Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash

And only man is vile…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

In a small Appalachian town where natural beauty and the ugliness of the meths business clash, Sheriff Les Clary is preparing for retirement. He has bought himself some land and is having a cabin built on it, where he can leave the ugliness behind and spend his days painting the beauty. But before he leaves, he’ll have to deal with one last case. On the surface it’s not a particularly serious case – a matter of deliberate pollution of a river – but the motivations behind it will take him deep into the darkness that scars this community, and rake up some of the traumatic moments of his life, both professional and personal.

Les’ friend, Becky Shytle, is also a survivor of trauma (as, quite frankly, is everyone in the book). In Becky’s case, she was caught up in a school shooting as a young child, in which her beloved teacher died – an outcome for which she blames herself. After the shooting, she was mute for months, and eventually her parents sent her to stay with her grandparents in the Appalachians. Here she learned the healing power of nature and found her voice again, though that early trauma and a later one still haunt her.

The book alternates between Les and Becky as narrators, chapter about, more or less. Becky’s sections are written as if in her journal, where she writes in poetic language and often includes poems. We all have a different tolerance level for poetic style in prose – mine is low, and Becky’s chapters increasingly irritated me as the book went on. What starts out as wonderfully descriptive writing morphs eventually into a kind of contrived “creative” writing, where Becky/Rash invent new words because apparently the English language simply isn’t large enough as it stands. However, I’m quite sure that people who love poetic writing will love this.

Les’ chapters, on the other hand, are written in the sort of world-weary style of noir and I loved this, and enjoyed the thoughtful portrayal of his character as a good man driven down by the things he has witnessed in his job. He has his own morality, which is not always the morality demanded of a law officer. For example, he takes bribes to look the other way, so long as he feels the crime he is ignoring is one which the law treats too harshly. He is a mix of righteousness and weakness, whose absorption in his own emotional state makes him cold, blind, perhaps, to those of other people. His wife’s depression, for example, seems to have been an unwelcome annoyance to him, his sympathy going all to himself rather than to her. However, he is aware of mistakes he has made along the way, and beats himself up emotionally over them. I felt Rash wanted me to sympathise with him, but I found myself less forgiving than Rash seemed to be aiming for.

It’s a relatively short book at under 300 pages, but it’s a very slow burn. It takes nearly half the book before any kind of plot emerges, and even then it’s rather low-key. Most of the time is taken up with studies of the two main characters and rather shallower ones of a handful of secondary characters. In sum, they paint a picture of this rather dreadful society where drugs are distorting and destroying the social structures and blurring moral lines. Not everyone in town is a dealer or an addict, but all are affected in some way – by crime, by the addiction of a family member, by poverty. The contrast between that and the loveliness that nature abundantly provides is rather disorienting, and ultimately depressing: “Though every prospect pleases, And only man is vile.” The whole tone is bleak and although there is a resolution of sorts at the end for the characters, one feels that this society in a larger sense may be beyond hope of redemption.

Ron Rash

I have mixed feelings about it, overall. I loved Rash’s writing when he was sticking to the plainer, bleaker style of Les’ voice, but the over-poeticism (as I saw it) of Becky’s chapters remained a running irritant throughout. I fear I found the depiction of this drug-saturated society both totally credible and totally depressing. And I found the sheer number of traumas that our various characters had lived through and carried as emotional baggage all felt too much – beyond likelihood, and therefore reminding me that Rash was manipulating the characters like the man behind the curtain, making his dolls dance to a dismal tune of his own composing. Yes, I know that’s what all authors do, but the success of a puppet show comes in making the audience forget the existence of the puppeteer.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate, via NetGalley. (In 2016! Oops!)

Amazon UK Link

Tuesday Terror! The Jewel of Seven Stars by Bram Stoker

I want my mummy!

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Our narrator, barrister Malcolm Ross, is sent a message by the girl he’s already well on the way to falling in love with, Margaret Trelawny, begging him to come to her aid. Her father has been attacked and seriously injured. Malcolm rushes to her side, as do the doctor and the police. Abel Trelawny’s physical injuries are severe but not life-threatening, but he is in a strange comatose condition. He has, oddly, left instructions on what must be done in just such an eventuality. He must not be removed from his room, which is full of Egyptian treasures he has “collected” from tombs, including several sarcophagi. And two people must watch over him each night. So Malcolm offers to stay at the house, and helps with the watching while carrying on his wooing. Slowly he and Margaret learn that her father has been studying one mummy in particular, Queen Tera, and believes that she had magical skills. He believes that she intends to come back from the dead, and Trelawny intends to help her…

This would have made a great short story or novella, but at full-novel length it’s incredibly over-stretched and repetitive. It’s well written, of course, and the narration from Simon Vance is excellent – it may in fact have been the only thing that got me through all the repetition. There are parts that are very good, like the flashback to when Trelawny and his associate stole – sorry, I mean “collected” – the contents of Tera’s tomb, including Tera herself! Then there are parts where Malcolm tells us for the umpteenth time all about how sweet his Margaret is, to the point where I was about ready to put an Egyptian curse on both of them myself.

Bram Stoker

However my desire to know what would happen when Trelawny carried out his experiment held my interest throughout. Who doesn’t love a resurrected mummy?? But what an anti-climax! After eight hours of listening, the experiment is packed into the last quarter of an hour, and the actual climax takes about two minutes! And I don’t mean to quibble, but the happy ending seemed wildly inappropriate to the big build-up! I had already learned from another review that the story apparently had two endings, so after I’d finished I did a bit of checking. It turns out the original ending from 1903 was far from happy – in fact, it was so bleak the publisher refused to reissue the book in 1912 unless Stoker altered it. So he did, and now the happy ending is the one most commonly used. I found a copy of the original online, and while it certainly suits the tone better and is more Stoker-ish, it’s just as rushed and tacked on at the last moment as the later ending. I seem to remember complaining about the abrupt way Dracula finishes too, so maybe it was a deliberate stylistic choice of Stoker’s to end stories this way, but it felt like an unsatisfactory pay-off after a lengthy (though mostly enjoyable) listen.

(The porpy did a bit of research during the boring bits, and
discovered that even the ancient Egyptians loved porpies!)

Relief of a porcupine in an Egyptian desert; detail of a wall fragment from the grave of Penhenuka at Saqqara, Egypt. Old Kingdom, 5th Dynasty, c. 2500 BCE. Neues Museum, Berlin, Germany. Painted limestone. ÄM 1132.
Attribution: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg), CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Audible UK Link

PS Sorry I’m falling behind with answering comments and reading posts. The Australian Open has started which means I have to become even more nocturnal than I usually am, which throws out what I optimistically refer to as ‘my schedule’. I’ll catch up when the virtual jet lag wears off! Blame these men…

Meantime, good morning and good night!

The Craftsman by Sharon Bolton

Toil and trouble…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The people who attend the funeral of Larry Glassbrook, dead after spending many years in prison for the murders of several teenagers, aren’t there to mourn so much as to assure themselves he is really dead. Florence Lovelady is one. Now a senior police officer, back then she was a raw WPC who was responsible for bringing Larry to justice, at great cost to herself. But when she visits the house Larry used to live in, she finds something that makes her realise that the story of the murders isn’t over yet…

This is told in two timelines, starting in 1999 (which in terms of the book is the present day), then going back to 1969 when the murders were happening, and then coming back to the present for the last section. The “present” sections are given in the present tense, while the “past” sections are in past tense, so at least there’s slightly more logic to the use of the present tense than many times when it’s used, but it’s still annoying. However, Bolton is such a good writer she can carry it off if anyone can. All sections are first person accounts from Florence.

The setting is the village of Sabden, nestling at the foot of Pendle Hill in Lancashire, famed for being the site of the infamous witch trial in the 17th century. Bolton uses this historical event as a starting point to bring the idea of witchcraft and the supernatural into her story, and to explore the idea of modern witchcraft. If, like me, you don’t believe in the power of crystals and the magical uses of herbs and so on, you will have to be willing to suspend your disbelief at points. Fortunately it doesn’t play a large part in most of the story and Bolton is very good at leaving it ambiguous enough for the rationalists among us to justify all that happens rationally – for the most part. And it creates a deliciously creepy atmosphere, with a growing sense of dread and some real cliff-hanger moments that make reading the next chapter essential!

The 1969 part of the story is excellent. Three teenagers have gone missing, separately, about a month between each disappearance. Tensions are rising in the town at the police’s failure to find either the children or their abductor, and the police are at a loss. Graduate Florence brings with her new-fangled ideas about analysing data to spot patterns and so on, and is rubbing up her colleagues the wrong way. Combined with the usual sexism of the period, this means she has to battle hard to have her voice and her ideas heard. (FF delicately stifles a yawn.) But she’s a determined type, and even her bosses soon have to admit that sometimes her suggestions make sense. And then she finds one of the teenagers, dead unfortunately, and the missing persons case becomes a hunt for a murderer.

Sharon Bolton

The 1999 sections are considerably less successful in my opinion, with Florence behaving in ways that I found hard to believe any senior police officer would. The woo-woo-witchcraft element is also stronger here, especially in the last section. While the story remains compelling and full of atmosphere, the credibility falls away sharply, and I shall draw a kind veil over the last couple of ludicrous chapters, which had they not happened at the very end would probably have led to me abandoning the book.

So overall I loved about 97% of this and thought the ending was silly, hence the loss of a star. If you’re happy with nonsense – sorry, I mean, magic – in your crime novels, you probably won’t have the same issue. I haven’t decided yet whether to read the next book, The Buried, which has just been released – while I enjoyed Florence as a character and loved the setting and atmosphere, I’ll wait for other reviews to give me an idea of whether it returns to real life or remains in the world of potions and spells…

Amazon UK Link

Two’s company 2…

Another double review to help clear my backlog, though this particular pair really demand to be reviewed together…

Dialogues of the Dead (Dalziel and Pascoe 19)
by Reginald Hill

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When an AA man dies after apparently falling from a bridge, it is assumed to be an accident. Then a young musician crashes his car into a tree and dies, again put down to accident. But at the local library, librarians Dick Dee and Rye Pomona are going through the massive pile of entries to a short story competition in the local paper when they come across anonymous stories that show another side to these deaths, and it appears they must have been written before the deaths were reported in the media. As Dalziel and Pascoe begin to investigate, there’s another death, then another, and it appears obvious the team have a serial killer on their hands. The killer is soon nicknamed the Wordman, since each death is accompanied by another short story. Meantime, new member of the team, “Hat” Bowler, is falling in love…

I had forgotten just how good this one is! It’s a wonderful blend of light and dark, and full of Hill’s trademark love of words and wordplay, which this time he puts at the centre of the story by filling the Wordman’s written “confessions” with literary “clues”, and by involving the librarians – Dick Dee especially loves to play word games. There’s a huge cast – essential, since so many of them will be bumped off and there need to be enough left as suspects. It’s mainly set among the self-styled great and good of the town, and Hill has excelled himself in creating characters who stay just the right side of caricature. Dalziel is on fine form, which means the book is full of humour, but Hill is expert at suddenly changing the mask from comedy to tragedy – the murders are dark enough, but the Wordman’s confessions take us deep into a troubled and damaged mind.

The denouement is tense and thrilling, and the solution shocks. And we’re left with the reader knowing more about what happened than Dalziel and Pascoe. They think that everything has finally been wrapped up, maybe not neatly, but securely. However…

* * * * *

Death’s Jest-Book (Dalziel and Pascoe 20)
by Reginald Hill

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s impossible to see this one as anything other than as Part Two of Dialogues of the Dead. Unlike many of the books in the series, this one does not stand on its own – anyone trying to read it without having read the one before would probably be completely lost, or at the very least feel as if important stuff had been left out. As a result, I’m not giving a little blurb, since almost anything I say about this one could spoil the last one. I’d also say to anyone who’s reading the series in order, make room to read these two one after the other – they’re both intricately plotted and having the details of the first one fresh in your mind helps when reading the second.

Oddly, although it is a sequel of sorts, this one doesn’t work nearly as well as the first, in my opinion. Hill had obviously become fascinated by the character of Franny Roote over the course of the series – a man who appeared in one of the early cases and reappears in several of the later ones, becoming a kind of nemesis for Peter Pascoe. In this one we get screeds of letters he writes to Pascoe which take up probably around a third of the book, and while they’re interesting, often amusing and, of course, well written, they slow the main plot down to a crawl. I’m afraid I never found Franny quite as entertaining as Hill clearly thought he was, although he provides an interesting study in psychology both of himself and of Pascoe’s reaction to him. I’m not sure the psychology is completely convincing, though.

The other aspect that weakens this one is very hard to discuss without spoilers, so forgive my vagueness. As I said above, at the end of Dialogues of the Dead, the reader knows more than the characters. This continues throughout Death’s Jest-Book, which is basically the story of Dalziel and the team gradually realising that their knowledge is incomplete and trying to fill the gap. Hat’s love story continues too but, knowing what we know, we more or less know how that will work out. So all through we’re watching the characters learning about things the reader already knows. Of course it’s more complex than that makes it sound, and there’s still all the usual stuff that makes Hill so enjoyable – the writing, the language, the regular characters, secondary plots, moral dilemmas – but the pace is very slow, and plot-wise it doesn’t build the same level of tension. It’s good – just not as good as the first part of this story, and being a sequel of sorts it’s impossible to avoid making that comparison.

* * * * *

In summary, then, together the two books form one massive story – both books individually are chunksters. Dialogues of the Dead is excellent and could be read separately as a standalone, although the reader is likely to feel that there are some loose ends. Death’s Jest-Book is good but with some structural weaknesses, and is very much a sequel or second part. It doesn’t work well as a standalone, and should be read soon after Dialogues of the Dead while the details are fresh.

Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom

After the conflict…

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1940. The Spanish Civil War is over and Franco’s regime is in charge. What will later be known as the Second World War is underway – France has fallen, Britain has retreated from Dunkirk and is grimly facing daily aerial bombardment, and Franco is rumoured to be about to bring Spain into the war on the side of Germany and Hitler. Against this backdrop, four English people will play out their own drama in a Madrid still wrecked and reeling, its people starving and afraid.

Harry Brett has been invalided out of the army after Dunkirk, suffering from damaged hearing and shell shock. He has recovered well enough, though, to take on a job proposed to him by the Secret Service – to go out to Spain and try to win the confidence of Sandy Forsyth, once his old school friend and now involved in shady dealings in Madrid. When he gets there and makes contact with Sandy, he discovers Sandy is now living with another old acquaintance – Barbara Clare, once the lover of another school friend, Bernie Piper, who was declared missing, presumed dead, after the battle of Jarama. We follow these three as Harry tries to find out what Sandy is up to, and Barbara continues to hope against the odds that Bernie is not dead and to use whatever little influence and money she has to find him.

I read this book years ago when it came out (2006) and didn’t really connect with it. I wondered at the time if it was because I didn’t know enough about the Spanish Civil War – what the various factions were and what they were fighting for, and who was allied to whom, and so on. So when I started my Spanish Civil War challenge, I decided to make this the last book of the challenge, to see if all my new-found knowledge would make a difference to my reaction. And it did! I still didn’t wholeheartedly love it, largely because it’s very long and I didn’t feel the central stories were strong enough to carry it. However, I enjoyed it considerably more this time, both because I better understood the various tensions among the characters and because it was interesting to see Sansom’s take on the history.

Book 13

Sansom joins the long list of British and American authors who take the Republican side when writing about the conflict. In this version of history, Republicans are good people, and it was only the nasty Communists, whom real Republicans despise as much as they despise Fascists, who committed all the atrocities on the left, while real Republicans were decent souls defending a democratically elected government against a fascist insurgency. This means that the opposite must also be true – that everyone on the Nationalist side must be an evil Fascist or, perhaps worse, a monarchist. I guess this distortion or, at the least, over-simplification has been repeated so often now that many people accept it as truth, especially when it ties in with their existing political leanings, as it clearly does with Sansom.

The personal stories of the characters are done well, and Sansom uses them to show different aspects of the conflict and its aftermath. The three men, Harry, Sandy and Bernie, all attended an elite public school called Rookwood, and in the early part of the book there are many flashbacks to their time there, showing us how they developed into the men they became. Harry was always the neutral one, friend to both of the others and with no strong views on politics or anything else. Sandy was the bad boy, expelled from previous schools, and soon to be expelled from Rookwood too. Already arrogant, already cruel, naturally he would side with the Fascists in later life. Bernie was a scholarship boy from a humble background, and he already resented the inequalities in society, declaring himself a socialist, so it is no surprise when he later heads off to Spain to fight in the International Brigades. In political terms the characterisations are a little simplistic, but they work well in human terms, although I found Harry’s neutrality made him rather bland to be given the role of main character. The role of public schools in shaping the leaders of the future is portrayed well, though again clearly through the lens of Sansom’s left-wing bias.

Barbara is the outsider, brought into this group as the lover of first Bernie and later Sandy. She is, frankly, an unlikely heroine to have inspired so much passion – Sansom repeatedly tells us that she lacks beauty, mainly because she wears glasses and frumpy clothes, and I couldn’t see much that was outstanding in her personality to overcome these dreadful flaws. We know Sandy is a bad man because he hates her wearing glasses, while Bernie is good and pure because he loves her even with her glasses on. Am I sounding sarcastic? Good, I intend to. However, her role in the Red Cross first as a nurse and later in helping to reunite refugee children with their families gives insight into another aspect of civil war, and makes her the most likeable of the main characters, despite her glasses.

The twin stories – Harry’s spying on Sandy and Barbara’s search for Bernie – come together eventually in a thriller-ish ending, but a rather muted one, which perhaps suits the post-war tone better than a more heroic event would have done. Sansom resists the temptation to make everything happy ever after, which adds credibility, but leaves a rather depressing after-taste.

Overall then, well written as any book by Sansom is, grounded in accurate history but seen through a left-wing lens, and more of a slow thoughtful look at the period than a fast-paced political or action thriller. My own reading experience suggests it works better if the reader is reasonably well versed in this period of history beforehand, in which case it’s well worth reading.

Amazon UK Link

Bleeding Heart Yard (Harbinder Kaur 3) by Elly Griffiths

Great expectations…

😀 😀 😀 😀

During a school reunion, prominent politician Garfield Rice is found dead in the boys toilets, apparently from a drug overdose. However, it soon becomes apparent that he has been murdered, and the case is handed to Inspector Harbinder Kaur – her first case since taking a promoted post in West London. Coincidentally one of the other people at the reunion is Cassie Fitzgerald, a member of Harbinder’s new team, and Cassie has a secret. Back when she was a pupil at prestigious Manor Park school, a boy died. It was listed as a tragic accident, but Cassie knows the truth – that she killed him. Now it looks to her as if Garfield’s death might have something to do with that earlier death, and she has to decide how much she’s going to tell Harbinder…

Expectations can be a real pain sometimes. The first two books in this series were so original and excellent that I had extremely high hopes for this one. This meant that, though this is a perfectly acceptable cross between a police procedural and a psychological thriller, my main reaction to it was disappointment. That may also be to do with the fact that it’s the third book I’ve read this year where the current crime arises out of a dark secret surrounding something that a tight-knit and elite group of pupils did at school. And Sharon Bolton did it so much better in The Pact.

(FF muses: I’ve joked about this before, but I do wonder – does a memo go round from publishers at the start of each year telling authors what subject they must include in their books? It seems beyond coincidence when one year every second book is about a group of people trapped in a snow-bound chalet, and the next year every second book is about a school reunion of some kind…)

Anyway…

Harbinder has moved away from her parents’ home at last and is sharing a flat with two other women. She’s both happy and a little nervous about her new job and her new life. She’s loving being in London but is homesick for her family and friends back home. Griffiths handles all this well, without over-dramatising it. Harbinder remains just as likeable in the previous books, but, again, since so many crime series are set in London I feel the South Coast setting of the earlier books in the series gave them an element of uniqueness which is missing from this one. However, she uses her London setting well, especially the deliciously-named Bleeding Heart Yard – a real place, mentioned also in Dickens’ Little Dorrit – and the legends surrounding its name.

We see the action from three main perspectives – a third-person present-tense account from Harbinder’s view, and two first-person past-tense narrators. Cassie is one of those, and the other is Anna, another of the pupils/reunioners. I found their voices indistinguishable, though fortunately each chapter is headed with the name of the character whose perspective it’s from. All the tense and viewpoint jumping is of course obligatory in modern crime, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying.

The plot is quite enjoyable although it strays well past the credibility line on more than one occasion. Without wishing to veer into spoiler territory, there is one point where Harbinder steps so far over the line of how anyone, especially a senior police officer, would react on being told of a serious crime that my jaw dropped. I actually guessed whodunit and why about halfway through, which is rare for me, but I think it was luck rather than it being too obvious. The thriller-ish ending is entertaining despite the total lack of credibility.

Elly Griffiths

Oh dear, this is one of those occasions when my review has turned out more critical than I intended. I did find this an enjoyable read, despite all of the above. The pacing is good and keeps the reader turning the pages, and there’s a good deal of humour, especially around Harbinder getting to know her new colleagues and flatmates. She begins to settle in to her London life, and we see signs of her developing new friendships and possibly even a romance, but she still goes home for visits so the reader is kept up to date with her family and older friends from the previous books. Had this been the first book in the series I’d probably be praising it more highly, but it simply didn’t wow me the way the first two did. I’ll still be eager to see where Griffiths goes with the series in future books though.

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

Amazon UK Link

The Nursing Home Murder (Inspector Alleyn 3) by Ngaio Marsh

His life in their hands…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Home Secretary, Sir Derek O’Callaghan, is in the middle of steering an important bill through Parliament to counter the threat from anarchists and Bolshevists. So although he is suffering from intermittent abdominal pains, he is ignoring them until he has more time to deal with personal issues. And the personal issues are piling up! As well as his health and threats against his life from those Bolshies, his doctor, Sir John Phillips, is furious at the way he has treated a nurse who works in Sir John’s clinic, having seduced and then dumped her. It’s probable his wife won’t be too happy if she learns about that little episode either! His sister, meantime, thinks that all his woes and ills can be cured by one of the many patent medicines she acquires from her pharmacist friend. It all comes to a crisis when Sir Derek collapses while giving a speech in the House of Commons. He is rushed to Sir John’s clinic where he is diagnosed with peritonitis requiring immediate surgery. Hmm… surgery carried out by the doctor who’s furious at him, the nurse he seduced, an anaesthetist who previously accidentally killed a patient, and another nurse who is a Bolshevist in her spare time. So when he subsequently dies, it’s not altogether surprising that suspicions of murder arise! Enter Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn of the Yard…

It’s a long time since I last read a Ngaio Marsh, but I was very fond of her books back in the day, and happily this was a pleasant revisit. It’s a nice mix of whodunit and howdunit, and the investigation is mostly carried out through a series of interviews Alleyn has with the various suspects. It soon transpires that Sir Derek had been poisoned with hyoscine, a drug that had been used as part of his preparation for surgery. So suspicion naturally falls on Sir John, since he gave the hyoscine injection. But Alleyn quickly realises that many other people had the opportunity to give him another injection or perhaps to have given him the drug in another form. So it all comes down to motive and method – who wanted him dead (lots of people!) and who could have given him the drug, and how.

The one thing that makes me not wholeheartedly love Marsh as much as I do, for example, Christie, is the snobbishness in the books – a fault she of course shares with many of the Golden Age writers. Alleyn is one of these aristocratic policeman (did they ever exist in real life, I wonder?) and his sidekick, Inspector Fox, is a “common man”. Alleyn is very fond of Fox but is horribly patronising towards him, as is Marsh herself. When thinking about it, I wonder if part of the reason that Christie has remained so popular is that Poirot’s sidekick is a man of the same or even higher class than Poirot himself, so that while Poirot may mock his intelligence from time to time there’s no feeling of snobbery. Alleyn’s Fox, Sayers’ portrayal of Wimsey’s sidekick, Bunter, and Allingham’s Lugg, sidekick for Campion, all make the books feel much more dated than Christie and in a way of which modern audiences are less tolerant, I feel. Although I do often wonder what contemporary working class readers, who surely made up the bulk of the readership for all these authors, made of their mockery of the working classes. We were more deferential, for sure, back then, but even so. Anyway, I digress.

Challenge details:
Book: 55
Subject Heading: Playing Politics
Publication Year: 1935

Alleyn also has another occasional sidekick in the person of a young journalist, Nigel Bathgate, and he and his fiancée, Angela, appear in this one. Alleyn sends them off to infiltrate an anarchist meeting, and has fun with the portrayal of these bogeymen of the era, complete with stock bearded Russian Bolshevist. Nigel and Angela are Bright Young Things, and provide some levity which lightens the tone. Alleyn himself is quite a cheerful detective, who enjoys his job and has a keen sense of justice. So while the books aren’t quite cosy, nor are they dark and grim.

Ngaio Marsh

The eventual solution veers over the credibility line but the general tone of the book means this doesn’t matter as much as it would in a darker style of novel. I was rather proud of the fact that I spotted one or two clues, but I was still surprised when all was revealed.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Philip Franks, and he did a very good job, getting into the spirit of the more caricatured characters (the Bolshevists, for instance) while making both Alleyn and Fox likeable, as they are on the page.

Overall, an enjoyable reunion with some old friends, and I’m looking forward to revisiting some of the other books. This is an early one, and I may try a late one next, to see if the snobbery gets toned down as time passes.

Audible UK Link

Marple: Twelve New Stories

From treat to travesty…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

There are some great crime writers in this collection of twelve new Miss Marple stories, many of whom are clearly dedicated fans with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the originals. As expected, some catch the style and tone of the originals better than others, meaning that some of the stories are treats, while a couple are total travesties. For some of the authors, Miss Marple has stayed in her own time with her own attitudes, while some have decided to have her as “woke”, pontificating on anti-Semitism, racial injustice, etc. Needless to say the woke ones and the travesties have a considerable overlap! While the good ones are very good and gave me much pleasure, the bad ones left me in my usual state of wondering why on earth Christie’s estate keep allowing people to mess with her legacy in this way. They surely cannot need the money, and this kind of thing does nothing, I’m sure, to attract new readers to the originals.

The collection starts off with a bang, with several good stories one after the other. Lucy Foley gives us Evil in Small Places, where Miss Marple gets caught up in an investigation while staying with a friend. Foley gets the tone brilliantly – the village setting, plotting, murder method and denouement all feeling authentic. And she delightfully references many of Christie’s book titles along the way. Val McDermid’s The Second Murder at the Vicarage takes place in St Mary Mead, with many of the characters from the original book – the vicar, Griselda, the maid Mary, and so on – and she reprises all this entertainingly and well. The plotting is a little weak, but it’s still a fun story. Next up is a new-to-me author, Alyssa Cole. Like many of the authors, Cole has used the trope of Miss Marple’s nephew Raymond providing her with little holidays to vary the location – here Miss Marple Takes Manhattan. While the story is decidedly un-Marple-esque and involves her being terribly progressive about race and communism (the latter being even more unlikely than the former) there’s a lot of humour to keep it entertaining, and I enjoyed the way Cole played on references to Miss Marple’s stay At Bertram’s Hotel.

Natalie Haynes’ The Unravelling is well written and amusing, but the plotting is weak and for some reason she has Miss Marple living in a village that is not St Mary Mead. Did she move? Why? Still, I felt she handled the generic village setting well, and I enjoyed the story. Ruth Ware’s story, Miss Marple’s Christmas, is the star of the collection for me. A Christmas party at the Bantrys, a mysterious theft, and a very Marple-esque plot, Ware’s love for the character shines through. She also references Agatha Christie’s own description of her youthful family Christmases as given in the intro to one of her collections, I think The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, which is a lovely touch. We discover that Miss Marple likes to read detective fiction, and is fond of the work of Dorothy L Sayers who also gets more than a passing nod here. A great story, very authentic and made me smile.

It all begins to go downhill after that, sadly. In The Open Mind, Naomi Alderman fails to catch the style completely – wrong setting (an Oxford college), wrong type of crime, and Miss Marple is given a bunch of modern social attitudes she would not have had, including a relaxed attitude to drug abuse. Jean Kwok’s The Jade Empress sees Miss Marple on a boat to Hong Kong to visit Raymond, waltzing with Chinamen, in a plot all about racial injustice. It’s well enough written, but has little to do with the real Miss Marple. Dreda Say Mitchell achieved the distinction of the only one-star rating for her story A Deadly Wedding Day, where she gets out her usual axe of white colonial oppression and grinds it mercilessly. More about Mitchell’s Caribbean heritage and black victimhood (as usual – her sole subject) than about Miss Marple, and one wonders why she bothered.

Elly Griffiths lifts the quality again in Murder at the Villa Rose, though Miss Marple plays a distinctly secondary role here and the story is not Christie-esque. It is about a crime writer who is bored with his main character and is thinking of killing him off. I felt it may have given some insight into why Griffiths herself tends to start a new series with entirely new characters every few years! In The Murdering Sort, Karen McManus takes a very elderly Miss Marple to Cape Cod in the 1980s, where she is staying in a cottage provided by Raymond for the summer. Raymond’s teenage daughter, Nicola, appears in this one. It’s rather full of plot holes, but is quite fun. I enjoyed The Mystery of the Acid Soil by Kate Mosse, which has a plot that rests on Miss Marple’s knowledge of gardening. She doesn’t quite catch the tone, but she tries, and while I feel authors should be careful not to give away the major clue in the title(!), the story is enjoyable.

Lastly, Leigh Bardugo’s The Disappearance takes us back to St Mary Mead in a story involving Mrs Bantry. Bardugo does a good job with the tone, barring one or two Americanisms that the editor should have picked up. But the ending – which of course I won’t reveal – is a complete travesty, totally out of tune with the originals and leaving a rather bad taste. A terrible way to end the book, sadly.

So a very mixed bag, although overall I enjoyed the good stories enough to make it worthwhile and was glad that many of the authors at least tried to recapture the original Miss Marple, some of them quite successfully. But the travesties left me feeling as I usually do – that authors should stick to their own creations rather than messing with other people’s.

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

Amazon UK Link

Unfaithful by JL Butler

Be sure your sins will find you out…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Feeling a little lost and lonely when her only daughter leaves home for university, Rachel Reeves has a moment of madness, a.k.a lust, when she accidentally meets an old boyfriend. Next morning she’s horrified and ashamed. She loves her husband and has never even thought of being unfaithful before. So she hopes she can simply keep it a secret and go on as if nothing has happened. But then the messages begin – texts, messages on her social media pages, phonecalls at inopportune times. And they’re escalating, becoming abusive and increasingly threatening. Rachel doesn’t know what to do. At first she thinks it’s Chris, the man she slept with, but gradually she realises there are other possibilities. If she goes to the police, she’s afraid her husband will find out about her infidelity…

I’ll get the usual complaint over with straight away. The book is a hundred or more pages too long for its content. It’s stuffed full of irrelevant digressions which, although they’re well written and sometimes quite interesting, slow the book down to a crawl. Thrillers, you will be as bored reading as I am writing, must be fast-paced or they don’t thrill. This concept seems to have been forgotten by authors, editors and publishers. They should look at the length of thrillers which have become classics and ask themselves why their books need to be twice the length of those books. They should also take the time to read the proofs prior to printing and correct all the typos and errors. Especially if the heroine of the book is an editor…

Grumps over. I enjoyed Butler’s writing style – it’s descriptive without becoming too “creative” and avoids all fashionable quirks. First person, past tense, proper grammar, even quotation marks. There is virtually no swearing except within the messages Rachel receives, where it feels appropriate and even unavoidable. Her characterisation is very good, especially of Rachel but also of all the secondary characters.

Rachel has been a full-time mother while her daughter Dylan was growing up. Robert, her husband, is an alpha male in the business world, dealing in elite property development and making loads of money, so their lifestyle is pretty luxurious. I admit I tired of the brand-naming and ostentatious displaying of wealth, although it’s not as gratuitous as it sometimes feels – their wealth and social status is relevant to the plot. So financially there’s no need for Rachel to work, but she finds she wants to get back to having some kind of life beyond the home now that her days feel so empty. She is lucky to find a temporary maternity cover role as an editor – the career she had before Dylan came along. I found the picture Butler painted of life in a modern publishing house very convincing – an uneasy mix of love of books and need for profit. Some things have changed in Rachel’s eighteen years away – technology, for instance – but other things are just the same: handling authors, from the anxious to the obnoxious, finding the right demographic for the book and designing the marketing to suit. (I enjoyed Rachel finding out about book blogging and blog tours, and learning that they’re now seen as part of the marketing process.)

At first the plot is excellent, quickly showing us Rachel’s indiscretion and then the mounting campaign of her stalker. But it soon slows down, and gradually Butler adds more and more elements into the mix – Dylan’s love life, Rachel’s job, Robert’s business dealings, and so on – until it eventually gets too crowded and hovers perilously close to the credibility line. A simpler, more stripped plot would have built more tension. I did suspect who the stalker was quite early on, but then I suspected them all in turn so I was bound to have been right at least once along the way! But I thought that for the most part Rachel’s reactions were pretty credible – she’s neither a fainting hysteric nor a superwoman; she reacts much like I think many of us would in similar circumstances, with a mix of fear for her marriage and a desire to pretend it’s not happening and hope it goes away.

JL Butler

I understand JL Butler is a pseudonym for Tasmina Perry, who apparently writes racy mystery/romances. Not my genre so I haven’t come across her before but she seems to have a considerable fan base. This one focuses more on the crime aspect – it does have a couple of sex scenes but they were within my tolerance level so that means they’re pretty mild. Despite the excess length I enjoyed it, especially the publishing aspect. The ending is perhaps a little abrupt, but it tells us everything we need to know, and I’d always rather have abrupt than over-stretched! I’d be happy to read more from her Butler persona and I might even be tempted to try one of her Perry books sometime.

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

Amazon UK Link

Queens of the Abyss edited by Mike Ashley

The gentler sex?

Sixteen stories are included in this anthology edited by Mike Ashley, designed to show that women played a full part in the development of early horror and weird fiction even though it’s mostly male writers who have lived on in anthologies and collections ever since. There are a few well known names here, mostly remembered for their writing in other genres, but with the upsurge of horror anthologies in recent years and the commitment of editors to including “forgotten” stories and authors, some of them have begun to be recognised as horror writers too. There are lots of new-to-me authors in the anthology, too, some of whom seemed to specialise in this style of genre short story.

If I had to draw any conclusions about difference in style between the genders based on the stories presented here, it would perhaps be that the women writers focused rather more on human relations, especially romantic love, than the men, who tend to go more for the uncanny and the unknown for their own sake rather than for the impact they have on the living, other than to terrify them! But that’s a real generalisation and I can think of many examples from both genders that disprove it. However, I didn’t find many of the stories in this collection particularly scary – a few are unsettling, many are sad or bleak or both, and there’s a good deal of melodrama sprinkled throughout. Most are well-written, though, and some are quite effective at lingering in the mind after the last page is turned.

Overall there were five that I rated as not very good, while the other eleven mostly rated as good with just three achieving the full five stars. So a solid collection, well worth reading but without many real stand-out stories. I’ve already highlighted a couple of the stories in Tuesday Terror! posts, The Wonderful Tune and White Lady, and here’s a flavour of a few of the others I enjoyed most…

A Revelation by Mary E Braddon – While serving in India, Colonel Desborough has started seeing visions of an old friend with whom he has lost touch, Henry Chalvington. This is affecting Desborough’s nerves and eventually he is given leave to return home for some rest and recuperation. Back in England he sets out to find Henry, only to find that he hasn’t been seen for eight months and all communication with him is routed through his second wife, who seems to be keeping his daughter from his first marriage a virtual prisoner. Desborough won’t let the matter rest until he finds out what has happened to Henry. This is a well-told story although, despite the supernatural visions that begin it, it’s more melodrama than horror.

The Laughing Thing by GG Pendarves – The narrator is the brother-in-law of Jason Drewe, a hard, mercenary man whose wife is dead. The narrator stays in touch with him only because he promised his sister he would keep an eye on her son and do his best to counteract his father’s influence as far as possible. The story begins with Drewe forcing a man, Eldred Werne, to sell him his estate. Werne is bitter and vows that after death he will return to make Drewe pay for forcing him out of his beloved home. Needless to say Werne soon dies, and redeems his vow! Every night, a knocking is heard at the door though no one is there, and the sound of fiendish laughter terrifies the inhabitants, especially the young son, Tony. But Jason refuses to be driven away… Very well-written, this is an effective story – especially that fiendish laughter! It’s a dark story with a bleak ending, though – a little too bleak for my taste.

The Unwanted by Mary Elizabeth Counselman – our narrator has been hired by the US government to help take the census in isolated households in the mountain country of Alabama, a place where people don’t take kindly to government prying into their lives. She comes to the house of a couple, the man of whom greets her with a gun. But the woman invites her in and is happy to tell her all about her eleven children. Then the children start to show up, one or two at a time, and the narrator notices that none of them look like each other or their parents. Then she becomes aware that the man of the house can’t see the children and is astonished that she can. Another well-written story with some great use of dialect and a real sense of the suspicion of outsiders from these isolated communities. I’m not at all sure I fully understood the ending but I suspect I wasn’t supposed to. The uncertainty of it all adds to its effectiveness – I found it quite unsettling and it still lingers in my mind.

So some good stuff in here, and a lot of variation in style. The unscariness of a lot of them would make this a good collection for those who, like me, like their horror mild.

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀

(The porpy, being a bit sexist, is deeply unimpressed by the idea of Queens. He insists that I point out that in France the porpentine has Kingly connections, since Louis I created the Order of the Porcupine in 1394. Wikipedia tells me: “Louis I, Duke of Orléans, probably chose the porcupine as symbol to show to the Duke of Burgundy John the Fearless that he would revenge of his braving him, as the porcupine points his quills to its enemies. [sic]” Although the Order has now been disbanded, the symbol remains on the Château De Blois.)

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Soft Summer Blood (Liam McLusky 4) by Peter Helton

Dead men and missing girls…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When out jogging around his extensive garden one evening, wealthy Charles Mendenhall is shot dead. Detective Inspector Liam McLusky is at first suspicious of Mendenhall’s son, who didn’t get on well with his father and seems keen to get his hands on his inheritance. But a few days later another man is killed, probably with the same gun, and it turns out he was a friend of Mendenhall’s, one of a group of men who are friends through their mutual enjoyment of painting (pictures, not walls!). Now McLusky must try to find out if something in the men’s background has led someone to be targeting them. Meantime Detective Inspector Kat Fairfield is annoyed to be given the job of tracking down a missing girl, the daughter of an Italian politician. Fulvia is legally an adult and normally the police wouldn’t have got involved unless there had been reason to fear that something may have happened to her, but when politicians are involved, cases suddenly get shoved up the priority list. But then another girl dies, and she had attended the same art college as Fulvia, so suddenly finding Fulvia takes on a more serious aspect.

This is a solid police procedural, the fourth and apparently final one in a series about Liam McLusky. I’ve read an earlier one, and this has the same strengths and slight weaknesses. The characterisation is good, especially of Liam himself – I wasn’t so keen on Kat, who seemed permanently grumpy. The main plot is interesting and I failed to work it out – there is a clue early on, but if you miss it then the ending rather comes out of the blue. Actually I did spot the clue, but the solution still took me by surprise, since it had never been mentioned again in the couple of hundred pages since it appeared. Helton often includes art and artists in his plots, probably because he’s a painter himself when he’s not writing. It always adds an extra element of interest – a good example of incorporating the “write what you know” principle into his stories. The secondary plot relating to Fulvia really seemed like an unnecessary distraction to me. It didn’t go anywhere very interesting, and merely served to add to the length of the book. It would have been a tighter and better read, I think, if Helton had just concentrated on the main case. There is a minimum of bad language – none that I can remember, in fact – and while Liam is not problem-free, neither is he an angst-ridden drunk.

However, there’s too much padding in terms of telling us everything Liam eats or drinks throughout the case, and his on-off relationship with his girlfriend didn’t feel as if it added anything to either the story or Liam’s character. Liam mostly follows procedure, which I always prefer, but occasionally steps over the bounds in ways that I didn’t find altogether credible, and unfortunately that applied particularly to how the book ended, meaning that the last few pages left me rather less enthusiastic than I had been up to that point.

Peter Helton

Overall, though, the strengths outweigh the weaknesses. The beginning, when we follow Charles Mendenhall in the lead-up to his death, is very well done, creating a great atmosphere of tension and mild creepiness. The investigation is slow, but keeps a steady pace so that it holds the attention, and there are enough surprises along the way to keep the reader guessing. I’m sorry that Helton seems to have stopped writing these – in fact, his most recent book (in a different series) was published in 2017, so it looks like he may have stopped writing altogether which would be a pity. His books may not be ground-breaking, but ground-breaking can be over-rated. Instead, they are solid well-worked-out mysteries, well written, with interesting plots and, in this series, a detective I’d be happy to spend more time with. #BringBackLiam!

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

Amazon UK Link

Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller

Best days of our lives…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When Sheba Hart joins the staff of St George’s school, history teacher Barbara Covett finds herself fascinated by the younger woman – a fascination that borders on obsession. Sheba, we soon discover, is no stranger to obsession herself, only her obsession is more dangerous. She has developed a sexual passion for one of her pupils, 15-year-old Steven Connolly. Barbara tells us the story – her version of it, at least – so we learn right from the beginning that Sheba’s affair has been discovered…

This is an intensely readable book, short and taut, and with a wonderful narrator in Barbara who is really the star of the show even though it’s Sheba’s story she’s ostensibly telling. In the early stages she tells us about the life of an inner-city school in a not particularly salubrious area of London, and the picture she paints is insightful and feels authentic, and is full of humour. It’s a kind of battle-ground – teachers vs. pupils, and also teachers vs. management. Barbara is nearing the end of her career and any idealism she may once have had is long gone – by her own account she is competent, but cynical, with low expectations of what any teacher can hope to achieve beyond maintaining discipline and getting through the day.

Sheba is the opposite. Although approaching middle-age this is her first job as a pottery teacher and she still believes she will be able to mould young minds to share her passion for art. She receives a rude awakening when her teenage pupils scent the weakness that comes with inexperience and set out to torment her. This provides an opening for Barbara to insert herself into Sheba’s life as a kind of wise mentor. But it also leaves Sheba vulnerable to the one pupil who shows a mild interest in art, and a much stronger interest in Sheba herself – Steven Connolly. As Sheba becomes ever more embroiled in this inappropriate relationship, Barbara becomes her only confidante.

I enjoyed Barbara’s twisted character very much. A single woman living alone with her cat (hmm… who does that remind me of? 👵😼), she is lonely and we gradually learn that she seems to have great talent for alienating friends who then become enemies. Is she a closeted lesbian? Perhaps. But if she is, it’s not clear whether she’s aware of it. Her obsession with Sheba borders on the sexual, and she certainly seems jealous of both Sheba’s husband and her youthful lover. But her own account is that she is simply looking for a friend. Barbara’s idea of friendship is extreme, however – she resents all other claims on Sheba’s time, and we see her attempt to manipulate herself into a position where she is the one person Sheba depends on. If Barbara wasn’t such an awful person, it would be easy to feel sorry for her. But I didn’t!

Book 17 of 20

I have to admit I didn’t find the rest of the characters quite as believable. The main problem was that I simply couldn’t see what would possibly have attracted attractive Sheba to this rather uncouth teenager. He doesn’t sound like a physical hunk, and he’s certainly not a smooth-talking flatterer. Is it simply that he shows his interest in her? But if Sheba is as attractive as Barbara leads us to believe she must be used to male flattery, and if she wanted an affair she could surely have found someone with more going for him than poor Steven! (Yes, I know these things happen in real life, but this one didn’t convince me.) Putting my disbelief to one side, however, it’s a wonderful depiction of self-delusion as Sheba convinces herself and tries to convince Barbara that this is more than sex – it’s love. Barbara’s cynicism on that point is equal to my own!

Sheba’s family are rather stock characters – the unsuspecting husband with a not-unchequered past of his own; the surly teenage daughter going off the rails; the son with Downs Syndrome who needs a lot of love and attention; the disapproving mother who feels her daughter has under-achieved in life. They exist, mostly, simply for the reader to feel that Sheba is betraying them – somehow her sin wouldn’t have seemed quite so sinful had she been free of family ties.

Zoë Heller

And on the subject of sin, that’s the book’s other deliciously twisted strength. I wonder if anyone would have the courage now to write a book suggesting that the boy was as manipulative as the woman? Of course we only see Steven through Barbara’s unreliable eyes, but it does seem as if he merely wants a bit of sexual experience with a “hot” teacher – there’s little of the victim about him. He’s a disgusting little oik, to be honest – or is he? Do I think that because Barbara thinks it? Is he really a male Lolita, preyed on by a paedophile? The law would certainly say so. Heller uses Barbara cleverly to show us only one side of the story – Barbara’s. This makes it an ambiguous read. Why really did Sheba become obsessed? What impact did it all have on Steven? By not telling us, Heller avoids preachiness and leaves each reader to make her own moral judgements.

A rather lighter read than the subject matter suggests, I’m not sure there’s really much profundity here or much depth of insight into what brings these situations about. However, the wonderful characterisation of Barbara carries it, and while perhaps not quite as thought-provoking as it might have been, I certainly enjoyed listening to it, especially since the audiobook narrator, Jilly Bond, did an excellent job of bringing Barbara’s voice to life.

Audible UK Link

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith

An interesting character study…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Mrs Scott is elderly now, living alone in her small cottage since her only son emigrated to Canada. One day a rider comes to visit her – Patrick Sellar, the factor of the local landowner, the Countess of Sutherland. He tells Mrs Scott she must leave her home and go to live by the sea where the crofters will have to learn to live by a new trade, fishing. The crofters’ land is wanted for sheep – a more profitable venture for the landlords. As Mrs Scott seeks help from her neighbours and the church, we learn about her past and see her gradually come to understand herself better than she had. And eventually we see how she faces up to an uncertain future…

The story is set in Sutherland in the early 1800s at the height of the Highland Clearances, which is one of those landmark events by which Scotland defines itself, and which still provides food for the sense of grievance that feeds the socialist aspirations of a large majority of the population and the nationalist aspirations of a large minority. Patrick Sellar is a real historical figure, though Mrs Scott is fictional. Unfortunately Crichton Smith’s grasp on historical facts is somewhat tenuous – not unusual in a nation where history is distorted too readily into a propaganda tool and where historical accuracy is rarely allowed to get in the way of the grievance mythology.

However, Crichton Smith’s glaring timeline errors irritated me so much that I found it distracting. For instance, he calls the landlord “the Duke” throughout. In fact, the Duke in question wasn’t a duke at that time – he was the Marquess of Stafford. The land belonged to his wife in her own right as the sole heir to the Sutherland Earldom, and her title at this time was the Countess of Sutherland. This, that the Countess of Sutherland was the most prominent of the landlords involved in the Clearances, is, I would have said, one of the best known facts about the whole era, so it both surprised and annoyed me that Crichton Smith consistently got the titles wrong.

Then there’s the question of Mrs Scott’s age. We are told that her husband left her and their very young son, joined the army, and died a few months later in Spain during the Napoleonic wars, so presumably sometime between 1808-14. Patrick Sellar’s career as factor ended in ignominy in 1817 after he was tried for some of his cruel actions while evicting the tenants. So how exactly did a woman young enough to have her first child after 1800 become an old woman before 1817? Crichton Smith claimed his purpose was not to write a historical novel – fair enough, but even if the Clearances are only background to Mrs Scott’s story, a little bit of historical credibility would have been good.

Book 9 of 80
Classics Club Spin #30

However, indeed the Clearances are not Crichton Smith’s main target. The story is mostly about another recurring theme of Scottish literature – the stranglehold of the reformed Church on the people and its abuses, and here he does a much better job. Mrs Scott naturally turns to her church in her trouble, but finds that church and landlords are in a symbiotic relationship, each upholding the other, and neither showing much concern for the poor and powerless. Circumstances lead her to take help from a local man, Donald Macleod, who is seen as a troublemaker by those in authority, as an atheist and as a man who stands up for what he sees as his rights. (Donald Macleod was apparently also a real person but not one familiar to me.) And as she spends time with him and his family, Mrs Scott comes to re-assess her own church-driven moral rigidity and stern humourlessness, and to realise that this may be what caused first her husband and then her son to leave her.

It is written in simple language, in third person but from Mrs Scott’s perspective. Her age and the circumstances in which she finds herself gain her sympathy from the beginning, but initially the reader too sees her as her son must have done, as a woman so determined to judge others by her strict moral code that she makes the lives of those around her miserable. As we learn her story, though, our sympathy grows – her life has been hard and perhaps her natural liveliness and humour were driven out by her early experiences. Abandoned by her feckless husband, she has devoted her life to her son, but her emotional repression means that she shows this devotion through nagging and criticism rather than through gestures of love and affection. And when he too abandons her, all she has left is her church – a church that preaches hell and damnation more than love and salvation, that rules through authoritarian fear. It is her final abandonment by the church that is the catalyst for her to re-assess her life. So there is a sense of hope in the end, not that life will be easier nor that eviction can be avoided, but that Mrs Scott may free herself of the shackles of misery in which the church has bound her, and learn a more open way of thinking even at her late age.

Iain Crichton Smith

After a very shaky start caused by the historical howlers, I eventually became absorbed in Mrs Scott’s story. It’s a short book and isn’t saying anything particularly new or profound – it is covering ground that has been well travelled in Scottish fiction, one might say trampled into a mire. But Crichton Smith keeps the story intentionally intimate by showing the effects of large events on one individual, and that makes it an emotional read, especially in the second half. I’m not convinced it really has the weight or quality to be considered a true classic, but it works well as a character study and an interesting, if slight, commentary on the way the church in Scotland has been used as a tool to keep the underlings under.

Amazon UK Link

Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton

A locked train carriage mystery…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

When Sir Wilfred Saxonby is found dead in a locked carriage in a train, it looks like it must have been suicide, for how could a murderer have got onto and then off a moving train? But Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard can find no evidence that Sir Wilfred had been suicidal, and those who know him find it impossible to believe. And there are one or two odd things – like the mysterious red light that caused the train driver to slow down while the train was passing through Blackdown Tunnel, or the fact that Sir Wilfred apparently used an unlicensed gun even though he owned several licensed ones. Arnold can make no sense of it, so consults his old friend Desmond Merrion, a man with a gift of imagination that sometimes enables him to make sense of the seemingly senseless…

Although there’s a slight whodunit aspect to this, mostly it’s a howdunit, with the mystery revolving around various aspects of how the crime could have been committed, and who had alibis and who didn’t. It starts out well – the point about the red light and slowing train is intriguing, and the solution to that aspect, which comes quite early on, is fun. But then it kind of collapses into a morass of ever more complicated, and ever less interesting, speculation as to how the unnamed murderer or murderers did the deed, with Arnold and Merrion each spouting theory after theory, only for the next fact to come along and change everything.

This felt very different in style to the only other Merrion book I’ve read, The Secret of High Eldersham. That one had a wonderfully creepy atmosphere and aspects of a thriller, in that Merrion and others were put in peril. Merrion also had an enjoyable sidekick in it. This one had none of that – it is a cerebral puzzle with no peril and therefore very little atmosphere. Whoever turned out to be the culprit, I feel I’d have met it with a mental shrug, since none of the suspects were developed in a way to make me care about them. Having said that, Merrion himself is likeable and not nearly as insufferable as some of these brilliant amateur ‘tecs, and Arnold too is quite fun, even if he’s not exactly the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

Miles Burton

Although it’s well written and will probably appeal to the puzzle-orientated reader, I gradually found myself losing interest. I had decided on the most likely suspect fairly early on, and found it odd that neither Merrion nor Arnold seemed to be spotting what seemed like fairly obvious indicators. But I had no idea why the crime had been committed, and was disappointed that when all was revealed it was clear that the reader had had no chance to work that out, since the required information was withheld until very close to the end.

Overall, then, I found the plotting rather dull despite its “impossible” cleverness, and felt too much emphasis was given to the puzzle aspect at the expense of developing any sense of atmosphere or tension. However, it’s redeemed a little by the quality of the writing and the likeability of the two leads, Merrion and Arnold.

Book 7 of 12

This was the People’s Choice for July, and it was more enjoyable than not, so we’ll call that a success, People! 😉

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Pied Piper by Nevil Shute

A wartime comfort read…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

It’s 1940 and elderly John Howard is feeling useless because no one wants his service in the war effort. His son has been killed in the Battle of Heligoland Bight and his daughter now lives in the US with her husband. So feeling a little lost he decides to take a holiday in France (in the middle of a war, as you do). Once there, he learns that the German Blitzkrieg has begun and it looks like France will soon fall. He realises he has to head home while he still can. An English couple at his hotel can’t leave for England straight away and beg him to take their two young children with him. Howard is hesitant – he may have been a father but he’s never had to look after young children by himself. However, he agrees and they set off. But the German invasion is happening faster than he expected and soon the transport system of the country collapses. Howard must make his way as best he can, and as he goes he finds himself collecting other children of various nationalities to take to safety.

On the whole I quite enjoyed this gentle, heart-warming story, but not nearly as much as the other Shute novels I’ve read. Published in 1942, it must have been written during the early days of the war, when France had capitulated and Britain was standing alone against the mighty Nazi war machine; and is clearly directed at those people in Britain and America who were at home worrying, while Europe raged and British sons and grandsons were already in the Forces, fighting in several arenas and preparing for the day when they would be strong enough to liberate France and drive the Nazis back. It is designed to show the innate goodness, generosity and courage of the Brits, as opposed to the nasty Germans and the cowardly French, and our expectations that the Americans, if they would not fight with us, would at least provide sanctuary for refugees. It’s not quite propaganda, but it comes close, as much contemporaneous wartime fiction did.

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Some of the attitudes irritated me. That it was considered best to get English children back to England makes perfect sense, and yes, I could even see that some French parents might have wished to send their children to Britain or America if they could. But when Howard started randomly picking up children who had been separated from their families and deciding that they too should be sent to America rather than trying to find their relatives or leaving them with local authorities, it seemed high-handed in the extreme. I couldn’t help wondering what would happen to these little children after the war – would they ever be reunited with their families? And I imagined grandparents discovering their son or daughter was dead and their grandchildren had mysteriously vanished for ever without a word or sign. The children themselves, those who had been orphaned, seemed remarkably easily comforted by the idea that they’d be going to the utopian Land of the Free – what’s a dead parent or two in comparison with the chance to learn English and play baseball? I think it was when the Nazi wanted Howard (his enemy, remember) to take his child too that I felt Shute had pushed it too far.

Nevil Shute

This has been more critical than I initially intended. It is quite a sweet story, a bit slow and rather repetitive, but quite cosy, if such a thing can be said about a story set in a country occupied by the Nazis. But as I thought about it to write my review I realised I had real reservations about the underlying messages in it (confirming my general view that thinking is a Bad Thing and should be avoided at all costs). Understandable, of course, given the time of writing, since clearly the readership of the time would have wanted the British and Americans to be portrayed as the good guys (which in that particular war we largely were, at least in Europe), even to the point of suggesting some kind of innate superiority. But I have to say that reading it with modern eyes, I found it a little too sycophantic towards our American cousins and a little too self-congratulatory about our own perfections as a people. In terms of tension in the storytelling, the book begins with Howard relating the story to a man in his London club, so we know from the beginning that he and the children made it to England safely. Again, I can well see that at the time the readership probably did not want to be reading books that left them tense and scared over the fate of fictional children when their real lives were already full of fear for their own children, but it does mean that there’s never any real sense of dread, even when Howard and the children meet with dangerous situations along the way. A wartime comfort read for those waiting and worrying at home, and I’m sure it would have been better appreciated by its intended readership than by cynical old me.

I listened to the audio book narrated by David Rintoul, and he did a very good job.

Audible UK Link

Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

Drink and death…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When Claude Margolis is found stabbed to death, suspicion falls not unnaturally on a woman who has been spending time with him recently, Virginia Barkeley, who is found wandering the streets nearby in a drunken state and covered in blood. Virginia’s husband hires lawyer Eric Meecham to defend her. However his lawyerly skills aren’t needed for too long, since although Virginia can’t remember the events of the evening, another witness has come forward whose evidence seems to clear her. But something doesn’t feel quite right about the whole thing to Meecham, and he finds himself trying to find out exactly what did happen to Margolis…

This is billed as noir, but although it has some noir elements I don’t think it sits fully in that genre. It’s closer to a traditional mystery in style with Meecham playing the role of the unofficial detective. None of the various women fulfils the requirements of the femme fatale, being considerably more realistic and well-rounded than those usually are. Meecham is a little cynical about human nature, but he’s not completely world-weary, he works within the law, and he treats women like real people even if he does display the occasional “me Tarzan, you Jane” mentality typical of the time.

However, there are undoubtedly bleak aspects to the story that may be why some consider it noir. Drink plays a large part – not just Virginia’s blackout, but there’s another character, an elderly woman who, late in life, has become an alcoholic after a lifetime of not drinking. As her son says of her “One drink, and she was a drunk. She’d been a drunk for maybe thirty years and didn’t find it out until then. For her the world vanished in that instant.” It’s a really excellent portrayal of the shame of alcoholism for an elderly, respectable woman – hiding and lying, trying to keep up appearances, and always desperately trying to find the money to buy the next bottle.

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Her son, Earl Loftus, is another interesting characterisation. Still a young man, he is dying of a then incurable condition – leukaemia – and Millar shows how this affects his thoughts and actions, and the people around him. I am deliberately avoiding saying how Earl fits into the story, since the plot is revealed slowly and steadily as the book progresses and almost any information about it could count as a spoiler. But I found the depiction of him as a dying man credible and quite moving, and his actions seemed to arise naturally out of his situation.

The pace is slow and steady throughout, perhaps a little too slow in the middle section where I found my interest dipping for a while. But Meecham is a likeable lead character who shows a lot of empathy and understanding for the weakness and frailties that lead the other characters to act as they do. I could have done without the instant “true love” he finds with a character with whom he has exchanged all of about six sentences, especially since I found the girl annoyingly keen to become his adoring, submissive slave. (Is it just me, or are female authors of this era often more sexist than their male counterparts? Seems to me male crime writers of the ‘50s and ‘60s like their female love interests to be strong, sexy and a bit dangerous, while female authors make them clingy and pathetic. Maybe I just notice it more when it’s a female author who annoys me in this way.)

Margaret Millar

Some aspects of the plot are fairly easy to work out, but enough is held back to allow for a surprise at the end – a surprise that in truth seemed to me to lessen the general credibility up to that point, although not enough to lose me completely. It’s very well written, with the strength lying more in the characterisation than the plot. Overall, I preferred the only other Millar I’ve read to date, The Listening Walls, but I enjoyed this one enough to cement her in her place as an author I’d like to investigate further.

Amazon UK Link

The Murder Rule by Dervla McTiernan

A question of guilt…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Young law student Hannah Rokeby is desperate to get taken on by the Innocence Project, a group run by charismatic attorney Rob Parekh to fight to free prisoners they believe have been wrongly convicted. Places on the project are coveted by students, since it looks good on a new lawyer’s CV. But Hannah has deeper reasons for wanting to be part of it – personal reasons. The Project is trying to free Michael Dandridge, convicted of rape and murder, but long ago Hannah’s mother was a victim of Dandridge too and Hannah feels she must ensure Dandridge stays in prison for the sake of her mother’s mental health. So she tricks her way in, but then slowly begins to discover there may be things about Dandridge’s past that don’t quite fit with what she believes…

Written in the third person past tense, we see the story unfold from Hannah’s perspective so that we know what she knows – no more and no less. In the beginning, mostly what she knows comes from an old diary her mom kept back when she knew Dandridge and his friend Tom. This diary is given to the reader in short chapters between the present day story of Hannah settling in at the project. Happily, though, McTiernan is not playing the overused “that day” game – we know pretty quickly what happened to cause Hannah’s mother to fear Dandridge for all these years, and that lets us sympathise to some extent with the lies and tricks Hannah plays to get on the project, although some of them are rather cruel and make her hard to like.

Dervla McTiernan

It’s very well written and keeps up a good pace, avoiding any mid-book flab. In fact it comes in at under 300 pages, so quite short for a contemporary crime novel, but I felt it’s the perfect length for the story. It held my interest throughout and kept me turning the pages, so a successful read from the sheer enjoyability aspect. However, my credibility meter went into the red zone at a fairly early point and by the end was screeching out overload signals. The final courtroom scene was almost farcical – any last remnants of believability disappeared into the distance, never to be seen again. I don’t want to go into the plot in any detail, since it has so many twists and turns it would be hard to avoid spoilers. But oddly, it isn’t the basic plot that has the credibility issues – all of that I could believe reasonably easily. It’s the silly way it’s played out, with unnecessary drama, people being beaten to a pulp one day and then being back to being action-man the next day, Hannah brilliantly spotting things missed by all the qualified lawyers, the evil pantomime baddies, the aforesaid courtroom scene. I felt that had McTiernan written it as a straight mystery it could have been excellent, but trying to turn it into a thriller simply took it far too far from any sense of realism.

So although I enjoyed reading it for the most part, I was left with a slight feeling of disappointment that it could have been so much better than it was. However, I believe this is something of a departure for McTiernan, and I certainly enjoyed it enough to try another of her books to see if her usual style works better for me. Meantime, if you enjoy a fast-paced mystery/thriller and aren’t as picky about credibility issues as I am, this is a well-written and entertaining read.

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

Amazon UK Link

The Perfect Crime edited by Vaseem Khan and Maxim Jakubowski

The spice of life…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

The blurb for this anthology claims that it includes stories from “twenty-two best selling crime writers from diverse cultures coming together from across the world”. I’ll start by saying that I don’t think this is an accurate description. All bar one of the authors lives in Britain, US, or one of the old Dominions. The exception is that there’s one author from Nigeria. So while it is true that all the authors bar one are from what we consider in our majority white countries to be ethnic minorities, I would find it hard to say that they represent “the world” unless we consider the English-speaking nations to constitute the world.

So, putting the fashionable diversity selling-point to one side (which is where I wish publishers would put it permanently), how does it work as an anthology of crime stories? As with most anthologies, I found it something of a mixed bag. It divided for me more or less half and half between stories in the poor-to-OK range and stories in the good-to-great range. Some of this is due to my subjective taste – any story, for instance, with excessive swearing or violence is always going to get a low rating from me, but these are such commonplaces in contemporary crime fiction that presumably plenty of people find them enjoyable. A couple of others played the anti-white racism game too unsubtly for my taste. Happily, though, despite that virtue-signalling blurb, most of the authors have steered clear of “diversity” as a subject and have concentrated on writing interesting and entertaining stories.

Overall, the good stories more than made up for the less good ones. I have added several authors to my list to read some of their novels in the future, which is always a sign of success in an anthology. There are noir stories, bleak stories, funny stories, tense stories, and stories that veer very close to horror, sometimes of the camp variety. Lots of originality and variety on display. I’m a bit out of touch with contemporary crime these days, but several of the names were familiar to me – Abir Mukherjee, Sulari Gentill, Ausma Zehanat Khan, etc., while many more were new to me which again is always part of the fun of anthologies.

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

Jumping Ship by Oyinkan Braithwaite – Ida’s lover asks her to take some photographs of his new-born baby. She’s reluctant, but agrees. When she gets to his house, he is not there but his wife Mina and the baby are. Then Mina disappears – and later the body of Ida’s lover is discovered. This is very good, quite creepy and tense and very well written. I haven’t read any of Braithwaite’s work before, but when I looked her up I realised that she was the author of the recent very successful My Sister, the Serial Killer, which I’ve now added to my wishlist.

The Beautiful Game by Sanjida Kay – While on a night out with her sisters, Selene meets top footballer Luke Allard. He invites Selene to his house, and they become lovers. Next morning his mum Colette takes Selene under her wing, explaining how she has to behave now she’s Luke’s girlfriend. Selene’s family are thrilled that she has caught the eye of this rich and famous young man, and tell her she has to get a ring on her finger. But there’s a room in Luke’s house… a room that Selene is told she must never enter… 😱
This is excellent – both tense and fun! It’s so far over the top as to be almost camp horror, and it’s very well written. Kay has also written several successful novels, though she’s new to me.

Chinook by Thomas King – A small town in the Rockies. A man is found dead outside the saloon. The police chief, Duke, brings in his pal, Thumps Dreadfulwater, on the investigation. The victim was a bad man so plenty of people might have wanted him dead, and Thumps and Duke work together to find out what happened. The investigation in this one is nearly non-existent but the story and storytelling are great fun. Thumps and Duke are a great pairing, and the small town setting is done very well. While I haven’t read anything by Thomas King before, I was aware of him because of the enthusiasm for his books of Anne at ivereadthis.com. His Thumps Dreadfulwater books are not easily available over here, but I have my fingers crossed that the publisher might put them out on Kindle at some point in the future.

Buttons by Imran Mahmood – Our narrator is Daniel, a narcissist, possibly autistic, with a fetish for buttons. Is he a serial killer? The question becomes important when he goes on a date – will he kill her? This is very well done, ambiguous and scary, and feels fresh and original. Again Mahmood has had a couple of successful novels, although to be honest neither of them appeals to me terribly much. I will look out for his name in the future though.

So, as I said, lots of introductions for me to new authors who have sparked my interest to investigate further. And because of the variety and range, I’m fairly sure every crime fiction fan will find some new authors and some stories to enjoy in this anthology.

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

Amazon UK Link

Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

A novel without a hero…

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Paul Dombey is a wealthy, proud and cold man, with only one desire – to have a son to bear his name and to carry on the business he has built. His downtrodden wife has already given him a daughter, Florence, but what use is a daughter? What good is she in business? However, finally the son arrives – young Paul, who within a few hours will be motherless as Mrs Dombey dies, almost unremarked by anyone except the broken-hearted Florence. This is the tale of young Paul’s life…

Well, at least so the title would suggest. And for the first third of the book we do indeed follow Paul, as he grows into a weakly child and is sent off to school in Brighton where it is hoped the sea air will restore his health. *spoiler alert* Alas! ‘Tis not to be. Our little hero dies and we are left with a huge gaping hole, possibly in our hearts (I certainly sobbed buckets!), and most definitely in the book!

Dickens quickly regroups and from then on Florence is our central character and she does her best, poor little lamb. But Dickens’ heroines are only allowed a little latitude for heroism. They must be sweet, pure, loving and put-upon, and they must rely on male friends and acquaintances, mostly, for help in their many woes. So Dickens promptly introduces a new hero – young Walter Gay, nephew of Solomon Gills who owns a shop dealing in ship’s instruments. Walter promptly falls in love with Florence (they are both still children at this stage) and sets out to be her chief support and defender. For alas, although she is now Dombey’s only child, this merely makes him resent her even more. So we, the readers, mop up our tears over Paul and get ready to take Walter to our hearts instead. And what does Dickens do then? Promptly sends Walter to Barbados on a sailing ship so that he disappears for years, and for most of the rest of the book! I love Dickens, but I must admit he annoys me sometimes!

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You’ll have gathered that I don’t think this is the best plotted of Dickens’ books. I had some other quibbles too – unlikely friendships, inconceivable romantic attachments, less humour than usual, especially in the first section. However, as always, there’s lots to love too. Florence, despite the restrictions placed on her, shows herself to be strong, resilient and intelligent. She is pathetic in her longing for her revolting father’s love, but that’s not an unreasonable thing for a child to be pathetic about. I’ll try to avoid more spoilers, but she does take control of her own future to a greater degree than most of Dickens’ heroines, and Dickens gives her a lovely dog, Diogenes, which allows her to have some love and cheerfulness in her lonely life.

In fact, there are a lot of rather good women in this one – good as characters, I mean, rather than morally good. I think they’re more interesting than the men for once. There’s Polly Toodles, young Paul’s wet nurse who is loved by both the children and has plenty of room in her generous heart for a couple of extra children despite her own large brood. Through her and her husband, we see the building of the railways in progress and Dickens is always excellent on the subject of industrialisation and the changes it brings to places and ways of life.

Then there’s Mrs Louisa Chick, Dombey’s sister, and her friend, Miss Lucretia Tox who is a beautifully tragic picture of faded gentility – a romantic heart with no one who wants the love she would so like to give. Although she’s a secondary character, I found her story quietly heart-breaking. Susan Nipper, Florence’s maid, is a bit of a comedy character, but again she is strong and resourceful, and loyal to her mistress, as indeed Florence is loyal to her. They provide an interesting picture of two women from very different classes and levels of education who nevertheless find themselves in solidarity against an unfair world. Mrs Pipchin, Paul’s landlady in Brighton, is not cruel to the children exactly, but she is cold and grasping – it’s all about the money with her.

A major character later in the book is Edith Granger, whom Dombey condescendingly decides to marry. She reminded me very much of Estella in Great Expectations, in that she had been brought up to fulfil a purpose not of her own choosing; in her case, to marry a rich man. Mostly her inward struggle is portrayed very well. However, some of her actions seemed not just illogical but frankly unbelievable, so that I found my sympathy for her waning over the course of the book. And possibly the strongest female character is Alice, whom, since she appears only quite late on and is central to the book’s climax, I can’t say much about at all without spoilers, except that she is righteously full of rage and out for revenge, and Dickens does vengeful women brilliantly!

Oh, there are some men in it too, but I’ve run out of space! Maybe I’ll talk about them the next time I read the book… 😉

Charles Dickens

Overall, I didn’t think this one worked as well as his very best in terms of plotting and structure, and I felt the absence of a hero for most of the book left it feeling a bit unfocused. But as always I loved the writing, and the huge cast of characters provide us with everything from comedy to cold-hearted cruelty, with a healthy dash of sentimental romance along the way. The oppressed position of women is a central theme – from Florence’s dismissal from her father’s love for the sin of being born female, through Edith being as good as sold into marriage, to Alice’s story and the reasons for her fury against one man in particular but also against the society that looks the other way or blames the woman when women are mistreated by men. I’d almost suggest Dickens was being a bit of a feminist here! Not one of my top favourites, but a very good one nevertheless, and as always, highly recommended!

Amazon UK Link

The Z Murders by J Jefferson Farjeon

Race into danger…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Richard Temperley arrives at Euston station after an irritating journey on the night train. The man with whom he’d shared a carriage had snored loudly all night, keeping Richard awake. Now it’s three in the morning, and the porter suggests he should go to a nearby hotel where they will let him snooze in the smoking room until day properly breaks. Richard thinks this sounds like a good plan till he gets to the smoking room and discovers the snoring man has beaten him to it. But oddly the man is no longer snoring. Possibly because he’s been shot dead…

This is a thriller rather than a mystery, mostly involving long journeys across England by rail and road in pursuit of the mysterious villain who is bumping people off, apparently randomly, and leaving a small piece of enamelled metal in the shape of a Z as his calling card. The reader meets the villain long before Richard does, but although we know who he is and gradually what he’s doing, we still don’t know his motive until near the end. Richard’s motivation is much easier to understand – he caught sight of a beautiful young woman leaving the smoking room just as he went in, and he’s fearful that the police will assume she did the deed. So rather than helping the police with their enquiries like a good little citizen, he sets off to find the woman and, that achieved, to try to save her by finding out what’s going on. Meantime the police go about their business and it becomes a race as to whether the police or Richard and the woman, Sylvia Wynne, will arrive at the unknown destination first, and whether any of them will get there in time to stop the villain from fulfilling his mission.

Like a lot of thrillers, the story in this is well beyond the bounds of credibility and the villain is completely over the top in evilness. However, I really enjoyed Farjeon’s writing which in the descriptive passages is often quite literary, but in the action passages is fast-paced and propulsive. He’s very good at creating a sense of place and atmosphere, and several times he gets a real sense of creepy impending horror into the story. Richard’s exhaustion in the first chapters is very well done, leaving him a bit woozy and not thinking too clearly. Both Richard and the mysterious Sylvia are likeable characters and their dialogue is fun in that snappy style of the era, and this reader was happy to overlook Richard’s unlikely love at first sight and hope for their romance to blossom.

Challenge details:
Book:
71
Subject Heading:
Multiplying Murders
Publication Year: 19
32

As I said, the villain is over the top (Martin Edwards describes him perfectly as “lurid”), but that doesn’t prevent him from being scary! Farjeon gives the villain a disability to make him seem freakish – not unusual for that time, but not such comfortable reading now. However, it is effective even if it adds to the incredibility of his actions. He lacks all sympathy for others and in return it’s impossible for the reader to have any sympathy for him. A real baddie with no ambiguity in the characterisation, he made me shudder more than once!

J Jefferson Farjeon

Unfortunately Farjeon spoils it a bit at the end by having the villain and his accomplice reveal the motive, which has been the main mystery, through a conversation with each other, rather than either Richard or the police working it out. But the thriller aspect works well and I found the pages turning quickly as Richard and Sylvia raced towards danger. I’ve only read one Farjeon novel before, Thirteen Guests, and had a similar reaction – good writing and an interesting set-up, but let down a little by the way he resolves the mystery without the detective showing any particular brilliance. However, in this one I felt he developed a much more effective atmosphere of tension and danger that made me more willing to overlook any flaws. Overall I found it fast-paced and entertaining and, while it may not yet have made Farjeon one of my favourite vintage crime writers, I’ll certainly be happy to read more from him.

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