Monday, April 18, 2016

One Foot in the Grave

One Foot in the Grave (1979) by Peter Dickinson is my first entry for the Spring Into Horror Read-a-Thon. Fortunately Michelle is allowing those of us who are horror weenies to count mysteries. I have a few ghost story collections hanging out on the TBR pile--so I may venture into those. But my first book is a straight mystery.

This is the sixth book in the series featuring Scotland Yard's Jimmy Pibble. The now retired ex-Superintendent  is in a fancy nursing home called Flycatchers where he is recovering from a stroke brought on by the death of his wife. He has determined that he doesn't have much left to live for and wants to end it all while he still has all his faculties and having recovered enough to have just enough strength. He waits for a wild and windy night and makes his way out to a tower on the property--with the intention of flinging himself from the top. But his plans are interrupted when he discovers a corpse shot through the back of the head, almost execution-style.

His old instincts kick in and he can't help but be interested, especially when his old friend Chief Superintendent Mike Crewe becomes involved. When he learns that the victim had been acting as added security for the mysterious Mr. X (whom Pibble recognizes as a rather important informer in the underworld), it begins to look like someone is making a move on Mr. X to eliminate him before he can provide major information to the police. But the case is complicated by an elderly woman who claims that someone has been killing off wealthy patients--ostensibly so their heirs won't have to wait so long for their inheritance. Crewe tends to trust Pibble's instincts, even if he's not quite up to his previous standard yet, but the local Superintendent is sure that the killer will be found among the victim's discarded conquests on the nursing staff. Could it be that the truth lies somewhere in the middle?

I have had an on-again, off-again relationship with Peter Dickinson's work. My very first taste (back in the 80s and I don't even remember the book) did not go down at all well. For a long time, his name was on my TBF list (To Be Found) with no titles and simply the comment "NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" --to keep me from bringing more of them home. But then in 2011 I decided to give him another try when I needed another book with a "Y" as the first letter of a title (not counting "The, A, or An" and brought The Yellow Room Conspiracy home with fear and trepidation. As I note in the review (linked), the book did not wow me as mystery but it did have excellent characters and was a good historical period piece. It gave me hope that I might like Dickinson after all.

After reading One Foot in the Grave, I have decided that Dickinson's strength is his characters. It's not his plots or his ability to mystify--the culprit is, quite frankly, glaringly obvious in this one and I don't think that was planned. But it is definitely worth the price of admission to watch Pibble work his way back from a stroke and his interactions with the nurses, previous colleagues on the force, and, most particularly his fellow residents. Lady Treadgold is a hoot--don't get anywhere near her and her walker if you are a nefarious evil-doer, trust me. Two things keep this from being a five- or even a full four-star outing. The first is the aforementioned weakness in the mystery itself. The second is that while the general outline of Pibble's return to strength is good, especially in his interactions with others, the long internal monologues are a bit taxing. The first chapter where he is making his way to the tower is especially so. It is only 32 pages long, but it reads like it is much longer. Overall, a strong showing and good reason to try the other Dickinson books sitting on my TBR pile. ★★ and a half

This also counts for the "Blood Stains" category on the Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.


fredamans said...

I have a question; did you read the others in this series? You mentioned reading his other books but I am unclear. Sorry. Any rate, how did this sixth compare if you have read them?

Bev Hankins said...

Freda: Actually, no. I found this one and thought it sounded good. Didn't realize it was the sixth book until I started reading it. Fortunately, it's not a series that it seems to matter if you read them out of order. I know some people insist on reading in order--I don't, unless the author spoils previous books or there is some sort of thread that requires reading in order.

I haven't read a lot of Dickinson. Just the two others--one I can't remember (except for the extreme dislike) and the other one that I mention.

Ryan said...

If nothing else, that cover should work for the challenge, it has an element of "otherness" behind that tile.

Michelle Stockard Miller said...

Welcome to the read-a-thon, Bev! I'm glad you decided to join us. I'm impressed that you already finished a book. Your ghost story idea sounds fun.

Enjoy the reading week. :)

Jacquie said...

I loved your memo to yourself, "NO, NO, NO, NO, NO!" That was my exact reaction to the "Last House Party" by Dickinson, of which I read 2/3s and had to stop. I must have 8 of his books and that was my first taste. His books all SOUND good from the jackets, but now I wonder if I should just give them away unread. The characters went off on obscure tangents about history that had nothing to do with the mystery and completely bored me. His writing is too obtuse for me, though I know some people find it wonderful.

J F Norris said...

Well, I thought the very first Pibble was ingenious. THE GLASS SIDED ANT'S NEST is reviewed on my blog. THE POISON ORACLE is a very good one, too. I bet that's the one you hated. ;^) True, he's not at all for readers who prefer lightweight prose and frothy mystery plots. Even his children's books are esoteric!

I'm growing tired of plot driven whodunnits in my "old age". I'm a lot more interested in unusual settings and oddball characters these days. I want to learn things too so those tangents are very welcome for me! (This is why I'm reading odder and stranger books lately and why no one reads my blog anymore. HA!) A puzzle every now and then is fun but I can no longer sustain a steady diet of traditional detective fiction. I can figure out almost every single one that I read now because I have spent so many years studying methods of how to write mystery novels and have discovered at least three ways that writers plant clues that make it easy to spot what will lead to the correct solution. The contemporary books, especially, which are 90% retreads of very well known novels and plots are ridiculously obvious to me.

Bev Hankins said...

John: I have the Glass Sided Ants Nest on the TBR pile (I'm pretty sure I grabbed it up because of your review--I trust you that much. :-) I'm actually soothed by the plot-driven whodunnits in my old age. I don't mind a comfortable plot.

I also like books that make me think--but not too esoteric. I do pop in on your blog still. I just haven't felt like I have much to say comment-wise anymore. Some people have reading droughts--I've been in a comment drought for quite a while now.