FictionFan’s Book Reviews

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Death on the Down Beat by Sebastian Farr

A dying fall…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Two thousand people have packed into Maningpool Civic Hall for a performance by the Municipal Orchestra of a Strauss tone poem. Halfway through, the conductor, Sir Noel Grampian, seems to gesticulate even more wildly than is his wont just before he pitches head-first off the podium into the orchestra. Landing on his head probably didn’t help, but it transpires it was a bullet that killed him. And since he was shot in the front it seems that it must have been one of the orchestra who did the deed. Inspector Alan Hope of the Yard is in the area visiting friends, so is quickly put in charge of the investigation. But where to begin? It appears Sir Noel was roundly disliked by almost everyone who had anything to do with him, so anyone from the Piccolo to the Kettle-Drum could have had a motive. And despite there being two thousand eye witnesses, it seems no one saw anything…

Well, this is a unique little puzzle! It’s told almost entirely through letters from Inspector Hope to his wife, Julia, in which he encloses copies of lots of documents related to the case, including newspaper clippings, lots of statements from the orchestra members, a chart of the orchestra and even four pages of the score of the relevant part of the music being played at the time of Sir Noel’s demise! It’s from these documents that Alan hopes to find the clues that will identify the killer, with any help that his more musically minded wife can give him.

The denouement is probably the least successful part of the book, so I’ll mention it first. After being baffled for weeks, Alan suddenly leaps to the correct solution out of nowhere. In retrospect it is technically fair-play, in that the reader has all the same information as Alan, but I’d be amazed if anyone was able to make the necessary connections to have a shot at solving it. The main weakness, though, is that the format means the reader hasn’t ever “met” any of the suspects and there are a lot – a lot! – of them, most of whom never become more than names, and in fact are often referred to as the instrument they play – the 1st Clarinet, etc. So when Alan finally reveals the culprit, my first response was “Who’s that?” However, Alan then reveals what brought him to this conclusion and all becomes clear before the end.

Challenge details:
Book: 90
Subject Heading: Singletons
Publication Year: 1941

For me, this weakness was well outweighed by the sheer fun and novelty of the musical clues. I’m no expert in classical music – far from it – but I found it helped that I basically know how the instruments are usually positioned in an orchestra, and the musical vocabulary wasn’t completely unfamiliar to me. Alan does explain as it goes along, but I think it might be quite a tedious read for someone with no interest at all in orchestral music. But for anyone with even a smidgen of knowledge, like me, it’s a lot of fun checking back to the chart of the orchestra whenever Alan is discussing who could have done the deed, and trying to use the score to see which orchestra members could have stopped playing for a few moments – just long enough to pull out a gun, fire and get rid of the weapon – without the audience noticing. I paused fairly early on in the proceedings to go to youtube and listen to the piece in question – Richard Strauss’ A Hero’s Life – and while that certainly isn’t necessary, it again all added to the fun and meant I knew what Alan was talking about when he mentions various passages as more suitable than others for covering up a bit of skulduggery.

Eric Walter Blom
(Sebastian Farr)
National Portrait Gallery

Sebastian Farr was a pseudonym for Eric Walter Blom, and this was his only novel. He worked as a music critic for some of the top newspapers, and in the book we hear from the two local critics from the town’s rival newspapers, locked in a bitter battle of sarcasm over each other’s musical knowledge or lack thereof. One of them, Ransom, was also feuding with Sir Noel, who didn’t appreciate any form of criticism of his musical genius. All three had taken to insulting each other in the letters pages and music review sections of the papers, and I found these sections highly entertaining.

Definitely an oddity, this one, and I can quite see why it’s attracting a few pretty negative ratings on Goodreads. But its quirkiness appealed to me, I loved all the musical stuff and it’s very well written, so despite the reveal-from-nowhere issue I ended up thoroughly enjoying it. I love when the BL concentrate on the stars they’ve brought back to prominence, like Lorac and Bellairs, but there’s plenty of room in the series for the occasional more eccentric novel like this one, too.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

Amazon UK Link

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British Library Crime Classics Subscription

The British Library have now set up a subscription service for the Crime Classics series, which you can use to buy the books for yourself (highly recommended) or to gift to some else (if you really feel you must). Here’s the link where you can find out more:

https://shop.bl.uk/collections/crime-classics/products/british-library-crime-classics-subscription

I was delighted to be given a subscription by the BL to replace the review copies I normally get. I found it easy to set up and they were efficient in emailing me confirmation of the subscription. I’ve now received my first book, which came well wrapped and had the extra treat enclosed of a book-mark matching the gorgeous book cover! Don’t know if that’ll be the case every month, but I have my fingers crossed. 🤞 I also live in hope of a similar subscription service for their Tales of the Weird series one day… are you listening, BL?

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TBR Thursday 359 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 359

(A reminder of The People’s Choice plan. Once a month, I shall list the four oldest books on the TBR, then the next four, and so on, and each time you will select the one you think I should read, either because you’ve read and enjoyed it, or because you think the blurb looks good. And I will read the one you pick within three months! If I begin to fall behind, I’ll have a gap till I catch up again. In the event of a tie, I’ll have the casting vote.)

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OK, People, time for another batch of four – ending 2020 and moving into 2021. At this stage I was obviously making a determined effort to stop adding random books on a whim, so most of these are books I’m really keen to read. I like to run three months ahead with these polls, so the winner will be a February read. I’ve read lots of Robert Harris and loved most of them, so added Archangel to my list. With John le Carré, I’ve only read one before, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, and also loved it, so added Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I haven’t read any James Robertson which is a real omission since he’s one of the major contemporary Scottish authors. I’ve acquired a couple of his books, and Joseph Knight is the first. Over Her Dead Body is the exception – I don’t know AB Morgan at all and can’t remember why I added this one. Perhaps it was a Kindle deal? Sounds like it could be fun though.

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Thriller

Archangel by Robert Harris

Added 1st December 2020. 10,773 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.81 average rating. 438 pages.

The Blurb says: Deadly secrets lurk beneath the Russian ice.

Historian Fluke Kelso is in Moscow, attending a conference on recently unclassified Soviet papers, when an old veteran of the Soviet secret police visits his hotel room in the dead of night. He tells Kelso about a secret notebook belonging to Josef Stalin, stolen on the night of his death.

Though Kelso expects little, he agrees to investigate. But in the new Russia, swirling with dark money and falling into the grip of anonymous oligarchs, a man seeking the truth is a dangerous quantity. Eyes are turning his way.

Kelso must survive the violent political intrigue and decadence of Moscow before he can venture to the icy north. There, in the vast forests surrounding the White Sea port of Archangel, Kelso’s quest soon becomes a terrifying encounter with Russia’s unburied past – and Stalin’s last secret.

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Spy Fiction

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carré

Added 12th December 2020. 86,643 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.05 average. 416 pages.

The Blurb says: The first part of John le Carré’s acclaimed Karla Trilogy, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy sees the beginning of the stealthy Cold War cat-and-mouse game between the taciturn, dogged George Smiley and his wily Soviet counterpart.

A mole, implanted by Moscow Centre, has infiltrated the highest ranks of the British Intelligence Service, almost destroying it in the process. And so former spymaster George Smiley has been brought out of retirement in order to hunt down the traitor at the very heart of the Circus – even though it may be one of those closest to him.

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Historical Fiction

Joseph Knight by James Robertson

Added 29th December 2020. 417 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.07 average. 372 pages.

The Blurb says: Exiled to Jamaica after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, Sir John Wedderburn made a fortune, alongside his three brothers, as a faux surgeon and sugar planter. In the 1770s, he returned to Scotland to marry and re-establish the family name. He brought with him Joseph Knight, a black slave and a token of his years in the Caribbean.

Now, in 1802, Sir John Wedderburn is settling his estate, and has hired a solicitor’s agent, Archibald Jamieson, to search for his former slave. The past has haunted Wedderburn ever since Culloden, and ever since he last saw Knight, in court twenty-four years ago, in a case that went to the heart of Scottish society, pitting master against slave, white against black, and rich against poor.

As long as Knight is missing, Wedderburn will never be able to escape the past. Yet what will he do if Jamieson’s search is successful? And what effect will this re-opening of old wounds have on those around him? Meanwhile, as Jamieson tries to unravel the true story of Joseph Knight he begins to question his own motivation. How can he possibly find a man who does not want to be found?

James Robertson’s second novel is a tour de force, the gripping story of a search for a life that stretches over sixty years and moves from battlefields to the plantations of Jamaica, from Enlightenment Edinburgh to the back streets of Dundee. It is a moving narrative of history, identity and ideas, that dramatically retells a fascinating but forgotten episode of Scottish history.

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Mystery Thriller

Over Her Dead Body by AB Morgan

Added 6th January 2021. 101 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.40 average. 356 pages. 

The Blurb says: Gabby Dixon is dead. That’s news to her…

Recently divorced and bereaved, Gabby Dixon is trying to start a new chapter in her life. As her new life begins, it ends. On paper at least. But Gabby is still very much alive. As a woman who likes to be in control, this situation is deeply unsettling.

She has two crucial questions: who would want her dead, and why?

Enter Peddyr and Connie Quirk. husband-and-wife private investigators. Gabby needs their help to find out who is behind her sudden death.

The truth is a lot more sinister than a simple case of stolen identity.

Over Her Dead Body is a ‘what if’ tale full of brilliantly drawn characters, quirky humour and dark plot twists.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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VOTE NOW!

(Click on title and then remember to also click on Vote, or your vote won’t count!)

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FictionFan Awards 2022 – Anthologies

Drum roll please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2022.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around in previous years, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2021 and October 2022 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

This year, there will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Anthologies

Vintage Crime

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Modern Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2022

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

ANTHOLOGIES

I don’t know whether it’s just that I’ve got into them more, but it seems to be a golden era for anthologies of vintage stories, in crime, horror and science fiction. I tend to stick to three publishers, purely due to time limitations – the British Library, with their wonderful series of Crime Classics, Tales of the Weird and Science Fiction Classics; Oxford World’s Classics who have produced several excellent vintage horror collections and anthologies in recent years; and HarperCollins who seem to be getting more into the vintage field recently.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

The Edinburgh Mystery and Other Tales of Scottish Crime
edited by Martin Edwards

This British Library anthology has the theme of Scottish stories – either stories written by Scots, or written by people from elsewhere (generally England) but set in Scotland. There are seventeen stories in total, though a handful of them are very short and quite slight. There’s the usual mix of weel-kent names, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson; some regulars of these anthologies, such as Michael Innes and GK Chesterton; and several that I’ve never come across before. Some of my favourite stories were from these never previously encountered writers, of whom several were Scottish, so that pleased my patriotic little soul and has given me a few names to investigate further – always one of the pleasures of these anthologies. The geographical spread is good too – a few of the stories are set in the big cities, but the writers have taken full advantage of the less populated areas of the Highlands and the Borders too.

I really liked the variety – everything from humour, both dark and light, to veering towards the noir end of crime fiction, and Edwards has picked a lot of stories that show different aspects of Scottish life, from urban to rural to wilderness, from the mean streets of Glasgow to the huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ Lairds of the Highlands.

Click to see the full review

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Bodies from the Library 5 edited by Tony Medawar

This series of “forgotten stories of mystery and suspense” from HarperCollins and Tony Medawar has now become an annual event, and one I look forward to. The stories are all ones that haven’t been collected before, or occasionally have never been published. Every year I feel the well must run dry but each year Tony Medawar proves me wrong. He ranges widely to find his treasures – through old magazines and newspapers, into the BBC archives for radio scripts, digging out stories written originally to boost a charity or good cause, and so on. There are sixteen stories in this collection, ranging from a few pages up to novella-length, and lots of familiar names show up, some very well known – John Dickson Carr, Dorothy L Sayers, Ellis Peters, etc. – and others who are becoming well known to those of us who are reading a lot of the vintage crime currently being re-issued by various publishers – Michael Gilbert, Anthony Berkeley, John Bude, et al. The quality is more consistent than it sometimes is in anthologies, which I always find surprising for stories that haven’t been included in collections over the years.

Click to see the full review

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The Ghost Slayers edited by Mike Ashley

From the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series, this one has the theme of psychic detectives – ghost-hunters who investigate hauntings and sometimes set out to lay the ghosts. There are nine stories, some by well-known authors like Algernon Blackwood and William Hope Hodgson, and an array of lesser-known ones, to me at least. Many of the ghost-hunters appeared regularly in their authors’ output, but each of the stories stands on its own.

The overall quality of the stories is high, all rating at either four or five stars. Most of them are not terrifying, focussing more on the ghost-hunt than the scares, and they occasionally have a rather anticlimactic ending as the psychic detective “solves” the haunting. But some have plenty of thrills despite the format, and I found one or two quite chilling, even disturbing. I found it interesting to learn that there was a thriving sub-genre of fictional psychic detectives, and Mike Ashley’s introduction indicates how this arose out of the real-life interest in spiritualism and the psychical researchers who were developing scientific approaches to investigating reports of spiritualist events.

Logo from William Hope Hodgson’s ghost hunter series

Click to see the full review

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Murder by the Book edited by Martin Edwards

Another from the great team of Martin Edwards and the British Library, this one contains sixteen stories, all connected in some way to books, book collectors or authors. I came to the conclusion, in fact, that being a writer is a very dangerous thing – so many of them seem to become either murderers or murder victims! Plenty of big names here – Ngaio Marsh, Julian Symons, Christianna Brand, etc. – and a few less well known ones, though through reading so many of these anthologies I’m beginning to recognise and look forward to some of the names which turn up regularly even if I’ve not yet read any of their novels.

The overall quality of the stories is unusually high, with by far the majority rating as either good or excellent. The variation in styles is also wide, from traditional “closed circle” and “impossible crime” mysteries, to humorous and self-mocking takes on the life of the poor downtrodden mystery writer, all the way to full-on thriller-style stories.

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2022

for

BEST ANTHOLOGY

The Origins of Science Fiction
edited by Michael Newton

This is the latest in the Oxford World’s Classics hardback collection, several of which recently have been anthologies or collections of weird and Gothic horror. This one is a slight departure into science fiction but, as the editor Michael Newton suggests in his introduction, early science fiction has its roots in the Gothic tradition; and certainly many of the stories in the collection would sit just as neatly in a horror collection. There are seventeen stories in it, most of them quite substantial and with one or two reaching novella-length. It’s in the usual OWC format: an informative and interesting introduction, scholarly in content, but written in an accessible non-academic style; the stories, each preceded by a short biography of the author, including their contributions to the field of science fiction; and the all-important notes, which explain the many classical references and allusions, historical references and any terms that have fallen out of use. I found the notes in this one particularly good – well-written and done on a kind of “need to know” basis; that is, not overloaded with too much detail and digression.

Illustration of Jack London’s The Red One

In his introduction, Newton discusses how the concerns of the time are woven into the stories – the gathering pace of scientific and technological development, the impact of colonialism, anxiety about man’s future ability to communicate with the ‘other’, whether that other may be alien, evolved humanity, or machine. It’s interesting that all of those concerns are still subjects of contemporary science fiction, suggesting we haven’t yet solved the questions these early science fiction authors posed. He also talks about how many authors at that time who were known primarily for other styles of writing ventured into science fiction, sometimes to the displeasure of their publishers and perhaps to the bafflement of their readers. Certainly some of the names that turn up here surprised me – George Eliot, Nathaniel Hawthorne, etc. Others are much better known as stalwarts, even progenitors, of the genre: HG Wells, of course, and Edgar Allan Poe, among others. It’s truly a stellar line-up and they have produced some stellar stories – I gave them a veritable galaxy of stars. A well-deserved winner!

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Vintage Crime

Tuesday Terror! The Sea-Fit by Algernon Blackwood

To his death singing…

Although the British Library call their series of vintage horror stories Tales of the Weird, the stories often don’t strictly fall into the nebulous definition of “weird fiction”. (Xavier Aldana Reyes defines weird fiction as ‘a subgenre of speculative fiction concerned with the limits of human experience and the unknowability of the natural world that brings together elements of the horror, science fiction and fantasy literary traditions’.) This week’s definitely does, however! I haven’t read much Algernon Blackwood yet, but he’s already left lingering horrors imprinted on my mind from his wonderful weird story The Willows. This one is less well known, but in my opinion just as unsettling. I’ve taken it from the BL’s anthology, Our Haunted Shores…

The Sea-Fit
by Algernon Blackwood

Algernon Blackwood

The sea that night sang rather than chanted; all along the far-running shore a rising tide dropped thick foam, and the waves, white-crested, came steadily in with the swing of a deliberate purpose.

Three friends have gathered in a little bungalow nestling in the sand dunes.

Foregathered for Easter, they spent the day fishing and sailing, and at night told yarns of the days when life was younger.

The owner of the bungalow is Captain Erricson…

‘Big Erricson’, Norwegian by extraction, student by adoption, wanderer by blood, a Viking reincarnated if ever there was one, belonged to that type of primitive man in whom burns an inborn love and passion for the sea that amounts to positive worship—devouring tide, a lust and fever in the soul.

His friends are half-brothers, Major Reese and Doctor Reese, so both men of learning and experience, surely not subject to superstitious fancies. The last occupant of the bungalow is ‘Sinbad’, Erricson’s servant…

‘Sinbad,’ sailor of big seas, and a man who had shared on many a ship all the lust of strange adventure that distinguished his great blonde-haired owner—an ideal servant and dog-faithful, divining his master’s moods almost before they were born.

Yes, well, it was the times! However nauseating that description, Sinbad is more than faithful – he knows that his master holds some strange views and is affected sometimes by the moon and the tides, and he tries to protect him when the sea-fit comes on him. As it does this night…

Erricson had one of his queer sea-fits on—the Doctor was responsible for the term—and was in the thick of it, plunging like a straining boat at anchor, talking in a way that made them both feel vaguely uncomfortable and distressed.

The tumbledown bungalow and the sound of the tide don’t help…

The loneliness of the sandspit and that melancholy singing of the sea before their very door may have had something to do with it, seeing that both were landsmen; for Imagination is ever Lord of the Lonely Places, and adventurous men remain children to the last.

And nor does Sinbad’s muttered warning to the doctor…

Sinbad had tugged his sleeve on entering and whispered in his ear significantly: ‘Full moon, sir, please, and he’s better without too much! These high spring tides get him all caught off his feet sometimes—clean sea-crazy’; and the man had contrived to let the doctor see the hilt of a small pistol he carried in his hip-pocket.

As the room grows cold and a strange sea-mist creeps over the bungalow, Erricson talks ever more wildly of the old sea gods, and his belief that they still exist for those who are willing to believe…

‘And I like the old idea,’ he had been saying, speaking of these departed pagan deities, ‘that sacrifice and ritual feed their great beings, and that death is only the final sacrifice by which the worshipper becomes absorbed into them. The devout worshipper’—and there was a singular drive and power behind the words—‘should go to his death singing, as to a wedding—the wedding of his soul with the particular deity he has loved and served all his life.’

And the sea-mist creeps through the cracks in the window-frames and the cold pours through the badly-fitting doors and the tide continues to sing as it brings the sea ever closer and Erricson plunges deeper with each passing moment into the sea-fit…

The man’s inner soul was on fire now. He was talking at a fearful pace, his eyes alight, his voice turned somehow into a kind of sing-song that chimed well, singularly well, with the booming of waves outside, and from time to time he turned to the window to stare at the sea and the moon-blanched sands. And then a look of triumph would come into his face—that giant face framed by slow-moving wreaths of pipe smoke.

Illustration by mgkellermeyer
via deviantart.com

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Well! I shall be considerably less enthusiastic about going paddling in the sea after this one, I can tell you! It’s fabulously written, and although it’s clear where it’s heading somehow Blackwood still manages to build an atmosphere of real tension, and the climax is worthy of the story. There’s something about the way he describes nature that makes it utterly terrifying – there’s no romantic beauty in it, all is power and malevolence, all is ruled by beings too great for our puny minds to comprehend and so ancient we foolishly believe they must no longer exist…

‘And I like, too, the way they manage to keep their names before us . . . There’s old Hu, the Druid god of justice, still alive in “Hue and Cry”; there’s Typhon hammering his way against us in the typhoon; there’s the mighty Hurakar, serpent god of the winds, you know, shouting to us in hurricane and ouragan…’

If you’d like to find out what happens, here’s a link.

(The porpy was so scared by this one
he’s refusing to come out of hiding…
)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link

Bleeding Heart Yard (Harbinder Kaur 3) by Elly Griffiths

Great expectations…

😀 😀 😀 😀

During a school reunion, prominent politician Garfield Rice is found dead in the boys toilets, apparently from a drug overdose. However, it soon becomes apparent that he has been murdered, and the case is handed to Inspector Harbinder Kaur – her first case since taking a promoted post in West London. Coincidentally one of the other people at the reunion is Cassie Fitzgerald, a member of Harbinder’s new team, and Cassie has a secret. Back when she was a pupil at prestigious Manor Park school, a boy died. It was listed as a tragic accident, but Cassie knows the truth – that she killed him. Now it looks to her as if Garfield’s death might have something to do with that earlier death, and she has to decide how much she’s going to tell Harbinder…

Expectations can be a real pain sometimes. The first two books in this series were so original and excellent that I had extremely high hopes for this one. This meant that, though this is a perfectly acceptable cross between a police procedural and a psychological thriller, my main reaction to it was disappointment. That may also be to do with the fact that it’s the third book I’ve read this year where the current crime arises out of a dark secret surrounding something that a tight-knit and elite group of pupils did at school. And Sharon Bolton did it so much better in The Pact.

(FF muses: I’ve joked about this before, but I do wonder – does a memo go round from publishers at the start of each year telling authors what subject they must include in their books? It seems beyond coincidence when one year every second book is about a group of people trapped in a snow-bound chalet, and the next year every second book is about a school reunion of some kind…)

Anyway…

Harbinder has moved away from her parents’ home at last and is sharing a flat with two other women. She’s both happy and a little nervous about her new job and her new life. She’s loving being in London but is homesick for her family and friends back home. Griffiths handles all this well, without over-dramatising it. Harbinder remains just as likeable in the previous books, but, again, since so many crime series are set in London I feel the South Coast setting of the earlier books in the series gave them an element of uniqueness which is missing from this one. However, she uses her London setting well, especially the deliciously-named Bleeding Heart Yard – a real place, mentioned also in Dickens’ Little Dorrit – and the legends surrounding its name.

We see the action from three main perspectives – a third-person present-tense account from Harbinder’s view, and two first-person past-tense narrators. Cassie is one of those, and the other is Anna, another of the pupils/reunioners. I found their voices indistinguishable, though fortunately each chapter is headed with the name of the character whose perspective it’s from. All the tense and viewpoint jumping is of course obligatory in modern crime, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying.

The plot is quite enjoyable although it strays well past the credibility line on more than one occasion. Without wishing to veer into spoiler territory, there is one point where Harbinder steps so far over the line of how anyone, especially a senior police officer, would react on being told of a serious crime that my jaw dropped. I actually guessed whodunit and why about halfway through, which is rare for me, but I think it was luck rather than it being too obvious. The thriller-ish ending is entertaining despite the total lack of credibility.

Elly Griffiths

Oh dear, this is one of those occasions when my review has turned out more critical than I intended. I did find this an enjoyable read, despite all of the above. The pacing is good and keeps the reader turning the pages, and there’s a good deal of humour, especially around Harbinder getting to know her new colleagues and flatmates. She begins to settle in to her London life, and we see signs of her developing new friendships and possibly even a romance, but she still goes home for visits so the reader is kept up to date with her family and older friends from the previous books. Had this been the first book in the series I’d probably be praising it more highly, but it simply didn’t wow me the way the first two did. I’ll still be eager to see where Griffiths goes with the series in future books though.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus via NetGalley.

Amazon UK Link

The Nursing Home Murder (Inspector Alleyn 3) by Ngaio Marsh

His life in their hands…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Home Secretary, Sir Derek O’Callaghan, is in the middle of steering an important bill through Parliament to counter the threat from anarchists and Bolshevists. So although he is suffering from intermittent abdominal pains, he is ignoring them until he has more time to deal with personal issues. And the personal issues are piling up! As well as his health and threats against his life from those Bolshies, his doctor, Sir John Phillips, is furious at the way he has treated a nurse who works in Sir John’s clinic, having seduced and then dumped her. It’s probable his wife won’t be too happy if she learns about that little episode either! His sister, meantime, thinks that all his woes and ills can be cured by one of the many patent medicines she acquires from her pharmacist friend. It all comes to a crisis when Sir Derek collapses while giving a speech in the House of Commons. He is rushed to Sir John’s clinic where he is diagnosed with peritonitis requiring immediate surgery. Hmm… surgery carried out by the doctor who’s furious at him, the nurse he seduced, an anaesthetist who previously accidentally killed a patient, and another nurse who is a Bolshevist in her spare time. So when he subsequently dies, it’s not altogether surprising that suspicions of murder arise! Enter Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn of the Yard…

It’s a long time since I last read a Ngaio Marsh, but I was very fond of her books back in the day, and happily this was a pleasant revisit. It’s a nice mix of whodunit and howdunit, and the investigation is mostly carried out through a series of interviews Alleyn has with the various suspects. It soon transpires that Sir Derek had been poisoned with hyoscine, a drug that had been used as part of his preparation for surgery. So suspicion naturally falls on Sir John, since he gave the hyoscine injection. But Alleyn quickly realises that many other people had the opportunity to give him another injection or perhaps to have given him the drug in another form. So it all comes down to motive and method – who wanted him dead (lots of people!) and who could have given him the drug, and how.

The one thing that makes me not wholeheartedly love Marsh as much as I do, for example, Christie, is the snobbishness in the books – a fault she of course shares with many of the Golden Age writers. Alleyn is one of these aristocratic policeman (did they ever exist in real life, I wonder?) and his sidekick, Inspector Fox, is a “common man”. Alleyn is very fond of Fox but is horribly patronising towards him, as is Marsh herself. When thinking about it, I wonder if part of the reason that Christie has remained so popular is that Poirot’s sidekick is a man of the same or even higher class than Poirot himself, so that while Poirot may mock his intelligence from time to time there’s no feeling of snobbery. Alleyn’s Fox, Sayers’ portrayal of Wimsey’s sidekick, Bunter, and Allingham’s Lugg, sidekick for Campion, all make the books feel much more dated than Christie and in a way of which modern audiences are less tolerant, I feel. Although I do often wonder what contemporary working class readers, who surely made up the bulk of the readership for all these authors, made of their mockery of the working classes. We were more deferential, for sure, back then, but even so. Anyway, I digress.

Challenge details:
Book: 55
Subject Heading: Playing Politics
Publication Year: 1935

Alleyn also has another occasional sidekick in the person of a young journalist, Nigel Bathgate, and he and his fiancée, Angela, appear in this one. Alleyn sends them off to infiltrate an anarchist meeting, and has fun with the portrayal of these bogeymen of the era, complete with stock bearded Russian Bolshevist. Nigel and Angela are Bright Young Things, and provide some levity which lightens the tone. Alleyn himself is quite a cheerful detective, who enjoys his job and has a keen sense of justice. So while the books aren’t quite cosy, nor are they dark and grim.

Ngaio Marsh

The eventual solution veers over the credibility line but the general tone of the book means this doesn’t matter as much as it would in a darker style of novel. I was rather proud of the fact that I spotted one or two clues, but I was still surprised when all was revealed.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Philip Franks, and he did a very good job, getting into the spirit of the more caricatured characters (the Bolshevists, for instance) while making both Alleyn and Fox likeable, as they are on the page.

Overall, an enjoyable reunion with some old friends, and I’m looking forward to revisiting some of the other books. This is an early one, and I may try a late one next, to see if the snobbery gets toned down as time passes.

Audible UK Link

TBR Thursday 358…

Episode 358

A huge drop in the TBR this week – down 4 to 163! I’m getting seriously worried now. I just can’t imagine where all the books are disappearing to…

Here are a few more that should fly off the shelf soon…

Vintage Crime

Final Acts edited by Martin Edwards

Courtesy of the British Library. The porpy’s beginning to look in need of a little break, so I’m detouring briefly away from horror to another of the BL’s anthologies of vintage crime. Theatrical settings are always fun because they’re so… theatrical!

The Blurb says: Behind the stage lights and word-perfect soliloquies, sinister secrets are lurking in the wings. The mysteries in this collection reveal the dark side to theatre and performing arts: a world of backstage dealings, where unscrupulous actors risk everything to land a starring role, costumed figures lead to mistaken identities, and on-stage deaths begin to look a little too convincing. . .

This expertly curated thespian anthology features fourteen stories from giants of the classic crime genre such as Dorothy L. Sayers, Julian Symons and Ngaio Marsh, as well as firm favourites from the British Library Crime Classics series: Anthony Wynne, Christianna Brand, Bernard J. Farmer and many more.

Mysteries abound when a player’s fate hangs on a single performance, and opening night may very well be their last.

* * * * *

Historical Fiction

Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom

The very last book in my Spanish Civil War challenge! I read this years ago and didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as Sansom’s other novels, which I put down to my lack of knowledge regarding the SCW. So this is a kind of test – will all my reading on the subject now enable me to appreciate this one more? We shall see!

The Blurb says: 1940: The Spanish Civil War is over, and Madrid lies ruined, its people starving, while the Germans continue their relentless march through Europe. Britain now stands alone while General Franco considers whether to abandon neutrality and enter the war.

Into this uncertain world comes Harry Brett: a traumatized veteran of Dunkirk turned reluctant spy for the British Secret Service. Sent to gain the confidence of old school friend Sandy Forsyth, now a shady Madrid businessman, Harry finds himself involved in a dangerous game – and surrounded by memories.

Meanwhile Sandy’s girlfriend, ex-Red Cross nurse Barbara Clare, is engaged in a secret mission of her own – to find her former lover Bernie Piper, a passionate Communist in the International Brigades, who vanished on the bloody battlefields of the Jarama.

* * * * *

Thriller

The Skeleton Key by Erin Kelly

Courtesy of Hodder & Stoughton via NetGalley. I’ve had a rather mixed reaction to Erin Kelly in the past, but when she’s good, she’s very, very good. So fingers crossed for this one…

The Blurb says: Summer, 2021. Nell has come home at her family’s insistence to celebrate an anniversary. Fifty years ago, her father wrote The Golden Bones. Part picture book, part treasure hunt, Sir Frank Churcher created a fairy story about Elinore, a murdered woman whose skeleton was scattered all over England. Clues and puzzles in the pages of The Golden Bones led readers to seven sites where jewels were buried – gold and precious stones, each a different part of a skeleton. One by one, the tiny golden bones were dug up until only Elinore’s pelvis remained hidden.

The book was a sensation. A community of treasure hunters called the Bonehunters formed, in frenzied competition, obsessed to a dangerous degree. People sold their homes to travel to England and search for Elinore. Marriages broke down as the quest consumed people. A man died. The book made Frank a rich man. Stalked by fans who could not tell fantasy from reality, his daughter, Nell, became a recluse.

But now the Churchers must be reunited. The book is being reissued along with a new treasure hunt and a documentary crew are charting everything that follows. Nell is appalled, and terrified. During the filming, Frank finally reveals the whereabouts of the missing golden bone. And then all hell breaks loose.

* * * * *

Wodehouse on Audio

Something Fresh by PG Wodehouse read by Jonathan Cecil

So far I’ve been sticking to the Jeeves and Wooster books in my audiobook listens to Wodehouse, but it’s time to try something fresh! I haven’t read all the Blandings books before but I’ve dipped in and out of them, and while I miss Bertie, they still have the unmistakeable Wodehouse charm. This is the first in the series, happily all narrated by the wonderful Jonathan Cecil, who has become THE voice of Wodehouse for me…

The Blurb says: ‘Without at least one impostor on the premises, Blandings Castle is never itself’

Welcome to the world of the delightfully dotty Lord Emsworth, his bone-headed younger son and his long-suffering secretary.

Having returned home with a valuable Egyptian amulet, Lord Emsworth finds his home contains not one but two imposters intent on taking it off his hands. But with no real sense of how the amulet came to be in his pocket in the first place, things get a lot more complicated very quickly…

* * * * *

NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Amazon UK or Audible UK.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Their Finest Hour by Winston Churchill

All the winds that blew…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The second volume in Churchill’s massive, Nobel Prize-winning, six-volume history of the Second World War, this one covers two distinct stages – the fall of France and the Battle of Britain. Churchill gives each volume a theme, and this one seems particularly pointed towards our so-called allies who sat on their hands while Britain stood alone against the mighty German war machine:

HOW THE BRITISH PEOPLE
HELD THE FORT
ALONE
TILL THOSE WHO HITHERTO HAD
BEEN HALF BLIND WERE
HALF READY

Just as in the first volume, this is a wonderful mix of military detail, including many tables showing troop and equipment statistics, and political manoeuvring, as Churchill continued his patient and immensely frustrating attempts to get the US to stand by its supposed allies with something a bit more useful than warm words. Meantime, the rush was on in Britain to intensify munitions manufacture so that the armed forces and especially the air forces would be able to defend against the expected German invasion. We hear much about the many people who were encouraged to use their inventive technical skills to give us any possible military or intelligence edge, and about the support given by the Dominions and Colonies throughout the Empire.

But what makes Churchill such an outstanding Titan in history is that, despite us being forced to stand alone with France fallen and the US procrastinating, despite the massed armies of Hitler gathering on the French shore looking our way, despite the bombs falling devastatingly on our cities night after night, Churchill never considered that we might be defeated. He worked on the assumption that we would win the coming Battle of Britain despite all odds, and so simultaneously made plans for how, our defensive work still ongoing, Britain should move into the offensive stage that would drive Germany and its major ally Italy back, liberating the countries they had invaded and destroying their military might. While all eyes were on the skies above Britain, his gaze was also directed towards Egypt and N. Africa. While all efforts were made to increase production of planes and train pilots to fight the ongoing Battle of Britain, Churchill was also demanding tanks – “Tanks for Africa!”

….The prize was worthy of the hazard. The arrival of our vanguard on the sea at Buq Buq or thereabouts would cut the communications of three-quarters of Marshal Graziani’s army. Attacked by surprise from the rear, they might well be forced as a result of vigorous fighting into mass surrenders. In this case the Italian front would be irretrievably broken. With all their best troops captured or destroyed, no force would be left capable of withstanding a further onslaught, nor could any organised retreat be made to Tripoli along hundreds of miles of coastal road.
….Here, then, was the deadly secret which the generals had talked over with their Secretary of State. This was what they had not wished to telegraph. We were all delighted. I purred like six cats. Here was something worth doing. It was decided there and then, subject to the agreement of the Chiefs of Staff and the War Cabinet, to give immediate sanction and all possible support to this splendid enterprise, and that it should take first place in all our thoughts and have, amid so many other competing needs, first claim upon our strained resources.

It is as thrilling as any adventure story, but so much more than that – his foresight and that of the military men and politicians who worked with him in an attitude of mutual determination didn’t simply save Britain from invasion, but kept hope alive that the spirit of democracy and freedom from tyranny would one day rise again across Europe.

By the end of this volume the Battle of Britain has been won, the threat of invasion is over, the Axis advance in North Africa has been halted, and America has finally signed up to lend-lease which, if it will still not put American skin in the game, will at least provide (for a fee that Britain would still be paying back sixty years later) equipment and the necessities of life to those who are doing the fighting. And here, at the end of 1940, the writing is already on the wall for the eventual defeat of the Axis powers, though it would be many years and see many millions of deaths before that defeat was final.

And now this Britain, and its far-spread association of states and dependencies, which had seemed on the verge of ruin, whose very heart was about to be pierced, had been for fifteen months concentrated upon the war problem, training its men and devoting all its infinitely-varied vitalities to the struggle. With a gasp of astonishment and relief the smaller neutrals and the subjugated states saw that the stars still shone in the sky. Hope, and within it passion, burned anew in the hearts of hundreds of millions of men. The good cause would triumph. Right would not be trampled down. The flag of Freedom, which in this fateful hour was the Union Jack, would still fly in all the winds that blew.

Amazon UK Link

Tuesday Terror! Ghosts from the Library edited by Tony Medawar

Criminally spooky…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

There has always been a strong crossover between the genres of crime and horror, and many authors have tried their hand at both. This collection brings together ghostly offerings from fifteen authors better known as mystery writers, mostly from the Golden Age or shortly after. There’s an extra story from MR James, helpfully included because Dorothy L Sayers uses it as a jumping off point for her story. All the entries bar one are stories – GK Chesterton’s is a short essay in which he advises writers how to do ghosts in fiction (oddly, since that’s hardly what he’s known for, but it gives him an opportunity to sound supercilious towards writers whose reputations have long surpassed his own). And as with the Bodies from the Library series to which this is a companion, all the stories have never been collected before (except the MR James) and in one or two cases are being published here for the first time

The overall standard is very high, with only two of the stories getting low ratings from me. All the rest were fairly evenly divided between good, very good and excellent, so a very enjoyable collection in total. What I would say, though, is, that with a couple of notable exceptions, the writers have tended to write what felt to me like crime or mystery stories with a ghostly element rather than the more traditional spooky story of, say, MR James himself and his ilk. This worked great for me since I’m a fan of both genres and actually prefer even my ghost stories to have a proper plot. But I suspect it might mean they wouldn’t work quite so well for people looking for traditional ghost stories and spooky scares – this, I’m guessing, may be why it’s getting pretty mixed ratings on Goodreads so far.

There are loads of well-known names – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Josephine Tey, Daphne du Maurier, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, et al – and, because of the format, no well known stories, so even enthusiastic anthology readers like myself will find all these stories new to them. Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

The Green Dress by Anthony Berkeley – a painter is helped by a ghostly model, but what does she want? I highlighted this one in a recent Tuesday Terror! post.

The Witch by Christianna Brand – A longer story this one, novelette length, it tells of a woman, Laura, alone in the world but with a small inheritance. She has a whirlwind romance with Gereth, and marries him despite barely knowing him. Then she finds a letter in his pocket from his first love, Dorion, talking about murder. Beautiful Dorion seems to have the ability to make men and animals bend to her will and is known locally as a witch. But is Gereth plotting with her to get Laura’s inheritance? A great story, full of suspense and Gothic horror. Is Dorion really a witch? I’ll leave you to find out for yourself!

The Red Balloon by Q. Patrick – This one is really more of a science fiction story, but with some great horror aspects. The narrator is a journalist, sent to report on a terrible incident when two children are killed when they run after a mysterious red balloon. The children’s bodies are kind of dried out, sort of mummified. The journalist’s uncle is a famous but eccentric scientist, and he has a theory that the red balloon comes from an invisible planet which approaches Earth every 28 years. As we will discover, the reason the balloon is red is quite gruesome! Despite the dead children motif, this story is humorous, and references HG Wells quite strongly and openly. Light-hearted, well written and shivery fun.

Run, Pooh! Run!!

Death in a Dream by Laurence Meynell – After being hit on the head during a bombing raid, our narrator begins having dreams in which he time-slips, sometimes to the past, sometimes the future – he doesn’t always know himself. One night he dreams of a nurse murdering her patient, a middle-aged woman. But has it already happened or is it still to come? Very short and more ironically humorous than scary, but very well done!

St Bartholomew’s Day by Edmund Crispin – A dilettante historical researcher is investigating Raoul de Savigny, a man who was killed in the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre. He learns that de Savigny’s papers were buried with him, in his casket in the mausoleum in the grounds of his château. The historian breaks in, rather foolishly on St Bartholomew’s Day, and finds more in the mausoleum than he was expecting! This has a great mix of humour and horror and is very well told. Probably one of the most traditionally “ghost story” style tales in the collection.

So loads of variety – lots of great authors having some fun and inviting the reader along to share in it. And this reader certainly appreciated the invitation! I’d probably recommend it more to vintage mystery fans than horror fans – half the fun comes from seeing the authors try something a bit different to what we normally expect from them, most of them very successfully. Another one that would make a great Christmas stocking gift!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Crime Club.

Amazon UK Link

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Best days of our lives…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Kathy H, at the age of thirty-one, is coming to the end of her career as a carer and looks back at her life, especially her time at Hailsham, the school where she lived throughout her childhood, and the friends she made there. Even as children they all knew Hailsham was a special place and that they too were special, marked out to be carers first, and then donors. But it is only in the last few years that Kathy has come to question that path, and to wonder, along with her best friends Ruth and Tommy, if anyone is ever allowed to deviate from it…

Coming to this book so late it feels almost pointless to avoid spoilers, since I expect almost everyone already knows what the book is about. But I’ll try anyway! It’s probably best described as a literary science fiction set in a dystopian world but in our own recent past – the late 20th century, that is. The core subject is one that has been done many times before and since in science fiction, but is no less powerful for that. The first thing that made it feel different for me is that the narrator, though she sometimes questions things, is ultimately accepting of the life that is mapped out for her. This is not about a struggle against injustice, a battle for rights – it is a portrait of brainwashing, and of a society that has learned how to look the other way.

Secondly, until very near the end we only meet the students of Hailsham and other schools of the same kind, and later when they’re grown up, the carers and donors they become. The other side of society, where the “normal” people live – the ones we’d be in this world – is left almost completely blank, which I found made the book unsettling and rather ambiguous. What happened to this society? A past war is mentioned, but just once in passing. But the roads that Kathy drives along as she moves between the donors under her care are usually empty and the world seems as if it has been somehow depopulated. Are they, the normal people, rich? Poor? Do they have residual health problems from whatever event led to the depopulation? Do they struggle with the morality of what is being done in these isolated schools? Or do they perhaps not know? Or not care?

I felt it was easy to work out pretty early on what was going on with regards to the carers and donors, and I think that’s deliberate. The central mystery is more to do with why Hailsham is seen as special even among the students of the other schools. At Hailsham a great emphasis is placed on art and creativity, and a mysterious Madame visits occasionally and takes away the best of the students’ artworks. The rumour among the children is that Madame runs a Gallery where this art is shown to the public, but when they reach adulthood this explanation seems less satisfactory, and Kathy’s friends have another theory, which they will eventually set out to prove or disprove.

Kazuo Ishiguro

Kathy is a wonderful narrative voice and I grew to care about her very much. Her changing relationships over the years with her two closest friends, Ruth and Tommy, are beautifully portrayed, and while Kathy doesn’t spend much time emoting, nevertheless the book is deeply emotional. She looks back at the three of them in childhood with an adult eye, and can therefore evaluate their interactions more objectively in retrospect. She knows their weaknesses and her own, and sometimes their friendship is strained almost to breaking point, but those early experiences hold them in a kind of web of their own making, a web that may feel like a trap sometimes but is fundamentally spun from love. In Hailsham, no families visit, there are no vacations or interaction with the outside world, so the children there are all each other have. They are not treated cruelly; they are simply trained and conditioned to accept the role for which society has destined them.

I don’t think I can say much more about the story without getting into spoiler territory. It’s a quietly devastating book that shows how easily mankind can create “others” and then treat those others as lesser. And more than that, it also shows how those others can be taught to think of themselves that way too, and to accept the injustices they are shown as normal, even right. It’s a continuation of the science fiction tradition of “mad science”, only here we spend our time not with the mad scientists but with the results of their experiments. It is the bastard child of Frankenstein and Dr Moreau, but here the monsters look just like us, and act like us, and think like us. So the question is, why then are they not us?

Book 10 of 12

This was The People’s Choice for October, and a wonderful choice for which I thank you, People! Keep up the good work!

Amazon UK Link

Shorts November 2022…

A Bunch of Minis…

I’m still battling to catch up with reviews, so here’s another little batch of mini-reviews of books that were mostly middling…

* * * * *

Max Carrados by Ernest Bramah

🙂 🙂 🙂

A collection of short stories about amateur detective Max Carrados, whose blindness has allowed him to develop all his other senses way beyond the norm, and also well beyond the limits of believability. The stories are well written and some of the plots are interesting, though others are pretty dull, but I tired very quickly of Carrados’ superhuman sensory abilities, such as being able to date an ancient coin by touch alone. There seemed to be something of a fad for detectives with disabilities round about that period – the book was published in 1914 – though sadly not in the sense of creating visibility or understanding for people with disabilities, but rather as a form of entertainment for able-bodied people to wonder over. However, it wasn’t the absence of political correctness that prevented me enjoying the book wholeheartedly – that is of its time and Bramah certainly doesn’t disparage his hero. It was simply that I felt Bramah took the concept too far, making it impossible for me to believe in Carrados’ abilities. The stories I enjoyed best were the ones that relied least on the fact of Carrados being blind. Worth a read, though – I certainly found them more enjoyable than some of the books from this very early period of mystery writing.

Challenge details:
Book: 11
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1914

* * * * *

Israel Rank by Roy Horniman

😐 😐

This is the book on which the famous film Kind Hearts and Coronets was based so the story will be familiar to anyone who has seen it, although apparently the film had some significant differences to the book. Basically, the narrator in the book, Israel Rank, is the son of a Jewish father and a mother who is distantly related to Earl Gascoyne. Israel finds out that there are eight people in the line of succession between him and the Earldom, and sets out to bump them off one by one. It’s a long time since I watched the film but my recollection is it’s mainly played for laughs. The book attempts black humour too, but for me it didn’t really come off. As well as being a multiple murderer, Israel is a snob, completely convinced of his own superiority, and spends far too much time telling us his lustful thoughts about the various women with whom he gets involved. I found the murders too cruel to be humorous – there is real grief on the part of the victims’ relatives.

There is also an insistence on Jewish stereotyping, with Israel frequently referring to the ‘traits’ of ‘his people’ while trotting out some hackneyed anti-Semitic trope. Martin Edwards suggests, based on what is known of Horniman’s life, that the book is probably intended “as a condemnation of anti-Semitism, rather than some form of endorsement of it” but, while I’m happy to accept that he’s probably right, I’m afraid that’s not how it comes over. I found Israel too unpleasant to like, and certainly had no desire to see him succeed in his aims.

However, all of that I could probably have tolerated – again, it’s of its time – but I fear I also found it rather dull and massively overlong. I gave up about halfway through and jumped to the end to see if he succeeded. I won’t tell you if he did, but I found the ending unsatisfying enough that I was glad I hadn’t ploughed through the second half waiting for it.

Challenge details:
Book: 5
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1907

* * * * *

Arms and the Women (Dalziel and Pascoe 18) by Reginald Hill

😀 😀 😀 🙂

After the events of the previous book, Ellie Pascoe is indulging in some self-prescribed therapy by writing a never-to-be-published story about the Greeks and Trojans, starring a version of Odysseus who bears a remarkable resemblance to Andy Dalziel. Then two strangers arrive at her door one afternoon and attempt to abduct her. While the police try to find out what’s going on, Ellie agrees to make herself scarce for a bit, and retreats to an isolated house by the sea, owned by her friend Daphne Alderman who accompanies her. DC Shirley Novello, “Ivor” as Dalziel calls her, is sent along as protection, and Ellie takes her young daughter, Rosie. This group is enlarged by the inclusion of a neighbour of Daphne’s – Feenie McCallum, an elderly lady with a mysterious past. Naturally the baddies will find them, and the women will have to protect themselves and each other while waiting for the cavalry, in the persons of Dalziel and Pascoe, to ride to the rescue.

By this late stage in the series Hill is trying new things in each book, which sometimes work and sometimes don’t quite. Here he plays with Ellie’s re-writing of the story of Odysseus and there are large sections of her manuscript interspersed throughout the main story. While these are well written and quite fun, they simply get in the way of the plot, making the book overlong and slowing it down to a crawl. Also he decides to concentrate almost entirely on the women, as the title implies, meaning that Dalziel, Pascoe and Wield are relegated to the sidelines and barely appear. Since those are the three characters who hold the series together this was a brave choice, but from my perspective not a good one. The plot is desperately convoluted too, and goes so far over the credibility line it nearly disappears over the horizon. Lastly, as I’ve mentioned before, I find it irritating that Pascoe has to deal with a family-related trauma in nearly every book at this later stage in the series.

As always with Hill, the writing is a joy, and there’s plenty of humour along with some tense, exciting scenes, so it’s still very readable. But it’s one of my least favourites and I’d really only recommend it to Dalziel and Pascoe completists.

* * * * *

Onwards and upwards!

TBR Thursday 357…

Episode 357

A few books in and a few books out in the couple of weeks since I last reported. Result – the TBR remains stuck on 167!

Here are a few more that I should pull out soon…

Vintage Horror

Our Haunted Shores edited by Emily Alder, Jimmy Packham and Joan Passey

Courtesy of the British Library. Next up in my bumper crop of anthologies is this one from the BL’s Tales of the Weird series. This sounds like it’s going to be a mix of real horrors – shipwrecks, etc – alongside the usual spooky fare…

The Blurb says: From the unsettling expanses of mud flats to foreboding cliffs and treacherous reefs, the coasts of the British Isles have provided inspiration for storytellers for millennia, creating a rich literary and cultural significance for these spaces in between the land and sea. The shoreline can be a destination for pleasure, but it is also the rife with peril. In this new collection, the founders of the Haunted Shores Research Network have curated a chilling literary tour of the coasts of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, including tales of woeful shipwreck, lighthouse terrors and uncanny revenants amid the bustle of the harbourside.

* * * * *

Fiction

Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash

Courtesy of Canongate via NetGalley. This is one of the couple of remaining books that have been sitting for years on my NetGalley shelf, back from when my self-control collapsed and I requested far more books than I could possibly read – in this case it’s been there since 2016! I acquired it after enjoying Rash’s The Cove, though since then I’ve had a much less positive experience with his Serena. So this one will be the decider…

The Blurb says: Nothing else comes so I set the notebook beside me. What else is here? I ask myself and listen. This section of stream purls and riffles amid small stones. What word might be made for what I hear . . .

Above the Waterfall is the story of Sheriff Les Clary. A man on the verge of retirement, he is plunged into deep and dangerous waters by one final case. A case that will draw him to the lyrical beauty of his surroundings and, in doing so, force him to come to terms with his own past.

Echoing the heartbreaking beauty of William Faulkner and the spiritual isolation of Michel Faber, Above the Waterfall is as poetic as it is haunting.

* * * * *

Spanish Civil War Thriller

The Gate of the Sun by Derek Lambert

I’m determined to finish the last two books for my Spanish Civil War challenge before the end of the year, which will be harder than it sounds since they’re both stonking doorsteps! I’ve enjoyed a couple of Lambert’s politically-tinged thrillers before, written under his pseudonym Richard Falkirk, so I have high expectations for this one.

The Blurb says: On the bitter battlefields of the Spanish Civil War, an unlikely friendship is forged. Tom Canfield and Adam Fleming are from different countries and on opposing sides, yet they have one thing in common – a passionate love for Spain…

With a fervour to match their own, a woman is battling in the same bloody struggle. She is Ana, the Black Widow; young, beautiful, bereaved – and a dangerous freedom fighter.

The end of the armed conflict will not end the conflicting emotions that draw these people together. For over forty turbulent years, from the dark days of Franco’s victory to the birth of modern Spain, they will be bound together in an intricate web – of love, betrayal, ambition and revenge…

Derek Lambert, who knew and loved Spain for many years, uses his unique understanding of Spanish history and character in this sweeping novel which encompasses some of the most crucial events of twentieth-century Europe, creates characters of extraordinary depth and humanity, and tells a story of compelling power and vitality.

* * * * *

Fiction on Audio

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières read by Michael Maloney

There was a time when everyone was reading Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – except me! Time to find out what I missed…

The Blurb says: It is 1941 and Captain Antonio Corelli, a young Italian officer, is posted to the Greek island of Cephallonia as part of the occupying forces. At first he is ostracised by the locals, but as a conscientious soldier, whose main aim is to have a peaceful war, he proves in time to be civilised, humorous – and a consummate musician. When the local doctor’s daughter’s letters to her fiancé go unanswered, the working of the eternal triangle seems inevitable. But can this fragile love survive as the war gets closer and the lines are drawn between invader and defender?

* * * * *

NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Amazon UK or Audible UK.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Wanderlust Bingo Challenge

Journey’s End…

Well, the one-year challenge that I started in January 2021 took two years to complete, but I’ve finally made it! I’ve visited 24 nations spread across every populated continent (that’s my way of saying I haven’t visited Antarctica). I’ve climbed mountains and sailed seas, I’ve walked and cycled and travelled by road and train, I’ve crossed deserts, explored forests, and navigated rivers. I’ve stopped off in villages, towns and cities, and had a little vacation at the beach. I’ve even been into space!

Along the way, I’ve travelled with spies and murderers and actors, battled cholera epidemics, fished for herring, listened to Māoris and met the Sami people. I’ve been frozen half to death in Icelandic snow, nearly drowned in the North Sea, contracted sunstroke on an Australian beach and been half-eaten alive by insects in the Congo. I’ve flown Spitfires in WW2 and been on a forced march through Malaya alongside prisoners of the Japanese, I’ve endured deprivation during the Spanish Civil War, made it out of Vietnam just in time, been caught up in the Biafran war and survived a siege in the Raj. After all that, it’s hardly surprising I had to spend some time undergoing psychotherapy in an Austrian sanatorium!

(The three orange boxes are the final books I’ve reviewed since the last time I did an update.)

I’ve also had the pleasure of being joined along the way by blog friends: Christine, who sped ahead of me and finished the journey long ago; and BookerTalk and Margaret at BooksPlease, who joined in later and are following along at their own pace. ‘Tis better to journey hopefully than to arrive! Many others have joined in by reading and commenting on my reviews and round-ups. And several of you read my Scottish choice, The Silver Darlings, along with me. Thanks to you all for travelling with me in spirit – it’s never a lonely planet when you’re around!

And lastly (and you’ll never know how hard this was to achieve!) I’ve filled every box with a book I’m happy to recommend!

* * * * *

Here’s the final list with links to my reviews:

North America (Canada) – Still Life by Louise Penny

Small Town (England) – The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

Island (Iceland) – The Chill Factor by Richard Falkirk

Train (Turkey) – Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

Far East (Hong Kong/China) – The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham

Indian Subcontinent (India) – The Siege of Krishnapur by JG Farrell

Village (Sweden) – To Cook a Bear by Mikael Niemi

Oceania (New Zealand/Aotearoa) – Pūrākau (anthology of Māori authors)

Forest (Germany) – Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K Jerome

Space (Universe) – Spaceworlds (anthology of SF stories)

Mountain (Austria) – Snow Country by Sebastian Faulks

South America (Peru) – At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón

Free Square (Gibraltar) – Killing Rock by Robert Daws

River (Congo) – The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Polar Regions (Greenland) – Seven Graves, One Winter by Christoffer Petersen

Desert (Sahara/N. Africa) – Biggles Defends the Desert by Capt WE Johns

Walk (Malaya) – A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

Southeast Asia (Vietnam) – The Quiet American by Graham Greene

Africa (Biafra/Nigeria) – Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Beach (Australia) – The Survivors by Jane Harper

Road (USA) – The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

Europe (France) – The Man from London by Georges Simenon

Sea (Scotland) – The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn

Middle East (Israel) – The Twisted Wire by Richard Falkirk

City (Barcelona/Spain) – In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda 

* * * * *

 And now, the question is… will I do it all again next year?

Watch This Space!

Tuesday Terror! They Found My Grave by Marjorie Bowen

Is there anybody there?

This week’s story is another from The Night Wire, a British Library Tales of the Weird anthology that takes as its theme the new technologies at the turn of the last century that were inspiring both science fiction and horror writers of the day. The technology here is the gramophone, complete with horn, which is used by a medium to provide a conduit from the spirit world…

They Found My Grave
by Marjorie Bowen

Marjorie Bowen

Ada Trimble was bored with the sittings. She had been persuaded to attend against her better judgment, and the large dingy Bloomsbury house depressed and disgusted her; the atmosphere did not seem to her in the least spiritual and was always tainted with the smell of stale frying.

Miss Trimble has been persuaded by her friend, Helen Trent, to come with her to visit a fashionable medium…

The medium named herself Astra Destiny. She was a big, loose woman with a massive face expressing power and cunning. Her garments were made of upholstery material and round her cropped yellowish curls she wore a tinsel belt. Her fat feet bulged through the straps of cheap gilt shoes.

Both women claim to be cynics, but Ada suspects Helen is getting sucked in to what she believes is a fraud…

….‘I haven’t seen anything yet I can’t explain, the woman is a charlatan, making money out of fools. She suspects us and might get unpleasant, I think.’
….But Helen Trent insisted: ‘Well, if you’d been going as often as I have, and noticing carefully, like I’ve been noticing…’

So despite her own boredom, Ada continues to go along…

Ada Trimble respected her friend’s judgment; they were both intelligent, middle-aged, cheerful and independent in the sense that they had unearned incomes. Miss Trimble enjoyed every moment of her life and therefore grudged those spent in going from her Knightsbridge flat to the grubby Bloomsbury Temple. Not even Helen’s persistency could induce Ada to continue the private sittings that wasted money as well as time. Besides, Miss Trimble really disliked being shut up in the stuffy, ugly room while Madame Destiny sat in a trance and the control, a Red Indian called Purple Stream babbled in her voice and in pidgin English about the New Atlantis, the brotherhood of man and a few catch phrases that could have been taken from any cheap handbook on philosophy or the religions of the world.

The spirits that turn up at these sessions are often easily traceable through historical records, which the gullible think proves them to be real, but Ada thinks is more likely to be proof of fraud…

….‘I can’t think why you are interested,’ said Ada Trimble to Helen Trent as they drove home together. ‘It is such an easy fraud. Clever, of course, but she has only to keep all the stuff in her head.’
….‘You mean that she looks up the references first?”
….‘Of course.’ Ada Trimble was a little surprised that Helen should ask so simple a question.

But one day while Ada is feeling particularly bored and disgusted by the proceedings, something rather odd occurs. Madame Destiny had been going through the usual nonsense with the gramophone when…

….Suddenly a deep masculine voice said:
….‘Beautus qui intelligit super egenum et pauperem.’
….Ada was utterly startled; she felt as if another personality was in the room, she sat forward and looked around; she felt Helen’s cold fingers clutch hers; she had not more than half understood the Latin; nor, it seemed, had anyone else.

This personality gradually becomes a regular visitor. He calls himself Gabriel Letourneau, and is boastful and arrogant, and, unlike the others, there’s no trace of him in obvious records despite his claims that he was a prominent citizen in France in his day. Ada is the only one of the regulars who speaks French, so the personality always chooses to speak to her in that language. Can it be fraud? Can Madame Destiny really be fluent in French?

Ada Trimble detested this pompous, insistent personality; she felt odd, a little dazed, a little confused; the orange glow of the gas fire, the red glow of the lamp, the metallic gleams on the horn fused into a fiery pattern before her eyes. She felt as if she were being drawn into a void in which nothing existed but the voice.

Ada’s cynicism is not proof against this voice, this personality she slowly grows to hate…

He hated her, too. When she spoke to him he told her in his rapid French that Helen could not follow, his scornful opinion of her; he called her an ‘ageing woman’; he said she was pretension, facile, a silly little atheist while ‘I am in Heaven’. He made acid comments on her carefully chosen clothes, on her charmingly arranged hair, her little armoury of wit and culture, on her delicate illusions and vague, romantic hopes. She felt stripped and defaced after one of these dialogues in which she could not hold her own.

But the one thing the personality will not reveal is the location of his grave. So Ada determines to find it…

* * * * *

The porpy and I thought this was a really excellent story, which works both as a ghost story and as a commentary on the vulnerability to charlatans and fraudsters of lonely, single women with money. The writing is great, and the personality’s cruel taunting of Ada feels like an exposé of the rather worthless lives of ladies of leisure, desperately seeking ways to fill their empty days. And yet all our sympathy is with Ada – she is sucked in through her good intentions of looking out for her friend. If you’d like to know what happens, here’s a link. The porpy and I didn’t think it was super scary, but we found it odd, effective and quite sad…

(The porpy felt the need for his snuggle rug after this one…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link

Trust by Hernan Diaz

Money makes the world go around…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is the story of a power couple in New York, in the years leading up to and following the Great Crash of 1929. He is Benjamin Rask, a financier and descendant of a long line of men who made their money through trade, first in goods and later on the money markets. Rask is fascinated by how the markets work, and has a natural intuition allied to his mathematical brain that enables him to know exactly when to buy or sell. His wealth grows until he is one of the most powerful movers in the economy. He is friendless by choice, anti-social and without hobbies. His work is his life. But in mid-life he begins to consider the matter of an heir to carry on the family line.

She is Helen Brevoort, sole daughter of a couple with an aristocratic heritage but no money. Her father tutors her idiosyncratically – she is brilliant at maths and is introduced to all the faddish philosophies of the day. She too is anti-social, but her mother has made it clear that her duty is to marry money…

Or is that really what the book is about?

This is a hard one to review because of the need not to reveal too much, so I shall keep it vague and short! The book is written in four sections, the first telling the story of Benjamin and Helen as a kind of joint biography, and that section stands on its own as a short novel in the vein of books by Edith Wharton or Henry James, examining the social structure and wealth aristocracy of early 20th century America. The other sections re-examine the same story from three different perspectives, each adding to and altering the reader’s understanding, so that in the end we are clearer about the ‘true’ lives of this couple, but also about the writing of the biography. It reminded me not a little of Citizen Kane – the same larger-than-life characters, the same sense of growing isolation as wealth and power become ends rather than means, the same arrogance and hubris.

It’s brilliantly done. In each section, Diaz creates a different narrative voice and style, and each is as believable as the others. Changes in perception are done subtly, so that for the most part ‘facts’ remain the same – it is the interpretation that alters. The examination extends beyond the lives of the Rasks, to look at the motivations and influences of the various narrators, so that there are stories within stories, gradually widening out to take us into different layers of society and see the tensions caused by the huge disparity between rich and poor. There is politics here, but not polemics – Diaz examines capitalism critically rather than with outright condemnation, and at the other end of the scale he looks at how communism and anarchism grew as a response to extreme inequality, without overtly suggesting that these philosophies are more likely to produce a better society.

Hernan Diaz

But strip the politics out, and also the history of the market gamblers who caused the Crash, and what is left is an intensely human story about character. Who are Helen and Benjamin really? What factors made them into the people they became? How can we ever be sure we know the truth about anyone, even when their fame means that every detail of their lives seems to be played out on the front pages of the newspapers? And in here too is a look at the status of women and how they are perceived, with competing pictures of Helen very much dependant on the stance of the people telling her story.

I found it fascinating and absorbing, well worthy of its longlisting for the Booker nomination, and I’m disappointed that it hasn’t been shortlisted. I hope I’ve said enough to whet your appetite, without spoiling the experience of reading it for yourself. Highly recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Picador via NetGalley.

Amazon UK Link

Marple: Twelve New Stories

From treat to travesty…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

There are some great crime writers in this collection of twelve new Miss Marple stories, many of whom are clearly dedicated fans with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the originals. As expected, some catch the style and tone of the originals better than others, meaning that some of the stories are treats, while a couple are total travesties. For some of the authors, Miss Marple has stayed in her own time with her own attitudes, while some have decided to have her as “woke”, pontificating on anti-Semitism, racial injustice, etc. Needless to say the woke ones and the travesties have a considerable overlap! While the good ones are very good and gave me much pleasure, the bad ones left me in my usual state of wondering why on earth Christie’s estate keep allowing people to mess with her legacy in this way. They surely cannot need the money, and this kind of thing does nothing, I’m sure, to attract new readers to the originals.

The collection starts off with a bang, with several good stories one after the other. Lucy Foley gives us Evil in Small Places, where Miss Marple gets caught up in an investigation while staying with a friend. Foley gets the tone brilliantly – the village setting, plotting, murder method and denouement all feeling authentic. And she delightfully references many of Christie’s book titles along the way. Val McDermid’s The Second Murder at the Vicarage takes place in St Mary Mead, with many of the characters from the original book – the vicar, Griselda, the maid Mary, and so on – and she reprises all this entertainingly and well. The plotting is a little weak, but it’s still a fun story. Next up is a new-to-me author, Alyssa Cole. Like many of the authors, Cole has used the trope of Miss Marple’s nephew Raymond providing her with little holidays to vary the location – here Miss Marple Takes Manhattan. While the story is decidedly un-Marple-esque and involves her being terribly progressive about race and communism (the latter being even more unlikely than the former) there’s a lot of humour to keep it entertaining, and I enjoyed the way Cole played on references to Miss Marple’s stay At Bertram’s Hotel.

Natalie Haynes’ The Unravelling is well written and amusing, but the plotting is weak and for some reason she has Miss Marple living in a village that is not St Mary Mead. Did she move? Why? Still, I felt she handled the generic village setting well, and I enjoyed the story. Ruth Ware’s story, Miss Marple’s Christmas, is the star of the collection for me. A Christmas party at the Bantrys, a mysterious theft, and a very Marple-esque plot, Ware’s love for the character shines through. She also references Agatha Christie’s own description of her youthful family Christmases as given in the intro to one of her collections, I think The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, which is a lovely touch. We discover that Miss Marple likes to read detective fiction, and is fond of the work of Dorothy L Sayers who also gets more than a passing nod here. A great story, very authentic and made me smile.

It all begins to go downhill after that, sadly. In The Open Mind, Naomi Alderman fails to catch the style completely – wrong setting (an Oxford college), wrong type of crime, and Miss Marple is given a bunch of modern social attitudes she would not have had, including a relaxed attitude to drug abuse. Jean Kwok’s The Jade Empress sees Miss Marple on a boat to Hong Kong to visit Raymond, waltzing with Chinamen, in a plot all about racial injustice. It’s well enough written, but has little to do with the real Miss Marple. Dreda Say Mitchell achieved the distinction of the only one-star rating for her story A Deadly Wedding Day, where she gets out her usual axe of white colonial oppression and grinds it mercilessly. More about Mitchell’s Caribbean heritage and black victimhood (as usual – her sole subject) than about Miss Marple, and one wonders why she bothered.

Elly Griffiths lifts the quality again in Murder at the Villa Rose, though Miss Marple plays a distinctly secondary role here and the story is not Christie-esque. It is about a crime writer who is bored with his main character and is thinking of killing him off. I felt it may have given some insight into why Griffiths herself tends to start a new series with entirely new characters every few years! In The Murdering Sort, Karen McManus takes a very elderly Miss Marple to Cape Cod in the 1980s, where she is staying in a cottage provided by Raymond for the summer. Raymond’s teenage daughter, Nicola, appears in this one. It’s rather full of plot holes, but is quite fun. I enjoyed The Mystery of the Acid Soil by Kate Mosse, which has a plot that rests on Miss Marple’s knowledge of gardening. She doesn’t quite catch the tone, but she tries, and while I feel authors should be careful not to give away the major clue in the title(!), the story is enjoyable.

Lastly, Leigh Bardugo’s The Disappearance takes us back to St Mary Mead in a story involving Mrs Bantry. Bardugo does a good job with the tone, barring one or two Americanisms that the editor should have picked up. But the ending – which of course I won’t reveal – is a complete travesty, totally out of tune with the originals and leaving a rather bad taste. A terrible way to end the book, sadly.

So a very mixed bag, although overall I enjoyed the good stories enough to make it worthwhile and was glad that many of the authors at least tried to recapture the original Miss Marple, some of them quite successfully. But the travesties left me feeling as I usually do – that authors should stick to their own creations rather than messing with other people’s.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday 356…

A fourteenth batch of murder, mystery and mayhem…

This is a challenge to read all 102 (102? Yes, 102) books listed in Martin Edwards’ guide to vintage crime, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. (100? Yes, 100.) Because of all the other great vintage crime being republished at the moment, I’m going very slowly with this challenge and they’ve proved to be a bit of a mixed bag so far, especially recently. However I still have several books for it on my TBR, so I shall struggle womanfully on! Here’s the third batch for 2022 and the fourteenth overall…

The Rasp by Philip MacDonald

An author unknown to me, and the blurb has appealing aspects, like the murdered politician (it’s been a tough few weeks here in the UK! 😉 ), and bits that thrill me less, like the emphasis on alibis. However it has reasonably high ratings on Goodreads, so we’ll see. 

The Blurb says: A victim is bludgeoned to death with a woodworker’s rasp in this first case for the famed gentleman detective Anthony Gethryn.

Ex-Secret Service agent Anthony Gethryn is killing time working for a newspaper when he is sent to cover the murder of Cabinet minister John Hoode, bludgeoned to death in his country home with a wood-rasp. Gethryn is convinced that the prime suspect, Hoode’s secretary Alan Deacon, is innocent, but to prove it he must convince the police that not everyone else has a cast-iron alibi for the time of the murder.

Challenge details

Book No: 20

Subject Heading: The Great Detectives

Publication Year: 1924

Martin Edwards says: “The zest of MacDonald’s prose contributed to the book’s success, and compensated for flaws such as Gethryn’s very lengthy explanation of the mystery at the end.”

* * * * *

The Nursing Home Murder by Ngaio Marsh and Henry Jellett

I enjoyed Ngaio Marsh back in the day but haven’t revisited her in years. But her plots were always fun, and the audiobook narrator, Philip Franks, sounds good. Another murdered politician and this one is the Home Secretary! I shall preserve a tactful silence, but my UK friends will know what I’m thinking… 😉

The Blurb says: Ngaio Marsh’s bestselling and ingenious third novel remains one of the most popular pieces of crime fiction of all time.
Sir John Phillips, the Harley Street surgeon, and his beautiful nurse Jane Harden are almost too nervous to operate. The emergency case on the table before them is the Home Secretary – and they both have very good, personal reasons to wish him dead.

Within hours he does die, although the operation itself was a complete success, and Chief Detective Inspector Alleyn must find out why…

Challenge details

Book No: 55

Subject Heading: Playing Politics

Publication Year: 1935

Edwards says: “Marsh undertook her one and only collaborative novel in partnership with a doctor. While undergoing surgery in her native New Zealand she had been attended by Henry Jellett, an Irish gynaecologist who became a friend. She started work on the book during her convalescence with Jellett supplying the necessary technical expertise.

* * * * *

The Duke of York’s Steps by Henry Wade

To the best of my recollection I’ve never come across this author before. Not sure the blurb appeals much, but it has pretty good ratings from the few people who’ve reviewed it on Goodreads. Dead banker this time… *zips lips*

The Blurb says: A wealthy banker, Sir Garth Fratten, dies suddenly from an aneurysm on the Duke of York’s Steps. His doctor is satisfied that a mild shock such as being jostled would be enough to cause Sir Garth’s death. It all seems so straightforward, and there is no inquest.

But Fratten’s daughter Inez is not satisfied. She places an advertisement in the London newspapers that comes to the attention of Scotland Yard, and Inspector John Poole is assigned to make enquiries.

Poole’s investigation leads him into a world of high finance where things are not as they seem; a sordid world in which rich young men make fools of themselves over chorus girls.

Challenge details

Book No: 61

Subject Heading: The Long Arm of the Law

Publication Year: 1929

Edwards says: “Poole is familiar with the detective work of Holmes, Poirot and Hanaud, but regards the approach of Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector French as much more ‘true to life’. Crofts’ influence on Wade is reflected in the careful unravelling of an ingenious conspiracy, but even at this early stage in his career, Wade displays more interest than Crofts in bringing his characters to life. 

* * * * *

Death on the Down Beat by Sebastian Farr

This was one I was having difficulty finding, but happily the British Library have just published it as part of their Crime Classics series. The plot sounds interesting, but Martin Edwards’ comments on it have me worried – see below!

The Blurb says: As a rousing Strauss piece is reaching its crescendo in Maningpool Civic Hall, the talented yet obnoxious conductor Sir Noel Grampian is shot dead in full view of the Municipal Orchestra and the audience. It was no secret that he had many enemies – musicians and music critics among them – but to be killed in mid flow suggests an act of the coldest calculation.

Told through the letters and documents sent by D.I. Alan Hope to his wife as he puzzles through the dauntingly vast pool of suspects and scant physical evidence in the case, this is an innovative and playful mystery underscored by the author’s extensive experience of the highly-strung world of music professionals. First published in 1941, this new edition returns Farr’s only crime novel to print to receive its long-deserved encore.

Challenge details

Book No: 90

Subject Heading: Singletons

Publication Year: 1941

Edwards says: “Farr choose the epistolary form for an unusual story in which the loathsome conductor of the Maningpool Municipal Orchestra is shot dead during a performance of Strauss’ tone poem “A Hero’s Life”. Instead of a floor plan of a country house, the reader is provided with a diagram showing the layout of the orchestra, and no fewer than four pages of musical notation – all of which contain information relevant to the plot.”

* * * * *

All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.
The quotes from Martin Edwards are from his book,
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

The mystery of the missing plot…

😐 😐

Having been left a rambling, dilapidated old house on Cloud Street and being badly in need of money, Sam Pickles divides the house and rents the other half to the Lamb family. So the two families live side by side and…

And what? They simply live side by side. And Winton drifts through the dividing walls, dipping into the lives of one family and then into the lives of the other family. There is no plot, no story arc, no real character development. In fact, at least half of the characters have no character at all to develop – they are simply names. I’m afraid I found it empty, as if the blank paper underneath had seeped up through the words printed on it.

Clearly I’m missing something. The book is an Australian classic, admired by hordes of people. Maybe you have to be Australian to “get” it? I know I sometimes feel a book is too Scottish to easily recommend to non-Scots. Maybe recognition of the places or the slang gives enough pleasure to make up for the lack of a story? I admit there were whole passages where I wasn’t sure what was happening because some of the words conveyed no meaning to me, and weren’t in the Kindle dictionary. I could have googled each time, but I learned how tedious that was with another book full of dialect and slang, and swore I’d never do it again. So my laziness as a reader is definitely a part of the reason this didn’t work for me.

Oddly the first couple of chapters, where we’re introduced first to the Pickles and then to the Lambs, are wonderful – a lot conveyed in very few words, and I actually felt the characters were more clearly evoked then than later – they seemed to fade or recede as the book went on. Also, each family had the beginnings of an interesting story – Sam Pickles being injured in an accident at work that left him a ‘crip’ with a ‘crook’ hand; Fish Lamb nearly drowning in a different accident and his return to life being seen by his family as some kind of miracle. But then it all collapses into the mundane details of daily life.

Tim Winton

Reviews rave about the descriptions of the Australian landscape. That must come later (I’m abandoning it at 21%) because we haven’t moved out of the house since the moment the families moved in. All the conversations take place round one or another of the tables of the families, where they talk, without quotation marks obviously because that would be too easy, about nothing. We hear about Sam’s new job because he tells us about it – we don’t get to go with him. Same applies to Lester Lamb and his band practice – we’re left at home as he leaves the house to go out for a bit of fun. I began to feel as if I were imprisoned in the house, desperate just to go for a simple walk round the neighbourhood or a bus-ride into town.

So I’ve given up. I’m reluctant to one-star it as I usually do with abandoned books because I suspect it’s mostly a case of mismatch between reader and book, and I did enjoy those first couple of chapters. But it took me three weeks to read as far as I did, and it was inducing a major reading slump since increasingly I couldn’t face picking it up. Sorry to everyone who loves it, and my apologies to Australia!

Book 9 of 12

This was The People’s Choice winner for September, so apologies to You, the People, too! Onwards and upwards – hopefully I’ll get on better with October’s choice…

Amazon UK Link

Tuesday Terror! The Green Dress by Anthony Berkeley

Karma’s a killer…

As a companion to their great Bodies from the Library series, Collins Crime Club and Tony Medawar have this year given us an anthology of ghost stories written by the mystery writers of the Golden Age – Ghosts from the Library – from which I’ve taken this week’s delicious little story of betrayal and revenge…

The Green Dress
by Anthony Berkeley

Anthony Berkeley

….Miles Carrington gazed round the comfortable studio with appreciation. “I say, old man,” he said sincerely, “this really is most awfully good of you.”
….Fletcher smiled complacently. “Not a bit! Well, as I was saying, the rent here is paid for a year, and I’ve stored all my private things away in that cupboard. Everything else is open to you. You can move in tomorrow if you like.”

Both men are artists, but Fletcher has found himself a rich widow to marry, and intends to give up his art and live in luxury instead. So he is lending his studio to Miles – a dedicated artist, but so far unknown, who is currently supplementing the little he earns from his painting by drawing illustrations for newspaper advertisements…

Fletcher had not been wrong when he called Miles Carrington a sticker. It takes a sticker to subsist for five years in a tiny attic in Battersea and devote his attention to the portrayal of cheerful gentleman in their underclothes and elderly ladies distressed by violent pains in the back in order to scrape together a bare living, when his soul is yearning after nymphs and dryads and green trees and such more fitting subjects for his brush.

Fletcher points out an old chest, which he tells Miles is full of costumes and props he may find useful. Once Fletcher has gone, Miles opens the chest and begins to lift out its contents…

….Suddenly he paused. The last armful taken out had left uncovered some material of a most delicate shade of green. Miles lifted it out almost tenderly and examined it.
….It was a little dress of stiff green silk of early Victorian, very simple and, in some curious way that Miles could not define, extraordinarily appealing.

Miles immediately begins to imagine the picture he could create with the dress – the woman who would wear it…

…her charm, her dainty beauty, just the way she would smile. The thing fascinated him.

The Green Gown
by Thomas Edwin Mostyn

He hires a model for a couple of sessions, all he can afford, and gets to work, and soon enough the dress is painted. Having run out of money, he now puts the dress on a dummy model, intending to finish the picture from his imagination. But the face of the wearer eludes him. Try as he might he can’t catch the image that seems so clear in his mind’s eye. After a long day of fruitless attempts, each one painted out as unsuitable, the gathering twilight begins to obscure his vision. Then…

Glancing across in the dim light towards where the green dress shimmered mistily upon the model’s throne, he saw a girl’s head above it and the very face of which he had dreamed.

And now each evening when the light fades, the girl appears, never speaking or moving from the throne, but taking the pose he requires for his portrait. Frantically he paints, and now his work is inspired, better than he has ever done. However, the roguish smile he dreamed of is no longer there…

Yes, that smile of hers. That was the only point upon which Miles had been wrong in his mental picture. She might have smiled roguishly once; But not now. Now there was nothing but a terrible wistfulness, a hopeless sadness in her face that made Miles ache with pity for her even as he strove to transfer it to his canvas. She seemed a symbol of dead hopes and wishes unfulfilled.

Source: wikisource
Artist unknown

The painting finished, it is promptly accepted by the Academy and makes Miles’ name. But then Fletcher returns from his extended honeymoon abroad, and turns up at the studio. He has heard about the picture and demands to see it. Miles pulls back the cloth covering it…

He heard a gasp behind him and wheeled quickly about. Fletcher was staring at the picture with wide, horrified eyes; his face was dead white and little drops of moisture were gathering on his brow.

Miles asks him what is the matter but Fletcher is muttering to himself and doesn’t reply. Then he cries out…

“I knew it would be – I knew it would be! Oh, my God, what does she want with me? What does she want?” His gaze was torn from the picture and his starting eyes fell upon Miles. “What does she want, Carrington?” he shrieked.

* * * * *

The bad news is that I can’t find an online version, so if you want to know what she wants, you’ll have to get hold of the anthology! I will tell you that she succeeds in getting what she wants though, and once all is revealed, one feels karma has done its job well!

This is an excellent story, though as with many in the collection the real emphasis is on human wickedness rather than outright spookiness – I guess that’s the way mystery writers’ minds work! But this one has a delightfully chilling, ghostly ending that gave the porpy and me a pleasurable frisson along the spinal column.

Full review of the anthology to follow, but the short verdict is it’s a definite gift idea for Christmas, though possibly more for vintage crime fans than for true horror aficionados.

(The porpy point-blank refused to wear a green dress
for this week’s photo-shoot…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link

Catch Your Death (Cold Case Investigation 6) by Lissa Marie Redmond

Note to self: Never go to school reunions…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Detective Shane Reese bumps into an old school friend who invites him to a class reunion to take place in a new luxury spa hotel the friend is about to open. His partner, Detective Lauren Riley, is invited along too. But this class has a shared tragedy in their past – just as they graduated high school, one of their classmates, Jessica, was brutally murdered. All the classmates were suspects and the case was never solved, so they’ve all lived with that shadow over them. So when one of them, Erika, announces on the first evening of the reunion that she knows who killed Jessica and is going to reveal it on her true crime podcast, it’s not too surprising when she too is killed. Meantime, a blizzard has blown up and the hotel is snowed in. So the local police are relying on Riley to hold things together till they can get through…

Although this is the sixth in a series, it’s my first Redmond, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a traditional style mystery with the clear intent of mirroring the “closed circle” mysteries that were a standard of the vintage crime writers, but in a modern setting complete with modern technology and policing methods. Not in any way a cosy, but it’s also nowhere near as dark or graphic as a lot of modern crime fiction.

I liked Riley as a character. She bears some scars from physical injuries she has acquired throughout her career, but she is a well-adjusted, stable person who seems happily angst-free. There is clearly a past between her and her partner, Shane Reese, that goes beyond a strictly working relationship. The two live together in the sense of sharing a house, although as the book begins they are not romantic partners. It’s fairly obvious, though, that their relationship may be heading in that direction. In this book Riley has to take the lead because Reese, being one of the classmates, is himself a suspect. I don’t know if they work more closely as equal partners in earlier books in the series.

Lissa Marie Redmond

The plot is interesting and there’s a good variety of suspects – a failing actor, a drunken creep, a jealous husband, the jealousy-inducing wife, a computer games millionaire, the spa owner, and of course Detective Reese. The idea of a group of people being snowed in may not be the most original in the world, but it’s effective, and Redmond handles it well and credibly. The reason the original investigators failed to find the murderer was that all of the suspects had the means and the opportunity to kill Jessica, but no one seemed to have a strong enough motive. This will be the problem for Riley, too, since clearly the motive for Erika’s death is her threat to reveal who killed Jessica. I’m not convinced it could really be described as fair play, but the pacing is very good so that it kept my attention and I didn’t mind so much that I hadn’t had access to the vital piece of information that finally told Riley who the murderer was.

Well written, I felt this was well above average in the current field of traditional police procedurals. A good mystery, nothing too gruesome, zero swearing and some likeable lead characters – my kind of book! I’ll be backtracking to catch up with the earlier books in the series and am looking forward to seeing what Redmond produces in the future.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Severn House, via NetGalley.

Amazon UK Link