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 So when this previously unpublished novel was found in his archives in 2017, more or less complete and with his own notes of the changes he intended to make, the idea of publishing it would have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 Davis, 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 Davis’ 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…

Audible UK Link
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Exit Lines (Dalziel and Pascoe 8) by Reginald Hill

Death in triplicate…

😀 😀 😀 😀

On a stormy November night, three elderly men die: one, murdered in his home; one, while walking home, perhaps by accident, perhaps not; and the third, hit by a car as he rode home from the pub on his bicycle. While looking into the first, definite murder Pascoe finds himself gradually suspecting that the second case may also have been the result of a violent attack. But the third case is the most difficult, since there is a suspicion that Pascoe’s boss, Dalziel, may have been drunkenly driving the car that hit the man on the bike…

Hill must have been writing this around the time of the big debate in the UK over “care in the community” – whether the elderly, disabled and otherwise vulnerable should be de-institutionalised from hospitals and care homes, and be helped to live independently in their own homes. In truth, many were left to fend for themselves with only the support of family, if they had any. Hill uses his three old men to show various aspects of this debate, but with a light touch – he never gets too heavily into polemics, although his left-wing bias becomes more obvious throughout the Thatcher era. He shows us the loneliness of some elderly people, and also the stress placed on families trying to juggle jobs and children with caring for elderly relatives. But while the three men at the centre of the story are victims to one degree or another, Hill doesn’t paint the picture as all bleak – he shows us the ordinary kindnesses of people looking out for each other, whether family or strangers, and he shows the official care system as quite caring on the whole, unusually, since it often gets a very bad rap in fiction, probably far worse than it deserves.

Reginald Hill

All this is interesting, but I must admit this isn’t one of my favourites in the series. The three storylines are too much, leading to loads of characters in each case, and I often found myself struggling to remember which plotline each person belonged to. The storyline around Andy’s possible drunk driving is a bit messy too, I feel, though it’s interesting to see the other police officers struggling to avoid the appearance of a police cover-up, while staying loyal to one of their own. On top of all this, Pascoe’s wife Elly is worried about her father, who seems to be showing the first signs of dementia. I felt Hill was trying to cover too many aspects of what it is to be elderly and as a result rather lost focus on the plots.

However, even a weaker Hill is better than most other crime fiction, and there’s plenty to enjoy here. Pascoe is at centre stage, leading the investigations while Andy is on enforced leave. PC Hector provides the humour – good-hearted, but so slow on the uptake as to be almost half-witted. (Andy calls him one of “Maggie’s Morons” – I can’t remember for sure the relevance of this, but I’m guessing Thatcher increased police recruitment dramatically, and this maybe led to a perceived reduction in standards? It’s amazing how quickly cultural references date and are forgotten.) PC Seymour makes his first appearance too – unlike Hector he has all the signs of being a very good officer and of making his way up through the ranks in time, although in this one he’s distracted by his attraction to one of the witnesses, a young Irish waitress with a love of ballroom dancing. And as a nicely humorous touch, each chapter is headed by the real or apocryphal “famous last words” of a historical person, such as “I am just going outside and may be some time.” (Capt. Lawrence Oates) or “Bugger Bognor!” (George V, on being told by doctors he should go to the seaside town to recuperate).

Colin Buchanan

I listened to it this time, narrated by Colin Buchanan who played Peter Pascoe in the TV series. I have mixed feelings about his narration – I didn’t find it seriously hampered my enjoyment of the book, but I wasn’t keen on his interpretation of Dalziel, though his Wield and Pascoe are very good. He speaks far too fast for my taste and I was constantly finding myself jumping back a bit to pick up something I missed. And while I’m no expert on regional accents, I couldn’t help feeling that a lot of his Yorkshiremen sounded more like Geordies. I liked it enough, though, to go ahead and get the next one on audio – maybe he’ll win me over in time.

So a good read, even if it’s not quite up to the standards of the best in this excellent series. It would work as a standalone, but would probably be better appreciated by a reader who already knew the characters from the earlier books.

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Checkmate to Murder (Inspector MacDonald 25) by ECR Lorac

Keep Calm and Carry On!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

It’s wartime London and a thick fog is making the darkness of the blackout even deeper. A perfect night for murder! Four men are together in an artist’s studio. Bruce Manaton, the artist, is working on a portrait of his friend, actor André Delaunier, dressed for the sitting in the scarlet robes of a Cardinal. Meantime two other men, Robert Cavenish and Ian Mackellon, are absorbed in a game of chess. Each couple is in a pool of light while the rest of the studio is in shadow. In the kitchen off the studio, Bruce’s sister, Rosanne, is preparing a meal (because she’s the woman, obviously). Suddenly into this quiet scene bursts the local Special Constable, clutching a young soldier whom he claims has just murdered the old miser who lives next door. But when Inspector MacDonald of the Yard begins to investigate, he’s not convinced it’s as simple a case as it first appears…

ECR Lorac has been one of the major successes of the British Library Crime Classics series as far as I’m concerned, and I guess I’m not alone since they’ve now republished several of the Inspector MacDonald books, as well as a standalone written under another of her pen names, Carol Carnac. One of her real strengths is her settings, and her wartime ones are particularly atmospheric. Here she uses the combination of fog and blackout brilliantly, not just to provide a cloak for nefarious goings-on, but also to conjure up a sense of what it was like to be living in a London still struggling stoically on under the constant threat of air raids.

The worst of the Blitz is over, but the memories of the bombings are still fresh. So much so, that, as Bruce later explains to Inspector MacDonald “Londoners have heard so many bangs during their recent history, that a pistol shot isn’t so impressive a row as it used to be.” This, together with the random blasts of fog horns, means that the group in the studio didn’t consciously hear the shot that killed old Mr Folliner.

Through patient police work, MacDonald and his team soon have reason to doubt that the young soldier, who, it turns out, is Mr Folliner’s nephew, is the murderer, although he was found by the Special Constable in the old man’s bedroom with the corpse. But if he’s innocent, then who did the deed? The list of suspects is small, and it seems almost impossible that anyone in the vicinity at the time could have done it. MacDonald will have to work out not only whodunit, but how.

It’s a good puzzle, with some of the elements of the “impossible crime” about it, though I find it impossible myself to explain why without giving mild spoilers, so I won’t. The characterisation is very good, with Bruce and Rosanne Manaton particularly well developed. Bruce is talented, but he’s moody and selfish, and Rosanne acts almost as much as a mother to him as a sister. People aren’t spending much on art during the war, so Rosanne struggles to make ends meet and stop Bruce blowing what little money they do have on drink. She too is a talented artist, but Bruce kindly lets her sacrifice her own career so that she can do all the cooking and cleaning and worrying for them both.

We also get to know Inspector MacDonald a little better, though his life outside work is still largely a blank. I like that he never works alone – Lorac always makes us aware of the teamwork that is going on in the background to support his detecting, and gives them full credit for their contribution. As used to be the case in those halcyon days (in fiction), the police team work well together, efficiently, professionally and in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Another great read from Lorac’s pen – I remain baffled as to why she is less well known than the other Golden Age Queens of Crime and am very glad that the BL is doing such a great job in changing that.

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

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Inspector French and the Mystery on Southampton Water by Freeman Wills Crofts

Profit motive…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Joymount Cement Company is in trouble. Its main local competitor, Chayle’s, has found a new formula that allows them to produce cement more cheaply, thus undercutting Joymount. Joymount’s board of directors decide to give their chief chemist a few weeks to try to replicate the formula – if he fails, then the company may have to close. King, the chemist, tries his best but, as the deadline approaches, he is no nearer finding the solution, so he persuades one of the other directors, Brand, to sneak into Chayle’s with him one night to see what they can find out. That’s when things begin to go horribly wrong…

This is an “inverted” mystery, a format for which I understand Crofts was particularly well known. (For the uninitiated, this means that the crime is shown first including the identity of the criminal, and then the story joins the detective, showing the methods he uses to investigate it.) The story leading up to the break-in at Chayle’s and the resulting death that happens there is very well told, but only takes up about a quarter of the book. Inspector French from Scotland Yard is brought in because the local police suspect that there’s more to the break-in and death at Chayle’s than meets the eye. French soon confirms this, and now a murder hunt is on.

At this point, I was thinking that it was going to be a long haul watching French discover what we, the readers, already knew had happened. I should have had more faith in Crofts’ reputation! I can only be vague because I want to avoid even the smallest of spoilers, but suddenly another event happens that turns the story on its head, leading to another crime – one to which the reader does not know the solution. This second crime forms the main focus of the book, and a very satisfying mystery it is. The possible suspect list is tiny, but the clues are so beautifully meted out that I changed my mind several times about whodunit, and only got about halfway there in the end. It’s also a howdunit – until the method is discovered, it’s almost impossible to know who would have had the opportunity to commit the crime. So in the end, Crofts throws in everything – an inverted crime, a traditional mystery, alibis, method, motives, all wrapped up in a police procedural, and it all works brilliantly.

Freeman Wills Crofts

He also does a lovely job with the characterisation – not so much of French, who truthfully is a bit bland as detectives go, in this one at any rate, but of the men involved – King, Brand, their boss Tasker, and their opposite numbers at Chayle’s. They are each given clear motivation for how they act individually, and there’s a good deal of moral ambiguity floating around – while not everyone is guilty in the eyes of the law, very few could be called entirely innocent. The murkiness of the business world is at the heart of the story, and the lengths to which men will go in the pursuit of profit. (Yes, they’re all men – it was first published in 1934.)

I loved this. So intricately plotted but also with a very human set of characters to stop it from being merely a puzzle. It’s only the second book of Crofts I’ve read, the other being The 12:30 from Croydon, which I also thoroughly enjoyed. It too is an inverted mystery, but very different in how it’s done, showing that this particular sub-genre has more room for variety than I’d have expected. I will now add Crofts to my ever-growing list of vintage crime writers to be further explored! Happily I have another couple of his books already waiting on the TBR pile…

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

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Dark Fire (Matthew Shardlake 2) by CJ Sansom

Cromwell’s secret weapon…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It is 1540, and lawyer Matthew Shardlake has taken on the case of a girl who has been charged with the murder of her young cousin. The girl, Elizabeth, is refusing to speak, partly from shock perhaps, but she also seems to be full of rage. If she won’t plead she knows she will be subjected to torture, but still she keeps her silence. At the last moment, Shardlake finds that she is to be given a temporary reprieve – twelve days more in the Hole at Newgate prison before the torture begins, unless Shardlake can get to the truth of what happened before then. But then Shardlake learns that the reprieve has been the work of the King’s vicar general, Thomas Cromwell. And in return, Cromwell wants Shardlake to do a job for him – one that may save Cromwell from the King’s growing displeasure…

The two cases in this story are completely separate and quite different from each other, providing the kind of contrast that always makes the Shardlake books so enjoyable. While the Cromwell strand takes us deep into the machinations of the powerful men vying for the King’s favour, Elizabeth’s story is far away from politics, set in her merchant uncle’s home. This allows Sansom to roam widely through the streets of London, and the various types and classes of people who populate them.

Cromwell provides Shardlake with a new assistant, a tough young commoner by the name of Jack Barak who was once helped by Cromwell and now feels a great loyalty to him. Shardlake’s feelings are more mixed – he has been appalled by some of the things Cromwell has done in the name of Reform, including torturing and burning heretics, and is no longer as enthusiastic a Reformer as he once was. However, when Cromwell demands service a man has to be very brave or very foolish to refuse, and Shardlake is neither, plus he knows it’s the only way to gain time to investigate Elizabeth’s case.

Greek Fire, known in the book as “dark fire”

Cromwell has been told that the formula for an ancient weapon once used by the Byzantines, known as “dark fire”, has been rediscovered. Having told King Henry, he has now discovered that the men who promised to supply it to him have been murdered. Cromwell is already on extremely shaky ground with the King since it was he who arranged the marriage to Anne of Cleves, which turned out to be a disaster, and he knows that if he fails to provide the promised new weapon the King will be even more furious. Now the King has set his amorous sights on young Catherine Howard and Cromwell fears that, if she becomes Queen, then her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, will take Cromwell’s place as the second most important man in the land. So he tasks Shardlake with finding the murderers and, more importantly, with finding either the supply of dark fire he has been promised or at least the formula for it.

Elizabeth had been recently orphaned and sent to live in her Uncle Edwin’s family. She never fitted in with her cousins, two girls and a boy, all of whom seemed to enjoy teasing her about her less refined manners. But when she is accused of having killed the boy by throwing him down the well, her other uncle, Joseph, refuses to believe her guilty. It is he who begs Shardlake to take her case, and as Shardlake and Barak investigate, they will find that there are dark secrets in this family – dark and dangerous.

Both stories are very well told, and Sansom keeps the balance between them well, never losing sight of either for too long. Although Barak’s job is to help Shardlake with the dark fire investigation, he is happy to help with Elizabeth’s case too, especially since in some ways she reminds him of himself when he too found himself in trouble at a young age. Despite having little in common, the rough commoner Barak and the cultured lawyer Shardlake gradually begin to find a mutual respect for each other, and even the beginnings of friendship.

CJ Sansom

As always, the historical setting feels completely authentic, both in terms of the high events surrounding the King and court, and in the depiction of how people lived and worked at this period. Sansom gives an amazing amount of detail about all sorts of things, from the dinner-tables of the high and mighty to the inns and brothels of the poorer parts of the city, and manages to do this seamlessly as part of the story so that it never feels like an info dump. It becomes an immersive experience, and I always feel a sense of dislocation when I return to the modern world. Both plots in this one are interesting, although I found myself more involved in the more personal one of Elizabeth and her family than in Cromwell and his political shenanigans. Brother Guy from the first book is now in London working as an apothecary. He and Matthew have become firm friends and he plays an important role in this book, which is an added bonus for me since he’s one of my favourite characters.

I listened to the audiobook this time, which is wonderfully narrated by Steven Crossley. I will admit his voice for Barak didn’t chime with my own idea of how he should sound at first but I soon got used to it. His Shardlake is perfect, though, and he uses a huge variety of tones and accents for the other people in what is a pretty vast cast of characters. It makes such a difference to ease of listening when each character is so clearly differentiated, especially in such a long book.

So, an excellent second outing for Shardlake and, in common with all the books in this series, gets my highest recommendation.

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The Messenger of Athens by Anne Zouroudi

A Greek idyll…?

🤬

A woman dies on a Greek island and it is put down to accident or maybe suicide. But a mysterious stranger arrives from Athens – Hermes Diaktoros (isn’t that name hilarious with its hilarious reference to Greek mythology? What? You don’t get it? No, me neither, but fear not, the author will explain it – every single time he introduces himself to another character. Hilariously.) “The fat man” thinks there is more to the woman’s death than has been revealed…

I put up with the dirt, the rain, the storms and howling winds. I put up with the unpleasant small-minded people. I put up with the misogyny. I put up with the author constantly referring to the detective as “the fat man”. I put up with the use of the c-word. I even put up with the gratuitous and graphic description of incestuous sex between one man and two sisters. But when it comes to pages of revolting detail about how to hang a goat up alive by its back legs and then slaughter and eviscerate it, I must resort to misquoting Churchill – up with this I will not put.

Maybe an accurate depiction of the more backward areas of the Greek islands, but not a place I want to spend any time, either really or fictionally. The author clearly missed the class at writing school where they tell the pupils crime novels are supposed to entertain, not disgust. Abandoned at 39%, but highly recommended to anyone who wants to know how to gut goats.

* * * * *

Oops, People! Another People’s Choice hits the wall! I’m coming to the conclusion that the reason these books have lingered on my TBR for so long is that subliminally I must have picked up enough information about them from reviews to know at a subconscious level that they wouldn’t work for me. However, the upside is that at least they’re coming off the TBR at last, so I hope you’ll forgive me for this string of negative, grumpy reviews. Thanks to all who voted – I really do appreciate it, though it may not always seem that way… 😉

* * * * *

Due to having fallen behind with life, the universe and everything, I shall be taking a short break to catch my breath! Back soon – be good!

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The Man Who Didn’t Fly by Margot Bennett

A puzzling mystery…

😀 😀 😀 😀

A plane crashes en route to Dublin. Four men were supposed to have been going on the trip, but only three boarded the plane. There were no survivors and no bodies have been found. The first problem is that no one knows which of the four men is the one who is, presumably, still alive. The second problem is that he hasn’t turned up, explaining why he missed the flight. Inspector Lewis and his assistant, Sergeant Young, have to backtrack through the last day or two to see if they can identify the man who didn’t fly, and find out why he has disappeared…

This is a very odd crime novel. I assumed the crime would be that the plane had been deliberately destroyed, meaning that the pilot and passengers had been murdered. But this idea never seems to feature much. Maybe back in the 1950s, planes were always falling out of the sky en route to Dublin so it didn’t seem so suspicious? Instead, Lewis and Young seem to be merely trying to identify the dead and the living, for the sake of the inquests. And yet I couldn’t quite swallow the idea that two relatively high-level officers would be assigned to such a task. Fortunately, however, it soon transpires that all four of the men had secrets, so the lack of an obvious crime soon fades into the background as the investigation begins to centre on what they’d all been up to in the days before the flight.

Some of the early part follows the usual detective story format of Lewis questioning locals, but soon he hones in on the Wade family, who seem to have had connections with all four of the men. From then on it’s told partly through members of the family giving their recollections, mixed with a straight third-person narrative of what they’re telling. Again odd, but it does work eventually, after a rather slow and confusing start. Mostly we see the action from the perspective of Hester, the older of Mr Wade’s two daughters. She’s a sensible young woman, who is worried that her father seems bent on speculating his small remaining fortune on the advice of one of the plane’s passengers. Another is the Wade’s lodger, a strange, nervous man who seems almost paranoid at times. A third man is a neighbour and long-time friend of the family. And the fourth is Harry, a ne’er-do-well with poetical aspirations, with whom young Hester is beginning to fancy herself in love. So the family is as keen to know who has survived as the police are, and readily co-operate in telling all they know of the days leading up to the crash.

Margot Bennett

The basis for the plot is all a bit silly really, and not terribly credible. But the actual plotting of the mystery element is excellent – it’s a real puzzle, based on clues and logic and elimination. The reader has as much chance as the police to work out the identities of the men on the basis of the clues given. Needless to say, I didn’t, although some parts of the story were easier to guess at than others. The characterisation is a bit contrived to serve the plot, and I must admit it took me ages before I could tell most of the missing men apart without checking back each time to remind myself which was which. Harry the poet and the Wade family members are much better drawn, especially Hester, who provides a rare character to care about amidst the many unlikeable and unscrupulous people in the cast.

Overall, I have rather mixed feelings about it. I enjoyed the second half much more than the first, and suspect it would greatly appeal to people who enjoy the challenge of a clue-based logic puzzle. It’s not quite as successful in terms of character and motive, but these aspects are still strong enough to give an enjoyable background for the puzzle elements. One for the mind rather than the emotions, I think.

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

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