The Wreck of the Mary Deare by Hammond Innes

Worse things happen at sea…

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The little sailing boat Sea Witch is crossing the Channel one night, when suddenly a large ship looms out of the darkness and nearly rams her. The crew of the Sea Witch are planning to start a new business venture as salvagers and when they realise the ship may have been abandoned the skipper, John Sands, who is also our narrator, sees this as a possible salvage opportunity. So despite the fact that a storm is approaching, he decides to board the ship, the Mary Deare, to see whether they can bring it to harbour. But when he gets aboard, he finds the badly damaged ship is not completely abandoned – its captain, Gideon Patch, is there, exhausted and drunk and on the point of giving up hope. The storm hits, and Sands is unable to get back to the Sea Witch, so he and Patch are left to try to prevent the Mary Deare from sinking before help arrives. But what has caused the damage to the Mary Deare? And why has her crew, all but Patch, abandoned her? Sands finds himself caught up in a mystery as well as an adventure…

Hammond Innes was a big name in adventure writing in the last century, with a long career spanning from the 1930s to the 1990s. I’m sure I probably read some in my youth, but if so they’ve long faded from my mind. This one dates from 1956. The entire plot involves sailing – both big and small ships – and is full of nautical terminology and information about sea conditions, tides, and so on. Innes was apparently a keen sailor himself and clearly knows his stuff, and has the happy knack of not dumbing his knowledge down but still managing to keep the unknowledgable reader, like me, following in his wake. The story takes place mostly in the Minquiers, a cluster of reefs, rocks and tiny islets off the shores of the Channel Islands.

The story is divided into three parts, roughly speaking, with the first and last being adventures on the sea and aboard the Mary Deare, while the middle section involves the official court inquiry into what happened aboard. The adventures are exciting, though I did wonder if even strong experienced men could really have survived some of the physical ordeals Hammond puts them through.

The court case is what gives the adventure its plot. The Mary Deare has had a run of bad luck, firstly with the captain dying unexpectedly, so that Patch, who had only joined the ship in its last port, is thrust into the role of captain. A man is missing, a representative of the ship’s owners, and it is presumed he must have fallen overboard. Then there’s a fire which cuts off ship-to-shore communications, and finally an explosion in the cargo hold, breaching the hull. But are these things all accidents, or is there a nefarious plan afoot? The crew claim Patch ordered them to take to the lifeboats and make for shore, but Patch denies this, counter-claiming that they effectively mutinied under the direction of another crewman, Higgins. Then there are rumours that something dodgy went on the last time the ship was in harbour – that the supposed cargo of aero-engines had been secretly transferred to another ship. Patch, whose career and reputation are on the line, believes the only thing to do is to salvage the wreck and examine the cargo, and he ropes in Sands and the Sea Witch to help him.

The writing is perfectly attuned to the style of the story, with great descriptions of the sea and the storms, the conditions aboard the Mary Deare, how Patch and Sands go about trying to get the engines going again, and so on. The adventure sections have a real atmosphere of tension for the most part, though I felt the final section went on a bit too long – by that stage I was ready for the plot to be brought to its conclusion.

Hammond Innes

The courtroom scenes are slower, but I enjoyed the way Innes laid out all the conflicting evidence and gave us contrasting pictures of the various crew members. We see it all through the eyes of John Sands, who, like the reader, has no knowledge of any of these men other than what they themselves tell us. Therefore, like us, Sands has to make a judgment as to whether Patch is the victim of a conspiracy or is himself the saboteur.

I listened to the audio book version, narrated by Bill Wallis, and for the most part it’s excellent. The exception is when Patch is drunk and Wallis acts this out, slurring his words. This made it very difficult for me to make out what Patch was saying, and several times I had to rewind and listen twice or three times to the same sentence. Happily Patch sobers up eventually and the problem went away. But I do wish narrators would remember that clarity is the prime essential in audiobooks, however much they may want to show off their acting skills.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this sea adventure and I’m looking forward to checking out some more of Innes’ books in the future, either in audio or print.

Audible UK Link

Killing Rock (Sullivan and Broderick 3) by Robert Daws

Complicated but satisfying…

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Detective Sergeant Tamara Sullivan has decided to make her temporary transfer from London’s Met to the Royal Gibraltar Police permanent, but bureaucracy means that she must have a month’s break between the two jobs. She opts to spend the time looking after a friend’s small ranch across the border in Spain. The friend’s daughter is an Inspector with the Spanish police and the two young women immediately hit it off. So when cases arise in both Gibraltar and Spain, each of which seems to have a cross-border element, Tamara and Consuela find themselves putting their talents together. Meantime, Gus Broderick finds he might be connected to the victim in the Gibraltar case, so for much of the time he has to take a back seat and trust that Tamara will be able to clear his name.

This has a hugely complicated plot (not helped by the outbreak of war while I was in the middle of the book, resulting in a long gap in reading and a complete loss of concentration!), but it all comes together very satisfactorily in the end. Sullivan is very much the lead character in this one and she’s a likeable detective who plays by the rules, is intelligent, occasionally a little reckless but not too much so, and has a healthy social life and good working relationships with her colleagues. She’s developing into one of my favourite contemporary detectives. Broderick too is a professional, and he has the family life that Sullivan hasn’t yet, so between them they give a nicely rounded picture of normal life, and isn’t that refreshing in modern crime fiction! And the Gibraltar setting is great – Daws has been a regular visitor there for many years and clearly knows the place and the culture very well. I find this surviving outpost of the old British Empire fascinating, and in this one we get to see some of the tensions between Gibraltar and Spain, and also how local people work well together across the border, leaving the politicians to do the squabbling.

The Gibraltar case involves the discovery of the body of a woman, long buried beneath what was then a building site. A letter is found in her possession that suggests she knew Gus Broderick long ago, so her death in Gibraltar, far from her own home but close to his, makes him a suspect. His colleagues are never in any doubt of his innocence, but to prove it they must discover why the woman was there and what happened to her. This involves painstaking tracing of all the people who were connected to the building site at the time of her death.

The Spanish case is both more spectacular and far more complicated, and I’m wary of giving any possible spoilers so forgive some vagueness. It begins when three bodies are found drowned in a swimming pool, and it soon becomes clear this is one in a series of similar killings. But the victims don’t appear to be completely random, and it’s up to Consuela, with a good deal of unofficial assistance from Tamara, to find out the connection. The third-person narrative allows the reader access to information before the detectives, so we meet a couple of mysterious characters that we know must be involved in some way, but it’s not till the end that all the different strands come together and make sense. I felt as if I was floundering a bit halfway through and feared it was all going to be too much to pull together credibly, but Daws does a great job of showing how all the different parts are ultimately connected. 

Robert Daws

This is settling down to be a very good series. It’s not at all cosy, but it avoids a reliance on shock twists, gore and angst-ridden detectives. Swearing is kept to a minimum, professionals behave professionally, plots are complicated and intriguing but also solid and credible. It’s not obsessed with the fashionable and grossly overused subjects of the day – race, gender and identity issues – which is a boon and a blessing to personkind! And the unique setting provides an added level of interest. Each book acts perfectly as a standalone so there’s no particular need to read them in order. I do hope Daws’ acting commitments allow him to keep finding the time to write – he’s as good at each job as the other!

Amazon UK Link

The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley

Peril in Paris…

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Jess has left her job in England rather suddenly, and in a way that means it’s advisable that she make herself scarce for a while. So she tells her brother Ben that she is coming to visit him in Paris. However, when she arrives Ben is not there, and no one in the opulent apartment building where he’s been living seems able to tell Jess where he might be. He isn’t replying to texts or phone calls, and when Jess breaks into his apartment she finds his wallet and other items that she would have expected him to take with him had he left voluntarily. All alone in a foreign country, the language of which she doesn’t speak, Jess sets out to find out what can have happened to Ben…

Jess and Ben haven’t been close for years. When they were children, their mother committed suicide and they were taken into care. Ben, good looking, always able to charm people, was quickly adopted while Jess stayed in the care system being passed from foster home to foster home. So Ben was the one who got a good education and all the opportunities in life, while Jess has had to scrabble in a series of no-hope jobs to survive. But Jess still loves her brother and has turned to him for help from time to time. Now it seems that perhaps Ben needs her help for once.

Jess is surprised that Ben can afford to live in an apartment as expensive as this one seems to be, but she soon learns that one of the other tenants, Nick, is a friend of his from his university days and got him in at a reduced rent. All the tenants in the building seem reluctant to talk about Ben and Jess soon comes to suspect that there are some kinds of dynamics going on that she doesn’t understand. And soon she begins to feel threatened, though she can’t quite work out where the threat is coming from…

This is a fast-paced page-turner which I enjoyed considerably more than the only other Foley I’ve read, The Guest List. As usual there’s too much adolescent swearing for my taste, and as well as Anglo-Saxon cursing Foley has clearly googled common French swearwords and shoehorns them in as often as she can. The writing is good, though rather simplistic – there are no great descriptions or evocations of Paris. However, for me that suited the style of story and kept the pace rocketing along. The apartment building itself is very well depicted and has some lovely Gothic touches which help to ramp up the tension.

Lucy Foley

I liked Jess as a character. She’s had a tough life so she doesn’t scare easily and she feels she can take care of herself. She’s a bit out of her depth in this city where she knows no one and doesn’t know whom she can trust, but her love for her brother gives her the courage she needs to keep searching even when things get scary. The other residents of the apartments are an unlikeable bunch, intentionally so, and secrets abound! There are alternating chapters from the viewpoints of several of the characters, and although their voices are not really distinctive enough their personalities and thoughts are, so it’s quickly easy to recognise each of them as the perspective shifts.

The story touches on some serious topics, but lightly – this is an entertainment rather than a preachy “issues” book (hurrah!). The ending, though unlikely, didn’t feel impossible, so my credulity meter stayed in the safety zone and I found it all quite satisfying.

So an entertaining thriller, certainly not cosy, but not too dark and grim either. I raced through it over a couple of days and thoroughly enjoyed it.

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

Amazon UK Link

Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze

Built for one thing…

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On the run after a prison-break, Tim Sunblade stops off in a cheap motel and hires himself a ten-dollar hooker. But when Virginia shows up, all lavender eyes and sinuous limbs and expensive scent, Tim sees she’s clearly used to a much classier trade. Next day he takes her along with him, telling himself he’ll drop her somewhere when he tires of her. But his fascination with her grows, to say nothing of his lust, and anyway he needs someone to help him with the big job he’s planning. Virginia has her own reasons to get away for a while and doesn’t object at all to the idea of getting rich, so Tim’s plan suits her just fine…

A noir thriller from 1953, apparently the book went out of print for many years and the difficulty of getting hold of it added to its aura as a cult classic. It’s now been back in print for a decade or so, and seems to be pleasing its new readership just as much as its reputation suggested. Noir sometimes works for me and sometimes not, so I was intrigued to give it a try at least, especially since the audiobook narrator, Malcolm Hillgartner, has also been highly praised.

Tim is our narrator and in true noir style we know from the beginning that his story is going to end badly. Virginia is the mystery that keeps the suspense going. Will she betray him, or will she share his downfall? The more time Tim spends with her, the more addicted to her he becomes – and it is an addiction, one he often wishes he could shake, but her looks, her sensuality, even her calculating coldness all exert a growing hold over him, so that he finds he can’t face losing her. But what of her? Is there a heart underneath her hard exterior? Does Tim mean anything to her or does she simply see him as a means to an end? Does she feel any of the lust and passion Tim feels for her, or is she just very good at her profession?

Elliott Chaze

This is undoubtedly noir, but not quite as pitch black as some. Tim has a heart and Virginia is ambiguous enough for us not to be sure till quite late on whether she has too. This gives it a kind of emotional warmth despite their actions – there’s not quite the level of amorality as there is in The Postman Always Rings Twice, for instance, which is way too dark for me. Although this pair are driven by lust and money, you kinda feel they’re both deeper than that – that perhaps there are reasons they are as they are. I found myself liking them both, despite everything, and that meant I was far more interested in their fate than if I’d wholeheartedly despised them. There’s a strong feeling that they are both emotionally affected by their actions too, that guilt may not be an altogether foreign emotion to either of them, which isn’t generally the case in the blackest noir, I think.

But it’s certainly noir in that there’s no hope of a happy ending, and the sense of impending tragedy grows strongly in the latter stages. We don’t know what the tragedy will be, exactly, but there’s a kind of inexorable quality to it, as if all things are fore-ordained, and once on the path there’s no way to turn off.

You’ve never heard a siren until you’ve heard one looking for you and you alone. Then you really hear it and know what it is and understand that the man who invented it was no man, but a fiend from hell who patched together certain sounds and blends of sounds in a way that would paralyze and sicken. You sit in your living room and hear a siren and it’s a small and lonesome thing and all it means to you is that you have to listen until it goes away. But when it is after you, it is the texture of the whole world. You will hear it until you die. It tears the guts out of you like a drill against a nerve and it moves into you and expands.

The writing is great, with rather more literary qualities than a lot of pulp noir – it has more depth of characterisation and a wider focus, so that we see the world these two live in rather than being laser-focused on their lust, greed and crimes, though all those aspects are there too.

I loved it – probably my favourite noir novel, though I admit I haven’t read a lot of the genre. I also loved Malcolm Hillgartner’s narration – he is completely believable as Tim and keeps the emotional level just right, relying on little changes in speed or emphasis to increase the tension as the story moves towards its wonderfully dark climax. And one last bit of praise – isn’t it a wonderful cover? Perfect for the story and the expression on the blonde’s face is exactly Virginia.

She was a creature of moonlight, crazy as moonlight, all upthrusting radiance and hard silver dimples and hollows, built for one thing and only one thing and perfectly for that.

Great book, great narration – highly recommended!

Audible UK Link (For UK Audible members, it’s included on APlus)

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

The underrated heroine…

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Fanny Price, daughter of a woman who married beneath her and a feckless drunken father, is one of many siblings, all living in relative poverty in Portsmouth. When Mrs Price appeals to her sisters for assistance, they hatch the plan of taking Fanny into their own care, thus relieving Mrs Price of the need to provide for her. Fanny is promptly transplanted from all she has ever known to the, to her, huge house of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, to be brought up alongside their daughters, although always as the poor relation. Here Fanny will grow up, treated kindly to a degree, but expected always to defer to her cousins and to be grateful to her uncle and aunts. Sir Thomas also has two sons, already almost grown up when Fanny joins the family, and the younger of these, Edmund, will become her protector and friend. And Fanny’s lonely little heart will respond to his true kindness…

(What follows is mildly spoilery, but I think we all know how every Austen novel ends…)

Fanny is a shy and self-effacing soul, and her modesty, lack of ready wit and frequent moralising mean that she’s often treated as the least of Austen’s heroines. I’ve always had a soft spot for her, though, and for the novel as a whole, which may not have the sparkling charm of Pride and Prejudice or Northanger Abbey but in some ways gives a broader view of the society within which Austin lived and wrote.

There’s no doubt that Fanny’s quietness and strong moral values do make her harder to warm to as quickly as a Lizzie Bennet or even an Anne Elliot. But she’s deceptively strong-willed and even defiant of the passive role demanded of all women to some degree, but especially of the poor relation, dependent on charity. As a contrast to Anne Elliot, famously persuaded by her relatives to refuse the man she loved, Fanny is clear in her own mind that love is the only foundation for a marriage, and refuses to be forced into a match her relatives think is not just suitable, but wildly above what she could have reasonably hoped for.

Of course, she takes it for granted, being a sensible little thing, that one should only fall in love with a respectable and wealthy young man – she has the example of her mother’s downfall to remind her of the perils of marrying an unsuitable man. And she’s also protected from the dangers of falling for the first man to admire her because she has already given her heart to Edmund. Nonetheless, she has to be admired for standing firm and demanding her right to make her own decisions.

It’s not only on the marital question that she shows that firmness of character, or stubbornness, if one wants to be less kind about it. All through her story she refuses to compromise her own moral judgements by acceding to the wishes of the more assertive characters by whom she’s surrounded, on small issues as well as large. It’s understandable that the people around her find her annoying sometimes, and I’m sure I would too if she were a friend or relative of mine, but as a character it makes her considerably more interesting than some of the more pathetic women in 19th century literature.

Book 90 of 90
Finished!

Intriguingly she doesn’t just live by a pre-determined set of morals handed to her by her society – she thinks deeply about right and wrong, and comes to her own conclusions. Commentary on the book suggests Austen was using this to show the rise of Evangelical Christianity at the time – it’s not something I know much about, but I find it a convincing argument. To me, the more important aspect is that, while she outwardly defers to Edmund’s more educated and experienced outlook on questions of religion and morality, in fact it is she who influences and strengthens his views. He comes to recognise her moral strength in time, but Fanny is far too clever to ever let him suspect that she is deliberately setting out to mould him into her ideal of manhood. Perhaps Fanny doesn’t even realise herself that that’s what she’s doing, but there’s no doubt in my mind who will make all the important decisions for them both throughout their lives, once she finishes training him!

The outside world plays a role in the book too, though mostly off stage. Sir Thomas’ long absence in his plantation means that much has been written regarding whether the book can be interpreted as supporting or opposing slavery. In my opinion it does neither – it merely recognises that at that time many families in Britain owed their wealth to slavery, a simple truth. What we do see though is the role of men as landowners and householders, the suitable career options for the non-aristocratic wealthy, and the changing views on the Church as a sinecure for younger sons. We are also reminded of the restricted circumstances of this class of women, though interestingly all of the younger women in the book rebel against these in one way or another. Most of these rebellions end in social disaster for the women involved, but the book gives little sense of moral disapproval of their attempts to break free. Austen seems to disapprove of the silly ways they go about it rather than of the idea of rebellion itself. She uses Fanny to show how quiet, determined rebellion can be more successful than flamboyant gestures, and she largely reserves her disapproval for the men.

Jane Austen

As always, there’s far too much in any of these major classics to discuss in a reasonable length blog post, so I’ll finish with one last thing that I particularly enjoy about this book – that Austen takes us out of wealthy society to visit Fanny’s parents’ home in Portsmouth, showing us this naval town during the Napoleonic era, and allowing Fanny to recognise the comforts that wealth provides. Again I’d love to claim that Austen was making some point other than that money is a Good Thing, but I fear she isn’t. She does make it clear that wealth doesn’t guarantee health or happiness, but she doesn’t mawkishly pretend that poverty, even the relative poverty of Fanny’s family, is in any way romantic or better.

One of my favourite Austens (but then I say that about them all), and one that is often overlooked or underrated. She may not have as much fun as Lizzie, and Edmund is not a hero I’d particularly want to marry myself, but Fanny knows what she wants and has the strength of mind and character to get it, and she deserves to be admired for that!

Amazon UK Link

Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen by PG Wodehouse

The Maiden Eggesford horror…

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When Bertie Wooster wakes one morning to find he has developed pink spots on his chest, his doctor orders him off to the country to rest. Aunt Dahlia finds him a little cottage, Wee Nooke, in the village of Maiden Eggesford, where she herself is visiting at Eggesford Hall. Needless to say, idyllic though the setting is, there’s no rest to be found for poor Bertie! Not only does Aunt Dahlia want him to help her nobble a horse in the big local race, but old flame Vanessa Cook has decided that she will marry Bertie, much to his horror. Not only is she the type of girl who expects him to give up smoking and cocktails, but she also feels he would be improved by reading more poetry. And Orlo Porter, who loves Vanessa and has been spurned by her, is on the warpath.

….“Lord Chesterfield said that since he had had the full use of his reason nobody had heard him laugh. I don’t suppose you have read Lord Chesterfield’s ‘Letters To His Son’?”
….Well, of course I hadn’t. Bertram Wooster does not read other people’s letters. If I were employed in the post office I wouldn’t even read the postcards.

This was the last novel PG Wodehouse finished before his death, and it’s in the nature of a reprise of all his greatest hits. All the plots in the Jeeves and Wooster books are fundamentally the same, and that’s a large part of their charm. You know exactly what to expect and Wodehouse never fails to deliver. He repeats jokes from book to book, and yet they seem fresh every time because he’s such a master of the witty turn of phrase and his use of language is delicious.

If she ever turned into a werewolf, it would be one of those jolly breezy werewolves whom it is a pleasure to know.

The books with Aunt Dahlia in them are always my favourites. In this one, she intends to nobble Potato Chip, the racehorse owned by Vanessa’s father, because she has bet her all on Simla, owned by her host at Eggesford Hall. To achieve her aim, she arranges to steal a cat to which Potato Chip has become so deeply attached he refuses to train unless the cat is with him, and of course where better to hide a stolen cat than in Bertie’s cottage! Bertie tries to point out how ungentlemanly nobbling racehorses is, but Aunt Dahlia simply doesn’t see it that way. As Bertie has come to realise, aunts aren’t gentlemen. Mr Cook is on the warpath…

He was a red-headed chap, and my experience of the red-headed is that you can always expect high blood pressure from them in times of stress. The first Queen Elizabeth had red hair, and look what she did to Mary Queen of Scots.

PG Wodehouse

Of course, things get progressively more tangled, until the inimitable Jeeves saves the day with his usual display of inspired brilliance. Despite this having been written when Wodehouse was in his nineties, it’s right up there amongst his best. I chuckled my way through it, safe in the knowledge that all would be well. Jonathan Cecil is the perfect narrator for these books, and they are guaranteed to bring sunshine into the greyest day. It’s time they made Wodehouse available on the NHS!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

The Leviathan by Rosie Andrews

Evil has come…

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It’s 1643, and England is in the midst of Civil War. Thomas Treadwater has been injured and is temporarily unfit for fighting, so when he receives a worrying letter from his sister he makes for home. Esther has written that their father has fallen under the influence of a girl he had taken in as a maid – Chrissa Moore. Hard for Thomas to believe since his father is a staunch Puritan with impeccable morals – not at all the type to fall into the clutches of a seductress. But Esther hints that Chrissa may have bewitched him. On arriving home, Thomas finds all the sheep on the farm dead or dying, his father struck down by apoplexy, and Chrissa in jail on the basis of Esther’s accusation of witchcraft. But is Esther telling the truth? As Thomas learns more he begins to suspect that evil has come to his father’s house… something more evil even than witchcraft…

The first half of this novel makes it seem as if it’s going to be a fairly standard story about a woman accused of witchcraft at a time of religious and social turmoil. Very well written and clearly excellently researched, there is enough mystery around Esther’s motivations for her accusations to make it interesting and compelling even in this crowded field.

But then, wow! Suddenly, about halfway through, Andrews takes it into a whole different direction – full-on supernatural horror, but soundly based on the superstitions, religious beliefs and mythology of the time. The suddenness with which this happens is jarring, or perhaps shocking would be a better word, although we have known from occasional chapters set sixty years in the future, 1703, that the events of 1643 have cast long, dark shadows, and that the story may not be over even yet. The change takes the book to an entirely different level, one where Andrews touches on some of the deep religious questions torturing England as the Reformation continues to rive the country – questions such as free will, faith, God’s plan and man’s submission to it, predestination, and the end times as foretold in the Book of Revelation. (Note to self: MUST read the Book of Revelation – it has inspired so much great literary and horror writing!)

Antichrist on Leviathan
from Liber Floridus, 1120, via wikipedia

I don’t want to go into the plot in any more detail since it’s one that works better the less you know going in. I was super-impressed by how well Andrews captured what felt like an authentic 17th century mindset, in all of her characters, but especially in Thomas. As for many others, the horrors unleashed by the Reformation in terms of persecution and war has led Thomas to question his own faith. He is a pre-Enlightenment man though he doesn’t know it, and his scepticism will play a role in how he acts. He turns for help in his troubles to his old mentor, John Milton (yes, that one), and through him we learn a little about the philosophical questions of the day. The whole thing is a fascinating imagining of what might come to pass if those parts of the Bible that sceptics call superstition and even believers think of as allegory turned out to be the literal truth. How would we respond? Is faith strong enough to enable us to submit to God’s will, or would we, with the best of intentions perhaps, try to thwart His plan?

The writing is great, as is the characterisation. Thomas, as our narrator, is the one we get to know best and it’s his confusion and moral dilemma that involves us most. But both Esther and Chrissa are wonderful creations too – Chrissa at first seeming the more complex of the two, but Esther soon revealing herself as something more than the simple innocent worried for her father that she first appears. Milton’s appearance might have seemed a bit too quirky if handled less well, but he’s not in it enough to overwhelm the story, and mostly acts as a vehicle to discuss the theological and philosophical issues of the day.

All of that might make the book sound heavy and ponderous – not at all! Andrews manages to get all this depth into what is fundamentally a thrilling horror story of the old-fashioned kind – free of graphic gore and based on the age-old debate of good versus evil, and man’s moral frailty. I wondered how much classic horror Andrews has read – some of the passages in the latter sections as the book builds to its climax put me in mind very much of the horror greats, especially the writing of William Hope Hodgson. It may be, though, that the similarity comes not from Andrews being influenced directly by these writers but by them all having been influenced by the same mythological and Biblical sources.

Rosie Andrews

I think this is a wonderful book – thrilling, thought-provoking, brilliantly achieved. I loved that Andrews put herself and her readers so firmly in the mind-set of the time and never let 21st century beliefs or attitudes distort the picture. I thought her horror writing was fantastic, creating some truly marvellous imagery. And despite my own strictly rational outlook, she immersed me in the beliefs of the time so well that I found the story credible within the world in which its set, and the ending entirely satisfactory. The thing I found hardest to believe, in fact, is that this is a debut novel, and I can’t wait to see what Andrews gives us in the future. Highly recommended!

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

Amazon UK Link

Review-Along! Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

Woman, the temptress…

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As she dances for the crowds in the streets of Paris, the gypsy girl known as La Esmeralda incites passion in the breasts of two men, both forbidden to love in the common way: Claude Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre-Dame, bound by vows of celibacy; and Quasimodo, the hideous creature who lives in the cathedral, condemned by his deformities to be an object of fear or pity, but never love. Esmeralda herself has formed a passion for another man, one unworthy of her love, but who will rouse the jealous fury of Frollo, setting off a chain of events that will ripple out well beyond these four central characters into the very history of Paris…

I must admit that there were points in the first half of the book where I had a deep desire to hit Hugo over the head with a brick, in the hopes that it might inspire him to stop waffling about 15th century architecture and get on with telling the story. However, it is often these digressions that linger longest, and provide us with that glimpse into the thinking of past generations which makes reading classics such a pleasure. Even as I waited impatiently to get back to Esmeralda and her lovers, I enjoyed Hugo’s detailed descriptions of how Paris developed as a city, and how it evolved between 1482, when the book is set, and 1829-31, when it was written. I found his ideas about architecture being the way societies once recorded their histories and philosophies fascinating and, despite my lowly status as a lady reader, I was intrigued and at least partially convinced by his argument that the invention of the printing press, as a new and easier way to spread ideas, would remove this important function of architecture for later generations…

Our lady readers will forgive us if we stop for a moment to look for what thought might lie hidden behind the archdeacon’s enigmatic words: “This will kill that, the book will kill the building.”

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Hugo’s love for Paris is clear, though clear-eyed too. He rants about modern architects destroying the glories of the past (thank goodness he didn’t live to see the Louvre Pyramid or the Centre Pompidou, or the disastrous fire in Notre-Dame itself), and waxes sublimely on the city as a living entity with its people as its soul.

Usually the murmur that comes from Paris in the daytime is the city speaking; at night it is the city breathing; here it is the city singing. Lend an ear then to this chorus from all the steeples, spread over the whole the murmur of half a million people, the everlasting plaint of the river, the infinite breathing of the wind, the deep and distant quartet of the four forests ranged over the hills on the horizon like immense organ cases, damp down as if in a half-tone everything too raucous and shrill in the central peal, and then say whether you know anything in the world more rich, joyful, golden, dazzling than this tumult of bells and chimes; this furnace of music; these ten thousand brazen voices singing at once in stone flutes three hundred feet high; this city transformed into an orchestra; this symphony of tempestuous sound.

This seems a good point to lavish praise on the wonderful translation by Alban Krailsheimer, who also wrote the informative and interesting introduction and notes in my Oxford World’s Classics edition. He brings the prose to life, avoiding any of the clunkiness that sometimes makes translated literature such a chore, and gives full play to the humour and tragedy of the story, and to Hugo’s passion in his digressions. (He also reverts to the original French title, Notre-Dame de Paris – apparently The Hunchback of Notre Dame was an English invention.)

In the second half, Hugo finally buckles down to the task of telling the story, not a moment too soon for this reader. And what a story! Although Krailsheimer informs us that Hugo’s initial remit was to follow Sir Walter Scott’s lead into the art of historical fiction, the book reminds me more of the style that Dickens would later adopt, of making his city and his society as much a feature of the book as his characters and their individual histories. Like Dickens he is also crying out for social change, specifically on the injustices of poverty and of the use of torture and capital punishment as methods of social control, keeping the powerful in power through fear. Writing while the reverberations of the French Revolution had yet to settle and when, therefore, the future form of government in France was still unclear, his open criticism of the monarchy and the ruling classes seems courageous. While the book is set several centuries before the Revolution, it is clearly his intent to show the vast social inequalities that led to it. Does the book have a hero? I’m not sure that it does at the individual level, but I felt that Hugo’s sympathies lay with his mob – not the Revolutionary mob of the 18th century, but their historical ancestors: the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed. He doesn’t sanitise them – they are shown as debauched and depraved, but within their own microcosm of society they act according to their own moral code, and provide mutual protection from the corrupt and brutal ruling class.

(Djali the goat was my favourite character)

Two things surprised me most. Firstly, there’s a lot of unexpected humour amid the serious stuff, with Pierre Gringoire (apparently a real person, though I’d never heard of him) as the main comic turn who provides moments of levity to lighten the generally dark tone. I loved the whole story of Gringoire and the goat! Secondly, the way in which Hugo portrays Frollo’s battle with lust and sexual matters generally is so much more open and explicit than I’m used to in English literature of roughly the same era. Lust is seen as the driving force for all the passion in the book – Quasimodo perhaps is the exception to this, his feelings for Esmeralda perhaps more truly love, although even he is no stranger to the stirrings of sexual desire. I found it interesting that Esmeralda too was shown as a passionate being with her own physical desires – how different to the insipid sexless heroines of so much English literature. And I felt Hugo handled all this superbly – the characters and their motivations all felt true to me (and made me wonder whether Dickens’ caricaturing was a way to get round the literary repressions enforced on English authors of the time. Darcy staring at Lizzie across drawing rooms and ballrooms is about as close to lust as I can think of in classic English Victorian literature, though perhaps the success of the sensation novels suggests that the English appetite for lust was secretly just as strong as the French).

Victor Hugo

As always with these major classics, there’s far too much to discuss in a reasonable length blog post. In summary, then, after the long first half and the architectural longueurs in which he nearly lost me, Hugo won me over totally with the thrilling story and left me reeling at the end! And in the couple of weeks since I finished reading, I’ve found myself mulling over many of the issues he raised in his digressions, so that my appreciation of the whole book has continued to grow. It’s one I’d like to re-read, since knowing the outcome would lessen my impatience to get on with the story and allow me to savour all the rest in a more leisurely fashion. Heading for a paltry four stars at the halfway mark, by the wonderful end it had gained a well-deserved and brightly glowing five! (I’m even tempted now to read Les Misérables…)

I do hope my fellow Review-Alongers found as much in it to enjoy as I did. I look forward to reading their thoughts and will add links to their reviews below as I come across them. Please also check back to find out what our non-blogging friends thought, who will hopefully leave their comments on it below.

Alyson’s Review – see comments below

Christine’s Review – see comments below

Jane’s Review

Kelly’s Review

Margaret’s Review

Amazon UK Link

Death of a Bookseller by Bernard J. Farmer

One for bibliophiles…

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Sergeant Jack Wigan is on his way home from work one night when he comes across a drunk man swaying about in the middle of the road. He decides not to take him into custody, instead telling him to go home, and then accompanies him to make sure he gets there safely. The drunk man is Mike Fisk, a “runner” in the book trade, who’s been celebrating finding a rare and valuable edition of Keats’ Endymion. The two men hit it off and become friends, and Wigan is inspired by Fisk with an interest in rare books. Then one evening when he goes to call on Fisk, he finds him dead, stabbed and lying in a pool of blood with the book he was reading on the table before him – a rare book on the occult…

Martin Edwards tell us in his foreword that this book has had a kind of cult status for many years, and copies of it are hard to find and very expensive. This is the first time it has been reprinted in decades. The few initial ratings on Goodreads are not inspiring – they suggest the book may have been better left forgotten.

But when did I ever agree with the majority on books? It’s an oddity, certainly – not the greatest prose and the plot is rather loose and rambly, and there’s a weird thread running through it where sensible and rational people all seem to find the idea of raising the devil and demons not just possible, but quite likely. But for all that, I found that once I got used to the rather plain writing style I enjoyed it, and as it progressed towards the end, I got fully caught up in the story and found the tension building nicely.

Sergeant Wigan is a decent man with a strong sense of justice. Because of the knowledge he has gained of the rare books business, he is seconded to work on the investigation into Fisk’s death. The Inspector in charge of the case soon has a suspect in sight, and concentrates all his efforts on getting a conviction. He succeeds, and the man is sentenced to hang. But Wigan is unconvinced of his guilt, and sets out on his own time to find the true culprit before the sentence can be carried out. So it’s a race against time, with the clock ticking louder and louder as the fateful day set for the hanging draws nearer…

Apparently Farmer was himself a collector of rare first editions as well as being a former policeman, and he puts these experiences to good use in the novel. We get an idea of the life of a uniformed sergeant, running his squad, understanding his patch, and using his knowledge of the local criminals to keep the public safe. (It’s the 1950s, when these things were largely true. In fact, if anyone out there is as ancient as me, Wigan reminded me very much of Sergeant Dixon of Dock Green, the first TV police procedural in Britain.)

The rare book business is shown as home to all kinds of skulduggery and disreputable people, some truly loving the books but others simply seeing them as a way to make money from gullible collectors. Farmer shows us all levels, from the man selling books from a barrow, to the large traders selling from shops and catalogues, to the American millionaire, willing to pay any price or break any law so that his library will be better than anyone else’s. Farmer makes a few comments that suggest he may not have been pleased at so many rare British books making their way into American collections, and also hints a little sniffily that some collectors never read the books they display so proudly. It all felt very authentic to me, written by a man who clearly knew what he was talking about. And there’s lots of enjoyable references to specific rare first editions, and an indication of how authors rise and fall in the fashionable stakes of the collectibles market, sometimes on something as simple as a new film or TV adaptation of one of their books.

The plot itself is fine, though with that weird occult thread that is a bit jarring at points. Happily, however, the villain is human, as is the motive. I don’t think it’s fair-play, but the race against time aspect makes it feel like a cross between a mystery and a thriller, so that didn’t bother me. Overall, it’s not of the quality of the best mystery novels in either writing or plotting, but Wigan is an appealing character, the look at the book trade gives it an added interest and its very oddity gives it a kind of unique charm. Well worthy of its place in the BL’s Crime Classics series, and recommended as something a little different from the usual run.

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

Amazon UK Link

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

When the snakes are not the scariest thing…

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On St Valentine’s Day, 1900, a group of girls from the exclusive Appleyard College boarding school are taken to nearby Hanging Rock for a picnic. When the time comes to start back, it is discovered that three of the girls and one mistress are missing and, despite much searching then and later, no clues are found as to what has happened to them…

I was until recently under a misconception about the book in that I thought it was written much earlier than it was, probably sometime in the 1920s or so. In fact it was published in 1967, and that much later date shows through in the mild air of mockery Lindsay displays about the attitudes of the late Victorians, and in her hints that the root of the mysterious disappearance may lie in the burgeoning sexuality of these girls on the cusp of womanhood – as we know, Victorian ladies didn’t have sexuality at any age, much less as schoolgirls! This meant that I was at first surprised by the tone, which was considerably lighter and with more humour at the beginning than I expected, though it gradually darkens into something quite troubling and chilling.

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Ambiguity has to be handled well if it is to avoid being simply frustrating, and it’s the excellent way Lindsay balances the information she does and doesn’t give us that makes it work so well. There are all kinds of little mysteries surrounding the larger one, blank spaces that the reader can fill in for herself, clues and hints that might mean one thing, but could just as easily mean nothing. Legend has it that Lindsay wrote a final chapter revealing all (in a woo-woo kind of way – it’s summarised on wikipedia if you’re interested) but that her publisher suggested she cut it. If this is true, what a debt the book owes to the publisher – no explanation would leave the book lingering in the mind the way it does by ending as the published version does. Apparently, there’s a lot of doubt that the missing chapter really existed though (the suggestion being that the one printed sometime in the 1980s, after Lindsay’s death, was a hoax), and I think I prefer to believe that and give the full credit for the ambiguity to Lindsay.

The disappearance is, of course, pivotal, but it’s by no means the whole story. As time passes and no trace of the girls and their teacher is found, we see a ripple effect running through the lives of the people affected. Mrs Appleyard’s school, so successful, so exclusive, is now the centre of scandal and we see how this affects Mrs Appleyard herself and the other members of staff. The English boy, or young man, who saw the girls last as they made their way up the Rock, is haunted by the beautiful face of one of them, Miranda, and by what seems like a sense of guilt that he didn’t stop them; though at the time there was no reason to do so and, anyway, English Victorian propriety would not have allowed him to address young ladies to whom he hadn’t been properly introduced. Then there are the pupils, each missing their classmates to varying degrees and confused and frightened through not knowing what has happened to them. And the police, having to face accusations of incompetence for failing to find them. All of these ripples grow larger as time passes, so that as the incident itself begins to fade into the past, the effects of it grow and, with them, an impending sense of dread.

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There are lots of other interesting side aspects that make it more complex than it at first sight appears. Lindsay shows the born Australian’s affectionately contemptuous attitude to new arrivals from England, with their strict social protocols, rigid dress code and class divisions, while the new arrivals are having to learn a new way of life, complete with scorching heat, snakes, killer insects and the vast empty landscape where place is divided from place by distances unimaginable to the inhabitants of crowded little England. Indigenous Australians aren’t visible in the story but their culture is, or at least the idea that this land is ancient and imbued with legends and a strange spirituality not understood by the incomers, and therefore threatening. The Rock itself, with its strange monoliths and hidden caves, seems to exert a power that may be physical or a psychological effect, or possibly otherworldly.

Joan Lindsay

There’s also the time of writing. The ‘60s were such a time of social change – are there hints of homosexual undertones in some of the relationships? There probably wouldn’t have been in a novel from 1900, and there almost inevitably would be in a novel from 2022, but a novel from 1967? Beautifully ambiguous again, intentional or not. Hard to read it with modern eyes and not see things that may not exist, which seems quite appropriate to the overall tone!

The writing is excellent, both in the characterisation and human interactions, and in the many passages descriptive of the natural world which Lindsay uses to add to the feeling of strangeness that the newcomers feel. It’s surprising and disappointing that she wrote so few novels and that this seems to be the only one to have remained in the public consciousness. But if you’re only going to be remembered for one novel, then this is a wonderful one to be remembered for.

This was the People’s Choice winner for April. Well done, People – great choice! 😀

Amazon UK Link

The Clockwork Girl by Anna Mazzola

Automata and missing children…

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Paris, 1750. Madeleine is desperate to escape from the brothel that her mother runs, so when one of the brothel’s clients, a policeman, offers her money to take a position as a maid in the house of Doctor Reinhart in order to spy on him, she accepts. Doctor Reinhart is an automaton maker, already famed for his life-like creations of birds and animals which he animates using clockwork. Madeleine is not told the reason the police are interested in the doctor; she is merely instructed to report on any suspicious activities. When she arrives at the doctor’s house she meets Véronique, the doctor’s young daughter, just returned from her education in a convent and now keen to follow her father’s footsteps and become an automaton maker too. Soon Madeleine becomes convinced that the doctor is indeed involved in a secret project, but despite her best efforts and the pressure being applied on her, she can’t find out exactly what. Meantime Paris is in an uproar over the disappearances of several children. At first the missing children came from amongst the many homeless waifs living on the streets, but now the children of tradesmen are disappearing too and rumours are flying as to who is taking the children and why…

I don’t want to say much more about the plot than that, because the interest of the book comes from the slow revelations that finally allow Madeleine and the reader to know what is going on. To be honest, I worked out parts of the mystery fairly early on, but it didn’t matter because the story is much more about the characters and how they are impacted by the events in the book. The historical setting of Paris in the reign of Louis XV is wonderfully portrayed – I’m no expert on the period so can’t speak to its authenticity, but I found it totally convincing. Mazzola takes us into the poorest and darkest corners of the city and to the dazzling court of the king, and shows us the huge inequities that only a few decades later would lead to bloody revolution.

The story is told from the perspective of three different women, though all in third party. Madeleine is the main character, and she’s very well drawn. We learn about her terrible but sadly not unusual experiences as a child forced into prostitution, though it’s made even harder by the fact that it’s her mother who did the forcing. But Madeleine is strong, determined not just to make a better life for herself but also for her young nephew Émile, who is a sickly child and an orphan, his mother, Madeleine’s sister, having died not long before the book begins. Madeleine is also unusual in that she has some basic education given to her by her father before he died. It is Madeleine’s ability to read and write that makes her useful to the police as a spy.

Véronique is the second perspective. Since part of the mystery revolves around her, we don’t get to know her quite as well as Madeleine until late on in the book. However, she too has had a difficult childhood and is now looking to forge a life and career for herself in a society that restricts opportunities for women of her class to little more than marriage or the convent.

The third perspective is a woman that we initially know as Jeanne but soon discover is in fact Madame de Pompadour. Through her we learn about the life of being the officially recognised mistress of the King, considerably more luxurious than Madeleine’s life in a brothel, but perhaps no more secure. Jeanne’s position is entirely dependent on Louis’ favour, and she knows that there are many who would happily see her fall from grace or take her place. Through her, too, we get to see the power struggles at court, with everyone jostling for the king’s patronage, and all completely uninterested in the poverty and growing anger of the Parisian poor on their doorstep.

Mazzola touches on many issues – women’s lowly status and lack of agency, slavery, prostitution, poverty, and so on. But in every case she shows us these things through the characters’ lives and actions – she doesn’t preach and she doesn’t get polemical. Hallelujah! Her characters are firmly rooted in their own time, and haven’t miraculously acquired twenty-first century attitudes and sensibilities.

Anna Mazzola

The story itself is wonderfully creepy, with Mazzola making great use of the settings and the doctor’s automata to create an atmosphere of mild Gothic horror. Apparently it’s inspired by a real scandal of children going missing in Paris at this time and some of the rumours that flew around, although Mazzola has created her own story from this base. There are hints at the supernatural, at the old story of science being allowed to run beyond control, at the lengths that obsessions will take people to and the lines that they will cross in pursuit of knowledge. And the resolution of the story is both dark and satisfying.

An excellent book – great setting, well-drawn interesting characters, and a story that intrigues and chills and takes us to the edge of the supernatural, but ultimately stays on the right side of credible. Loved it – highly recommended!

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

Amazon UK Link

Streets of Gold by Margot Kinberg

On the run…

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Staci McKinney is a runaway, but she has good reason. She’s just fifteen and her new stepfather has been abusing her while her mother, desperate to make her marriage work, has been turning a blind eye. So now Staci is living rough, stealing food from bins and sleeping wherever she can find a bit of shelter from the freezing Philadephia winter. On this night she’s hiding under the overpass, shivering beneath the scant shelter of a plastic garbage bag, when she sees two men dumping what looks like a bundle of blankets. Once they’ve gone, she sneaks over, the thought of a bit of extra warmth too enticing to ignore. But just as she discovers that inside the roll of blankets is the body of a man, the two men return…

This novella-length story is a thriller rather than a mystery. The reader knows from the beginning who the two men are – City Councilman Daniel Langdon and his assistant and fixer, Scott Townlee – and we know how the victim died. There’s not much to connect Danny with the crime, so he and Scott thought that once they’d dumped the body they’d be safe. But now they know this homeless girl has seen them and they’re scared. They set out to track her down and though they deliberately don’t think further than that, it’s obvious there’s only going to be one foolproof way of silencing her…

Staci is scared too. She’s a smart kid, and tough, but she’s way out of her depth. She hasn’t been on the streets long enough to learn how to keep safe, or even just warm. And now she’s seen two men who she knows must be murderers, and she knows they saw her too. She soon becomes aware that Scott and Danny are hunting for her, and they have all the resources available to a City politician to help them in the search. Staci has to try to evade them while she figures out what to do…

My usual disclaimer: the author Margot Kinberg is a friend and fellow blogger. However, as always, I’ve done my best to be honest in this review, which happily is made much easier by the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed the book!

This is a great example of what I’m always banging on about – that books should be the right length to suit their content. The novella length is perfect for this one – any longer and it might have begun to feel bloated and probably unrealistic. At this length, it is tight and fast-paced which gives it a real sense of tension throughout and the short time-frame makes Staci’s attempts to stay hidden very credible.

Staci is shown very believably as having a strong character, but still being vulnerable because of her age and situation. She feels she can’t do what any of the rest of us would in that situation – go to the police – because as a runaway minor they would either return her to the home she’s running from, or put her into the care system. She’s heard all kinds of horrors about what happens to kids in care, probably exaggerated but she doesn’t know that. It seems to her she’s safer on the streets, even with these men chasing her. Scott is also well-drawn as the kind of fixer we’ve become used to seeing working for politicians in fiction and in real life, clearing up their messes without much concern for the ethics of it. Danny is perhaps the weakest of the characters – a couple of times I found myself close to the credibility line over his actions, finding it hard to see his motivations, but again the shorter length and fast pace stopped this from becoming a major problem.

Margot Kinberg

One of the things I especially liked is that Kinberg shows both sides of life on the streets. Staci meets with bad people for sure, especially men who see vulnerable girls as prey. But she also meets with kindness and generosity along the way – from something as simple as a casual stranger giving her some food to those involved in the many charities offering material and emotional support to street kids. We also see a kind of camaraderie among some of the rough sleepers, especially the women, trying to look out for each other where they can. These aspects prevent the story from becoming too bleak, and seemed very realistic to me. Kinberg also makes it clear that whatever the outcome for Staci there’s not going to be a magic wand to make it all go away – her experiences will have damaged her and she’s going to need help if she’s to survive and have a future to look forward to.

A tense, absorbing story that I gulped down in one evening, keen to know how it would all work out for Staci, and if the bad guys would get their due comeuppance. And it all leads up to an ending that I found satisfyingly realistic. A very enjoyable read!

Amazon UK Link

Post After Post-Mortem (Inspector Macdonald 11) by ECR Lorac

The psychology of crime…

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The Surrays are a golden family, all highly intelligent and successful in their chosen fields and all happy in each other’s company. But recently the middle sister, Ruth, has been causing a little concern to her older brother, Richard, whose trained eye as a psychiatrist has noted that she seems to be struggling with stress. Her latest book has just been completed and will doubtless meet with the same critical acclaim as her previous work, and Richard suggests to their mother that she might try to tempt Ruth to go away for a holiday with her. But before this can happen, Ruth is found dead in her bedroom at her parents’ home, complete with sleeping pills, farewell note and a new will, leaving little doubt that she has taken her own life. Following the inquest which returns the expected verdict Richard returns to his own home, where he finds a letter from Ruth, written on the evening of her death and delayed in the post, in which she seems quite happy and is making plans for the following week. Although he’d rather not cause his family, especially his mother, any further anxiety, Richard feels he must show the letter to an acquaintance of his, Inspector Macdonald of the Yard, who confirms that the letter is reason to investigate Ruth’s death more closely…

Each time I read one of Lorac’s books I find it harder to understand how it is that she became “forgotten” when so many other writers, of equal or less talent, have remained more securely in print and public favour. I wonder if it’s that she tried so many different things, rather than finding a successful formula and sticking to it? As I was reading this one, I was convinced it must be quite a late novel, post-war, probably well into the ’50s. It concentrates far more than Golden Age novels usually do on the psychology of the various characters – on the effects of success and expectations, self-discipline and the impact of feeling driven to achieve. In that aspect, it reads more to me like the novels of PD James, Ruth Rendell, Julian Symons and their generation rather than the mystery stalwarts of the between-wars era. I was surprised therefore when I read the foreword (after I’d read the book, of course) to discover that it was published in 1936, when I suspect it must have felt well ahead of its time – perhaps so much so that it didn’t quite fit with the expectations or preferences of mystery readers of the time. Pure speculation, of course, but I do feel you never quite know what you’re going to get with Lorac, in the way you do when you pick up a Freeman Wills Croft, a John Dickson Carr or even an Agatha Christie.

Inspector Macdonald is quickly convinced that Ruth’s death was murder, and he has a variety of suspects to consider. As well as the parents, the family includes Ruth’s two brothers and two sisters, and there was a small house party at the time with three men whom Ruth had invited, each connected to her writing career in one way or another. On the face of it, the members of this happy family could have had no reason to kill a beloved sister, but Macdonald feels that more than one of them is hiding something, perhaps to protect their mother from more hurt but perhaps for darker reasons. The same applies to the three guests – each seems reluctant to share information with Macdonald that he feels may be relevant, but that they feel may simply serve to tarnish the reputation and legacy of Ruth as a writer. Ruth herself was something of a contradiction – a brilliant intellectual with much to say in her novels about the human condition, but in her personal life emotionally naive and even repressed. Her recent infatuation with a man who seemed entirely not her type had appeared out of character to those who knew about it, and his rejection of her had broken through her usual cool reserve.

We get to know Inspector Macdonald quite a bit more deeply in this one, and he comes over as someone with empathy for those affected by crime, but with an over-riding belief that justice for the victim takes precedence over the feelings of the bereaved. We also see him take a personal dislike to one of the suspects, and his own self-awareness of that and determination to ensure he doesn’t let it sway his judgement. While he is looking for clues in the psychological make-up of the suspects, the reader is being given clues to his own psychology, and it’s all interestingly and credibly done. Detective Reeves is in it too, and again we get to know him rather better as an individual this time than in other books where he’s appeared.

I think it is more or less fair-play and I felt a bit smug because I spotted one of the crucial clues, although I couldn’t quite get from it to either the who or why. Perhaps a little darker than some of her other books as stories that go into the psychology of crime often are, I found it absorbing and very well constructed, so that there were no dips in interest level along the way. I say it every time, but Lorac really is the brightest star in the BL’s sparkling firmament and even if the series had done nothing else, bringing her back to her deserved prominence would still have made it well worthwhile. Highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

Those pesky apocalypses…

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When young David Strorm meets Sophie, a little girl with a secret, he sympathises, because David has a secret too. Sophie’s secret is visible – she has six toes on each foot, and to the inhabitants of Waknuk this shows she is not a human being since all humans are created in God’s image and therefore must conform to the specifications laid down several generations ago. David’s secret is easier to conceal but even more threatening to normal humans, for David and some of the others can share their thoughts. From a young age they know this makes them different and difference is dangerous, so they learn to keep the secret among themselves. Until Petra comes along, with a talent for sending and receiving thoughts far greater than any of the others, and too young to know how to control it…

First published in 1955, the book takes its inspiration from the Cold War fears of nuclear devastation that influenced so much science fiction of that era. However, as in The Day of the Triffids, Wyndham is not so much interested in the fact of war or destruction as in the societies that may arise following an apocalyptic event.

Here we’re in Labrador, in one of the few populated areas left on Earth where only the far north and south have recovered enough from the nuclear winter to allow some kind of normal life to be resumed. A little further south are the Fringes, where mutations in plants and animals run wild, and to where mutants are exiled to fend for themselves. Further south again are the Badlands, where human life is unsustainable due to continuing nuclear pollution. In the conflict and disaster that followed a few hundred years ago, all technological knowledge was lost and the small population of remaining people have since gone back to old-fashioned methods of farming and living in small village settlements. The Bible survived, however, and faith is strong. People believe that God sent Tribulation as a punishment for sin, and are determined to root out any new signs of sin in order to appease him. Sin has come to include any form of deviation from the norm, physical or behavioural. David’s father is a staunch and harsh believer, always first to condemn sin and brutal in his insistence on driving out and destroying any kind of mutation. The basic story is of the danger in which David and the others find themselves when their secret leaks out, and the tension is in knowing whether they can find a way to survive.

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But along the way Wyndham is mulling over wider philosophical questions. What is normal, he asks, and does our humanity rest in our physical selves? Since the Bible doesn’t physically define what a man or woman should be, how can the people of Waknuk know that their definition is right? We hear of other communities, far away, from where intrepid explorers have returned with reports of people who look very different – they may be hairless, or have hair all over their bodies, the woman may have six breasts rather than two, they may be taller, or shorter – and they all think they’re “normal” too and that any other form is a deviation. Some societies don’t seem to care about mutations in their children so long as the child is viable, while others, like David’s, refuse to even accept that a newborn is human until it has been inspected and passed as meeting the specifications set down.

John Wyndham

The question of evolution is also at the heart of the book, even if evolution in this case has been triggered by a profoundly unnatural event. Through his characters Wyndham debates whether two diverging arms of a species can co-exist or whether the less evolved will always try to eradicate the more evolved through fear. I found the way he did this fascinating, although I’m not sure he intended me to feel as I did – that his characters at each level soon came to believe in their own superiority and to de-humanise anyone different from them. At first it is David’s father and his like who set out to destroy all deviations, but soon David and the other telepaths seem to believe just as firmly in their own superiority and to convince themselves that their survival justifies the killing of “normal” people. I felt Wyndham expected me to agree with David’s people on that one, but I came to see them as just as blinded and blinkered and cruel as his father. I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but there is another group who appear later in the book, and they also seem to consider themselves highly superior to all others and, indeed, to see those others as little better than dangerous vermin. Survival of the fittest, perhaps, but this seems like more than survival – it seems like hatred.

The introduction in my copy, by M. John Harrison, picks up on another theme which I missed but feel is valid; namely, that the book was written just at the beginning of what became known as the Generation Gap, when young people suddenly had the opportunity to get a good education, including living away from the parental home at universities and colleges, and be upwardly mobile, leaving their parents’ generation behind and often scandalised by the new moral codes the younger people were forging. Again, though, I felt this made the evolutionary theme less, not more, credible – the younger generation didn’t want to eradicate their elders and the older generation didn’t kill their deviant young (in most cases!).

On the whole I found this excellent, but perhaps not quite as coherently worked out as the earlier Triffids. Telepathy seemed a strange mutation to choose, not directly resulting from the nuclear devastation in the way Sophie’s extra toe did, and the message seemed confused between a cry for us to embrace deviations from the norm and a kind of endorsement or at least acceptance of a survival of the fittest mentality being used to justify eradication of the “other”. However, I certainly found it thought-provoking, which can only be a good thing! So long as no one out there thinks “thinking” is a sign of deviancy… 😉

Kelly and I read this as a Review-Along, so follow the link below to her review to see what she thought of it!

Kelly’s review

Amazon UK Link

Unlocking the World by John Darwin

Port Cities and Globalization in the Age of Steam, 1830-1930

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In his preface, Darwin explains that he has chosen to look at port cities in the steam age as a way to examine globalisation, which he suggests is not a new phenomenon but one that has happened in waves throughout history, influencing how various societies developed, rose and fell over time. He concentrates on European-led globalisation, and includes the Americas in that since they were connected to and influenced by Europe. However, since the various European empires claimed territory in so much of the world, the book roams widely over the entire globe, showing that the interconnectedness we sometimes think of as “modern” is in fact merely a continuation of historical trends.

Darwin starts with a clear explanation of port cities, what differentiates them and how they first developed far back in history. He is excellent at explaining things simply enough for non-specialists to understand, and uses his early chapters to give the relative newcomer to the subject the background knowledge that will help when, in the later chapters, he discusses specific port cities in more detail. So he explains how some ports developed as entrepôts because of their geographical location, making them convenient places for the exchange of goods, while staple ports grew up to facilitate trade in a specific local produce or manufacture, such as wool, spices and, later, rubber, etc.

He explains how shipping operated pre-steam when its reliance on trade winds to a large degree determined routes, and how physical restrictions on moving goods and produce across land meant that the hinterland on which a staple port could rely was restricted in size. This background makes it easier to comprehend how revolutionary steam was, enabling ships to make more direct journeys in shorter times, while on land railroad-building could mean the difference between a port’s rise or fall. He also discusses the impact of the building of the Suez canal on port cities, some of which benefited from the new routes available, while others lost their geographical advantage. Steam power brought its own restrictions – the need for coal and, in the case of trains, a fairly flat accessible landscape.

While I found all this background informative and useful, the real interest of the book came for me when Darwin reached “modern” times – from the pre-Columbian years of the 15th century, when the European empires were tentatively beginning to reach out across the globe, discovering new worlds to trade with, and sometimes to conquer. Darwin makes it clear, however, that in many cases conquering wasn’t necessary as a means to develop trade, and that often port cities and their hinterlands remained firmly in the control of local magnates although the Europeans largely controlled the transport of goods.

Coaling a cruiser, St Lucia, West Indies, early 1900s (Chronicle/Alamy)

The arrival of steam reduced journey times and therefore the costs of travel and of imports and exports, fuelling the industrial growth of western European nations and expanding their imperial reach and ambitions. Darwin quotes a statistic which, while I’m sure it will be correct, I still find quite unbelievable – that “By 1899 all but 2 per cent of the world’s manufactured exports came from nine Western countries.” The massive inflow of raw materials and outflow of finished products created an immense global economy, where catastrophes in one part of the globe could have an impact half a world away. Speed of journey times also meant that it was easier for people to move around the globe, so that colonisers no longer had to spend most of their lives cut off from their home nation, and there was a huge growth in passenger transport as a result. News, too, could travel more quickly, especially with the development of cable, so that the world economy began to react more quickly to events.

The latter two-thirds or so of the book takes us around various of the major port cities of the 19th century, giving a more detailed look at how and why they rose, developed and, where relevant, fell. Darwin starts in North America, for example, discussing New Orleans and its growth on the back of the cotton trade underpinned by the slave trade, and later giving way to New York, which had harbourage more suited to the larger ships of the steam age, and which was an entry point for mass immigration as well as produce. Montreal is an example of a port that initially relied primarily on its local hinterland for its staples – fur and lumber – although it gradually extended into the interior by the ambitious building of transcontinental railroads. From North America, Darwin follows the same format for ports in India, Asia, Africa and, of course, in Europe itself. Highlights for me were the ports about which I knew least and which seemed most “exotic” to me – Singapore, Calcutta, Shanghai, etc.

John Darwin
Professor of Imperial and Global History at the University of Oxford, now retired.

In each case, Darwin gives an idea of the power structures and economic features of the port, and the culture of those who lived there. He concentrates less on the politics and more on the practicalities of how empires operated as huge trading enterprises, and how the port cities they used for this also acted as melting pots of ideas and cultures, and often too as spreaders of diseases across the globe. Since length restrictions mean that each port only gets a shortish entry, a lot of information is packed into a few pages, and Darwin often assumes that the reader will be aware of the background history, especially of the various empires which claimed ownership of the territories under discussion. For a newcomer to the subject, I’d highly recommend reading Darwin’s own earlier wonderful history of the British Empire, The Unfinished Empire, which provided me with most of the background I needed to fully appreciate this more targeted history.

(Bookish aside: I spent a lot of time while reading this thinking back to various books I’ve read – Heart of Darkness, The African Queen, etc. – where steam and empire played a part. It occurred to me that this will be a great book to refer back to any time I’m reading a colonial-era novel set in one of these ports, to remind me of the local culture of the time and the port’s place within the history of empire.)

A great read – Darwin has the ability given to few historians of making his books eminently readable by the non-historians among us, bringing his subject to life and explaining the context as well as giving us the facts. The book contains many maps of regions, routes and ports which help to clarify the text, and also has illustrations of some of the ports in the form of photographs or drawings from the time. Highly recommended!

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

Amazon UK Link

Christie Week: Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie

A menagerie of murderers…

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Mr Shaitana loves to collect things – jewels, weapons, Egyptian artefacts, objects from the mysterious Far East, etc. One of his stranger collections is of uncaught murderers and when he meets the famous detective Hercule Poirot, he can’t stop himself from boasting about them. Almost against his better judgement Poirot is intrigued, so when Shaitana invites him to a little party to meet his murderers, he accepts. When he arrives, he finds there are eight guests including himself, three of whom he knows – Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard, Colonel Race, whose career included intelligence work, and Ariadne Oliver, detective novelist, who believes that more crimes would be solved if only there were a woman at the head of Scotland Yard. [FF muses: Hmm! Wonder what she’d have thought of Cressida Dick! 😉 ]. It’s obvious, then, that the other four guests must be Shaitana’s murderers. And when later in the evening Shaitana is stabbed to death, it’s equally obvious that one of these four must have done the deed. It’s up to Poirot and the other three detectives to work out whodunit, but first they must look into the backgrounds of the four suspects to find out if Shaitana was right that they had each successfully committed a murder before…

….“He played the part of the devil too successfully. But he was not the devil. Au fond, he was a stupid man. And so – he died.”
….“Because he was stupid?”
….“It is the sin that is never forgiven and always punished, madame.”

I love this one but I have two tiny reservations, so let me get them out of the way first. There are some unfortunate racial slurs in this and some attitudes to foreigners which were perfectly normal back then, but which may jar today. My other issue is that Christie assumes that her readers will understand the intricacies of the card game of bridge, which the suspects were playing at the time of the murder. Poirot uses the bidding and scores as a method to understand the personalities of the four players. Back then I’d imagine the vast majority of her readers did play bridge, or at least knew the rules. I, however, only have the sketchiest understanding of it so most of that was lost on me and I found my eyes glazing over during some of the rather lengthy dissections of the game.

However, there’s so much good stuff in it that these small points don’t spoil the overall enjoyment. Ariadne Oliver is always a favourite of mine when she turns up in a Poirot mystery, and in this one she’s especially fun as she explains to another star-struck character what being a mystery novelist is like – the hard work that comes between thinking up a plot and having a finished book, the pressure of publishing deadlines, and so on. She also discusses with Poirot how it’s possible to re-use plots so long as you disguise them well enough. I always feel Mrs Oliver gives us a real insight to Christie’s own writing life, and she does it with so much humour and such a complete lack of pomposity that it makes me like her even more!

“As a matter of fact I don’t care two pins about accuracy. Who is accurate? Nobody nowadays. If a reporter writes that a beautiful girl of twenty-two dies by turning on the gas after looking out over the sea and kissing her favourite Labrador, Bob, goodbye, does anybody make a fuss because the girl was twenty-six, the room faced inland, and the dog was a Sealyham terrier called Bonnie? If a journalist can do that sort of thing I don’t see that it matters if I mix up police ranks and say a revolver when I mean an automatic and a dictograph when I mean a phonograph, and use a poison that just allows you to gasp one dying sentence and no more. What really matters is plenty of bodies! If the thing’s getting a little dull, some more blood cheers it up.”

Zoe Wanamaker as Ariadne Oliver in the Suchet adaptation

Superintendent Battle and Colonel Race are occasional recurring characters too so it’s fun to have all of them working together. The four suspects each provide interesting stories. Young Anne Meredith (called after one of Christie’s fellow mystery novelists) seems too naive and innocent to be a murderer, but is she what she seems? Dr Roberts has all the opportunities given to him by his profession – has he bumped off one or two patients in his career? Major Despard has had an adventurous life in some of the far-flung corners of Empire, where dark deeds (and dead bodies) can easily be buried. And Mrs Lorrimer – she’s an enigma: ultra-respectable, it seems, and lives for her bridge. Can she possibly have murdered anyone? Shaitana thought so. Each of the four detectives brings their different expertise to bear – Poirot working on the psychology of the suspects, Race using his intelligence contacts to learn about Despard’s career, Mrs Oliver gossiping with Anne Meredith and her friend Rhoda, and Superintendent Battle doing all the painstaking police work. And each of them contributes valuable information, although of course it will be up to Poirot to solve the case in the end.

….“But I don’t doubt it will be essentially the same type of crime. The details may be different, but the essentials underlying them will be the same. It’s odd, but a criminal gives himself away every time by that. Man is an unoriginal animal,” said Hercule Poirot.
….“Women,” said Mrs. Oliver, ” are capable of infinite variation. I should never commit the same type of murder twice running.”
….“Don’t you ever write the same plot twice running?” asked Battle.”

The solution is particularly good, with Christie misdirecting the poor reader (and most of the detectives) all over the place. It is fair play, I’d say, but with each of the suspects being suspected of other murders there’s the added element of solving all those mysteries too, and that adds hugely to the interest. One of her best, I think – one of many!

I listened to Hugh Fraser narrating the audiobook and as always he does a wonderful job of giving each of the characters their own voice and persona.

Audible UK Link

Hope you enjoyed Christie Week – I’ve loved chatting Christie with you all!

Jumping Jenny (Roger Sheringham 9) by Anthony Berkeley

Gallows humour…

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Amateur detective Roger Sheringham is attending a fancy dress party at the home of a friend. The party’s theme is that all the guests should come dressed as famous murderers or their victims, and to add to the fun of the occasion the host has built a gallows on the roof terrace, and suspended three hanged dummies on it. It is this gallows that, by the end of the evening, will become the focus of the investigation into the death that brings the evening’s jollity to an end…

This is an “inverted crime” – that is, the reader sees the murder being done and knows whodunit, and then follows the detectives as they investigate. The victim is a woman, Ena Stratton – an attention-seeker and drunk who has annoyed just about everyone at the party in one way or another, mostly because they all feel sorry for her poor husband for being married to her, especially since he’s in love with someone else. So when she’s found dead, they’re all happy to think that she has killed herself and rid their pampered little world of an annoyance. But Sheringham isn’t so sure her death was at her own hands. So, as you would, he decides to tamper with the evidence to ensure that if one of his pals bumped her off they get away with it, and the death is neatly filed away as a convenient suicide.

Charming, isn’t it? Someone commented to me on a previous Berkeley review that he doesn’t like women, and I responded that I hadn’t read much of him yet and hadn’t become aware of that. I have now! The treatment of Ena in this one is way beyond typical sexism of the time – there is much talk of how it would be great if her husband could just get her locked away in an asylum, so that he’d be free to carry on his affair openly in her absence. Unfortunately, while the two doctors present at the party agree she’s a nuisance, neither of them is willing to declare her insane. Sheringham thinks that her husband should have beaten her into submission long ago – literally. So the party-goers’ delight at her unexpected death is unbounded – problem solved! Everyone is agreed that if her husband killed her, he was totally justified. Even the bit that the reader knows and the guests don’t – i.e., exactly what happened that led to the murder and who did the deed – is presented as if it is in some way justified by the fact that Ena is annoying. Poor Ena!

Anthony Berkeley

Having said all that, the book is as well-written as always and is enjoyable to read, with plenty of humour, some of it on the macabre end of the spectrum. Sheringham’s bid to mislead the police backfires somewhat, so that he finds himself as a suspect. (I hoped he’d be charged, convicted and hanged, personally – karma would have done its duty.) From then on, he spends his time encouraging everyone to commit perjury left, right and centre to prove the suicide theory, which they all cheerfully agree to do. And in the end, Berkeley throws in a final twist, which did nothing to redeem anyone in this reader’s eyes!

Berkeley was simply having some light-hearted fun here and clearly didn’t intend for the reader to take the book too seriously, and I found it quite easy and fun to go along for the ride. But I fear I shall no longer admire Sheringham as a person, though I will still enjoy him as a character. The whole thing is so far over the credibility line all the way through that even the ridiculousness of the final twist seems in keeping with the rest of the nonsense. So not one to take seriously, and not so much morally ambiguous as morally vacuous – but still highly entertaining…

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

Amazon UK Link

Rose Nicolson by Andrew Greig

A tale I have for you…
~ William Fowler

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The time is the 1570s. Mary Queen of Scots has fallen from power and fled to France, and the boy King, Jamie Saxt, is in Stirling Castle – for his protection or as prisoner is a matter of interpretation – while Scotland is being governed by Regent Morton. John Knox is dead but his Reformation is thriving. The power struggle between Reformists and Roman Catholics is ongoing, with control of the young King at the heart of it. Two previous Regents have died, probably murdered, and both factions have taken turns at burning “martyrs”. Our narrator is Will Fowler, little more than a boy when the story begins, off to study at St Andrews, even then one of the ancient centres of learning – and politics, and plots, and skulduggery. And when Will and his new friend Tom Nicolson accidentally become embroiled in an incident in a pub, they find they have unwittingly foiled a plot and, in so doing, have aligned themselves with the Reformists, making enemies of the powerful Catholic family, the Hamiltons, and becoming friends with the adventurous and dangerous young Walter Scott of Branxholme and Buccleuch, the “Bold Buccleuch”, and his kin. These friendships and enmities will shape young Will’s future, as will his love for Tom’s lovely and wilful sister, Rose Nicolson…

Do you ever get that lovely feeling that an author has written a book specially for you? That’s how I feel about this one. It has everything I want in a Scottish novel: an interesting period of history that has nothing to do with Jacobites, nor Mary Queen of Scots, nor Glasgow gangs, nor dreary twentieth century alcoholics; a wonderful use of old Scots vocabulary, but avoiding too much hard to read dialect; exciting adventures, happening to likeable and entertaining characters; real insight into how people lived, thought and acted in the time; knowledgable and affectionate insight, too, into the Scottish literary tradition; a touch of romance, but avoiding all soppiness; and some beautifully presented and well-timed humour, often at the expense of the religious divides that continue to plague Scotland into the present. I’ve loved Andrew Greig’s writing over several books, but often haven’t particularly enjoyed the subjects he’s chosen, so it’s a real delight for me to finally have the joy of that great writing in a story that seems custom-made to suit my preferences!

William Fowler of Embra (Edinburgh) was a real person – a makar (poet), writer, translator and courtier, who got involved in the various political shenanigans going on in Scotland at this muddled and perilous time. Here, Greig gives us just the early years of Fowler’s life, (and I sincerely hope he’s working hard on a follow-up, since the latter part of his career sounds just as interesting).

James VI of Scotland and I of England as a boy
“Jamie Saxt”

In theory I know about this period, having studied it somewhat superficially long ago, and as far as I can tell it’s historically accurate – it’s certainly entirely convincing, and delightfully free of anachronistic attitudes forced onto the historical characters. Almost every character in it is a real person – I think only the Nicolsons and occasional peripheral characters are an outright creation of the author, though I stand to be corrected if I’m wrong on that. Given that I struggled from time to time to place people in their correct factions, I did wonder whether this would be a difficult one for people with no knowledge of the history, but I found as I read on that gradually it all became clear, so I feel it would work even for newcomers to the period and is a painless and enjoyable way to learn a little about this interesting time. I felt that a character list showing titles and religious and political affiliations would have been helpful, especially in the early stages – I was reading a NetGalley copy, so don’t know whether that is perhaps included in the published version. There is a guide to archaic Scots vocabulary, in my copy at the end of the book, although happily (being an archaic Scot) I didn’t find much need to refer to it. Greig is great at putting possibly unfamiliar words into context so that their meaning is obvious.

Greig is himself a poet, and his love of being part of the long and ancient tradition of Scottish poetry shows through often in his work. Here he gives a lovely picture of the young Will’s development as a poet, at first derivative of the poets he himself revered before gradually finding his own style. Unfortunately I couldn’t find much of Fowler’s poetry online, but I felt Greig gave a great flavour, not just of him but of some of the earlier poets he shows Fowler as admiring. (It (almost) made me want to revisit some of those early incomprehensible Scottish poets forced on me long ago in school!)

Andrew Greig

Goodness, 800 words* and I’ve barely mentioned Rose! Rose is a great character too, an intelligent and opinionated young woman restricted by both gender and class. Educated beyond her social level by her brother Tom, she struggles to conform to society’s expectations and, as happened frequently in those days to women who couldn’t conform, falls foul of the church. Will’s passion for her is beautifully done – a boyish infatuation that slowly matures into true friendship and love. Although Rose’s story gives a structure to the book, the real star is Will and the meat of it, for me at least, lies in the political machinations of the Reformation. Oh dear, I haven’t talked enough about the King, either, or Walter Scott and the border reiving, or the Earl of Bothwell, or Will’s adventures in Paris! There’s nothing else for it – you’ll just have to read it for yourself! My highest recommendation for this wonderful book!

*I seem to have confused everyone with this. I’m commenting on the excessive length of my review, not the book. The paperback is 464 pages and every word a delight.

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

Amazon UK Link

Still Life (Karen Pirie 6) by Val McDermid

Art and politics…

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DCI Karen Pirie is busy on a case involving a skeleton which has been found in a camper van when a fresh body turns up in the waters of the Forth. As the head of Police Scotland’s Historic Cases Unit Karen wouldn’t usually be involved in a current investigation, but the corpse in question is James Auld, a man who had disappeared ten years before, suspected of murdering his brother Iain, and Karen had reviewed that case just a couple of years earlier. So Karen finds herself juggling both cases, with the assistance of her regular DC, Jason Murray, and DS Daisy Mortimer, seconded to the unit to help with the Auld case.

McDermid is on top form again in this one. The two cases run in parallel, although the Auld case soon takes priority, both for Karen and the reader. The skeleton is of a young woman, and it looks like she has probably been the victim of her partner, another young woman. So first Karen has to work out which of the women is the victim, and then try to trace the other woman, since both seem to have dropped off the radar a few years ago, at the time that the murder must have happened. Because of the Auld case, much of the work in the skeleton case is handed over to Jason, who has gradually developed over the series and is now a dependable, if not brilliant, officer. It’s good to see him get a chance to work on his own in this one, rather than simply acting as Karen’s sidekick. The role of sidekick is handed over to Daisy, an ambitious and competent young officer who has a strong personality of her own. I enjoyed her very much as a character, and hope she might become a permanent addition to the series.

Iain Auld had been a civil servant in the Scotland Office (which, for non-Brits, is part of the UK government rather than the Scottish Government, and is based in London). So there had always been some question if his presumed death had had something to do with his job – a scandal waiting to blow up in the faces of the politicians. However, he’d been overheard having a heated argument with his brother the night he disappeared, so James was the obvious suspect. James also disappeared shortly afterwards and the police never managed to track him down. Now he too is dead, apparently murdered, and Karen must work out if the two deaths are connected. This will take her into a plot involving art and politics, and secrets that have been hidden by those who feel there are some things it’s better for the public not to know.

Val McDermid

While the bulk of the story is set in Scotland as usual, the twin plots mean that the team members have to do a bit of travelling outside the country, just at the point where Brexit is coming into force and the rules of cross-border policing are changing. Karen and Daisy have to go to Paris, which neither of them is unhappy about although they don’t get much time for sight-seeing. They do get to eat some nice French food though! Later they’ll also have to do a bit of investigation over the border in Ireland – sensitive at any time, but even more so when it’s still not clear exactly what the rules will be under Brexit. McDermid handles all this well, and, although she makes her anti-Brexit views quite clear, she restrains herself from being too strident about it, and happily has managed to keep her Scottish Nationalist polemics to herself for the most part this time, along with her sycophancy towards our First Minister. (I do wish she could follow Ian Rankin’s example, though, and navigate her way through Scottish and British politics without banging a drum for any particular position. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who reads crime fiction to get away from the tedium of real life where these arguments are inescapable.

On the subject of Ian Rankin, it always makes me laugh that Karen Pirie works out of Gayfield Square in Edinburgh, which of course is also Rebus’ usual headquarters. I find myself imagining them meeting in the canteen, or having to attend meetings together. I’d love to be a fly on the wall…)

So strong plotting, interesting stories and an already likeable team enhanced by the new addition of Daisy make this a great addition to what continues to be an excellent series. As the book finishes, the characters are preparing for the first lockdown – it will be interesting to see if McDermid sets her next one during Covid, or jumps forward a couple of years to avoid it. Not sure I’m ready for pandemic novels yet, but we’ll see…

Amazon UK Link

Pictures of Perfection (Dalziel and Pascoe 14) by Reginald Hill

Wicked…

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On the surface, no village could appear more idyllic than Enscombe, nestling in the Yorkshire Dales. But when the young village policeman goes missing, Sergeant Edgar Wield and his superiors, Dalziel and Pascoe, will find that many a secret is lurking below this picture of perfection. And Wield will find himself in danger – of death perhaps, or perhaps of being changed forever by the magical atmosphere he finds there…

This is without exception the most delightful of all the Dalziel and Pascoe books. Though both of them are in it, the starring role goes to Wield who has been steadily developing over the last few books to the point of being one of the main characters – a trio now rather than a duo. Here Hill gives him the chance to find the personal life he has avoided for so long, as he kept his sexuality secret from a society and a workplace that still rejected people like him. Enscombe is different though – here everyone has secrets, and everyone knows each other’s secrets, and so they all accept everyone else, foibles and all, in order to be accepted in turn. Only the incomer is out of the loop, leaving our three detectives struggling to work out why the young PC has disappeared – was it voluntary or has something sinister happened to him? But soon Wieldy will find himself being sucked into the life of the village and gradually his loyalties will subtly shift so that he is as much on the side of the villagers as the law.

The book starts with a terrifying prologue as an unnamed villager wanders along the High Street randomly shooting people, ending up in a scene of carnage at the Squire’s Reckoning – an annual gathering that takes place up at the Hall. These images stay in the mind as we’re then thrust back in time by just a couple of days to learn what led up to them. The cosy feel of the bulk of the book is therefore quite unsettling as we are expecting something awful to happen and, as we spend time with Wield in the village and come to care about all the quirky characters who live there, the tension grows. The plot is complicated – probably too complicated – but it doesn’t much matter because the heart of the book is in the setting, atmosphere and Wield’s budding romance rather than the various criminal activities that are uncovered along the way.

Sharp-eyed Jane Austen fans might have spotted that Enscombe is taken from Emma – it’s the name of Frank Churchill’s estate – and the title is a quote from one of her letters: “Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked”. Each chapter is headed by a further appropriate Austen quote and these add much to the entertainment as Hill matches his wicked sense of humour to hers. The village is a kind of updating of an Austen village, complete with a Squire up at the Hall, some gentry and their various matrimonial entanglements, a soldier or two and a few rustic characters. Wield’s tentative friendship with the local bookseller provides him with an insider view of the village, while also providing the book with a gloriously Austen-esque romance between two characters who happen to be gay. I know I’ve said this before but Hill was in the vanguard of making gay characters openly central and likeable, rather than figures of ridicule or pity, back in the days when this was still quite a risky thing to do in popular culture. Wieldy’s romance is as delightful as that earlier romance between Lizzie and Darcy, and it’s impossible not to be wholeheartedly hoping for just as happy an ending.

Reginald Hill

I don’t want to say more about the plot since it’s fun to read it without knowing too much. But this is one that is also perfect for re-reading once you do know what it’s all about, when you can see how cleverly Hill led you astray first time around. In fact, I defy anyone to get to the end and not immediately want to go back to the beginning and read that prologue again! It would work as a standalone, I suppose, but works ten times better if you’ve already grown fond of Wield from the previous books. One of my top two of the whole series, a true picture of perfection complete with wickedness, and as always, highly recommended!

Audible UK Link