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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A Month in the Country by JL Carr

A pastoral…

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Tom Birkin is still suffering the after-effects of shell-shock as a result of his experiences at Passchendaele. His personal life also in disarray, he gladly accepts a commission that will take him out of London for the summer, to the village of Oxgodsby in Yorkshire, where a recently deceased parishioner has left a bequest to the local church, contingent on the uncovering of a wall painting she believed was concealed beneath centuries of whitewashing. The same parishioner has also requested that a search be made for the burial site of a long dead ancestor, excommunicated and therefore denied burial in the churchyard. Archaeologist Charles Moon, another survivor of the war, will become Birkin’s first friend as they both immerse themselves in the past and present of the village.

A pastoral, this is a beautifully written novella full of descriptions of the countryside at the last point of the horse age, before farming became an industry like any other. Birkin is badly damaged by his wartime experiences, not physically, but mentally, and he will find a kind of healing as the long summer passes and he reconnects with the long-distant past as he slowly reveals the work of the artist who, in medieval times, painted the Last Judgement on the wall of the church.

As he works, he also comes to know some of the villagers. The Ellerbecks take him under their wing, with Mrs Ellerbeck making sure he is well fed and the young daughter of the family, Kathy, keeping him organised and ordering him around, showing herself already a mini version of the backbone of community life she will undoubtedly grow up to be. Mr Ellerbeck preaches at the Wesleyan chapel, and out of a sense of gratitude for their hospitality, Birkin becomes involved in the chapel community although he is a non-believer, perhaps because of the scenes of horror he witnessed in the war.

JL Carr

Rev. J.G. Keach, the minister of the church in which Birkin is working, feels the uncovering of the wall painting is a nuisance – a waste of time and money, tolerated solely to satisfy the requirements of his late parishioner’s will. His wife is young and beautiful, and Birkin gradually comes to fall in love with her, but in a romantic rather than a passionate sense, almost as an obligatory part of a summer idyll.

I enjoyed this, especially the writing and the slow uncovering of the wall painting, and all the seemingly knowledgeable information Carr provides about medieval church art. However, I found it rather slight overall, like a pretty piece of pastoral music, pleasant but not soul-stirring. It is written from Birkin’s perspective, looking back as an old man to a golden summer of his youth, an interlude between the horrors of war and the resumption of his real life; a brief period of suspended time given to him to heal his mind and perhaps his soul. And for the reader, it also provides a pleasurable escape for an hour or two, to a simpler time when the sun always shone and people were intrinsically good. Did that time ever exist? Perhaps it only seems that way when enough years have passed for harsh reality to have been hidden beneath several layers of whitewash.

Book 20 of 20

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Sula by Toni Morrison

Who needs enemies?

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Well, I might as well be up front – if this book has a point, it sailed straight over my head. Two girls grow up, lots of people kill other people and themselves, everyone has sex all the time with anyone who happens to be passing. And in the rare moment when they stop to catch their breath, they think about sex.

I’ll leave it to Morrison scholars to analyse it. I loved Beloved and A Mercy, because I felt I understood what she was trying to say. Song of Solomon and this defeat me. She portrays black life as animalistic, where people eat and rut and rut and eat; and resent, neglect and beat their children; and betray and kill each other for little or no reason. She writes about black culture in a way that, if it were written by a white author, would be rightly trashed as the peak of racism. I’ve tried both times to assume she’s saying that white oppression has made black Americans behave this way, but I’m not convinced – neither that I’m right about her intention nor that it’s a realistic portrayal of black American culture. I hope it isn’t, anyway.

Morrison does make a couple of points about the subjugation of black people, legally free in the ‘20s and ‘30s, when the book is mainly set, but still excluded from all the benefits of freedom, including well-paid jobs and the possibility of a career, leading to a kind of crisis of masculinity in the men. She also makes reference to the black men whom white America called upon to fight their wars for them, and then abandoned on their return to deal with the after-effects without help (though I expect that was true of a lot of white men too, especially after WW1. It certainly was in the UK). These were the strongest parts of the book for me, but they were merely side issues.

Toni Morrison

The writing is as wonderful as her writing always is, and I certainly enjoyed reading it. The characters are entirely vile, especially Sula, who starts out bad and gets progressively worse as she ages. Her friend Nel is more ambiguous but, while I started out quite liking her, it wore off, and I felt they were a pretty good match for each other – a real illustration of the old phrase, with friends like these, who needs enemies? Many things are left unexplained, but it’s entertaining and at points even amusing, with a couple of well-done shock moments. But I felt nothing for any of them, because I didn’t believe in them as real people.

Entertaining, then, and maybe you’ll do better at finding a meaning in it than I did. Or maybe there isn’t one, and the entertainment is the point. In which case, job well done!

Book 19 of 20

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The Janus Stone (Ruth Galloway 2) by Elly Griffiths

Revisiting the past…

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When the bones of a child are discovered under a doorway in a building about to be demolished, Ruth Galloway is called in in her capacity as a forensic archaeologist to determine how old the bones are. She suspects they’re not ancient and Nelson, as detective in charge, starts working on the hypothesis that they must have been placed under the doorway during the period the building was being used as a children’s home, run by the Catholic church, just a few decades ago. This assumption is strengthened when he learns that two young children went missing from the home – a brother and sister – and have never been heard of again. Ruth’s part in the story isn’t over once she’s finished analysing the bones however. It appears that someone is trying to frighten her, but who? And why?

This is the second book in the Ruth Galloway series, which now runs to twelve books and is still going strong. I started in the middle, as usual, read several as they came out and eventually gave up on the grounds that I felt the series had run out of steam, but before then I had acquired a couple of the earlier books, including this one. Since it’s quite a while since I last read one, I wondered if the old magic could be rekindled, and to a certain extent, it was.

The same things irritated me as had always done – the clunky use of present tense, Ruth’s obsession with her weight, the romantic tension (or lack thereof) of Ruth’s and Nelson’s never-ending non-relationship, the plot-stretching that is always required to make it seem in any way normal for an archaeologist to be so involved in a police investigation. Add in that in this one Ruth is pregnant, so we’re treated to all the usual stuff that goes with that, including much vomiting – always a favourite feature 🙄 – and I must admit I seriously considered giving up after the first few chapters.

However I decided to power on through the pain barrier and eventually found that the things I used to enjoy about the series were still enjoyable too. The plot is interesting and well done, and the element of Ruth being deliberately frightened has some nicely spine-tingling moments. There’s the usual humour amid the darkness, and the old regulars are all there – Ruth’s friends and colleagues, Nelson’s team, and, of course, Cathbad the druid. There’s also a new man on the scene who looks as though he might provide a new romantic interest for Ruth – Max Grey, a fellow archaeologist, unmarried and handsome to boot!

The plot involves elements of Roman mythology. It did rather niggle me that Ruth was apparently ignorant of this subject and unable to read even straightforward Latin inscriptions, since I find it hard to believe that anyone teaching archaeology at university level in the UK could possibly have avoided learning something about these, given that so much British archaeology is of Roman remains. But it allows Griffiths to tell the reader about the mythology via the device of Max, a Roman expert, explaining it all to Ruth.

Elly Griffiths

The setting adds a lot to this series – Ruth’s isolated cottage looking out over the salt marshes of Norfolk provides plenty of room for spooky occurrences, and Griffiths gives a real feel for the brooding beauty of the place, and for some of the myths and superstitions attached to it.

So overall I enjoyed this return visit to a past favourite, although not quite enough to make me want to read the other ones that I’ve missed.

* * * * *

(This was the winner of the 3rd People’s Choice poll and hurrah! I actually enjoyed and finished it! Well done, People – you’re clearly getting better at this… 😉 )

Book 15 of 20

(This wasn’t on my original 20 Books list but I’m falling behind, so it is now! Just….
DON’T TELL CATHY!!)

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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 Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

A tale well told…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The old fisherman Santiago’s luck has run out. For eighty-four straight days he hasn’t caught a fish, and is surviving only with the help of the young boy, Manolin, who once fished with him but whose parents have now insisted he go out with another luckier boat instead. Manolin feels an intense loyalty to old Santiago, and helps him each day with his gear, catching bait, and even buying him food when Santiago’s funds run out.

On this day it will be different. A fish takes Santiago’s bait – a huge marlin, so big that Santiago can’t pull him in. As the marlin sets out to sea, dragging Santiago’s little skiff behind him, Santiago must decide whether to cut the line or run with the fish. And so it becomes a matter of will, as Santiago battles with nature, with his own failing strength, with growing exhaustion and with his pride as a fisherman.

He always thought of the sea as la mar which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as el mar which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.

This is a beautifully written and absorbing short tale – mesmerising, almost, as hour after hour passes and still the fish won’t tire. Although written in the third person, once Santiago is alone on the sea with his fish, the reader is taken directly into his thoughts. He is a simple man, and his mind dwells on great successes and failures of his past, a lifetime’s experience all guiding his actions in this moment. He knows he is at the limit of his physical endurance as the line cuts his calloused hands each time the fish changes pace. He recognises that the pride of youth has given way to the humility of age, and wonders when that happened. But he still has enough pride to want to kill this fish, although he loves it for its strength and will and beauty.

The line rose slowly and steadily and then the surface of the ocean bulged ahead of the boat and the fish came out. He came out unendingly and water poured from his sides. He was bright in the sun and his head and back were dark purple and in the sun the stripes on his sides showed wide and a light lavender. His sword was as long as a baseball bat and tapered like a rapier and he rose his full length from the water and then re-entered it, smoothly, like a diver and the old man saw the great scythe-blade of his tail go under and the line commenced to race out.

I suspect people may have read all sorts of symbolism into this over the years and maybe there is lots and I just missed it. But for me, this is simply a tale well-told, by a man who clearly knew what he was talking about. As usual with Hemingway, there’s a degree of pondering on the meaning of masculinity, though less overtly than in the couple of longer novels of his I’ve read. It’s an old theme, man against nature, and Hemingway brings nothing new to it except his wonderful prose. And that alone makes this well worth reading.

Book 13 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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The Case of the Late Pig by Margery Allingham

The second death…

😀 😀 😀 😀 

When Albert Campion, gentleman detective, gets an urgent message from an old friend to come to the village of Kepesake, he’s not surprised to learn it’s because there’s been a murder. However, when he comes to view the corpse, he’s more than surprised – he’s shocked! The dead man is “Pig” Peters, a former schoolmate of Campion’s who used to bully the younger boys, including Campion himself. But the shocking thing is that it’s only a few months since Campion attended Peters’ funeral. So how can he possibly be here, freshly dead? And what is the meaning of the cryptic anonymous notes that both Campion and another old schoolmate are receiving?

I haven’t read many of Allingham’s books, mainly because I don’t much like Campion as a detective. Like Lord Peter Wimsey he has an aristocratic background and the snobbery level in the books is high, especially in her supposedly comic portrayal of Campion’s valet and sidekick, the unendearingly common Magersfontein Lugg. Even his silly name makes me grit my teeth. To make up for these annoyances, however, Allingham provides intriguing mysteries, usually fair play, although so devious that I can rarely work them out until all is revealed.

Challenge details:
Book: 25
Subject Heading: The Great Detectives
Publication Year: 1937

This one is unusual in that Campion tells us the story himself – usually the books are written in the third person. I quite enjoyed getting inside his head for a change. He often comes over as a sort of silly ass, an upper-class twit whose brilliance everyone underestimates because of the Wodehouse-ish (or Wimsey-ish – I’m never quite sure which it is that Allingham is attempting to parody) way he talks and behaves. But the first person approach takes the edge off the silliness, and I actually found him far more likeable when we could see his thought processes, especially since he tells us when he got things wrong.

Margery Allingham

The slight downside of the first person, though, is that Allingham has to tread the line carefully neither to reveal too much nor to make it too obvious when Campion is holding things back for the purposes of the big reveal. She does pretty well, on the whole, but I did manage to guess the who and the why and even had an inkling of part of the how. There was still enough that I couldn’t work out, though, to keep me turning the pages quite happily until Campion explained it all at the end.

I’m still not sure why Allingham gets ranked as one of the Queens of Crime – for my money she’s not a patch on ECR Lorac, for example, who is a “forgotten” author. But I suspect that’s more down to my subjective taste regarding style than an objective judgement about quality – I really don’t like the snobbery that comes with aristocratic detectives – and there’s no doubt Allingham has her fair share of dedicated fans. I don’t think I’ll ever class myself as one of them, but I find her quite entertaining for an occasional read. And, overall, for me this was one of the more enjoyable of the Campion novels.

Book 4 of 20

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The African Queen by CS Forester

Love among the leeches…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

It is 1914. When the Germans round up all the native inhabitants of the Reverend Samuel Sayer’s mission in Central Africa to take them off to fight in the war, the Reverend quickly succumbs to fever and dies, leaving his faithful sister all alone. Until along comes Charles Allnut, a Cockney mechanic who had been out on the river collecting supplies when the Germans came, and returned to find all the people at the mine where he worked gone too. He realises he can’t leave Rose here, so takes her with him aboard the little steam boat, the African Queen, planning to find somewhere safe to hole up till the war is over, at least in this part of the world. Rose, however, has a different idea. She wants revenge on the Germans for destroying her brother’s life work, and quickly convinces herself that they should take the African Queen down river to Lake Wittelsbach, there to destroy the German gunboat that patrols the lake. It takes her a little longer to convince Allnut…

This, of course, is the book on which the Hepburn/Bogart film was based, and since that’s always been a favourite I knew the story well, and was interested to see how closely the movie had stuck to the original. The answer is that it does to a very large degree with one or two minor changes in characterisation, and then a huge divergence in plot at the end that makes the film into an adventure classic and leaves the book floundering as a rather anti-climactic disappointment.

Book 65 of 90

In the book, Allnut is a Cockney Londoner rather than an American. While I feel it would have been highly entertaining to see Bogie attempting to do a Cockney accent, I can understand why the star factor led to the movie character being portrayed as American. It doesn’t make much difference, except of course to change the patriotism emphasis from one of Brits fighting the Germans to the usual Hollywood hoopla of Americans saving the world. Rose is very much as Hepburn played her except that the woman in the book is a decade or so younger. So although she is still the “spinster sister” of the missionary, she is young enough to make her transformation into an active adventurer and passionate lover slightly more believable. She is, of course, actually English too, unlike Ms Hepburn!

The main strength of the book is in the descriptions of the African riverscape. Forester gives a real feeling for the abominable heat and how badly this affects the pale-skinned Brits, however used to it they may be. The sudden rains, the insects, the leeches lurking in the water, the reeds that choke some parts of the river and the rapids that make other parts a terrifying thrill ride – all of these are done brilliantly and feel completely authentic (at least, to this reader who has never been even close to Africa).

The characterisation is considerably weaker, unfortunately, although they are both likeable enough to keep the book entertaining. Allnut is a weak, rather cowardly man but with lots of practical skills and knowledge, while Rose has courage enough for two and the ability to learn quickly, so they complement each other well. Do people change as rapidly as these two do, even in extreme circumstances? Hmm, perhaps, but I wasn’t entirely convinced. Under the leadership of a strong woman, Allnut suddenly discovers a courage even he didn’t think he possessed, whereas Rose quickly throws off a lifetime of repression and strict religious beliefs to become the lover of this rather underwhelming man. I didn’t altogether believe it, but I still enjoyed the journey in their company.

CS Forester

At least, I enjoyed it up until the last ten per cent or so, when suddenly all the tension is destroyed by an ending that leaves our two main characters on the sidelines while the regular armed forces of Britain and German take over. No wonder the plot was changed for the film! I can’t imagine what Forester was thinking, really. Perhaps he thought that the idea of two people tackling a German gunboat on their own was just too unbelievable and in real life that might be true. But this isn’t real life – it’s an adventure novel and needs a dramatic end led by our two unlikely heroes! Let them succeed thrillingly or fail tragically, but don’t just stick them to one side and let other people take over! Pah! I was left infuriated and let down by the way it all fizzled out.

So overall, good fun for most of the journey but with a sadly disappointing ending. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure that I’d really recommend it except to diehard fans of colonial adventure novels (which, by the way, reminds me that I haven’t mentioned that some of the language about the “natives” is toe-curlingly dated). One of those cases where I feel the film is better…

Book 3 of 20

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Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac

An Alpine holiday…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Book cover and link to Amazon product pageA group of young people are off on a trip to the Austrian Alps for a skiing holiday. With sixteen places in the group, it’s been a mammoth job to get everyone organised and some last minute cancellations mean that a few places have been filled by friends of friends, not directly known by other people in the group. So when some money goes missing from one of the hotel rooms, suddenly suspicion begins to threaten what had been up till then a most enjoyable jaunt. Meantime, back in London, a body has been found burned beyond recognition in a house fire. The police soon have reason to suspect this was no accident however, and the print of a ski-stick in the ground outside the house has Inspector Rivers intrigued…

Carol Carnac is a pseudonym used by Edith Caroline Rivett, who also wrote the Inspector MacDonald series of police procedurals under another pseudonym, ECR Lorac. Lorac has become one of my favourites of the authors the BL has been republishing so I was intrigued to see if I liked her as much in this incarnation, with Inspector Rivers as the lead.

The skiing party is a lot of fun, with the main characters being on the whole an extremely likeable bunch of privileged but not horribly snobbish English people, delighted to escape from the post-war rationing and dismal January days at home for pristine snow and sunshine, skiing by day and dancing the nights away. As Lorac, I’ve commented many times on how great she is at creating the settings she chooses, and that’s apparent in this one too. The freezing weather in both the beautiful Alps and in dank and dreary London is brilliantly described and contrasted, and adds much to the enjoyment.

The one real weakness of the book is the size of the skiing party. Sixteen characters are far too many in a short book – most of them never become more than names, and many have no part in the story at all. Very few of them have space to develop distinct personalities and I was still having to think hard to remember who was who even as the book neared the end. The introduction tells us Carnac based it on a real skiing party of which she’d been a member, but it would have worked much better in the book if she’d cut the cast list down to a more manageable size.

However, I still enjoyed the picture she gave of these young people participating in what was still a rather unusual sport at that time. While it was still mostly the preserve of the elite, Carnac shows how foreign travel was gradually becoming more accessible to ordinary working people in the years after the war. She also reminded me of the days, which I only just remember, when people were restricted in the amount of currency they were allowed to take out of the country, and how problematic this could make foreign travel.

The London end is equally well done, and Rivers and his sidekick Lancing make an excellent team. The plot is a little convoluted, but works, and shows the gradual change in detection methods towards forensic evidence, with much nifty stuff around fingerprints. Both men are coincidentally skiers themselves, so when the trail leads to the Alps they can’t wait to get over there. And it all leads up as you’d expect to a thrillerish ending on a mountain slope in the middle of a snow-storm.

Thoroughly enjoyable despite the overabundance of characters – I’ll be looking out for more of her books in her Carnac persona now too.

20 Books of Summer logoBook 1

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

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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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The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Aristocratic decay…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It is 1860, and Fabrizio, Prince of Salina in Sicily, is already aware of the forces of modernity that are bringing newly rich men to prominence while the aristocracy struggles to maintain its ascendancy. Now Garibaldi is on the march, about to invade Sicily as part of his drive to unite all of Italy under one king. The old guard view this with anxiety, unsure of how it will affect them. Some of the younger Sicilians, though, are fired with enthusiasm for Garibaldi and his “revolution”. Fabrizio is jaded and cynical – his strong sense of history tells him that many invaders have arrived in Sicily over the centuries, and that after a period of upheaval everything reverts to how it has always been, though perhaps with a change of personae in the ruling class. His main hope is to come through with as little change to his leisured life of luxury as possible.

This was a real mix for me. There were long, long stretches that bored me rigid with their lingering descriptions of the sumptuous lives and possessions of the aristocrats, and the central romance between Fabrizio’s young swashbuckling pro-Garibaldi nephew, Tancredi, and the beautiful if low-born Angelica is signally unromantic despite (or perhaps because of) the endless scenes of them breathlessly teasing each other and barely controlling their mutual lust.

On the other hand, it provides tremendous insight into the Sicilian mindset and the sharp divides in society, with the aristocracy living rather pointless lives of luxurious ease while the rest of the populace exist in abject poverty, not just in material terms but also poverty of education, opportunity and spirit. We see the stranglehold of the Catholic Church, as so often helping to keep the common people down in order to please their generous patrons amongst the rich. And Lampedusa shows the rise of the new type of men, their money coming from trade and industry rather than land, rougher and less cultured, but also less effete, with the drive to perhaps effect real change for the first time in centuries. And yet we see these new men ambitious to marry their children to the children of the old aristocracy, effectively buying their way into the existing ruling class, and we wonder if Fabrizio’s cynicism is right, that gradually the new men will become indistinguishable from the class they are replacing. (Four legs good, two legs better.)

Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale as Tancredi and Angelica in Visconti’s 1963 film

While the bulk of the book covers the two year period before, during and immediately after Garibaldi’s invasion, there are two additional sections: the first set twenty years later in 1883 when we find out how Fabrizio’s life played out after the revolution; and the second set later still, in 1910, when we meet again with some of his children and are shown how the aristocratic class has continued to fade, their once glittering homes now looking tawdry and tarnished, and their lives an anachronism in their own time.

I enjoyed both of these sections considerably more than the much longer main section, where the book committed one of my personal pet hates of staying with characters who remain neutral and uninvolved while all the action is going on elsewhere, off the page. We never meet Garibaldi, we don’t get taken into the revolution. We spend all our time in the splendid drawing rooms of the rich, watching them play the game of courtship, heavily spiced with Fabrizio’s musings on the decline of his class. This is simply a matter of taste, though – as I’ve said many times, I am always more interested in the political than the domestic sphere. Of course, the whole book is political in the sense that it is describing the lethargy and decadence of the old ruling class and its ultimate decay, but I’d rather have spent my time with the enthusiastic supporters or even opponents of the revolution.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

It is, I freely admit, entirely unreasonable for me to grumble that Lampedusa wrote the book he wanted to write rather than the one I’d have liked to read, but so it goes sometimes. There was still plenty in it for me to enjoy it overall, especially since the bits I found most interesting all came at the end, leaving me feeling much more enthusiastic about it than I had been halfway through. Putting my subjective disappointment with its focus to one side, I can quite see why many people have hailed it as a great book and I wouldn’t want my rather lukewarm review to put anyone off reading it. And in the end I’m glad to have read it, and feel I have gained a good deal of insight into a place and time about which I previously knew almost nothing.

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Trent’s Last Case by EC Bentley

Person or persons unknown…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When wealthy American business tycoon Sigsbee Manderson is found shot dead in the grounds of his English country house, freelance journalist and amateur detective Philip Trent is commissioned by one of the Fleet Street newspapers to investigate. Trent quickly learns that Manderson’s marriage was in difficulties. His young trophy bride Mabel had soon discovered that the life of a rich socialite bored her, and although she did her best to fulfil her duties as wife and hostess, Manderson had become increasingly withdrawn from her. Also in the house are Manderson’s two secretaries: his American business secretary, Calvin Bunner, and John Marlowe, an Englishman who looked after the social side of Manderson’s diary. A manservant and a stereotypical French maid complete the list of inhabitants, while Mabel’s uncle, coincidentally an old friend of Trent’s, Nathaniel Cupples, is ensconced in a nearby hotel. Although the coroner’s inquest finds a verdict of murder by person or persons unknown, Trent soon feels he has a good idea what happened that night. But for reasons of his own, he can’t reveal his suspicions…

This one was first published in 1913, before the Golden Age had got properly under way and therefore before the genre had developed its recognisable structure. Here we get Trent’s solution halfway through, along with his reasons for not revealing it. The rest of the book takes us through what follows, eventually leading to Trent finding the full truth, complete with a little twist in the tail. It’s enjoyable in parts, but the structure makes it uneven, and it’s one of those ones that depends very much on two adults being unable to have a simple conversation which would have brought out the truth much earlier. It also goes wildly far over the credibility line more than once, all becoming rather ridiculous in the end. Admittedly, what I just called ridiculous, Martin Edwards describes as a ‘clever surprise solution’, so as always these things are in the eye of the beholder.

Challenge details:
Book: 12
Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age
Publication Year: 1913

EC Bentley

Edwards also points out, in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, that Bentley was experimenting with some of the things which would later become part of the standard for mystery novels – the unlikeable victim over whom the reader need not waste too much time grieving, the country house with its enclosed set of suspects, and an attempt at fair play, making sure the reader is given all the clues to pit her wits against the detective. I’m not sure how well he succeeds in that last aspect – when the clues and solutions are so wildly incredible, one wonders if the reader can really be said to have a fair chance even if all the information is given. I did spot one or two of the clues and worked out little bits of what was going on, but I came out of it rather glad that my mind isn’t quite distorted enough to have worked out the whole puzzle!

It didn’t become a favourite for me, or inspire me to seek out more of Bentley’s Trent books (it turns out not have been his last case after all!) but overall I enjoyed it, partly for the story itself and partly for the interest of seeing another stage towards the development of the genre.

I downloaded it from wikisource.

The Guesthouse by Abbie Frost

Variation on a theme…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Following the death of her boyfriend, Hannah’s life is spiralling out of control. She’s behaving recklessly and drinking too much, and her friends and family are getting very tired of her. So when she receives a reminder about a booking she and her boyfriend had made to stay for a few nights in a guest-house in Ireland, she decides to go. But as soon as she arrives spooky things begins to happen, while bad weather and storms means she and her fellow guests find themselves cut off from the outside world. And then the deaths begin…

There seems to be a little trend of books at the moment taking the premise of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None – a group of people carefully collected together in an isolated spot by someone with a grievance who then sets about bumping them off one by one. It’s certainly an excellent set-up and the trick is to do something original within the overall structure so that it doesn’t just seem like a copy of the great original. Frost’s basic story isn’t particularly original – after all these years of psychological thrillers it would be hard to find an angle that no one else had used – but she handles it well and uses the general spookiness of the house to good effect to create an atmosphere of enjoyable tension.

I must admit I groaned a bit at the beginning. A few years ago I got so fed up with the identikit misery-fest thriller sub-genre that I wrote a joking pastiche of it, involving a hungover alcoholic woman whose family and friends all hated her and whose life was a mess because of something unspecified that happened “that day” in the past. The first several pages of this book read almost like a pastiche of my pastiche, up to and including the obligatory drunken vomiting scene. Happily, while it continues to tread fairly well-worn ground throughout, Frost writes well (and in past tense – hurrah!), and makes the excellent decision to remove the opportunity for getting drunk from Hannah as soon as she arrives at the guest-house. Once she sobers up, she becomes a much more interesting and enjoyable lead character – a lesson all drunks, fictional or otherwise, could learn from!

Abbie Frost

The underlying story is dark and again perhaps too well-trodden to really surprise, but although I guessed parts of the plot and saw some of the twists coming, it’s done well and, once the rather slow start is out of the way, the pacing picks up so that it becomes a page-turner. The characterisation is a bit patchy – some of the characters are very well done, others less so, but happily I lost my initial antipathy to Hannah herself and gradually found myself on her side.

It’s not one to think too hard about or to analyse too deeply. There are, perhaps, too many bits that require a hefty suspension of disbelief. But the pacing and spookiness make it an entertaining read overall and it all culminates in an exciting and nicely over-the-top thriller ending. Once I got into it I enjoyed it a lot, finding myself reluctant to put it down, which is exactly the effect a good thriller should have.

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

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The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson

Fictionalised history…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Joan Vaux has known Elizabeth of York since childhood, so when Elizabeth becomes Queen to the first of the Tudors, Henry VII, it is natural for Joan to become one of her court servants. This is the story of Joan’s life – her rise through the ranks to become lady-in-waiting to the Queen and her husband’s equal rise to the top ranks of Henry’s circle. Living for periods of time in the Tower of London, Joan has developed a fascination for the ravens who make their home there and for the legend that says that should the ravens ever desert the Tower, its walls will crumble and the monarchy will fall. Over the years Joan will do her best to protect the ravens from those who see them as pests.

I’m no historian, especially of this period, but it seems to me as if Hickson sticks very closely to fact, both in terms of events and in the personalities of the Royals, insofar as their personalities are known at all at this distance. To me, this is not so much historical fiction as fictionalised history. By this I mean that it is a simple recounting of actual events as seen through the eyes of Joan, rather than a fictional story in its own right using the historical background as a setting.

In other words, there is no plot. The blurb speaks of Joan being “privy to the deepest and darkest secrets of her queen” but frankly Elizabeth doesn’t have any deep, dark secrets. “Like the ravens,” the blurb continues, “Joan must use her eyes and her senses, as conspiracy whispers through the dark corridors of the Tower.” Hmm! That rather makes it sounds as if Joan will be involved in the various events of the time, doesn’t it? But she’s not – she merely mentions them in passing as things that happen to other people. The book is well written for the most part and interesting for the credible detail it provides of the life of a lady of the court who sees and hears of the high events of the period without actively participating in or influencing them. Nothing wrong with that, but not quite what the blurb would lead one to expect. Personally I was perpetually disappointed that all the action was happening elsewhere – the rebellions, skirmishes, treaties, etc. However that’s a matter of personal preference – I’m always more interested in the political than the domestic sphere.

Yes, they’re still there…

The book is full of anachronistic phrases, like “healthy bottom line”, “cooking the books”, “dress to impress”, and so on – so many of them that I came to think that Hickson had made the decision to do this deliberately rather than accidentally allowing one or two to slip through. I can see that that may be an attempt to make the characters seem more accessible to a modern audience, but for me it simply jarred. I don’t think historical fiction should necessarily be full of thous and thees and mayhaps and verilys, but I find the use of specifically modern phrases simply pulls me out of the period. And I was seriously disappointed at the too frequent glaring grammatical errors, especially since Hickson tells us that she had two editors! Hopefully someone will have picked these up and corrected them before the final version was printed.

Joanna Hickson

Despite this lengthy list of niggles, I still found it quite an enjoyable read overall. It gives an interesting and convincing insight into the life of a lady of the court, juggling marriage and children with the duties of serving the Queen. Joan is lucky that the husband who is chosen for her is someone she comes to love and admire – not passionately, perhaps, but contentedly. All the important events of the time are touched on, such as Perkin Warbeck’s imposture of one of the missing, presumed dead, Princes in the Tower, and we are entertainingly introduced to the child who will later become Henry VIII. The book ends with the marriage of Katherine of Aragorn to the young Prince Arthur, and with a promise in the afterword that Hickson intends to continue Joan’s story in a future book. I’m not sure that I’ll stick with her for that, but that’s mainly because of my preference for novels that take me to the centre of events rather than leaving me on the domestic periphery. However, I think people who are interested in seeing how women of this rank lived at that time will find this an enjoyable and informative read.

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

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* * * * *

On a different note, dear people, I’ve found that my anxiety level is through the roof at the moment, as I’m sure will also be the case with many of you. I’m finding it almost impossible to read anything that requires concentration and writing reviews of anything other than light books seems to have become a formidable task. So my posting might be erratic for a bit and rather full of vintage crime and comforting re-reads until my system accepts that this is the new normal. To hasten that day, I’m going to stop watching news except for the main evening bulletin on the BBC and I’m swearing off all social media except for the blogosphere for the time being – I’m sure the blanket coverage and conflicting messages are making things worse rather than better. I will also be avoiding blog posts about the pandemic, so apologies in advance for that.

Stay safe, stay as calm as possible under the circumstances, and don’t forget to stockpile chocolate!

The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray

Stop the world…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When a rogue white dwarf star passes through the solar system, its gravitational pull affects the Earth’s rotation on its axis. Gradually over a period of years it slows, with days and nights lengthening; and then it stops completely, leaving half the earth’s surface in endless burning day and the other half in endless frozen night. Humanity scrabbles to survive and Britain comes out on top, lucky to be in the small habitable zone that surrounds the growing desert in the centre of the sunlit side. But when scientist Edward Thorne, on his deathbed, gives his old pupil Ellen Hopper a cryptic message, she is sucked in to uncovering secrets about how Britain has ensured its survival – secrets the authoritarian government will do anything to keep hidden…

There’s a lot to like about this promising début, so let me get my criticisms out of the way first. The book is drowning under the weight of words, being at least a third too long for its content. Murray describes everything in detail – he does it very well but a lot of it is unnecessary and it slows the pace to a crawl. In order to thrill, thrillers have to maintain a good pace and to speed up towards the climax. This is so self-evident that it always stuns me that editors don’t pick up on it even if writers make the basic mistake of getting too involved in their own descriptions of the settings at the expense of maintaining escalating forward momentum. The scene should be set in, say, the first third to half, and from there on the focus should switch to action. And the climax, when it comes, has to both surprise and be dramatic enough to have made the journey worthwhile. Here, unfortunately, the climax is one of the weakest points of the book, both in execution and in impact.

However, there are plenty of strong points to counterbalance these weaknesses. The writing is of a very high standard, especially the descriptions of the scientific and social effects of the disaster. Not being a scientist, I don’t know how realistic the world in the book is but it is done well enough for me to have bought into the premise. Murray shows how science during the Slow and after the Stop becomes concentrated on immediate survival – developing ways to provide food and power for the people – while less attention is given to research into how the long-term future may turn out. As Ellen, herself a scientist, begins to investigate Thorne’s hints, Murray nicely blurs whether this neglect is because of lack of resources, or because the government specifically doesn’t want researchers happening on things they want to conceal. In a world where the government brutally disposes of anyone who threatens them, it’s difficult for Ellen to trust anyone or to involve anyone else in her search for the truth for fear of the consequences to them, but her brother and her ex-husband both get caught up in her quest, and both are interesting relationships that add an emotional edge to the story.

Andrew Hunter Murray

The characterisation is excellent, not just of Ellen but of all the secondary and even periphery characters. I was so pleased to read a contemporary book starring a strong but not superhuman woman, intelligent and complex, who is not the victim of sexism, racism or any other tediously fashionable ism. The only ism she has to contend against is the authoritarianism of the government – much more interesting to me. Murray handles gender excellently throughout, in fact, having male and female characters act equally as goodies and baddies, be randomly strong or weak regardless of sex, and keeping any romantic elements to an almost imperceptible minimum. He also shows a range of responses to the authoritarianism, from those who think it’s essential in the circumstances, to those who dislike it but remain passive, to those who actively or covertly resist it; and he makes each rise equally convincingly from the personality of the character.

So overall a very strong début with much to recommend it – if Murray learns, as I’m sure he will, that there comes a point when it’s necessary to stop describing everything and let the action take over then he has the potential to become a very fine thriller writer indeed. I look forward to reading more from him.

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

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Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

Sins of the fathers…

😀 😀 😀 😀

In 1775, a group of elderly men gather in the Maypole, an ancient inn owned by John Willett, and tell a stranger about a murder that was committed nearby years before. The owner of the large house in the neighbourhood, Mr Harefield, was killed, apparently during a robbery, and some time later another body was found, identified as his servant, also murdered. The servant’s son, Barnaby Rudge, was later born an idiot, assumed to be so because of the shock his widow had suffered during her pregnancy. Now Barnaby is a happy young man, earning a little money by running messages and spending the rest of his time running wild in the countryside, revelling in the natural world which he loves. But Barnaby is gullible and easily influenced, which will one day lead him into serious trouble.

Skip forward five years to 1780, and trouble is abroad in the streets of London. Lord George Gordon is leading protests against the passing of an act that will remove some of the legal restrictions under which Catholics have suffered since the time of the Reformation. A weak man himself, Gordon is surrounded by unscrupulous men using him for their own ends. Some of his followers are men of true religious beliefs, bigoted certainly, but honourable in their own way. But many, many others are the detritus of the London streets – the drunks and thieves, the violent, the cruel. Others are the desperate – those whose argument with the government is nothing to do with religious questions about which they know little and care less. These are the poor and marginalised, those with no hope. Together these men and women will become that great fear of the establishment – the mob, wild, destructive and terrifying. And among them and affected by them are the characters we met in the Maypole, including young Barnaby Rudge…

Barnaby and his pet raven, Grip

Structurally this one is a bit of a mess. The two halves are each excellent in their own way but the sudden time shift halfway through, complete with a total change of central characters and tone, breaks the flow and loses the emotional involvement that was built up in the first section. Barnaby Rudge is also an unsatisfactory hero in that, being an idiot with no hope of improvement, there’s no romance for him nor does he get to be heroic. However, even a weaker Dickens novel is always enjoyable and this is no exception. My four star rating is a comparison to other Dickens’ novels – in comparison to almost every book out there, this is still head and shoulders above them.

Book 61 of 90

If I’d been Dickens, I’d have called it Dolly Varden – she pulls the two strands together more than most of the other characters. Daughter of locksmith Gabriel, Dolly is the major love interest of the character who appears to be the hero in the first half, Joe Willett, son of the owner of the Maypole. Young, flirtatious and silly, Dolly plays hard to get at the wrong moment and Joe takes the King’s shilling and goes off to fight those pesky American colonists who were having some kind of little rebellion round about then. Five years on, Dolly is still single, secretly hoping that one day Joe will return. But her beauty has made her a target for other men, including two who will play major roles in the second half of the book. Dickens often showed how vulnerable women were to unscrupulous men, but with Dolly he takes it a stage further. There is one scene in particular where she is the victim of what can only be described as a sexual assault, and later, in the riots, Dickens doesn’t hold back from showing how rape is one aspect of what happens when there’s a breakdown in social order. While it’s all done by hints and suggestion, very mild to our jaded modern eyes, I imagine it must have been pretty shocking to the original readership. Dolly is an intriguing Dickens heroine – unlike many of his drooping damsels, she’s a lot of fun, revelling in her beauty and the effect it has on men while still being kind-hearted and true. He allows her to grow and mature in those five years, which is not always the case with his heroines, and she’s a great mix of vulnerability and strength of character.

Dolly playing hard to get…

The first half is the fairly typical Dickens fare of various eccentric characters and young lovers and a mystery in the past, of the style of Oliver Twist or Martin Chuzzlewit, say. The second half is much more reminiscent of the later, and much better, A Tale of Two Cities. The mob scenes in this are just as horrifying, but the characters aren’t as unforgettably drawn as Sidney Carton or Madame Defarge. More than that, it seems as if Dickens is less sure of where his sympathies lie. The Gordon rioters are fighting to ensure that anti-Catholic laws remain in place, and clearly Dickens thinks this is abhorrent. But that means that he almost comes over as pro-Establishment, since on this occasion the Establishment are the ones wanting to do away with those laws. So while in Two Cities he’s against the mob but understanding of the poverty and inequality that drives them, here he gets a bit muddly – he clearly wants to suggest that it’s all because they’re poor and uneducated but has to also show that they’re religious fanatics, fighting not to better themselves but to keep others down. However, I thoroughly enjoyed Dennis the hangman, who is not only a typically Dickensian villain but is also based on the real-life hangman of the time, and gives Dickens an opportunity to show the gruesome barbarity of this form of social control.

The Maypole Inn

As always with Dickens there are far too many aspects to cover in a review without it becoming as long as one of his novels. Overall, this is one where the individual parts may not come together as well as in his greatest novels, but it’s well worth reading anyway, for the riots and for the interest of seeing Dickens experiment with the historical novel as a form. I read the Oxford World’s Classics version – my first experience of a Dickens novel in their edition – and thoroughly enjoyed having the informative introduction and particularly the notes, which I found extremely helpful since this is an episode of history I knew little about. The book is also generously full of the original illustrations. I say it every time but I’m so glad I live in a world that once had Dickens in it!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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The Measure of Malice edited by Martin Edwards

The clue’s in the clue…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Another collection of vintage crime from the winning partnership of Martin Edwards and the British Library, this one contains fourteen stories sharing the theme of scientific detectives or clues. There’s a lot of imagination on display as the authors seek to find unique problems to put before their detectives – everything from Sherlock Holmes and his expert knowledge of cigar ash, to laryngoscopes, anaphylactic shock, new-fangled “contact glasses” and a different twist on identifying corpses from dental records. There’s a mix of well-known authors, authors who are becoming better known again thanks to the work of Edwards and the BL, and a couple I’ve not come across before.

And as always, there’s a considerable variation in quality. In total, I gave just 3 of the stories 5 stars, but another 5 rated as 4 stars. There were a couple I really felt weren’t up to a standard to make them worthy of inclusion, and all the others came in around the 3 star mark. The early collections in the BL Crime Classics series tended to have the settings as the theme – London, country houses, people on holiday, etc – while the more recent ones have focused on the type of mystery. It’s purely subjective, but I preferred the earlier themes – the settings allowed for a mix of motives and methods, whereas the later ones being centred on particular sub-genres of the sub-genre make the variety narrower, and often have the focus on alibis or clues rather than on the interactions of the characters. So it all depends on reader preference, as usual, and I suspect people who like this kind of story would rate some of the stories higher than I have.

Here’s a taste of a few that I enjoyed most:

The Boscombe Valley Mystery by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – it seems to be becoming a tradition that these anthologies kick off with a Holmes story and this is a good one. A man is murdered and his son is suspected, but Holmes quickly discovers there may have been a third person on the scene. It all hinges on footprints, cigar ash, and the dying victim’s last words… “a rat”!

The Horror of Studley Grange by LT Meade and Clifford Halifax – Lady Studley asks Dr Halifax to come to the Grange because she’s worried about her husband’s health. But Dr Halifax is equally worried about Lady Studley who seems to be very ill. This turns into a decent horror story, complete with ghostly apparitions, but in a scientific mystery it won’t surprise you to know the horror is of human origin. The whodunit is a bit obvious, but the detection of the how and why aspects is fun and it’s very well told.

In the Teeth of the Evidence by Dorothy L Sayers – I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that I vastly prefer Sayers in short story mode than in her novels, probably because she gets to the point more quickly and so there’s less time for Lord Peter Wimsey to become annoying. This one is a fun story that begins when Lord Peter is visiting his dentist, who has been asked to identify a burned corpse from his dental records. Of course, Lord Peter tags along which is just as well, since he spots something the experts have missed! It’s played for laughs with a lot of humour around the horrors of dentistry and in the description of the victim’s awful wife. Very enjoyable and of course well written.

Blood Sport by Edmund Crispin – this is very short but good fun nevertheless. A woman is shot and the local lord is suspected, since apparently he was getting up to hanky-panky with the victim, who was no better than she should be. But the detective spots a discrepancy around the cleaning of a gun which sends him off in a different direction. Reminded me that I really must read more Crispin.

As always it includes an informative general introduction from Martin Edwards, plus mini-biographies of each of the authors. So if scientific clues and detectives are your thing, then there’s plenty in this to enjoy.

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

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A Caribbean Mystery (Miss Marple) by Agatha Christie narrated by Joan Hickson

You can take the woman out of the village…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Miss Marple’s kind nephew Raymond has sent her on a vacation to St Honoré to soak up some sunshine after she’s been unwell. She’s staying at the Golden Palm resort, filled with visitors from around the world though the plot sticks pretty much to the Brits and Americans. One visitor, Major Palgrave, likes to tell long rambling stories of his colonial days and Miss Marple makes the perfect audience. As a genteel lady of a certain age, she has perfected the art of making gentlemen believe she’s listening avidly while in reality she’s pursuing her own thoughts or counting the stitches in her knitting. But when Major Palgrave suddenly dies, Miss Marple is convinced that it’s connected to a story he was telling her about how he once met a murderer. If only she’d been paying more attention! Struggling to recall the details and also feeling a little out of her element so far from home, Miss Marple realises that she can still use village parallels even amongst these strangers – human nature, she finds, is the same everywhere…

While I don’t consider this to be one of Christie’s very best, it’s still a very entertaining mystery and the exotic setting gives it an added interest, although (like many tourists) Miss Marple never sets foot outside the resort so we get very little feel for what life for the real islanders may be like. Another of the residents is Mr Rafiel, an elderly invalid with a grumpy temper. At first inclined to dismiss Miss Marple as a gossipy old woman, he finds she stands up to him more than most people and comes to respect her insight, so that gradually they begin to work together to find the truth. The other residents, including Mr Rafiel’s staff, become the pool of suspects and Miss Marple knows that her only investigatory tool is the art of drawing people out through conversation. Happily people do love to gossip so she soon has plenty of background on the potential suspects, although she has to sift through conflicting stories to get to the truth.

Agatha Christie was long before political correctness, of course, and I see from other reviews that some people think her portrayal of the islanders is racist. I don’t, but that may be because of my age. It seems to me that Christie speaks as respectfully of the black characters as of the white – her dialect sounds a bit clunky, perhaps, and she comments, though not disparagingly, on different customs, but surely we can still do that, can’t we? Mind you, I’ve also seen reviews calling the Miss Marple books ageist – baffled – and sexist – baffled again. She was merely reflecting the society in which she lived. (I am glad I’ve lived most of my life in an era when people weren’t scrutinising every word and expression looking for reasons to be perpetually outraged. It must be so exhausting.)

This time I listened to the audiobook narrated by Joan Hickson, whose portrayal of Miss Marple I love. However, it must be said that she can’t do Caribbean accents at all and her islanders therefore come over as kind of caricatures and rather off-putting to modern ears. Perhaps this wouldn’t have been an issue when she recorded the book but I think modern listeners would expect something that sounded a little more authentic. This is one case where reluctantly I’d definitely recommend reading rather than listening.

Agatha Christie

An enjoyable book, particularly for readers who have been disappointed previously to find that Miss Marple doesn’t always have a big role in the books she’s in. In this one, she’s very definitely the central character and we’re given access to her inner thoughts, not just about the crime, but about ageing and about life in general. Rightly or wrongly, I’ve always seen Miss Marple as Ms Christie’s alter-ego in these later books (it was published in 1964, when Christie would herself have been 74), and so I always feel we’re getting a bit of insight into her view of modern society – not always “woke”, I grant you, but always true to her age and time.

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Transwarp Tuesday! Menace of the Monster edited by Mike Ashley

They’re all around us!

In his introduction, Mike Ashley reminds us that there have always been monsters, from the Hydra and Minotaur of the Greeks, through the giants and ogres of fairy tales, to the more futuristic monsters of our own generation. This anthology contains fourteen stories mostly from the first half of the twentieth century, ranging from the evolution-inspired monsters left in remote places of the earth from the dinosaur era, to the monsters emerging from the unexplored ocean deeps, to the aliens from other worlds wandering among us, as friend or foe. No supernatural monsters here – these are all “real” monsters; that is, theoretically they were all possible at least at the time the stories were written.

Menace of the Monster
edited by Mike Ashley

Monsters are not my favourite form of either science fiction or horror fiction so it’s perhaps not surprising that I didn’t enjoy this anthology quite as much as some of the others I’ve been reading recently. It is, however, a nicely varied selection with some intriguing inclusions, such as an abridged version of The War of the Worlds written by HG Wells himself for a magazine, and the story of King Kong, produced as an abridgement of the movie and credited to Edgar Wallace although it’s not clear how much he actually contributed. As stories I didn’t rate either of these highly, but I still enjoyed reading them as interesting bits of sci-fi history. Overall I gave about half of the stories either 4 or 5 stars, while the rest rated pretty low for me, I’m afraid. But they may well work better for people who enjoy monsters more.

Here’s a brief idea of some of the ones I enjoyed most:

De Profundis by Coutts Brisbane – a nicely scary story about killer ants which I used in a previous Tuesday Terror! post.

Discord in Scarlet by AE van Vogt – a longer story, about 40 pages, this tells of an alien space being that encounters a human space ship far from Earth. At first the humans are thrilled to find a new life form but it soon turns out that the alien is not looking to make new friends! This is very well done, and reminded me very much of an episode of Star Trek – not specifically, but in style.

Resident Physician by James White – space again, but this time set in a galactic hospital which caters for all kinds of life forms, as both staff and patients. A new patient has arrived – a form of life the staff have never before encountered. It is unconscious and is thought to have eaten its only ship-mate! The physician must find a way to treat it, while the authorities must determine whether eating a ship-mate is a crime, or maybe a normal part of this alien’s culture. Very well written and imaginative, this one is also highly entertaining, while gently examining the question of how to legislate for cultural differences.

Personal Monster by Idris Seabright – a little girl has discovered a monster living in the ash-pit in her yard. The monster is only small as yet, but it’s growing, and it forces the little girl to feed it. She’s scared of it, but she’s also too scared to tell her parents about it because they’re very strict and she’s a bit scared of them too. I loved this story – the author very quickly made me care about the girl and it all gets pretty creepy. The description of the monster is also rather vague, which makes it even scarier. I’d rather battle King Kong than deal with this one!

So some real gems in the collection which made it well worth the reading time invested. Having pulled together my favourites, I see the ones I liked best are mostly the space alien stories and I think that shows that my personal preference is definitely weighting my ratings here, since I’ve always preferred that kind of monster to the monster from the deep or the dinosaur. But there’s plenty of variety for people who prefer more earth-based monsters too. And as always, the introduction is an added bonus – well written, informative and entertaining.

Little Green Men Rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

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

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