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Thursday, 13 November 2014

FFB - Pieces of Justice

Continuing the theme of short stories, today's 'forgotten book' is Pieces of Justice, the first collection of Margaret Yorke’s short stories, twenty-three in all, ranging from 1977 to 1983. At time of this publication (1994) she had published 37 novels, five of them concerning Oxford don and amateur sleuth Patrick Grant. Her first book was published in 1957, her last in 2001.

The majority of the stories were published in the annual hardback series, Winter’s Crimes. A scattering of others appeared in magazines, among them Woman, Woman and Home, and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

It’s inevitable perhaps that, considering the period of the writing, some themes and murder methods are repeated; even some character names are used again, as well as cruise ship names. This can’t be a criticism because at the time of their writing there was no conception of these tales being collected. It’s interesting to note, though, how certain names stick in the writer’s forebrain and insist on coming out more than once. Most writers have to watch out for this. By their nature, the stories are ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’ – certainly, some could have been developed into full length novels, with sub-plots.

Characterisation has to be limited since the stories are short. Within the word constraints, Yorke achieves a great deal, offering us widowers, widows, unhappily married couples, and virtually all have a grudge smouldering from some past event, misdemeanour or mistreatment.  A few are sad individuals who live a lie and might as well be dead. Space does not permit referring to each story, but I would single out a sample handful.

‘The Liberator’ is told in the first person; the elderly narrator is able to use her lethal skills to right what she considers to be wrongs. In ‘The Reckoning’ Ellen determines to do away with her seventy-year-old husband… and succeeds, but Nemesis has something to say about her fate. Indeed, hand of fate and deus ex machina endings pop up more than once in these stories.

A few tales are quite dark, notably ‘Anniversary’, when Mrs Frobisher plots to kill her rich husband, but things don’t quite go according to plan. ‘The Mouse will Pay’ is about a particularly nasty poison pen letter-writer.

In my view, the best of the bunch is ‘Means to Murder’, a period piece that evokes a past time and an injustice, viewed by a child who grows to adulthood.

Overall, a fascinating collection, best to be dipped into rather than read in one go. Yorke dredges up the sinister from the everyday, the unease from the normal, and certainly lets the past cast its shadow on the present for her protagonists.
Margaret Yorke died in 2012, aged 88.

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