The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

All that glitters…

😐 😐

When Philip Marlowe helps out a drunken Terry Lennox one night, it starts a kind of casual friendship between the two men. So when Lennox’s wife is beaten to death, it’s to Marlowe that he turns for help, not to investigate the crime, but to assist him to flee the country. Hearing later that Lennox has confessed to the murder, Marlowe doesn’t believe it – he can believe that Lennox might have killed his serially unfaithful wife, but not that he would have done it so brutally. Meantime, he has been approached by the publisher of Roger Wade, a successful writer now struggling with bouts of drunkenness which are making it impossible for him to finish his latest book. The publisher wants Marlowe to keep Wade sober, if he can, and to try to find out what is causing Wade to behave this way. Marlowe refuses, but soon gets sucked into Wade’s troubles anyway, partly because of Wade’s beautiful, golden wife.

This one didn’t do it for me at all, I’m afraid. Admittedly, it has several of the elements I most dislike about American noir fiction – the constant drunkenness, the casual violence, the ubiquitous Great God Gun at whose altar all America worships, apparently. The women exist purely as sexual beings, the men (despite the constant availability of women and drink – or maybe because of it) are all existentially miserable, corrupt and violent – even the good ones. Society as a whole is also corrupt, bleak and hollow. No one does a normal, honest job, or has a happy family life. Only old people have children, and that purely so they can despise them. Love only appears as lust, and even the fulfilment of that lust usually ends in tears, literally. Makes me wonder why anyone would choose to go on living and, indeed, one of the recurring themes of the book is suicide. Somehow this kind of depressing noir vision of life works quite well on screen for me, but not in books, maybe because I have too much time to get bored with it.

Book 68 of 90
CC Spin 24

As if specially to annoy me further, Chandler, obviously in autobiographical mood, chose for another of his themes to write about how hard it is for writers to write, a subject that writers too often find far more fascinating than I do. My feeling is that if writers hate writing, the solution is simple – don’t do it. The world will not run short of books. And fewer books about the plight of poor struggling writers would be a major bonus for poor struggling readers.

The writing itself is fine, though without the slick snappiness I generally expect from American noir of this era. I did not however find it as “literary” as many other reviews suggest. Of course, we all define “literary” differently, but for me it means it has something to say about society or “the human condition”. This speaks only about the drunk, the corrupt and the violent. Chandler suggests that his characters had often been damaged by their experiences in the recent WW2, but I didn’t find he handled this aspect convincingly – except in the case of one character, it seemed more like an excuse than a cause. Some of the descriptive stuff paints wonderfully evocative pictures, though…

The bar was filling up. A couple of streamlined demi-virgins went by caroling and waving. They knew the two hotshots in the booth farther on. The air began to be spattered with darlings and crimson fingernails.

Raymond Chandler

The biggest problem, though, is that the book is bloated to a degree where the actual story gets almost completely overwhelmed by the rather pointless padding, repetitive dialogue and occasional mini-essays on what Chandler feels is wrong with the world. I had to make a huge effort to keep going, in the hope, not fulfilled, that at some point the reason for the book’s reputation would become clear. I can only assume that it’s a mismatch between book and reader, since undoubtedly it is almost universally loved by those who read it. Personally, I vastly preferred The Big Sleep, the only other Chandler I’ve read. Although it’s a long time since I read it, I seem to remember it was tighter, slicker and more entertaining, with Marlowe operating as a proper private eye. In this one, the amount of actual detection Marlowe does is pretty much zero – he just gets caught up in events and wanders somewhat aimlessly around annoying people till they punch him. Sadly, I could see their point.

“I’ve got five hundred pages of typescript here, well over a hundred thousand words. My books run long. The public likes long books. The damn fool public thinks if there’s a lot of pages there must be a lot of gold.”

Not all of us, Mr Chandler, not all of us.

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Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy-Casares

Recommended to old Argentinians…

😦

Don Isidro Parodi is in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, but for which the police found it convenient to frame him. He now is known as a kind of consulting detective, to whose jail cell people bring their insoluble mysteries, and he tells them the solution. Like The Old Man in the Corner, of whom Parodi is clearly a parody (geddit?), there is no investigation in the middle. And I didn’t even like The Old Man in the Corner much…

Oh dear, another of Martin Edwards’ 100 Classic Crime books that I’m abandoning – I fear he and I simply have very different tastes at times. I rarely enjoy spoofs even when they’re well done, and for my money these are not well done, though perhaps that owes something to the awfulness of the translation. Six supposedly humorous tales, they are in fact overly wordy, condescendingly knowing and gratingly arch, with every client (of the three I read, at least) having exactly the same characterisation – a narcissistic simpleton who “hilariously” reveals his own foolishness while attempting to show how superior he is. Sadly, I quickly began to see the authors as being not significantly differently from these clients, although obviously I’m aware Borges has God-like status in the literary world. One day maybe I’ll look up wikipedia to find out why – it certainly can’t be because of these stories.

Challenge details:
Book: 98
Subject Heading: Cosmopolitan Crimes
Publication Year: 1942

The stories reference the famous detectives of the Golden Age and have lots and lots of winking references to people and events I assume were well known in the Argentina of the time, so that, to be fair, maybe they’re more fun if you’re an old Argentinian. But I doubt it.

* * * * *

Having had a run of 1- and 2-star abandonments in this challenge, I’ve been debating whether to continue with it. However, looking back, in fact of the forty books I’ve read so far, I’ve given twenty 5-stars, and several more 4. So I’m going to assume I’ve just hit an unlucky patch and soldier on for a while longer. I mention this merely because I wouldn’t want my deeply unenthusiastic recent reviews to put anyone off reading Edwards’ book, which I enjoyed very much, or trying some of his recommendations for themselves. As always, my reviews are simply my subjective reaction, not a critical evaluation. You may love the ones I hate…

Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses (Maigret 53) by Georges Simenon

Family dynamics…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When Léonard Lachaume, head of the long-established Lachaume biscuit firm, is found shot dead in his bed, Maigret finds his family’s behaviour unusual. No one seems to be openly grieving and, unlike what normally happens in Maigret’s long experience, the family have not gathered together to support each other – instead they all seem to be keeping to their own rooms. It looks on the surface as if the shooting may have been the result of a burglary gone wrong, but right from the beginning Maigret has doubts about this theory. He wants to question the family more deeply but they have brought in their lawyer – another oddity at this stage in the investigation, Maigret feels – and the new young examining magistrate in charge of the case expects Maigret to play it strictly by the book, and do nothing without consulting him first. Maigret is feeling old…

Sometimes the short length of Maigret novels seems perfect to me for the story he tells, but occasionally I feel there’s more in there to be revealed and so the end seems very abrupt. This is one of the abrupt ones. The story is very good with quite a lot to say about the changes in French society at the time of writing – the mid ‘50s. Maigret himself is within a couple of years of retirement and is feeling that the changes to the investigation system, with examining magistrates now taking precedence over the police detectives, make him and his methods out of date. Not that he admits to having a method, really – he simply asks questions till he gets to the right answers. And now that magistrates have the right to take over the questioning, he feels his hands are tied.

Georges Simenon

I was very surprised at the talk of dowries, which are central to the story. I had no idea this system had continued so long in modern France. The Lachaume family has a respected name but no money, since their biscuits have long fallen out of favour with fickle public tastes. So the two sons of the family, Léonard and Armand, must marry for money. The two women they choose are daughters of self-made men, with plenty of money but no family pedigree. It all sounds quite medieval – although marrying for money still goes on informally in all societies, here it’s all contracted and formal, registered by a notary, and with little, if any, talk of love or even affection between the contracting parties. Needless to say, it doesn’t add up to a happy household, especially once the dowry money is all spent in a fruitless attempt to prop up the failing business.

Despite the restrictions on his usual methods, Maigret finds ways to work within the rules the examining magistrate sets him. His persistent but sympathetic questioning of witnesses allows him to get an understanding of the family dynamics, and this, together with his ability to guess at the hidden meaning of physical clues, enables him to finally get at the truth. However, it all comes together very suddenly in the end, and left me with one or two unanswered questions. An extra twenty or thirty pages could have turned this good novella into a great one. Still enjoyable, though, and well worth the few hours it takes to read.

Book 14 of 20

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The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

Screams in the night…

😀 😀 😀 😀

On the night of their wedding, Kenzo and his new bride Katsuko have retired to the annexe of the family home after a day of ritual celebration. The remaining guests are staying with the rest of the family in the main house, but they are startled awake in the middle of the night by screams and the sounds of a koto (a Japanese stringed instrument) twanging wildly. By the time they get to the annexe, it’s too late – Kenzo and Katsuko are dead, brutally slain by someone wielding the katana which is usually kept in the main house. But the annexe is sealed – all doors and windows locked from the inside – and the snow which has just fallen is pristine, with no trace of footmarks. How did the murderer get in and out, and who is the strange three-fingered man who’s been seen in the neighbourhood recently, asking for directions to the house?

The author, through his narrator, is quite open about having been influenced by many of the classic locked room mysteries of the Golden Age, giving special mention to The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux and the works of John Dickson Carr, an accepted master of this form of mystery. I haven’t read a lot of Carr, but for my money Leroux has clearly been the main influence on the plot and style of this one.

As so often happens with locked room mysteries, I felt that characterisation and motive came in as poor seconds to the intricacy of the way in which the murder was contrived. That’s not to say that the plot is weak – in fact, the reason for the murder is interesting and based firmly in the mores of the society at that time, and indeed it depends strongly on an understanding of the character of the murderer. But I felt these were presented too much as a given, rather than the reader learning about them for herself by observing the characters interact. Without getting into spoiler territory, so forgive vagueness, I also felt that one of the other characters’ behaviour was stretched well beyond the limits of credibility purely because s/he had to act in the way s/he does to make the murder method work. However, as I said, this is a common occurrence in locked room mysteries, and no worse in this one than in many others – it’s just not a sub-genre I’m particularly fond of.

The translation by Louise Heal Kawai is mostly very good, flowing and readable without any feeling of clunkiness. However the translator has chose to leave too many Japanese terms for my taste – I can see that this keeps the Japanese flavour better, but often I simply didn’t know what was being described and nor did my built-in Kindle dictionary. Sometimes, she would explain a word on its first appearance, but not always, and even when she did it meant I frequently had to search back to remind myself. This is a subjective criticism, though, and it certainly wasn’t a big enough problem to seriously affect either my understanding or enjoyment of the book.

The all-important murder method is extremely convoluted, and rather depends on a fortuitous fall of snow at exactly the right moment, which felt a little bit like cheating. However, in general the plot is fair play – the clues are all given, although this poor reader missed nearly every one!

Overall, then, I enjoyed this short novel with a few reservations, and I’m sure it will appeal even more to real aficionados of the locked room mystery who might be more interested in the method than the characterisation. And it did make me go to youtube to find out what a koto looks and sounds like…

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

Book 8 of 20

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Maigret and the Ghost (Maigret 62) by Georges Simenon

The art of crime…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Having returned home late after grinding a confession out of a young lad, Maigret is wakened early to the news that a fellow police officer, Inspector Lognon, has been shot in Avenue Junot. He’s still hanging on to life, just, but hasn’t been able to talk yet, so Maigret has very little to go on, especially since the men at Lognon’s local station don’t know what he was working on. House-to-house inquiries soon reveal that recently Lognon has been spending his nights with a beautiful young woman in Avenue Junot. Somehow, though, Maigret can’t see him as a Lothario, and suspects there must have been another reason for these nocturnal adventures. The easy way to find out would be to ask the young woman – but she has disappeared…

I’ve only read a few Maigrets so far and have enjoyed them all to varying degrees. This one has leapt into the lead as my favourite so far, though I’m finding it hard to put my finger on exactly why it stood out above the others. I think I simply liked the plot and the motivation more than usual, since Simenon’s storytelling, settings and characterisation tend to be consistently good in my limited experience.

Maigret’s hunch soon proves to be correct that Lognon was investigating someone who lived on Avenue Junot. Lognon was known as a conscientious and good detective, but always unlucky. This meant he always missed out on the promotions he felt he deserved, and his unappealing wife was very ready to show her disappointment in him. Maigret realises that Lognon was working secretly on a case, hoping to break it all by himself and finally get recognition and the rewards of success. Instead, now he is lying in a hospital bed and his colleagues have no idea what crime he felt he had discovered. Maigret and his team will have to start from scratch, interviewing all the residents of the Avenue looking for suspicious or guilty behaviour. Soon Maigret will find himself deep in the sometimes rather murky world of art and art collectors.

Georges Simenon

It’s very short even for a Maigret, but packs a lot in. It’s a police procedural rather than a whodunit, in the sense that there’s no pool of suspects. Maigret soon hones in on Lognon’s target, but the question is: what crime did Lognon think had been committed, and why was he shot? The clues are given gradually and I, for once, had a pretty good idea of where the story was going, but that didn’t prevent my enjoyment of watching Maigret’s steady and relentless pursuit of the truth.

We also see quite a bit of Maigret’s wife in this one, and while she is treated rather as if she as intelligent pet rather than an equal, it’s nice to see how much Maigret loves her. And I must admit, the amount of alcohol that Maigret slurps down during every investigation always entertains me – even during interviews with suspects in the police station the booze flows freely. Makes me kinda wish I was French… 😉

Great stuff – a quick read, short enough to be devoured in one session if so inclined, and both interesting and entertaining. Highly recommended!

Book 6 of 20

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Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu

The politics of crime…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a petty criminal is brutally killed, at first no one pays too much attention. But it quickly turns out he was only the first victim – soon there have been several murders, all carried out the same way: a method which earns the killer the nickname Sword. All the victims have two things in common. They are all criminals, and they are all members of the Roma, a minority ethnic group in Romania. Soon the matter becomes political as long-unresolved racial tensions rise to the surface, leading to outbreaks of violence. This is the story of a new, fragile democracy and of the men who are trying to make it work, or to undermine it…

This is the first book translated by Marina Sofia, long-time blogging buddy and now one of the co-founders of a new venture into translated crime fiction – Corylus books. The translation is excellent, as I expected, knowing Marina Sofia’s skill with words and expertise in about a million languages! Romanian is her mother tongue and English is the language she currently uses in her life, work and writing, so she really is the perfect translator for the book. There’s no clunkiness, and either she or the author, or both, know when an international audience might need a little bit of extra guidance to understand something that may be obvious to Romanians. This meant that, although the story is quite complex, I never felt lost.

The book is a very original take on a crime novel, looking deeply into the politics of racially motivated crime and how it impacts on an already divided society. The first chapter shows us the first murder in fairly graphic detail and it seems as if it’s going to be the start of a more or less standard crime fiction. But almost immediately we are taken, not to the police investigation, but to the corridors of power, where a Presidential election is only a few months away and all the top politicians are jostling for position. Some of the characters are named, but others are simply known by their titles – the President, the Minister of the Interior, and so on. There’s a cast of thousands (slight exaggeration, perhaps) and a handy cast list at the end, although I quickly found I didn’t need it, because in a sense who the characters are doesn’t matter – it’s their role in the politics of the country that matters. By about halfway through some of them had developed distinctive personalities, but others were simply “journalists”, “Presidential advisers”, “political commentators”, etc.

You hate the sound of this now, don’t you? But honestly, it works! It’s not really about the people, or even the crimes – it’s a political thriller about how politicians in a corrupt society manoeuvre, how they manipulate the media and how in turn the media manipulates them. It’s about Romania trying to juggle the demands of all the demanding new European and American partners they have to deal with now they’ve left the Soviet sphere of influence. And it’s a coldly cynical look at how politicians might ruthlessly inflame the divisions in society to boost their own electoral chances.

The Roma are seen as a kind of underclass, marginalised and discriminated against by a society that has written them off as criminals. They are the target of the Romanian version of white supremacists, but even the mainstream parties would rather they just stayed silent and invisible or better yet, left Romania altogether. As more victims turn up, tensions between the Roma and the Romanians grow, eventually leading to a series of violent confrontations, each more serious than the last. For those in power, a difficult balance must be struck – plenty of Romanians see the Sword as some kind of avenging angel, while the equally unscrupulous political leaders of the Roma see it as a way to lever some recognition for themselves. For those who want to be in power, it’s an opportunity – how can they best use it to bring the government to its knees?

Bogdan Teodorescu

I suspect you’d have to be interested in the skulduggery of politics to enjoy this one, although it’s certainly not necessary to understand Romanian politics specifically. The thing that most stood out to me, in fact, was that no matter the country, the corruption and the character of those who seek political power are depressingly similar. It’s so well done – too believable to be comfortable. Seeing how the actions of one man can cause a chain reaction that escalates to a point where society itself is fracturing and in danger of imploding is frighteningly relevant, especially when the basis of the story is about the marginalisation and repression of an ethnic group – something we’re all struggling with in the West at the moment. I love political shenanigans, so I loved the book, and learned a lot about Romania’s recent history as a bonus. Great stuff – highly recommended!

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The Never Game (Colter Shaw 1) by Jeffery Deaver

74% successful…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Sophie Mulliner is missing and her frantic father has offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who can find her. Enter Colter Shaw, professional “rewardist” – a man who uses the tracking skills instilled in him in childhood by his survivalist father to hunt for missing people for the reward money. The case soon becomes more complicated when another person goes missing, then another. Colter, teaming up with local police detective LaDonna Standish, must try to find each victim while they’re still alive, while also attempting to work out who is behind it all and what they’re trying to achieve. Soon the investigation will take them deep into the gaming industry in Silicon Valley, full of eccentric designers and cut-throat competition, and the whole weirdness of people who spend more time in virtual worlds than the real one.

As well as the main plot, this first in a new series fills us in on Colter’s unusual upbringing and the mystery that still hangs over him from back then, which is clearly going to become a running story arc over future books. Colter’s father bought a huge wilderness property and called it the Compound, on which he brought up his three children to be able to survive anything nature or mankind could throw at them. Although Colter then went on to college and is perfectly comfortable in the outside world, his childhood has left him unwilling to settle in a routine job and too self-sufficient to work for someone else, so he travels around the country in his Winnebago, sometimes for pleasure, sometimes chasing down a missing person for the reward money. But he’s not a traditional loner – he has friends and people he works with professionally, and still regularly goes back to the Compound to visit his mother. His father taught him to make decisions based on probabilities, so when making any decisions he runs through the various options allocating each a percentage rating of success. These percentages appeared to me to be entirely arbitrary and so became increasingly pointless and annoying as the book went on. I do hope Deaver drops that in future books because otherwise Colter has all the makings of an excellent series protagonist.

Jeffery Deaver

It took me a while to get into this and it never really turned into a heart-pounding thriller for me, but I liked Colter and loved LaDonna (who unfortunately probably won’t appear in future books, since Colter doesn’t stay in the same place for long), and I found the background story about the world of gaming interesting (though I suspect it may drive real gamers crazy since Deaver explains everything at a really basic level for the novice). It is too long at 450 pages, and the divide between the actual plot and Colter’s back story slows the pace too much, especially in the early section. The plot has lots of interesting twists and turns, though these aren’t always executed as smoothly as I’d expect from an author with Deaver’s long experience. However, the writing is excellent for the style of the book – that is, it’s plainly and clearly written, third person, past tense, with a nice balance between characterisation and action, and I gradually found myself absorbed in it. I must admit I actually found the mystery relating to Colter’s past rather more interesting than the main plot in the end, and it would be it that would tempt me to read the next book.

So overall, a good start to what has the potential to be a great series – I’d say there’s about an 81% chance of that. I look forward to finding out.

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

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A Matter of Motive by Margot Kinberg

Look out for red herrings…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When businessman Ron Clemons suffers what seems to be a heart attack while driving to a meeting, rookie detective Patricia Stanley is sent to the scene with her partner Luke Enders. What seems to be a routine accident takes a more sinister turn when Ron loses his battle for life, and the doctors wonder why a fit, healthy man with no history of heart problems should have been so suddenly and severely struck down. Now that it looks like it may be a murder, Patricia is pleased when her boss, Sergeant Ian Grant, allows her and the equally inexperienced Luke to stay on the case, under Grant’s close supervision.

Ron Clemons seems an unlikely victim. A loved husband and father, he also seems to be admired and liked by the employees of his successful elite publicity firm. But when Patricia and Luke begin to dig down, they find that several people may have wanted rid of him. There’s been a long-running divide in the boardroom over the direction the company should take, and Ron seems to have been holding back some of the more ambitious board members. It’s also possible that there’s been some kind of fiddling in the accounts which he may have found about. But Patricia and Luke have to consider more personal issues too. Ron’s marriage may look contented enough, but who really knows what goes on behind closed doors, and when money comes into the question, the family members who will inherit must come under suspicion. There are plenty of suspects, but Patricia knows that they won’t solve the case until they can find the right motive…

I’ve been friends with Margot through our blogs for several years now, but as always I’ve tried hard not to let that affect my opinion or my review. I’m delighted to say I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

In contemporary crime I always prefer police procedurals to amateur detectives, who are great fun in vintage crime but always seem a bit contrived in modern settings. So while I enjoyed Kinberg’s last outing with her regular detective, academic Joel Williams, the set-up of this one is much more my kind of thing. It has all the assets of the older crime novel – a good-sized pool of suspects, lots of motives, clues sprinkled throughout for the attentive reader – with a nicely modern feel given to it by the appealing central character of Patricia. She’s a well-rounded character who shares her life happily with her partner Becky, but she’s still scarred by an earlier tragedy when her previous partner was murdered. This gives her character depth as we see how she’s been affected by this both personally and professionally, and the addition of her home life makes her very likeable.

It seems to me Kinberg’s writing has a different feel in this one, tighter and with a more distinctive style, and with an intriguing approach to cutting down on the repetitive dialogue which can often bog down police procedurals, especially during the interviewing of suspects, while avoiding the more abrupt approach some authors take of simply omitting all pleasantries, which never feels natural. I liked this a lot – I found I wasn’t having to apply my usual technique of skipping over the first few sentences of every conversation, but could still feel that the civilities were being observed.

Margot Kinberg

Although it’s told in the third person, past tense (hurrah!), Kinberg also allows us inside the minds of a couple of the characters – Patricia herself, and Rachel, the wife of the victim. Rachel’s thoughts are kept nicely ambiguous though, so that we feel we get to know her and sympathise with her loss, while at the same time she has to remain a suspect.

Gradually the suspect list grows shorter as Patricia and Luke find more evidence and can begin to eliminate people, but I wasn’t at all sure whodunit until the final reveal, and, in line with the title, while plenty of people had motives, the real one was cleverly handled. I found it pleasingly difficult to decide on what were clues and what were red herrings, and on looking back I think it could reasonably be called fair play.

Great stuff! All the charm of a proper classic mystery in an authentically modern setting. This is billed as a standalone, but I’d be delighted to see Patricia and Luke return some time, if by any chance the author is listening… 😉

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Serena by Ron Rash

Passionless…

😦 😦

When George Pemberton arrives home from Boston with his new wife, Serena, there waiting for him at the railway station are Rachel Harmon, pregnant with Pemberton’s child, and Rachel’s father, determined to have retribution for his daughter. But Pemberton has no sense of guilt or responsibility towards Rachel, and Serena makes it crystal clear that she’s even colder and crueller than her husband. As Pemberton and Serena ruthlessly continue to build up the fortune they are making out of the deforestation of North Carolina, Rachel must struggle to survive on next to nothing, and bring up her new son, Jacob, without a father. But that’s the least of her problems – things are going to get worse…

Having previously enjoyed Rash’s The Cove, I was really looking forward to this, and was delighted when several fellow bloggers and commenters decided to read it along with me. That makes me feel even worse about the fact that I thought it was pretty poor – no, let’s be brutally honest, I thought it was downright silly and rather tedious into the bargain. Pemberton and Serena are ridiculous characters, cold, cruel psychopaths who get away with murder again and again, despite the fact that everyone knows they’re doing it. We are expected to believe that nearly all law officers and authorities are corrupt and can be bought for a few hundred dollars – well, maybe. But apparently all businessmen and their wives are also willing to turn a blind eye to murder so long as there’s a profit in it. Yes, I hear you saying, that’s possible too. But, I reply, even when they know that the Pembertons repeatedly bump off their business partners? I know evil capitalists do anything for money, but go into partnership with people who have just murdered their last partners? I have my doubts…

The background plot is more interesting, showing the rapacious destruction of the natural resources of a still young America during the years of the Depression, contrasted against the attempts of some rich philanthropists to protect the land through the creation of National Parks. While those who want to protect the land get the most sympathy, Rash also shows how these philanthropists drove people off their holdings, depriving them of their sole means of scraping a living, in order to build wilderness playgrounds. Since these competing pressures are still very much part of today’s ethical and economic debate, I wished Rash would have concentrated his plot more on that aspect – it felt as if he set the table but didn’t get around to serving the meal.

The workers had plenty of potential to be interesting too, showing the hardships of life in the Depression even for those lucky enough to be in employment. With no legal rights and hordes of unemployed men willing to take their place, we see them unable to take any kind of stand against unscrupulously exploitative employers who show no concern for workers’ safety (although again, even in the Depression I don’t think I’d have stuck in a job under people who murdered their employees rather than simply sacking them like normal evil capitalists). Unfortunately I felt that Rash treated his lower class characters a bit like the rustics in Midsummer’s Night Dream – caricatured figures of fun, eliciting some sympathy from the reader, but mostly there to be laughed at. It took me well over half the book to be able to distinguish one from another because they were so underdeveloped, a problem I had, in fact, with the various businessmen the Pembertons moved amongst too.

Rachel’s story is the one bit that I felt really works. Her hard life and her love for her son and for this land she calls home ring true and provide the only real emotion in the book, and some of the best writing. I’d have liked to have spent more time with her, but the chapters about her are few and far between.

After Widow Jenkins left, Rachel lingered a few more moments on the porch. The sun had fallen behind the mountains now, and the cove seemed to settle deeper into the earth, the way an animal might burrow into leaves to make a nest before it slept. All the while, the thickening shadows made the mountains appear to fold inward. Rachel tried to imagine what living here had been like for her mother, but it was impossible, because what had felt like being shut in to her mother felt like a sheltering to Rachel, as if the mountains were huge hands, hard but gentle hands that cupped around you, protecting and comforting, the way she imagined God’s hands would be. She supposed Widow Jenkins was right, that you had to be born here.

As far as the awful Pembertons go, I suspect Rash was attempting to ‘do’ noir – quite early on I found myself comparing them to the equally psychopathic couple in The Postman Always Rings Twice. This comparison did Rash no favours, however, since it highlighted what I came to think is the real failure of the book, and the reason that it simply doesn’t work. Noir depends on simmering sexuality, hence the femme fatale, but there is no feeling of passion between Pemberton and Serena and she is colder than ice. While I’m not one for excessive sex scenes in books, this book was crying out for a few. Why did these two love each other? It wasn’t shared intellectual pursuits, for sure, and ambition for and love of money isn’t enough, especially since neither character seemed to care about the luxury that wealth can bring, or even its power. So it must have been physical passion and yet Rash was so coy about showing us that it didn’t seem a strong enough motivation. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, the protagonists are overwhelmed by lust, frequently indulging in rough sex, full of mashed lips, bruises and bloody biting – it might be disgusting, but it’s passionate! Here Pemberton and Serena take off their clothes and fold them away neatly in the chifforobe before getting cosily into bed together – not quite the same somehow. Freezing cold where there should have been scorching heat…

Without getting into spoilers, I will simply say that the only thing sillier than the book’s climax was the coda which followed. I laughed, and I’m quite certain that wasn’t the reaction I was supposed to have. A major disappointment – I can only hope anyone else who’s been reading along enjoyed it considerably more than I.

A link to Kelly’s review is below and I’ll add any others as I see them:

Kelly’s review

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Castle Skull by John Dickson Carr

Gothic mystery on the Rhine…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Rich financier Jérôme D’Aunay begs Inspector Henri Bencolin to investigate the death of his friend, Myron Alison. Alison died in Castle Skull, last seen running ablaze about the battlements. When his body is examined it transpires he had been shot before having kerosene poured over him and being set alight. Castle Skull belonged to the famous stage magician Maleger, whose own death many years earlier was somewhat mysterious – he disappeared from the carriage of a train in motion and was found in a river below the tracks. Did he fall or was he pushed? Or did he jump? He bequeathed the spooky Castle Skull jointly to his friends, D’Aunay and the actor Myron Alison and it has been empty except for an old caretaker ever since. Situated on the other side of the Rhine from Alison’s own house, the castle is built in the shape of a death’s-head gazing out over the river, windows placed to look like eyes, and the battlements resembling the teeth of the skull. But why was Alison there, and who killed him? D’Aunay doesn’t have faith in the local police, hence his request to the famous Parisian detective. But the local police have also called in an expert – von Arnheim of the German police, an old adversary of Bencolin’s when they were on opposite sides during the war…

The story is told by Jeff Marle, Bencolin’s young American friend who acts as his sidekick. When they arrive at Alison’s house, they find an assorted bunch of people in residence – Alison’s hearty poker-playing sister Agatha, concert violinist Émile Levasseur, modern youngsters Sally Reine and Sir Marshall Dunstan who may or may not be in love, and D’Aunay and his beautiful but unhappy wife Isobel. Bencolin and von Arnheim are soon in more or less friendly competition to find the solution to the mystery, but there’s never any doubt in Jeff’s or the reader’s mind as to who will win out in the end. After all, it’s 1931 and we couldn’t have the German win, now could we?

This is the third book in the Bencolin and Marle series, written when Carr was a young man still learning his craft. Like the first, It Walks by Night, this is as much horror as mystery, although the decadence of It Walks by Night has given way to a rather more Gothic feel in this one. There is the same almost hallucinatory air to some passages, brought on by the constant consumption of vast quantities of alcohol – there’s almost a “lost generation” feel, especially to the younger characters: Sally, Dunstan and Jeff himself. Bencolin is frequently described as Mephistophelian, both in his appearance and in his almost supernatural ability to intuit the truth. Maleger’s magic was of the scary kind – Jeff saw him once when he was a boy and found his act terrifying – and it appears he liked to be just as mysterious and frightening off-stage. And the castle itself is the ultimate in Gothic – ancient, deserted, filled with hidden passages and secret chambers, and deliciously spooky.

John Dickson Carr

The plot veers into high melodrama – perhaps a little too high. I felt at points that Carr was trying too hard, piling horror on grisly horror, with a Poe-esque feel of madness underlying the whole thing. However, it’s very effective and the evil motivating the plot matches the wonderful setting of the castle perfectly, as it gradually builds towards a tense and atmospheric climax with some truly horrifying imagery. Jeff is an appealing narrator who gets involved with the characters rather than simply observing Bencolin’s methods. I didn’t get anywhere close to working it out – looking back perhaps it’s fair play, but I reckon you’d have to have a pretty fiendish mind to solve it from the clues given. Fortunately, Bencolin has just such a fiendish mind…

Marginally, I preferred It Walks by Night, but both are excellent, and in both the horror aspects arise out of purely human evil – no supernatural elements required. I don’t know whether Carr continued with the horror theme in his later work or went down a more traditional mystery route, but the strength of his writing and plotting suggests to me that he could have done either with equal success. I’m looking forward to finding out…

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

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The Mugger (87th Precinct 2) by Ed McBain

Second book syndrome…

🙂 🙂 🙂

The detectives of the 87th Precinct are trying to catch a man who is mugging women in the streets of Isola, a district of the city that is clearly a fictionalised version of New York in which the series is set. The man is becoming more violent, often hitting the women even after he has stolen their valuables, and has the strange habit of finishing his assault by bowing and saying “Clifford thanks you, madam.” So far the detectives have little to go on, and the pressure ramps up when one girl, assumed to be Clifford’s latest victim, is found dead.

Having loved the first book in the series, Cop Hater, when I read it a couple of years ago, my expectations of this one were high. It is very readable, but suffers a bit from second book syndrome – McBain seems to be working out what to do with the characters he introduced us to in book 1, and there are so many detectives flitting in and out that it’s quite hard to keep track of who’s who. McBain’s plan was to have the series work as a kind of ensemble, with different detectives coming in and out of the spotlight in each story, and from my memory of reading several of the books long ago, he does succeed in this to a degree. But eventually he succumbed and made Steve Carella the recurring lead – the detective who was the main character in Cop Hater. Carella isn’t in this one, being off on his honeymoon, and his lack is felt.

As the story progresses, Patrolman Bert Kling comes to the fore. He was friends long ago with the brother-in-law of the dead girl, and the girl’s sister asks him to look into her murder. Although this is not the job of a patrolman, Bert feels obliged by friendship to try at least, and he also hopes that it might help him in his ambition to be promoted to detective.

The major problem with the story is that the solution is screamingly obvious. Maybe it wouldn’t have been back then – it’s always a problem to know with older books whether this was perhaps the first time a writer took a plot in this direction, but I fear it’s a plot we’ve all read too often now. My secondary problem was with the amount of violence in the book and its lack of credibility. My dad, who was a boxer, always used to scoff at Hollywood cowboy films where a man would be punched repeatedly in the face, hit over the head with a chair, be thrown over a bar and crash head-first into a wall lined with glasses and then get up, jump on his horse and gallop off after the bad guys, stopping only to kiss the heroine on his way out. While there are no horses nor indeed chairs in this book, the effect of the excessive violence and the characters’ reaction to it had the same effect on me. McBain seems to be using violence and police corruption to give the book its noir tone, whereas in Cop Hater he relied much more on creating an edgy atmosphere through great descriptions of the city.

So one for fans, but not one I would suggest as an introduction to the series for newcomers. The series ran for approximately ten thousand books – well, OK, over fifty – so there are plenty of others to choose from.

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The Listening Walls by Margaret Millar

The mystery of the missing wife…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amy Kellogg and her friend Wilma are on holiday in Mexico City but it’s turning out to be a fraught time. Wilma, always moody and overbearing, is behaving even worse than usual following her second divorce. She’s drinking to excess and arguing with Amy on the slightest provocation. Then, following a drinking session, Wilma dies in a fall from the hotel balcony. Her depressed and emotional state leads the authorities to rule it as a suicide. Amy’s husband, Rupert, rushes to his shocked wife’s side, but when he returns home to San Francisco a week later, he returns alone. Amy, he tells her family, needed time to herself and has gone off to New York. But Amy’s brother Gill doesn’t believe his adored little sister would have gone off without telling him herself, and as time passes with no word from her, his suspicions grow…

Well, this is a little gem! Told in the third person, Millar lets us glimpse inside the heads of all the characters in turn but only giving us enough to tantalise our suspicions. We know that Rupert isn’t telling all he knows but we don’t know what he’s hiding. Is he a wife murderer as Gill suspects? If so, why would he have killed the woman he apparently loved? Gill suspects the age-old story of another woman and has his suspicions of who that woman might be. But if Rupert hasn’t killed her, where is Amy? It’s entirely out of character for her to have gone off on her own, this woman who has always seemed so dependant on others and so meekly subservient to the stronger characters she is surrounded by – her brother, her husband, Wilma. Increasingly desperate, Gill turns to a private detective, Elmer Dodd, and we follow him as he tries to find the truth.

The plotting is great, full of little twists that kept me puzzling over what had happened until the very last page. It’s more of a psychological mystery than a whodunit – the clues are all in the personalities and the things they do that seem out of character. The characterisation is brilliant – done with a light touch but no less astute for that. There’s Rupert’s secretary, nursing a crush for Rupert so secret she’s not even fully aware of it herself. Gill’s wife, long tired of Gill’s almost obsessively over-protective love for his little sister, is trying hard not to be glad that Amy has gone and is fighting against her instinctive hope that she never returns. The maid in the hotel in Mexico, she who listens through the walls of the title, might be a little stereotyped, but her greed and petty criminality are believable, her contempt for the rich Americans who stay in the hotel adds a good deal of humour, and her superstitions are used to give an air of real unease to some parts of the story. Elmer Dodd is excellent too. He’s a man who wants to know the truth but he’s not ruthless about it. He has sympathy for the weaknesses of human nature, and has a kind of warmth that makes people trust him.

Margaret Millar

This was my introduction to Margaret Millar after having seen her praised by various vintage crime fans around the blogosphere, and I’m very glad to have met her. A darkly twisted story, tightly plotted and lifted by some affectionately humorous character portraits and observations of society, not a word is wasted as Millar leads the reader through a labyrinth of suspicion and doubt. Great fun, and highly recommended – another author to add to my growing list of vintage crime favourites!

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

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It Walks By Night by John Dickson Carr

Deliciously decadent…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Young Jeff Marle has been summoned to Paris by an old friend of his father: the legendary detective Henri Bencolin, director of the Paris police. Bencolin has a peculiar case on his hands and feels Jeff may be interested in observing his methods. So Jeff becomes our “Watson”, and it’s through his eyes that we see the great detective at work. The case involves a madman – perhaps these days we would say psychopath – Alexandre Laurent, who was locked up after trying to kill his young and beautiful wife, Louise. That wife, her first marriage annulled, is now about to get married again, to the famous all-round sporting legend, Raoul de Saligny. But Laurent has escaped and rumour has it that he may have visited a plastic surgeon to change his appearance. He has sent a letter warning Raoul not to marry Louise and Bencolin fears that he will turn up in Paris, bent on killing Raoul and possibly Louise too. On the night of their wedding day, Raoul, Louise and the wedding party go to a fashionable gambling house, and Bencolin has his men there in force to guard them. But Laurent has the true cunning intelligence of the madman…

This is Carr’s first mystery novel, and my first introduction to his work. I thought it was totally marvellous! There are a couple of plots weaknesses, some moments where you have to take a deep breath and just let your suspension of disbelief have full rein, and it occasionally goes over the top into high melodrama. But the writing is great, and Carr creates a wonderfully creepy, almost hallucinatory atmosphere of horror and tension. In fact, it seemed to me draw as much, if not more, on the tradition of the Decadent horror writing of the fin de siècle period as on the mystery conventions of the Golden Age.

Published in 1930 and set in Paris, it offers a darker take on the “lost generation” of that time – of those living after one devastating war and seeing the approaching inevitability of another on the horizon. There is a great sense of amorality, of sensuous egoism, of a kind of cruelty of empty friendships and brutal infidelities. Drugs and drink play their part in the glittering hopelessness of the characters’ lives, and even in Jeff’s observations. One scene, where he has dinner with a young woman caught up in the case, is a masterpiece of fear heightened by the befuddling effects of alcohol – Poe-like in its creation of an atmosphere of impending horror. Grand Guignol was in my mind for much of it, since there’s no holding back in the gruesome bloodiness of the crimes, nor the pointless cruelty of them.

John Dickson Carr

As a mystery, I do think it’s just about fair play, although one has to be willing to let one’s imagination run riot a bit. There’s a locked room aspect to it, and as usual I failed to get that at all and frankly felt the solution to that part of the mystery was a bit too contrived. But in terms of the whodunit aspects – in this case, the who-is-Laurent aspect – I spotted several of the clues without realising that that’s what they were; in fact, I had sort of thought they were accidental inconsistencies rather than clues until all was explained at the end. But when the solution comes it’s wonderfully twisted, carrying the atmosphere of decadent horror right through to the end.

I’m aware that part of the reason I loved it so much is because of the horror aspects and that this may not appeal to all Golden Age mystery fans as much as it does to me. But the mystery aspect is good too and while Bencolin can be a bit too full of himself, as many of the great detectives are, Jeff is a wonderfully original creation as Watsons go, becoming deeply involved not just in the investigation but in the characters’ lives and the playing out of the plot. Wonderful stuff, and I can’t wait now to read more Carr – no wonder he’s considered one of the greats.

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

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The Curious Mr Tarrant by C. Daly King

A mystery to me…

😐 😐

A collection of eight mysteries starring the mysterious Trevis Tarrant, ably assisted by his manservant, Katoh, who is actually a Japanese spy.

I must admit that sometimes the most baffling mystery to me is why a book has been included in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, and this is one of those cases. Edwards says: The Curious Mr Tarrant is one of the most renowned collection of stories focusing primarily on impossible crimes.” It appears the stories were admired by Ellery Queen and Dorothy L Sayers, amongst others, so clearly they saw more in King than I. Apparently he never achieved popular success in his native America, though, and had difficulty finding publishers there. I’m kinda with the Americans on this one, and think it’s unfortunate this has been chosen to fill one of only four slots in the Across the Atlantic section.

It actually starts off pretty well. I gave a couple of the early stories 5 stars and another 4. But the rest ranged from mediocre to dire, getting progressively worse as they went along. The final story slumped all the way to one star.

Tarrant is an amateur detective, but his interest is purely in the bizarre. He investigates for the intellectual thrill, and has no particular interest in achieving justice. In the early stories the narrator is Jerry Phelan, a young man about town who meets Tarrant during the first case in the collection, The Episode of the Codex Curse. Jerry and the girl he loves, Valerie, are quite fun, as is Jerry’s sister, Mary – all three of them have a Wodehouse-ish vibe. They gradually play smaller and smaller roles and eventually all but disappear, and the later stories badly miss the element of humour they bring to the earlier ones. Tarrant himself is one of these annoying geniuses with a remarkable gift for working out what seems unfathomable to the mere mortals around him. I liked him well enough at the beginning but tired of him quite quickly. And the last few stories introduce a strange kind of supernatural or mystical element, which is too nonsensical to be taken seriously, but not nonsensical enough to be amusing.

Challenge details:
Book: 92
Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic
Publication Year: 1935

When reviewing a collection, I usually highlight a few of my favourite stories. Here I’m afraid there are only two that I really enjoyed, although, in fairness, both of them are very good:

The Episode of the Tangible Illusion – Valerie is refusing to marry Jerry because she thinks she’s going mad. She hears footsteps in her house when no-one is there, and sees strange images in her room at night. Jerry, having met Tarrant in a previous case and admiring his talent for explaining the inexplicable, asks him to investigate. This is the second story in the book and is very well told, with a great mix of humour, spookiness and a lovely little romance. The solution is ingenious and the detective element is stronger than in most of the other stories.

The Episode of “Torment IV” – Torment IV is the name of a small yacht, and the story is based on the idea of the Mary Celeste. One day the yacht is found abandoned, and it transpires that the family who were on it all drowned. Tarrant investigates what happened to drive them all into the sea, given that the sea had been calm and nothing seems to be amiss on the boat. This is as much horror as detection and it has a great element of suspense. Although the solution is actually a bit silly, the ending is quite effectively scary.

C Daly King

And that’s it. There’s another one, The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem – a traditional locked room mystery – which seems to be highly thought of. I fear I found it dull. The characterisation is non-existent and the whole thing hinges purely on the technical details of how the deed was done.

Overall, I couldn’t recommend this collection, although the couple of stories I’ve highlighted are worth reading should you ever happen across them. A disappointment.

(The Kindle version I’m linking to has an extra four stories that King wrote later which weren’t originally included in the collection. I’m afraid I couldn’t get up enough enthusiasm to read them.)

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In the Heat of the Night by John Ball

“They call me Mr Tibbs.”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When night patrolman Sam Wood finds a dead man in the street, it’s quickly apparent the man has been murdered. It also transpires he’s a prominent person – Maestro Enrico Mantoli, a famous conductor who was organising a music festival in the town. The new police chief, Bill Gillespie, has never run a murder investigation before. In fact, he hasn’t much experiencing of policing at all – he was mainly hired because of his intimidating air of authority and his willingness to uphold this Alabama town’s resistance to change in the face of the Civil Rights movement. He orders Sam to check around for anyone who looks like he might be trying to leave town. When Sam comes across a black man sitting quietly in the Colored waiting room of the train station and discovers he has a sizeable amount of cash in his wallet, it seems the case is closed. Until the black man reveals his identity to Gillespie – Virgil Tibbs, a homicide investigator with the Pasadena police, who’s passing through Wells on his way back north after visiting his mother…

I seem to have spent a lot of time recently reading about the American South around the time of the Civil Rights movement. This book is fundamentally a crime novel with a very good plot and some excellent detection elements. But it’s far more than that – it paints an entirely believable picture of being a black man in a town that’s run by the whites for the whites at a time when segregation and racism were still entirely acceptable. It also takes us into the minds of the white people, though, showing how they are the product of their conditioning, and how they react when they are forced to reassess the things they take for granted about their own racial superiority.

(I do have one niggling reservation, about me rather than the book. It was written by a white man showing the perspective of a black man in the American South, and I am a white Scotswoman, so although it rings wholly true to me, I can’t help feeling I’m not the best person to judge the portrayals of either race in that place and time. That said, on with the review!)

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in the 1967 film of the book

Gillespie is prevailed upon by his superiors to bring Tibbs in on the investigation. He has mixed feelings about it – on the one hand, he doesn’t want to be shown up by a despised black man; on the other hand, if the case isn’t solved, then he can blame Tibbs. Sam Wood ends up as a sort of unofficial partner to Tibbs, and although he’s a much nicer man than Gillespie, he too has to fight his repugnance to treating a black man as in any way equal. There are all sorts of subtle nuances that show how pervasive racism is in this society, like the white people all calling Tibbs Virgil, while he is supposed to refer to them by their title and surname, or like Sam’s unease at Tibbs sitting in the front seat of their car.

Book 46 of 90

In fact, Tibbs is the one who is most at ease with himself and with the situation. He grew up in the South, knows the rules and conforms to them, never arguing about being forced to use the Colored washroom or not being allowed to eat in the diner, nor openly objecting to the overt racist language directed at him. But he’s worked in California, a place where racism still exists for sure, but not in this formalised, legally endorsed way. While the white men think they’re superior to Tibbs because of their race, Tibbs is well aware of his own superiority in training and experience. But he’s human enough to need to prove it, so he’s driven to stay and solve the case rather than taking the easy option of simply getting on the next train out of town.

John Ball

The plot itself is very good, and the investigation takes us through all the levels in this society from rich to poor, from the cultural leaders involved in setting up the music festival, to the political class, increasingly divided between the socially conservative and the more liberal elements, to the poor people trying to scratch a living in a town that has lost its biggest employer and is struggling to find a new purpose.

But it’s undoubtedly the characterisation that makes this one special. Tibbs himself is likeable, a hero it’s easy to root for. Woods and Gillespie are more complex and they each grow and learn over the course of the investigation, about police-work but also about themselves. It avoids a saccharine wholesale conversion to woolly brotherhood-of-man liberalism on their parts, but gives hope that people and society can change, given patience and the right circumstances.

An excellent book that deserves its status as a classic of the genre – well written and plotted, and insightful about race and class at a moment of change. Highly recommended.

Book 6 of 20

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Twisted by Steve Cavanagh

The clue’s in the title…

😀 😀 😀 😀

JT LeBeau is a hugely successful author who specialises in the twist. He, or could it be she, hides his or her identity from the world, and this mystique of course only adds to the hype around her or his books. She, or is it he, will do anything to keep his or her secret…

OK, every review I’ve read of this has started in basically the same way and now I’m adding to it – this is one that’s impossible to say much about without giving away too much, so this review will be short and not very informative!

It’s all in the title – this is a book full of twists about an author who writes books full of twists. It’s clever and amusing and a bit self-referential, in that it’s lightly mocking what it itself is. Cavanagh has fun with the twists and plays with the idea of authors using secret identities, not shying away from referencing the likes of JK Rowling, aka Robert Galbraith.

It’s very well written and the plot holds together pretty well despite the twists. However, it’s light on characterisation – it has to be really, so we can continually be surprised. This makes it a light read despite some dark moments. There’s no feeling of depth, nor does the reader get the opportunity to care much about the characters. The only one I built up any kind of feeling for was the local Sheriff who was investigating the… oh, sorry, can’t tell you what he was investigating. And not surprisingly, as twist piles on twist, credibility is the chief victim.

Steve Cavanagh

One minor irritation is that Cavanagh, clearly feeling that constant repetition of he/she, her/his, etc., would be irritating, chooses to use they/their instead – grammatically tooth-drilling to my pedantic soul. We really need to create a gender-neutral word. So, since the fault lies with the inadequacy of our language, I bit the bullet and forgave the author. Just.

Overall, I found it a fast-paced page-turner that kept me amused while reading, and will almost instantly be forgotten. That’s fine, though – sometimes entertainment is all that’s wanted, and this delivers well on that score. Recommended as a well written bit of fun.

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

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Death of a Red Heroine (Inspector Chen 1) by Qiu Xiaolong

Murder in Shanghai…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When the body of a young woman is found in a canal, Inspector Chen of the Special Cases unit decides to take on the case, initially simply because his subordinate, Detective Yu, was the only detective available to attend the crime scene. But, once the body is identified – in itself no easy task in a country as huge and populous as China – it transpires the victim is Guan Hongying, a national model worker: a title that denotes membership of the Communist Party and a position as a figurehead and public role model for workers. So the case is indeed special, and Chen will have to try to find the murderer without revealing anything about Guan’s life that may tarnish her reputation or that of the Party.

Qiu Xiaolong is Chinese, but left the country following the Tiananmen Square protests, and now lives in America. He writes in English, and as well as being a novelist, he is a poet, a translator and a literary critic. All of these elements feed into this novel, making it an intriguing mix of insider/outsider writing. As an insider, his depiction of Shanghai and the lives of the people there in the 1990s is fascinating and detailed, describing food, clothing, customs and the rapidly changing face of Chinese life at a point where capitalism was beginning to be encouraged after years of strict communism, but where the state still had a stranglehold on every aspect of life. As an outsider, he is quite clearly writing for a Western audience, explaining things that would need no explanation for a Chinese readership, and one has to bear in mind that he is to some degree a dissident, and therefore by definition not an uncritical admirer of the political regime in force in China at that point in time.

However, I felt that he gave a surprisingly balanced picture of the regime, resisting the temptation to make it seem even more repressive than it actually was, and giving credit for some of the positive aspects of it. He also shows that many, perhaps most, people support the regime, even though they grumble about some of the difficulties and inequalities that exist within it. I thought it was a wise decision too to set the book back in 1990, just at the time that he left Shanghai for the West, so that the city he is describing is still the one he knew rather than a researched version of the present. It’s another advantage to the western reader that his faultless fluency in English means there is none of the clunkiness or occasional lack of clarity that often accompanies even the best of translations.

All this description makes the book longer than the average crime novel, but it’s so interesting and well done, and incorporated so well into the story, that I found it didn’t slow the pace to any significant degree. The underlying story is excellent, as Chen and Yu delve deep into Guan’s life, finding that she had her own secrets that didn’t fit the model image she presented to Party and public. The plot takes us deep into the culture of Party privilege, and casts a great deal of light on how the current society has developed and changed during the long years of upheaval that have marked the various stages of the Chinese revolution. But it’s also a human story, of a young woman trying to live her life in the harsh glare of publicity, of love and sex and abuse, of corruption and power.

Inspector Chen is the main character, and Qiu fleshes him out excellently, giving him Qiu’s own expertise in poetry, both Chinese and western. Chen is himself a poet, but unlike, for instance, PD James’ Adam Dalglish, he hasn’t chosen for himself an unlikely second role as policeman – Chen has been allocated his job by the Party and has no real option but to obey or to lose any hope of status and advancement, or perhaps even to mark himself out as a dissident with all the dangers that entails. Again, Qiu doesn’t overplay this aspect – Chen is embedded in the existing culture, and while he might chafe at the strict rules governing his life at some points, he largely accepts them and tries to work within them. Detective Yu is equally well drawn – lower down the social scale, he allows us to see another level of the hierarchy and the control of the Party extending into people’s lives. He’s married, and in the latter part of the book his wife comes to the fore, giving us a glimpse of the life of a traditional wife and mother, while Chen’s love interest is a modern young journalist, showing the changes that are taking place for women too at this time.

Qiu Xiaolong

The book is laced with quotations from classic Chinese poetry and surprisingly this works brilliantly at helping the western reader understand the cultural underpinnings of this society, and of reminding us, who are too ready to look down on any society that doesn’t slavishly follow the western democratic model (which is working out so well, isn’t it? 😉 ), that China has a rich cultural heritage far, far more ancient than our own.

I enjoyed this as a crime novel, but even more as a fascinating insider depiction of China at a turning point in its political journey, and as a revealing portrait of the lives of the people of Shanghai. I look forward to reading more in the series.

Thanks to Margot Kinberg for drawing the book to my attention – your blog is sorely missed, Margot!

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Murder in the Bookshop by Carolyn Wells

A messy romp…

🙂 🙂 🙂

When two men enter a locked bookshop through a window and one ends up dead, suspicion not unnaturally falls on the survivor. Philip Balfour was a fanatical book collector and his companion on his mysterious trip to the bookshop was the man he employed as his librarian, Keith Ramsay. The fact that Keith is also in love with Balfour’s wife, Alli, provides a nice motive. But Keith claims that a masked intruder came into the store, chloroformed Keith and by the time he came round Balfour was dead and the intruder had gone. The police are dubious but the owner of the bookstore (who seems remarkably unfazed by the idea of one of his best customers breaking into his shop) is sure that Keith could never have done such a thing, so he advises Alli to bring his friend, the private detective Fleming Stone, into the case.

There are all kinds of mysteries here apart from the murder. What were the two men doing in the shop? A valuable book is missing – coincidence? What was the bookseller’s assistant up to at the time that he’s not prepared to reveal to the police? Who is sending mysterious anonymous letters? Why are the police willing to let Fleming Stone keep hold of vital evidence? Why does Fleming Stone say on one page that there’s a large pool of suspects and then a few pages later that there are very few suspects?

I must admit I thought this was all a bit of a mess. The author contradicts herself from page to page as if she just dashed the words down and never went back to read it over. For example, at one point Stone decides not to tell Alli about accusations that have been made against her in an anonymous letter, then promptly ten minutes later hands her the letter and asks her what she thinks! That’s just one instance – I could have picked many, many more. It all adds to the confusion, but not quite in the way the author intended, I assume. I believe she was hugely prolific, often churning out three or even four books a year, so I guess that didn’t leave much time for editing.

However, apparently she was also very popular in her day and I can understand that too to an extent since, despite the messiness, there is still some fun in this because of the element of humour the author introduces from time to time. Her characterisation is far from being deep, but it’s often quite slyly wicked, giving a neat summation of a person in a few words. The first lines of the book will give an idea of what I mean…

Mr Philip Balfour was a good man. Also, he was good-looking, good-humoured and good to his wife. That is, when he had his own way, which was practically always.

Carolyn Wells

The investigation gets bogged down in repetition for a bit in the middle and drags, but both the beginning, when the murder takes place, and the end, when all is revealed, are better, and in retrospect, yes, I think there were enough clues there for the reader to have had a fair chance of spotting whodunit and why. I didn’t – I was too preoccupied spotting all the contradictions!

Overall, not one to be taken too seriously, but an enjoyable enough romp for those times when something a bit lighter suits your mood. And I assume that’s the secret of her appeal. However, I don’t think I’d be seeking out more of her work based on this example.

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

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The Lost Man by Jane Harper

Fighting the flab…

😀 😀 😀

In the scorching heat of the Australian Outback, two brothers meet at the site of an old grave, where a man lies dead – their brother, Cameron. He is far from his vehicle and without water or anything to shade him from the broiling sun. But how did he get there? Is this some dreadful form of suicide or is there some more sinister reason for his death? Nathan, the brother closest to him in age but who has been rather detached from the family for some years, starts asking questions and soon begins to uncover tensions and secrets that make him reassess those closest to him…

This starts off with a brilliant first chapter that is creepy and horrific, though not in a gruesome way, and immediately places the reader in this vast isolated cattle-ranching country on the edge of the desert, where one mistake can mean death to the unwary, from heatstroke, dehydration or snakes. Then Harper gradually introduces us to the various family members and slowly fills in each person’s past so that we begin to understand the undercurrents that run underneath the outwardly united front the family presents to the world.

Nathan’s son Xander is visiting for Christmas. His home is with his mother in the city, so he provides another outsider view of the family, and an interesting perspective on the differences in lifestyle between these isolated ranchers and the urbanites. Bub, the youngest of the three brothers, has a chip on his shoulder about his brothers always seeming to be the ones in charge. The sons’ mother, Liz, has had a hard struggle to hold her family together despite her (long-dead) husband’s brutality and cruelty. Harry has worked on the property for so long he’s viewed as part of the family. And although he has fought against it, Nathan has always been strongly attracted to Cameron’s wife, Ilse. Throw in a couple of backpackers doing temporary jobs on the property, Cameron’s two daughters, and the folk from the tiny little local town, and there’s plenty of room for resentments and rumours, lies and secrets, to have built up in the claustrophobia of this small community.

Harper is great at creating settings, using some of the extreme conditions and environments to be found in the vastness of Australia as her backdrop, and showing how the fight to survive in harsh inhospitable conditions takes a toll on her characters, physically and mentally. Here she sets the book at the hottest time of the year, when the danger is at its greatest for anyone who doesn’t obey the rules of survival that all inhabitants are taught from childhood. If accurate, and I assume it is, it sounds quite literally like hell on earth (to my cold-seeking Northern soul, at least) and I couldn’t help wondering why on earth anyone would choose to live there. It’s not just the heat, though – Harper shows the isolation and loneliness that comes with living on huge ranches, some as large as small European nations, and suggests, again I assume with good reason, that suicide is another of the hazards of life there.

The plot is interesting, but the story comes to light only gradually, so I won’t risk spoilers by saying more about it. The weakness of the book is that it’s too gradual – it comes in at just under 400 pages and could easily have lost 100 pages or more and been a better, tighter book. After a great start, there are large parts where nothing seems to happen for ridiculously long periods of time – pages filled with mundane and repetitive dialogue and descriptions of the effects of heat that didn’t move things along at all. I considered abandoning it more than once, and skimmed many pages in the mid-section. However, it picks up again in the last quarter so in the end I was glad I stuck with it. I do wish authors (and editors) would work harder to tighten up their middles – there’s a bookish obesity epidemic out there! Especially in crime fiction.

Jane Harper

In summary, then, there’s an excellent book in here struggling to get out from under the flab. The interesting plot, good characterisation and great sense of place make it worth reading but it’s badly let down by being far too long for the story it contains. I think Harper is a talented writer (which is why I’m so grouchy!), so will be looking forward to her next novel, with my fingers crossed that she can learn when she’s done enough to set the atmosphere and get on with telling the story.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group.

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The Plotters by Un-Su Kim

Strangely satisfying…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

In modern, democratic South Korea, governments can no longer get rid of political enemies as easily as they did under the military dictatorship, but fortunately there’s a whole hierarchy of assassins willing to do it for them, for a price. Not to be left out, the world of big business finds this a convenient way to rid itself of competitors too. So, up until recently, there’s been plenty of work for our lead assassin, Reseng, and his employer, Old Raccoon. But now there are new kids on the block, using modern business methods to attract all the customers. Things are about to go very wrong…

I doubt there’s anybody in the world who knows less about South Korea than me, so I can only hope this book doesn’t give an entirely realistic picture of life there, especially given it’s the bit of Korea we’re all supposed to like! Part satire and part surreal, this is one of the oddest books I’ve read in a while, and one of the most violent, but the quality of the writing and storytelling kept me totally intrigued and absorbed. It reminded me a little of Haruki Murakami, in that the world seems almost real but a little off-kilter – not quite the world we live in but close. However, unlike Murakami, there’s no overt fantasy or supernatural element to it. It’s told in the third person (past tense), but exclusively from Reseng’s point of view, so everything we see is filtered through his clearly abnormal outlook.

Reseng was taken in as a child by Old Raccoon to live in the library which provides cover for the real business of assassins for hire. With no formal education, he has picked up everything he knows from the books on the library shelves, so is full of little snippets of information but has no grounding in normal life. Brought up to be an assassin, he sometimes wishes he could do something else but when it comes to the bit, he acts without remorse, though occasionally with a passing pity for his victims. Oddly, he feels like a rather sympathetic character despite this, with just enough ambiguity about his morality to keep the reader more or less on his side. He seems to be a symptom of the problems in this society rather than the cause.

Basically, this is a tale of turf wars among the assassins, and we are restricted to their small subset of society. When Reseng carries out a contract, he doesn’t know the reason the victim is to be killed or who wants the job done. The plotters are the middlemen – someone who wants a person killed hires a plotter, who plans the details and then in turn hires an assassin to carry it out. Assassins are expendable and have a short life-expectancy, and they all accept this. But when assassins begin to be killed by competitors, this seems to go against the code and things get personal. Plus assassins aren’t quite so easy to kill as ordinary victims. And then things get more complicated when Reseng becomes the target of a woman who seems to have an agenda of her own…

Un-Su Kim

The satire element seems to be saying that the major difference between the old dictatorship and the new democracy is merely the need to do the same old dirty deeds secretly rather than openly. It also pokes a little fun at modern business methods creeping into a profession that is as old as time. There’s a surprising amount of humour in it, and the violence, while frequent and extreme, is largely kept this side of graphic and has an almost cartoonish quality to it, or maybe a stylised feel like the violence in a Tarantino film. And Reseng’s naivety about the world beyond the business has an unexpectedly endearing quality – I found myself hoping for some kind of redemption for him.

The translator, Sora Kim-Russell, deserves special mention – the translation is smooth and seamless, never jarring, and allows the excellence of the writing to come through. I could easily have forgotten it was a translation, which is the best praise any translator can earn.

I’m not sure if I’ve made this sound as appealing as it deserves. I found it compulsively readable and, despite the apparent bleakness of the subject matter, full of humour and emotional warmth. I highly recommend it as something different from the usual run of things – well written, well plotted and ultimately strangely satisfying.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, 4th Estate.

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