelan, October 2010 – this article first appeared in Issue 4 of Eat Me Magazine



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