The Chianti Flask by Marie Belloc Lowndes

The aftermath of justice…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Chianti FlaskLaura Dousland is being tried for the murder of her elderly, miserly husband, Fordish. The whole case hinges on a Chianti flask – the couple’s Italian servant says he put a half-full flask on the tray for his master’s supper before going out for his evening off; Laura says there was no wine on the tray when she took it up to her husband later that evening. Whoever is telling the truth, the fact is that the Chianti flask could not be found the next day and has never turned up. Laura is a demure middle-class Englishwoman of good birth and education. Angelo is an Italian of the servant class, whose English (while considerably better than Laura’s Italian, I imagine) is clumsy enough to cause laughter in court. Naturally, the jury believes Laura and she is acquitted.

(FF muses: Why do murder victims in vintage crime so often have strange names? Did Mr and Mrs Dousland not know that if they called their son Fordish, he was quite likely to be done to death at some point? I’m glad my parents called me FictionFan – a name that I am confident will never show up as a murder victim in any book!)

This is in the nature of prologue and all happens in the first few pages, in case you think I’ve just spoiled the story. The mystery of the missing Chianti flask hangs over the book, but lightly. The bulk of the book is set after the acquittal, and is mostly a psychological study of the effect on Laura of having to live with the notoriety of having been an accused woman. While public sympathy is generally on her side and accepts her innocence, there are still some who think she’s a murderer. Her friends remain totally loyal, sure that she could never have done such a thing, but they can’t understand why she now shuns society and prefers solitude to company. Then young Dr Mark Scrutton falls in love with her, but can Laura bring herself to try for happiness again, and can she bear the idea that her notoriety may come to drive a wedge between them in time?

Although there is a mystery within this, it would be hard to categorise it fully as a mystery novel. The question of Laura’s innocence has been officially settled so there’s no legal jeopardy hanging over her. It’s more about the social mores of the time – the stigma of scandal and how it affects women in particular. There’s an undoubted feminist undertone to it, subtly done, showing first how Laura’s straightened circumstances pressured her into marriage with an elderly man and then how little power she had within the relationship once they were married. Lowndes shows how the husband has full control over money and household arrangements, and of course sex. This particular husband seems to have treated Laura as an unpaid servant, denying her even the money to join a lending library. (Gasps of justified horror all around the book blogosphere!) But we suspect his cruelty may have run even deeper in more intimate matters.

Lowndes also shows, however, that it’s not only husbands who hold disproportionate power over penniless young women. Laura had previously worked as a governess for several years, and her employer had come to look on her as a friend. But her kindness to Laura is of the controlling kind – she expects Laura to follow her advice and basically do what she’s told, as a dependant should. At the other end of the scale is the true kindness of Mark’s elderly parents, shocked that their one beloved son has fallen for a scandalous woman but willing to put their concerns aside if they can convince themselves that Laura is necessary to his happiness.

marie belloc lowndes
Marie Belloc Lowndes

It’s an interesting one, no doubt, and very readable, although I must admit I think the ending lets it down quite a bit. I also found it a little irritating that, presumably because of the time of writing, Lowndes was so obscure about the sexual issues she hints at. Not that I’m keen on graphic sex stuff in books, but I really couldn’t decide if Fordish was doing terrible things or if it was that Laura had simply developed a disgust for her elderly husband’s normal (for the time) sexual demands. In other words, was Lowndes saying that Fordish was cruel in particular, or was she making the wider point that a system that gives a husband full sexual power over a wife is cruel in general? Perhaps this would have been clearer to contemporaneous readers who may have been more familiar with how such matters were “coded” in the time before they were considered acceptable for more open discussion. However, the obscurity made me think harder about the issues as I attempted to interpret her full meaning, so perhaps it served its purpose.

An interesting one that disproves again the idea of the mystery novel genre as being formulaic. First published in 1934, it feels very much ahead of its time in terms of its in-depth look at the psychology of the impact of crime and justice on those caught up in them, whether guilty or innocent.

20 books 2019Book 8 of 20

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

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The Goodbye Man (Colter Shaw 2) by Jeffery Deaver

Make Immortality Great Again!

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Goodbye ManBounty hunter Colter Shaw is on the trail of two young men, boys really, who have been accused of defacing a church with neo-Nazi slogans and then shooting the church janitor who had run out to confront them. But as Colter learns more, he feels it doesn’t add up. Though troubled, neither of the boys have a history of involvement with neo-Nazi groups, nor have shown themselves to be trigger-happy. When his search ends in tragedy, Colter decides he wants to know more about what might have been behind their actions, and his investigation soon leads him to a kind of retreat, called the Foundation, where the boys had been headed during the chase. The more Colter looks into things, the more mysterious and sinister the Foundation appears. So Colter decides to book himself onto a retreat there, undercover…

This is the second book in a trilogy about Colter Shaw, a man brought up by his survivalist father to have all the skills needed to be both hunter and expert in self-defence. He uses this unique background to find missing people for offered rewards, travelling the country in his Winnebago. Sometimes the people he is searching for are accused of crimes, as is the case here, and sometimes they have simply chosen to disappear for more personal reasons. His success rate means he has plenty of money, so that he can choose which cases to take on and sometimes follow something up if it interests him, even without the prospect of financial reward.

As well as each book having an individual plot, there’s an overarching mystery in the background regarding the death, probably murder, of Colter’s father and the disappearance of his brother, also trained in survivalist techniques. That story doesn’t move much in this middle book, but the ending suggests it will probably be the main story in the third and last book of the series.

The main story here is about the Foundation, which Colter soon learns is a personality cult around the charismatic figure of Master Eli, who promises that he has discovered the true way to happiness and immortality. He attracts those who are suffering from grief or depression, and preys on their vulnerability. But is he merely a charlatan, a snake-oil salesman, out for money? Or is there something darker going on? How far will Master Eli and his inner circle go to protect their lucrative business?

Jeffery Deaver
Jeffery Deaver

Jeffery Deaver has an easy style that makes his books very readable even when the subject matter might be a little clichéd, as it is here. He brings nothing new to the idea of the cult, and it all seems a bit too convenient that people should be gullible enough to fall for Master Eli’s nonsense quite as quickly and completely as they seem to. Because, honestly, the basis of his “message” is pretty laughable – the merest soupçon of cynicism should have been enough to protect the new recruits. I found it quite amusing, though, that Deaver occasionally makes Eli sound rather like a better-looking and more eloquent version of a certain orange cult leader with whom we have all become far too familiar over the last few years, which certainly had the effect of reminding me that gullibility is pretty widespread. (I restrained myself from saying “in America” – do I get bonus points for tact? 😉 ) What is also widespread in America is the Great God Gun, worshipped with far greater fervour than the Bible which usually accompanies it, and of course there are Glocks and Colts and hunting rifles aplenty in the book. But Colter also uses his specialist knowledge to create some more innovative weapons, equally capable of killing or maiming, proving that guns really aren’t essential fashion accessories for the true survivalist.

I felt a little too much time was spent on building up the picture of the cult but most of the book is given over to action, which Deaver does very well. Colter is a likeable protagonist although he’s almost too good to be true, always able to come up with some arcane piece of knowledge in a crisis, like which herbs have certain properties, how to deal with various kinds of wildlife threats, how to bypass security systems, and so on. But although Deaver stretches credibility to its limits, he never quite breaks it completely. I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as the first book, The Never Game, purely because I couldn’t fully buy in to the attraction of Master Eli and his cult, but I still found it a fast-paced page-turner and I’m looking forward to getting to the resolution of the background mystery in the final novel (which I already have and will be reading very soon as another of my 20 Books of Summer).

20 books 2019Book 7 of 20

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

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The Manningtree Witches by AK Blakemore

The evil that men do…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Manningtree WitchesIt is 1643, the time of the English Civil War. In the town of Manningtree in Essex, men are scarce as the young and fit are off fighting. Rebecca West and her widowed mother are among the women who live on the margins of society, looked down on by the respectable matrons of the town for the crimes of being poor and husbandless. But when Matthew Hopkins arrives in town bringing his Puritanical ideas regarding witches, suddenly these women are seen as a threat – the cause of any ill which may befall one of the town’s worthy residents. And when Matthew Hopkins decides to style himself Witchfinder, the women find themselves in danger…

This is a re-imagining of the true story of the Essex witch trials of 1644-7, led by Hopkins and resulting in the deaths of many women, several of them from Manningtree and Mistley where the book is set. Hopkins died young and very little is known of him other than his witchfinding, and the women are mostly known only through the records of the trials, so Blakemore has created her story from little more than bare bones. In the afterword, she suggests that her aim was to give a voice to these voiceless women, and to tell the story of the persecuted rather than the persecutor. I’d say she succeeds very well.

Rebecca tells us the story in her own voice, and it is certainly not the voice of a shrinking victim. She may be powerless but she has strong opinions and a rebellious nature, and a sense of humour that helps her through the darkest times. She recognises the unfairness in society between rich and poor, man and woman, but there’s nothing she can do to change that so her aim is to get through life as best she can regardless. She has the benefit of physical attractiveness, but her low social status means that men are likely to look to her for sex rather than marriage. She doesn’t think of her mother and her friends as witches, but she knows they have a lot of superstitions, use folklore remedies in treating illnesses, and are not beyond cursing their irreproachable neighbours when angered.

England has been a religious mess since Henry VIII, and the “true faith” has changed so many times it feels understandable that Rebecca and her kind have developed a kind of cynicism over the whole subject. Hopkins, however, is a righteous man, sure of his faith, the most important line in his personal Bible being “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”. Or is it that he’s simply a straightforward religious misogynist, interpreting his sexual feelings towards women through the prism of his Biblical belief that all women are a) sinful and b) cursed? Blakemore gives the reader room to believe either version of him, or both.

The story itself is well told, with an excellent mix of light and dark – the light provided by Rebecca’s resilience and humour, and the dark by the events in which she finds herself caught up. I felt that perhaps the winding-up section at the end went on a little too long, somewhat reducing the impact of the trial and its aftermath, but otherwise I felt the pacing was good, holding my interest throughout.

AK Blakemore
AK Blakemore

There is, however, one major problem with the book which prevents me giving it the full five stars, and that, I’m afraid, is in the writing. Blakemore clearly has a lot of talent, but my one piece of advice to her would be to throw out the thesaurus and buy a good dictionary. It is much better to use a plain word correctly than a fancy word wrongly: for example, “rubbing one hand on a sordid apron” – yes, in some contexts sordid and dirty can be synonyms, but not this one. Then there are the shrieking anachronisms – “for shits and giggles”, “coin-operated”, “smack me upside the head”, etc. And the plain errors – who instead of whom, and so on. And sometimes the descriptive passages run away with her completely – “The sunbeams bouncing in through the parlour window feel like hot spindles to his eyes, and slice right through the soft, compromised meat of his head” or “While marching orders and tactical directives deliquesce on the brumal winds, the pyrotechnics of imminent apocalypse shimmer just as rosily on the ice-bound horizon as they ever did.” I hasten to add it’s not all like this by any means – for the most part her writing is very good, but she is clearly trying too hard to be “creative”, and there’s enough of it that it was a constant irritation to me, and took away from my ability to get lost in the story. It is ultimately the author’s responsibility to get the writing right, but yet again I have to ask, what did the editor do to earn his/her fee with this one?

The fact that I still enjoyed it despite these problems is an indication of the strengths of the story, the characterisation and Blakemore’s underlying writing talent. Hopefully as she gains experience she will learn to rely on these things and not stretch too far in a bid for an original turn of phrase. I look forward to reading more from her in the future.

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

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Tuesday ‘Tec! The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Holmes is alive!

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Return of Sherlock HolmesThis is the third volume of Holmes short stories, and in my opinion the weakest overall, although it still has several good stories in it. Forced by popular sentiment and commercial realities to resuscitate Holmes after the unfortunate drowning incident at the Reichenbach Falls, I always have the feeling that Conan Doyle’s heart wasn’t really in it at this stage – some of these are a bit bland in terms of plot. In the later volumes I feel he got back into his stride and came up with more imaginative and dramatic scenarios – some so imaginative, admittedly, that they test credibility to the breaking point, but more exciting on the whole.

That rather negative introduction shouldn’t put new readers off though – even the weaker Holmes stories are always well worth reading, simply for ACD’s easy, flowing writing style which makes anything he writes a pleasure to read. And the relationship between Holmes and his admiring friend Watson is always a joy.

Tuesday Tec2

The first story, and the worst of all the Holmes stories for me, is The Adventure of The Empty House in which Holmes returns from the grave, startling Watson into a fainting fit. It’s full of plot holes and the explanation for why Holmes has left his old friend grieving for him for several years makes Holmes seem even colder and more heartless than usual. During this period Watson lost his beloved wife, Mary, and Holmes, having sent no word of comfort at the time, barely bothers to condole with him even now. But the real weakness is that the reason for Holmes’ long absence makes no sense. Supposedly staying presumed dead so that he can work quietly to destroy the remnants of Moriarty’s organisation, we quickly discover that Moriarty’s number two, Colonel Moran, saw Holmes escape from the Reichenbach incident. So everyone – Moriarty’s people and the police – all knew Holmes was alive, but he still didn’t tell dear old Watson. If I’d been Watson, I’d have punched him! Watson, being much sweeter than I, instead welcomes him back with open arms and an open heart. I love Watson…

dr watsonThe Dr Watson

Anyway, after that frankly disappointing start, the collection reverts to the usual format of individual cases often brought to Holmes by the baffled police. Lestrade (my favourite bumbling policeman) appears in several, as does Stanley Hopkins, of whom for some reason Holmes thinks highly, although he always seems just as befuddled as poor Lestrade to me! There are missing rugby players, mysterious ciphers, blackmailers, abusive husbands, imperilled women, Russian nihilists, stolen government plans, etc., etc., and we also have Holmes saving the world from war (as he does a few times over his career) in the final story, The Adventure of the Second Stain.

blood-spatter

Here’s a flavour of a few of my favourites:

The Adventure of the Dancing Men – Hilton Cubitt approaches Holmes because he is finding little drawings of dancing men around his property and they seem to be terrifying his wife. Actually this is one of Holmes’ major failures in that he fails to solve the dancing men cipher in time to prevent the tragedy that the messages foretell, but I love those dancing men! Sadly I’ve read it so often now I know what the messages mean, but the first time(s) I read it I had great fun trying and failing to crack the code.

Elementary, my dear Watson!

(bonus points if you crack the code – clue: the first letter is E)

The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist – A woman in peril story, as Miss Violet Smith becomes the target of evil men for nefarious reasons that only become clear at the end. I enjoy Miss Smith’s feisty independence and courage, even if she does have a (justifiable) fit of the vapours at the climax of the story. And there’s something very creepy about the way ACD describes her being followed as she cycles along deserted country roads. This is another it’s important not to analyse too deeply because frankly the climax ignores minor details like how the law works in the England of the time, but it’s fun anyway.

The Solitary Cyclist

The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton – Milverton is a notorious blackmailer who preys on society ladies who have been indiscreet. Holmes is asked for help by one such lady, and both he and Watson are at their chivalrous best, even going so far as to break the law in an attempt to get back the lady’s letters. This one tootles along at a steady pace and then suddenly blows up into a spectacular climax! A real “I did not see that coming!” moment, and brilliantly done!

Charles Augustus Milverton (2)

The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez – Inspector Stanley Hopkins asks for Holmes’ help in a puzzling case involving the murder of the secretary of Professor Coram at Yoxley Old Place. I love this for three major reasons: I love the name Yoxley Old Place – it sounds so deliciously Gothic; this is where I first heard of pince-nez and the idea of them tickled young FF’s fancy; and mostly, I love the brilliant way Holmes uses cigarettes to solve the case, much to Watson’s baffled disgust!

Golden Pince Nez

The second-best Holmes

So, much to enjoy even in this relatively weaker collection. I listened to Derek Jacobi narrating them, and he really is the perfect Watson, as well as creating a full range of voices and personalities for all the other many characters who cross the pages.

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Mother Loves Me by Abby Davies

Got myself a crying, talking, sleeping, walking, living doll…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Mother Loves MePoor Mirabelle is never allowed to go outside. Mother has explained that she has a severe allergy to light and if the sun shone on her she would die, painfully. Mirabelle has wondered if she couldn’t maybe go out in the evening then, after sunset, but Mother has told her that there are evil people out there at night who would do bad things to her. So Mirabelle lives her life inside her home, all the windows boarded up to stop light from getting in, all the doors locked to stop Mirabelle from getting out. But there’s one good thing in her life – Mother loves her. Every morning Mother paints Mirabelle’s face and dresses her so she looks just like a doll – Mother’s little doll. And then on her thirteenth birthday, Mother brings home a surprise – a little sister called Clarabelle, although the new little doll claims her name is Emma. And Mirabelle isn’t Mother’s favourite any more…

Written as Mirabelle’s own past-tense narrative, Davies manages to get a huge amount of tension into the story as Mirabelle begins to realise that everything Mother has told her may not be true. Admittedly, her voice and actions don’t always fit with her age – she sometimes speaks and acts like an older teenager, almost adult, and it’s hard to believe that she has as good a knowledge of the world as she has, given that everything she knows comes from books. But for the most part I found that issue quite easy to ignore, and I enjoyed the way Davies references the books Mirabelle has acquired her knowledge from, and how she models her actions on the heroes and heroines she has found in them.

While the thriller aspect goes well over the credibility line in the later stages, the basic premise is pretty terrifying because it’s so believable. And yet it’s not quite as dark as some of these stories about people being kept locked up for years because the baddie in this case is a woman, and therefore there’s no aspect of sexual abuse regarding Mirabelle or Clarabelle. Mother simply wants a living doll of her own, and so long as Mirabelle doesn’t make her angry then life is bearable, and it’s all she’s known. It’s only when she begins to realise Mother’s deception that Mirabelle becomes first confused, then unhappy and finally angry.

Abby Davies
Abby Davies

The writing style is simple, as befits a narrative from a thirteen-year-old, but it has some nice touches that make it an enjoyable read – the book references I mentioned earlier, the way Davies builds tension and shows us Mirabelle’s fear and her methods of controlling it, and her sense of wonder about the world she has never seen. I also liked how Davies managed to give a sense of both time and place to the reader even though all we have to go on is Mirabelle’s very restricted viewpoint. I wouldn’t say I ever came to have any sympathy for Mother, but Davies adds enough depth to her character to prevent her from merely being a pantomime villain, and she does a good job of showing how hard it is for Mirabelle to trust her own judgement about Mother given the years of brainwashing to which she’s been subjected. By the time it all goes a bit over the top towards the end, I was too invested in Mirabelle’s peril to get overly critical. And while it may not be strictly credible, I have to admit that nothing in it would be completely impossible…

Fast-paced, creepy, highly suspenseful, a bit gory in the latter stages but not too much so – given that it’s not really my usual kind of thing, I enjoyed this one considerably more than I thought I would.

20 books 2019Book 6 of 20

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

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The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn

Casting their nets…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Silver DarlingsWhen the landlords throw the tenants off their crofts to make way for sheep, the crofters of the north-east of Scotland turn to the sea to make their living in the new industry of herring fishing that is springing up, aided to some degree by those same landlords (guilt money) and by government subsidies. This book tells the story of Catrine, a young wife whose husband has been taken by the press gangs, and her son Finn as he grows from childhood into manhood, and becomes a fisherman in his turn. And through them, it shows the way of life of these people, as they slowly become masters of their new trade, learning through hard experience and sometimes tragedy.

It’s very well written and along the way Gunn gives enough information so that readers with no familiarity with the story of the Highland Clearances will pick up enough to be able to understand the huge upheaval it meant for the crofters, economically and socially. Gunn shows it as not all bad (which is quite rare in Scotland, where bitterness over the Clearances tends to make us portray everything that came out of them as disastrous). He shows that the fishermen found that they could earn far more from fishing than they ever had from crofting, and many of the men took to a more adventurous life with enthusiasm. However, he also shows how it impacted their way of life as people became more village-based and old traditions, like oral storytelling, had to be nurtured in order to survive. Women had to come to terms with their husbands and sons being away at sea for lengthy periods, leaving them to maintain any land and smallholdings they had managed to hold on to. And ever present is the fear of death from sudden storms or accidents or, as Catrine experienced, the loss of menfolk who were “pressed” into serving in the Navy.

Personally I’m a plot-driven person, and that’s the one thing the book really lacks. It’s a slow look at society through Finn’s life in it, as boy and then man, and if there’s an overarching story at all, it is simply the one of who Finn will eventually marry. This lack of a driving storyline made it a slow read for me – I found it interesting in the way non-fiction is, rather than compelling as a suspenseful novel would normally be. There were several parts that I felt dragged, but there are also several parts where it picks up pace and emotion and becomes quite thrilling, such as the first time the men take their boat round the notorious Cape Wrath and finally make it to Stornoway, such a hard journey at that time that Stornoway feels like a foreign country. Or when the cholera epidemic hits the village, again shown very realistically with older, weaker people succumbing while the younger, stronger ones tended to survive. Gunn shows the primitive, almost non-existent healthcare in these poorer, remote communities, and how the people still relied on superstition and traditional remedies to get them through.

classics club logo 2Book 78 of 90

Gunn largely leaves out the politics of the Clearances – his mission is to show the birth of the herring industry rather than the end of crofting. He does this very well, and I felt I learned a lot about how the industry grew up from a small start, with a few wealthier men setting up as exporters and building trade routes to Europe, and gradually directing the fishermen almost like employees or contractors. We see the first signs of what has subsequently become a major on-going issue – the overfishing of certain areas and types of fish, and we see the men gradually spread out into new, more dangerous seas and begin to fish for other types of fish than herring, the silver darlings of the title. It all feels remarkably relevant now that fishing, like crofting before it, has become a declining industry, hanging on grimly in the face of all the economic and political odds that are stacked against it. We think now of the Scottish fishing industry as one of our national traditions under threat, just as the crofters were once driven from their land. This was an excellent reminder that in fact fishing has only been a major industry in Scotland for a relatively short time, historically speaking, and also a reminder that all industries pass in time, to be replaced by newer and, if we’re lucky, perhaps even better ones.

….This was the way in which he had seen Roddie, once when he was at the tiller, upright as if carven, during the storm in the Western Ocean, and again in the moment of the cliff-head, when eternity had put its circle about them, and he had known the ultimate companionship of men, had seen the gentleness, profounder than any crying of the heart, at the core of male strength.
….Finn experienced this far more surely than could ever be thought out or expressed in words. Perhaps here was the education that came from no schooling, came from the old stories by men like Hector and Black John and Finn-son-of-Angus, none of whom could either read or write. And the girl, not teaching, but singing the experience of the race of women in tradition’s own voice.

Neil M Gunn
Neil M Gunn

Although the characters would have been Gaelic or Scots speakers, Gunn has happily chosen to write in standard English throughout, making it easily accessible to non-Scots and non-Gaelic speakers. His portrayal of the sea as a heartless mistress, dealing out wealth and death arbitrarily, is wonderful, and the sailing scenes are some of the best parts of the book. But equally he is great at showing the wild highland landscape, and the remoteness of the villages even from each other.

Overall, then, for the most part I found the book slow-going and longed for a plot to carry me forward. However, I found the look at this way of life interesting, interspersed with occasional dramatic episodes that for brief periods brought it thrillingly to life.

I read this as part of a Review-Along with blog buddies, Christine, Alyson, Rose and Sandra. I’ll add a link to Rose’s review when it appears (see below), and Sandra’s, if she decides to review it (also now below), and please check in the comments below to see what the others though of it. I’m hoping they all enjoyed it as much or even more than I did!

Rose’s review

Sandra’s review

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The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

When the detective is more complicated than the plot…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Cuckoo's CallingWhen supermodel Lulu Landry falls to her death from her apartment window, the police put it down to suicide. She had been seen earlier that evening having a big bust-up with her boyfriend. But her brother, John Bristow, doesn’t believe that verdict – he’s convinced that Lulu was murdered. So he seeks the help of Cormoran Strike, ex-military man and not very successful private detective, to investigate.

Strike has a complicated family and backstory, clearly designed to be a recurring detective in a long-running series, as of course he has indeed become. Son of a hippy groupie mother and a rockstar father, with a parcel of half-siblings on his father’s side with whom he has very little contact and one half-sibling on his mother’s side to whom he’s close, when we first meet him he is in the middle of a messy break-up with his long-term fiancée which leaves him homeless and sleeping in his office. Add to this his background as a military veteran who lost a leg when his vehicle was bombed, and, as I said, complicated. All of this complication may be why the book is ridiculously overlong. (FF muses: Poirot just came from Belgium – that was enough, wasn’t it? Miss Marple has even less backstory. And yet Agatha Christie books have been selling for a century. I wonder if readers in 2121 will still be reading about Cormoran Strike.)

Lulu Landry has an equally complicated background which we learn about at equal length. The adopted mixed race daughter of white parents, her beauty has made her rich and famous but not necessarily happy. Her boyfriend is perpetually drunk or high on drugs and the two regularly have spectacular rows. Her brother, also adopted, seems to love her to an unhealthy degree. Her adoptive mother, who seems to have treated Lulu like a pretty doll, is now dying of cancer. But there’s no real reason why Lulu would have committed suicide on this particular night – in fact, it seems highly unlikely. Just as well the police were so easily satisfied, though, or there would have been no case for Strike to investigate, I suppose!

Robert Galbraith
Robert Galbraith

Strike is assisted in his investigation by his new temporary secretary, Robin, who has secretly always wanted to be a private detective and discovers to her own delight and Strike’s surprise that she has something of a talent for the work. Soon she’s out from behind her typewriter, joining in on the action. Fortunately she finds Strike’s habit of descending into drunken maudlin self-pity more endearing than I did, and soon becomes a kind of emotional prop to him along with all her other skills.

I feel I’m being unfairly negative about the book. In fact, I quite enjoyed reading it. Galbraith’s writing style has an easy flow to it which keeps those pages turning even when there’s a lot of repetition and extraneous padding. I could have lived without the constant unnecessary swearing, which I assume Galbraith throws in to show she can write for adults as well as children. I’m pretty sure that in fact children would appreciate the foul-mouthery far more than this adult did. But otherwise I found it very readable, easy on the brain and, sadly, almost instantly forgettable. I wouldn’t refuse to read another in the series, but I won’t be rushing out to acquire them either, especially since I believe they actually increase in length as they go on, with the latest one coming in at a frankly ludicrous 944 pages. They would have to be chocolate pages to tempt me to pick that one up!

People's Choice LogoBook 5 of 12

This was the People’s Choice winner for May. A reasonably enjoyable read, and I’m happy it’s off my TBR – so a win! Thanks to all who voted. 😀

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Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

A masterclass in ambiguity…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Gillespie and IElderly Harriet Baxter sits in her London home, thinking back to when she was a young woman, visiting Glasgow for the International Exhibition of 1888. There, she fell in with the Gillespie family, and became involved in an incident that was to impact both her and them for the rest of their lives. She slowly tells the reader the tale…

Slowly being the operative word. If this book had been half its length it would have been wonderful. Instead, it crawls along at a toe-curlingly slow pace, with every moment of every day described in excessive detail. I was listening to the audiobook, which had the unfortunate effect that I couldn’t skim read as I think I tend to do when reading over-detailed print books. With audio, each word is given equal weight and this, for me, really highlights when an author has fallen self-indulgently in love with her own creation and has forgotten that the poor reader might prefer the story to move along at a speed slightly above the glacial. There! That’s my complaint over, so now on to the good points, of which there are many.

Harriet is a wonderful narrator, unreliable in the extreme, not terribly likeable, but compellingly ambiguous. Although it takes a long time to get there, we learn from foreshadowing that at some point there will be a trial in the story, although we don’t know who will be tried or for what, or whether whoever it is will be found guilty. But we do know that the outcome of the trial left Harriet notorious, and that she is now telling her version of events as a counter to a book which has come out making her out to be some kind of villainous monster.

Ned is a young painter, scraping a living out of his art but yet to really make his name. Harris has set her book at the time of the “Glasgow School” – a period when Glasgow was for a few decades a major artistic hub in the fields of painting and architecture particularly. Ned and his fellow artists are not in the first rank of this movement – rather they are shown as a kind of wider, secondary grouping inspired by the artistic buzz around the city. Harris doesn’t go into the art of the period in any detail, but uses it to provide a very authentic background to her group of artists and hangers-on, and Ned’s work is clearly influenced by the realism that was a feature of the real painters of the movement.

Taking tea at The Glasgow Exhibition, 1888 by Sir John Lavery, a painter of the Glasgow School

Harriet, although she would never admit it, is clearly obsessed by Ned, and jealous of Annie and their children for taking up so much of his time and attention. Harriet would claim that it’s Ned’s work that interests her – her belief that he has the talent to become one of the major artists of his day, with a little help from an altruistic friend. The reader suspects her feelings towards him might be little less lofty – a little more earthy, in fact. She soon becomes an intimate friend of the family, though one suspects that the family may be less thrilled by this than Harriet is.

Harriet’s voice is excellent, and Anna Bentinck’s first-rate performance does the character full justice (along with all the other characters, to whom she gives a myriad of authentic-sounding Scottish accents). As a single lady past the first flush of youth in the Victorian era, Harriet is of course outwardly prim and proper, but her inward thoughts allow us to know her mind is not quite as pure as a young lady’s should be! She is often very funny, usually unintentionally, and Harris is fabulous at letting the reader read between the lines of the picture of innocent kindliness Harriet is trying to paint of herself. The other characters are all presented through Harriet’s biased eyes, so that we can’t be sure if poor Annie is as ineffective a mother as we see, or if Sybil, the eldest child, is really as monstrously badly behaved as she seems. We can’t even be sure if Ned has any real talent. What we do know for certain is that Harriet is lonely and alone, and desperately seeking some kind of human relationship that will allow her to feel she has a place in the world. This means that even when she’s at her most manipulative, we can’t help having some level of sympathy for her circumstances. It’s all a masterclass in ambiguity, and even by the end I couldn’t decide if I loved Harriet or hated her, wanted to give her a comforting hug or throw stones at her. I’m very, very glad she’s not my (mythical) husband’s friend though…

Jane Harris
Jane Harris

When the story proper finally begins, well into the book, it becomes quite dark. Up to that point, Harriet has been at worst a little pitiable – a woman repressed by her society who is desperately seeking some way to validate her existence, even if only to herself. From there on (and I’m deliberately being vague to avoid spoilers) the reader has to decide if she is a monster or a victim. The beauty of the way Harris plays it is that it’s quite possible to believe she is both. Older Harriet, whose story we learn in short segments throughout the book, is a rather heart-breaking picture of the loneliness of a spinster, somewhat shunned by the world partly because of her notoriety but also simply because of her age.

So a wonderful portrait of an ambiguous character set against an authentic background of the Glasgow art movement – had it not been for the truly excessive, even though well written, padding, this would undoubtedly have been a five star read. As it is, four stars, and a plea for editors to take a stronger line with authors who fall too much in love with their own wordsmithery.

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The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude

Missing, presumed dead…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

The Sussex Downs MurderBrothers John and William Rothers share the family home and lime manufacturing business at Chalklands Farm in Sussex. William’s wife also lives there, which is unfortunate, or convenient, depending on your viewpoint, since she seems to be at least as close to John as she is to her husband. Then John decides to go on a short driving holiday, but he doesn’t get far – his car is found abandoned a few miles from home and there are signs of violence. No sign of John though, alive or dead. Inspector Meredith has recently been transferred to the area and is put in charge of the case. First he’ll have to determine if John has been kidnapped or murdered before he can hope to discover whodunit…

I’ve loved a couple of John Bude’s books and been pretty unimpressed by a couple more, so wasn’t sure what to expect with this one. And it fell in the middle for me – reasonably enjoyable but not nearly as entertaining as he can be. I’m coming to the conclusion it’s the Inspector Meredith books that don’t work too well for me. Not that I don’t like the Inspector – as a character he’s fine and in this one there’s some entertaining stuff between him and his teenage son which gives him a more rounded feel than in some of the other books. It’s more the investigative technique that puts me off, very painstaking and slow, with lots of examining and re-examining clues as each fresh piece of information comes to light. I’m aware I’ve said similar things about a few of the Golden Age police procedurals, especially the Inspector French novels of Freeman Wills Crofts, so I was interested to learn from Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books that Meredith is indeed modelled on French. However Edwards says that Meredith “possesses a sharper sense of humour” and an “innate humanity”, with both of which I agree. This kind of detailed procedural is clearly a specific style of mystery story popular at the time, and Bude certainly does it better than most.

Murder Mystery Mayhem Logo 2Challenge details:
Book: 35
Subject Heading: Serpents in Eden
Publication Year: 1936

He’s also very good at settings and here he brings the area of the Sussex Downs to life, with the sparsely populated rural district playing a major role in the solving of the mystery. First published in 1936, there was still little enough traffic on the roads for people to notice and recognise passing vehicles, and even remember them some days later. Local gossip plays its part too, with there being few enough people around for everyone to have a fair idea of what everyone else might be up to, or at least to think they do.

The solution seems a bit obvious from fairly early on, unfortunately, but the meat of the story is really in how Meredith goes about his investigation. As he struggles to find proof of a murder having been done much less to prove who may have done it, we see his frustration and the pressure he is put under by his superiors. But Meredith is a patient man, willing to admit when a theory isn’t working out and to go back to the beginning to formulate a new one.

Overall, then, enjoyable enough to while away a few hours but not a top rank mystery novel, which has been pretty much my reaction to all of the Inspector Meredith novels I’ve read so far. I think in future I’ll try to stick to Bude’s standalones where, in my limited experience of him, he seems to show much more inventiveness and humour, and achieves a better pace.

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The Survivors by Jane Harper

Guilty secrets…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The SurvivorsWhen Keiran Elliot returns to the small beachside town of Evelyn Bay in Tasmania, he brings along the grief and guilt that have never left him since a tragic incident there several years before when he was still a teenager. Keiran and his partner, Mia, who also grew up in the town, have returned to visit Keiran’s parents – Brian, now suffering from dementia and about to be moved into a care home, and Verity, still also struggling with the after-effects of that incident. No sooner are they home than another tragedy rocks the town, when the body of a young woman is found on the beach. As the investigation into her death proceeds, memories of those earlier events are stirred up among the townsfolk, and old secrets begin to be revealed.

As always, Jane Harper’s greatest strength is in her settings, each one different but always sharing a feeling of isolation and claustrophobia. Evelyn Bay is one of those small towns where everyone thinks they know everyone else’s business and where every small incident is worthy of note. In summer the town is crowded with tourists, there for the ocean. But when the story begins the season has just finished and the only people left are the year-round residents, most of whom have known each other all their lives.

Although there is a mystery – more than one, in fact – at the heart of the book, the major theme is how grief and guilt can impact both individuals and a community. I’ll hold my hands up and say this is not a theme I’m fond of – it appears in a lot of contemporary crime fiction and, even when its as well done as it is in this one, it changes the focus away from the detection and solving of the crime, which is primarily what I read crime fiction for, and makes the tone gloomy and depressing rather than intriguing and entertaining. I don’t think this novel is “fair play” – the solution seems to come out of nowhere, and frankly there could have been any number of equally credible solutions on the information available to the reader. Written in the third person, it’s told mainly from Keiran’s perspective, so the reader knows no more than he about what the police may have uncovered. Again this makes it feel less like a mystery novel and more like an exploration of the impact of a crime on the people affected by it. So from that point of view, I found it all rather unsatisfying.

However, the quality of Harper’s writing and her excellent characterisation keep it very readable. After a very slow start, with far too much of the “what happened that day long ago” faux suspense stuff for my liking, Harper finally reveals what did happen that day and then happily the pace picks up. She gives a very believable depiction of how quickly gossip and suspicion spread through a small community, and how social media allows people to make anonymous allegations that can lead to a lot of hurt. She also shows how the pressure of being known by everyone can add to feelings of guilt or make suspicion feel overwhelming – there’s no escape to the welcome anonymity that can be found in big cities. Harper doesn’t rely on unbelievable twists – every character behaves in ways that feel psychologically in tune with the personality she creates for them, which means that the solution, even if it does all happen a little too conveniently, is entirely credible and feels emotionally true.

Jane Harper
Jane Harper

I struggled to get into it in the beginning, but once I did I found it quite absorbing. Keiran, Mia and their baby daughter make a kind of triple character – together they are more than the sum of their parts, so to speak. The town takes on its own persona, as does the ocean which has given so much to the townspeople but has also been the source of tragedy over the years. And there’s a kind of coming of age aspect to it, too, as Keiran finds himself, now an adult and a father, reassessing his own youth and his understanding of his family and friends. For me, there’s too much emphasis on the role of grief and not enough actual mystery-solving for it to have become a favourite, but that’s a subjective viewpoint – it’s very good at what it’s setting out to be.

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

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The Chill Factor by Richard Falkirk

Volcanoes, geysers and spies…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Chill FactorIt’s 1971, and post-war Iceland is a somewhat reluctant host to the American military, there ostensibly to protect Iceland under the NATO banner, but in reality because Iceland’s geographic position makes it a strategically important part of the Western bulwark against Soviet Communism. When the Americans fear that a Soviet spy ring is operating in the country, NATO sends in a British agent, Bill Conran, to investigate. Meanwhile, a young girl has been found dead after a drunken night out and a young American soldier is suspected to be responsible. The Icelanders, already resentful towards what some see as an American occupation, are outraged…

Sometimes, rather than reading historical fiction, it’s interesting to read a book written at the time – you tend to get a much clearer feel for the prevalent attitudes without the filtering of hindsight. This book is a great example of that. No one writing today about Iceland in the 1970s would generalise, exaggerate and affectionately mock it in quite the way this British author of the time did. Falkirk reminds us that Britain and Iceland had recently emerged from the Cod Wars – i.e., a long-running dispute over fishing territories in the North Atlantic. (In fact, he spoke too soon – the dispute would be resurrected in the following years and not finally settled till the late 1970s.) As a result, Brits of the time would probably have quite enjoyed seeing Iceland made fun of a little – the Cod Wars never really made us all-out enemies but they were certainly serious enough to cause tension and a degree of animosity.

And Falkirk has fun with his Icelanders – the drinking, the sexual permissiveness (he sounds quite jealous of that aspect) and the obsession with the weather. This 50th anniversary edition of the book has an introduction by Ragnar Jónasson, a very familiar name to fans of Nordic crime fiction, who says that Falkirk got a lot right, especially the descriptions of Reykjavik and the landscape, but tactfully suggests that some of the commentary on the Icelandic character needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Jónasson also tells us that the book was popular in Iceland at the time, partly because it was so rare for a foreign author to set a book there.

The other historical aspect that’s interesting to see from a contemporary perspective is the on-going Cold War. Falkirk has no doubt about the standing of the various players in that – the Brits are morally good and intellectually superior, the Americans might be a bit naive but they have lots of useful guns, the Icelanders should be grateful for NATO’s protection, and the Commies are evil! (Actually I suspect British attitudes today might be pretty similar to that, but moving swiftly on… 😉 )

The main strengths, as Jónasson suggests, lie in the descriptions of Iceland itself, with its active volcanoes, geysers and mud pools, the small, clean towns and the lack of poverty. Falkirk portrays the people as fun-loving, friendly souls with none of the repressed hang-ups of the stiff upper lipped Brits, so although he does make fun of them it is broadly affectionate. He talks about the extremely low crime rate, which is apparently true, showing that therefore an individual crime takes on a much greater importance in the public mind than it usually does in more crime-ridden societies.

Richard Falkirk aka Derek Lambert
Richard Falkirk aka Derek Lambert

I found the story itself somewhat less interesting. It’s a rather standard Cold War thriller and I felt it was too easy to spot the various double-crossers. However it was entertaining enough to keep me happily turning the pages, and Conran is a good, typical fictional spy even if he does seem to spend considerably more time chasing women than Russians! There is a bit of a twist at the end which obviously I won’t reveal, but it again arises from the recent history of Europe and perhaps would have felt more credible to readers at the time than it did to me now. There’s a fair amount of mild humour in it to lift the tone, and at just over 220 pages, the book doesn’t outstay its welcome.

So overall I enjoyed it a lot, though more for the descriptions of Iceland and the historical context than for the story itself. Recommended for fans of spy thrillers, and also for fans of Icelandic crime fiction who might enjoy, as I did, getting a different perspective on the island’s recent past.

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

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Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Don’t go into the woodshed!

😀 😀 😀 😀

Cold Comfort FarmOrphaned at the age of 20, Flora Poste discovers her father was not the rich man the world thought. Once his debts are paid off, Flora only has an income of £100 a year. Her friend suggests she should take some kind of training and get a job, but the idea of this holds no appeal for Flora. So instead she writes to all her relations, most of whom she has never met, asking if she can come and live with them. All respond, and remarkably each of them offers her a home, though none of the homes sound terribly appealing to Flora. But the letter from her cousin Judith Starkadder intrigues her – the address, Cold Comfort Farm, in Howling, Sussex, conjures visions in itself, and Judith’s vague hints of some kind of dark deed having being done to Flora’s father for which the Starkadders owe atonement is too tempting. So off she sets to meet the huge extended family of Starkadders who live on the farm…

At first I feared this was going to be one of those many books that infest English literature where the sophisticated, upper-class, urbanite author mocks the unintelligent, uneducated and uncouth rustic yokels. But it quickly reveals that in fact it’s parodying just that kind of novel, and also the novels then in vogue showing the reverse – the kind of noble savage of the modernists, where those rustics are born with an innate honour and a stolid kind of decency as opposed to the sophisticate’s shallow decadence. Frankly, if I were DH Lawrence, I’d have sued her! (If I hadn’t been dead at the time, obviously.)

Flora is not decadent – she’s far too well brought up for that. She is however supremely self-confident in her ability to sort people’s lives out for them, and the inhabitants of Cold Comfort Farm offer her plenty of opportunities to indulge her passion for turning messiness into order. There’s brooding Seth, shirt unbuttoned half-way down his chest to reveal bulging muscles and an ultra-masculine lustiness irresistible to all women (except Flora). Reuben, obsessive about improving the farm, but thwarted at every turn by his father and brother. Amos, the father, who is a terrible farmer, devotes his free time to hellfire preaching in the local town. Young Elfine, wild as a woodland sprite, struggling to win the man she loves. Old Mrs Starkadder, living her life in her room, haunted by the memory of when she was two and saw “something narsty in the woodshed”, is a kind of matriarchal tyrant, refusing to allow any of the younger family members to leave the farm and make different lives for themselves. Even the farm animals merit Flora’s reforming zeal, as she is determined that the bull be allowed out of the barn where he seems to spend his entire life.

There is a lot of humour in it with some very funny scenes, and it’s especially fun to try to spot which authors and books Gibbons had in mind. DH Lawrence, I felt, was never far from her thoughts – all that intensely brooding animal sexuality and profound angst. But Thomas Hardy is surely in there too, with his somewhat idealised but simple rural characters. I’m not well read or analytical enough to catch all the references, and there might be a tendency to start creating links that don’t exist – for instance, when Flora meets the hot weather by donning her green linen suit, I couldn’t help wondering if Ted Burgess from The Go-Between might have played his part in influencing Seth’s character. Wikipedia informs me that the main influences are apparently two authors I haven’t read, Sheila Kaye-Smith and Mary Webb – I’ll take their word for it, although to me it’s so DH Lawrence that I can’t imagine he wasn’t one of her major influences too. Gibbons also occasionally veers outside her own remit of literature to take a pop at her modern world, and these bits are very enjoyable, such as when we meet a Hollywood producer and hear his opinion on the qualities required in a romantic male movie-star.

Stella Gibbons
Stella Gibbons

Despite all the good things it has going for it, it also has some weaknesses that stopped me from whole-heartedly loving it. There are so many characters I was still struggling to remember who was who well into the later stages, except for the three or four main characters. It gets a little repetitive – the joke begins to wear thin after a while and there’s a lot of repetition, for example, of the references to “something narsty in the woodshed”. There are things that I simply didn’t get – possibly my fault, possibly they are referencing some book I haven’t read and would have been hilarious if I had. For instance, the various cows around the farm keep losing legs or horns with no explanation – this baffled rather than amusing me. And, while I kept reminding myself it was humour and not to be taken too seriously, I found Flora’s solutions to various people’s problems probably made her happier than the characters whose lives she was supposedly improving.

Overall, though, the good certainly outweighs the less good parts of it. An enjoyable read for anyone who has dipped their toes into early 20th century English literature, and I’m sure would be even more entertaining for people who are widely read in it.

People's Choice LogoBook 4 of 12

This was a People’s Choice winner, and hurrah, you picked a good one! You’re definitely getting better at this, People! 😀

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At the Villa Rose by AEW Mason

Villain or victim?

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

AEW Mason (2)
AEW Mason

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

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

I downloaded this one from wikisource.

Inspector French and the Crime at Guildford by Freeman Wills Croft

Robbery and murder…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

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

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

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

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

Freeman Wills Croft

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

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

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

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Transwarp Tuesday! The Society of Time and Other Stories by John Brunner

Paradoxically…

:mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: 

This new volume in the British Library’s Science Fiction Classics series contains three stories. The title story is the longest and rests somewhere between novella and short novel in length. The other two would probably be best described as novelette length. Each story deals with the idea of time in some way, but they are very different from each other, showing Brunner as an imaginative and thoughtful writer who, like many of the SF greats, often used his stories to reflect on issues within his own society. My limited reading of science fiction meant I hadn’t come across him before, but the introduction by Mike Ashley tells me that he was a well-regarded British writer of the second half of the twentieth century, though his major successes all came early in his career, mostly in the 1960s, the period from which all three stories in this collection date.

The Society of Time – itself a trilogy of sorts, but with an overarching storyline that binds the three parts together, this tells of an alternative history where the Spanish Armada won and Britain became a colony of the Spanish Empire. The story is set in 1988, coming up for the 400th anniversary of that victory, and Brunner does a good job of showing the ascendancy of an essentially Spanish aristocracy ruling over a still recognisably British population. A method of time travel had been discovered almost a century earlier, but is strictly controlled by the Society of Time to avoid the kind of paradox that could arise by people from the present interfering with and changing their own history. Don Miguel, new licentiate of the society and our hero for the story, is attending a social function when he spots an artefact that he recognises as Aztec and as being so new looking that he fears it has been transported into the present from the past. Is there some kind of smuggling going on? This would imply corruption within the Society. As Don Miguel finds himself caught up in the investigation, he learns much about the fluidity of time and the possibility that time travel is causing fluctuations in human history.

In the second part, a quarrel leads to an irruption into the present of a race of warrior women from a possible past, while the third part widens the idea of the Society out to show that there is another grouping of nations known as the Confederacy who are the adversaries of the Empire and have their own time travelling society. As the two forces go back in time to compete for ascendancy, the present and future are put at risk. It’s very well done, although I admit that sometimes the complex paradoxes left my poor muddled brain reeling – this is my normal reaction to time paradoxes though! Although I felt the ending was a bit too neat and obvious, it is an interesting look at how our present is very much determined by our past – we are a product of our history whether it’s a history to be proud or ashamed of.

Father of Lies – a group of young people have found a strange place where no one seems to enter or leave and where modern technology doesn’t work. They set up a base just outside the area and investigate. As Miles (our hero) enters the area on foot (since cars don’t work) and carrying an axe (since guns don’t work), he first spots a dragon flying overhead. Then he sees a young woman in peril… While there are aspects of the fairy tale about this one and lots of references to Arthurian legends, there is a real darkness at the heart of it. It’s very imaginative and Brunner does an excellent job of giving a full picture of the strangeness of this place in a short space. Again, my one criticism would be that the ending feels a little too pat and convenient.

The Analysts – I found the first half of this very strange and intriguing, and again felt that the ending didn’t quite match up to the quality of the bulk of the story. A society called the Foundation for the Study of Social Trends wants a building built to their exact specifications but the architect to whom they take their plans thinks it’s all wrong. He calls in Joel Sackstone, an expert visualiser who can imagine from plans how a building will work for its purpose. When Joel considers the plans for this building, he begins to see that it is not flawed as the architect thinks – rather it is designed to achieve a very specific purpose. He makes a mock-up from the plans and… well, I’ll leave you to find out for yourself what happens then. In this one, Brunner is using an imaginative story to look at racism within his own time – just beginning to be recognised as an issue in Britain at that time. As might be expected, some of the language and attitudes are out-dated now and feel somewhat offensive to our current sensibilities, but his anti-racism intent is quite clear, so I gave him a pass on that.

John Brunner

I thoroughly enjoyed all three of the stories. They show a lot of originality in dealing with what has long been an overcrowded sub-genre of time travelling stories, and he moves well between the somewhat harder edge of science fiction and the softer fantasy elements. In the first, longer story, he has room for some good character development in Don Miguel, and all of the stories are very well written. A good introduction for newcomers like me, while existing fans will be pleased that this is the first time The Society of Time has been collected in its original, unabridged form.

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

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Taken by Lisa Stone

Looking for Leila…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Port of London Murders by Josephine Bell

A slice of life…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

Josephine Bell

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

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

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Tuesday Terror! Weird Woods edited by John Miller

If you go down to the woods today…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Set amidst the ancient woods and forests of Britain, these twelve tales take us into the realms of folklore and the supernatural. The book starts with a short introduction from the editor in which he discusses how woods have been seen as the home to all kinds of weirdness – hauntings, druids, evil things surviving from the ancient past. He suggests that modern people have become physically separated from the forest, and this has led to them learning to fear it.

The stories come from the usual mix of well-known and less familiar writers, and the occasional one who is perhaps better remembered for a different genre. EF Benson, Algernon Blackwood and MR James appear, along with Edith Nesbit, Marjorie Bowen and Walter de la Mare, and several others whose names weren’t familiar to me. I gave the bulk of the stories – seven of them – four stars, while two achieved the full five, and the rest were all threes. So not many real stand-outs, but no complete duds either. Overall, a solid collection.

As usual, here’s a flavour of some of the ones I most enjoyed:

The Man Who Went Too Far by EF Benson – probably the most “weird” story in the book, this is a tale of narcissism, the search for joy and the god of nature, Pan. I highlighted this in a previous Tuesday Terror! post.

The White Lady by Elliot O’Donnell – presented as a true story. When the narrator was a boy, he was fascinated by tales of a White Lady who was said to haunt a tree-lined avenue in the local laird’s estate. So one night he sneaks out and hides inside the bole of a tree. He does indeed see the White Lady but he also sees something more… This is a short story, but well-told.

The Name-Tree by Mary Webb – Laura has a deep passionate love of the cherry orchard owned by her father, especially of one tree, her name-tree. Her father has fallen on hard times, though, and sells the orchard, although the new owner allows them to stay on as tenants. But he develops a passion for Laura, and when she will not willingly give herself to him, he threatens that he will throw them out of their home and part her from her beloved cherry orchard for ever. But if she consents, the orchard will be hers forever. The intro tells us that Webb was a feminist writer, and the story certainly has strong feminist themes. Dark, disturbing and excellent.

The Tree by Walter de la Mare – this is a very weird story of a man who has become obsessed by a wondrous tree of a kind never before seen. For years, he draws and paints it again and again, and eventually his drawings begin to appear on the art market, until one day his long-estranged brother sees one. Thinking that now his brother must be making money from his art, he decides to visit him, but what he finds is not what he expects! No idea what this one was about, exactly, but it’s quite unsettling and very well written.

So plenty of variety and some new names for me to look out for in the future. Personally I’m more inclined to find that spookiness lies in alleyways and foggy days and Gothic buildings and the haunts of men, but I enjoyed my tramp though the woods, and I suspect the stories in this collection would have an even stronger appeal to people more in tune with nature and the world of folklore.

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

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The Lost Gallows (Inspector Bencolin) by John Dickson Carr

Hanging out with Jack Ketch…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

John Dickson Carr

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

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

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

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A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

Truth v emotional truth…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a short collection of six stories, some of them autobiographical, others fictional. A couple of them are set at Christmas, while Thanksgiving and birthdays make appearances in others. For me, the collection was divided strictly down the middle. The three autobiographical ones were overly sentimental, veering perilously close to mawkishness, and full of preachy moral lessons the young Capote learned from his wise but childlike elderly cousin. The three fictional ones, however, were excellent – emotional, certainly, but with an underlying feeling of truthfulness that I found sadly lacking in the autobiographical ones. Since it’s a short collection, here’s a brief idea of each story:

A Christmas Memory – here we meet young Buddy, as the child Capote was known, as he and his cousin prepare for Christmas. There is much baking of cakes and collecting of boughs to decorate the house, and so on. The impression is of a rather lonely child, living with elderly relatives because of some family problem. The elderly cousin, here unnamed, is dismissed by her siblings as somewhat simple, but to Buddy she has retained her childlike innocence and sense of joy in life. It’s beautifully written, but too sentimentalised to ring wholly true.

A Thanksgiving Visitor – now we learn that the elderly cousin is called Miss Sook, and that the family problem is the separation and divorce of young Buddy’s parents, each of whom has gone off to live his or her own life leaving Buddy in the care of relatives. In this one, Buddy is being bullied by a boy at school, and Miss Sook sets out to deal with the issue by inviting the boy to Thanksgiving dinner, much to Buddy’s horror. Buddy behaves badly, and is taught a moral lesson that will stand him in good stead for life. My contemporaneous note about this one contained the words “self-pitying” and “trite”.

One Christmas – in this last of the autobiographical stories, Buddy’s father decides the boy should spend Christmas with him in New Orleans. Buddy barely knows his father, and has to travel hundreds of miles all alone to stay with this stranger. We learn more about his parents in this one, and if true (and I have no reason to doubt it) they were a pretty appalling pair. Buddy behaves rather badly, and when he gets home Miss Sook teaches him a moral lesson, blah, blah, blah. This one tipped right over into mawkishness, leaving me feeling as if I’d seriously over-indulged in Christmas cake. I was glad to move on to the fictional stories!

Master Misery – this is a strange, sad and rather haunting story of a young woman who leaves her small town to come to New York, full of dreams of how wonderful life will be there. But of course it isn’t, and she finds herself in a dreary job with no spare money for fun. So when she hears of a man who will pay to have other people’s dreams related to him, she goes to see him. There’s a mystical edge to this, although it never quite tips over into the supernatural. It’s a kind of allegory on the difficulty of keeping dreams alive when faced with the harshness of reality. Beautifully written, emotional in a good way, and thought-provoking.

Children on Their Birthdays – the story of Miss Bobbit, a little girl who comes to stay in town. She dresses oddly and behaves like an imperious grown-up lady, and two of the boys in the neighbourhood are so smitten with her that their lifelong friendship is broken by their mutual jealousy. That’s where the story starts, not where it ends. The ending, in fact, is told to us at the beginning – Miss Bobbit dies, run over by a bus. However, the real emotion of the story is in the boys’ friendship rather than their feelings for the girl. It’s a wonderful depiction of the hormonal angst of teenage boys discovering girls for the first time.

Jug of Silver – this is probably the least overtly emotional story in the collection and a rather more cheerful one to end on. As a publicity stunt, the owner of the local drug store fills a jug with coins and promises to give it on Christmas Eve to the customer who guesses nearest to the total in the jug. A poor little boy called Appleseed is determined to win, but first he has to find the money to buy something in the store to qualify for a guess. He comes every day to stare at the jug, and says he’s counting the coins. The story itself is enjoyable, but the real interest is in the depiction of small town life, with some lovely descriptions of the preparations for Christmas.

Truman Capote

The whole thing reminded me rather of the Avonlea-based short stories of LM Montgomery: warm, full of moral lessons and with a love of small town life, and walking that dangerous tightrope between emotionalism and mawkishness. For me, Montgomery manages the balance better, and her insertion of humour lifts the overall tone. There’s not a lot of humour in this collection and a good deal too much self-pity. I feel harsh saying that, because if “Buddy’s” depiction of his parents is authentic, then he had some reason to feel sorry for his younger self, though it would seem he lived a pretty pampered life in material terms in comparison to the poverty of many of those around him. But he milks it too much for my taste, I fear. Overall, I gave each of the three fictional stories five stars, but the autobiographical ones only managed to scrape a generous three apiece.

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

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