The first one of the year

I commented recently that 2017 had been a particularly good year for brilliant reads. I seem to have had one after another that have been completely spellbinding. I knew it couldn't last, and I've just hit the first not-so-good-read of the year.

About a month ago I reviewed the Detection Club's "Festschrift" for Peter Lovesey Motives for Murder. Among many quality short stories, I particularly enjoyed Catherine Aird's Buchanesque tale of pre-World War II cipher cracking featuring Henry Tyler of the Foreign Office; and resolved to read some more Catherine Aird as soon as possible. I was delighted therefore to come across a book of her short, principally crime, stories Last Writes in my local library. As you may already have realised, it proved to be a bit of a disappointment.

To be fair to her, there was much to enjoy in this collection of 22 tales. There were plenty more adventures both home and abroad for Henry Tyler and his clever-but-tied-to-the-kitchen-sink-sister, Wendy; for variety there were a couple of adventures featuring Sheriff Rhuaraidh Macmillan policing a remote area of the Scottish Highlands at a particularly lawless period of history, during the sixteenth century. There were a few very dark, rather cynical tales - I found the story of the poor retired Colonel who was desperate to avoid spending Christmas with his family quite disturbing. While End matter was blackly funny, The Queen of Hearts was completely incomprehensible, unless you are a bridge nut. As crime stories they didn't really deliver.

Part of the problem, I think, was that this is a book of short stories, but a bit like an album of hits, rather than an album as it was originally intended, they didn't all meld together comfortably. Clever as the Tyler stories were, they soon became repetitive, as the pattern of the story was repeated again and again. There were similar, though slightly different, issues with the Scottish historical stories; although in themselves they were often quite decent, characters appeared in more than one story, and yet they appeared to have no life outside the bubble of that particular short story. Normally that wouldn't be a problem, in fact in short story land you would expect it to be like that, but when there was more than one story about particular characters within the same volume, lapses in back story or contradictions left this reader feeling both confused and rather irritated.

The most successful stories, I think, were the ones that were least connected to the crime genre, and were just gently humorous. I liked the tale of a restaurant critic Stars in their courses, and thoroughly enjoyed Aird's tale of revenge (even if the method was partly derived from Eric Linklater's children's novel, The wind on the moon) A managed retreat, which was quite worthy of inclusion in Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected. Her comical take on the problems of modern day piracy was also well done.

I'm glad I read more of her stories to get a bit more of a feel for Catherine Aird's writing, but in general Last writes left me unmoved. Fine for a quick read, but not really a book to get your teeth into.

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