TBR Thursday (on a Wednesday) 299…

An eleventh batch of murder, mystery and mayhem…

This is a challenge to read all 102 (102? Yes, 102) books listed in Martin Edwards’ guide to vintage crime, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. (100? Yes, 100.) Because of all the other great vintage crime being republished at the moment, I’m going very slowly with this challenge and they’ve proved to be a bit of a mixed bag so far, though with more winners than losers. Here’s the second batch for 2021 and the eleventh overall…

Tracks in the Snow by Godfrey R Benson

I’ve never come across Godfrey R Benson before, which isn’t too surprising since apparently this was his only venture into crime fiction. The blurb sounds quite appealing…

The Blurb says: Robert Driver is temporarily fulfilling the post of parson at Long Wilton, a position he finds tedious in the extreme. But the monotony is relieved in terrible fashion when, one snowy evening, his friend Peters is found murdered at his country house, Grenville Combe. Driver takes an interest in the case, and when a chance discovery leads him to suspect that the police’s suspicions about the culprit’s identity may be entirely incorrect, he is determined to see that justice is done. He finds he must proceed with caution, however, if he is to avoid bringing down further tragedy upon himself and his family.

Originally published in 1906, this vintage detective story will delight all fans of classic crime fiction.

Challenge details

Book No: 4

Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns

Publication Year: 1906

Martin Edwards says: “…Benson’s thoughtful, well-crafted prose, his insights into human behaviour, and the way in which the story touches on issues such as free will and the ramifications of Britain’s imperial past combine to make his brief venture into the crime genre notable.”

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Max Carrados by Ernest Bramah

I’ve read a couple of Max Carrados short stories in various anthologies and also the only novel he features in, The Bravo of London, and enjoyed them without loving them. Maybe this collection of eight stories will finally win me over…

The Blurb says: Max Carrados is the greatest detective you’ve never heard of. He may be blind, but what Carrados lacks in sight he more than makes up for in perception. He can pick out a voice in a crowded room and read a book by running his fingers over the print. Those who underestimate his abilities are soon surprised by the keen Carrados.

In one story, Carrados tracks down a criminal by analyzing a coin without ever leaving his study. Another finds him solving the mystery of a train accident that has far more to it than anyone expected. Bramah’s stories of Carrados regularly appeared in The Strand magazine, receiving top billing even over those of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

Challenge details

Book No: 11

Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns

Publication Year: 1914

Edwards says: “George Orwell, a critic with stern opinions about the genre, said that Carrados’ cases were, together with those of Arthur Conan Doyle and R Austin Freeman, ‘the only detective stories since Poe that are worth rereading’.

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Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare

Again I’ve come across a couple of Hare’s short stories in anthologies and enjoyed them, particularly for the quality of his writing, so I’m looking forward to seeing how his style translates to novel form…

The Blurb says: Tragedy at Law follows a rather self-important High Court judge, Mr Justice Barber, as he moves from town to town presiding over cases in the Southern England circuit. When an anonymous letter arrives for Barber, warning of imminent revenge, he dismisses it as the work of a harmless lunatic. But then a second letter appears, followed by a poisoned box of the judge’s favourite chocolates, and he begins to fear for his life. Enter barrister and amateur detective Francis Pettigrew, a man who was once in love with Barber’s wife and has never quite succeeded in his profession – can he find out who is threatening Barber before it is too late?

Challenge details

Book No: 66

Subject Heading: The Justice Game

Publication Year: 1942

Edwards says: “For this unorthodox variation on the concept of a crime novel set in a realistically evoked working environment, Cyril Hare drew on his own experience. Fifteen years spent practising at the Bar, and a spell as a judge’s marshal, meant that he was ideally suited to describing life on a judicial circuit. 

* * * * *

The Z Murders by J Jefferson Farjeon

I’ve read one novel by Farjeon in the BL’s Crime Classics series, Thirteen Guests, and wasn’t overly thrilled by it. However I didn’t hate it either, and I’ve had more success with a couple of his short stories in anthologies, so I’m keen to see if this novel will turn me into a fan…

The Blurb says: Richard Temperley arrives at Euston station early on a fogbound London morning. He takes refuge in a nearby hotel, along with a disagreeable fellow passenger, who had snored his way through the train journey. But within minutes the other man has snored for the last time – he has been shot dead while sleeping in an armchair. Temperley has a brief encounter with a beautiful young woman, but she flees the scene. When the police arrive, Detective Inspector James discovers a token at the crime scene: ‘a small piece of enamelled metal. Its colour was crimson, and it was in the shape of the letter Z.’

Temperley sets off in pursuit of the mysterious woman from the hotel, and finds himself embroiled in a cross-country chase – by train and taxi – on the tail of a sinister serial killer. This classic novel by the author of the best-selling Mystery in White is a gripping thriller by a neglected master of the genre.

Challenge details

Book No: 71

Subject Heading: Multiplying Murders

Publication Year: 1932

Edwards says: “…Farjeon cared about his prose, and liked to spice his mysteries with dashes of humour and romance. Time and again, imaginative literary flourishes lift the writing out of the mundanity commonplace in thrillers of this period”

* * * * *

All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.
The quotes from Martin Edwards are from his book,
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Tuesday Terror! Cornish Horrors: Tales from the Land’s End edited by Joan Passey

Not a pasty in sight…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Another recent issue in the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series, this anthology contains fifteen vintage horror stories, all set in spooky old Cornwall. Well, actually two or three of them are “true” accounts from memoirs and so on, rather than stories as such, but all including some ghostly or terrifying natural occurrence. There’s the usual mix of very well known authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe, along with some names that were completely new to me, like Mary E. Penn and someone going simply by the initials M.H.

This may be the most mixed of all the collections to date for me. There are some great stories in here, several well-known and others I hadn’t come across before, but there are also a considerable number of duds which I felt really weren’t worthy of inclusion. I gave seven of them 5 stars and another two rated as 4. The remaining six were evenly distributed – two apiece to 3, 2 and 1 stars. One of the 1-stars was particularly annoying since it was a story by Mary E. Braddon – Colonel Benyon’s Entanglement – which was shaping up to be excellent and then stopped abruptly what seemed like halfway through. Whether this is a publishing error or whether Braddon never completed the story I don’t know and I haven’t been able to track down an online version to check, but since the intro doesn’t mention that it’s unfinished, I have to assume error.

Some of the 4 and 5 star stories have appeared here on the blog before in the Tuesday Terror! slot: Ligeia by Edgar Allan Poe, The Screaming Skull by F. Marion Crawford and The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot, a wonderfully dark Holmes story from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Here’s a flavour of a few others that I particularly enjoyed:

Ligeia – Arthur Rackham

The Phantom Hare by M.H. – Told by Bessy, a farmer’s daughter, this is the story of Hubert, a rather nasty young man who is pursuing a local heiress when he suddenly finds himself being haunted by a white hare. Local superstition has it that if a man deserts a woman and she dies of it (as you do!) then the woman will return in the form of a white hare when her former lover is about to meet his doom. Bet Hubert wishes he hadn’t deserted Bessy’s old school friend now! Very well told, with excellent characterisation of Bessy and a good local feel to the superstition, it culminates in an ending that may not be surprising but is still satisfying.

In the Mist by Mary E. Penn – Narrated by the local vicar, who tells of two young parishioners, Winnie and Noel, who are deeply in love. But Noel is a jealous type, always accusing Winnie of flirting, and one day in the midst of an argument Winnie breaks off their engagement. Later that night, they meet on the cliff edge and Noel tries to win her back. But Winnie falls over the cliff and disappears, presumably sucked out to sea. Did she fall though or was she pushed? This isn’t really horror – it’s more melodramatic romance, but it’s beautifully done and thoroughly enjoyable.

The Coming of Abel Behenna by Bram Stoker – Two Cornish fishermen, Abel and Eric, had grown up together and were best friends. But both have now fallen in love with the same woman – the frivolous and indecisive Sarah. Since she refuses to choose, the men propose they should toss a coin for her and she agrees! The winner will take the small accumulated wealth of both men and go off on a trading voyage for a year to try to make enough money to marry on. Abel wins, and duly sets off on his travels. But will Eric, mad with love and jealousy, stand by his bet? This is an excellent story, Bram Stoker at his very considerable best. It is a story of passion, guilt and revenge – nothing supernatural, purely humanity and nature combining to chill the reader’s blood, and the ending lingers long after the last page is turned.

The Mask by F. Tennyson Jesse – Another about a woman with two suitors and just as dark as the Stoker story, but otherwise entirely different. Vashti Bath chooses James Glasson, a cold and domineering man destined for success. An accident damages him badly, though, destroying his prospects and forcing him to wear a mask, and he becomes even harsher to Vashti. Soon she turns to her other old suitor, Willie Strick, a weaker man but still passionately in love with her, and they start an affair. But then one night James returns home unexpectedly and finds Willie and Sarah together… Again a story of human passions rather than the supernatural but it gets very tense towards the end and has some real touches of horror.

The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot

So plenty of excellent stuff here, but because the quality ranges so wildly and because several of the best stories are ones that have been collected many times before and may be familiar to horror readers already, I’m a little wary of giving this one a blanket recommendation. If you’re newish to the genre and haven’t read many of the stories I’ve mentioned, then there’s plenty in here to interest and entertain despite the duds. However if you’ve already read several of the stories I’ve named, you might end up disappointed with the rest of the collection. For me, there were enough good stories that I hadn’t read before to make it enjoyable overall.

(Since he was in Cornwall, the porpy
enjoyed a little paddle in the sea…)

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Franco: A Personal and Political Biography by Stanley G Payne and Jesús Palacios

The pragmatic dictator…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

In their preface, the authors discuss the bias inherent in most biographies and histories of the Franco period and state that they are trying to give a more balanced account, avoiding both hagiography and denunciation. Stanley G Payne is an American historian of modern Spain and European Fascism and I thoroughly enjoyed his Spanish Civil War which did seem reasonably balanced, although tending slightly to the right. Jesús Palacios, a Spanish essayist and historian, was at one time a member of the Spanish neo-Nazi group CEDADE, which I didn’t know when I acquired the book and which obviously set all kinds of alarm bells ringing over his likely bias. (I think this is the first time I’ve ever put money in the pocket of a neo-Nazi, however unconsciously, and it has made me far more scrupulous about googling living people before buying their books.)

The book follows a linear path through Franco’s long life, starting with his childhood as a member of a family with long ties to the armed services, although usually the Navy. Franco was an unremarkable child and a very youthful entrant to the military academy where he showed no particular outstanding talent. However, once he became an officer in Spanish Morocco he soon showed the organisational and leadership skills that would take him through a series of earned promotions until he became one of the top generals in the army. The authors suggest that he gained the respect of the men with whom he served rather than their affection – he seems to have held himself aloof from much of the social life partly because he was not wealthy at this time, but mainly because he had strong views on morality, inculcated in him by his devout Catholic mother, and which would influence him all his life.

Family man – with his wife, Carmen Polo, and only child, Maria del Carmen.

He also seems to have remained aloof from politics in these early years, despite the turmoil in the country. Although a monarchist, a Catholic and a conservative, he saw it as his duty to support the democratic government and when the Republicans took power he held back from open opposition while he felt they were staying within the constitution. As one of the younger and more prominent Generals, the conservatives felt his support would be crucial to the success of any attempt to overthrow the Republican government. Franco insisted he would only agree to a military intervention if the government broke down completely or if a Communist revolution took place. But after the assassination of a prominent figure on the Right, in which the Republican security forces were involved, he finally committed and the insurrection began.

It’s in this section that the authors begin to show their support for the Right. They are excoriating about some of the atrocities carried out by the Left against innocent people on the Right. The problem is that their bias leaves me wondering about their analysis – were these people innocent? Was the Left behaving worse than the Right? This is the fundamental question about the causes and progress of the Spanish Civil War, and the more I read, the more I feel that a truly unbiased objective account remains to be written.

The coverage of the war is not in-depth – the authors’ focus remains exclusively on Franco, as is appropriate in a biography. They discuss briefly the involvement of foreign powers but mostly in terms of Franco’s relationships with Hitler and Mussolini. During the war Franco consolidated his power, thanks to the (lucky?) deaths of a couple of people who may have rivalled him for the top job. By the end he had morphed from being the leader of the military insurrection into full-scale dictatorship, with the consent of the broad spectrum of the victorious Right.

Franco and Hitler 1940

The bulk of the book then goes into considerable detail about Franco’s post-war dictatorship. It reminded me of old history books about the Tudors or Stuarts rather than the more modern style of social history – the focus is entirely on Franco and the powerful people in his court, and I got no feeling for what was happening to the people of Spain or how they felt about Franco’s regime. The authors touch on the fact that there was famine and poverty which gradually receded as the world economies recovered from WW2, and they mention occasional attempts by separatist groups or dissidents living abroad to revive the Civil War. But, in general, they don’t give a picture of how Franco resolved (if he did) the problems that led to the war in the first place, such as land ownership, or what happened to the factories that had been taken over by the syndicalists before the war, and so on. I was left with many unanswered questions.

What they do give a better picture of is the growing acceptance by the Western powers of Franco’s regime, largely because by that time the Cold War was fully iced and the main enemy was seen to be Communism rather than Fascism. They also suggest that Franco moved away from Fascism quite early in his dictatorship, towards what they call “Catholic corporatism”. Unfortunately, I never fully understood what they meant by this term, perhaps my fault but a clearer explanation would have been helpful.

In their conclusion, they suggest that Franco’s rule provided a break between traditional and modern Spain, a long period that allowed tempers to cool and many of the old civil war combatants to die. A growing economy with wealth more fairly spread and better education created a large middle-class, ready for liberal democracy – not Franco’s plan, but a by-product of his policies. They don’t play down the executions and repressions he carried out in the early days, but they suggest that had the Republicans been victorious they’d have been worse, and they point to many other dictatorships that indeed were worse. This seems like a hollow justification to me – if I only murder three people am I morally better than someone who murders four? However, there seems no doubt that Franco’s pragmatism led him to gradually allow a significant degree of liberalisation and, according to the authors, many Spaniards were genuinely sorry when he died.

Book 7

All-in-all, I learned a lot from this about Franco’s life, personality, politics and the powerful people in his court, but rather less about Spain under his rule than I had expected to. Although I felt sure the book was factually accurate, I found it hard to discount the obvious pro-Franco bias and this made me dubious about some of their interpretations. As I’m finding with everything I read about Spain in this period, I feel I now need to read an account with the opposite bias to rebalance the seesaw. It is interesting though that, nearly a century on, historians still appear unable to write objectively about this complex period – that in itself is one of the uniquenesses of Franco and the Spanish Civil War.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Classics Club Spin #28

Rien ne va plus…

classics club logo 2

The Classics Club is holding its 28th Spin, and my 11th. The idea is to list 20 of the books on your Classics Club list before next Sunday, 17th October. On that day, the Classics Club will post the winning number. The challenge is to read and review whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List by 12th December, 2021.

I missed the last few spins partly because of my general slumpiness over the last year and partly because recently they’ve seemed more like speed-reading events with very short deadlines, which is not how I like to read classics. Happily this one gives a full two-month timescale which is much more to my preference. I only have ten books left on my first list now and am hoping to read at least five of them before the year ends so I should theoretically be able to fit in whichever the spin picks quite easily – unless it lands on the lurking monster I’ve been evading for the last five years! So no doubt that’ll be the one… 😉

* * * * *

1) and 11) Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

2) and 12) The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw

3) and 13) Rabbit, Run by John Updike

4) and 14) Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

5) and 15) Children of the Dead End by Patrick McGill

6) and 16) No Mean City by Alexander McArthur and H. Kingsley Long

7) and 17) The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr

8) and 18) The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham

9) and 19) The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

10) and 20) The Drowned World by JG Ballard

* * * * * * *

Which one would you like to see win?

TBR Thursday 298…

Episode 298

Another meteoric drop in the TBR this week – down 5 to 190! Still more to do with culling and abandonment issues than reading, I fear, but every little counts! 

Here are a few more that are rising to the top of the heap, and I’m almost certain that none of these will end up on the abandoned pile… 

Vintage Crime Shorts 

Bodies from the Library 4 edited by Tony Medawar

Courtesy of HarperCollins. The idea of this series is to bring together stories which have never appeared in book form before. While I very much enjoyed the second book (I haven’t read the first one), in my review of the third one I felt the quality of the stories had dipped and suggested that “there is bound to be a finite number of great stories that fall into that category”. We’ll see if this fourth collection can make me eat my words…

The Blurb says: Mystery stories have been around for centuries—there are whodunits, whydunits and howdunits, including locked-room puzzles, detective stories without detectives, and crimes with a limited choice of suspects.

Countless volumes of such stories have been published, but some are still impossible to find: stories that appeared in a newspaper, magazine or an anthology that has long been out of print; ephemeral works such as plays not aired, staged or screened for decades; and unpublished stories that were absorbed into an author’s archive when they died . . .

Here for the first time are three never-before-published mysteries by Edmund Crispin, Ngaio Marsh and Leo Bruce, and two pieces written for radio by Gladys Mitchell and H. C. Bailey—the latter featuring Reggie Fortune. Together with a newly unearthed short story by Ethel Lina White that inspired Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, and a complete short novel by Christianna Brand, this diverse mix of tales by some of the world’s most popular classic crime writers contains something for everyone.

Complete with indispensable biographies by Tony Medawar of all the featured authors, the fourth volume in the series Bodies from the Library once again brings into the daylight the forgotten, the lost and the unknown.

* * * * *

Fiction

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

Courtesy of Penguin via NetGalley. I adored Shafak’s last book, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, and fully intended (intend) to read her earlier books. But she’s beaten me to it by producing another new one. My hopes are astronomically high!

The Blurb says: Two teenagers, a Greek Cypriot and a Turkish Cypriot, meet at a taverna on the island they both call home. The taverna is the only place that Kostas and Defne can meet in secret, hidden beneath the blackened beams from which hang garlands of garlic and chilli peppers, creeping honeysuckle, and in the centre, growing through a cavity in the roof, a fig tree. The fig tree witnesses their hushed, happy meetings; their silent, surreptitious departures. The fig tree is there, too, when war breaks out, when the capital is reduced to ashes and rubble, when the teenagers vanish. Decades later, Kostas returns – a botanist, looking for native species – looking, really, for Defne. The two lovers return to the taverna to take a clipping from the fig tree and smuggle it into their suitcase, bound for London. Years later, the fig tree in the garden is their daughter Ada’s only knowledge of a home she has never visited, as she seeks to untangle years of secrets and silence, and find her place in the world.

The Island of Missing Trees is a rich, magical tale of belonging and identity, love and trauma, nature and renewal, from the Booker-shortlisted author of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World.

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Fiction

The Feast by Margaret Kennedy

Courtesy of Faber & Faber via NetGalley. I can’t remember if I saw a tempting review of this one or if I was just attracted by the blurb, but it sounds like it should be fun! And at last – a short blurb!

The Blurb says: Cornwall, Midsummer 1947. Pendizack Manor Hotel is buried in the rubble of a collapsed cliff. Seven guests have perished, but what brought this strange assembly together for a moonlit feast before this Act of God – or Man? Over the week before the landslide, we meet the hotel guests in all their eccentric glory: and as friendships form and romances blossom, sins are revealed, and the cracks widen … A wise, witty fable, The Feast is a banquet indeed.

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Dalziel and Pascoe

Pictures of Perfection by Reginald Hill

The 14th book in my slow re-read of my favourite contemporary crime series of all time, and this is one of the very best! Although the blurb doesn’t mention him (who writes these things?), this is the one where Wieldy comes into his own as an equal star of the series alongside Dalziel and Pascoe, and it has one of the most memorable prologues ever written…

The Blurb says: High in the Mid-Yorkshire Dales stands the traditional village of Enscombe, seemingly untouched by the modern world. But contemporary life is about to intrude when the disappearance of a policeman brings Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel and DCI Peter Pascoe to its doors.

As the detectives dig beneath the veneer of idyllic village life a new pattern emerges: of family feuds, ancient injuries, cheating and lies. And finally, as the community gathers for the traditional Squire’s Reckoning, it looks as if the simmering tensions will erupt in a bloody climax…

* * * * *

NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Tuesday Terror! The Name-Tree by Mary Webb

Torment among the trees…

Each autumn and winter for the last few years, I’ve been reading a ton of vintage horror short stories and I admit that most of them, while enjoyable at the time, are soon forgotten. But occasionally one lingers, and this is one of those. I read it a year or so ago, in the Weird Woods anthology, and it has haunted me a little ever since…

The Name-Tree
by Mary Webb

Mary Webb

Cherry Orchard was for sale. The impossible thing, the thing that had yet threatened them always out of the misty future, had become fact. She could not believe it.

Laura’s father has become an invalid and their small stock of savings has dwindled. Now her father must sell the orchard which Laura has loved all her young life…

‘I’d as lief,’ she muttered, ‘think of selling myself.’

The father and daughter have a new neighbour who has come to pay them a visit…

Julius Winter was the new owner of Bitterne Hall. He had brought with him a wife almost as rich as himself, a Lady in her own right, and exactly like a pink sweet. Before Julius shone a vista of pleasant days with many smaller pink sweets about him.

Laura’s father tells her to show Julius the orchard and as they pass the great laurel tree outside the house, Laura tells him it is her name-tree…

‘This is my name-tree,’ she said. ‘Do you know the old belief about name-trees? If the tree dies, you die. If you sicken, the tree withers. If you desert it, a curse falls.’

Julius is fascinated by Laura’s deep passion for the orchard and his fascination soon turns to lust and a desire to possess…

He watched her, standing slim and gauche, in her old brown dress, her soul tormented by love for something vague and mysterious, something he could not touch or name, that seemed to lie beneath the earthly beauty that she saw, like a dreaming god. Desire surged over him—the poignant longing that jonquils bring, the longing to touch the silken petals, to gather the brittle, faintly-scented stalks.

Apollo and Daphne by Henrietta Rae
Definite vibes of the Apollo and Daphne myth in this story…

And so he offers her a bargain…

….‘Would you like to keep Cherry Orchard for ever?’
….She looked at him, frowning.
….‘I will buy Cherry Orchard and give it you, if you will give me the keys of Heaven.’
….‘And Heaven is—?’
….‘Your love.’

Laura is silent for a long time, as if communing with her beloved trees. Then she replies:

….‘I have no love to give,’ she said at last, ‘to you or any man.’
….‘Before the fruit falls in your orchard,’ he said, harsh and low, ‘you shall give it to me.’

And Julius, sure of his own power, buys the orchard and Laura’s home…

* * * * *

It’s not just the obvious masculine dominance in the story that makes it disturbing, though that’s important. It’s also Laura’s connection with nature which seems to go well beyond the norm, into a kind of witchy-woman feel – an elemental thing, a sexless dryad made human, female and powerless. The orchard and the trees are given a consciousness and have a kind of symbiotic relationship with Laura, as if she is their guardian and they are hers, but neither with the strength to withstand male destructiveness. Julius is a strong, pitiless man and Laura’s father is weak and selfish, but they both understand the power of money as a means to possess those things they desire. But at what cost?

The trees brooded over them like jewelled birds in some ancient tapestry. They filled him with an ache of longing. He wanted to possess them, as a god might. He would possess them in her. His soul could only reach the outer fringes of hers; his voice strove to win her; his eyes burnt on hers, but she lowered her lashes and was mute. She remained aloof: but through the body he would reach her. She should have nothing of herself left, no corner of her spirit that was not his.

Very well written in a folklorish style and strongly feminist in message, all the darkest parts are left vague and undescribed, and are all the more disturbing for it. I can’t find an online version of the story on its own, but if you would like to read it it’s one of the stories in a collection called Armour Wherein He Trusted, which can be downloaded free at fadedpage.com – here’s the link. Or of course you can read it in Weird Woods.

(The porpy didn’t get scared but he got angry!)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Disappearing Act by Catherine Steadman

The road to fame…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Hoping to capitalise on her recent success in a TV remake of Jane Eyre and at the same time hoping that a change of scene will help her get over a difficult breakup, young British actress Mia Eliot has come to LA to do a round of auditions arranged by her agent. While waiting at one such audition she falls into conversation with Emily, another actress there for the same audition. Emily is called in just as her car is about to go over its time in the parking lot and Mia agrees to go feed the meter for her, so Emily hands over her car key and wallet. But when Mia gets back to the audition waiting room there’s no sign of Emily and she can’t find her anywhere. Mia is not one to give up easily though and she begins to ask questions about Emily, unaware that she’s straying into danger…

This was a book of two halves for me. The first half, where we get to know Mia and learn a lot about what it’s like to be a screen actress just at the beginning of what looks set to be a glittering, award-strewn career, I found both interesting and hugely enjoyable. The second half, when we get deep into the mystery of what has happened to Emily, becomes increasingly less credible as it goes along, with Mia taking extreme risks with both her safety and the career she has worked so hard to build, all for a woman she met for only a few minutes. Given the Hollywood setting, it’s unsurprising but disappointing that the #MeToo trend soon gets mixed into a plot which seems at the beginning as if it’s going to be intriguing and original.

It was only after I finished reading and did my usual googling that I discovered Catherine Steadman is indeed a successful screen actress in her own right – I’m so out of touch! That explains why all the stuff about auditions and screen tests and awards and so on feels so authentic. I found Mia very likeable, still with stars in her eyes and not yet ruined by fame. I liked that Steadman allowed her to be good at her chosen career, and not too angst-ridden over it. Mia approaches each audition professionally, and Steadman shows how an actress prepares – learning the scenes, choosing appropriate clothes for the role, deciding what accent to use, etc. She gives us a good idea of how soul-destroying it must be for the less successful actors, turning up for audition after audition without much hope of ever landing the big part. Mia is not in that position – her role as Jane Eyre has attracted public and critical praise, so she’s one of the lucky ones. She’s not yet in a position to pick and choose which roles she will play, but it’s clear she soon will be. And I particularly liked that Steadman didn’t force false modesty onto her – Mia knows she’s talented, works hard at her job and can tell when she’s turned in a good performance, but she’s still young and inexperienced enough to be thrilled by the starry company she’s now keeping.

Catherine Steadman

I also enjoyed the plot until it spiralled over the credibility line in the latter stages. Emily’s disappearance is done very well, with definite vibes of The Lady Vanishes. When Emily apparently shows up again Mia knows she’s not the same person, but can’t find any way to prove that. Being alone in LA where she knows hardly anyone, there’s a real feeling of almost spooky danger when odd things begin to happen around her. Or do they? Like most of the people she tells her story to, the reader has to wonder if Mia is strictly reliable – could the whole thing be an invention born out of the stress she’s feeling over her breakup?

Overall the strengths of this one well outweighed the weaknesses for me, but I did wish the resolution had maintained the level of credibility and authenticity that I loved so much in the first half. However, although in the end the plot may have turned out to be rather forgettable, Mia’s character and her very believable life as an actress on the cusp of international success will, I’m sure, stick in my mind for much longer. I’ll be looking forward to reading more from this author in the future.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster via NetGalley.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday (on a Friday) 297 and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. This has been a terrible quarter, reading-wise, with me taking a break of five or six full weeks from reading, so I’m expecting the worst for my poor targets!

Here goes, then – the third check-in of the year…

Aarghh! Well, it’s just as bad as I expected and there’s no way I’ll be able to retrieve the situation in the last quarter of the year. I might catch up with the People’s Choice and fit in a few more classics, but the rest are pretty hopeless. I needed that break though and hey! Who’s counting? 😉

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The Classics Club

I’ve read just one from my Classics Club list this quarter, and had another still to review from the previous quarter…

79. My Ántonia by Willa Cather – I enjoyed this excellently written novel telling of the coming-of-age of the title character and the narrator, Jim, together with the story of the pioneering days in the fledgling USA. 4 stars.

80. I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane – One from the pulpy end of hard-boiled crime, complete with every ‘ism of its time. Violence, sex and guns galore – and yet oddly I enjoyed it! 4 stars.

Two books from the US that couldn’t really be more different, but both enjoyable in their own way!

80 down, 10 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’ve managed to read precisely none from this challenge this quarter! However I had one left over to review from the previous quarter…

46. Darkness at Pemberley by TH White – White throws just about every mystery novel trope into this preposterous story, but manages to pull it off! Hugely entertaining, and not to be taken too seriously. 5 stars.

46 down, 56 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

I’ve only read one for this challenge this quarter, and had another still to review from the quarter before. Unfortunately I haven’t reviewed either of them yet, so the sum total for this round-up is…

Reviews will follow soon though, I promise!

6 down, indefinite number to go!

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The People’s Choice

People's Choice Logo

I’ve only read two this quarter but hope to catch up before the end of the year. Did You, The People, pick me some good ones…?

JulyHalf of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – I found this tale of privileged members of the Igbo caught up in the Biafran War surprisingly flat in tone despite the human tragedy it describes. However I learned a good deal about the culture of that time and place, and overall am glad to have read it. 4 stars.

AugustThe Black Cabinet by Patricia Wentworth – A highly entertaining mystery from the Golden Age, starring a charming heroine meeting peril after peril in her attempts to do the right thing. Just the right combination of mystery, humour and romance to make for perfect relaxation reading. 5 stars.

One I’m glad to have read and one I thoroughly enjoyed, so take a bow, People – you chose well! And they’re off my TBR at last – hurrah!

8 down, 4 to go!

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Wanderlust Bingo

I haven’t filled many boxes this quarter, and I’m kinda kicking myself because I’ve got great-looking books lined up for every space now – it’s just a matter of finding time to read them! I have a few coming up on my reading list soon, but this challenge is definitely going to drift into next year (unless I grow an extra head). The dark blue ones are from previous quarters, and the orange are the ones I’m adding this quarter. I might shuffle them all around at the end so this is all quite tentative at this stage. (If you click on the bingo card you should get a larger version.)

SwedenTo Cook a Bear by Mikael Niemi – 5 stars. I’ve slotted this into Village, since the village setting is an important factor in the story.

France – The Man from London by Georges Simenon – 4½ stars. Simenon’s settings are always one of his main strengths, and here he gives a great picture of the working life of Dieppe as the background to his story. I’m putting this in the Europe box.

Biafra/NigeriaHalf of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – 4 stars. I can’t imagine a more appropriate book to fill the Africa box than this story of the short-lived existence of the Biafran nation.

Still a long, long way to go, but ’tis better to travel hopefully than to arrive…

10 down, 15 to go!

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A slightly shorter post this time, for which I’m sure you’re all very thankful. 😉 Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

TBR Thursday 296…

Episode 296

It’s been an odd couple of weeks since I last reported on the state of the TBR, with some speed reading in the first week followed by a reading drought in the second. The end result, however, is a reduction – down 2 to 195! (I’m also days behind with reading your posts, as you may – or may not! – have noticed. But I’m slowly catching up!)

How are all our Review-Alongers getting on with Vanity Fair? I’m getting very worried – I’m only about halfway through with just a couple of weeks to go! (Reminder – review date is 25th October.) I think I’m going to have to master multi-tasking…

Here’s a few more that I should be reading soon…

Winner of the People’s Choice Poll

Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith

Oh good! Although any of them would have been fine, I was secretly hoping you might pick this one! It was close for a while with A Distant Echo running neck-and-neck, but in the end Gorky Park took a pretty commanding lead. The other two were never really in contention. I should be reading this one in November, theoretically, though I’m even further behind than I was last week so who knows??

The Blurb says: It begins with a triple murder in a Moscow amusement center: three corpses found frozen in the snow, faces and fingers missing. Chief homicide investigator Arkady Renko is brilliant, sensitive, honest, and cynical about everything except his profession. To identify the victims and uncover the truth, he must battle the KGB, FBI, and the New York City police as he pursues a rich, ruthless, and well-connected American fur dealer. Meanwhile, Renko is falling in love with a beautiful, headstrong dissident for whom he may risk everything.

A wonderfully textured, vivid look behind the Iron Curtain, Gorky Park is a tense, atmospheric, and memorable crime story.

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Vintage Horror

Randalls Round by Eleanor Scott

Courtesy of the British Library. I know nothing about this author or the book, but it’s subtitled “Nine Nightmares” so that sounds good! Porpy? Porpy? Why are you hiding behind the sofa…?

The Blurb says: ‘These stories have all had their origins in dreams… These dreams were terrifying enough to the dreamer… I hope that some readers will experience an agreeable shudder or two in the reading of them.’ An enigmatic and shadowy presence answers the call of an ancient curse on the coast of Brittany; a traveller’s curiosity leads him to witness a hellish sacrifice by night; a treasure-hunt in a haunted mansion takes a turn for the tentacular.

Described in the author’s foreword as an attempt to convey a series of nightmares she experienced, Randalls Round is a thrilling collection of strange stories ranging from depictions of ritualistic folk horror to tales of ancient forces versus humanity in the vein of M R James. Despite being the only weird fiction written under the Scott pseudonym, this collection is deserving of a much wider readership and its place in the development of the weird and folk horror subgenres.

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Crime

The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins

Courtesy of HarperCollins. This unsolicited one nearly disappeared in my recent cull, but I decided I couldn’t resist trying it, despite my frequent tooth-gnashing over updates of the classics. Trying to imagine Mr Rochester as “Eddie” is already bringing on a migraine, though… 😉

The Blurb says: A girl looking for love…
When Jane, a broke dog-walker newly arrived in town, meets Eddie Rochester, she can’t believe her luck. Eddie is handsome, rich and lives alone in a beautiful mansion since the tragic death of his beloved wife a year ago.

A man who seems perfect…
Eddie can give Jane everything she’s always wanted: stability, acceptance, and a picture-perfect life.

A wife who just won’t stay buried…
But what Jane doesn’t know is that Eddie is keeping a secret – a big secret. And when the truth comes out, the consequences are far more deadly than anyone could ever have imagined…

A delicious twist on a Gothic classic, The Wife Upstairs is perfect for fans of Lucy Foley, Ruth Ware and Shari Lapena.

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Fiction

Snow Country by Sebastian Faulks

Courtesy of Random House Cornerstone via NetGalley. I’ve had a mixed reaction to Faulks in the few books of his I’ve read so far, but his blurbs always appeal and the quality of his writing always makes me able to put up with any other weaknesses. This one sounds as if it could be great…

The Blurb says: 1914: Young Anton Heideck has arrived in Vienna, eager to make his name as a journalist. While working part-time as a private tutor, he encounters Delphine, a woman who mixes startling candour with deep reserve. Entranced by the light of first love, Anton feels himself blessed. Until his country declares war on hers.

1927: For Lena, life with a drunken mother in a small town has been impoverished and cold. She is convinced she can amount to nothing until a young lawyer, Rudolf Plischke, spirits her away to Vienna. But the capital proves unforgiving. Lena leaves her metropolitan dream behind to take a menial job at the snow-bound sanatorium, the Schloss Seeblick.

1933: Still struggling to come terms with the loss of so many friends on the Eastern Front, Anton, now an established writer, is commissioned by a magazine to visit the mysterious Schloss Seeblick. In this place of healing, on the banks of a silvery lake, where the depths of human suffering and the chances of redemption are explored, two people will see each other as if for the first time.

Sweeping across Europe as it recovers from one war and hides its face from the coming of another, SNOW COUNTRY is a landmark novel of exquisite yearnings, dreams of youth and the sanctity of hope. In elegant, shimmering prose, Sebastian Faulks has produced a work of timeless resonance.

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Crime

Risk of Harm by Lucie Whitehouse

Courtesy of HarperCollins. Another unsolicited one, but this time very welcome since I enjoyed the first book in the Robin Lyons series, Critical Incidents, and fully intended to read the next anyway…

The Blurb says: Robin Lyons is back in her hometown of Birmingham and now a DCI with Force Homicide, working directly under Samir, the man who broke her heart almost twenty years ago.

When a woman is found stabbed to death in a derelict factory and no one comes forward to identify the body, Robin and her team must not only hunt for the murderer, but also solve the mystery of who their victim might be.

As Robin and Samir come under pressure from their superiors, from the media and from far-right nationalists with a dangerous agenda, tensions in Robin’s own family threaten to reach breaking point. And when a cold case from decades ago begins to smoulder and another woman is found dead in similar circumstances, rumours of a serial killer begin to spread.

In order to get to the truth Robin will need to discover where loyalty ends and duty begins. But before she can trust, she is going to have to forgive – and that means grappling with some painful home truths.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Future Crimes edited by Mike Ashley

Time travel, telepaths and technology…

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

A new anthology in the British Library Science Fiction Classics series, this one brings together ten stories each featuring a crime mystery in a futuristic setting. It is edited as usual by Mike Ashley, who also provides a short introduction to the collection and an individual mini-bio of each of the authors. Most of the stories date from the 1950s and ‘60s – still in the heyday of the science fiction magazines – and there’s a lot of play on time travel, telepathy and advanced technology, with the occasional alien thrown in for good measure. As always, some of the authors are so well known even I, as a dabbler in SF, know of them, such as Isaac Asimov and Anne McCaffrey; some have become familiar to me through their inclusion in earlier anthologies in the series, such as John Brunner and Eric Frank Russell; and a couple are new names to me, such as George Chailey and Miriam Allen deFord. While most of them are SF writers crossing over into crime, crime fans will also be intrigued to see PD James putting in an appearance, crossing in the other direction into SF.

As in any anthology, the quality of the stories, or my enjoyment of them at least, varies quite a lot. Overall, I gave three of them five stars while another three really didn’t work for me, and the rest all rated four stars, so I’d consider this as a solid collection rather than an outstanding one. In tone, they range from fairly light-hearted amusements to rather bleak, almost dystopian tales, verging on noir once or twice.

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

Mirror Image by Isaac Asimov (1972) – This brings together Asimov’s famous detective duo who appear in several novels together – Elijah Bailey, an Earth police officer, and R. Daneel Olivaw, a humanoid robot built by the Spacer community. Daneel is on a space-ship, where two famous mathematicians are also partners. They each claim to have had a brilliant mathematical idea and consulted the other, and now accuse the other of having stolen the idea from them. Each has a robot servant, and each of these robots, programmed not to lie, is backing its own master’s version of events. Daneel persuades the ship’s captain to consult his friend, Elijah. While Elijah uses the Three Laws of Robotics in working out the solution, it’s really his knowledge of human nature that gives him the clue he needs. Very well told, ingenious plot, and it’s always a pleasure to meet with this duo.

Murder, 1986 by PD James (1970) – A disease brought to Earth from space has ravaged humanity. Most of the remaining population are carriers – Ipdics (Interplanetary Disease Infection Carriers) – and are subject to severe restrictions by the relatively few unaffected humans. Ipdics are not allowed to marry or breed, or have close contact with the unaffected. So when Sergeant Dolby discovers the body of a murdered young woman, the general feeling is that it’s unimportant since she was only an Ipdic, and one less Ipdic is a good thing for humanity. But Dolby can’t see it that way, and decides to carry out his own investigation. This is a bleak story, but very well told. Although only thirty pages or so long, James finds room to show the cruelty with which the Ipdics are treated, driven by the strength of the human survival instinct. As you might expect, this is one of the strongest stories in terms of the mystery plotting, fair play and an excellent, if depressing, denouement.

The Absolutely Perfect Murder by Miriam Allen deFord (1965) – This is a light-hearted bit of fun – a nice contrast to some of the grimmer stories in the book. Our anti-hero Mervyn is tired, very tired, of his nagging, over-bearing wife. For the last couple of years he’s been trying to think of a foolproof way to murder her (because despite this being in the far future, apparently divorce laws haven’t moved on from the mid-twentieth century). Now he learns that time travel has been made commercial, and decides to pop back into the past and do the deed there. While the twist in the tail might be a little obvious, it’s entertaining.

Elsewhen by Anthony Boucher (1943) – Mr Partridge invents a time machine that can only go back a maximum of two hours into the past. Needing money to develop it and to win the love of his life, Mr Partridge decides to use the time machine to commit a murder that will result in him inheriting his rich great-uncle’s wealth. But private detective Fergus O’Breen gets involved in the murder investigation and he’s not a man to let a little thing like time travel baffle him! This is a great twist on a standard locked room mystery and on a novel way to create a perfect alibi. While the time-travelling paradox aspect befuddled my mind (as it usually does), the mystery plotting aspect is excellent. It’s well written and very entertaining, and probably my favourite story in the collection.

So plenty of good stuff here, and it’s fun to see how the authors try to stick to the conventions of mystery writing while incorporating the more imaginative SF stuff. Recommended to SF fans, but also to mystery fans who dare to step a little out of their comfort zone.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane

Turn up the air-conditioning…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Ex-cop and ex-soldier Jack Williams is found shot dead. The police detective in charge of the case knows Williams was a friend of PI Mike Hammer, so calls Hammer in. To Hammer, Jack was more than just a friend, though – during the war Jack saved Hammer’s life and in the process got injured so badly that he lost an arm. Hammer owes him, and swears an oath that he will find Jack’s killer before the police, and take his own deadly vengeance. So the race is on…

You have to give Spillane credit for being thorough – I don’t think there’s a single ’ism missing from this one! Sexism, racism, sexism, homophobia, sexism, misogyny and did I mention sexism? Then there’s the violence, the sex, and the guns – good grief, so many guns! The odd thing is: I quite enjoyed it! It’s kinda the pulp version of hard-boiled with all pretence at subtlety stripped out, but lurking in there somewhere there’s quite a good plot and the writing, while not as slick as I seem to remember from reading some Spillane long ago, is pretty good for the style of novel.

Hammer realises that first he needs to find out the motive before he can identify the murderer, so he starts by talking to the various people Jack has recently spent some time with. Because of the loss of his arm, Jack hadn’t been able to go back to his career in the police, but Hammer knows he was still a cop at heart, and might have got involved in trying to break up some kind of criminal enterprise. There are plenty of options – Hammer’s investigations soon take him into the criminal underbelly of New York, in amongst the gangsters, brothel keepers, drug runners and a variety of two-bit hoods (I think that’s the technical term). The men all want to beat Hammer up, or occasionally shoot him. The women single-mindedly want to get him into bed, or marry him, or both. Lord knows why! I can only assume there must have been a severe shortage of men in New York at that time. Although Spillane doesn’t mention it, I also assume there was a major heatwave in process, since half the characters spend most of their time stripping their clothes off. I’m sure it’s purely coincidental that it’s the female half. One of the women is an actual nymphomaniac, but it was fortunate that Hammer told us which one, because her behaviour wasn’t significantly different to all the other women.

Book 80 of 90

Despite all of that there’s a strange kind of moral innocence in the book. Hammer resists the blandishments of the naked women for the most part, turns out to be a bit of a romantic at heart, and although he happily shoots people, he only shoots bad ones, so that’s all right then. Apparently it’s all right with the American justice system too, since he never even gets arrested for it. I suppose it saves on costly trials and prison sentences. The racism is the standard casual stuff of the time (1947) as is the homophobia. Happily neither plays a big part in the story so I was able to tolerate it, just, as almost all crime fiction of that era, especially hard-boiled and noir, is infested with language or stereotyping that is rightly considered unacceptable today.

Mickey Spillane

I had a pretty good idea who the villain was from about halfway through, but the motive stumped me so that kept me interested. In the end, it’s all highly unlikely at best and complete tosh at worst, but that’s the joy of pulp! And the end is so over the top I found it hilarious, which I assure you it wasn’t supposed to be.

This was his first and all-in-all I enjoyed it, but would be hesitant to know who to recommend it to. I imagine many people found it pretty sleazy even at the time, and it really hasn’t improved with age. However, if you enjoy the pulpy end of hard-boiled crime and can make allowances for the ’isms, then it’s well worth a few hours of your time for the sheer entertainment value. I’d be interested to try one of his later ones to see if he gets rid of some of the rough edges in this one, or if this is typical of his style throughout his career.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 295 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 295

(A reminder of The People’s Choice plan. Once a month, I shall list the four oldest books on the TBR, then the next four, and so on, and each time you will select the one you think I should read, either because you’ve read and enjoyed it, or because you think the blurb looks good. And I will read the one you pick within three months! If I begin to fall behind, I’ll have a gap till I catch up again. In the event of a tie, I’ll have the casting vote.)

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OK, People, time for the next batch of four, a varied bunch this time, and we’re now moving into 2017. I’m still catching up after my recent hiatus, so this won’t be the usual three months ahead pick – the winner will be a November read, if I can fit it in! I bought Mrs Hudson and the Spirit’s Curse after enjoying another book in the series, Mrs Hudson and the Malabar RoseI’ve enjoyed the later books in Val McDermid’s Karen Pirie series and have been slowly backtracking to the earlier ones – The Distant Echo is the first in the series (and I think I may actually have read it before, from the blurb, but I’m not sure). I won The Mandibles in a giveaway and am deeply ashamed that I’ve still not got around to reading it! And I can’t remember now why I acquired Gorky Park – I suspect I just thought it sounded great. While some of these appeal more than others now, all of them still sound good so you really can’t pick a wrong’un…

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Holmes pastiche

Mrs Hudson and the Spirit’s Curse by Martin Davies

Added 6th January 2017. 807 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.93 average rating. 324 pages.

The Blurb says: What if Baker Street’s most gifted resident wasn’t called Sherlock Holmes?

An evil stalks London, blown in from the tropics. Stories of cursed giant rats and malign spirits haunt the garrets of Limehouse. A group of merchants are, one by one, dying: murdered, somehow. The elementary choice to investigate these mysterious deaths is, of course, Holmes and Dr Watson. Yet instead of deduction, it will be the unique gifts of their housekeeper, Mrs Hudson and her orphaned assistant Flotsam that will be needed to solve the case. Can she do it all under the nose of Sherlock himself?

From the coal fire at Baker Street to the smog of Whitechapel and the jungles of Sumatra, from snake bites in grand hotels to midnight carriage chases at the docks, it’s time for Mrs Hudson to step out of the shadows. Playfully breaking with convention, Martin Davies brings a fresh twist to classic Victorian mystery.

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Crime

The Distant Echo by Val McDermid

Added 1st March 2017. 15,412 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.97 average. 496 pages.

The Blurb says: It was a winter morning in 1978, that the body of a young barmaid was discovered in the snow banks of a Scottish cemetery. The only suspects in her brutal murder were the four young men who found her: Alex Gilbey and his three best friends. With no evidence but her blood on their hands, no one was ever charged.

Twenty five years later, the Cold Case file on Rosie Duff has been reopened. For Alex and his friends, the investigation has also opened old wounds, haunting memories-and new fears. For a stranger has emerged from the shadows with his own ideas about justice. And revenge.

When two of Alex’s friends die under suspicious circumstances, Alex knows that he and his innocent family are the next targets. And there’s only way to save them: return to the cold-blooded past and uncover the startling truth about the murder. For there lies the identity of an avenging killer…

* * * * *

Fiction

The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver

Added 29th March 2017. 9,085 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.68 average. 515 pages. 

The Blurb says: In this eerily prophetic novel from the Orange Prize-winning author of We Need to Talk About Kevin, a once-wealthy family faces the prospect of ruin. This apocalypse is financial – the dollar is in meltdown, America’s national debt far beyond repayment.

It is 2029. The Mandibles have been counting on a sizable fortune filtering down when their 97-year-old patriarch dies, but now their inheritance is turned to ash. Each family member must contend with disappointment, but also — as the effects of the downturn start to hit — the challenge of sheer survival.

Recently affluent Avery is petulant that she can’t buy olive oil, while her sister Florence is forced to absorb strays into her increasingly cramped household. As their father Carter fumes at having to care for his demented stepmother now that a nursing home is too expensive, his sister Nollie, an expat author, returns from abroad at 73 to a country that’s unrecognizable.

Perhaps only Florence’s oddball teenage son Willing, an economics autodidact, can save this formerly august American family from the streets…

* * * * *

Crime

Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith

Added 6th July 2017. 70,606 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.04 average. 433 pages.

The Blurb says: It begins with a triple murder in a Moscow amusement center: three corpses found frozen in the snow, faces and fingers missing. Chief homicide investigator Arkady Renko is brilliant, sensitive, honest, and cynical about everything except his profession. To identify the victims and uncover the truth, he must battle the KGB, FBI, and the New York City police as he pursues a rich, ruthless, and well-connected American fur dealer. Meanwhile, Renko is falling in love with a beautiful, headstrong dissident for whom he may risk everything.

A wonderfully textured, vivid look behind the Iron Curtain, Gorky Park is a tense, atmospheric, and memorable crime story.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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VOTE NOW!

(Click on title and then remember to also click on Vote, or your vote won’t count!)

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Tuesday ’Tec! The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim by Agatha Christie

Never bet against Poirot…

I seem to be reading as many mystery short stories this autumn as horror, so it’s time to let one of the greatest detectives of all time take over the Tuesday slot for a change! The story will have been collected many times, I imagine, but I read it in the new collection from HarperCollins, Midsummer Mysteries, which I’ll review fully soon…

Tuesday Tec2

The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim
by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie

.….Poirot and I were expecting our old friend Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard to tea. We were sitting round the tea-table awaiting his arrival. Poirot had just finished carefully straightening the cups and saucers which our landlady was in the habit of throwing, rather than placing, on the table.

If I were Hastings, I’d find the temptation to unstraighten the cups and saucers again irresistible! Anyway, Japp arrives…

….“Hope I’m not late,” he said as he greeted us. “To tell the truth, I was yarning with Miller, the man who’s in charge of the Davenheim case.”

Poirot and Hastings are immediately intrigued, having seen the story in the papers…

….For the last three days the papers had been full of the strange disappearance of Mr. Davenheim, senior partner of Davenheim and Salmon, the well-known bankers and financiers. On Saturday last he had walked out of his house, and had never been seen since.

On Hastings remarking that in these days of technology it ought to be impossible for someone to successfully disappear, Poirot demurs…

….“Mon ami,” said Poirot, “you make one error. You do not allow for the fact that a man who had decided to make away with another man—or with himself in a figurative sense—might be that rare machine, a man of method. He might bring intelligence, talent, a careful calculation of detail to the task; and then I do not see why he should not be successful in baffling the police force.”

Japp then slyly suggests that of course Poirot would not be baffled…

….Poirot endeavoured, with a marked lack of success, to look modest. “Me, also! Why not? It is true that I approach such problems with an exact science, a mathematical precision, which seems, alas, only too rare in the new generation of detectives!”

Japp says confidently that the detective in charge of the case is excellent at spotting clues, but Poirot is unimpressed. He feels that in a case like this, merely collecting clues will not be enough – one must exercise the little grey cells. Grinning, Japp suggests a wager…

….“You don’t mean to say, Monsieur Poirot, that you would undertake to solve a case without moving from your chair, do you?”
….“That is exactly what I do mean—granted the facts were placed before me. I regard myself as a consulting specialist.”

….Japp slapped his knee. “Hanged if I don’t take you at your word. Bet you a fiver that you can’t lay your hand—or rather tell me where to lay my hand—on Mr. Davenheim, dead or alive, before a week is out.”

And so the race is on…

* * * * *

Considering how short a story this is, there’s a good plot, plenty of clues and it is essentially fair play. It’s also a light-hearted tale, with lots of humour in the banter between our three favourites, Poirot, Hastings and Japp. In these very early Christie stories – this one is from 1923 – it’s often easy to see the influence of Christie’s love for the Holmes and Watson stories, not just in the relationship between Poirot and Hastings, but sometimes also because she picks up on elements from the stories and uses them, not in a plagiarising way but as jumping off points for her own originality. This one takes a couple of points from one of the Holmes stories – which I’m not going to name since it would be a spoiler for anyone who knows those stories – and builds an entirely new set of characters and motives around them. I have to admit that once I recognised the influence, I was able to quite quickly work out the mystery, but if anything that added to my enjoyment rather than diminishing it. I love sharing my own Holmes geekery with Ms Christie!

If you’d like to read it for yourself, here’s a link.

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Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Final Twist (Colter Shaw 3) by Jeffery Deaver

Locked and loaded…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

In the third and final part of Deaver’s Colter Shaw trilogy, Shaw has come to San Francisco on the trail of the conspiracy which he believes led to his father’s murder, finishing the story arc that has been running in the background of the previous two books. Here, he’ll find he is both hunter and prey, as the people behind the conspiracy try to stop him from getting the evidence he needs to bring them down. But he won’t have to fight them alone. Russell, the elder brother who has been missing since their father’s death, turns up and soon the two brothers are working together and trying to rebuild their relationship between gunfights, explosions and murders.

It’s essential to switch off your credibility monitor before reading this, since I sincerely hope it’s not really possible to have all this noisy violence going on in the streets of San Francisco without the authorities ever noticing. But if you can accept the basic unbelievability of it all, then Deaver is still one of the best at this kind of all-action thriller. Colter’s father was a paranoid survivalist, though it seems his paranoia had some foundation in fact. He trained his sons in survivalist techniques from an early age, so both brothers are crack shots, expert hunters, natural strategists and tacticians, and over the years since their father’s death both have added computing skills to their endless list of talents. So despite being up against giant corporations with vast resources and armies of hitmen and women, Colter and Russell, along with some of their friends and colleagues, are able to hold their own.

There’s a secondary plot related to Colter’s usual work as a bounty hunter searching for missing people for whose return a reward has been offered, in this case a young woman who disappeared from the street where she had been busking. The girl and her mother are ‘illegals’, so the mother can’t go to the police for help, and the reward she can offer is tiny. But Colter makes enough money that he can take on the odd financially unrewarding job like this, just for the satisfaction of doing good. However, this bounty hunter plot plays such a small part in this final instalment that it hardly seems worth having it in there at all.

The main plot concerns corrupt businessmen, drugs, dodgy real estate deals and a bit of politics. All of that is credible enough, although stretching at the boundaries, and touches lightly on some current topics, like vote-rigging, gerrymandering, and the corruption of big money in politics. Mostly though, it’s about the action and, in America, action means guns. Occasionally bombs, grenades, knives and IEDs, even bows and arrows, but mostly guns. Since everyone wears their concealed weapon casually beneath their untucked shirt, one wonders if concealment means something different in America. However, since apparently one can be attacked several times in the course of any given day, it’s probably just as well to have one’s weapon locked and loaded at all times (although Colter assures me that locked and loaded is a terribly inaccurate description. Apparently for speed, one really wants to have one’s weapon unlocked and loaded…) Fortunately for the state of the environment Russell has contacts in a government agency who are expert in disposing of the trail of corpses that would otherwise be left to litter the streets, unnoticed by the cops who, one assumes, were all off at a team-building event over the couple of days that the Shaw brothers and their adversaries had their little war.

Jeffery Deaver

Despite my mockery, I enjoyed this one just as much as the other two in the trilogy. There are conventions to this kind of thriller and Deaver is a master of them, so that when he goes over the top, the reader is quite happy to go along with him. There is hardly any swearing, remarkably little gruesomeness and gore, and no graphic sex, so it’s all very tasteful despite the constant violence! Given a choice between three baddies being killed and three uses of the f-word, I’ll take the killings every time! 😉 Colter is a likeable lead – if this is really to be his last appearance I’ll be quite sorry. I feel that now the running story of his father’s death has been resolved, he could easily appear again in his role as bounty hunter. Each of the books could stand alone, but I think they’re really better read in order, starting with The Never Game.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Black Cabinet by Patricia Wentworth

Dangerous inheritance…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Chloe Dane’s family were once rich and lived in their ancestral home, Danesborough. But the family fell on hard times and now Chloe, at twenty, is an orphan, working in a dressmaker’s shop in the little town of Maxton. She’s not a languishing heroine though – she’s full of life and finds plenty of ways to have fun, and being very pretty is never short of admirers. Now her best friend is getting married and going off to India and Chloe is feeling that she needs a change. Out of the blue she is contacted by the new owner of Danesborough, a sort of distant cousin also called Dane, who is looking for someone to leave the property to when he dies. Chloe spends a week with him in Danesborough and develops an instinctive dislike of him. But then he dies, and she finds herself mistress of the house – or at least she will be when she comes of age in a few months time. Then, in the safe inside the black cabinet in the drawing room she discovers a dangerous secret and suddenly finds herself in grave danger, not knowing whom she can trust…

This is a lot of fun! Chloe is a lovely heroine, full of charm, brave, a little foolish, but determined to do the right thing at all costs. She has two main admirers and the reader quickly realises one of them is probably a baddie while the other is a goodie, but it’s not clear which is which till the end. The romantic element is as important as the mystery, and a lot of the suspense is around whether Chloe will pick the right man, both for her present safety and her future happiness. Both men are rather charming in different ways, and I must admit that, like Chloe, I changed my mind about which was the good guy several times through the course of the book.

There are also people who both Chloe and the reader know for sure are baddies – old Mr Dane’s secretary, Wroughton, and his friend Stran, who are determined to get hold of the documents from the safe inside the black cabinet. The only way they can do this is to find the combination to the lock, which only Chloe knows. So they need her alive, and they need to find some way to pressure or trick her into giving them the combination. And until Chloe reaches her majority, she can’t simply sack Wroughton and get rid of him. But she is equally determined that they won’t get the documents…

Patricia Wentworth

The characterisation is great, of Chloe especially – a hugely likeable heroine – but of all the other characters too. Wroughton is ostentatiously bad, but several of the other characters are beautifully ambiguous, both to Chloe and the reader, so that it’s impossible to fully trust anyone. Is Wroughton’s wife a poor little bullied creature who wants to help Chloe, or is she her husband’s willing partner, playing a part? Martin and Michael, both apparently in love with Chloe, but is one of them a member of the gang, trying to trick her? Are the servants loyal to Chloe, or to Wroughton? Chloe doesn’t know, and nor do we.

Wentworth puts poor Chloe through peril after peril, and she does a great job of building the tension as the story progresses. But it never gets too bleak – Chloe’s general high spirits mean she’s never down-hearted for long, and her natural courage and determination may falter occasionally but always spring back. And, although she gets help along the way from unexpected quarters, in the end it’s her own strength of character that carries her through. Thoroughly enjoyable – I raced through it, and am looking forward to reading more of Wentworth’s books soon.

This was The People’s Choice winner for August. Well done, People – you picked a good one!

Book 8 of 12

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 294…

Episode 294

A big drop in the TBR this week – down 7 to 198! Partly this is due to reading, but I cannot tell a lie – mostly it’s down to culling. I’ve suddenly been inundated with unsolicited books from one of my friendly publishers and decided I have to stop feeling as if I must read every book I get sent. So I checked blurbs and reviews and removed the ones I felt pretty sure would end up on the abandoned pile. Can’t tell you how traumatic the whole experience was…

Anyway, here’s a few that I should be reading soon…

Vintage Crime Shorts 

Guilty Creatures edited by Martin Edwards

Courtesy of the British Library. It feels like a while since there was one of these vintage crime anthologies from the BL, so I’m feeling refreshed and raring to go! Hope nothing bad happens to any of the animals though. We’ll see!

The Blurb says: “Curiously enough,” said Dr. Manners, “I know a story in which the detection of a murder turned on the behaviour of a bird: in this instance a jackdaw.”

Since the dawn of the crime fiction genre, animals of all kinds have played a memorable part in countless mysteries, and in a variety of roles: the perpetrator, the key witness, the sleuth’s trusted companion. This collection of fourteen stories corrals plots centred around cats, dogs and insects alongside more exotic incidents involving gorillas, parakeets and serpents – complete with a customary shoal of red herrings. From the animal mysteries of Arthur Conan Doyle and F. Tennyson Jesse through to more modern masterpieces of the sub-genre from Christianna Brand and Penelope Wallace, this anthology celebrates one of the liveliest and most imaginative species of classic crime fiction.

* * * * *

Fiction

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Courtesy of Little, Brown Book Group via NetGalley. I haven’t read either of Whitehead’s Pulitzer winners or any of his other books, so this will be my introduction to him. The ridiculously overlong blurb suggests it’s a thriller, but it seems to be being categorised as fiction. We’ll see! I’m wondering if I still really need to read the book after reading the blurb…

The Blurb says: Ray Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked… To his customers and neighbors on 125th street, Carney is an upstanding salesman of reasonably priced furniture, making a decent life for himself and his family. He and his wife Elizabeth are expecting their second child, and if her parents on Striver’s Row don’t approve of him or their cramped apartment across from the subway tracks, it’s still home.

Few people know he descends from a line of uptown hoods and crooks, and that his façade of normalcy has more than a few cracks in it. Cracks that are getting bigger all the time.

Cash is tight, especially with all those installment-plan sofas, so if his cousin Freddie occasionally drops off the odd ring or necklace, Ray doesn’t ask where it comes from. He knows a discreet jeweler downtown who doesn’t ask questions, either.

Then Freddie falls in with a crew who plan to rob the Hotel Theresa–the Waldorf of Harlem–and volunteers Ray’s services as the fence. The heist doesn’t go as planned; they rarely do. Now Ray has a new clientele, one made up of shady cops, vicious local gangsters, two-bit pornographers, and other assorted Harlem lowlifes.

Thus begins the internal tussle between Ray the striver and Ray the crook. As Ray navigates this double life, he begins to see who actually pulls the strings in Harlem. Can Ray avoid getting killed, save his cousin, and grab his share of the big score, all while maintaining his reputation as the go-to source for all your quality home furniture needs?

Harlem Shuffle‘s ingenious story plays out in a beautifully recreated New York City of the early 1960s. It’s a family saga masquerading as a crime novel, a hilarious morality play, a social novel about race and power, and ultimately a love letter to Harlem.

But mostly, it’s a joy to read, another dazzling novel from the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning Colson Whitehead.

* * * * *

Thriller

The Disappearing Act by Catherine Steadman

Courtesy of Simon and Schuster UK via NetGalley. Another in my attempt to read more new releases, I picked this because it sounds from the blurb like it may be a spin on The Lady Vanishes. It’s getting mixed reviews, but overall more positive than negative. We’ll see!

The Blurb says: A woman has gone missing. But did she ever really exist?

Mia Eliot has travelled from London to LA for pilot season. This is her big chance to make it as an actor in Hollywood, and she is ready to do whatever it takes. At an audition she meets Emily, and what starts as a simple favour takes a dark turn when Emily goes missing and Mia is the last person to see her.

Then a woman turns up, claiming to be Emily, but she is nothing like Mia remembers. Why would someone pretend to be Emily? Starting to question her own sanity, she goes on a desperate and dangerous search for answers, knowing something is very, very wrong.

In an industry where everything is about creating illusions, how do you know what is real? And how much would you risk to find out?

* * * * *

Vintage Crime

The Widow of Bath by Margot Bennett

Courtesy of the British Library. I read another book of hers the BL reissued a while ago – The Man Who Didn’t Fly – and had a rather mixed reaction to it, feeling it was one of those ones where the puzzle element was stronger than the characterisation and general plotting. Not sure the blurb of this one greatly appeals either, but… we’ll see!

The Blurb says: Hugh Everton was intent on nothing more than quietly drinking in the second-rate hotel he found himself in on England’s south coast – and then in walked his old flame Lucy and her new husband and ex-Judge, Gregory Bath. Entreated by Lucy to join her party for an evening back at the Bath residence, Hugh is powerless to resist, but when the night ends with the judge’s inexplicable murder he is pitched back into a world of chaos and crime – a world he had tried to escape for good.

First published in 1952, The Widow of Bath offers intricate puzzles, international intrigue and a richly evoked portrait of post-war Britain, all delivered with Bennett’s signature brand of witty and elegant prose.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Tuesday Terror! Good Lady Ducayne by Mary E Braddon

Pack the mosquito repellent…

Not all horror has to be horrifying to be entertaining. This story is distinctly lacking in fear factor and has no supernatural elements in it at all. But it has a lovely touch of human wickedness, a heroine I defy you not to fall in love with, some beautiful Italian settings, and a swoonworthy romantic hero…

Good Lady Ducayne
by Mary E Braddon

Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Bella Rolleston had made up her mind that her only chance of earning her bread and helping her mother to an occasional crust was by going out into the great unknown world as companion to a lady.

Bella’s mother, having been deserted by her wastrel husband, now ekes out a precarious living as a seamstress. She and Bella may want for material things, but they each have a naturally happy nature and are friends as much as mother and daughter. So to Bella the idea of going off as a companion is in the nature of an adventure as much as a matter of necessity. She signs on with an employment agency where she is interviewed by a Superior Person…

The Person was of uncertain age, tightly laced in a black silk gown. She had a powdery complexion and a handsome clump of somebody else’s hair on the top of her head.

The Person is unimpressed by poor Bella’s lack of accomplishments but is happy to take her fee. Bella is no shrinking violet to be intimidated by Superior Persons, however, and after she has visited the agency a couple more times to remind the Person of her existence, the Person introduces her to a lady looking for a companion…

Never had she seen anyone as old as the old lady sitting by the Person’s fire: a little old figure, wrapped from chin to feet in an ermine mantle; a withered, old face under a plumed bonnet–a face so wasted by age that it seemed only a pair of eyes and a peaked chin. . . Claw-like fingers, flashing with jewels, lifted a double eyeglass to Lady Ducayne’s shining black eyes, and through the glasses Bella saw those unnaturally bright eyes magnified to a gigantic size, and glaring at her awfully.

Despite her appearance, Lady Ducayne seems kind and generous enough, and seems less concerned with Bella’s lack of accomplishments than she is to be assured that Bella is healthy and strong…

….‘I want a strong young woman whose health will give me no trouble.’
….‘You have been so unfortunate in that respect,’ cooed the Person, whose voice and manner were subdued to a melting sweetness by the old woman’s presence.
….‘Yes, I’ve been rather unlucky,’ grunted Lady Ducayne.

Very unlucky, as Bella later discovers! Lady Ducayne’s two previous companions, both also young girls who seemed healthy, had both soon faded and died of unspecified disease. Bella, however, is thrilled to be offered the job, and even more thrilled when Lady Ducayne asks her…

….‘You don’t mind spending the winter in Italy, I suppose?’
….In Italy! The very word was magical. Bella’s fair young face flushed crimson.
….‘It has been the dream of my life to see Italy,’ she gasped.

And at first the dream is dreamy indeed – beautiful scenery, luxurious hotel and Bella is given plenty of time to herself. She quickly makes friends with another visitor, Lotta Stafford, who is staying in the hotel with her handsome brother who has just passed his medical exams and is about to embark on a career as a doctor. Bella writes all about them to her mother back home…

….Her brother won’t allow her to read a novel, French or English, that he has not read and approved.
….‘”He treats me like a child,” she told me, “but I don’t mind, for it’s nice to know somebody loves me, and cares about what I do, and even about my thoughts.”‘
….Perhaps this is what makes some girls so eager to marry–the want of someone strong and brave and honest and true to care for them and order them about.

Well… hmm… perhaps!

Sadly, it’s not long before Bella’s health begins to fade, and she is troubled by bad dreams and frequent wounds on her arms which Lady Ducayne’s doctor assures her are caused by mosquitoes…

‘And to think that such tiny creatures can bite like this,’ said Bella; ‘my arm looks as if it had been cut by a knife.’

But young Dr Stafford is not convinced by the mosquito story – he has a very different theory of what is happening to Bella…

* * * * *

Lots of fun in this one! Herbert Stafford reminds me very much of Henry Tilney from Northanger Abbey, another handsome young hero I’m sure I would have found insufferable in real life but is perfectly suited to his heroine. Bella is charming and Lady Ducayne is wonderfully drawn as an old, old woman clinging desperately to life…

…he had never seen a face that impressed him so painfully as this withered countenance, with its indescribable horror of death outlived, a face that should have been hidden under a coffin-lid years and years ago.

Ouch! Must remember to keep using the wrinkle cream!

If you’d like to read this one, here’s a link. It’s a bit longer than many of the stories I’ve chosen, so save it for when you have a good half-hour or so to spare – it’s worth it though! Or you can find it in The Face in the Glass, a collection of Braddon’s stories, most of which, I should warn you, are much darker and sadder than this one.

(The porpy was fairly relaxed during this one…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

There and back again…

😀 😀 😀 😀 

Bilbo Baggins leads a respectable life, as befits a hobbit approaching middle-age. He loves his hobbit hole, has plenty of money so doesn’t need to work, and would rather dream of tea and cakes than adventure. But for some reason the wizard Gandalf the Grey decides that he would make a perfect thief for an expedition that a group of dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield, intend to undertake to regain the treasure of their forefathers, stolen years ago by the great dragon, Smaug. And despite feeling that he’s not at all suited to the task, Bilbo soon finds himself setting off on the journey, without even a handkerchief to remind him of homely things.

When I first read this, I think I was too old to lose myself wholly in the adventures as a child would, but not yet old enough to appreciate it as an adult. As a result, it has never held a deep place in my affections, unlike its big brother, The Lord of the Rings. So I haven’t re-read it for many years, but when I saw that Audible had a new audio version, narrated by Gollum himself, Andy Serkis, I felt this was the time to try it again. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those lucky people who still, as adults, get a great deal of pleasure from children’s books, unless they are ones, like Anne of Green Gables, which I loved so much and read so often as a child that they instantly take me back to those far-off times. So while I enjoyed my re-read of this, I still didn’t fall wholeheartedly in love with it.

Andy Serkis’ performance is great. He throws himself into it with gusto, using a whole range of British regional accents for all the various characters, especially the dwarves, which helps to distinguish them from each other. He sings all the songs – I don’t know whether he made up the tunes himself or if they are taken from the movie, which I haven’t seen, but he does them brilliantly, using different voices and characters appropriate to the singers, be it dwarves, elves or trolls. His Gollum, unsurprisingly, sounds exactly like Gollum from the films! He very definitely gets five stars.

I’m now going to get a bit critical (and probably a bit spoilery), so people who love the book or haven’t yet read it may want to look away now…

Gollum and Andy Serkis (but which is which?)

There were two things that stopped me loving it wholeheartedly. Firstly, I found I didn’t really like most of the characters, especially the dwarves, but also the elves and the humans. Bilbo himself is fine, but he’s no Frodo. He does indeed steal the ring from Gollum, which I had rather forgotten. I know that in LOTR we learn that Gollum himself stole it and also that the ring probably exerted its influence over Bilbo to take it out of the caverns where Gollum had kept it for so long. But we don’t know that in The Hobbit, so it just leaves Bilbo as a thief, stealing Gollum’s one precioussss possession. I’ve always had difficulty with heroes who aren’t any more morally upstanding than the villains, especially in children’s literature.

The second issue came as a big shock to me, and that is that the dwarves are given many of the negative characteristics associated with anti-Semitic tropes – their physical appearance of small stature and long beards, their essential cowardice, their love beyond reason for gold and jewels, their miserliness. I certainly didn’t pick up on this when I was young, and was so gobsmacked by it this time that I wondered if I was inventing connections that didn’t exist. So I googled, only to discover that there is a wealth of academic writing on the subject. I am not, repeat not, suggesting that Tolkien was anti-Semitic – simply that to modern eyes (mine, at least) the portrayal of the dwarves in this way leads to a rather uncomfortable reading experience, somewhat like trying to see Shylock through the eyes of Shakespeare’s contemporaries rather than our own. It wouldn’t have surprised me in the least if Thorin had suddenly started wailing “O, my daughter! O, my ducats!”, if only he had had a daughter.

I also couldn’t help feeling rather sorry for Smaug. (As a side note, Serkis pronounces it Smowg, to rhyme with now, whereas I’ve always thought of it as Smog, to rhyme with dog, so I found that a bit disconcerting.) It appeared to me Smaug was no less moral and no more obsessed with treasure than the dwarves, so it was difficult for me to feel they were the good guys and he the bad. As I say, I don’t think I’m very good at reading children’s literature!

JRR Tolkien

However, there are lots of fun episodes, like the trolls (I felt a bit sorry for them too, admittedly – they were just doing what trolls do), and the eagles, and all the stuff in Mirkwood is wonderfully scary, especially the spiders. Poor old Bombur provides a good deal of comic relief (despite the fat-shaming! Oh good lord, I’ve been brainwashed by the Woke!) and I felt Fili and Kili (always my favourite dwarves) redeemed the dwarves’ reputation a little by their heroism at the end.

Overall, a book I’m sure I would have loved far more if only I’d first read it when I was a couple of years younger. Maybe in my next life…

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Till Death Do Us Part (Gideon Fell 15) by John Dickson Carr

He didn’t see that coming…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When Dick Markham’s brand new fiancée, Lesley Grant, shoots a fortune teller at the village fair, it looks accidental. But then the injured fortune teller reveals himself as a famous Home Office pathologist, and tells Dick that he had recognised Lesley as a serial poisoner of her previous husbands and lover, but that the police have never been able to get enough evidence to arrest her. Naturally Dick is shocked and unwilling to believe this, but he realises he knows very little about Lesley – she appeared in the village of Six Ashes just a few months earlier, and he knows nothing of her life before that. So reluctantly he agrees to help find the proof the police need. But later that night, the pathologist dies, in exactly the way he described Lesley’s former crimes as having been done – his body found in a locked room, his death by poisoning made to look like suicide. Then the famous amateur detective Gideon Fell arrives in the village…

I’ve loved Carr’s earliest books starring his French police detective, Henri Bencolin, but this was my first introduction to the detective he is best remembered for, Gideon Fell. In style, this is more in line with the normal Golden Age tradition, without the delicious atmosphere of decadent horror that pervades the Bencolin books. Carr is considered one of the greatest proponents of the locked room mystery, or impossible crime, and the emphasis in this one is very much on that aspect, although there’s plenty of room for some good characterisation and lots of clever misdirection.

On first meeting, I found I wasn’t wholly enamoured with Gideon Fell. He’s one of these arrogant know-it-all detectives, who is extremely rude to everyone around him, and he keeps his cards close to his chest except for the occasional enigmatic utterance. Perhaps he’ll grown on me as I read more of the books. Dick Markham, however, is a very likeable lead character, and his confusion over his feelings about Lesley is done very well. There is a mild love triangle, in that there is another woman everyone in the village expected Dick to marry before Lesley came along, and she provides another layer to Dick’s jumbled feelings. Lesley herself, as is necessary in a chief suspect, is not so well revealed – Carr very successfully keeps her ambiguous so that I swayed back and forwards many times as to whether she was guilty or innocent. If she is innocent, there are plenty of other characters who may have done the deed, though Carr doesn’t concentrate much on possible motives for them – the focus is more on how the deed was done than why. The same problem applies if Lesley is guilty – how did she do it?

John Dickson Carr

The locked room solution is excellent, and I think fair play for those who have the kind of mind that can work these things out. I almost never can, and this was no exception, but at least I understood the explanation at the end of how it was done and felt it was all quite feasible, which is considerably more than I can say for a lot of impossible crimes. The whodunit solution I found to be a bit of an anti-climax after all the intriguing ambiguity and false scents which came before, though again in retrospect I think Carr gave enough clues for the discerning reader to be able to beat the detective – not this reader though! But despite my slight disappointment with the ending, I enjoyed it very much. Often I find locked room mysteries are so focused on the puzzle they can be a bit dull, but Carr gives enough weight to the characterisation and Dick’s inner turmoil to keep it interesting. Personally I prefer the style of the Bencolin books, but that’s merely a matter of subjective preference due to my love of the horror aspects of those. For people who love a more traditional locked room mystery, then I can quite see why Fell would be the detective of choice. I look forward to getting to know him better.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 293…

Episode 293

Well, during my hiatus from the blog I also wasn’t reading much, but the books were still arriving. So tragically the TBR has rocketed up by a horrifying 15 to 205! In my defence the vast majority of the new arrivals were unsolicited books sent by publishers, so I don’t feel I can be held wholly responsible, m’lud…

Nose to the grindstone again then – must get back under that 200 mark asap! Here’s a few that I should be reading soon…

Winner of the People’s Choice Poll

Blackout by Ragnar Jonasson

Gosh, it was a close vote this month! Three of them were neck and neck most of the way through, with only The Sea languishing behind. But in the end, the winner pulled ahead by a margin of just a couple of votes. An excellent choice, People – I should be reading this one in October, theoretically, though I’m so far behind it may drift a little.

The Blurb says: On the shores of a tranquil fjord in Northern Iceland, a man is brutally beaten to death on a bright summer’s night. As the 24-hour light of the arctic summer is transformed into darkness by an ash cloud from a recent volcanic eruption, a young reporter leaves Reykajvik to investigate on her own, unaware that an innocent person’s life hangs in the balance. Ari Thór Arason and his colleagues on the tiny police force in Siglufjörður struggle with an increasingly perplexing case, while their own serious personal problems push them to the limit. What secrets does the dead man harbour, and what is the young reporter hiding? As silent, unspoken horrors from the past threaten them all, and the darkness deepens, it’s a race against time to find the killer before someone else dies …

Dark, terrifying and complex, Blackout is an exceptional, atmospheric thriller from one of Iceland’s finest crime writers.

* * * * *

Christie Shorts

Midsummer Mysteries by Agatha Christie

Courtesy of HarperCollins. This is a gorgeous hardback edition of a new collection of some of Christie’s short stories, all set in summer. Glancing at the index, I’ve read several of them before but there are a few titles that don’t ring a bell, and anyway I can re-read Ms Christie endlessly…

The Blurb says: An all-new collection of summer-themed mysteries from the master of the genre, just in time for the holiday season. [FF says: Not really all-new – I think they mean these stories haven’t been put together as a collection before, but they’ve certainly all appeared before in other collections.]

Summertime – as the temperature rises, so does the potential for evil. From Cornwall to the French Riviera, whether against a background of Delphic temples or English country houses, Agatha Christie’s most famous characters solve even the most devilish of conundrums as the summer sun beats down. Pull up a deckchair and enjoy plot twists and red herrings galore from the bestselling fiction writer of all time.

* * * * *

Classic Crime

I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane

One from my Classics Club list. I read and enjoyed a few Spillanes many decades ago, so I’m hoping the old magic will still work. He wrote one of my favourite lines in all crime fiction, describing one of his femmes fatales – “She walked towards me, her hips waving a happy hello.” Doesn’t that just conjure up a wonderful image? 

The Blurb says: When Jack Williams is discovered shot dead, the investigating cop Pat Chambers calls his acquaintance, and Jack’s closest friend, PI Mike Hammer. Back when they fought in the Marines together, Jack took a Japanese bayonet, losing his arm, to save Hammer. Hammer vows to identify the killer ahead of the police, and to exact fatal revenge. His starting point is the list of guests at a party at Jack’s apartment the night he died: Jack’s fiancée, a recovering dope addict, a beautiful psychiatrist, twin socialite sisters, a college student and a mobster.

But as he tracks them down, so too does the killer, and soon it’s not only Jack who is dead . . .

And now Hammer is firmly in the killer’s sights.

* * * * *

Fiction

Worst Idea Ever by Jane Fallon

Worst Idea EverCourtesy of Penguin Michael Joseph UK via NetGalley. Another in my attempt to read more new releases, I picked this because I’ve heard a lot of praise for this author around the blogosphere over the years. I can only hope the style of writing will be rather more literate than the style of the blurb – a true contender for Worst Blurb of the Millennium. FF muses: Do young people not get taught about paragraphs any more? 👵

The Blurb says: Best friends tell each other everything.

Or do they?

Georgia and Lydia are so close they’re practically sisters.

So when Lydia starts an online business that struggles, Georgia wants to help her – but she also understands Lydia’s not the kind to accept a handout.

Setting up a fake Twitter account, Georgia hopes to give her friend some anonymous moral support by posing as a potential customer.

But then Lydia starts confiding in her new internet buddy and Georgia discovers she doesn’t know her quite as well as she thought.

Georgia knows she should reveal herself, but she’s fascinated by this insight into her friend’s true feelings.

Especially when Lydia starts talking about her.

Until Lydia reveals a secret that could not only end their friendship but also blow up Georgia’s marriage.

Georgia’s in too deep.

But what can she save?

Her marriage, her friendship – or just herself?

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Fiction

Nada by Carmen Laforet

One for my Spanish Civil War challenge. This isn’t specifically about the war itself though – it is set a few years later, during Franco’s early regime, but it shows up regularly on SCW book lists and is considered a classic.

The Blurb says: Eighteen-year old orphan Andrea moves to battle-scarred Barcelona to take up a scholarship at the university. But staying with relatives in their crumbling apartment, her dreams of independence are dashed among the eccentric collection of misfits who surround her, not least her uncle Roman. As Andrea’s university friend, the affluent, elegant Ena, enters into a strange relationship with Roman, Andrea can’t help but wonder what future lies ahead for her in such a bizarre and disturbing world.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?