Sunday, 15 July 2012

Broken Harmony, Roz Southey

"I am talking to a dead man, trying to persuade him to give up the name of his murderer. Trying to persuade him that justice is more than a private matter. And getting nowhere." 
This is a bit of an oddity, but none the worse for that. Broken Harmony is a mystery set in the 1730s in Newcastle, and it's written by a musicologist, so you can be assured that the occupation of the main characters is going to be convincing. Charles Patterson is a harpsichord player (though he's proficient on other instruments too) who aspires to lead the city's small chamber orchestra, a position he thinks should be his by right: in those days it was quite usual for an ensemble to be led from the harpsichord, something, indeed, which we often see today. However, Patterson has an arch rival, first violin Henri Le Sac, and it is he who leads - and, as Patterson grudgingly admits, is a virtuoso player, dextrous and showy, to the frequent delight of audiences. Patterson himself, meanwhile, is proficient and an excellent leader, but unexciting. The two men vie for pupils, as well, as teaching provides an important supplementary income, and it only exacerbates their antagonism that each has a friend who is a dancing master. Indeed, if anything, Demsey and Nichols hate each other even more than the two musicians.

The oddity is that there is a supernatural element to the story. We quickly learn that hauntings are a part of everyday existence - spirits, it seems, usually take a hundred years before they leave the place where death occurred. Patterson's landlady, Mrs Foxton, is still running her establishment with a firm word despite her incorporeality, while on stormy nights the ghosts make the streets an eerily frightening place:

The Key was a river of smoke, eddying and drifting in a wind that dragged at my clothes and hair. As the smoke swirled, it covered everything in a pall of dark grey, then tugged itself apart again, offering glimpses of cobbles, bundles of charcoal, ballast stones abandoned in huge hillocks. The scream of seagulls echoed as if from a great distance; faintly I heard shouting - confused and alarmed, frightened even - as if some calamity had occurred. A man stumbled out of the smoke, coughing and retching - a collier by his clothes and the ingrained black lines on his hands and face. He pushed past me, swearing through his coughing, and stumbled on.

At last I understood. No seagulls made those unearthly noises but the spirits of drowned sailors, calling from the water for assistance, pleading to be lifted from the river, crying out for rescue. Sailors who had fallen from the keels, or cast down by wreck, or thrown over by drink or malice or the impenetrable workings of fate. Each of them tormented, crying for help.
The grimy, ghost-ridden streets, and Patterson's glimpses of a house in Caroline Square which only seems to be there at certain moments, tease and chill the reader: there's a sense that you don't quite know where firm ground is. Patterson is so matter of fact, except when he sees the strange house, but you do begin to wonder who of the characters can be trusted. Is there something odd about the the two women who patronise the musicians? One of them is certainly playing games, apparently with little care for the safety of her pawns.

I imagine that some readers will feel uncomfortable with the notion that ghosts, if they can be found, can reveal the identity of their murderers, but there are constraints on the ways this can happen. And after all, we're dealing with a period when most methods of investigation that we take for granted now are not available. No DNA, no mobile phone tracing, not even any fingerprints. So a little leeway can surely be granted. And anyway, there's something about the 18th-century world which is amenable to the paranormal, perhaps because it's the one which gave birth to the gothic. I found that I quickly accepted the spirits almost as part of the period detail - which, not surprisingly, is excellent, since the author's own research area is 18th-century music-making. She evokes Newcastle of the time, a provincial city surrounded by by coalmines, to great effect, persuading me that it's every bit as fascinating as London or Edinburgh. And I intend to read the next in the series, Chords and Discords, while listening to the music of Newcastle's very own 18th-century composer, Charles Avison. The perfect accompaniment!

Cross-posted at Geranium Cat's Bookshelf.

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