Little Knell (2000) by Catherine Aird

It has been over two years since I have read anything by Aird, so I was interested in whether my opinion of her would change with this read. Though the first task of course was trying to remember what I thought of her work previously. From what I can remember of Aird’s work, it has a foot in two camps, at times being reminiscent of Golden Age detective fiction, with its stately home and confined settings, but also reflecting the more modern times it was being published in. Of course Little Knell (2000) is quite far into Aird’s career, so I was wondering whether it would sit more comfortably with modern crime fiction as opposed to Golden Age.

Little Knell

This idea is seemingly evidenced in the opening pages of the novel with Wayne being sent to work for a removal firm by the job centre. He and his superior are removing artefacts from Whimbrel House, whose owner Colonel Caversham died a few months previously and had willed some of his possessions into the care of the Greatorex Museum, curated by Matthew Fixby-Smith. However one item in particular causes a problem, that of an Egyptian sarcophagus with a mummy inside. The area coroner is furious that this body has been moved (albeit one which is thousands of years old) without his authority and without a certificate of death from a medical practitioner. Bizarre as this seems DI Sloan is asked to smooth troubled waters with the museum who are not keen about having a medical examiner potentially damage their specimen. For Sloan this feels like the epitome of ridiculous red tape. That is until the sarcophagus is opened and a partially decomposed week old body is found inside…

Two key questions for Sloan are why the corpse was placed in the sarcophagus and why the coroner took such an interest in the moving of the mummy anyways. There are many threads involved in the solving of this case, such as tracking down the Colonel’s heirs, identifying the corpse and a potential drug trafficking connection. This is a case which connects a number of disparate people from all walks of life and situations and the body in the sarcophagus is not the only one which crops up during the case…

Overall Thoughts

To begin with my initial query as to whether this story would have a more modern feel than some of the other Aird stories I have read, I think the answer is probably yes. In particular this story shares a similarity of structure and style with other modern crime novels I have read, which is that the narrative jumps to different groups of characters to reveal specific pieces of information in order to piece one narrative together at the end. Yet there is still some Golden age touches to the piece such as the fact that Sloan habitually remembers quotes from a variety of literary sources, which are jogged from his memory during the investigation. Additionally in terms of some plot elements and the locations of the story I think there is a mixture of the old and the new, the traditional and the modern.

The old vs. new is an underlying theme of the book, with younger characters having a different set of values to the older characters and being dismissive of the past. This is found in the two removal workers, Sid and Wayne and is also paralleled in the working relationship of DI Sloan and Constable Crosby, with Crosby having much more material values.

Class is another subtle theme of the novel and in a way the story does respond to the issue of criminal justice and class. Early on in the story there are suggestions that Wayne has had brushes with the law for theft, amongst other things. Yet he finds it grimly amusing when the solicitor talks of how many colonial figures such as the Colonel lied to the customs officers to get items from trips back into the country. The issue crops up at further points in the novel, but that is the example which is the least spoiler-ish and was the one which stuck in my mind the most.

This is definitely a quick and easy read, with a narrative which flows. The mystery initially setup is an interesting one and there are many avenues of investigation for Sloan to hold the readers’ interest. There is also some gentle if well-trodden comedy between Sloan and his superior. However, I think the final solution was a bit disappointing and mundane (in contrast to the initial crime setup) and its’ delivery was rather crammed into a few pages and the final pieces of information which confirm the killers’ identity are withheld from the reader. So overall it was an okay undemanding read, but I’m not sure readers need to rush out and get a copy, as I don’t think this is her best work. Based on my oh so reliable Goodreads ratings the three I enjoyed the most prior to the post were The Religious Body (1966), Heneritta Who? (1968) and His Burial Too (1973), so I suppose my advice for this author is to start with some of her earlier works. If you have any firm favourites let me know.

Final Conundrum: What is the title about? Is it a literary allusion? Doesn’t seem to thematically tie in with the story at all. So if anyone has any thoughts on what it’s about let me know!

Rating: 3.75/5 (Rating probably bumped up slightly due to the readability of the piece)

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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13 Responses to Little Knell (2000) by Catherine Aird

  1. JJ says:

    Poor Crosby, still a constable in 2000 as he was in the first book in the 1960s. Still, I guess they don’t call him the “Defective Constable” for nothing (though I’ve never found him that bad in the couple I’ve read, and they do keep employing him…).

    Aird’s is an unusual style, isn’t it? It’s kinda timeless — by which I mean “out of time”, in that she really does seem to be writing broadly Golden Age detective fiction, just about three decades too late. Nice to see she started to update herself for the new millennium, though!

    Liked by 1 person

    • haha yes poor Crosby, though to be fair although the times change, the age of the sleuths don’t seem to. I think you describe Aird’s writing style well – basically what I wanted to say, but couldn’t find the right words for. But I think due to the nature of her series sleuths she is able to more seamlessly update the settings and characters in her books, in a way which I think Christie struggled to do in some of her later novels – perhaps due to her older amateur sleuths.

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      • JJ says:

        Y’reckon? At least Christie’s settings changed contemporaneously with her sleuths: Death Come as the End (and Curtain/Sleeping Murder) aside, she’s setting her books in the decade they’re written. Later on it seems that she doesn’t like the modern setting but she adapts remarkably well to it (take The Pale Horse for one).

        It sounds, and I could be wrong about this, like Aird is writing in the 2000s much the same as she did in 1965, as if nothing meaningful has changed — maybe a mobile phone here and there but nothing more. Christie knew she was anachronistic (witness Poirot being told “You’re too old!” at the start of Third Girl) whereas Aird is possibly hoping she isn’t or, more likely, simply doesn’t care. That’s not a criticism of Aird, I think she does what she does very well, but it might be the reason she’s never been that big despite writing for 6 decades…

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      • I think what I was thinking was that in some of Christie’s later works as you say there is almost a self-conscious anachronistic nature to the texts and there is sometimes a noted disparity between the updated settings and the older sleuths of another era, whilst with Aird there isn’t that jarring until you think ‘hang on this is exactly the same except the year has changed’. I think perhaps Aird has used a setting which you can change little to make it feel updated. Christie I think she took much greater risks and therefore got a bigger name for herself.

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      • JJ says:

        Ah, yes, in that case I completely agree. I wonder if there is any internal timeline it would be possible to find in Aird’s works — much the same way that Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone books are set in the 1980s, I wonder if Aird’s are all actually taking place within a much shorter span than they’re written. That was the Golden Age way, right? I mean, Poirot was already an old crock in Styles, so if he’d lived another fifty-odd years that would make him surely no less than a direct descendant of Abraham…

        Liked by 1 person

      • Santosh Iyer says:

        “…Poirot was already an old crock in Styles,…..”
        Well, when Christie wrote Styles, she never thought that Poirot would become so popular and that she would write another Poirot novel !

        Liked by 1 person

      • That is definitely a possibility… The stories taking place within a shorter time span that is.

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  2. Santosh Iyer says:

    Final Conundrum: I can’t say much about this since I have not read this book, but the title seems to be a pun on Little Nell, the tragic heroine of The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

    Liked by 1 person

    • I did wonder whether there was a Dickens’ connection, but I’m struggling to make any parallels between Little Nell and the only possibly relevant female character. Then again I don’t know TOCS that well so perhaps I am missing something. Further googling though suggests that a knell is the sound of a bell usually rung at a funeral, so that might be the answer then.

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