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I've now finished Antonia Fraser's third and fourth mysteries and I am delighted to announce that Jemima Shore, Investigator, did in fact live up to her name in these, investigating with some will (not as much as I would like, but enough to be consonant with her character; a reluctant heroine in some senses) and intelligence and not a single faint yet. Fraser seems to have found her ground in these; she is writing a world that she is confident in, media and the creative artist -- not the Bohemian, but the ones who are concerned with survival, so the mix of those who create and those who promote and those who do the technical work that makes the creation and the promotion happen. In both A Splash of Red and Cool Repentance the characters are themselves interesting, a little too large for life, perhaps (reminding me of some 80s night-time soap opera, Dynasty or the like) but coherent enough, and following their own paths through the story. Not all of them are likeable, but they are (especially in the former) there enough to be liked or disliked, and that was a great improvement on the first two.

Fraser also does some things I found interesting with physical detail, material culture, which reminded me of the 1960s gothics as written about by Joanna Russ and also of shoujo manga -- the way that who consumes what, and how (in this case mostly clothing, but also make-up, jewelry, interior decoration, flowers) is meant to tell us things about their characters. I think I cannot read much of what she is saying, the early 1980s are both too close and too far, but sometimes she makes it explicit, Jemima Shore's beige clothing with the hints of red and navy, calm with a little splash to signal Jemima's own professional distance and intelligence but with passion beneath.

Cool Repentence is clearly doing something intertextual with Chekov's The Seagull that I missed through lack of familiarity with the text. Although I was very, very annoyed by the ending for a variety of reasons.

And yet, and yet. The books are profoundly dissatisfying; Fraser is not using the mystery genre to do anything, she is not investigating or commenting or even looking deeply, she is writing these beautiful people in their interesting world behaving badly or well, and in the end it does not really come to anything except casual encounters and the move on. Very 1980s in its way, I think, it gives me a certain flavour I did not have before, but I find it boring. I was hoping for real novels that make use of the mystery genre, like Sayers, and these are sensation fiction. No wonder Shore kept fainting in the first two books. I cannot decide if I am going to read the last one I have from the library or not. Right now, not; I am going to read something I will enjoy more instead.


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February 2014

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