Sweet Poison and Bones of the Buried, by David Roberts

sweet poisonbones buried

Sweet Poison

Take a large helping of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, add a little Albert Campion, a dash of Roderick Alleyn and a sprinkling of The Remains of the Day, and you have the perfect recipe for David Roberts’ debut novel Sweet Poison.  Set in 1935, it features a dashing yet sensitive adventurer and man-about-town Lord Edward Corinth and his unlikely collaboration with a card-carrying but strangely alluring Communist, Miss Verity Browne.  But Ned isn’t slumming it by any means: Verity is actually, despite her proletarian-oriented political beliefs, from the upper-middle drawer (she drives a Morgan, after all) so it isn’t as if Edward is attracted to a factory worker.  Not that it would matter because despite his aristocratic origins, he is surprisingly liberal in his views.  In fact more so than his gentleman’s gentleman, who is the really hidebound one.

The plot concerns the efforts of Edward’s older brother, the Duke of Mersham, to broker peace talks between influential figures in England and Germany in order to avert another war.  Unfortunately his plans are scuppered when a distinguished elderly general is poisoned at one of his intimate gatherings – but was it suicide or murder?  After a slow start setting up the characters and the weekend house part at which this dreadful event occurs, the novel follows Edward and Verity interrogating suspects as the threads lead them into ever-murkier waters, including the London underworld.  The two bond, but Edward is still capable of casting his eye elsewhere, and Verity has personal issues with a senior Party comrade, so the path of true love – or even working out precisely what their relationship is, where the practical element of the investigation stops and something else starts – will, you can be sure, not be a smooth one.

There are rather a lot of coincidences to oil the plot, but what is quite refreshing is that Edward and Verity do not put the pieces together for a final denouement, and as Edward ruefully concedes, if only to himself as everything falls into place, his deductions were inaccurate and he was behind developments every step of the way.  While there is no Gosford Park-style bitchiness, it is nice to see a bit of real life intrude, even if sketchily, into the normally hermetic world of the detective story in the form of 1930s politics and the long shadows which the Great War cast over the period.  There is also more sex and drugs than you would expect to find in a Golden Age novel, and more humour as well.  Sweet Poison ends with a possible rival to Verity for Edward’s affections, but we know deep down there is much more mileage in Edward’s relationship with Verity, even if she is in a different country at the conclusion.  Things may be helped along if at some point Verity becomes a murder suspect, as happened in the case of both Wimsey and Alleyn.  One feels a sequel coming.

And here it is.

Bones of the Buried

Set six months later, in 1936, the action becomes international, shuttling between England – mainly Eton – and Spain, with civil war looming menacingly on the horizon.  To the detective models Roberts has already used he has added a dash of Eric Ambler and Graham Greene.  Verity, working as a foreign correspondent, comes back to England from Spain to urge Edward to return with her to save her Stalinist lover, sentenced to death for murder.  It is a much more complex, and satisfying, novel than its predecessor.  Roberts has hit his stride, and apart from some awkward references back to the first book, which will mean little if you haven’t read it, and are pointless if you have, has a faster pace.  As in the first novel Edward shows himself to be a less than stellar detective, and while he gets there in the end, there is no satisfying Agatha Christie-style denouement.

The Spanish political situation is a backdrop to the detection and while it is inevitably simplified (this isn’t Homage to Catalonia), Bones does acknowledge that the political situation of the period was not a straightforward left against right.  The characterisation is more rounded and plotting is tighter than in Sweet Poison, even if there is still a reliance on coincidence, though, tongue-in-cheek, Roberts has Edward say that he doesn’t believe in them.  There is also more sex than in the average Dorothy L. Sayers.  Some of this is between Verity and a fictionalised version of Ernest Hemingway, though Hemingway was not in Spain in 1936.  There are some anachronistic phrases, and a member of the Communist Party would have referred not to Trotskyists but to Trotskyites, but Roberts does maintain a satisfying period ambience.

The depiction of the association between Edward and Verity is not one of a traditional romantic development.  They have a complicated relationship and there is no sense that their getting together is inevitable.  In fact, ’V’ is even more shrill in this outing than in the previous one, and for some readers she may cross the dividing line between feisty independence and being selfishly annoying.  It is hard to work out what Edward sees in her, other than the negative reason that she is utterly unlike the bland debs who normally throw themselves at him.  He might be enlightened, but in aristocratic 1930s terms his tolerant, if anguished, attitude to Verity’s chaotic emotional life just does not ring true.  As before, the novel ends with Edward and Verity apart, with scope for a further instalment; in fact the series has now concluded in 1939 with ten novels charting the pair’s will-they-won‘t-they relationship among a rising body count, set against the ever-darkening clouds of war.

First posted on Goodreads website 6 March 2013

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