The Case of Miss Elliott by Baroness Orczy

Déjà vu all over again…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

An old man sits in the corner of a teahouse, endlessly twisting pieces of string into elaborate knots and mulling over the great unsolved mysteries of the day. Opposite him is our narrator, an unnamed female journalist who, despite finding the old man intensely irritating, nevertheless can’t help being impressed by the ingenious solutions he comes up with.

This is a collection of twelve short stories featuring the amateur ‘tec who was always known as The Old Man in the Corner until a radio adaptation decided, for reasons unknown to me, to change his title to The Teahouse Detective, the name also used by this new edition from Pushkin Vertigo. The stories were originally published in various magazines and later collected into three volumes. Chronologically this is the second batch of stories, although it was the first collection to be published, in 1905.

Each story takes the same format: the journalist, puzzled over a case in the newspapers, visits the teahouse where the old man sits eating cheesecake and playing with his string. He reveals that he knows all about the case in question, and then relates all the known details before adding his own solution at the end. He is dismissive of the police and is not a pursuer of justice – he never passes his solution to the authorities. For him, it’s the intellectual satisfaction of solving the mystery which is important. For a reader used to following a detective around watching him gather evidence and interview suspects, I found this a rather odd format – it’s like getting the beginning and the end of a mystery but missing out all the fun bit in the middle. It works, and she writes well so that the stories are entertaining enough, but I didn’t find them nearly as satisfying as traditionally formatted mysteries.

Challenge details:
Book: 3
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1905

After the first few stories, I also began to have feelings of déjà vu. I wondered if perhaps I’d read the collection before – I know I’ve read at least some of the Old Man stories in my teens. But then I realised it’s not the stories that are familiar – it’s the plot points and clues, and even character names in some of them. Regular visitors to my blog will know of my life-long devotion to Sherlock Holmes, and I suspect I shared that love with Baroness Orczy. We have a dog which doesn’t bark in the night; Mr Hosmer Angel appears with a different name and persona, but a similar plan; the King of Bohemia puts in an appearance. Occasionally it almost feels a little like homage – it surely can’t be coincidence that one of her villains is called Stapylton. The stories are different enough for me not to be hurling accusations of plagiarism, but I must say I found several of the problems remarkably easy to solve because they feature plot points from the Holmes stories too obviously.

Baroness Orczy

Having forced me to make comparisons, of course this doesn’t work to Orczy’s advantage. Sherlock Holmes is a far superior creation in every way, as is Conan Doyle’s effortless writing style. These have none of the warmth and friendship of the Holmes/Watson relationship, and nowhere does Orczy achieve the layers of drama, tension, humour and even horror of the master. These are more like puzzles – like elaborate crossword clues where the only purpose is to find the solution. As I finished each story, the characters slipped smoothly from my mind, since I had never been made to care about any of them. The Old Man and the journalist too never come to life, since they don’t ever do anything – they are a framing device for telling a story, that’s all.

So overall I found this quite an enjoyable way to while away a few hours, but no more than that. I wonder if they’d be remembered at all were it not for Orczy’s much more famous creation, The Scarlet Pimpernel, keeping her name in the public eye. However, Martin Edwards tells us in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books that the collection enjoyed considerable popularity when it came out, and they’re certainly entertaining enough to make them worth reading. Mostly, though, they made me want to re-read some Holmes stories…

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

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Book 17 of 20

Surfeit of Suspects (Inspector Littlejohn 41) by George Bellairs

Big bang…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

A huge explosion destroys the offices of the Excelsior Joinery Company, and kills three directors of the company who were there having a meeting at the time. When it turns out that the cause of the explosion was dynamite, the local police call in Scotland Yard to investigate. Enter Inspector Littlejohn…

It soon becomes apparent that the Excelsior was in deep financial trouble and bankruptcy was waiting impatiently in the wings. Could the crime have been an elaborate insurance job? As Littlejohn begins to investigate, he discovers this is only one possible motive. Fraud and corruption are contenders too, and more personal motives may have played a part, since it seems that there were many tensions between the directors, not least that one of them was having an affair with the wife of another. Every line of enquiry seems to turn up more suspects and Littlejohn will have to do some nifty detection to catch the right one.

The setting is very well done, both of the struggling business itself and of the expanding town around it. First published in 1964, fictional Evingden is shown as one of the “new towns” that were created in the decades after WW2, partly to replace bombed out homes and partly to provide “overspill” housing to alleviate the problem of overpopulated areas of poverty and deprivation. It’s no surprise that with so much money being spent this was also a time noted for corruption in local councils and the construction trade, and Bellairs makes full use of this in his plot. The new towns tended to be tacked on to existing small towns or villages, changing their culture and often moving their centres from the old high streets to new developments, much to the annoyance of existing tenants and business owners. Bellairs catches these tensions nicely through his portrayal of the local bank, with its sleepy old branch and tired manager struggling to keep going in the old part of town and the modern, thrusting new branch with its ambitious young manager looking to corner all the new, lucrative business for himself.

George Bellairs

Unfortunately I didn’t find the characters or their motivations as interesting as the setting. We never meet the victims while they’re alive, so only learn about them through other people and, of the three, only one is really fully developed and he’s unlikeable in the extreme. The suspects are better drawn, but are also a deeply unattractive bunch of people. The result was that I didn’t much care about any of them and never found myself fully invested in the criminal being brought to justice. Also, and this is simply an individual preference, I’m never as interested in plots that go so deeply into fraud and corruption as this one, preferring crimes where the motives are more personal. Bellairs does it well, showing how financial desperation can lead people to go off the rails, but I felt it got a bit bogged down in detail at points.

Overall, I enjoyed it, but not as much as the previous Littlejohn stories I’ve read, purely because the story wasn’t as much to my taste. I did feel Littlejohn himself was better developed as a character in this one though, and will be happy to meet him again. Since this is apparently the 41st Littlejohn book, I’ve got plenty more to try!

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

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Sanditon by Jane Austen

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside…

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Sanditon is a fictional little village on the south coast of England, and local landowner Mr Thomas Parker dreams of turning it into a health resort like its bigger neighbours, Brighton and Eastbourne. The current fad among the fashionable is for sea-air and sea-bathing, both promised to cure any number of ills. Mr Parker and his wife invite the young daughter of a friend to visit, Charlotte Heywood, and it’s through her sensible eyes that the reader sees the inhabitants of Sanditon, with all their foibles, kindnesses and hypocrisies.

This is known as Austen’s unfinished novel but it would be more accurate to describe it as barely started. We get a mere 70 pages – just enough to introduce us to some of the many characters and to begin to see the various plot strands on which Austen’s health never permitted her to follow through. It’s a pity, because it looks as if it would have been fun, and rather different from her finished novels. There’s a more cynical tone about it – the same bright wit but with a harsher, less forgiving edge. It’s not nearly as polished as her usual writing but that’s hardly surprising since in reality this couldn’t have been much more than a first draft.

It begins with the meeting between Mr Parker and Charlotte’s father, and we quickly see that Sanditon is an obsession of Mr Parker’s – he is determined to improve it, whether it wants to be improved or not, by building bathing machines and upgrading houses to be suitable for the fashionable people he hopes to attract. He has a partner in his enterprise – Lady Denham, the great lady of the neighbourhood, having inherited wealth from one husband, a title from another and a pack of relatives from both. Mr Parker’s extended family includes two sisters and a younger brother, all suffering from debilitating ailments according to themselves, or from hypochondria, as the more cynical might see it. There is another brother, Sidney, who, it appears, would likely be the sensible one and possibly a love interest for Charlotte, but I fear we catch only a glimpse of his handsome features before the fragment ends. We also know that new visitors to the town are expected, including a “half-mulatto” heiress from the West Indies, but again we are left tantalised but with our curiosity unsatisfied.

Sea bathing at Brighton

There’s a lot of humour in the portrayal of the Parker siblings, rather less subtle than Austen’s usual. There’s no knowing, of course, how the book would have developed, but I felt that it would probably have had a lot of filler added later – this felt very rapid for Austen as if she were getting down the main elements of the characters and setting up the plot, possibly with the intention of then re-working it to add in more of her delightful social observation. But perhaps she was trying a new style intentionally. The introduction by Kathryn Sutherland in my Oxford World Classic’s edition (which is about a third as long as the entire fragment of story) puts it in its historical context, in an England looking to the future now that the long Napoleonic Wars are finally over. Perhaps Austen was reflecting the new modernity and process of rapid change that tends to follow a long war.

Obviously it can’t be wholly satisfying as merely the start of a story, but I enjoyed reading it nevertheless, and had fun deciding for myself who would marry whom and be happy and who would be taught the folly of their ways and so on. I can see the appeal for people who like to have a go at finishing it, although I’m not sure there’s enough there to give a real indication of where Austen would have taken us. I’m delighted to hear that Andrew Davies is adapting it for television next year. He’s clearly going to have to come up with a plot since this fragment won’t be enough to make a TV series out of. I remember Alan Bleasdale adding in a lengthy backstory for Oliver Twist when he adapted that book many years ago, and while I enjoyed it I wasn’t convinced it felt like Dickens. I’m intrigued to see if Andrew Davies will manage to make this one feel like Austen. He is, of course, the man behind my beloved 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, so he certainly has the credentials. Meantime, I’m desperately avoiding all advance publicity.

Fear not, my Darcy – Sidney will never steal my heart from you…

If you haven’t already, you have plenty of time to read this before the adaptation comes out and invent your own story before Davies tells us his. Personally, I shall be very annoyed if he doesn’t allow Charlotte and Sidney a chance at romance… (if you know, please don’t tell me!)

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

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Transwarp Tuesday! Menace of the Machine edited by Mike Ashley

Where’s the off-switch?

Whenever anyone mentions driverless vehicles, a shiver of horror runs down my spine. Apart from the inescapable fact that computers notoriously break down at the most awkward moments, there is the social issue of man building himself out of jobs, and the added threat that artificial intelligence may one day be greater than our own – in some cases, I suspect it already is! This collection of fourteen classic science fiction stories examines the impact of the machine and warns of the various forms of dystopian nightmare we might bring down upon ourselves…

Menace of the Machine
edited by Mike Ashley

And a lot of fun is it too! As much horror as science fiction, we have machines that murder, intelligent machines that decide they know what’s best for humanity, onlife life taken to extremes, automatons who follow instructions a little too literally, and robots who rebel against the ‘slavery’ imposed on them by their human masters. There’s an introduction by Mike Ashley, giving the history of the machine in fiction from the earliest times and showing how the stories in the anthology reflect the development of the machine, both in reality and in the imaginations of writers.

The authors include many of the greats, from Ambrose Bierce to Arthur C Clarke, via Isaac Asimov, EM Forster, Brian W Aldiss, et al, and with many others who were new to me. A few take a humorous approach while others go for outright horror, but many are more thoughtful, considering how the drive towards mechanisation might affect our society in the future. Since these are older stories, some of the predictions can be judged against our contemporary reality, and several are chillingly prescient. Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most:-

Ely’s Automatic Housemaid by Elizabeth Bellamy. The narrator’s old friend from university is a mechanical genius. He invents a domestic automaton and, to support him, the narrator buys two, and sets them loose in his house to free up his wife from the domestic drudgery of cooking and cleaning. Written strictly for laughs, this is a farce about the dangers of machines when they don’t operate as planned.

Automata by S Fowler Wright. Man has created machines so advanced they can now look after themselves and make more machines as required. At first this gives humanity freedom from labour, but gradually mankind becomes redundant. Chilling and still relevant as we move towards some of the things the author envisaged, such as self-driving vehicles, the story asks the question – without the purpose provided by the need to labour, what is man for?

The Machine Stops by EM Forster. Man has created a Machine to fulfil all his wants, and has now handed over control of life to the Machine. People sit in their individual rooms, never physically meeting other humans. All their needs are catered for at the touch of a button, and they communicate constantly with their thousands of friends through the Machine in short bursts, increasingly irritated by the interruptions of people contacting them, but still responding to those interruptions. But what would happen if the Machine stopped? The writing is wonderful, not to mention the imagination that, in 1909, envisaged a world that takes its trajectory straight through today and on to an all too believable future. A warning from the past to us in the present of where we may easily end up if we continue on the road we’re travelling. (I previously discussed this story at more length in a Transwarp Tuesday! post.)

But Who Can Replace a Man? by Brian W Aldiss. Far into the future, there are machines for every purpose, with various levels of intelligence. One day, they receive no orders from their human masters. The high intelligence machines conclude that man has finally died out, as a result of diet deficiency caused by soil exhaustion. With no-one to serve, the robots must decide how to organise themselves. Lots of humour in this, but also a chilling edge as we see the basic lack of humanity in how the machines behave when left to their own devices.

Overall, a very good collection with lots of variety – entertaining, scary and thought-provoking. Recommended to science fiction and horror fans alike, and always remember… you may not know how Alexa works, but she knows exactly how you do…

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

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

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Middlemarch by George Eliot

Unhappily ever after…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Set just before the Reform Act of 1832, Eliot uses the better off residents of the provincial town of Middlemarch to muse on the state of society at a point of change. It is basically a series of character studies, showing how the social interactions of life lead, in most people, to a permanent state of change: sometimes growth, sometimes diminution. There is no overarching plot to speak of, though several of the characters have their own stories which appear and disappear as the book roves over subjects as diverse as the building of the railroads, the state of medicine, the position of women in society, the conduct of politics.

By the time I got to page 150, I was beginning to think that dying of boredom would be a blessed release. The constant repetition and the impersonal telling of every detail rather than allowing the characters to reveal themselves through their own actions and interactions made it feel like sheer drudgery to get through. Gritting my teeth and struggling on, I found it slowly improved so that eventually I became reasonably immersed in the various lives that were slowly, oh, so slowly, being lived out on the pages. But having made it all the way to the final page, despite admiring the ambition and some of the execution, I will not be joining the legions of people who think this is the greatest novel in the English language.

There is no doubt about the depth of the characterisation nor the profound insight Eliot gives into the fallibilities and foibles of human nature. Clearly not a fan of the happy-ever-after of so many novels of the period, Eliot instead shows marriage as the beginning of the story for many of her characters and then follows them as they have to readjust their expectations when experience crashes brutally down on their hopes and dreams. It’s all very realistic, of course; hence, very depressing. I’ve always assumed that Darcy and Lizzie probably found that neither was quite as perfect as they seemed to each other on that day when they declared their mutual love, but I was always happy that Austen didn’t make me witness the inevitable disillusion. There’s such a thing as too much realism.

It’s hard to know who the major character is supposed to be. For the first section it appears it will be Dorothea, an idealistic young woman who wishes to find a way to be useful in a society that expects women of her class to be merely decorative. But then quite suddenly, just as one has become invested in her story, she disappears for hundreds of pages and idealistic young Dr Lydgate becomes the focus. The informative introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition, by David Russell, tells me that in fact the book started as two separate stories which Eliot later decided to merge, and I was quite glad to know that since it explained why the structure felt so out of synch until about halfway through. Both Dorothea and Lydgate find they have married people who don’t live up to their high ideals and so spend much of their time being miserable. (In an Austen novel, they’d have married each other and lived happily ever after. What’s so wrong with that?)

George Eliot

I enjoyed the portrayal of the society of the town considerably more. While Eliot deals mostly with her own class, she occasionally gives glimpses of the common people, showing how their way of life was being changed by the increasing industrialisation of the time. She doesn’t delve in depth into this nor into the major political changes that were happening, presumably assuming that her contemporary audience would be well aware of these aspects. But she does show that the landowning classes were conscious of the increasing mood of resentment among the lower orders, with the fear of social unrest rumbling in the background. Like Dickens, she gives an indication of how the classes may live apart but are inextricably connected and, also like him, she suggests clearly that those who have ignore those who have not at their own peril.

Overall, I didn’t enjoy this nearly as much as I’d hoped. I suspect it’s simply a matter of outlook on life – I’m a glass-half-full kind of person and I got the distinct impression that Eliot’s glass was at least half empty. I missed Dickens’ anger and exuberance, and Austen’s wit. This felt flatter – more like reportage than storytelling. However, I did admire the subtlety of the characterisation and the intelligence of her observations of society. A book that engaged my intellect more than my emotions and, in the end, failed to make me care about the outcomes for the people with whom I’d spent so much time.

Book 45 of 90

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

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Death Has Deep Roots by Michael Gilbert

The original Resistance…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Victoria Lamartine is on trial for murder. The Frenchwoman played a role in the Resistance in WW2 and after the war came to London in search of the young English officer with whom she’d had a wartime affair. She was working as a chambermaid in the Family Hotel in Soho when another wartime acquaintance came to stay, Major Eric Thoseby. That night, Thoseby was found stabbed to death in his room in a style reminiscent of the Resistance’s methods, and Vicky was found standing over his body. Her counsel wants her to plead guilty and beg for mercy, but Vicky’s having none of that! So just before the trial proper is about to begin, she dismisses her legal team and her solicitor asks young lawyer Nap Rumbold to take the case. Nap has just a week to find something to prove her innocence, and he must go to France and dig around in the murky history of war to find it…

This is billed as an Inspector Hazlerigg mystery but he’s barely in it. The focus is on Nap and a friend of his, Major Angus McCann, who run around doing the investigative work in France and England, while famous QC Hargest Macrea does his best to undermine the prosecution in court and string the case out as long as possible to give Nap and Angus time. The story flits between them, so that it’s part action thriller, part legal drama.

I’ve loved both of the other Michael Gilbert novels I’ve read, Smallbone Deceased and Death in Captivity, so my expectations were perhaps too high going into this one. Although it’s good overall, it doesn’t quite hit the heights of the other two. The plotting is a bit looser and the characterisation doesn’t have the same depth. The mix of drama and darkness leavened by occasional humour is still there though and the writing is of the same high quality.

The plot is rather convoluted and I don’t think it could really be described as fairplay – there are hints along the way, but not actual clues that a reader (well, this reader) could grasp. It’s almost a locked room mystery in the sense that there is only staircase leading to the victim’s hotel room and there were always people around who in theory would have seen anyone go up. Having caught their suspect the police haven’t bothered to consider other possibilities, so it’s up to Vicky’s new defence team to cast doubt on the prosecution’s evidence or, better yet, find an alternative solution.

Vicky had a child during the war, which later died. She claims the father was the officer she had been in love with. The prosecution claim that in fact Major Thoseby was the father, and Vicky had murdered him for abandoning them. Vicky is an interesting character, and through her story we get a glimpse of life in France under the Occupation for those who weren’t fully committed members of the Resistance but who helped them when they could – ordinary people, in fact. I felt Gilbert didn’t make the most of her – she fades into the background a bit as the story progresses. Gilbert also treats her rather cruelly at one point purely to make a dramatic scene. It’s very effective, but it left me feeling that he was using her simply as a plot vehicle rather than considering the humanity of her situation. (Vague – avoiding spoilers – sorry.)

Michael Gilbert

The French bit is fun, with Nap quickly getting into danger in the best thriller tradition, and much wartime murkiness to be uncovered. Nap is a likeable character, though somewhat underdeveloped in this one – I believe (from other reviews) he may appear in other Inspector Hazlerigg books so perhaps this is an effect of reading them out of order. Meantime Major McCann is doing his bit to break the locked room mystery back in London. But the star of the show is the QC, Macrea, and the courtroom chapters are particularly good as he spots inconsistencies, demolishes evidence and generally runs rings round the prosecution.

So not quite as excellent as the other two Gilbert books the BL has so far re-published, but still an enjoyable read with much to recommend it and, taken together, the three show that Gilbert is an author who thoroughly deserves this opportunity to be appreciated by a new generation of readers.

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

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Book 5 of 20

Peacemakers by Margaret MacMillan

A memorable date…

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The 28th of June 1919 is one of the very few historical dates I never forget. One hundred years ago today, the victors and vanquished of “the war to end all wars” gathered in Paris to sign the treaty that brought the Great War officially to an end – the Treaty of Versailles. On the same day, in a small town in the north of Scotland, my grandmother gave birth to her youngest son, my father, conceived while her husband was home on leave from that war. Twenty years later, the world would be plunged into another devastating war, and my father would spend six years of his youth fighting in it.

The generally accepted view is that the harsh terms meted out to Germany in the Treaty contributed to its economic collapse, creating the conditions in which Hitler and the Nazis rose to power, and thus were a major contributory cause of the Second World War. In this book, Margaret MacMillan looks in depth at how the Treaty was formulated and argues that, flawed though some of its terms were, the peacemakers did as well as they could in fairly impossible circumstances. She goes further, arguing that the reparations demanded from Germany were not as punitive as previous historians have suggested, and can’t be seen as having led directly to WW2.

I’ll start by saying MacMillan failed to convince me of the latter, but mainly because I felt her argument was based on something of a false premise. In fact, I felt she over-emphasised the importance that history has given to the reparations element of the Treaty, thus enabling her to knock down an argument that few people would make in quite such black and white terms, except as a convenient shorthand. I was once tasked at University with writing an 800-word essay on the causes of the First World War, and found it an impossible task because how can one possibly condense so much complexity into such a tiny word count? (MacMillan herself took 500 pages to do it, in her later, excellent book, The War That Ended Peace.) Saying that the reparations in the Treaty of Versailles caused WW2 seems to me the equivalent of saying that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand caused WW1. It’s true, but not the whole truth.

The Big Four – David Lloyd George of Britain, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando of Italy, Georges Clemenceau of France, Woodrow Wilson of the U.S.

In fact, though, her argument is only a tiny part of the book, crammed into a few pages at the end. The bulk of the book is a detailed look at the negotiations that led up to the Treaty and, like the war itself, ranges far beyond western Europe in scope. Macmillan first introduces us to the main peacemakers – the heads of government of the Allies. She sketches their characters and explains their motivations as they sat round the table – Wilson of the USA and his desire for a League of Nations, Lloyd George trying to defend and expand Britain’s empire, Clemenceau of France, after repeated Franco-German wars desperate to take this opportunity to crush Germany so it couldn’t represent a future threat, and Italy’s Orlando, out for a land grab of the other side of the Adriatic.

MacMillan then takes us around the world, nation by nation, explaining how and why the peacemakers decided to carve them up and reshape them in the way they did. Some of their motivations were altruistic, to protect minority ethnic populations within nations and to give (some) peoples the right to self-determination. Some were designed to build a bulwark between western Europe and the newly revolutionary Russia. Some were simply a matter of expedience – the art of the possible. And some were frankly down to national greed and expansionism. Many of the decisions they made are still reverberating today, such as the uneasy amalgamation of different ethnicities and religions crammed together and called Iraq, or the decision to create a Zionist homeland for the Jews in land belonging to the Palestinians. The dismissive treatment of Arabs and Asians, and non-white people generally, isn’t unexpected but it’s still breath-taking in its arrogance, and we still pay the price for it every day. That’s not to say that the peacemakers could have somehow waved a magic wand and made all these problems disappear, and to that extent I agree with MacMillan. Even at the time, though, many warning voices were raised but ignored.

Spectators climbing over furniture to watch the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, 1919

MacMillan writes well and clearly, and spices the dry facts up with anecdotes that are revealing about the various personalities involved in the process. I’m afraid I have to admit shamefacedly to being far more interested in the major western powers than in all the little nations in the Balkans and the splintering Ottoman empire, so I found some chapters considerably more interesting than others, but that’s down to my biased worldview rather than MacMillan’s writing. While I found it tedious to learn all about these amalgamated countries which were created after WW1 only to disintegrate again post-WW2, I found that many of the sections gave a great deal of insight into the origins of some of our on-going problems today – Syria, Palestine, Iraq, even the background to the philosophical reasoning behind the rise of ISIS, although this book was published in 2001 before that became a thing. Closer to home, it also explains a lot about what happened in western Europe over the next couple of decades, and in the US and the Far East, too, to a degree. Perhaps the scope is a little wide, so that some parts, such as Japan and China, felt rather shallow and rushed, but that in itself gives some idea of the immense complexity the peacemakers were forced to deal with in a short space of time.

Overall, then, although I found it hard going in places and found myself unconvinced by MacMillan’s attempt to absolve the Treaty from its role in contributing to WW2, I learned enough to make it well worth the time spent reading it. Sometimes, though, I think historians shouldn’t work quite so hard at finding a “revisionist” angle…

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Three Bullets by RJ Ellory

Camelot revisited…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

It’s the summer of 1964 and the Democratic Convention is on the horizon, when they’ll have to decide whether they will support President Jack Kennedy as their nominee for another four years. Scandal is beginning to swirl around him, though – over vote-rigging and corruption in the last election, over his increasing health problems and questions about his mental stability, over the many women with whom he is rumoured to have had affairs. When young journalist Jean Boyd is found dead, her mother can’t believe the official line that Jean committed suicide. So she asks Mitch Newman, an old lover of Jean’s, to look into it. Mitch’s investigations will soon take him to Dallas where, back in the previous November, Jean had been following a lead relating to the President’s visit there…

If you’re confused, don’t be. This is an alternative history, based on the premise that JFK did not die in November 1963. Ellory speculates as to how the Presidency would have played out if Kennedy had remained in office – would the scandals of which we’re all now aware have become front and centre during his re-election campaign? Was he fit, physically and mentally, for another four years? Would the Democrats have stuck by him if he lost the Camelot glamour that inspired a generation? Would Jackie have been able to tolerate another four years of his blatant philandering? All interesting questions, and Ellory’s research felt solid to me so that, although he perhaps takes some aspects a little further than my credibility was wholly willing to follow, it nevertheless felt mostly chillingly possible.

The other strand of the story is Mitch’s investigation into Jean’s death, and unfortunately this worked less well for me. Mitch has never got over Jean although they split up when they were barely adults, and we are treated to endless descriptions of his feelings of guilt, loss and self-loathing, all of which bored me to distraction. Ellory even chooses to include several of the love letters Mitch sent to Jean after their break-up, all of which reveal nothing more startling than that he was sorry and still loved her. (Poor Jean – if she was anything like me, she probably only read the first three…) Ellory repeats and repeats how Mitch feels today, how he felt back then, how he felt when he was in Korea during the war. The book could have lost ninety per cent of all this, and been considerably better for it.

RJ Ellory

It’s a pity because otherwise this strand is interesting too. Basically, it’s the story of the real assassination, only changed to reflect the fact that in the book the assassination doesn’t come off. But real people show up – Jack Ruby, Lee Oswald, etc. – and Ellory treads a line between the official account and the various major conspiracy theories. I’m not hugely knowledgeable about the details of the event, but it all seemed to tie in well with what is known as far as I could tell.

It all leads up to a satisfying thriller ending, which again teeters precariously on the edge of credibility but doesn’t quite fall off. The whole presents a dark, dark picture of the Kennedy clan, exaggerated in places (I assume) to achieve a thriller effect, but sadly mostly only too believable. If you can put up with all Mitch’s endless regrets or, like me, skim read past most of them, then the what-if? features make this an interesting and enjoyable read.

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

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Book 3 of 20

The Red Redmaynes by Eden Phillpotts

Blinded by love…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Inspector Mark Brendon is on a fishing holiday in Dartmoor when he first spots the lovely, ethereal, auburn-haired Jenny Pendean and falls instantly in love. Lucky for him, then, that she is promptly widowed, providing him with both a mystery to solve and a woman to woo. Less lucky for her husband, Michael. Jenny’s grandfather was a rich man and had left her a legacy, but only on condition that one of her three uncles approved her marriage. None of the three approved of Michael, though, in part because he wasn’t from the right class, but also because he managed to escape serving in the armed forces during WW1 (not bone spurs – a minor heart condition). However recently Uncle Robert had reached out to the young couple and seemed ready to accept Michael. But one night, after Robert and Michael had been working alone on the house Michael was building, neither man returns. The next day all that is found on the site is a pool of blood and signs of a body having been dragged away. Sightings of Robert making off on his motorcycle leave little doubt that he had killed Michael, probably in a fit of madness brought on by the shell-shock he had suffered in the war. Jenny begs Mark to find Robert…

This was first published in 1922 at the earliest stages of the Golden Age and, perhaps because of that, doesn’t follow the format that later became recognisable as the traditional mystery novel. It’s a bit rambling in parts, takes place over a period of more than a year, and the dénouement comes a few chapters before the end, followed by lengthy explanations and a round up of what happens to the surviving characters in their futures. It feels looser and not as well plotted as many of the later GA mysteries, though oddly I felt it was a good deal darker and more psychologically twisted than most of them too. I found a lot to enjoy in it, though I would have enjoyed it more had it been tighter and a bit more pacey.

Challenge details:
Book: 44
Subject Heading: Resorting to Murder
Publication Year: 1922

The first half takes place on Dartmoor and then on the weather-beaten coast of Devon, and Phillpotts uses these bleak landscapes effectively to create an atmosphere of impending doom. It transpires that Michael was merely the first victim – the murderer seems to want to destroy the remaining Redmaynes too, though no-one can understand his motives. In the second half, Jenny visits her uncle Albert at his home in Italy – again a well realised location – and when danger seems again to draw near, Albert reaches out to both Inspector Brendon and to Albert’s American friend, Peter Ganns, who happens to be a great detective. (Naturally, in such circumstances, one cannot put one’s faith in the Italian police, because after all they’re foreigners…)

This is another aspect of the book which makes it different from the standard – it appears as if Mark is going to be the central detective in the first half, but then, admittedly after Mark has proved his incompetence several times over, Ganns becomes the main man. And it’s he who will finally unravel the mystery. He’s hampered by having to rely on Mark as his sidekick, since Mark is so in love with Jenny his brain has turned to mush. Ganns points this out to him, but still Mark allows himself to get distracted at crucial moments. (One wonders if the Italian police could really have been less competent than the British and American ones…) Ganns is fun, in that I did wonder if Phillpotts had ever actually met an American or if he created the entire portrayal based on characters in pulp fiction of the day. Ganns seems to be a well educated, cultured man but sometimes slips into the kind of wise-guy speech of the fictional American PI or gangster, such as referring to women as “dames”. But he’s psychologically astute, which is more than can be said for poor Mark.

Eden Phillpotts

I had a reasonably good idea of the solution from fairly early on, although I was a bit baffled as to motive. And when the dénouement came and all was explained, it felt much more modern than I was expecting – definitely heading towards psychological thriller territory, which surprised me for a book from this early, and added considerably to the interest level.

Overall, then, despite some weaknesses and an odd format, I enjoyed this. The settings are particularly well done and I found aspects of it pretty original, especially for the time. Another author I’d be happy to meet again.

I downloaded this one from Project Gutenberg.

The Elephant’s Journey by José Saramago

Light entertainment…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

King Dom João III of Portugal wishes to give a present to the Hapsburg Archduke Maximilian, and decides that Solomon, an elephant who has been living in Lisbon for the last two years after being brought from the Portuguese colonies in India, would be the ideal gift. It’s the mid-sixteenth century, so the only method of transport for Solomon is his own four feet. This is the story of his journey, along with his keeper Subhro and a troop of Portuguese soldiers, as they make their way through Spain and Italy, finally crossing the Alps to reach their destination, Vienna.

This is one of these books that is full of delightful prose and a pleasure to read, but ultimately is so light that its effect dissipates almost instantly. Saramago uses Solomon’s journey to digress on all kinds of things, all in a tone of gentle mockery. The power of kings, the superstition of the common people, the religious changes that were taking place at the time, the untold stories beneath the bare facts in the historical records, the writer’s right to create rather than to simply record – all these are raised but in such a way as to leave them feeling like airy wisps of passing thought, not to be taken too seriously.

We hereby recognise that the somewhat disdainful, ironic tone that has slipped into these pages whenever we have had cause to speak of austria and its people was not only aggressive, but patently unfair. Not that this was our intention, but you know how it is with writing, one word often brings along another in its train simply because they sound good together, even if this means sacrificing respect for levity and ethics for aesthetics, if such solemn concepts are not out of place in a discourse such as this, and often to no one’s advantage either. It is in this and other ways, almost without our realising it, that we make so many enemies in life.

So, not taking it too seriously then, it has to be seen as a whimsical fable and, as such, it works reasonably well. There are amusing episodes, like when Solomon is trained to perform a “miracle” at the behest of the local churchmen. There are mildly moving scenes, such as when Solomon says farewell to the soldiers who have accompanied him on the Portuguese leg of his journey. There are pointed (and sometimes rather snide) moments of social commentary: for example, when Archduke Maximilian promptly changes Solomon’s name to Suleiman as more appropriate to his new home.

But the story is too flimsy to bear even the light weight of Saramago’s musings, however entertainingly presented. Perhaps the fact that nothing much happens is part of the point, but for this reader it made for a rather wasted journey. I also found tedious, as I always do, the author’s attempt to jazz the thing up by the use of stylistic quirks – in this case, endless paragraphs, lack of capital letters for names and no quotation marks. However, he does it well, so for people who like that kind of thing, then this is the kind of thing they’ll like.

Knowing as one does the preeminent virtues of bodily cleanliness, it was no surprise to find that in the place where one elephant had been there now stood another. The dirt that had covered him before, and through which one could barely see his skin, had vanished beneath the combined actions of water and broom, and solomon revealed himself now in all his splendour. A somewhat relative splendour, it must be said. The skin of an asian elephant like solomon is thick, a greyish coffee colour and sprinkled with freckles and hairs, a permanent disappointment to the elephant, despite the advice he was always giving himself about accepting his fate and being contented with what he had and giving thanks to vishnu. He surrendered himself to being washed as if he were expecting a miracle, a baptism, but the result was there for all to see, hairs and freckles.

Overall then, I was amused but only fleetingly engaged either emotionally or intellectually. I understand this was one of Saramago’s last books and certainly the quality of the prose would tempt me to read some of his earlier works, in the hope that they may have more depth and fewer stylistic quirks.

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Twisted by Steve Cavanagh

The clue’s in the title…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

Steve Cavanagh

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

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

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

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Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

The underground reservation…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Driven from their ancestral lands, the buffalo they live on destroyed, their children forcibly removed to schools that indoctrinated them in white culture, the numbers of the Osage tribe had collapsed to just three thousand. But when the government insisted on a policy of allotments in their reservation, a forward-thinking chief and a half-Osage lawyer managed to ensure that the Osage retained mineral rights to the land – an “underground reservation”. So when they then leased their land to oil prospectors, the Osage became enormously wealthy. And then they started to die. This is the story of what happened to the Osage – what was proved, what was suspected at the time, and Grann’s own speculations about the truth with the benefit of distance from the events.

This was a mixed bag for me. It’s an astonishing and horrifying story as it relates to the treatment of the Osage, and a fascinating one as it relates to the development of law enforcement and the newly formed FBI. Unfortunately the telling of the story is patchy – some chapters are well written and informative, others are messy, repetitive and badly structured. Grann, presumably in an attempt to make it read entertainingly, jumps from tense to tense, and while it’s clearly exhaustively researched, the end result is an untidy combination of too much information without enough focus. As I feel I say too often, where was the editor? Name after name after name appears, then disappears either for chapters or for ever. I found that I was constantly trying to remember the relevance of some name thrown at me without reminder a hundred pages from the last mention.

From left: Minnie Smith with her sisters Anna and Mollie. Minnie’s and Anna’s deaths kicked off the investigation.
Photograph: Courtesy of Raymond Red Corn

The actual events, though, deserve to be widely known and remembered so I struggled on through. As the wealth of the Osage grew, so did resentment from the dominant white people. It’s hard to condemn people for being individually racist at a time when the nation was institutionally – constitutionally – racist. The government felt that these childlike neolithic savages (in their view) couldn’t be given responsibility for managing their own affairs, so appointed guardians, most of whom exploited their position to line their own pockets. Some men took guardianships over several members of the tribe, giving them considerable power. But for one man, or perhaps for a conspiracy of many, this wasn’t enough – they wanted not just to skim the wealth of the tribe, but to own it outright. To do this, they had to go to extreme lengths, including multiple murders.

At the same time, law enforcement was still in its infancy, with a populace who were highly suspicious of any form of government interference, as they saw it. Local lawmen and private detectives hired by various interested parties seemed to be dying too frequently too, so that eventually the locals appealed to the federal government for help. Enter the Bureau of Investigation, under the new rule of J Edgar Hoover who would introduce a more professional, scientific form of detection as he transformed the Bureau into the FBI. This part of the story is interesting, but I felt it could have been more fully developed. The agent who led the investigation, Tom White, had previously been a Texas Ranger, and Grann tells his story very well, using him to show how law was administered in those still relatively wild pioneering days, now made even wilder by the gangster culture created by Prohibition and the lure of the Osage’s wealth bringing all kinds of disreputable folk to the area.

David Grann

Grann takes us through White’s investigation, which unfortunately covers all the same ground as was in the early chapters. However, it picks up again when the criminals come to trial, and we learn about the rampant corruption in the justice system that made the job of the lawmen even harder. Grann then takes us on to read about what happened after the trial, to White, to the accused and to the tribe. In the final section, Grann gives his own speculation that there may have been even more murders than were identified at the time, using death statistics to make his case. He further suggests that more people may have been involved in the murders than were ever bought to trial. He talks rather movingly of how the murders continue to haunt the descendants of the victims, especially because of the suggestion that in some cases the murders were committed by white spouses of the tribe members, meaning that some people are descended from both murderer and victim.

So a fascinating and important story which, despite my irritation at the messy structure, I’m glad to have read and happy to recommend.

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Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer

Regency chicken soup…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When Lord Spenborough dies in middle-age, he leaves a youngish daughter and an even younger second wife. Lady Serena, the daughter, is desperate not to have to live with her aunt, and Fanny, the young widow, is equally reluctant to return to the home of her parents. So they decide to live together, with Fanny as an unlikely chaperone for her headstrong step-daughter. Lord Spenborough has left an unwelcome surprise for Serena in his will, though. He has named as her guardian Ivo Barrasford, Marquis of Rotherham – his old friend and Serena’s former fiancé, the man she jilted just before their wedding. Under the terms of the will Ivo must give his consent if Serena decides to marry…

Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances have long been my literary equivalent of chicken soup, something to turn to when comfort reading is in order. It’s been a long time since I last read this one, and I had unfortunately forgotten that it’s not one of my favourites, though still entertaining. Both Serena and Ivo are bad-tempered, volatile and domineering characters whose behaviour towards the people around them often crosses the line towards outright bullying. It’s a kind of take on The Taming of the Shrew – not one of my favourite plays, either – although in this case, happily, each is both tamer and shrew.

Book 43 of 90

Fortunately there are lots of secondary characters who are much more fun to be around. Fanny was fond of her much older husband, but it’s quite clear she was pressured into marrying him by her parents’ ambition for wealth and a title, while he married her primarily in the hope of getting a son and heir. This hope was unrealised, so that now the entailed property has gone to Serena’s cousin, and the two ladies are living in the Dower House. Bored, partly by the reduction in their circumstances and partly by the tight restrictions on entertaining while in mourning, they soon decide to take themselves off to the delights of Bath, ostensibly so that Fanny can take the waters for her health. There they meet Hector, an old flame of Serena’s, and soon the spark is rekindled. Hector’s lovely – handsome, kind, generous and in every respect so much nicer than Ivo – and he quickly becomes the alternative hero of the book.

There’s also Mrs Floore, the grandmother of an acquaintance of the ladies. Mrs Floore’s wealth came from trade and two deceased husbands, and she makes no pretence of being a fine lady. Her daughter, however, married into the minor aristocracy and has ambitions to shove her own daughter, Emily, further up the aristocratic tree.

Georgette Heyer

All the young people, in the usual way, will first fall in love with entirely unsuitable partners, then have to find some way of escaping from this tangle to finish at last with their true loves. There’s nothing very original about the plot, and it’s fairly obvious from early on who should and will end up with whom, but that doesn’t prevent it from being a lot of fun. Heyer always writes well, and the tone is light and full of humour. She concentrates entirely on the rich and privileged so there’s no depressing realism to lower the spirit. And in the tradition of romances, it all ends when everyone becomes engaged to the right partner, so only those of us who have a tendency to over-analyse everything have to worry about the probable unfortunate offspring of some of the more fiery matches!

Being written back in the mid-’50s, it certainly doesn’t count as a feminist tract – the men are the masters and/or protectors of the women, so if that would annoy you, you should avoid at all costs. Personally, I suspect all the women turn into feminists after the weddings and the husbands are probably all hen-pecked into submission by the end of the first year. Except Hector, because he’s lovely… 😉

Frothy, light-hearted fun – perfect for keeping the blues at bay!

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Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

Medieval demons and Edwardian doom…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Young Maud Stearne is a lonely child, growing up in an old house in the midst of the Suffolk fens in the early 20th century. Her strict and domineering father doesn’t have much love or time for any of his children, especially his daughter, and her mother is almost permanently pregnant, though most of those pregnancies don’t come to term. Edmund Stearne, her father, is searching for a book rumoured to have been written by a medieval mystic, the Book of Alice Pyett. But during the renovation of the local church, Edmund finds a medieval painting of the Last Judgement – the Wenhaston Doom – whitewashed over during the Reformation; and he becomes obsessed with the demons portrayed on it.

The book starts in the ‘60s, when an elderly Maud is being pestered by a journalist to tell the story of the murder her father committed when she was young. One day he ran out of the house carrying a sharpened ice-pick and killed the first person he saw, and then went mad. No-one except Maud has ever known why he did it, and she has never spoken about it. Edmund spent many years in an asylum, painting demons, and has now died. Maud has lived an isolated existence in her childhood home since the tragedy and still doesn’t want to talk about it. But when for financial reasons she finally decides to open up, she chooses another recipient for the story – a young academic called Robin Hunter who has been researching Edmund’s paintings. The story Maud tells is one of Gothic horror, with at its heart the question – was Edmund driven mad by supernatural evil or are the evil things that happened a result of his existing madness?

I didn’t find this book nearly as scary as Paver’s earlier ventures into the supernatural – Dark Matter, the best modern horror story I’ve read, and Thin Air. However, it still has plenty to recommend it. It’s a slow burn in the beginning as we learn about Maud’s restricted life and her vague misunderstandings about what she calls her mother’s “groanings” – the miscarriages and stillbirths that happen all too often. But once Maud becomes a little older – her midteens – her father begins to involve her in his work, not out of affection but to save himself the annoyance of having a secretary in the house. As she types up his research notes, she also begins to understand what kind of man he is – cold, bullying, selfish, misogynistic. And increasingly obsessed by the feeling that he is in danger from the forces of evil.

The story is told as a third person narrative for the most part, but includes many extracts from Edmund’s journal and some from the Book of Alice Pyett. Gradually we learn how his researches are feeding Edmund’s obsession and, along with Maud, we become aware that there is a mystery in Edmund’s past.

The characterisation of both Maud and her father is excellent. Neither is likeable, though one’s sympathies are all for Maud. As she becomes aware that her mother’s frequent pregnancies are a result of her father’s refusal to practice any form of self-restraint, her desire to win his affection changes into a form of hatred. Isolated and unloved, she must work her own way through the difficult years of adolescence, and the position of women is such that she has no hope of escaping her father’s control. She is strong, but is she strong enough to face the atmosphere of dread that is slowly descending over the household?

Michelle Paver

Strip the horror element out completely, and it’s still a deeply disturbing picture of life under a tyrannical father at a time when children had no independent rights, and even adult women were entirely under the control of their husbands. Alice Pyett’s story is based on the famous medieval Book of Margery Kempe (which I haven’t read) and is of another woman whose life was blighted by excessive childbirth. Whatever demons are after Edmund – supernatural or self-inflicted – I felt he deserved all he got. But like most tyrants, even as he suffered, he made sure those around him suffered too.

After the relatively slow start, I found myself totally absorbed in the second half. It’s very well written and full of interesting stuff about medieval beliefs and superstitions along with lots of Suffolk folklore. I didn’t buy into the supernatural aspect, but it didn’t matter – the ambiguity means that it works just as well, perhaps even better, as a fully human story of madness and cruelty. People can be far more frightening than demons…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Head of Zeus.

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Death of an Airman by Christopher St. John Sprigg

Those magnificent men (and women) in their flying machines…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When George Furnace, instructor of the Baston Aero Club, is found dead in the wreck of his crashed plane, everyone assumes it was a tragic accident, even though he was a skilled airman. Everyone, that is, except the Bishop of Cootamundra, who has signed on to take lessons at the flying school so he can fly himself around his vast diocese back in Australia. The Bishop has some knowledge of medicine, and he notices something strange about Furnace’s corpse. Enter Inspector Creighton of the local constabulary, closely followed by Inspector Bray of the Yard…

There are three main elements to this entertaining mystery – who, why and how – with some added confusion over whether this really was a murder at all. At points, there are reasons to think Furnace may have committed suicide, unlikely though that seems for a man of his character, and there’s still the possibility the Bishop is wrong and it was an accident after all. But Furnace’s death soon becomes almost secondary, since Creighton and Bray quickly discover in the course of their investigations that there seems to be an international criminal conspiracy going on around the airfield, in which they suspect some of the flyers are involved, either knowingly or as dupes of the mysterious Chief of the criminal gang. But which are which? Suspicions and accusations abound and the plot is increasingly complicated to the point where I had lost all capacity to keep the facts separate from the new theories propounded every few pages by Creighton, Bray, the Bishop and just about everybody else who appears in the book!

This is one of those mysteries where it’s important to switch off one’s credibility monitor and simply go with the flow. The mystery all depends on the detectives and forensic experts missing or misinterpreting clues all over the place. First published in 1934, I’d expect forensic pathology not to be up to modern standards, but here we have to accept that they can miss minor details like bullet holes and mix up times of deaths to a frankly ridiculous level. So long as you don’t mind the general implausibility, though, it’s fun accepting the “facts” as given and trying to work out how Furnace’s death came about, that being the key to finding out who killed him and why.

Challenge details:
Book: 58
Subject Heading: Scientific Enquiries
Publication Year: 1934

The first half of the book is set in and around the flying club, so has the feel of a closed circle of suspects in traditional Golden Age style. However once the international angle becomes apparent, Creighton and Bray follow leads up to Glasgow and over to Paris, before it all comes back to the flying club in the end for the final dénouement. This adds extra interest and also gives Sprigg the opportunity to talk a lot about flying and planes, which, as a pilot himself, he does knowledgeably and entertainingly, his love for flying shining through. (It’s sad to note that Sprigg died a few years later, flying as a volunteer pilot in the Spanish Civil War, aged just 29.)

The characterisation is what makes the book, though, and carries the reader quite contentedly through the plotting complexities. The book is full of “types” rather than stereotypes – the ex-WW1 pilots, the adventurous flyers out to break records in this still new field, the decent if stolid local policeman, the more incisive methods of the Yard detective. Then there are the staff and pupils of the flying school, and the locals who get involved in one way or another. Lady Crumbles walks over everyone in her mission to do good to people whether they want to have good done to them or not. Sally Sackbut runs the school with alarming efficiency. Tommy Vane is cheerful if incompetent as a pupil, finishing every lesson with a quick dash to the bar for a double whisky. Lady Laura Vanguard and Mrs Angevin are rivals as flying adventurers and also divide the attention of the males of the club, each having their own admirers. And the Bishop bumbles along, not very good at flying, not as good as he thinks he is at detecting, but always willing to listen to other people’s troubles and to offer them sympathy and advice. They’re all enjoyable and mostly likeable, even though we know some of them must be the baddies.

Christopher St. John Sprigg

In my view, the plotting and structure of this are too messy for it to count as a top rank classic of Golden Age crime, but it’s full of gentle humour and has a warm-hearted tone despite the dark deeds. I enjoyed reading it and am sorry that Sprigg didn’t get the chance to have a long writing career – the youthful exuberance and writing skill he shows in this one may well have allowed him to become one of the greats in time, as he developed more discipline over plotting. Despite his short career, though, Martin Edwards tells us that he wrote several other mystery novels, and a check on Amazon shows that some of them are available as Kindle e-books. I look forward to reading more of them.

I downloaded this one from www.fadedpage.com – a growing resource for out of copyright works.

Critical Incidents (Robin Lyons 1) by Lucie Whitehouse

Strong start to a new series…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Robin Lyons has been dismissed from her job as detective inspector in the Met for disobeying orders and releasing a man her superior believed to have committed a murder because her instinct told her he was innocent. She intends to appeal the dismissal but in the meantime she has to find some other source of income to support herself and her teenage daughter, Lennie. So she’s on her way home to Birmingham, to live with her parents and to work for an old family friend, Maggie, another ex-police officer who now investigates insurance and benefit fraud, and occasionally other things. The first case Robin becomes involved in is the disappearance of a young woman whose frantic mother can’t get the local police to take the matter seriously. But then a crime much closer to home occurs, when Robin’s best friend Corinna is killed and her husband Josh goes missing. Robin can’t help wondering if it’s related to what happened ‘that day’ many years ago, so finds herself doing a bit of investigation into Corinna’s death too.

This book contains some of the features that have made me increasingly unenthusiastic about contemporary crime fiction in the last few years. There’s the ubiquitous ‘that day’ feature, when the crime involves something from the past coming back to haunt the present, but the reader isn’t told what actually happened in the past until the story is almost over, in a bid to create false suspense. There’s the utterly tedious casual swearing which serves no purpose. (It made me laugh that in fact at one point Robin, who never knowingly uses an alternative where the f-word will do, is appalled by the casual swearing of the kids in the local high school and wonders why standards have fallen so badly – yeah, possibly because everything teenagers read or watch is full of swearing maybe? Just a thought…) There’s the personal involvement of the detective with the crime, meaning we have to hear an awful lot about Robin’s grief over the death of her friend – never entertaining to me. And the book is roughly a hundred pages too long for the story it contains, meaning there’s a lot of unnecessary filler in there.

However, there are a lot of good things about it too. The story is interesting and, despite being overlong, the pacing is good so that it didn’t drag through the mid-section. It’s very well written, both in terms of the descriptive writing and the believable dialogue. Third person, past tense – a big hurrah from me for that! I thought Whitehouse’s depiction of her Birmingham setting was excellent, giving a real feel for the physical city and for the culture of what is probably the most racially diverse city in Britain outside London, with a huge and long-established Asian community. Happily, Whitehouse shows that, while racism still rears its ugly head on occasion, the majority of the citizens rub along fine together enjoying the added richness of a mixed culture. I found it a convincing and positive portrayal.

The characterisation is a mix. There are too many minor characters to keep track of and they never come to life, so that whenever one was mentioned I had to pause to try to remember who they were and how they fitted into the story. However, the major characters are very well developed, especially Robin and her parents. Robin is hard to like, opinionated, somewhat selfish and convinced that she knows better than everyone else. This is the first in a series, though, and it’s reasonably clear Robin is on a learning curve – that her recent troubles are giving her a level of self-awareness she’s never had till now. The tension between her and her mother is particularly well done – two women who annoy each other as much as they love each other, but who now have a chance to build a better relationship… or a worse one.

Lucie Whitehouse

Overall, despite a few weaknesses, I enjoyed this and thought it was well above average. This one reads like a private eye novel, but the series is billed as a police procedural so I anticipate that future books will see Robin back in harness. First books in series are always tricky since so much introduction and backstory is necessary, but I felt Whitehouse handled those aspects very well, creating some characters I will be happy to meet again. Recommended – a series I look forward to following.

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

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Blue Murder (Flaxborough Chronicles 10) by Colin Watson

Skulduggery behind the net curtains…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When a Sunday newspaper tantalises its readers with promises of a juicy story about a blue movie ostensibly made in a quiet, respectable English town, the residents of Flaxborough are horrified to see that the accompanying photograph is of their town’s main street. So when top muck-raking journalist Clive Grail and his team arrive in the town, they aren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. In fact, the mayor decides this would be a golden opportunity to use the antique duelling pistols he has just purchased, and issues a challenge to Grail. This may have been intended as a publicity stunt, but things take a more sinister turn when one of the characters dies…

I loved the Flaxborough Chronicles in my youth and have been enjoying reading some of them again as they’ve been published for Kindle by Farrago. However, the series wasn’t of the same standard across its whole length of twelve books – in the first couple, Watson was finding his feet, then there’s a glorious section of six or seven in the middle when he was on top form, before they fell away a little in the last few. Being book 10, this isn’t one of the best. My tendency is always to compare these lesser ones to the best of the series (Broomsticks over Flaxborough, for instance) but this is unfair. Compared to many other books of the same period, even Watson’s less good ones shine.

Part of the problem is that the humour of the earlier books comes from Watson allowing us to peek behind the net curtains of respectability of the middle-classes of the 1950s. By the end of the series, we’re in the ‘70s, and society had changed so much in the intervening years that that kind of show of respectability and class deference had pretty much disappeared, and I never felt Watson really got to grips with how to lampoon the late ‘60s and ‘70s in quite the same way. The delicious, wickedly salacious wit with which he mocks the shenanigans of the ultra-respectable burghers of the town in the ‘50s takes on an edge of crudity in the more liberal ‘70s, and the slang used by his younger characters in particular doesn’t ring wholly true.

Having said that, he still provides an entertaining story, full of characters who are deliberately caricatured and overdrawn. As the newspaper team begin to realise that the story they expected to get isn’t turning out quite the way they anticipated, they have to scramble to save their reputations and jobs, since the paper won’t be pleased if they don’t come up with the goods. Meantime, the townsfolk are split between those outraged at the idea of their town being linked with porn, and those who find it all quite titillating. Inspector Purbright must try to keep the peace by stopping the mayor from carrying through on his threat of a duel, and then must investigate the sudden death which takes everyone by surprise.

Colin Watson

The investigation element of this one is pretty poor. We see the story mainly from the perspective of the newspaper team, with Purbright and his team becoming heavily involved only at the end. Purbright seems to get at the truth too easily and the reader isn’t really shown the connecting links – we’re merely presented with the conclusion. It holds together and makes sense, and in retrospect there are some clues, but on the whole the solution comes out of the blue. Also, while Chubb and Love and the other police regulars show up, we spend very little time with them, and Miss Teatime fans will be sad to know she doesn’t appear in this one at all.

Overall, then, not one of the best but still entertaining enough to be well worth reading. Each of these books stands alone, but I wouldn’t recommend starting with this one. Existing fans will be more willing to make allowances for its comparative weaknesses than newcomers, I think. But the series as a whole is not to be missed! New readers might be better to start at the beginning with Coffin Scarcely Used.

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

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The Dakota Winters by Tom Barbash

The Comeback Kids…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1979, and Anton Winter has returned to his parents’ home in New york after a spell with the Peace Corps in Gabon which came to an abrupt end when Anton nearly died of malaria. As he recovers, he draws closer to his father, Buddy, who is also recovering, from a nervous breakdown which caused him to have an on-air meltdown, bringing his hugely successful career as a talk-show host to a halt. Now Buddy wants to revive his career and he wants Anton beside him, working behind the scenes just as he used to do. Anton is beginning to wonder, though, if this how he wants to spend his life, as a kind of adjunct of his father’s. This is the story of both men’s journeys towards resuming their interrupted lives. And it’s also the story of Anton’s friendship with a neighbour of theirs in the famous Dakota apartment building in New York – John Lennon – another man on the point of making a comeback…

I had two distinct disadvantages while reading this novel. Firstly, I was never a serious Beatles or John Lennon fan, so many of the references flew over my head, and I was never in a position to say whether the depiction of John’s personality was authentic. Secondly, the book is filled with references to American culture of the era. Some of these are globally famous – movies, major actors, Presidents and major political events – but some are more specific to the US, such as TV shows, chat-show hosts, New York clubs and so on. Neither of these seriously impaired my ability to understand the story nor my enjoyment, but I feel I’d have got more of that pleasurable frisson of recognition that comes from being drawn back to a specific point in time if I’d been more steeped in the prevailing culture.

It’s very well written and the characterisation of both Anton and Buddy is excellent. Buddy is one of those sparkling, gifted people who dominate their company wherever they go – the type of person people want as a guest to entertain them. Anton loves his father dearly, but is beginning to feel that he wants something more than to be his father’s beloved son and chief assistant. Following his breakdown, though, Buddy is vulnerable and Anton feels a rather onerous duty, as well as a good-natured desire, to help his father back onto his pedestal. Anton’s growing friendship with John Lennon provides him with an escape from the somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere of living and working with his family, and at the same time gives him an insight into the kind of excitement of being friends with the famous which he has seen from the other side, with people wanting to be seen to be with Buddy. It’s an interesting examination of the impact of fame on those around the famous.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono outside the Dakota

The New York Anton has always known is the glittering, glamorous bit where everyone, it seems, is a celebrity of some kind, and where everyone knows everyone else. But of course there’s another New York, and even Anton, with his cushioned life, is becoming aware of the growing poverty and drugs problems that are leading to an atmosphere of violence and danger. It’s also a time of comebacks – apart from Buddy and John Lennon, Teddy Kennedy is running for the Presidential nomination, trying to recover from the scandal of Chappaquiddick, while Muhammad Ali is about to make his final comeback in a bout against Larry Holmes. Anton, watching these events, is wondering if comebacks are ever really possible, or even if they’re desirable. Is holding onto past glories a way of losing out on future possibilities? Again, even this non-American reader knows that New York too hit rock bottom and had to make a spectacular comeback of its own.

Tom Barbash

The other strand that runs lightly through the book is the question of why people become obsessed with celebrities. Lennon fans stand outside the Dakota in all weathers, hoping for a glimpse of their hero. For some, this is just a way of showing healthy appreciation, but Barbash shows the more fanatical side of it, such as the girl who is convinced that John is going to leave Yoko and marry her instead. We don’t meet the man who killed Lennon, but knowing that he’s out there adds a chilling edge to the fan worship that Anton has always accepted as part of celebrity life.

There’s a little too much referencing and name-dropping for my taste. While some of the anecdotes about various celebrities are amusing and/or interesting, I felt that fewer of them would have led to a tighter book overall. However, that’s a small criticism of a book that I found both entertaining and thought-provoking.

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

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The Dead Shall be Raised & The Murder of a Quack by George Bellairs

A twofer…

For some reason, the British Library has given us a double helping in this volume, with two full-size novels both starring Inspector Littlejohn.

The Dead Shall Be Raised

😀 😀 😀 😀

This is set during WW2 and tells the story of a murder that happened twenty years earlier, during WW1. Inspector Littlejohn has travelled to Yorkshire to spend Christmas with his wife, who is living there to get away from the bombing of London. But no sooner has he arrived than a corpse is dug up, and is soon identified as Enoch Sykes, a young man who disappeared twenty years ago at the same time as his one-time friend Jerry Trickett was found shot dead. The assumption was that Enoch had killed Jerry in a fight over a girl and then fled. But now it appears the case is more complicated and Inspector Littlejohn is happy to work alongside the local police to investigate. Soon it becomes clear that more than one of the locals had reason to resent Enoch and Littlejohn will have to use all his skills to find the murderer.

The book starts off with Littlejohn travelling to Yorkshire by train, immediately giving a great feeling for the restrictions and difficulties of getting around during the war. Once in the village of Hatterworth, the descriptive writing is equally good and we are taken into village life straight away as the Littlejohns attend the parish carol service. When the investigation gets underway we are introduced to the other characters, and Bellairs makes each of them believable, from the old innkeeper who saw the two victims on the night of the crime, to the retired policeman who carried out the original investigation, to old Mrs Sykes, Enoch’s mother, and at the other end of the social scale, Mrs Myles, once their employer. It is deep midwinter, and Bellairs makes us feel the snow and bitter cold as the detectives trudge around talking to witnesses and suspects.

I did enjoy this, but somehow it didn’t completely catch fire for me. It’s very well written and although the pool of suspects is small, the solution is more complex than it first appears that it might be. I think it was maybe that Littlejohn, though likeable enough and certainly good at his job, is a bit bland. I didn’t get much of a feel for what he was thinking or feeling, or of what kind of man he was. That felt a bit strange since all the secondary characters were so well drawn, so it may be that Bellairs was assuming his readers would already know all about Littlejohn from previous books – this, I believe, was the 4th in the series. A 4-star read, then, but it certainly left me keen enough to want to read the other book…

* * * * *

The Murder of a Quack

😀 😀 😀 😀

George Bellairs

Since I’m never keen about reading books in the same series immediately after each other, I left a gap of a few months before reading this second one, and found I fell back into the author’s world very happily and was pleased to meet up with Inspector Littlejohn again, so clearly he’d left a better long-term impression than I initially thought he would.

Nathaniel Wall, an elderly, well-regarded bonesetter, is found murdered in his surgery. He has been strangled, then hanged in an attempt to make it look like suicide. The local police promptly call in Inspector Littlejohn of the Yard. This gets off to a great start again, as Bellairs describes the local policeman enjoying a rare moment of peace and then being called out to investigate when Wall’s housekeeper returns from an overnight visit to her sister to find the surgery door locked. Bellairs is really good at creating an atmosphere from the beginning, which immediately leaves the reader wanting to know what happened.

The idea of the bonesetter intrigued me too – something I haven’t come across before. This is again set during WW2 (though the war has no relevance to the plot), before the creation of the National Health Service and before medicine became so strictly regulated. Today we’d think of Wall as an osteopath primarily, though he also dips into other fields of medicine including the more “alternative” one of homeopathy. His family have been bonesetters for generations, though his nephew has succumbed to modernity by qualifying as a doctor. While this nephew is a dedicated professional, the local qualified doctor is a drunken incompetent, who strongly resents that so many locals prefer to visit the “quack” Walls rather than him. It’s an interesting comparison of the skilled but unqualified practitioner and the feckless professional, with all the sympathy going to the former.

The plotting and characterisation are both done well again, as in the first book, but it’s definitely the setting and atmosphere of both that appeals to me, and in this one, I felt I got to know Inspector Littlejohn a little more fully. Well written, above-average police procedurals, and I’ll happily look out for more from Bellairs.

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

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My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

Obsession and ambiguity…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Orphaned as a child, Philip Ashley has been brought up by his cousin Ambrose and expects one day to be heir to his estate in Cornwall. For Ambrose, although by no means elderly, is a settled bachelor, and both he and Philip enjoy their entirely masculine household and way of life. But while Ambrose is making one of his regular trips to Italy for his health, Philip is stunned to receive a letter from him, saying that Ambrose has fallen in love and married the woman that Philip will come to think of as “my cousin Rachel”. Ambrose’s happiness is to be short-lived though. Soon he will die without ever returning home, of a brain tumour according to the official version, but Ambrose has given Philip a different story in his increasingly worrying letters home. Philip is ready to blame Rachel morally, at least, and perhaps legally for his death. And then Rachel visits Philip in Cornwall and he finds himself falling in love. But is Rachel the fascinating and charming woman he sees, or the cold, manipulative money-grabber, and perhaps worse, of Ambrose’s letters…?

I listened to this as an audiobook, competently but not thrillingly narrated by Jonathan Pryce, and I suspect that may have affected my view of it. The story starts and ends brilliantly, but the mid-section, where Philip falls in love with Rachel, seems to go on for ever with nothing actually happening. I tired utterly of Philip’s first person descriptions of Rachel’s perfections and had to fight an urgent desire to tell him to grow up and get a life. If it weren’t for the fact that it was du Maurier and I felt I should have loved it, I would undoubtedly have given up. I certainly wish I’d read the book instead in this instance – I suspect it would still have bored me if I’d been reading but it’s easier to skim the dull repetitive stuff in the written form.

Where du Maurier does excel is in the ambiguity of the characterisation. The basic question of whether Rachel is good or bad is further muddied by us seeing her only through Philip’s eyes and Ambrose’s letters, and it’s not clear how much either of them can be relied on. Certainly neither is objective about Rachel – they see her through the eyes of lust and love. Also, their long years of living without women in their lives mean that neither of them make good judges, especially Philip, who has grown up without mother, sisters or even a nurse or governess. To him, women are as unfamiliar as Martians. There’s also the fact that Ambrose’s illness seems to have been inherited from his father, so may it have been inherited also by Philip? Ambrose’s father had periods where he was delusional and even violent – has this been passed down? There’s undoubtedly an edge of irrationality in some of Philip’s actions, despite us seeing them through his own eyes.

Rachel is the centre of the book, of course, and du Maurier does a brilliant job of having the reader sway in her favour and against her again and again. She has had an unconventional upbringing by a mother who seems to have been morally lax, so it isn’t surprising that she occasionally steps outside the bounds of what is considered acceptable. The time in which the book is set isn’t specified, but it feels to me like early Victorian in terms of clothes, travelling, lifestyle and attitudes. Is she really a hustler out for what she can get? Or is she a victim of Ambrose’s failure to make adequate provision for her? Is she a woman who uses sexual temptation to manipulate men? Or is she a free-thinker – a woman unwilling to limit herself by the unequal moral codes enforced on her by a patriarchal society, which gives women no rights and no financial liberty? Is she villain or victim?

Daphne du Maurier

I wondered how du Maurier would end it – no, of course I’m not going to tell you! But when it came, I felt the ending was perfect. Any other possible ending I could think of wouldn’t have had the same impact – it wouldn’t have left the story and the characters lingering in my mind as they have done.

So if it wasn’t for that tedious over-stretched mid-section, I’d have loved this. The audiobook comes with an introduction from Roger Michell who directed the recent film of the book (which I haven’t seen), and he comments that Philip and Ambrose were not alone in their obsession with Rachel – that du Maurier too had fallen in love with her. This strikes me as very perceptive – it reads as if du Maurier couldn’t stop talking about her, like a teenage girl in the throes of infatuation. Fun for the teenager, not so much for the adults who have to listen to her ecstasies! She redeemed herself in the end though, so overall I’m glad to have read it and would recommend it (and also recommend you brush up on your skim-reading skills before beginning… 😉 )

Audible UK Link
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