Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Perfect Gallows: Peter Dickinson

I have been reading a lot of books set during World War II lately, and Perfect Gallows is one of the best of them.

"About the book" from the author's website:
In 1875 Arnold Wragge left the back streets of Portsmouth for the diamond fields of South Africa. Twenty years later he returned a millionaire, built himself a mansion in the Downs, and sired two daughters and a son. When the son is missing, presumed killed, in the Allied invasion of Italy, he sends for his great-great-nephew Andrew, to come from the same back streets and be inspected as a potential heir.
Andrew isn’t interested. He is set on a career on the stage. One of Sir Arnold’s daughters, his cousin Elspeth, equally stage-struck in her time, persuades him to take part in her proposed amateur production of The Tempest. The park is full of American soldiers preparing for the invasion of Normandy. In the middle of all the activity a stranger appears, claiming to be the missing heir.
Forty years later Andrew, now the famous Adrian Waring, tells the story to his partner and explains his own part in the tragedy that followed.

Peter Dickinson has long been one of my favorite authors, and several of his mystery novels feature dual timelines where the older time setting is during (or around) World War II. This story opens in 1944 with Andrew discovering a death in the dovecote on the grounds of The Mimms, the home of his wealthy uncle. Although the death could be suicide, Andrew can see that it has been faked to look that way. In 1986, Andrew returns to The Mimms for an estate sale, and memories of the death and his part in it return. Most of the novel covers the time in 1944 that Andrew spent at The Mimms leading up to his discovery of the body.

Andrew is young, soon to be conscripted into the military, but even at this age he knows he wants to be an actor and that he is very good at it. Everything he does, every thought he has, is focused on learning more about acting. Every experience is stored in his memory for use in future roles. Many of the activities in the story center around a performance of The Tempest, which is being organized by his cousin, Elspeth Wragge, but referred to most often as Cousin Brown. (Which sometimes makes things confusing.) His association with Elspeth is fortuitous because she sees his talent and can understand his aspirations in the theater.

Since the majority of this novel is set in 1944, in the days leading up to D-Day, the dual timelines are not confusing at all. And the chapters that switch to a new timeline are clearly marked. It is partially the picture of Andrew's life before the war contrasted with the older Adrian (the name he took as he began his acting career) that appealed to me so much. I will note that some readers find the main character an unlikable character and could not get past that.

This novel worked for me both as a mystery and a depiction of Britain during the war, after the US had joined in the war. The Mimms is occupied by US forces gearing up for the invasion of France. This novel is a very interesting look at how that affected the household, both the Wragge family and the servants, and the relationships between the US military and the British in situations like this.

This is what P.D. James had to say about this book:
A new Peter Dickinson novel is a keenly-awaited event for all those aficionados of the detective story who demand a great deal more than an ingenious puzzle. He is the true original, a superb writer who revitalises the conventions of the mystery genre to give us novels present them. He is incapable of writing a trite or inelegant sentence, and he creates characters who are true eccentrics but never caricatures. From the marvellous first chapter of Perfect Gallows when we encounter the hanging body in the dovecote, we know we are once again in the safe hands of a master.
Jo Walton has a wonderful post at Perfect Mystery: Peter Dickinson’s Perfect Gallows.

My favorite book by Dickinson is King & Joker, an alternate history set in an England where George V's elder brother did not die but lived to become King Victor I, and is later succeeded by his grandson, King Victor II.

I am also very fond of his unusual mystery series featuring Superintendent Jimmy Pibble. See my reviews of The Glass-Sided Ants' Nest and The Old English Peep Show.


Publisher:  Pantheon Books, 1988. 
Length:     234 pages
Format:     Hardcover
Setting:     UK, World War II and 1986
Genre:      Historical Mystery
Source:    I purchased this book.


Cath said...

I'm trying to remember if I've read anything by Peter Dickinson. I feel like I have but for the life of me can't pin down *what*. It's possible I haven't, despite him being a very familiar author, so I need to investigate. This might be a good place to start as I've been reading quite a bit about the two world wars this year too and this one sounds interesting. Nice review.

Margot Kinberg said...

This sounds so good, Tracy! I really like the time/place setting. The characters really sound well-developed and interesting, too. I really need to read more Dickinson, no doubt about it.

TracyK said...

Dickinson did write a lot of fantasy books, Cath, mostly for children I think. I have not read any of his fantasy yet, but I do have The Flight of Dragons, which is an illustrated book.

TracyK said...

It is very good, Margot. I still have a lot of catching up to do with Dickinson mystery fiction.

Rick Robinson said...

Happy Independence Day, Tracy!

This is not one I've read, or even heard of, though the author name is vaguely familiar. Did not know he wrote any fantasy.

TracyK said...

Happy 4th of July to you, too, Rick. I don't know much about his fantasy books, but I plan to try one sometime. He was married to Robin McKinley, another fantasy author.

Katrina said...

I haven't read anything by him either, this one sounds good though. I'm amazed to see that my local library only has some of his books for children. I'll have to look out for him.

TracyK said...

He may be more well known for his children's books, Katrina. I hope to run into one of his adult books to try.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I am sure I read this because I was a great fan of his. I should pick it up again.

Mathew Paust said...

I was having my doubts about this, Tracy, until I reached your assurance, "the dual timelines are not confusing at all." That is what had concerned me, as I can get confused in those kinds of plots. I've not read any Dickinson, yet, but you've sold me on giving him a try.

TracyK said...

Hi Judith, looks like you were able to get through to comment?

TracyK said...

I find his books are good to re-read, Patti. And the ones I read when I was younger I have forgotten.

TracyK said...

I usually like multiple timelines, Mathew, but sometimes they do get confusing. This one was easy to follow. And Dickinson is definitely worth a try, and available in e-book format.

col2910 said...

Glad you liked this one. Not an author I have ever tries, probably not one I'm minded to wither I'm afraid.

col2910 said...

Typo city......tries - tried, wither - either..... in too much of a hurry as usual.

TracyK said...

Even though Dickinson writes some great stories, Col, I don't see his novels as your type at all. No problem with the typos, everybody has problems with that.

Clothes in Books said...

I love Peter Dickinson, and a long time since I read this one, I must pick it up again. Also love Jo Walton talking about Dickinson. She and you have both made me re-read him in recent years - you because you recommended King and Joker. Will have to look on my shelves now.

TracyK said...

Moira, there are many Peter Dickinson mysteries that I have not read yet so I have lots more to look forward to.