The Corpse in the Waxworks (Inspector Bencolin 4) by John Dickson Carr

Chamber of horrors…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Corpse in the WaxworksInspector Bencolin and his friend Jeff Marle take on a case involving a woman who walked into the Musée Augustin waxworks one evening and was never seen alive again. Her body later turned up in the Seine. Before they can discover who killed her, they must find out why she went to the waxworks, and why so many other unlikely people seem to find it a place worth visiting late in the evenings…

This is the fourth in the series about the Mephistophelian Bencolin, head of the Parisian detective force, and his American sidekick Marle. The plots are always intricate versions of the “impossible” crime subgenre for which Carr was apparently famous, and this is just as fiendish as the others. But what makes them stand out most from the crowd is Carr’s ability to create wonderfully macabre settings, steeped in horror and decadence and the gruesomeness of the Grand Guignol.

The idea of being in a waxworks late at night is pretty creepy to begin with, but these waxworks have been made by a master of the art and, in the dim green light of the basement, one could be forgiven for imagining that one or two of them are real. But is it imagination? Is that movement you glimpsed out of the corner of your eye a trick of the light, or…? Carr is brilliant at spooking both poor Jeff and the reader too, and the decadent evil at the heart of the plot seems right at home in this world of shadows and horrors. Yes, the story veers wildly over the credibility line as it does in all of the Bencolin books, but much in the way of Edgar Allen Poe – there is a madness underneath most of the crimes.

John Dickson Carr
John Dickson Carr

Bencolin himself is a bit too over the top to be believable – he is all devilish mystery and almost mystical insight. But Jeff is a great foil who provides the humanity that Bencolin lacks. There are only five books in total in the Bencolin series, I understand. Four of them, including this and the other three the BL has previously re-published, were written early in Carr’s career, and he revisited the characters just once years later – I’m hoping they issue it too sometime for completion’s sake. I love the way he mixes the various horror genres into the standard mystery novel and comes up with something quite unique in my experience. Since I still haven’t read anything else by him I don’t know how they compare to the later work he is better remembered for, but they’ve certainly whetted my appetite to find out. This one is excellent and there’s no need to read them in order so if a creepy night in a waxworks sounds like your kind of thing, go for it!

The book also includes a bonus Bencolin short story, The Murder in Number Four – another impossible crime, this time the murder of a man alone in a carriage of a moving train. Witnesses confirm no one could have gone along the corridor to the carriage without being seen, and yet the deed was done. Obviously this doesn’t have the same intricacy as the novels, but it has the same atmosphere of creepiness and Bencolin is as mysteriously brilliant as ever. An added treat!

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

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Murder’s a Swine by Nap Lombard

Dynamic duo…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Murder's a SwineAir-raid warden Clem Poplett scurries out of the rain to enjoy a quick smoke in the well of a block of flats which has been designated as an air-raid shelter. He discovers it’s already occupied by Agnes Kinghof, a resident of the block, who has locked herself out and is waiting for the caretaker to come home so he can let her in with his spare key. As the two chat, Agnes becomes aware of an unpleasant odour. Investigating, they discover a very dead body hidden beneath the sandbags in the shelter. Agnes, truth to tell, is rather thrilled – there’s nothing she and her husband Andrew enjoy more than a little amateur detecting! That same evening, Mrs Sibley, who lives in one of the upper flats, is woken by a tapping at her window and is shocked into hysterics when she sees a pig’s head apparently staring in at her. This delights Agnes even more…

Set in the period of the “phoney war” when nothing bad had started happening to the people of London, and with a delightful detective duo in Agnes and Andrew, this is a light-hearted, frothy entertainment, written for humour but with a surprisingly decent mystery underneath. It is soon discovered that the dead man and Mrs Sibley are connected, and the probable identity of the murderer is also soon known. But for various reasons it appears that that person may be disguised as someone else – one of the people who lives in the block of flats or someone who has easy access to the building. So Agnes and Andrew decide to assist the unfortunately named Inspector Eggshell with his enquiries, whether he wants them to or not. Andrew’s cousin Lord “Pig” Whitestone is a high-up in Scotland Yard, and he very definitely doesn’t want them involved – especially Agnes, since he believes a woman’s place is in the home, looking attractive. Agnes is a modern woman, though, who thinks nothing of shinning up a ladder in the middle of the night in pursuit of a possible murderer, even if it means her sheer Couleur de Rose silk stockings may be ruined!

I couldn’t make up my mind whether the influences for this duo were Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford or Nick and Nora Charles of The Thin Man movies. In the intro, Martin Edwards suggests the latter, and I’m happy to go along – there’s the definite cocktail-drinking life’s-a-lark feel about the young couple. Had it been set later in the war this may have jarred, but the authors show that apart from some shortages the war hadn’t started to feel real to the people on the home front this early on. The authors are another married duo – Gordon Neil Stewart and Pamela Hansford Johnson, writing as “Nap Lombard”. It’s very well written with some great comic timing, and quite racy for the period in an entirely innocent and inoffensive way, with lots of mostly humorous hints of sex and stuff going on behind the blackout curtains. In one sense it’s quite sexist, with all the young women trying to be attractive to catch their respective men and all the men being big tough protectors to the little women in their lives. But, like Tuppence Beresford, our intrepid Agnes is the driving force in the partnership so it has a reasonably modern feel too.

It frequently stretches credulity and the ending is quite ridiculous, but honestly it doesn’t matter – the book isn’t aiming for gritty slice-of-life stuff. It’s the kind of thing to pick up when you want a few hours of pure entertainment in the company of some very enjoyable characters. Unfortunately, “Nap Lombard” only wrote two mystery novels – I do hope the BL will publish the other one some day. Great fun! 

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

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The Crow Trap (Vera Stanhope 1) by Ann Cleeves

Is there an editor in the house?

🙂 🙂 🙂

The Crow TrapThree women are staying at Baikie’s Cottage to carry out an environmental impact study on land which is earmarked to be turned into a quarry. Rachael is the leader of the team, and knows the area well – her friend Bella lives on the neighbouring farm. She knows Bella loves her life in this harsh landscape so when she arrives only to find Bella dead, hanged in the barn, she finds it hard to accept the official verdict of suicide. The other two women on the team are strangers to Rachael and to each other. Anne is an extrovert, and has had a string of affairs, most recently with the man who wants to turn the land into a quarry. Grace is the complete opposite – introverted, quiet, clearly unhappy. When a body is found on the land, it will be up to Inspector Vera Stanhope and her right-hand man Joe Ashworth to work out motives and opportunity, and to connect the dots between the murder and Bella’s suicide…

Sometimes I feel like a stuck record, but at well over 500 pages this novel is ridiculously over-long – repetitive and padded to the point where I several times considered abandoning it. The underlying plot is good and Vera is an interesting, if unbelievable, character – another of these detectives one feels would have been quietly shuffled to a desk job long ago since she is incapable of following rules and doesn’t mind putting herself, her colleagues and even members of the public at risk in pursuit of her case. But hey-ho! That’s modern crime fiction for you, and plenty of people seem to like these damaged detectives. At least Vera is functional.

The book starts off well enough, telling of Rachael’s arrival at the cottage, her finding of Bella, and then of the next few days as the three women get to know each other a little. It’s already far too drawn out at this stage, but eventually the body is discovered and we can hope the police procedural element is about to begin. Only for those hopes to be dashed! Back we go to the very beginning, this time following Anne through those same few days, learning more about her life, and seeing things from her perspective. And then… you’ve guessed, haven’t you… we do it all again, this time in the company of Grace. It’s not that any of the three women’s stories are uninteresting in their own right, but to cover the same period again and again had me feeling as if I was in Groundhog Day.

Ann Cleeves
Ann Cleeves

Finally, about halfway through, this introductory stage is at last over, and Vera arrives on the scene. It picks up a bit after that, although there’s so much backstory about Vera’s life interspersed among the plot that the pace never gets out of second gear. Vera’s method is to set the women up to be bait in the hope the murderer will return, while sending these civilians off to ask questions of suspects and bring her back the information. Extremely odd method of policing, far more suited to the Golden Age of the amateur detective than the modern police procedural. However, it’s reasonably enjoyable, and well written.

Overall, I can’t say this one thrilled me much – a crime novel requires far more plot and less repetition to hold my interest for so long. However I see that the next book is considerably shorter (though still longer than a crime novel should be) so hopefully Cleeves reined in her desire to cover every detail three times. I’d consider reading more of them, but I fear Cleeves, with two less than enthusiastic reviews out of three from me so far, is perhaps never going to make it onto my must-read list. Given her huge popularity, I don’t expect that will bother her much!

People's Choice LogoBook 3 of 12

This was The People’s Choice for March. Thank you, People – I know you meant well… 😉

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At the Villa Rose by AEW Mason

Villain or victim?

😀 😀 😀 😀

At the Villa RoseMr Julius Ricardo is enjoying himself at the casino in Aux-les-Bains, people-watching. This night the person he’s most interested in is a beautiful young girl, who at first seems to be in the depths of despair. Later in the evening, Ricardo sees her again with a friend of his, Harry Wethermill, and now she appears to be quite happy, and the two give every indication of being very much in love. So Ricardo is duly shocked when Wethermill rushes into his room a couple of mornings later to beg for Ricardo’s help. A wealthy elderly widow, Mme Dauvray, has been found murdered and Celia Harland, the beautiful girl who, it transpires, was Mme Dauvray’s companion, is missing. Everything points to Celia having been in cahoots with the murderer and having made off with Mme Dauvray’s fabulous jewellery collection. But Wethermill cannot believe this of her, and begs Ricardo to use his influence with another friend, Inspector Hanaud of the Paris Sûreté, to take on the case…

This was first published in 1910, before the standard Golden Age mystery formula of crime-investigation-solution had been fully developed, and so the structure is odd and a bit disjointed. Here, we get the crime, followed by Hanaud brilliantly catching those responsible. Then, as a kind of lengthy epilogue, we are taken back into the past and shown what happened in a narrative supposedly developed from the various witness testimonies. After that, Hanaud briefly tells Ricardo how he worked it out, but by that time the reader ought to have spotted all the clues for herself, so it’s a bit of an anti-climax.

Despite this “lop-sided” structure as Martin Edwards describes it, I thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, the long section where we see the crime unfold before our eyes manages to be dark and tense even though we know the outcome. The characterisation of the victim, villains and suspects is very well done, and there’s a real sense of innocence meeting evil.

Murder Mystery Mayhem Logo 2Challenge details:
Book: 8
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1910

Mme Dauvray is a kindly soul with lots of money, and so is often taken advantage of. She is a believer in spiritualism, and her long-serving maid and confidante operates as a kind of guard-dog, keeping away those who would prey on the widow. But when Mme Dauvray takes a fancy to Celia, who is an accomplished medium, and moves her in as a favoured companion, the maid is not unnaturally jealous. Her description to the police of Celia as a calculating fraud is wildly at variance with Wethermill’s idealised picture of her as a lovely innocent – it’s up to Hanaud and the reader to decide who’s right. However it’s obvious that the crime involved more than one person, so even if Celia was involved, there’s still a mystery as to who were her accomplices.

AEW Mason (2)
AEW Mason

The investigators aren’t quite such good characters in my view. Inspector Hanaud and Ricardo, who quickly becomes his sidekick, are rather caricatured versions of Holmes and Watson (far more than Poirot and Hastings, in my opinion, although it has been suggested they gave Christie the inspiration for her characters). But Hanaud is one of those superior detectives who likes nothing more than to humiliate his sidekick, and since I felt Ricardo didn’t deserve it (even though he is pretty dense sometimes), I found it hard to like Hanaud. However, we do get to see the clues that allow Hanaud to identify the culprits so it ought to be possible to work it out. By chance I happened on the right suspect, but for all the wrong reasons, so I don’t feel I can take much credit for it! The solution, although credible, isn’t straightforward, so that even when we discover halfway through whodunit, there’s still plenty left to reveal.

Undoubtedly it could have been improved by changing the structure, but fortunately I enjoyed the second half – the storytelling of the crime – more than the first half, so felt far more warmly towards it in the end than I initially thought I might. I believe Mason wrote several Hanaud books, and I’d be happy to meet him again.

I downloaded this one from wikisource.

Inspector French and the Crime at Guildford by Freeman Wills Croft

Robbery and murder…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Renowned jewellery company, Nornes Ltd., is in trouble. The long recession has driven them into losses and now that it’s over business isn’t picking up as much as they’d hoped. The directors have to make a decision quickly – to raise extra cash to allow them to struggle on in the hopes of better times ahead, or to go into voluntary liquidation, sell off their stock, and each take a financial hit. They decide to hold a secret meeting at the home of the managing director in Guildford to discuss matters, and invite the company’s accountant along to give them his advice. But things are about to get worse. First the accountant is found dead – murdered – the morning after he arrives, and then they discover that somehow the company’s safe has been emptied of half a million pounds’ worth of jewels. Chief Inspector French is in charge of the investigation into the theft, and must work with his colleagues in Guildford to see if the two events are linked, as seems likely…

As with the other Crofts novels I’ve read, this is as much howdunit as whodunit, with two separate mysteries to solve. Firstly, how could the accountant have been murdered when it appears no one could have gone to his room without being seen around the time of death determined by the doctor? And secondly, how could anyone have been able to bypass the strict security measures surrounding the keys to the safe in order to steal the jewels? French feels that he has to answer these questions before he has any hope of discovering who did the crimes.

These books are extremely procedural police procedurals, probably more true to life than most crime novels. Unfortunately I find that tends to make them a bit plodding. French goes over the same questions again and again, worrying away at tiny bits of evidence, painstakingly checking statements and alibis, following trails that lead nowhere, until eventually he has a moment of inspiration that puts him on the right track, and from thereon it becomes a matter of finding sufficient evidence to prove his theory in court.

In two of the three French books I’ve read so far, I’ve also had the unusual experience for me of working out at least part of the howdunit long before French gets there, a thing I’m usually rubbish at, which suggests to me they must be relatively obvious. In this one, I had spotted how the murder must have been done by about the halfway mark, although I’d never in a million years have worked out how the robbery was carried out. As French suspected would happen, though, working out how the murder was done pointed directly at the villain, so I also had a good idea of whodunit from early on too. So I spent a good deal of the book waiting for French to catch up. All of this rather made the long middle part of the book drag for me.

Freeman Wills Croft

However, the beginning is interesting as we meet the various suspects and learn about the company’s difficulties. The solution to the safe robbery is ingenious and certainly something I’ve never come across before. And the end takes on mild aspects of the thriller as French and his colleagues try to trap their suspects into giving themselves away. Again it’s done strictly realistically, showing how the police would actually operate. This is interesting and gives the book credibility, but I must admit it doesn’t make for heart-pounding excitement.

I think it’s probably a subjective taste thing – I can see how this detailed investigative technique could work well for the puzzle-solvers among us, but for me there wasn’t enough concentration on the characterisation, while the motive – straightforward robbery for financial gain – is never one that interests me much. So a middling read for me, but one that will doubtless be more appreciated by true howdunit fans.

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

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Taken by Lisa Stone

Looking for Leila…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Little Leila Smith has had to learn to look out for herself. Her mother, Kelsey, is often out of it on drugs or drink, which she pays for out of the money she makes from prostitution. So when Leila disappears from the playground one evening, it’s several hours before Kelsey realises she’s missing…

The reader knows, though, and we also know straight away who took her – a man who lives in the same block of flats as Leila and her mum. Happily, we also discover quite quickly that, although there are dark aspects to this story, it isn’t about child sexual abuse and the man is not a paedophile. That leaves us with the central mystery of the book – why has he taken Leila? And what does he intend to do with her? Will she ever get back home?

Meantime, Kelsey has been shocked into sobriety. She knew that there was already a good chance that the Social Services would take Leila away from her, and now she’s sure that even if Leila is found, there’s no chance of her being allowed to come back to live with a mother who didn’t even notice she was missing. Her struggle to stay clean forms another strand of the book. Here Stone doesn’t cut any corners in letting us see the sordid and dangerous life Kelsey is leading and at first it’s hard to sympathise with someone who has neglected her child so badly, but as we see her guilt and regret, and her terror at what might have happened to Leila, she becomes more likeable and I soon found I was rooting for her to finally get off the drugs and get her life together.

The main story regarding Leila’s disappearance requires a major suspension of disbelief at several points. She’s supposed to be eight but speaks and acts like a much older child. Partly this could be down to her having had to fend for herself more than a child of that age should, but it still doesn’t ring entirely true. The idea that she wouldn’t already have been in care is hard to swallow too but is necessary for the story, so let’s call it fictional licence. Even though she didn’t wholly convince me, I admit that she gradually won my heart and I found myself hoping that somehow there would be a good outcome for both her and her mum.

Even the baddie got a bit of sympathy from me once his reasons became clear. I had a pretty good idea of where the story was likely to be going from about halfway through, but was still interested in seeing how it all worked out for the various characters, and found the ending satisfying and more credible than some of the stuff that happened in the earlier parts of the book.

It’s well written in a plain style that suits the story – third person, past tense, so we see various perspectives, Kelsey’s, Leila’s, the baddie’s, and Beth’s, the police officer who’s in charge of the investigation. It has twists enough to keep it interesting, but not the ridiculous kind that turn the whole story on its head twenty pages before the end. Well-paced and not overly long, I found it a fast read and, once I got into it and put my disbelief in cold storage, a page-turner. And much less bleak than that blurb had led me to fear, largely due to the sympathetic characterisation. An enjoyable read!

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

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Domino Island by Desmond Bagley

They don’t write them like that anymore

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When rich businessman David Salton dies, it looks like the Western and Continental Insurance company are in for a big hit – he was insured for half a million pounds. Although the inquest found he had died of natural causes, the circumstances of his death were a little odd, so before they agree to pay out the company sends their best investigator to take a look. Bill Kemp had a career in military intelligence before he went into the insurance industry, and when the investigation becomes the catalyst for all sorts of shenanigans on the Caribbean island of Campanilla he’ll need all of his skills just to survive…

(It occurs to me on writing that blurb that I don’t know why the book is called Domino Island, since the island is called Campanilla – maybe I missed the explanation! Anyway, it doesn’t really matter.)

Desmond Bagley was a hugely popular British thriller writer back in the ‘60s-‘80s, and the fact that most of his books are still readily available suggests he’s still got a pretty solid fan base nearly forty years after his death. So when this previously unpublished novel was found in his archives in 2017, more or less complete and with his own notes of the changes he intended to make, the idea of publishing it would have been irresistible. Michael Davies, a lifelong Bagley fan, took on the task of tidying it up and this is the result – and an excellent result it is, too! My inner cynic feared that Bagley or his publishers must have felt it wasn’t good enough to be published, but the editor of this volume explains that in fact it was well on the way to publication when Bagley withdrew it because he’d signed a deal that required him to produce a different novel tied into a movie he had scripted, and he didn’t want the two publications to clash. I don’t know why he never returned to this one, though.

The fictional island of Campanilla was part of the British Empire, but has recently gained independence and is now operating partly as a tourist destination and partly as an offshore tax haven, where the wealthy are extremely wealthy and the poor find it extremely difficult to survive because of the inflated prices and property values that wealthy people bring along with them. So there’s political tension between the governing party who see their job as keeping life sweet for the rich, and the opposition, divided between a moderately left party and an extreme left-wing, veering towards communism. David Salton was the leader of the soft-left party, so Kemp wonders if his political opponents may have had something to do with his death.

But there are other possibilities too. It transpires that Salton may have been a good man in the world of politics, but he was a philanderer in his spare time, keeping his mistress in a luxury flat while his wife lived in their secluded home in a different part of the island. Then there’s Negrini – owner of a local casino and reputed to have ties to the US Mafia. Salton has promised that if he gets into power he’ll crack down on the gambling industry. The status of the island as a tax haven means that there’s lots of financial skulduggery bubbling beneath the surface, so there are plenty of other people with a vested interest in making sure that a politician who intends to tackle corruption shouldn’t get into power.

All these various people and factions don’t want Kemp investigating and stirring around in the murky dealings of the island, and soon he finds that he’s in personal danger at the same time as political tensions on the island are reaching boiling point. It all comes to a climax in a traditional thriller ending, with goodies pitted against baddies, corpses aplenty and an entirely unexpected (by me) but satisfying solution to the mystery of Salton’s death.

The writing is very good, and not nearly as dated in attitudes to women as thrillers of this era usually are. It’s years since I read any Bagley and I can’t remember if his females were always treated this well or whether perhaps part of Davies’ tidying-up was to make the tone more acceptable to modern readers. Whatever, the women are pretty good characters, and one of them is even kinda kickass, which I found unexpectedly refreshing. They’ve certainly not been modernised to the extent of not feeling true to the time, however.

Desmond Bagley

There are parts where I felt it could have been tighter and a bit faster paced, and maybe Bagley’s final edit would have seen to this, but it never drags. Kemp, who tells the story in the first person, is a likeable and believable protagonist – he’s resourceful but not a superhero. He soon teams up with the forces of law and order in the person of Superintendent Hanna of the island police, another likeable character, and they work well together. The story is both interesting and well told, and although the island is fictional, it feels entirely authentic both politically and culturally. I enjoyed this one very much, and now want to go back and investigate some of his other books – it is sadly true to say that they don’t write them like that anymore, and they really should…

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

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Peril at End House by Agatha Christie

Murder in St Loo…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Hercule Poirot is making one of his periodic attempts at retirement, and has gone for a little break in St. Loo with his old friend Captain Hastings, home from the Argentine. But wherever that pesky man goes, murder is sure to follow! As he sits on the hotel terrace with Hastings, something whizzes past his head – not a pebble, as he first thinks, but a bullet, apparently having just missed its target, a young woman called Nick Buckley who lives in the End House of the title. Once Poirot has introduced himself to Nick, he discovers this is the latest in a series of what appear to be attempts on her life, and he takes on the task of finding the would-be murderer before he or she succeeds…

This has always been one of my favourite Poirots, which never seems to get quite the love I feel it deserves. I love the solution – one of Christie’s cleverest, I think – and the way that you can see in retrospect that she gave you all the clues and even drew attention to some of them along the way, and yet still left you – well, me, anyway – completely baffled right up to the reveal.

Nick seems to be a popular young woman, without an enemy in the world, and with no worldly wealth to provide a motive. But the attacks on her suggest that it must be someone close to her who is trying to kill her, so her little group of friends and neighbours come under suspicion. Poirot will have to find which of them has a reason to want her dead. But when someone else is killed in mistake for Nick, he feels guilty for having been unable to prevent that murder, and still fears Nick will be the next victim.

Although the story is quite serious and Nick’s friends are a motley and mostly unlikeable crew, there’s a lot of humour in this one in the banter between Poirot and Hastings. Poor old Hastings – Poirot really is extremely rude about his intellectual abilities! Nonetheless it’s often Hastings’ simplistic way of looking at things that puts Poirot on the right track. Sometimes Hastings bites back, but Poirot always gets the last word…

“Do you suppose I’d have made a success of my ranch out in the Argentine if I were the kind of credulous fool you make out?”
“Do not enrage yourself, mon ami. You have made a great success of it—you and your wife.”
“Bella,” I said, “always goes by my judgement.”
“She is as wise as she is charming,” said Poirot.

I listened to it again this time with the wonderful Hugh Fraser narrating – these Agatha Christie audiobooks have become a major source of relaxation to me during the last few months, always entertaining even when I know the stories so well. Fortunately I still have many more to go…

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Tuesday ‘Tec! Bodies from the Library 3 edited by Tony Medawar

Mixed bag…

🙂 🙂 🙂

As with the previous books in the series, this is a collection of stories that have rarely or never been included in a collection before. There are twelve stories, plus a fun collection of very short shorts where several writers were challenged to come up with a story all using the same object – an orange. There’s the usual mix of well known authors like Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, alongside some that have recently come back to prominence during the current revival, like Christopher St John Sprigg and Josephine Bell, and a few from authors entirely unfamiliar to me.

The problem with these “never before collected” collections is that there is bound to be a finite number of great stories that fall into that category. I read and loved the second book in the series, and was surprised at the high quality of the stories in it. I’m afraid this one feels rather like the leftovers – the ones that weren’t good enough to be included in the earlier books. Only one achieved a five-star rating from me – The Hampstead Murder by Christopher Bush, which I highlighted in a previous Tuesday ‘Tec! post. A handful got four stars, but I found the rest disappointing and not really worth the bother of collecting. I feel the series has probably run its course, in this format at least.

Here’s a flavour of a few of the better stories:

The Incident of the Dog’s Ball by Agatha Christie – although this story was only discovered many years after Christie’s death, it has certainly been collected before since I had already read it! A woman writes to Poirot for advice, but the letter doesn’t arrive till some months later. Poirot discovers the woman died just after she had written the letter, a death put down to accident. But the letter makes Poirot think that there may have been a darker cause, so he sets out to investigate. This story forms the nucleus of the plot of what would become the novel, Dumb Witness.

The Case of the Unlucky Airman by Christopher St John Sprigg – it’s sad that Sprigg died so young, since the little I’ve read of his stuff suggests he had a lot of talent. This one involves an airman who lands to get an oil leak fixed. He taxies into an empty hangar, there is the sound of a shot and he is found dead. An intriguing take on a “locked room” mystery – well told and quite fun.

The Riddle of the Black Spade by Stuart Palmer – a man is killed on a golf course, apparently by a ball with a black spade trademark. At first, his son is suspected, until it turns out the ball was one of the victim’s own. The police captain investigating the death is “assisted” by a spinster lady, Hildegard Withers, who apparently was the star of a series of novels and stories, and popular in her day. This story is light-hearted and entertaining, with some surprises and a clearly explained howdunit solution.

Grand Guignol by John Dickson Carr – written while he was at University, this story formed the basis of his early novel It Walks By Night. I felt a bit smug about that, since in my review of It Walks By Night, I mentioned that the book made me think of the traditions of Grand Guignol! The basic plot and solution are the same but it’s done differently, and the dénouement here is all a bit silly and unbelievable. But it’s an interesting look at the beginnings of the style he would later develop into the decadent horror feel of the Bencolin novels.

So a few enjoyable stories, though often as much for seeing how these famous authors started out than as polished articles in their own right. I’m sure real vintage crime fans will find enough of interest to make reading the collection worthwhile, as I did, but for newcomers or more casual fans I’d recommend the earlier book, Bodies from the Library 2, as a more entertaining collection overall. I haven’t mentioned the first book in the series because I haven’t yet read it.

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

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Under World (Dalziel and Pascoe 10) by Reginald Hill

Digging deep…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Colin Farr is an angry young man. When young Tracy Pedley vanished some years earlier in the woods around the Yorkshire mining town of Burrthorpe, the townspeople held Colin’s father responsible. Some felt he must have killed her, others that his carelessness led to her disappearance – he had taken the little girl out for a walk and his story was that he then let her return the last part of the journey alone, and she was never seen again. The police, however, blamed a different man but that didn’t stop the gossip, and Colin’s father died in an accident that may or may not have been suicide. Now the cop who was in charge of the case back then has retired and is serialising his memoirs in the local paper, bringing the old story back to the surface and Colin’s anger back to boiling point. And then someone dies down the mine…

The story is set a couple of years after the Miner’s Strike of 1984, while memories are fresh and scars not yet healed. The miners hate the bosses and the feeling is mutual, and those who scabbed during the strike have not been forgiven. But the biggest divide is between the miners and the police, who were used by a heavy-handed government to break the strike, often violently. Hill works all these resentments through his plot, giving the book a real feel for the period and for how devastating the strike and its aftermath were for the mining communities. Although the mine at Burrthorpe is still working, the writing is on the wall for the whole British mining industry and the miners know their way of life is coming to an end. Not that it’s a good way of life – the work is hard and dangerous, and many men who manage to avoid accidents are still struck down by the deadly lung diseases that come with breathing in coal-dust down the pits. But it’s a life that has developed strong ties of community, where trust is an essential component of the job – one careless worker could put everyone in danger.

Another aspect of the strike that Hill uses very effectively is the coming together of the women – the miners’ wives and mothers, struggling to hold their families together with no income, taking on the role of breadwinner sometimes, dealing with the mental health problems and domestic violence that grew in correlation with the desperation (and, in their own eyes, emasculation) of the men. The women built support networks, campaigned for their men and begged for their children, and showed a level of strength and resilience that fed into the wider story of women’s demands to be treated as equals.

As is often the case with Hill, the plot is somewhat secondary to the social aspects and to the further development of the recurring characters in his team. Although it’s a bleak story, Dalziel always adds an element of humour, and his rough uncouthness appeals much more to the miners than Pascoe’s sympathetic attempts to understand their point of view. Dalziel is of them, so understands them naturally, and they him.

Ellie Pascoe, still struggling to finish her novel, takes a part-time job giving classes to the miners and finds herself drawn to the troubled Colin, partly because he shows he has an intelligence she, in her middle-class way, doesn’t expect to find in a miner, and partly becoming attracted to his overt physical masculinity despite her feminist disdain. Ellie doesn’t come out of this novel well – she behaves like a spoilt privileged child and becomes intensely annoying, to the point where it’s hard to understand what Peter Pascoe could possibly like about her. She settles back down a little in future books, but this is not one of her better outings. However, later in the book she comes to know the women of the Burrthorpe support group and has enough self-awareness to recognise that they roll up their sleeves and do what needs to be done, rather than pontificating about women’s rights from a lofty academic height. What always redeems Ellie is her willingness to recognise her own faults.

Reginald Hill

Hill gives a very authentic feel to what it was like to work in a mine at that time – the physical demands, the danger, the safety protocols, the reliance on each other. He also shows the do-gooder element of society, visiting the mine in order to get a vicarious thrill, so they can then go off and make political points in their nice clean safe council chambers and middle-class restaurants. The climax of the novel happens below ground, in a tense and thrilling finale which more than makes up for the rather too obvious solution to the central mystery.

Another fine outing for Dalziel and Pascoe, and one of the most realistic pictures of the post-strike-era mining communities I’ve come across in fiction. I listened to the audiobook with Colin Buchanan reading, and now that I’ve got used to his voices for the characters, I enjoy his narrations.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link – sorry, doesn’t seem to be available on the US site. Here’s a link to the Kindle version instead.

The Port of London Murders by Josephine Bell

A slice of life…

😀 😀 😀 😀

As fog rolls over the Thames a barge bearing a cargo of boxes ostensibly full of rubber breaks free from the tug pulling it, and tips its load into the river, later to be washed up along the banks. Meantime, an old woman dies, apparently from suicide. But Detective Sergeant Chandler isn’t convinced – he thinks it might be murder. As he begins to investigate, his colleagues in the river police are finding there’s something strange about the boxes that are being found along the river…

This book from 1938 has a rather different feel to it than the usual Golden Age mystery. Although there are two separate police investigations going on, it’s not what we’d think of as a police procedural, and yet it’s a bit too slow and thoughtful to be a thriller either. Also, the reader has a much better idea of what’s going on than the police because we are taken round all the various characters involved, being made privy to things the police haven’t yet found out. So there’s no real surprise about the solution to the crime element when it comes.

It’s really more of a look at the social conditions of those people struggling to live on the margins of post-depression pre-war poverty in the docklands beside the Thames. The plot revolves around the trade in illegally smuggled drugs – that’s not a spoiler since it’s made quite clear from early on. Both these aspects feel very realistic, the drugs plot especially feeling much more true to life than the often glamourised or exaggerated picture of it in fiction. Here it’s simply a case of unscrupulous people making money off the miserable addiction of others. Yes, there are murders done when they feel at risk, but no shoot-outs between rival gangs or king-pins taking revenge and so on. This is business – sordid and nasty, but simply business. We are also shown the addict’s view – the misery of it and how people are gradually driven to cross boundaries of behaviour in their desperate need to satisfy their cravings.

We also get a look at the pre-NHS health system, where poor people chose doctors on the basis of how cheap they were, and doctors could do little to alleviate the kinds of illness brought on by poverty and the appalling air of foggy, sooty, dirty London.

All of this is done very well – worked into the story rather than simply dumped on the reader. There is also some quite good characterisation of a few of the working-class residents of the area, in particular of three people caught up unknowingly in the mystery – a young man and the girl he’s trying to woo, and the girl’s young brother, who more than anything wants a ride in the river police’s boat. They humanise the story a little, and it needs it, because otherwise it’s a rather grim and miserable tale. A slice of life that happily most of us will never live, but not so far removed from the everyday as to make it seem unrecognisable.

Josephine Bell

It’s well written and the social commentary aspect is very strong. It seemed to me quite unusual for the era in its concentration on the poor and the working-class – most Golden Age mysteries tend to feature the middle-class, and their working-class characters are often cringe-makingly caricatured. Here they felt true – neither idealised nor denigrated for their poverty or the way they spoke or behaved. Unfortunately the actual crime side of it didn’t work so well for me – it felt rather like an add-on to give the social aspects a focus, and I’m never a huge fan of the type of crime novel where the reader knows more than the detectives. However, it was my first introduction to Josephine Bell, and I enjoyed it enough to want to read more, to see if this kind of rather gritty realism is typical of her style.

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

Amazon UK Link
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Crime at Diana’s Pool by Victor L Whitechurch

Stabbed in the back…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Felix Nayland is hosting a garden party for the worthies of Coppleswick, and has laid on entertainment in the form of an Albanian band. Later that day, Nayland turns up dead, face down in the pond known as Diana’s Pool, with a knife in his back. The odd thing is that he is wearing the uniform jacket of one of the band, who is now mysteriously missing and therefore quickly becomes the prime suspect. But the local vicar, Reverend Westerham, has spotted some odd clues around the crime scene and he has his doubts. Anyway, even if the musician is guilty, why is the victim wearing his jacket? Nayland is a newcomer to the area, having spent his life as a diplomat travelling the globe and getting mixed up in all sorts of murky events – could it be that some incident from his past has somehow caught up with him?

This is another of the novels in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, in the subsection Murder at the Manor. Edwards tell us that Whitechurch adopted an approach which for the time was unorthodox – he wrote the beginning, including the murder, without knowing himself how the book would develop or who the murderer would be. I’m not sure how much difference this made to the eventual outcome – it reads like a pretty standard murder mystery of the time.

Challenge details:
Book: 37
Subject Heading: Murder at the Manor
Publication Year: 1927

Westerham is a likeable amateur ’tec and, as was the way in crime novels back then, the police quite happily include him in their investigations once they discover that he is a particularly observant witness. The policeman in charge of the investigation, Detective Sergeant Ringwood, gets a big build-up from his colleagues – “…he’s a demon for solving things” Constable Froome informs Westerman. Hmm, personally I thought he was more in the tradition of Japp or Lestrade, and that it was lucky for all involved that justice didn’t rest on the intelligence of the boys in blue!

Victor L Whitechurch

The plot gets a bit messy, which I suppose might be due to Whitechurch’s lack of planning ahead, and takes us into the murky world of South American politics. To be honest I found this pretty uninteresting, and since Nayland wasn’t given any time or space to develop as a character, it was hard to care much about his murder. There’s a side plot concerning the girl that Westerman is falling in love with, and because I liked him, I found I cared far more about the resolution of that strand. I don’t think it’s really fair play, although in fact I guessed the murderer quite early on, though not the motive. Just as an aside, I should mention that if you’re going to commit murder or participate in any other kind of dodgy dealings, it is not a good idea in general to have your initials embroidered or engraved on your belongings, but, if you must, then you should make every effort not to drop them at the scene of the crime. There were two instances of monogrammed items in this story, plus an identifiably foreign type of cigarette paper, all conveniently dropped as clues around the place, and it all felt a bit too contrived.

Overall, I enjoyed this well enough but didn’t think it had anything to really make it stand out from the crowd. It hasn’t inspired me to actively seek out more of Whitechurch’s work, but I’d still be happy enough to read another if it came my way.

Amazon UK Link
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The Less Dead by Denise Mina

A tale of two cities…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Two things conspire to make Margo Dunlop decide to seek out her birth mother: the recent death of her adoptive mother, and her own pregnancy which, as a doctor, has led her to worry about the possibility of unknown genetic issues. She’s too late, however – her mother, Susan, died shortly after giving Margo up for adoption. But the counselling service puts her in touch with her mother’s sister, Nikki, and they arrange to meet. Nikki has a strange story to tell, and a request to make. Like Nikki herself, Susan was a street prostitute on the Drag – Glasgow’s red light zone – back in the late1980s, when sex workers were still mostly local women (as opposed to trafficked girls from abroad), driven to the trade by a combination of poverty, lack of opportunity and, often, addiction to drink or drugs. Susan was brutally murdered and left lying naked in the street – one of a spate of murders of prostitutes over the course of a few years. Nikki is convinced the murders were carried out by one man, although the police disagree. The man in question had an alibi for the time of Susan’s murder, but Nikki hopes that Margo will be able to use her privileged position as a doctor to help break the alibi. At first, Margo thinks Nikki is some kind of fantasist, but events soon convince her that there may be some truth in her story…

I’ll start by saying the murder plot and its solution are by far the weakest part of the book. They feel like little more than a vehicle to allow Mina to discuss what clearly interested her far more – the lives of those involved in the sex trade at that time, and how they were treated by a society that preferred to ignore their existence, and by a police force who saw them as third-class citizens. Hence the title – murdered prostitutes were considered “the less dead”, and the investigations into their deaths were perfunctory and under-resourced. The general feeling was that they “asked for it”.

Fortunately, I was also far more interested in that aspect, so the weakness of the murder plot didn’t spoil the book for me. Mina’s knowledge of Glasgow appears to be encyclopaedic and, although she is dealing mostly with a section of society that I knew and still know very little about, the city she describes feels entirely authentic. This was a time of huge change for Glasgow, dragging itself out of the poverty and gang violence of the post-war era and recreating itself as a modern, vibrant cultural centre. (In 1990, just a year after Susan’s murder, Glasgow would become the first British city to be named European City of Culture, and the impact this had on how Glasgow changed, physically, socially and psychologically, cannot be overstated.) Mina’s story straddles this transformation, Susan a product of the old times and Margo of a new, more affluent and perhaps more hopeful future, but still saddled metaphorically as well as literally by the city’s past. Of course there are still major problems of poverty and inequality as in all large cities, and Mina is as clear-sighted about the present as the past. Street prostitution may not be as commonplace, but only because it’s now carried on indoors – still largely driven by addiction, still as prevalent, still as sordid, but better hidden from disapproving eyes.

Denise Mina

Nikki is a wonderful creation – too strong to be pitied or demeaned, but with no attempt to glorify her or the trade she worked in either. The book isn’t done as a dual timeline, so that we learn about the past wholly through the eyes of those in the present who were there at the time. Nikki is around fifty now, a survivor who made it through mostly by her own efforts but helped a little by the general improvement in standards of life over the recent decades. There are enough touches of Glaswegian dialect in her speech to make it authentically distinctive, while causing no problems for a non-Glaswegian reader. Margo’s middle-class upbringing provides a reason for Nikki to explain things about her very different life naturally, as one would to anyone who hadn’t shared one’s life experiences, and this of course means that she explains it to the reader too.

I found Margo and her middle-class friends slightly less well portrayed, but only in comparison. As she tries to work out what happened to the mother she never knew, Margo’s drives around the city and visits to various houses in different parts of it give the reader a real sense of a place of contrasts – wealthy and poor, old and new, respectable and seedy. I wondered, though, if my fascination for this deep gaze at my own city would be shared by people who don’t know it, or if they might find themselves wishing that the drives didn’t last as long and fewer street names and street histories were given. However, this is a far more accurate depiction of Glasgow than in the vast majority of contemporary crime fiction, written, I feel, with unromanticized affection, and the strength of the story of these despised and disregarded women well outweighs the weaknesses in the mystery plot.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

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The Lost Gallows (Inspector Bencolin) by John Dickson Carr

Hanging out with Jack Ketch…

😀 😀 😀 😀

M. Henri Bencolin, head of the Parisian detective force, is visiting London with his young American friend Jeff Marle. They are staying at the notorious Brimstone Club, a gentleman’s club where past members have been reputed not to behave like gentlemen. Anyone can become a member so long as they can afford the fees, and it has seen more than its fair share of shady characters cross its Gothic-like threshold. Bencolin’s old friend Sir John Landervorne, once of Scotland Yard and now retired, lives at the club, and it’s he who tells Bencolin and Marle of the strange occurrence that sets them all on the trail of a murderer who calls himself “Jack Ketch”, a nickname commonly used for the public hangman. One night, lost in a London fog, a young man saw the shadow of a gallows reflected on a wall, and a man climbing the stairs towards the noose. Later that evening, Bencolin and his friends themselves witness something even stranger – a car being driven by a corpse…

This is the third book in Carr’s Bencolin series. (I think – the last one was also billed as the third but is now being called the second, so there’s an extra mystery that remains unsolved! It doesn’t matter though, they all stand alone.) Written when Carr was very young, each of the three I’ve read have a strong horror element to go along with Carr’s trademark “impossible” crime. Bencolin himself is a darkly mysterious detective, brilliant but rather cold. The only things he shows any passion about are catching his villain, and proving his superiority to all other detectives. Marle acts as his unofficial sidekick and narrator of the stories.

Carr makes excellent use of the London fog in this one, and all the stuff about gallows and hangmen is beautifully chilling, especially since the book is set back in the days when hanging was still the punishment for murder. And it soon transpires that Jack Ketch may be seeking revenge for a crime that has gone unpunished by the law. The victim of Jack Ketch’s scheme is an Egyptian, also a member of the Brimstone, who is being terrorised by a series of strange items turning up in his rooms or arriving through the mail – all things that seem to mean something to him and have him fearing for his life. And then he disappears! It’s up to Bencolin to find out the real identity of Jack Ketch before any more murders are done.

John Dickson Carr

I must admit I was a good way into this before I could get my head round the plot at all – there seem to be an awful lot of people and lots of apparently unconnected incidents at first. But it all begins to come together about halfway through, and then moves into a spookily thrilling ending, full of Gothic horrors and an almost, but not quite, supernatural feel to it. I didn’t find the “how” aspects of this one quite as mysterious as usual – I had a reasonably good idea of most of it well before the end – and the motive is never really hidden. But I admit to being totally blind-sided by the “whodunit” solution. I was so sure it was …….. but it turned out it was actually……..! Who’d have guessed?! In truth, I think the rather lacklustre characterisation of everyone except Bencolin and Marle made the guessing quite difficult – this is much more of a puzzle than a character-driven story. When Bencolin explains it all at the end, though, I had to admit it had been fair-play – the clues were all there for those eagle-eyed enough to spot them.

Another entertaining entry in this series, though not perhaps my favourite. The book has the added bonus of a Bencolin short story, The Ends of Justice, which is another “impossible” crime – a distinctly unlikely one, I felt, but that didn’t prevent me enjoying it!

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

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Inspector French: Sudden Death by Freeman Wills Crofts

More how than why…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Anne Day is delighted to be offered the job of housekeeper at Frayle, the home of the Grinsmead family. However, she soon discovers there are tensions in the household. Mrs Grinsmead seems mistrustful and suspicious of everyone. At first, Anne puts this down to a persecution complex but gradually she begins to wonder if perhaps Mrs Grinsmead has some cause for her worries. But Anne’s still not prepared for the tragedy that will soon strike. Enter Inspector French of Scotland Yard!

It’s a fairly small group of suspects who might have committed the crime – if crime, indeed, there were. (I’ve not said what happened because quite a big proportion of the book happens before the actual crime, and a lot of the suspense in the book is in wondering who the victim will be.) There are Mr and Mrs Grinsmead – she nervy and paranoid, as I’ve said, he attractive and superficially quite kind but really rather cold and selfish. Anne herself is something of an innocent, willing to accept people at face value but with an occasional flash of insight. Anne feels sorry for Mrs Grinsmead and soon becomes her confidante. Then there’s Edith Cheame, the governess of the couple’s little children, who, Anne soon realises, has very little concern for anyone but herself. The cook, the maid and the chauffeur round out what seems like a huge staff for a country solicitor, but of course they’re not important enough to play any role other than as witnesses. There are also various friends and neighbours who play their part, as well as old Mrs Grinsmead, Mr Grinsmead’s mother. (Lots of Grinsmeads and my spellchecker hates them all… 😉 )

Freeman Wills Croft

This novel contains not one but two locked room mysteries – one that is way too fiendish and technical for my poor mind to have had any hope of solving, and the other which seemed to me to be rather blindingly obvious; so much so, that I felt I must be missing something since I almost never work out how locked room mysteries are done. The perspective alternates between Anne and Inspector French, although all told in the third person. I enjoyed the Anne bits very much, since it’s through her we learn about all the various residents in the house and their possible motives. The French bits didn’t work so well for me, as they involve him painstakingly going over and over the technicalities of how the locked room bits were worked. That’s a subjective complaint, though – I’m always more interested in the why than the how in crime fiction. For people who enjoy the puzzle aspect of impossible crimes, I’m sure this would work much better. However, despite that, the book held my attention and, although I had my suspicions from about halfway through which eventually turned out to be right, I was unsure enough about it to still be in suspense until all was revealed. I must say I don’t think French covered himself in glory in this one, though – he seemed to take an awful long time to get there.

This is my second Inspector French novel and I enjoyed the other one considerably more. This is just as well written, but I simply didn’t find the story as interesting. I’m still keen to read others in the series though, and meantime recommend this one to the puzzle-solving enthusiasts out there.

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

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Sovereign (Matthew Shardlake 3) by CJ Sansom

Conspiracy theories…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When King Henry VIII is progressing to York with his young wife Catherine Howard, Archbishop Cranmer appoints Matthew Shardlake to go there to assist in dealing with the petitions the locals will be making to the King. But Cranmer has another task for Shardlake while he’s there. Sir Edward Broderick is imprisoned in York, suspected of taking part in a conspiracy against the King, and Cranmer wants him brought safely back to London so he can be questioned by the Tower’s skilled torturers. Shardlake is reluctant – the idea of torture appals him – but when Cranmer gives an order it’s unwise to disobey. So accompanied by his assistant, Jack Barak, Shardlake goes. And it’s not long before he witnesses a man dying, perhaps by accident, but perhaps by murder. Soon Shardlake is sucked into a plot involving politics, the murky past of the Royal line, and the future of the Realm. And he’s in danger…

I loved reading this series and now I’m enjoying them just as much again as audiobooks. Steven Crossley does a great job again – his Shardlake is now how I imagine him sounding, and I’ve grown used to his Barak, though he sounds a bit older and gruffer than he did in my mind while reading. In this one there are lots of Yorkshire characters, and Crossley does them just as well. As always, there’s a huge cast, but he gives each one a distinct voice and manner of speaking, which I find a great help in remembering who is who when listening rather than reading. First rate narrations – a real pleasure to listen to.

Shardlake is now thoroughly disillusioned with Reform, having seen that the new regime seems just as cruel and unfair as life ever was when England was part of the Roman Catholic church. His faith has been shaken to the point where he’s not sure if he still believes in God at all, and he, like most of his countrymen, now sees Henry as a tyrant to be feared rather than a monarch to be loved. So his feelings about the prisoner are ambivalent – he doesn’t support the conspirators, but he understands their hatred of the King.

Meanwhile, Barak’s attraction to one of Queen Catherine’s servants means he and Shardlake are around the Queen’s retinue quite often, seeing things that Matthew finds deeply worrying. The young Queen is behaving foolishly, and that is a dangerous thing for a Queen of Henry’s to do. And a third strand is that Shardlake befriends an old lawyer who has had a falling out with his only remaining relative, and wishes to make up with him before he dies, which his physician has told him will be soon. Shardlake agrees to take the old man back to London with him and help him find his nephew.

As always with these books, it is long and slow, going deep into the way people lived in Henry’s England – both those at the top and those in the ranks below. The secret at the heart of the book, the one which causes all the trouble and puts Shardlake in danger, is based on a real rumour current at the time, muddied by a real prophecy which many believed (even though it was originally fictional). I won’t go into it any more deeply than that since that would take me into spoiler territory, but it gives the book a feeling of authenticity, which is what I always like about this series. Sansom, a historian himself, never produces a plot that feels anachronistic or as if it couldn’t have happened. And the blend between the historical characters and the fictional ones is so seamless I often have to check who really existed and who didn’t. That’s the one downside of the audiobooks – they don’t include the explanation Sansom usually gives as an end note, clarifying what is real and what he’s invented.

CJ Sansom

An excellent book, which again deepens our knowledge of Shardlake and our respect for him, and in this one we get to know Barak better and meet Tamasin, who will become a major character in the series as it goes on. It could be argued that the books get too long and could do with an edit, and I’d usually be arguing that myself, but I love the way Sansom shows us all sorts of stuff along the way that may not move the plot along, but builds up a full and fascinating picture of the time. In this case, the King’s progress takes centre stage and we learn all about the massive organisation that went into it – not as an info dump, but naturally, as Shardlake himself learns about it. And we are given a gruesome glimpse into some of the torture methods Henry’s henchmen employed – it’ll be a while before I make another dental appointment, for sure.

Great stuff – highly recommended, both book and audiobook.

Amazon UK Link
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A Surprise for Christmas edited by Martin Edwards

Ho! Ho! Aargh!

😀 😀 😀 😀

What better time to be thinking about murder than when getting together with your loved ones for some festive cheer! (Only 350 shopping days left – better hurry!) This is another collection of vintage crime stories from Martin Edwards and the British Library, each with a Christmas theme. There are twelve in the book, as always with a mix of very famous authors like Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and GK Chesterton, along with some that are less well known, to me at least.

And, as always, the quality is somewhat mixed, although there are no real duds and a few standout stories among them. I gave six of them four stars, while three got the full five, so I’d say this was a pretty solid collection overall. The stories I ranked highest all came at the end, which left me feeling much more impressed than I was, perhaps, halfway through. I felt it was a bit of cheat to include a Julian Symons story that had turned up in the Christmas collection just a couple of years ago, though, giving it a different title this time. But that will only matter to geeks like me who read all of the crime anthologies the BL produces, and it is a good story!

As usual, here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I most enjoyed…

Dead Man’s Hand by ER Punshon. A servant and his wife plan to murder and rob their employer. This is a very short and quite slight story, but it uses the heavy snowfall in an intriguing way to provide cover for the murderer, and gives a nicely dark picture of evil and guilt.

On Christmas Day in the Morning by Margery Allingham. On Christmas morning, a postman is run down by a car and killed. The police think they know who the men were who were in the car, but it seems they couldn’t have done it since the postman was in a different place when they drove drunkenly through the village. It’s up to Campion to work out if they are the guilty ones, and if so, how it happened. This is quite an interesting take on breaking an unbreakable alibi, but what lifts it is the insightful and somewhat sad picture of how lonely Christmas can be for those without families around them.

Give me a Ring by Anthony Gilbert (aka Anne Meredith). On Christmas Eve, Gillian Hynde loses her way in a sudden London fog and steps into a shop to ask for directions. Unknowingly, she has walked into danger, and finds herself kidnapped and held captive. The story is mostly about her fiancé’s desperate attempts to find her, with the assistance of Arthur Crook, lawyer and scourge of the criminal classes – and apparently a successful series detective back in the day. This is a nearly novella-length thriller, very well written, fast-moving and high on suspense, especially since both Gillian and Richard, the fiancé, are likeable protagonists.

The Turn-Again Bell by Barry Perowne. An elderly rector is waiting for his son to come home on Christmas leave from the navy. The plan is that the son will marry his childhood sweetheart on Boxing Day, in the Rector’s ancient Norman church. But there is a legend that each Rector will at some time hear the church bell toll just once on Christmas Eve and this is a portent that he will not live to see the following Christmas. This is a beautifully written, perfect little story, admittedly with no actual crime in it but with all the right messages for Christmas, and it left me with a tear or two in my cynical eye, and a warm fuzzy feeling of goodwill to all mankind. Can’t be bad, eh?

So a good mix of style and tone, with everything from high octane thrills to more thoughtful festive fare. And proves it’s not always necessary to murder someone to enjoy yourself at Christmas…

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

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The Secrets of Strangers by Charity Norman

Hostage situation…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Early one morning, a diverse bunch of people head for the Tuckbox café. Most of them are just looking for a caffeine fix, but one is carrying a loaded shotgun. Soon a man lies dead on the floor and some of the strangers find themselves as hostages of the killer. Outside, as the police scramble to get their armed response units in position, their negotiator, Eliza, begins the long job of trying to calm things down and resolve the situation without any more people getting hurt. And in the café, as the initial shock and terror wears off, the hostages and their captor begin to develop an uneasy rapport…

This book is getting rave reviews all over the place and, although I wasn’t as blown away by it as many other people, I can certainly see why. The quality of the writing is excellent, and the beginning in particular is brilliantly done, quickly building up an atmosphere of extreme tension and concern for the characters whom the author has already managed to make us care about.

After this explosive start, the book then settles down to a slow reveal of the background of each of the characters, especially of the killer and his victim. This is when it began, slightly, to drag for me. The essential problem is that all of the characters – yes, even the killer – are such awfully nice people who have been dealt unfair hands by fate. I liked them all, but oh, how I longed for someone’s stiff upper lip to fail – a touch of hysteria, a blazing row, or a dramatic but futile show of heroism. At the beginning, when there are kids among the hostages and we don’t know just how unstable the killer might be, the tension is palpable, but this disappears when it soon becomes clear that the immediate horrors are over and the hostage situation is merely an opportunity to bring together some disparate life stories.

Charity Norman

And mostly they’re, dare I say it, not very interesting stories. The career woman undergoing IVF and hiding her pain under a brittle veneer of professional distance. The homeless man, brought to this state by his own weaknesses but with a heart of gold and a limitless well of sympathy for others. The kind, motherly care worker who uses her common sense and knowledge of the darkness that can lurk in the human soul to connect with the killer. And the killer himself, product of an unhappy childhood ruled over by a controlling, gaslighting step-father. I may be making it sound much duller than it is – I did like all the characters and I did enjoy hearing their stories, especially the harrowing one of Mutesi the care worker which is very well done; but it was all too pat somehow. Here we all are, each with our own troubles, locked in this room, so why don’t we swap stories and all find some kind of redemption and turn this horror into a deeply meaningful moment of affirmation of life? It all felt a bit Harold Fry, if you know what I mean – another book that other people adored and I didn’t. And I do feel someone should have said no to the last chapter, which is quite frankly sickeningly saccharine and with the same kind of mystical twaddle that made me want to hurl Harold Fry at the wall.

Hmm, this review has turned out more critical than I intended. I enjoyed reading the book and would recommend it quite highly, especially to people who enjoy feel-good novels, since despite the killing that’s what this is. But for those looking for realism or a thriller, this is not that book. Horses for courses. This horse provides a nice, comfortable, sedate ride, not a wild mane-flying gallop. Bill, not Shadowfax.

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

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Child’s Play (Dalziel and Pascoe 9) by Reginald Hill

Gruff of Sodding Greendale…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

During the funeral of Gwendoline Huby, a stranger appears and then just as suddenly disappears again. Could this be the long lost son Mrs Huby had always hoped would one day return? Alexander Huby had gone missing in Italy in WW2 and, although the authorities and his father accepted that he had been killed in action, Mrs Huby never would. Now the rich old lady has complicated matters by leaving her wealth to her missing son, much to the annoyance of her extended family and of the three charities who will eventually get the money, but not until either many years have passed or Alexander is proved dead. There’s no mystery about Mrs Huby’s death – she died of old age. But when the funereal stranger turns up dead too not long after, Dalziel and Pascoe must confirm if he was indeed the missing son, and find out which of the other beneficiaries might have decided to cut short the wait for their inheritance. Meantime, Wieldy’s secret is in danger – a young man has turned up claiming to be the friend of Wield’s former lover, Maurice, and is threatening to tell the local papers that there is a gay man serving in the Mid Yorks CID.

Good grief! It seems so odd now that the idea of being outed as gay would have effectively ended Wield’s career as recently as 1986, but indeed I vividly remember the salacious outrage of the press whenever a police officer or anyone in a prominent position was found to be gay, and the vicious outing of people who were not ready to be outed into a society where homophobia was still legally sanctioned. Seems to me from memory that the public was way ahead of the authorities and the press on this one – actual people didn’t seem much to care, not ones of my generation anyway. Hill handles the issue with his usual compassion and sense of truth – Wield is a figure of neither fun nor pity, though we feel for him in his dilemma over whether to out himself before the press does it for him. This bit of the storyline also deepens the characterisation of Dalziel, letting us see a different side to him which he normally keeps well hidden behind his uncouth, strictly non-PC persona.

The actual murder plot is very good, with plenty of suspects all with strong motives. Mrs Huby’s family are a quirky bunch, from aspiring and not very good actor Rod, to little Lexie, whose diminutive form and quiet manner cover a steely determination to get what she wants out of life, to Lexie’s dad, John Huby, the comic relief whose dreams of a big inheritance have been shattered on learning that all he’d been left was Mrs Huby’s favourite dog, long ago deceased and stuffed, and known as Gruff of Greendale. There are also the representatives of the three charities and Mrs. Huby’s forbidding Danvers-like housekeeper-cum-companion, Miss Keach. Hill often has one of his regulars take the forefront with the others in the background, but in this one, Dalziel, Pascoe and Wield all have important roles, giving it added pleasure for me since all three are such great characters.

I listened to the audiobook version – my second experience of Colin Buchanan narrating. I must say that none of the issues I had with the last book troubled me this time – his Yorkshire accents sounded more Yorkshire, his Dalziel seemed more in tune with how I’d expect Dalziel to sound, and he doesn’t seem to race through the narration at quite the same speed. I don’t know whether it was really better or if I’ve just got used to his style, but either way I enjoyed his performance considerably more in this one.

Reginald Hill

By this point Hill is beginning to play with light-hearted literary references, as he would do more and more as the series progresses, and this one is presented as a three-act tragicomedy. The underlying story is quite dark and Wieldy’s dilemma certainly has an air of tragedy, but overall I find this one quite light in tone, with a lot of humour in it. Again in terms of plot it would work fine as a standalone, but knowing the three lead characters from the earlier books makes the interactions between them more satisfying. As always with this series, highly recommended.

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The Progress of a Crime by Julian Symons

Bleak realism…

😀 😀 😀

Hugh Bennett is a young reporter, working on a provincial newspaper covering all the small-town stories. On Guy Fawkes night, he is sent to cover the annual bonfire in the village of Far Wether. But there’s been trouble in Far Wether recently, when a gang of youths caused a disturbance at a local dance and were roughly ejected by a local resident, James Corby. During the bonfire the youths return and, in the darkness, Corby is killed. There are plenty of witnesses, but none who can swear to having seen the actual stabbing. The police have to make sense of the conflicting reports, but eventually, after interviewing the members of the gang intensively, they build up a case against “King” Garney, the leader of the gang, and his faithful follower, Leslie Gardner. The evidence, especially in the case of Gardner, is pretty circumstantial, and one of the big national newspapers decides to pay for his defence…

This is well written and very believable, with a good deal to say about the alienation of youth and the psychology of young men who get caught up in gangs. Hugh knows Leslie’s sister, Jill, and is in the process of falling in love with her, so he finds himself becoming personally as well as professionally involved in the case and, having been at the bonfire, he is also a witness. Symons gives what feels like an authentic portrayal of the life of a reporter on a local paper, covering relatively trivial stories and dreaming of making the big-time on one of the national newspapers. Hugh finds himself working with Frank Fairfield, a major crime reporter from one of those nationals, a man with a reputation for good investigative journalism, but who has an obvious drink problem.

Unfortunately, this one didn’t really work for me. The sordid type of crime and the array of unlikeable characters meant that I didn’t much care whether Gardner was guilty or innocent. First published in 1960, Symons concentrates on gritty realism and social issues, at the expense, in my opinion, of mystery and entertainment. The introduction by Martin Edwards tells us that Symons was inspired by a real crime and I rarely find real crime as enjoyable as imagined crime. However that’s a subjective opinion – many other readers will probably appreciate the emphasis on realism. The moral, upstanding Golden Age policeman has given way to the bullying, violent type who always leave me wondering whether they’re actually any better than the criminals. It may be a more accurate portrayal of the policing of that era, but again it meant I couldn’t find myself fully on the side of “law and order”.

Julian Symons

The latter part of the book covers the trial of the two youths, and this is the best part, with all the traditional surprises being sprung by the defence barrister, while the equally competent prosecutor smoothly responds. Gardner’s family is well developed too, so that we see the tensions among them even before the trial, with young Leslie and his father at loggerheads and Jill, the daughter of the family, trying to mediate. But again I found them all unpleasant people to spend time with, even Jill, whom I suspect we were supposed to like. For Hugh, it’s a bit of a coming-of-age story, as his youthful idealism about journalism takes some serious knocks as he sees the lack of compassion the top reporters have for those caught up in their stories.

So I appreciated the feeling of authenticity Symons manages to create, and am sure this will appeal to people who like their crime fiction to have an air of realism. But for me it was too bleak a read, lacking any elements of warmth or humour to lift the tone.

The book also includes a short story, The Tigers of Subtopia, again about disaffected youth and the reaction of a man who usually thinks of himself as liberal when he feels his own family under threat. I felt much the same about this as about the novel – very well done, authentic and realistic, but too bleak for me.

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

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