The Grell Mystery by Frank Froest

Man hunt!

🙂 🙂 🙂

On the night before his wedding, American millionaire Robert Grell leaves his club, telling his friend, Sir Ralph Fairfield, that he’ll be back shortly. He does not return, however, and Sir Ralph later learns that he has been found murdered in his flat. Chief Inspector Heldon Foyle of the CID takes personal charge of the case since Grell is a prominent figure with ties to his government in the States. The case already seems difficult since no one has a known motive to murder Grell. But it soon becomes even more mysterious when it transpires the dead man is not Grell at all – it is in fact another American, called Goldenburg, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Grell. Grell has disappeared, as has his Russian valet, Ivan, not to mention the mysterious veiled woman who was in the flat around the time of the murder, who might be Princess Petrovska or is possibly Lola the showgirl or could be someone else entirely. So to have any hope of solving the crime, first Foyle must find all these missing people…

And that’s exactly what he does. The book almost entirely concentrates on the hunt for Grell and the others, the theory being that, when they are found, they will be able to reveal what exactly happened to Goldenburg and why. So there’s no real investigation of the murder in terms of motives and so on – it’s strictly a police procedural account of a man (and woman) hunt, filled with details of how the Metropolitan Police went about their job back in 1913 when the book was published. This isn’t too surprising since the author was himself an active police officer from 1879 until his retirement in 1912 from the post of Superintendent of the Met’s CID – effectively Foyle’s boss, though one feels Foyle is probably something of an alter-ego for Froest himself. Which is a bit of a worry, since Foyle seems to feel that as far as police officers go, following the law should be optional…

There were things, of course, that could not be put in writing, but Foyle never invited his subordinates to act against the law. Such things have to be done at a man’s own discretion without official sanction.

It seemed to me that Froest’s aim was not so much to tell a mystery story as to describe the workings of the CID and the types of people and criminality they deal with on a daily basis. So in the course of the hunt we are taken to gambling dens, we meet petty crooks and informers, we learn about fingerprinting and record-keeping and liaising with foreign police forces, we get an idea of the police hierarchy and discipline, we spend time with the river police on the Thames, and so on. Foyle and his colleagues also tell each other anecdotes about previous cases they have dealt with. It’s all quite interesting, giving a snapshot of police work at this specific time in these early days of the twentieth century, when forensic techniques were in their infancy.

Challenge details:
Book:
60
Subject Heading:
The Long Arm of the Law
Publication Year: 19
13

However, in order to have room for all this it’s necessary for the police to be singularly incompetent at actually finding any of the missing people! Near miss follows near miss, with all of the detectives making blunders just as they’re about to lay hands on Grell, letting him escape so that Foyle can go on hunting for another few chapters, then another few, and so on. I gradually found I had tired of the chase – I would probably have preferred to be reading a factual memoir of Froest’s time as a detective than have it all rolled into a fictional mystery. The mystery element is well set up in the first few chapters and then is put on hold for a couple of hundred of pages while the manhunt takes place, before being wrapped up rather quickly in the last few pages with a written confession from the murderer to explain all. I confess I started to skim at about the halfway mark, eventually leaping over chunks of the procedural stuff and only tuning back in properly when the solution finally hove into view.

Frank Froest

So overall I found it overly detailed, with too much concentration on the minutiae of detective work at the expense of moving the plot along. However, the minutiae was interesting, and probably even more so in 1913 when the mystery novel was still a new concept and the readership might well be reading about police practices for the first time. For those of us modern readers who have read a million police procedurals it doesn’t feel quite so original and therefore the detail just serves to slow the book to a crawl. I feel the impatience I developed with it is quite subjective, though, and I can imagine that plenty of people would thoroughly enjoy this detailed look at early policing.

I downloaded this one from Gutenberg.org – here’s the link.

The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley

Peril in Paris…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

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

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

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

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

Lucy Foley

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

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link

I Have Something to Tell You by Susan Lewis

Mid-life crises…

🙂 🙂

Edward Blake drops his wife Vanessa at the station in the morning, as she is off to visit a friend in London. That evening he returns from work to his empty house, watches some TV and goes to bed. Next morning he discovers his wife’s body in the guest room, murdered. Not surprisingly the police find this story hard to believe, especially when the London friend denies all knowledge of a planned visit, and Edward is arrested. Enter Jessica “Jay” Wells, criminal defence solicitor, who will gradually discover that Vanessa had many secrets, one of which may have got her killed…

An interesting premise and the first 150 pages or so are very good as we gradually discover more about Edward and Vanessa’s marriage, and the possible suspect list grows as some of Vanessa’s secrets are revealed. The writing is good, and while all the characters are terribly middle-class in a trendy liberal sort of way, they’re reasonably well drawn.

And then Jay’s husband says those fateful words – “I have something to tell you” – and suddenly we’re thrust into a marriage teetering on the brink of breakdown, full of guilt and reproaches and tears and shouting and, from me, yawning. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a contemporary heroine in want of a good husband must instead be landed with an unfaithful jerk, and furthermore that her response will almost inevitably be to respond in kind. Ask me how interested I am in middle-aged people having sex – no, on second thoughts, guess. This tedious storyline takes up more space than the murder, overwhelming the entire second half of the book.

(To be fair, the book is in no way graphic and we are rarely taken inside any of the well-used bedrooms, but, oh boy, even when Jay’s not actually doing sex, she spends an awful lot of time thinking about it. Can we please have some professional female characters who are ruled by their heads, not their hormones? Is that too much to ask? If even women writers show women as unable to perform professional roles professionally, what hope is there for us?)

With so much adulterous hanky-panky going on throughout, it is somewhat ironic that the ending should turn out to be quite such an anti-climax – the earth barely trembled for this reader. The enormous length also gives plenty of time for even the least competent armchair ‘tec (i.e., me) to work out the “twist”. I did see that coming!

The thing is there’s a good story in here and, as I said before, the writing is fine. Had the book been cut by about 150-200 pages to remove most of the relationship nonsense it could have been excellent and, without getting into spoiler territory, it would have meant the solution could have been presented in a much more tense and surprising way. As it is, it’s a flabby 500 pages that began to lose my interest about a third of the way in and eventually had me skimming through all the descriptions of Jay’s feelings of betrayal, romantic longings and adolescent lust love. I kept going because I was interested enough to see how it played out but sadly in the end felt it hadn’t really been worth the time invested.

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

Amazon UK Link

The Z Murders by J Jefferson Farjeon

Race into danger…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

J Jefferson Farjeon

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

Amazon UK Link

Death of a Bookseller by Bernard J. Farmer

One for bibliophiles…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link

The Wood Beyond (Dalziel and Pascoe 15) by Reginald Hill

Wallowing in the mud…

🙂 🙂 😐

When a group of animal rights activists break into the laboratory of a drugs company where animals are used in experiments, they get more than they bargained for when one of them stumbles into a hole in the muddy grounds of the lab, and falls on top of a pile of human bones. Meantime, Peter Pascoe is mourning the death of his grandmother. She has left Peter her father’s journals and Peter is shocked to discover that his great-grandfather was shot for cowardice during WW1. He finds himself sinking into an obsession with finding out more about his family’s history and what led up to this scandal.

Nestled between two of my favourite Dalziel and Pascoes, Pictures of Perfection and On Beulah Height, comes this one, which is my least favourite of them all by a considerable way – I’d almost go so far as to say I don’t like it. As I’ve mentioned before, Hill often incorporated issues of the moment into his plots and the issue at this moment was the campaign to have those executed for cowardice or desertion in WW1 pardoned. But whereas he usually uses the issue as a base for his stories, here he lets it overwhelm the entire book, and chooses to present an entirely one-sided view of the debate, making the book feel overly polemical. There are endless extracts from the older Pascoe’s journal, with rather unoriginal descriptions of life in the trenches, and especially of Passchendaele. This kind of writing is not Hill’s forte and I fear they feel derivative to me of much better accounts found elsewhere.

That’s only part of the problem, though. The other part is the growing emphasis on Peter’s tendency to become obsessed about things and to spiral into depression. I often feel I have to add a rider to say that I sympathise very much with people in real life who suffer from depression, PTSD or other mental health problems, but, since for me crime fiction is supposed to be an entertainment and an escape from real life, angst-ridden detectives are not what I look for. If I want to be depressed, I read lit-fic! As the series rolls towards its end, Peter spends more time introspectively mulling over his own unhappiness than he does investigating cases. Hill gives him one trauma after another to deal with, and he becomes a kind of pitiable and self-pitying figure, while Wieldy and a series of younger detectives become the more amusing foils for Dalziel. This is the book where that aspect most takes centre stage, and as a result it doesn’t work for me. In later ones, while Peter’s decline as a character continues, it usually doesn’t take up quite so much space and therefore doesn’t overpower the plot to the same degree.

As you can tell, this is all a very subjective objection to the book – many people consider it to be one of the best in the series, mostly for the very reasons that I don’t. I certainly don’t consider it to be a “bad” book – simply not to my taste.

Reginald Hill

There are things in it that work for me, though. The animal rights activists’ storyline is interesting and well done, and the animal experimentation angle is happily kept off-page enough for my squeamish sensitivities to be able to deal with it without much difficulty. The plot, though convoluted, is quite strong. We get to see how Wieldy’s new-found happiness from the last book is playing out as he settles into his new life in Enscombe. And Dalziel finds himself a new romantic partner in Cap Marvell, who will become a recurring occasional character in future books.

I listened to the Audible version, in which Jonathan Keeble takes over the narration. It took me a while to get used to the different voices he gives for the recurring characters, but once I had, I found his narration excellent and look forward to the next few which he also narrates, before it changes again.

Overall, then, not one for me, but plenty to enjoy for readers who don’t share my dislike of angsty self-pitying detectives. Normal service will be resumed in my next Dalziel and Pascoe review!

Audible UK Link

No Mean City by A McArthur and H Kingsley Long

The story of the Razor King…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Johnnie Stark is the son of a violent drunk who beats his wife so badly he nearly kills her and then dies in jail. Although Johnnie hated and feared his father, he is just like him, drunkenness and violence being the norm for the men, and often the women, living in the Gorbals in Glasgow in the depression years between the wars. This is the story of Johnnie’s rise to become the Razor King, a gang-leader and violent fighter, feared and admired in equal measure, and of his eventual fall.

The book was written by A McArthur, himself a Gorbals man, who wanted to show what life was like in the deprivation of one of the worst slum areas of Britain. The publisher Neville Spearman was interested in the story but thought it badly written, so brought in a journalist, H Kingsley Long, to work with McArthur to polish it up. It became a massive bestseller, reprinted many times over the decades. Its brutal, violent depiction of gang culture is in a large measure responsible for the persistent reputation of Glasgow as the city of gangs – a reputation still exploited by many contemporary Glaswegian crime writers, although it is in reality long out-dated and was in fact already becoming so when this book was first published in 1935. The book is also often credited with having turned things around – forcing those in authority to recognise the squalor in the slums, and the danger this represented to social order both in terms of violence and in the growth of Communism in these areas, and therefore to act to improve conditions for the slum-dwellers. Again, not quite true, though it did bring the question to a wider public. Gang violence peaked in Glasgow around 1929 and was declining somewhat by 1935, and the authors recognise this themselves in the final chapters when they talk about the changes that were already being put in place by a worried establishment, although it took many years to turn the situation, and the Gorbals, around. Although the book is specifically about the Gorbals, gang culture was a feature of the slums of most of the big urban centres of Britain at the time, making this Glaswegian a little annoyed that one book should have given Glasgow a reputation so much worse than other cities with just as serious problems.

A 1932 Weekly News article by Billy Fullerton,
head of the notorious Billy Boys gang

As a novel, it’s somewhat better than I was expecting. Again it has the reputation of not being very well written but, while it’s certainly no literary masterpiece, I found the writing quite acceptable and the dialect feels authentic throughout. It’s considerably before my time, of course, but I still recognised most of the language although there were some expressions that had disappeared by my childhood. Where the authors felt that pieces of dialect might not be comprehensible to a wider readership, they include an English translation in brackets, so despite all of the speech being in dialect it should still be accessible to most readers, I think. Overall it gave me the impression, in fact, of having been written for an outside audience rather than for Glaswegians – there is a feeling throughout of it being anthropological in style, and I couldn’t help feeling the characters were being displayed like animals in a zoo, a lower species than the likely readership, intended to amaze and terrify “decent” people.

Book 88 of 90

Johnnie’s story is one of violence throughout, but he is shown as merely being the most violent among a community where violence was the norm. Male unemployment was at record figures, and the men are shown as living off the meagre wages of their wives, drinking, whoring and fighting, while the women struggled to feed their children. There is an astonishing amount of violence towards women, and this is shown again as an accepted feature of life, with the women often admiring the violence of their men even when directed at them. Was this true? Possibly, though I felt it was (not surprisingly) a rather male view of how women viewed male violence towards them, if that makes sense. I wondered if the women were really quite so admiring, when the men weren’t around to hear them. Perhaps. (I was reminded of Their Eyes Were Watching God, about another poor and marginalised community far away, where Zora Neale Hurston also shows male violence towards women as something the women admired and even envied.) Certainly domestic violence continues to be at unacceptably high levels today in Glasgow, though to nothing like the same degree, and without the social acceptance of it shown here.

The general violence and gang-fighting I could readily believe in – I grew up just three miles from the Gorbals, though decades later than this, but the area still had a bad reputation in my time and was a place for “respectable” people to avoid. I had more of an issue with the portrayal of routine sexual promiscuity within marriages, which again is shown to be largely socially acceptable, even having its own set of rules. Call me sexist, but I easily believed in the promiscuity of the men, but had more difficulty in believing that married women openly had affairs and even children to men other than their husbands. Not because I feel the women would necessarily have been more “moral”, but because I would have expected their husbands to kill them, literally, if they’d been openly promiscuous. But again, it was before my time, and (without wishing to sound snobbish) considerably lower down the social scale than my own upbringing. However, I still have my doubts.

And now those of you of a certain age know where the inspiration
for the title song of
Taggart came from…

So the question is, would I recommend it? Hmm, not as a novel, really. But it’s certainly of interest to anyone who’d like to learn something about the slums and gangs of the era, or who would like to see the genesis of the reputation that has produced so much gang-obsessed Glaswegian fiction over the intervening decades. As a Glaswegian, it both interested me and irritated me – I don’t like people being displayed like animals in a zoo, and I don’t like how the book still adversely affects the reputation of my city, which in reality is neither significantly worse nor better than most other major urban centres. But the book is socially important in the history of Glasgow and as a record of the slums, and has influenced generations of writers for good or ill, so for those reasons I’m glad to have read it.

Amazon UK Link

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

The psychology of crime…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link

The Chink in the Armour by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Place your bets…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Our naive young heroine, Sylvia Bailey, was married at nineteen to a man many years her elder. Now, still only in her twenty-fifth year, she is a widow – beautiful and wealthy, and keen to experience something of the world. So off she goes to Paris where she makes friends with another guest in the hotel – Anna Wolsky, slightly older than her and with a gambling habit that could easily be called an addiction. Anna introduces Sylvia to Lacville, a little town not far from Paris, the main attraction of which is its casino which draws all sorts of people, desirable and undesirable, to its gaming rooms. One of the desirables is the swoonworthy Count Paul de Virieu, who is staying at the same guesthouse as Sylvia. He has looks, a title, an aristocratic family, a sexy French accent – everything a girl could desire, in fact. Unfortunately he is also a gambling addict, having already lost the fortune he had inherited. Sylvia, of course, feels that she can change him. Meantime, various people warn Sylvia not to openly wear the ostentatious pearls she bought herself as a kind of symbol of her new-found freedom, since some of the undesirables around town may be tempted by them into nefarious deeds. Our Sylvia ignores all warnings, of course. And then Anna, having had a big win one evening, disappears…

This is quite fun, although it’s far too long for its content (proving it’s not only contemporary crime fiction that suffers from this problem). It’s pretty obvious from early on which characters are goodies and which are baddies, although it’s not obvious to our Sylvia who almost inevitably trusts the untrustworthy and dismisses the good people who are trying to warn her she’s putting herself in the way of danger. Still, it wouldn’t be much of a book if she’d listened to them, left Lacville and put her pearls in the bank, I suppose. Instead, she sets out to find out what happened to Anna, to cure Count Paul from his gambling fever, and to have a little fun along the way. But dark deeds are looming and Sylvia is soon in peril.

Marie Belloc Lowndes

Sylvia is so naive and trusting it’s almost painful to watch her, especially since the idea of her taking off to Paris on her own is delightfully liberated for the period – the book was published in 1912. She’s certainly strong-willed, but seems to lack any kind of judgement regarding other people or her own safety. Back home in England, William Chester, the young trustee of the legacy left her by her husband, is waiting patiently for her to sow her wild oats, so to speak, and then come back and settle down into the respectable role of being his wife. Eventually he follows her to France, and is frankly horrified to find her in a gambling town, flirting with a penniless, if sexy, Frenchman. Is Paul after her money, or is he truly in love? Will Sylvia abandon her home country to live a precarious (if exciting) existence with her gambling Count, or will she return to England and a life of safe (if dull) domesticity with sensible Charles? Will Anna ever re-appear? Will Sylvia’s pearls lead to tragedy? Or will it all end happily ever after?

Not a patch on the wonderful The Lodger, the only other of her novels that I’ve read, but enjoyable enough. I do wish someone had insisted on editing out about a third of it though – it would have been a better book as a result. It has a kind of dramatic denouement filled with danger when all is revealed, but it’s so slow getting there and is all too well signalled for there to be much tension. However young Sylvia is an entertainingly wilful heroine, even if I did spend most of the time wanting to knock some sense into her. And it’s probably an age thing, but I really found sensible Charles much more attractive than sexy Paul… hey ho!

Book 2 of 12

This was the People’s Choice for February (I’m late!) – an entertaining choice! Well picked, People!

Amazon UK Link

Christie Week: Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie

A menagerie of murderers…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

Zoe Wanamaker as Ariadne Oliver in the Suchet adaptation

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

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

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

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

Audible UK Link

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

Christie Week: Partners in Crime (Tommy and Tuppence 2) by Agatha Christie

Elementary, my dear Tuppence…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Partners in CrimeAlthough very happily married to Tommy, Tuppence Beresford is finding life rather monotonous, so when their old friend Mr Carter of the Intelligence Services puts a proposition to them, the young couple jump at the chance. Mr Carter believes a private detective agency is being used to pass messages in some kind of shady espionage plot. The owner has been arrested and Mr Carter wants Tommy to impersonate him and pass on information about any odd contacts he gets. Thus Tommy becomes Mr Blunt of Blunt’s Brilliant Detectives and, having no intention of being left out, Tuppence is transformed into Miss Robinson, his confidential secretary. While they wait to be contacted by the spy ring, they investigate the various cases brought to them by troubled clients…

“I can look after her all right, sir,” said Tommy, at exactly the same minute as Tuppence said, “I can take care of myself.”

This is a bit of light-hearted fun from Christie, in which she shows her love for the mystery fiction world of which she was such a shining light. The book is in the form of short stories, each an individual case, with the background espionage plot only really appearing once or twice throughout. Tommy and Tuppence, having no experience of detecting, decide to learn the craft from the masters, so in each case they take on the personas of a different fictional detective and his sidekick.

I’m pretty sure when I first read this long, long ago, I’d have recognised a couple of the most famous, and assumed all the rest of the fictional ‘tecs were simply names made up by Christie. But after being steeped in Golden Age mysteries for the last few years, I now realise they’re all real – well, real in the sense that they are all based on fictional detectives or on the style of authors who would have been well known to Christie’s contemporary readers. Inspector French is there, and Inspector Hanaud, Father Brown, The Old Man in the Corner, Roger Sheringham, Dr Thorndyke, Reggie Fortune, Edgar Wallace, and a few I still don’t recognise. Holmes, of course, and Christie even includes Poirot himself! She doesn’t go overboard with the references – she name-checks the ‘tecs and makes a few amusing observations about their style or mannerisms, but when the cases get underway Tommy and Tuppence revert to being themselves.

….As the visitor left the office, Tuppence grabbed the violin and putting it in the cupboard turned the key in the lock.
….“If you must be Sherlock Holmes,” she observed, “I’ll get you a nice little syringe and a bottle labelled Cocaine, but for God’s sake leave that violin alone.”

agatha christie 2
Agatha Christie

The cases themselves are quite slight and vary in quality and style. Some are humorous, some more serious, up to and including murder. A couple have a slightly spooky edge – something Christie always does well. T&T are a great partnership, though the format of this tends to mean that Tommy gets to be the lead more often, since he’s playing Blunt and all of the fictional ‘tecs are men. But Tuppence uses her ingenuity and intuition, not to mention using her social skills to mingle with the people involved in the cases and pick up bits of gossip. Albert, their usual assistant, is in it too, but only makes a real contribution to a couple of the stories.

….“Shall I neglect you a little?” suggested Tommy. “Take other women about to night clubs. That sort of thing.”
….“Useless,” said Tuppence. “You would only meet me there with other men. And I should know perfectly well that you didn’t care for the other women, whereas you would never be quite sure that I didn’t care for the other men. Women are so much more thorough.”
….“It’s only in modesty that men score top marks,” murmured her husband.

Truthfully, I’m not sure how much appeal this collection would have to anyone who didn’t already know and love Tommy and Tuppence from their first appearance in The Secret Adversary, but for fans it’s an entertaining addition to the full-length T&T novels, and the references to the other Golden Age ‘tecs is an added bonus for vintage crime enthusiasts, giving an insight into Christie’s own reading tastes. Hugh Fraser’s narration is, as usual, wonderful, and the format of lots of short stories gives him the opportunity to portray a vast selection of characters, from society women to foreign spies, all of which he does with great gusto. Lots of fun!

* * * * *

The fictional ‘tecs I still haven’t come across are…

Malcolm Sage created by Herbert George Jenkins

Francis and Desmond Okewood created by Valentine Williams

Tommy McCarty and Denis Riordan created by Isabel Ostrander

Thornley Colton created by Clinton H Stagg

A new challenge? Hmm… no!! Not another one!! Although it’s tempting… 😉 Have you read any of these? Are they worth hunting down?

Audible UK Link

Christie Week: Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie

Best days of our lives?

😀 😀 😀 😀

(These Christie audiobooks narrated by either Joan Hickson or Hugh Fraser have become my stress relievers, and as we all know, life has been pretty stressful recently! I usually hold my reviews of them back, to have something to post when I run out of other reviews. But that hasn’t happened for ages, and some of the unposted Christie reviews are getting so old they’re going yellow round the edges. So join me for Christie week! A whole week of posts about the unrivalled Queen of Crime! 😀 Just a word on star ratings: for favourite authors – Christie, Dickens, Austen, Hill – I only rate them against their own best work, not other people’s. So a four-star Christie is still head and shoulders above most five-stars from other people. I know, it doesn’t make sense, but there’s no law says it has to… 😉 )

Cat Among the PigeonsIt is the start of term and parents are arriving to drop their daughters off at the elite Meadowbank school, where the headmistress, Miss Bulstrode, has built a reputation for excellence. There are several new girls: Jennifer and Julia who are destined to become best friends, and Princess Shaista, a member of the ruling family in Ramat, a middle-Eastern nation that has just undergone a coup. Flashback a few weeks to Ramat, and we meet Bob Rawlinson, friend to Prince Ali Yusuf, the soon to be deposed ruler. Ali, aware of his likely fate, entrusts something of immense value to Bob and asks him to get it out of the kingdom. These two very different scenarios will soon cross into each other, bringing murder to the ultra-respectable Meadowbank.

Although this has never been one of my top favourite Poirots, it has lots of good things that place it high in the second tier. When I was younger Meadowbank seemed like a wonderful place, though now I find I hate the elitism of it and see no real signs of why it should be considered so remarkable – the girls we get to know seem a rather mediocre bunch on the whole, and are there exclusively because of their parents’ wealth and social position. Christie does address this through a conversation between a couple of her characters, but not convincingly.

The characterisation of the teachers is very well done. Miss Bulstrode is an inspirational leader (though she doesn’t seem terribly good at selecting staff!) while her long-time friend, Miss Chadwick, is one of these rather pitiable characters Christie does so well – a little lonely, loyal to a fault, often overlooked by stronger personalities. She reminds me of Bunny in A Murder is Announced. Miss Vansittart is the one considered likely to succeed Miss Bulstrode when she retires, although Miss Bulstrode is having doubts about her suitability. There are some new members of staff this term, each of whom may or may not be what she seems. It is one of these, Miss Springer the gamesmistress, who turns up dead in the new Sports Pavilion.

(FF muses: Hugh Fraser pronounces Miss Vansittart with the emphasis on “sit”. In my head it’s always had the emphasis on ‘Van’ – to rhyme with Fancy Tart. Hmm, that should pile the views in from Google searches from men who will be very disappointed to discover that my Fancy Tart is not at all what they’re searching for… 😉 )

The two girls we get to know best are fun. Jennifer is an unimaginative and unobservant child, devoted to her tennis, while Julia is quite the reverse – sensible, but curious and with lots of intelligence and initiative. As happens often in Christie novels, the children are far less fazed by the murder and mayhem going on around them than the adults. She shows them as partly excited and partly too self-absorbed in their own affairs to be frightened. Personally I find this more credible than if they were all having screaming hysterics all the time.

agatha_christie
Agatha Christie

There are a few reasons I don’t rate this quite as highly as some of the other Poirots, but none of these should be seen as major criticisms, simply observations. Poirot doesn’t appear until very late in the novel, and I miss him! Written quite late in Christie’s career, 1959, it shows a little of the weakness in plotting that became a feature of some of her final books. Well, perhaps not in plotting exactly, but in the presentation of the plot to the reader – I don’t think it could quite be classed as fair play, and Poirot seems to rather pluck the solution out of the air rather than build up to it by solid investigation. I’m never so keen on Christie’s occasional ventures into the world of international espionage – I don’t think she does it nearly as believably as her more domestic plots, and it does tend to mean there’s an awful lot of that British superciliousness towards foreigners that grates more with each passing year, although it’s clear from this one that Christie had herself moved on quite a bit from the worst of the colonial attitudes she showed in some of her earliest books.

(FF muses: One of the things I always remember about it from my first reading long, long ago is that, while all this is happening at Meadowbank, Julia’s mother is travelling to Anatolia on a bus, which seemed so exotic and adventurous to young FF, especially since I had no idea where Anatolia is. Now I know, and I also know we could get there in a few hours by plane and meet the 5 zillion other British tourists who’d all gone there too, and we could all pop out and have a Big Mac if we wanted, and I wonder if all our advances haven’t simply taken the romance out of life… but I digress!)

Despite my minor criticisms, this is a very enjoyable read, and as always Hugh Fraser’s narration is excellent. A great way to spend a few hours!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Jumping Jenny (Roger Sheringham 9) by Anthony Berkeley

Gallows humour…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

Anthony Berkeley

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link

The Hollow Man (Dr Gideon Fell 6) by John Dickson Carr

Impossible…

🙂 🙂 😐

Professor Charles Grimaud is found shot to death in his room one night. The murderer couldn’t have left by the door since it was in the view of Grimaud’s secretary all through the relevant time. But the murderer also couldn’t have escaped through the window, since there had been a deep snowfall that evening, and the snow was undisturbed. It’s up to Gideon Fell to work out how the murder was done in the hope that that will also reveal whodunit. But just to complicate matters, another “impossible crime” is committed the same evening – a man is shot in an empty street in front of reliable witnesses, but the shooter is nowhere to be seen and again there is an absence of footprints in the snow.

I’ve long known that impossible crimes only interest me when they are packaged into a traditional whodunit with good characterisation, a range of suspects and plenty of motives. This would appear not to be how Carr works in the Gideon Fell stories – the emphasis is almost entirely on the way the crimes are committed, and frankly, in this one at least, the background story of why the murders were committed is a bit of a mish-mash of horror tropes and a convoluted and incredible motive backed up by a bunch of cartoonishly drawn mysterious characters. I loved his early Bencolin books, but this is my second Fell and they’re proving not to be my kind of thing, unfortunately.

Book 86 of 90

John Dickson Carr

Apparently what makes this one a classic for impossible crime aficionados is that, in the middle of the book, Carr pulls his characters right out of the story, has them admit that they are in fact characters in a book rather than real people, and then has Fell give a lecture on the history of the impossible crime mystery, including many examples, complete with spoilers, of other books in the genre. While I fully accept that this is interesting as an essay, it felt entirely out of place to me within the novel, and the spoilers annoyed me since I don’t feel that any author has the right to give spoilers in his book for the books of other authors. Therefore the very thing that many people praise this book for was the part that I liked least.

I wish I had enjoyed this more and because I enjoyed some of Carr’s earlier books so much I’m not yet ready to give up on him, so will continue to read at least a couple more of the Fell novels to see if by any chance I can get back in synch with him. I certainly recommend this one to anyone who enjoys the impossible crime style of mystery, but less so to people who prefer the traditional whodunit.

Amazon UK Link

Still Life (Karen Pirie 6) by Val McDermid

Art and politics…

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

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

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

Val McDermid

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link

The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham

Wonderfully atmospheric…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Meg has just become engaged to Geoffrey Levett when she begins to receive photographs which appear to show her previous husband, Major Martin Elginbrodde, who was declared dead during World War One. Now the sender of the photographs has given her a time and place to meet, and Meg has asked family friend Albert Campion and Detective Chief Inspector Charles Luke of the police to accompany her. The police catch the man but he refuses to answer their questions and, having no grounds to hold him, they are forced to release him. Shortly afterwards he is found murdered, and the last person who was seen with him was Geoffrey. Meantime a violent prisoner has escaped from jail, a man named Jack Havoc, whom Luke’s boss, Superintendent Oates, says is one of the only three wholly evil people he has come across in his career. This would appear to be confirmed when three people are found brutally murdered in a lawyer’s office, showing all the signs of Havoc’s modus operandi.

This all takes place in the middle of one of London’s famous pea-souper fogs that sometimes lasted for days. Because of these fogs London was nicknamed the Smoke, hence the title of the book. While there is a mystery at the beginning as to the photographs of the Major and why Havoc has chosen this time to break out of prison, we find out the answers to these questions fairly early on, and most of the book is really in the form of a thriller. Allingham uses the fog and some great characterisation to create a wonderfully threatening atmosphere and some truly tense suspense which kept me turning the pages long into the night.

It soon becomes clear that a group of men are involved, who have turned themselves into a band to busk the streets in order to scrape a living, though again for a long time we don’t know exactly what their involvement is. Some of the men are ex-Army, each of them has some kind of disability or deformity, and they are all led by the rather terrifying Tiddy Doll, himself an albino. I doubt a modern writer could or would use disability in the way Allingham does, to create a really creepy atmosphere reminiscent of freak shows in horror novels, so a reader has to be prepared to make allowances for the time of writing. It is, however, very effective, and serves as a reminder of how many men came back from war damaged physically or mentally.

Book 85 of 90

I’ve never been a huge fan of Albert Campion and therefore I was quite happy that he plays a rather low-key role in this one, mostly because the mystery element isn’t huge. This also means that his loyal henchman (aka dogsbody) Magersfontein Lugg has very little presence on the page, and for that I’m devoutly thankful. Allingham’s horribly snobbish portrayal of Lugg as the common working-class servant, complete with comedy name and accent, devoted to his upper-class owner master employer, is one of the major reasons Allingham and I don’t get along as well as I’d like.

Instead, in the first two thirds or so, we mostly follow Geoff as he gets himself into deep peril, and Inspector Luke as he and his men try to catch up with Havoc. The tension wafts from the page in these scenes, and they are undoubtedly as thrilling as anything I’ve come across in crime fiction, old or new. Because of the air of horror, it reminded me a little of the atmosphere of decadence and Grand Guignol that John Dickson Carr creates in his early Bencolin novels.

Margery Allingham

The book was heading straight for the five-star bracket at this stage, but for me the main climax came too early, and the last section of the book felt needlessly long-drawn out. I haven’t mentioned Meg’s saintly father, Canon Avril, who has surrounded himself with various waifs and strays who form a kind of extended family (mostly of working-class people devoted to upper-class Canon Avril and Meg, but never mind). In the final section Allingham indulges in a, to me, rather tedious, lengthy theological discussion on what Havoc calls “the Science of Luck” and Avril refers to as “the Pursuit of Death”. Frankly I had no idea what it was about and cared even less. In practice it seemed to mean that Havoc felt luck comes to those who look for opportunities. Anyway it takes over in the final few chapters, dictating Havoc’s actions which become progressively unbelievable, as do Canon Avril’s. I’d rather authors stuck to showing good battling evil rather than pontificating about it, especially in religious terms.

I’ve swithered over a rating, and decided that sadly I can only give it four. Had it ended differently it would have been a five for sure, for the earlier excellently atmospheric thriller elements.

I downloaded this one from fadedpage.com – here’s the link.

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

Wicked…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

Reginald Hill

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

Audible UK Link

Over My Dead Body by Jeffrey Archer

Going rogue…

🙂 🙂 🙂

DCI William Warwick has been assigned to the Met’s new Unsolved Murders Unit – a crack team that will look into cold cases. But first he’s off on a cruise to New York with his art expert wife, Beth. It turns into a busman’s holiday when a fellow passenger, the man who heads up the cruise-line, dies, and Warwick is asked to look into his death to decide whether he may have been murdered by one of his family looking to get their inheritance sooner rather than later. Warwick is also on the trail of his old nemesis, Miles Faulkner, whose funeral he attended not long ago, but who now seems to have returned from the dead.

Well! There’s so much going on in this one that it’s quite hard to summarise. And while it starts out intriguingly with the murder mystery on the ship, it transpires that that storyline is simply in the nature of an appetiser, while the main course is the Miles Faulkner story, and the cold case murders are merely side dishes. It also turns out this is the fourth book in the William Warwick series and clearly the main story started in the earlier books, with the result that I had no idea what crime Faulkner had originally committed. It didn’t really matter though – the whole plot became so ludicrous as it went along that I didn’t feel I was missing much by just having to accept that Faulkner was the boo-hiss pantomime villain.

The book is set in the 1980s, which I suppose gives Archer some leeway in allowing the police to behave in ways that wouldn’t be tolerated today, though I’m fairly confident that even in the Met’s wilder days they weren’t too keen on officers going rogue and meting out vigilante justice all over the place, fitting someone up for a crime here, or provoking a gang war there, or flying all over Europe breaking local laws. Not that Warwick does any, or maybe that should be many, of these things – his nickname is “choirboy”. And he’s an awfully nice, well educated, kinda posh chap with lots of connections in high places, which makes it all the odder that he appears willing to turn a blind eye to what his team members are getting up to. I couldn’t help wondering if the courts would convict any of the criminals given the level of illegal skulduggery and shenanigans the police got up to in order to trap (or perhaps, entrap) them.

It’s a quick, easy read, and if you can tune out reality, then it’s reasonably good fun. I sped through it in a couple of evenings, and enjoyed it enough to stick with it to the end. But it goes so far over the credibility line in the latter stages that I really couldn’t take it seriously as a thriller – it began to feel as if it was spoofing itself, though I’m certain that was not the intention. I also have an old-fashioned preference for the good guys to behave better than the bad guys and that certainly is not the case here, which would have been less of a problem had Archer not made it so clear that we are supposed to admire and approve of the way the rogue police officers were behaving.

Jeffrey Archer

This is the first Archer I’ve read in many years, and although I found it quite readable, it hasn’t inspired me to read more. The tone is light, with supposedly likeable characters and some humour, and yet the deeds get progressively darker. Had it been written in noir style the transgressions of the police wouldn’t have jarred, but the whole spirit of the ends justifying the means didn’t sit well with the almost cosy portrayal of Warwick as a loving husband and father and a respected police officer with a reputation for integrity. An odd mix.

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

Amazon UK Link

Murder in the Basement (Roger Sheringham 8) by Anthony Berkeley

Whowasdunin?

😀 😀 😀 😀

When a newlywed couple move into their new house, their happiness soon turns to dismay on discovering a body buried in the basement. Enter Chief Inspector Moresby, whose first task is to discover the identity of the victim – a young woman who has been dead for just a few months. His investigations lead him to a small preparatory school, Roland House, and he remembers that his friend, the novelist and occasional amateur detective Roger Sheringham, had worked at the school for a few weeks the year before to get some local colour for a novel he had been planning to write, So Moresby calls on Sheringham’s knowledge of the staff of Roland House, and soon decides who is the culprit. But now the task begins of trying to prove it – not easy when the assumed murderer has so carefully ensured there would be no evidence to link him to the crime…

This has an unusual structure for a mystery novel which is successful in parts and rather less so in others. The first section follows Moresby as he and his team carry out the painstaking work of identifying the victim. This is quite interesting and is short enough that it doesn’t have time to start dragging. By the end of it, Moresby knows who the victim was, but the reader is kept in the dark a little longer.

Sheringham, it turns out, has written the first few chapters of his planned novel, using the various staff members as models for his characters. He gives the manuscript to Moresby, and Moresby challenges him (and, therefore, the reader) to name the victim based on his knowledge of the people involved. So the second part is Sheringham’s manuscript, through which we learn about all the personalities involved and see the tensions that exist among the group in the rather claustrophobic setting of a boys’ boarding school. I enjoyed this section – Sheringham’s authorial “voice” has a tone of mild mockery which makes his depiction of the characters quite amusing. In fact, I think I’d have been quite happy if the whole story had been told by Sheringham as an insider at the school, rather than the more formal investigation by Moresby. Martin Edwards calls this section the first appearance of a “whowasdunin” element in a mystery novel, a technique that has been used often by other authors since. I must admit I didn’t think there was any real way to solve that aspect – any of the female characters could easily have been the victim, for any number of reasons.

Anthony Berkeley

At the end of section two, Moresby reveals the identity of the victim, and from that extrapolates who he thinks is the only possible murderer. So the third section is mostly of Moresby trying to get evidence to prove his theory, followed at the very end by Sheringham taking over to wrap up the case. This third section didn’t work so well for me. I felt it went on too long and became repetitive, and I wasn’t convinced that Moresby would so quickly have stopped considering other solutions. And when Sheringham did his stuff, it seemed abrupt and too pat – he leaps almost magically to the correct interpretation of events based on little more than guesswork, though he would no doubt say it was founded on his understanding of human psychology. I felt that the victim got rather forgotten in the end – it all became something of a game of cat and mouse between the men in the story, a battle of wills, and none of them seemed too bothered about getting justice for the murdered woman.

So a bit of a mixed bag, enjoyably and entertainingly written but not wholly satisfactory in terms of the mystery solving element. I was surprised by how little Sheringham appeared in it, and rather regretted that since I found him more interesting and amusing than the somewhat stolid and unimaginative Moresby. I enjoyed it overall, though, and certainly enough to want to read more of the Sheringham novels.

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

Amazon UK Link

The Chateau by Catherine Cooper

Brits abroad…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Aura and Nick have left England and the thing that happened there behind to create an idyllic new life in France, in an old run-down château which they intend to renovate and run as a posh B&B, or chambres d’hôtes, as Aura likes to call it, proving she has mastered at least three words of French. With them they bring their not-at-all-pretentiously-named sons, Sorrel and Bay, and a film crew, consisting of Seb and Chloe, who are filming the family for inclusion in a fly-on-the-wall series about Brits making new lives as ex-pats in France. Joining the merry throng is Helen from HappyHelp, an organisation that matches up backpackers with families who give them bed and board in return for a few hours work each day (or as Chloe puts it, an unpaid au pair). But the thing that happened in London casts long shadows. Nick and Aura’s marriage is on a knife-edge, and the strange things that begin happening as soon as they arrive add to the tension. And then there’s a murder…

I’m so inconsistent about this kind of thriller that even I don’t know what it is that sometimes makes one work for me, when others quickly get thrown at the wall. This is written in present tense from a variety of first person viewpoints and has the dreaded “that day” aspect of something that happened in the past looming over the present but the reader being kept in the dark nearly the whole way through as to what exactly happened back then, and the plot crosses the credibility line about a hundred times. So I ought to have hated it. And yet…

I think it’s mainly because Aura and Nick are so awful that they become funny, and I felt that that was deliberate on the part of the author. Aura in particular is one of these dreadful types who prides herself on having all the right attitudes, while in fact being swayed by every ludicrous fad that hits her social media feed. And, of course, like the climate warriors who jet around from protest to protest, or the social justice warriors who campaign against victimisation by victimising strangers on Twitter, her attitudes are shallow, self-serving and optional. I loved the occasional line Cooper would throw into Aura’s monologues that showed both her superficiality and lack of self-awareness – some of them made me laugh out loud…

I felt a whoosh of relief – as a semi-vegetarian I don’t think I could cope with getting rid of a dead rabbit.

…or…

Bay is simply adorable dressed as a pumpkin – I try not to think about the poor kid who must have slaved over his costume in some godforsaken sweatshop, but sometimes needs must.

Nick is also pretty awful but in a different way, and honestly, while I try very hard not to blame women for the faults of their men, I couldn’t help having some sympathy for him. Being married to Aura would have tested any man to the limits. However, I can’t go into detail about what puts Nick into the awful bracket because that would impinge on the thing that happened back in England. Suffice it to say, my sympathy for him only went so far.

Although murder and some dark deeds form parts of the plot, the story is quite lightly told for the most part, surprisingly so at times. One plot strand in particular involves a teenager, and has an air almost of innocence around it, in comparison to the standard fare of most thrillers of today. While I got a little tired of the fact that sixteen-year-old Ella thinks of nothing but boys, ever, I felt she thought of them in a way that was pretty true to her age. In a sense, I felt it gave the book a Young Adult vibe – unusually for me with contemporary thrillers, I’d be quite comfortable with the idea of mid-teens reading this one. There is some swearing, but not too much, and some sex, but not graphic. The one thing Aura and I have in common is that we are both prudes and prefer to look away when people are getting up to hanky-panky!

Catherine Cooper

The other aspect that amused me (and I do hope it was supposed to) was the awful ex-pat community, all socialising with each other and having as little to do with actual French people as possible. Aura, of course, speaks no French at all but really doesn’t see it as essential when she can always get other people to do things for her. I laughed again when she said in the same sentence that she wanted Sorrel and Bay to grow up bi-lingual and that she intended to home school them. I guess the two languages would be English and Pretentious then!

It’s a quick read and not one that requires a great deal of concentration to keep on top of the storyline. So despite myself, I found it entertaining – a relaxing and enjoyable way to spend a few lazy hours.

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

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