The Story Keeper by Anna Mazzola

Folklore and gothic horror…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1857, and Audrey Hart has arrived on the Isle of Skye to assist an elderly lady, Miss Buchanan, to collect the old folktales before they are lost forever. The issue has become urgent because the Highland Clearances are underway, with landowners driving people out of their homes and crofts to make way for more profitable use of the land. With communities being broken, the old traditions are disappearing fast and with them the stories that have been passed down through the generations. But Audrey has another reason for going to Skye too – she spent some time there as a child with her beloved mother, who died on the island when Audrey was still very young. When young girls begin to go missing, the crofting folk believe it’s the work of the fairies. Suddenly Audrey finds herself caught up in a mystery full of folklore and gothic horror…

It took me a long time to get into this book, largely because I’m not an enthusiast for fairy and folk tales, and they play a big part in the story. Audrey is initially sceptical but seems very easily won over to the crofters beliefs, which made my inner cynic curl her lip and sneer a little, I’m afraid. However, the quality of the writing and storytelling kept me turning pages and gradually I found myself becoming absorbed. Audrey is torn – part of her is increasingly falling under the sway of the supernatural explanation, but her more rational side is still wondering if the reason for the girls’ disappearances might have more to do with humans than fairies.

Mazzola shows the cruelty of the Clearances well, although (and I could easily be wrong here) I felt her portrayal of the crofters as being still quite so steeped in superstition at this relatively late date might be a little anachronistic. It was as if they felt that everything that happened was down to the intervention of the fairy folk – no consideration was given to any other possible cause. The fairies here are of the evil kind and the folk stories tell of changelings and stolen children, and cruel punishments for those who don’t show proper respect to them.

Anna Mazzola

Anachronistic or not, though, Mazzola gradually builds up an excellent atmosphere of growing horror, and Audrey’s descent towards an insanity born of fear is very well done. There are lots of nice Gothic touches – a big old house with empty wings and rooms shrouded in dust-covers, strange noises and tunnels, dark nights and graveyards, and mysteriously threatening flocks of birds appearing at unexpected moments. The islanders are initially hostile towards Audrey, seeing her as connected to the landowners who are behaving so cruelly towards them. Since she has cut herself off from her family, Audrey finds herself isolated and alone, dependent on the goodwill of her employer. Mazzola uses this to show the still subordinate and precarious position of women without means of their own, and we gradually learn of the circumstances that have driven Audrey to leave the home that may not have offered her much in the way of love but at least gave her security from poverty.

By the time I got to the second half I was fully caught up in wanting to see how it would all be resolved. I had a pretty good idea of who were the goodies and baddies so the suspense really came from how it would be played out, and I found the ending quite satisfying. Considering all the folklore stuff isn’t really to my taste, Mazzola did an excellent job of gaining and keeping my interest and I’ll be interested to read more from her in the future.

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

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The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton

Something wicked…

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When the landlord of the sole pub in the village of High Eldersham is found murdered, the local police chief hastens to call in Scotland Yard. Partly this is because he doesn’t have the resources to deal with a murder investigation, but mainly it’s because High Eldersham has a strange reputation. And when Inspector Young of the Yard starts his enquiries he quickly spots something that makes him think that reputation may be well deserved. So, in true Golden Age style, he turns to an amateur friend to help out. Enter Desmond Merrion…

I’ve seen quite a few less than enthusiastic reviews of this one on Goodreads, so went into it with fairly low expectations, but actually I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think the reason for the negative reviews may be simply that it’s not really a mystery novel in the traditional sense – it’s much more of a thriller. Though there is the question of who murdered the landlord, the real bulk of the story is about the mysterious goings-on in the village, and what nefarious crimes they’re being used to cover. In truth, with my twenty-first century eyes, it seemed pretty obvious what the fundamental criminal enterprise was, but I suspect it wouldn’t have been quite so obvious back when the book was first published in 1930. This, of course, is a common difficulty for vintage crime novels – subsequent writers have reused and recycled the plots so often, it’s quite hard to know when they were first original.

But having a good idea of the underlying crime didn’t in any way diminish my liking for the book. The fun is in seeing how it plays out, and in the thrills and adventures provided along the way. Desmond Merrion apparently became a popular recurring character in later books and I can see why – he’s knowledgable without being insufferable, an action man without being Superman, susceptible to love without being a womaniser. He achieved that rare feat for Golden Age characters of not annoying me by his outdated attitudes – he’d work just as well in a modern context, I think. Merrion had served in the war first as a combatant then, after an injury, moving into intelligence work. His servant, Newport, served alongside him, and now works as his butler-come-sidekick. And a jolly good sidekick he is too, with skills of his own, and happily Merrion treats him as an equal – often the patronising way these ex-servicemen sidekicks are portrayed in the Golden Age puts me off the books, like Campion’s Lugg or Wimsey’s Bunter. Newport however is only devoted to his master to an acceptable degree and doesn’t speak with a “comedy” working-class dialect. And he’s perfectly capable of using his own initiative when need be.

Challenge details:
Book: 33
Subject Heading: Serpents in Eden
Publication Year: 1930

The book builds its tension mainly through the dark activities of the villagers, activities rooted in a more superstitious past. There are hints of the supernatural, but the story remains firmly within the rational world, while showing chillingly how bad people can use old traditions to achieve their wicked ends. There are occasional moments of melodrama, some fortunate coincidences, and stock situations like the woman-in-peril, but it’s all done very well and kept me turning pages. And I did like the woman in question – no shrinking miss, the lovely Mavis owns her own speedboat and is the rescuer as often as the rescued. A couple of the scenes are genuinely creepy and Burton manages to get across the real evils that are going on without ever feeling the need to be graphic or voyeuristic – a lesson that I’d be grateful if many a modern writer could learn.

Miles Burton

It’s all a matter of taste, of course, but I think this one deserves more praise than it has received. Martin Edwards lists it under his Serpents of Eden category in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, and I think that’s a perfect place for it – wickedness and true evil going on underneath the outwardly quiet life of an English village. Edwards tells us too that, although this is only the second book published under this name, Burton also wrote under other pseudonyms, most notably John Rhodes, and was therefore already a practised and successful writer, and I think this shows in the quality of the writing. Good stuff – I shall certainly be looking out for more in this series.

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Fatal Inheritance by Rachel Rhys

The pink house on the Riviera…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

It’s 1948, and Eve Forrester is living a dull, restricted life in London with her staid, passionless husband. Out of the blue, she receives a letter telling her that a man she has never heard of has left her a legacy. To find out more, she’ll have to travel to the French Riviera. Once there, she discovers she’s been left a share in a lovely pink house overlooking the sea. The dead man’s family don’t know why he named her in his will either, and resent her very much. Pushed to agree to an early sale and division of the proceeds, Eve finds herself unwilling to comply until she can find out what’s behind it all…

Naturally, when writing a slow-burn book set in the fairly distant past, Rhys has used the present tense. Well, you would, wouldn’t you? No, nor would I. So, despite the fact that she does it as well as most, Rhys was always going to have to work extra hard to win me over.

To a certain extent she did, though it took a long time to really grab my interest. The first section in Cap d’Antibes is full of lengthy description that goes well beyond scene-setting. The house in particular is described in minute detail, putting me in mind of the kind of brochure that is produced for a house sale. But I was intrigued to discover the reason for the legacy and that kept me reading. I formed a theory fairly early on which proved to be completely wrong, so that’s always a major plus!

This is one of those books that works best if you switch off your credibility filters going in. If it weren’t for fear of spoilers, I could make a list of plot holes and inconsistencies, and little side mysteries that are left entirely unresolved and are completely illogical once the final revelations are disclosed. They add to the suspense during the read but are left hanging at the end. The story too requires quite a lot of suspension of disbelief. Within a week, this ordinary unremarkable woman is consorting with Princes and Hollywood stars, invited to their parties and weddings, and looked on as an intimate friend.

However, if you can buy into it, then it’s all quite fun. The rather faded glamour of post-war life in this playground of the rich and pointless is portrayed very well, with an underlying feeling of the desperation of people trying to party away the recent horrors of war. Rhys also shows the scars left after the Nazi occupation of France, with the lingering divisions between those who collaborated and those who resisted. And, in a time when the social order has been broken and reformed, she shows how it can be hard to know whether people are who they present themselves as, or if they have remade themselves to hide their unacceptable pasts. There’s a romance element which is quite enjoyable too, if a little clichéd, and there’s more action in the second half which speeds the thing along at a better pace than the slow first half.

Rachel Rhys

I’ve struggled to rate this one. I don’t think it’s up to the standard of her earlier novel, A Dangerous Crossing, and I suspect that may be, as so often, down to rushing it out without the kind of firm edit that was really required to tighten up the various plotting weaknesses and unnecessary padding. (No, I’m not blaming the editor – authors have the ultimate responsibility for their own books.) The present tense feels entirely wrong for the story and was a running, if minor, irritation to me throughout. However, once it speeded up a bit, I found myself turning pages quite happily and was certainly interested in discovering how it would all play out. But afterwards, I found myself asking – “but what about…?” And “why didn’t she…?” And “who…?” And that’s never satisfactory. So three and a half stars and a recommendation as an overall enjoyable read but not one to be taken too seriously.

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

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Fire in the Thatch: A Devon Mystery by ECR Lorac

When the war is over…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Second World War is drawing to a close when the tenancy of a piece of land complete with thatched cottage falls vacant on the estate of Colonel St Cyres, in Devon. The Colonel is determined the lease shall go to someone who shares his love of the land and who wants to work it productively. However, his daughter-in-law June has different ideas. A Londoner by birth and a party-girl by nature, June is staying with her father-in-law because her husband, the Colonel’s son, is a prisoner of war in Burma. She wants the Colonel to give the cottage to a “friend” of hers, a Mr Gressingham, who would use it as a place to entertain his (and June’s) rather decadent London friends. Fast forward a few months, and Inspector MacDonald of the Yard is on his way to investigate what might have been a case of accidental death, or possibly one of arson and murder…

Lorac wrote many Inspector MacDonald books and apparently this is the 26th in the series. I’ve only read one other of them, Bats in the Belfry, which I loved. It was published in 1937 while this one came out in 1946. What a world of difference in those two years, reflected in the tone of these two books! This one has none of the light humour and romance of the earlier book; the delightful upper-class slang is all gone. Inspector MacDonald is the same painstakingly professional detective, but with a rather more sober attitude to life, befitting a man who has spent the last several years in a bomb-ravaged London with all its attendant horrors.

What has not changed, however, is the excellent quality of the writing and plotting. Transplanting her setting from London to Devon, Lorac gives an entirely convincing picture of rural life with a real understanding of the deep connection the local farmers have with their land. While there is plenty of description of the loveliness of the landscape, she avoids romanticising country life. These are men and women who work hard to produce a livelihood from the soil and from their animals, all the more important over the last few years during war shortages. Although farming was a reserved occupation (i.e., the men were exempted from compulsory military service), Lorac shows that, as in the rest of the country, there was an absence of younger men and few families remained unscarred by the war. Lorac also touches on the subject of the refugees from London who were sent out to the country for safety, welcomed by some and resented by others.

I’m not entirely sure that the plot is fairplay – certainly I got nowhere near the solution and found the actual details of how it all happened rather convoluted. But the story is excellent and, as with all the best crime fiction, is firmly rooted in human nature. I love Inspector MacDonald as a detective – he is a thoughtful and rather kindly man, strictly moral on his own account but with the capacity to make some allowance for moral weakness in others. Here, he is an outsider sent in to the local force as an expert, but he never sets out to prove his own superiority by finding fault with them. Instead he works closely with the locals, in a spirit of comradeship and mutual trust.

The other characters are all equally well drawn. Colonel St Cyres and his daughter are the kind of gentry that make one long for an earlier age, while Gressingham and his buddies make one want to slap the nouveau riche with a wet kipper (if nothing weightier is available). The young man whom St Cyres chooses as the tenant, Nicholas Vaughan, is an ex-military man, invalided out after receiving serious injuries. June, the daughter-in-law, is nicely unlikeable. But the skill of Lorac’s writing is that these characterisations change over time, so that I found my sympathies shifting as I got to know each of them better, some improving on acquaintance, others revealing a darker side than I first suspected.

ECR Lorac (I think)

When reading these rediscovered vintage crime books, I often find myself trying to work out why some authors stay in print while others are forgotten. Sometimes it’s obvious – badly outdated attitudes and levels of snobbery that take away the pleasure for a modern reader, or plots that are firmly fixed on gadgetry or other features that relate solely to a certain time, long gone. But other times, as with Lorac, it beats me. The two books of hers that I’ve read outdo anything by Ngaio Marsh or Margery Allingham in plotting and quality of writing for me, and are far less snobbish and class-ridden than I find Dorothy L Sayers or even PD James. Her concentration on human nature as the foundation of her plotting makes them timeless in the way Agatha Christie’s are. Her observational skills give a real feel for what life was like in a given time and place, and she makes her “common” people as believable and sympathetic as her landowners and professional people. Her books aren’t easy to get hold of at reasonable prices, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed the British Library re-publishes more of them. I’ll be first in the queue if they do!

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

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The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware

Family ties…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Hal (Harriet) Westaway is struggling to keep her head above water. The bills keep pouring in and in these winter months she doesn’t get enough custom at her kiosk on Brighton’s West Pier to pay them all. Things are reaching a crisis. So when she receives a letter from a solicitor informing her that she has been left a legacy by her grandmother it seems like the answer to a prayer. There’s only one problem – Hal knows there’s been a mistake. Her real grandmother died years ago. But the temptation is overwhelming, and Hal knows that the skills she uses in her tarot-reading will help her to con her way through the situation. And so she sets off to Trepassen House in Cornwall, to meet a bunch of people who think she’s the daughter of a long-lost relative…

I know I’m very critical of modern crime fiction but truly I don’t ask much. A good story well told; some characters I can like, hate, worry about, mistrust; enough uncertainty about how it will play out to keep me turning pages; a minimum of unnecessary padding; and told in the past tense, preferably third person. And that’s exactly what Ruth Ware has given me in this hugely enjoyable thriller. Add in a dark and dusty old house full of attics and cellars and narrow little staircases, the shade of a wicked old woman who tyrannised over her family, a bunch of squabbling siblings, and a scary old housekeeper who knows more than she’s telling, and I’m pretty much in modern-Gothic heaven!

To be honest, I had a fair idea from pretty early on of the solution to the central mystery, but I found it didn’t really matter. There was enough doubt in my mind to keep me reading, and I didn’t know how it would all come to a head. Although it’s a fairly slow-burn book, and quite long, I found the pacing was just about perfect. I never felt my attention dip, nor had that sensation of wishing it would all hurry up and get to the end. This is because the quality of the writing makes it a pleasure to read, and the characterisation is great, with a sufficiently large and well-developed cast to provide a lot of interest. And the creepy old house itself becomes a character too – a deliciously scary one.

I loved the way Ware manages to make Hal so likeable and easy to empathise with, despite the fact that she’s trying to commit fraud. Hal’s mother had died a few years earlier when Hal was just about to finish school, leaving her penniless and with no relatives to help her out. This makes her financial woes understandable and we see at the same time that she’s doing everything she can to get her life back on track. She doesn’t believe in the mystical side of tarot herself, but is nevertheless sympathetic to the people who consult her, doing her best to give them the space to think through the problems that have brought them to her. And while initially she goes to Cornwall purely for the money, she can’t help beginning to wish she really was part of this big family with aunts and uncles and cousins – all the things her lonely heart craves.

The other characters are just as good, though obviously not all done with the same depth. I loved that Ware makes room for a lot of kindness and generosity of spirit amidst the danger and evil – something modern thrillers often forget to include, but it makes the whole thing more emotionally involving, I find. Plus, for me there’s more tension to be got out of a feeling of “oh, I hope it’s not her/him!” as there is in simply wondering which of an unsavoury bunch will turn out to be the guilty one.

Ruth Ware

This was my introduction to Ruth Ware, goaded on by the relentless stream of glowing reviews for her previous books from so many of my bloggy friends, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. What a pleasure to read a book written without all the stylistic fol-de-rols so many contemporary authors seem to think necessary – a strong story well told doesn’t need “creative writing”, just good writing (FF’s Ninth Law). Highly recommended – I’m off now to get hold of Ware’s earlier books!

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

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The Clocks by Agatha Christie

Time for murder…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

When Sheila Webb is sent out by the secretarial agency for which she works to the home of a blind lady, Miss Pebmarsh, to take some dictation, she is not expecting to find the corpse of a dead man in a room filled with clocks of different styles, but all pointing to the same time – 4:13. In a state of shock, she runs screaming from the house, straight into the arms of Colin Lamb, who is in the street on secret business of his own. Colin is involved in the spy business, and will get together with Inspector Hardcastle to try to discover the identity of the dead man and of his murderer. And along the way, Colin will seek the help of an old friend of his father, a certain M. Hercule Poirot…

This is one of Agatha Christie’s later books, written in 1963. Although nearly all of her books are well worth reading, there’s no doubt that by this period she was no longer producing novels of the same standard as in her own Golden Age, roughly the late ’20s to the end of the ’50s. In this one, which I hadn’t re-read for many years, I found I enjoyed the journey considerably more than the destination.

The set-up is great – the idea of the clocks is a suitably baffling clue, and the scene of the discovery of the body, where blind Miss Pebmarsh nearly steps on it by accident sending poor Sheila into a state of hysterical shock, is done with all Christie’s skill. There’s all the usual fun of interviews of the neighbours, and Christie creates a bunch of credible and varied characters, who each add to the enjoyment of the story. We also get to see life in the secretarial agency, a career that I assume has more or less died out now, certainly in the sense of girls being sent out on brief assignments to take dictation and so on.

It’s also a pleasure when Poirot becomes involved, though that doesn’t happen till almost halfway through the book. Poirot is elderly by now, so doesn’t take an active part in the investigation, instead relying on Colin bringing him information. It works quite well, and Colin is a likeable character, but my preference is for the books where Poirot is more directly involved. There’s a nice little section when Poirot lectures Colin on detective fiction, referencing a mix of real and fictional authors. I suspect Poirot’s views give an insight into what Christie herself though of the various styles.

Perhaps it was because I was listening rather than reading, but I didn’t find this one as fair-play as her earlier books – it seemed to me rather as if Poirot summoned up the solution based on instinct rather than evidence, leaving me rather unconvinced in the end. It feels as if Christie ran out of steam somewhat, and having thought up an intriguing premise, couldn’t quite find an ending that lived up to it. The ending left me feeling a bit let down but, as I say, I enjoyed the process of getting there.

Agatha Christie

What worked less well was the secondary story – Colin’s search for some kind of spy. Again some of this is down to preference – I’ve never been so keen on Christie’s occasional forays into spy stories as her straight mysteries. But I also again felt that Colin reached his solution out of the blue, and the tying together of the two plots contained too much coincidence for it all to feel wholly credible.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Hugh Fraser, who does his usual excellent job of giving all the characters subtly different voices and suitable accents, without distracting from the story by overacting any of them – i.e., no falsetto women, etc.

Overall, then, not one of Christie’s best, but still well worth a read or re-read for fans. It wouldn’t be one I would suggest as a starter to her work, though – there are glimpses of the old magic, but it doesn’t show her off as the genius of plotting she undoubtedly was in her prime.

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Death on Dartmoor (Dan Hellier 2) by Bernie Steadman

The bodies in the bog…

😀 😀 😀 😀

DI Dan Hellier thought life in Devon would be quieter than his old job in the Met, but suddenly he finds he’s running two major cases simultaneously. First, enthusiastic amateur archaeologist Elspeth Price fulfils her lifetime ambition by discovering a body in one of Dartmoor’s bogs. But when the forensic expert checks it out, it turns out it’s two bodies and they’re fairly recent. And the fact that they have no heads or hands makes the deaths look a little suspicious! At the same time, some young lads buy some drugs to take at a party. The effect of the drugs is not what it should be though, and instead of getting high, the boys become seriously ill, and one dies. It’s up to Dan and his team to find who’s making and distributing the drugs before some other young person suffers the same fate…

This is a straight police procedural with an authentic feel to it. Dan is the main character but we get to know all of his team through the course of the book, including his superior officer. To my joy, they are likeable, professional and understand the need for teamwork – not a maverick to be seen! We get to know about Dan’s personal life and newish relationship with Claire, whom, as far as I gathered, he met during his last case; and we also get occasional glimpses into the lives of some of the other team members. But the vast majority of the book concentrates on the investigations and I can’t tell you how refreshing I find that after so many books where the crime comes a poor second to the traumas, addictions and abuses of the unrealistic detectives.

The bodies in the bog storyline provides the central mystery. Before they can start working on whodunit, first the team have to find out who the victims were. Steadman shows the painstaking process of checking old missing person reports, using forensic clues, and sifting through the many tips received from the public. The reader is given a clue early on about a connection the police don’t make till much later, which I found a little odd – it rather took away some of the surprise element at the end. However, on thinking back afterwards, I felt that again it made the thing feel more authentic – a sudden twist out of nowhere at the end can often leave me feeling that everything is just a little too convenient.

The second storyline, about the drugs, is less of a mystery. We know pretty quickly the main thrust of who’s running the operation, as do the police, so this part concentrates on how they go about getting the evidence to make charges. Occasionally I felt we got a little too much detail here – again authentic, but it perhaps slows the story down too much. However, there’s still a lot of interest in it, as Steadman shows how vulnerable people can be sucked into criminality against their will and then be unable to find a way out.

The story centres around an animal rescue centre where some of the major characters work, so just a quick reassurance to my fellow squeamish people – no animals are harmed in the making of this book. They’re not even put in peril, so I had no problems with reading about this aspect at all. In fact, there are a couple of fun scenes regarding one of the cats which brought a smile to my feline-loving heart.

Bernie Steadman

The book is told in the third person, past tense, has, if I recall correctly, no swearing whatsoever, and although there is some fairly strong violence, it’s not gruesomely graphic and fits with the story. All of which proves, if proof were needed, that it’s perfectly possible to tell a gritty story without disgusting or offending your audience, or normalising language that would make a docker blush.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and it would have undoubtedly got the full five stars from me had the pace not got bogged down from time to time by including a little too much detail on procedures. It’s somewhat gentler in style than much of contemporary crime, but far too gritty and realistic in plotting to fall into cosy territory, all of which works well for me. Dan is an excellent lead character, his team are likeable and well enough drawn to develop their own individuality, and there’s a good deal of gentle humour in their interactions which helps to lift the tone and keep the book entertaining. I shall certainly be looking forward to seeing how this series progresses.

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

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Smoke and Ashes (Sam Wyndham 3) by Abir Mukherjee

Murder in the Raj…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Roused from a drug-addled stupor in an opium den in the backstreets of Calcutta, Sam Wyndham, Captain in the Calcutta police, discovers the place is being raided. Discovery of his addiction will finish his career so he flees, only to stumble across the body of a horribly mutilated Chinaman. Or did he? Next day, when no report of the murder comes in, Sam is left wondering if he hallucinated the whole thing. That is, until he is called out to another murder, where the body has been mutilated in exactly the same way…

This series goes from strength to strength with each new instalment. I thoroughly enjoyed the previous two, but really think this one is the best yet.

Set in the early 1920s, the dying days of the Raj when the Indian Independence movement was well under way, Mukherjee always manages to work the political situation into his stories without allowing it to overwhelm them or feeling like a history lesson. In this one, after months of Gandhi’s non-violent resistance movement, the city authorities are struggling to maintain order. Many Indians have resigned from Government positions, leaving the police short-staffed and with the extra problem that those Indians who have remained have divided loyalties. Britain has decided to send the Prince of Wales, Prince Edward (later briefly Edward VIII) over to steady the nerves and rally the loyalty of the populace to the Empire, but Gandhi’s local representative is planning a major demonstration to coincide with the Prince’s visit.

The murders look as if they may have something to do with the heightened political tensions, especially since Section H – the secret service – are involved. But Sam is determined he won’t be sidelined from the investigation, and along with his loyal Sergeant, Surrender-not Banerjee, sets out to discover what links the victims…

Prince Edward’s visit to India in 1921 – he’s the small one in the middle who looks like he’s doing a Charlie Chaplin impersonation while wearing a lampshade…

I love Mukherjee’s depiction of Calcutta – it always feels entirely authentic to me. Mukherjee treats both sides with empathy – although he shows the evils of some aspects of the Raj as a form of government, he depicts his British characters largely as good people trying to do their best in difficult circumstances, and he manages to do this without making them feel anachronistic in their attitudes. Equally, while his sympathies might lie with the idea of independence, he doesn’t portray the Indians as uniformly saintly either. The Indian sergeant, Surrender-not (the nickname given to him by the Brits who can’t pronounce his real name, Surendranath), provides a kind of bridge that allows the reader to move between the two cultures, as we see him negotiate his often clashing duties to his family and his job.

The historical background too is always sound and Mukherjee brings real people into his stories in ways that feel accurate to their real lives. In this one, as well as Prince Edward, we meet Deshbandhu, a leader of the Independence movement in Bengal, and his young follower Subhas Chandra Bose, who would go on to be a major, if controversial, player in the events that finally led to the achievement of Independence.

As always, though, the plot is founded much more on human nature than on politics. I feel this is his strongest plot so far, which unfortunately I can say very little about for fear of spoilers. But it takes us into some dark episodes in the dealings between the Raj and their subjects – Mukherjee’s notes at the end show that, while he has fictionalised dates and people, the fundamental basis of the story comes from real events. There’s a good deal of moral ambiguity in there, and some excellently complex characterisation to carry it off. And it all builds to a first-rate, entirely credible thriller finale that I found fully satisfying.

I love the characters of Sam and Surrender-not, and the historical setting Mukherjee has chosen for the series. Top-quality historical crime fiction – highly recommended. But if you’re new to the series, do read them in order, starting with the excellent A Rising Man.

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

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The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull

All in the family…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Edward Powell is an unhappy young man. He lives with his annoying Aunt Mildred who, as his guardian and trustee of his inheritance, holds the purse-strings, rather too tightly in Edward’s opinion. To make matters worse, he’s forced to live in the family home in a small village in Wales, surrounded by landscape and hills and sheep and all that awful stuff, when he should be mingling with artists and bright young things in one of the fashionable hotspots of the world. Really it’s too much to bear. So he decides there’s only one thing to be done…

It’s not often a book has me laughing out loud before I even get through the first page, but this one did! The book is narrated for the most part by Edward, taken from the journal he keeps as events unfold. It begins with his disgust at living in a place which he insists is impossible to pronounce, Llyll, – it takes him three (hilarious) paragraphs to explain how one is supposed to say it. He then describes his surroundings, not in the idyllic terms we’ve come to expect of descriptions of picturesque countryside…

I see I spoke of “sodden woods”. That was the right adjective. Never, never does it stop raining here, except in the winter when it snows. They say that is why we grow such wonderful trees here which provided the oaks from which Rodney’s and Nelson’s fleets were built. Well, no one makes ships out of wood nowadays, so that that is no longer useful, and it seems to me that one tree is much like another. I’d rather see less rain, less trees and more men and women. “Oh, Solitude, where are the charms?” Exactly so.

The title gives a broad hint, so it’s not a spoiler to say that the book is about Edward’s plan to murder his aunt. Now I’m a bit like Hercule Poirot in that I don’t approve of murder, but in Edward’s defence I have to admit that Aunt Mildred really asks for it – she finds fault with everything Edward does (with some justification), nags him constantly and is not averse to shaming him in public. All of which makes the thing far more entertaining than if she’d been a sweet old soul. This is a battle of two people who are opposites in every way except for their desire to come out on top.

Edward’s voice is what makes the book so special. The writing is fantastic, so that Hull manages to let the reader see both the truth and Edward’s unreliable interpretation of it simultaneously. One couldn’t possibly like Edward, and in real life one would pretty quickly want to hit him over the head with a brick, but his journal is a joy to read. It’s a brilliant portrait of a man obsessed with his own comforts, utterly selfish, and not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. He’s also delightfully effeminate, a total contrast to rugged old Aunt Mildred who’s a hardy daughter of the soil.

Richard Hull

Written in 1934, it’s hard for modern audiences to know whether Hull intended Edward to be read as gay or just effeminate, but he would certainly be seen as stereotypically gay now, with his finicky desire to have all his clothes flamboyantly colour-matched, his eye for interior decoration, his little Pekinese dog, and so on. But if it’s deliberate, it’s done in a way that seemed to me affectionate, even though we’re supposed to laugh at him. Seeing him as gay also adds an element of humour to the fact that Aunt Mildred (who I’m quite sure has never even heard of homosexuality!) is constantly accusing him of trying to seduce the maid. I wondered if I was reading too much “gayness” into the character, so was rather pleased to read in Martin Edwards’ introduction (which of course I read as an afterword) that ‘Anthony Slide, in Lost Gay Novels: A Reference Guide to Fifty Works from the First Half of the Twentieth Century (2013) has argued that the book is “the best, and by far the most entertaining, of the early English mystery novels with a gay angle.”’ From my limited experience, I can’t argue with that!

But that’s only one aspect of Edward’s character and not the most important one. It’s his self-obsession and grouchy, distorted view of the world that makes him so enjoyable. I don’t want to say any more about the plot because the suspense element comes from not knowing whether Edward’s plans will succeed. I found it compulsively readable and while it isn’t laugh-out-loud all the way, it’s consistently funny, in a wicked, subversive way, full of lightly black humour. Loved it! One of the gems of the BL’s Crime Classics collection for me.

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

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Lonelyheart 4122 (Flaxborough Chronicles 4) by Colin Watson

Time for Teatime…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Arthur Spain notices that his widowed sister-in-law, Lil, hasn’t been around recently, he pops round to visit her, but his worry increases when he finds a row of full milk bottles outside her door, some curdled, suggesting she hasn’t been home for a couple of weeks. So he reports her missing and soon Inspector Purbright is worrying too, because Lil’s disappearance reminds him of another one from a few months back. Could the two missing women be connected in some way? A bit of investigation shows that both had recently signed on as clients of Handclasp House, a local dating agency…

This is the 4th entry in Watson’s Flaxborough Chronicles and the series is well into its stride by now. As always, it’s full of rather wicked humour about the weaknesses of human nature and those who exploit them. Inspector Purbright is his usual unflappable self, a detective as free from angst as even I could wish for, and with a nice line in mild sarcasm, but never cruelly employed. His sidekick, Sergeant Sid Love, hides a mind like a sink behind a cherubic countenance. And Chief Constable Harcourt Chubb remains the perfect figurehead for the force, a pillar of respectability, stolid and unimaginative…

… the chief constable had the sort of mind which, because it was so static, aided reflection. By dropping facts, like pebbles, into it and watching the ripples of pretended sapience spread over its calm surface, Purbright was enabled somehow to form ideas that might not otherwise have occurred to him.

A new client has just signed up with the dating agency. Miss Lucilla Edith Cavell Teatime is exactly the type of woman an unscrupulous man might prey on – single and new to the area, therefore without friends or family to look out for her, middle-aged and lonely, and so naive and utterly respectable herself that she’s unable to imagine unworthy motives in others. Or at least that’s how she seems on the outside, and Purbright is worried she might be the next victim. But the reader sees much of the story from Miss Teatime’s perspective, so we soon learn she’s not quite as innocent as she likes to appear.

She had just sat sown after looping back the curtain when the girl from the reception office arrived with a glass of whisky and a newspaper. Miss Teatime noted approvingly that the whisky was a double.
“Did you feel faint after the journey, madam?” The girl held the glass like a medicine measure.
“Not a bit of it! Cheers!”
The girl withdrew, looking slightly bewildered.

As Miss Teatime begins to correspond with a gentleman also looking for love, Purbright and Sid have to balance their investigation of the previous disappearances with their desire to prevent her from becoming the next victim. But Miss Teatime has plans of her own…

I love these books and am delighted that Farrago are re-releasing all twelve of them for Kindle. It’s the first time for years they’ve been available at reasonable prices, and that’s a necessity since once you’ve read the first one (Coffin Scarcely Used), you will almost certainly want to binge-read the rest. Although they’re all very good, the ones in the middle are undoubtedly the best, once Watson had established all the regulars. Often humorous crime books are let down by the plotting, but each of these has a strong story and a proper investigation, so they’re satisfying on both levels. They are wickedly perceptive about middle-class English society of the ‘50s, with Watson letting the reader see through the veneer of dull respectability to the skulduggery and jiggery-pokery going on beneath. Mildly subversive, but affectionately so, they form a kind of bridge between the Golden Age and more modern crime novels, with the same class divides as in the earlier era but with the irreverence about them that came fully to the fore in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

But mostly what they are is hugely entertaining, and that’s why you should read them. And if you’ve already read them, give yourself a treat and read them all again. Highly recommended!

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

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The Old Religion by Martyn Waites

Strange marketing…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Tom Kilgannon has come to the run-down Cornish town of St Petroc to hide. That’s not his real name – he has taken on a new identity and it’s quickly clear that he’s in some kind of witness protection scheme or similar. Lila is a young girl living in a surfer commune on the edge of town – a surfer commune that is run more like a cult, with the rather nasty Noah at its head. As the book begins, Lila has been instrumental in abducting a young man on Noah’s instructions, and now she’s afraid of the consequences. When Tom and Lila meet, their lives quickly become mixed up with each other, and each puts the other in even greater danger. In the meantime, the mysterious Morrigan seems to hold an almost occult power over the townspeople, all in the name of the Old Religion…

This book is billed as being for fans of Peter May. I wonder why? I don’t remember Peter May ever writing anything with an occult storyline, nor using so much foul language including repeated use of the “c”-word, nor being unable to determine when to use “who” and “whom” correctly, nor filling his books with repeated episodes of violence, including rape, every few pages. Odd! Had I been trying to attract people who might enjoy this, I’d have been more inclined to mention Mo Hayder, or one of the other authors who specialise in violence and nastiness. There’s a market out there for this kind of book undoubtedly, but I’m not sure Peter May fans would be a big part of that market. This one sure isn’t, anyway.

It’s well written, apart from the too frequent grammatical errors, but I was reading an ARC so perhaps they’ll be sorted before the final version is printed. The characterisation is very good, especially of Lila. She left home young, and has no-one to look out for her. Having drifted into a bad situation she’s now trying to find a way out, and Waites does a good job of portraying her as a mix of vulnerability and strength. Tom is also done reasonably well, though with more of the stereotypical elements of the routine thriller hero – a troubled past, in danger in the present, well able to handle himself physically, but with a complete inability to fend off the women who find him irresistible. Uh-huh, well, not all women, obviously.

But everyone is unlikeable, even Lila, whom (or perhaps in the spirit of the book, I should say who) I really wanted to like. She’s quite willing to be just as horrible to everyone around her as they are to her – credible, undoubtedly, given her background, but it meant my sympathy for her situation wore off after a bit. Apart from Tom, all the men are drug-pushers or losers, violent and cruel, or occasionally weak and pathetic, and potential or actual rapists. There are very few women in it, at least up to the point where I abandoned it – around the 60% mark, and other than Lila they don’t play a significant role. I flicked ahead to the end and got the impression that may change later in the book.

Martyn Waites

At that 60% mark the three stories were still trailing along without us being any closer to finding out how they were connected – Tom’s past, the young man’s abduction, the mysterious Morrigan – with Lila providing some kind of vague link. I admit I was bored waiting, but it was really the constant episodes of violence that annoyed me – not in a squeamish way, they’re not overly graphic, but just because it all became repetitive and made the tone unrelentingly miserable. I prefer even crime novels to have some light and shade in them.

Despite abandoning it, I’m giving the book three stars. It’s not to my taste but I think it’s pretty well done for all that, and I’m sure people who like this sort of thing will enjoy it. In fact, it’s considerably better than the one Mo Hayder book through which I had the misfortune to wade. But as for Peter May fans, well, I’d suggest we all sit back and wait for the next Peter May book instead. Why do publishers do that?

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Zaffre, via Amazon Vine UK.

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Snap by Belinda Bauer

Curate’s egg…

🙂 🙂 🙂

When eleven-year-old Jack and his two younger sisters are left in their broken-down car while their mother goes off to phone for help, Jack is left in charge. This is a responsibility that will weigh heavily on him over the next few years when first his mother never returns and then later his father too disappears. Meantime Catherine While, heavily pregnant with her first child, is terrified when a burglar leaves a knife beside her pillow with a note that says simply: I could have killed you. For reasons of her own, Catherine decides to tell neither her husband Adam nor the police about this episode – a decision she will learn to regret.

Following the outcome of his last case, The Shut Eye, DCI Marvel has been shunted out of the Met, and isn’t best pleased when he ends up in the countryside – not his natural habitat. He’s even more annoyed when the first case that’s handed to him is to investigate a series of burglaries by a perpetrator codenamed Goldilocks. Marvel sees himself as a murder detective and feels his talents are being wasted. But he gets his wish anyway, as he is soon involved in investigating the unsolved murder of Jack’s mother…

I suspect my reading of lots of compact, tightly plotted classic crime recently has made me even less tolerant than before of the over-padding of much contemporary crime fiction. This book unfortunately takes about half its length to reveal what it’s going to be about, and as soon as it does the whodunit along with the how become pretty obvious, so that the second half is mostly spent waiting to see how Bauer is going to handle the ending. The motive is still left to be uncovered which means that it maintains some suspense, though, and there are some little side mysteries along the way that add interest; and Bauer’s writing is always laced with a nice mixture of dark and light so that in the pacier parts it’s an entertaining read. But I found that I was skipping entire pages at about the thirdway point – never a good sign! – because I was tired of the endless, rather repetitive setting up and wanted to get to the bit where the two threads finally came together as it was obvious they would, and we found out what the book was actually going to be about.

Belinda Bauer

Unfortunately I also found I had lots of credibility issues with too many aspects of the book, from the idea of Jack managing to hold his family together in the way he does, to Catherine’s reasons for not saying anything about the threats she’s receiving, to Marvel’s policing methods. I tried my best, though, to switch off my disbelief and go with the flow. And, happily, from about halfway through when the two stories finally begin to converge, it becomes a more interesting read, and I found that finally I was turning pages quickly for the right reasons. The pace improves and there’s quite a lot of Bauer’s usual humour in the interactions between the various police officers on the case. Bauer is always great at making her child characters feel believable, and she does here too with Jack, even though I found his actions less than credible. While the main storyline itself heads on a straight line to exactly where one expects, there’s an intriguing subplot in the second half that kept my interest. But, unfortunately, the thrillerish ending fell off the credibility tightrope again.

So, although there are some enjoyable aspects of the book once it picks up speed, the slowness of the first half combined with the requirement to suspend disbelief more than I could manage left me feeling that it’s not really close to her best.

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

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Sinister Dexter (PorterGirl 3) by Lucy Brazier

Tea-bag crisis strikes Old College!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Things have got very dark indeed in Old College since we last visited. The new Bursar, Professor Dexter Sinistrov, whom we last met while he was engaged in nefarious goings-on in the neighbouring college, has now settled into his role. His first priority has been to cut the catering budget, leading to a serious shortage of biscuits in the Porters Lodge – and they’re down to their last three tea-bags! This tragedy, along with the small matter of two corpses being found at the bottom of the garden, means our beloved Deputy Head Porter has her hands full. Especially since The Dean seems to think the best way to solve the crime would be for him to dress up as Zorro, Head Porter is busily leading a double life online, and Porter is becoming ever more romantically involved with the local police sergeant. Mind you, Deputy Head Porter herself doesn’t seem totally immune to the charms of DCI Thompson…

….“Oh, you’re a porter, are you?” Professor Palmer seats himself and leans over, perilously close to my breakfast. I place a defensive forearm around the plate. “You’re rather pretty to be carrying bags, don’t you think?”
….It takes every ounce of temperance to refrain from stabbing him in the face with my fork. Had it not already got bacon on it, I’m afraid this would have very likely been the outcome.
….“Porters,” I emphasise the upper-case P through gritted teeth, “are not the carriers of bags, but the keepers of keys.”

I shall start with my usual disclaimer – I’ve been blog buddies with Lucy for years now, so you may have to assume that I’m biased…

This series has been loads of fun since the beginning, when it started out as a serialisation on Lucy’s blog. The first book, First Lady of the Keys, (previously titled Secret Diary of PorterGirl), was taken directly from the blog and occasionally showed its origins by being a bit loose in structure perhaps, especially in the early chapters. But the second book, The Vanishing Lord, and this one are both much tighter and better plotted. There is a running story arc in the background so the books are very definitely meant to be read in order. In fact, the opening of this one contains lots of spoilers for the earlier books.

With this third book, I feel Lucy has really taken a step up in terms of plotting, giving this one a distinct story of its own as well as progressing the background story. A young student and his boyfriend are found dead in each others arms in the College gardens, with no visible signs of how they died. DCI Thomson and his team carry out the official investigation, while The Dean and his team carry out an unofficial one. In the background, the usual machinations of the Fellowship of Old College continue, with suggestions that the Vicious Circle, a secret society within the College who mete out their own form of vengeance against anyone who they feel endangers college tradition, might be back in operation. The mysterious and menacing Professor Sinistrov is acting suspiciously, but is he part of the Vicious Circle? Or, as The Dean suspects, a Russian spy? Or does he have a secret agenda of his own? Or is he simply anti-biscuit? No-one can be sure, but if Deputy Head Porter doesn’t get a decent cup of tea soon, there’ll be ructions…

….“I think it’s fair to say that we are of the opinion that Maurinio and his rugged companion were engaged in a personal relationship?”
….The Dean’s approach to the subject matter is amusing. Which is why what he says next is all the more surprising.
….“I would have made an excellent homosexual, Deputy Head Porter” he continues, wistfully. “I’ve always had above average good looks and an unusually superior sense of style.”
….“Yes” I say, tentatively. “I think there is somewhat more to it than that, Sir.” But he isn’t listening. He has found a crusted stain on the hem of his jumper and is scratching at it furiously.

Lucy Brazier

The story is only part of the fun of these books though. Mostly it’s about the quirky bunch of characters Lucy has created and the strange and esoteric life of this ancient institution based, not altogether exaggeratedly, on one of our real much-revered universities. The Dean continues to be at the centre of most of the daily mayhem, while Head Porter’s character is gradually deepening as we learn more about his life outside the college. While totally loyal to the College and her colleagues, Deputy Head Porter observes them with an objective and humorous eye, and continues to try to get everyone to behave a little more sensibly – a hopeless task, I fear! As always, there are some set-piece comedy scenes – I’m proud to claim a tiny bit of credit for being part of the crowd of blog followers who forced Lucy to take her characters off to an open-mic night disguised as a struggling rock band!

Great fun! I’m even willing to overlook the fact that it’s written in my pet hate present tense. If you haven’t visited Old College yet, I heartily recommend you do so the very next time you need cheering up. But remember to read them in order! And Lucy, I hope you’re hard at work on the next one…

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Raven Black (Shetland 1) by Ann Cleeves

An excellent start…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

A few days after New Year, sixteen-year-old Catherine Ross is found strangled in the snow in the middle of a field. The islanders immediately jump to the conclusion that she was killed by Magnus Tait, an elderly loner who has long been convicted in the public mind of the murder of another girl several years earlier. That child disappeared and her body was never found, and no evidence was found to allow the police to charge Magnus with the crime, but ever since the islanders have kept their children well away from him. Catherine Ross was an outsider, though, her father having brought her to the island just recently, after the death of her mother. And Catherine was interested in people, and perhaps a little cruel sometimes. She was known to have been in Magnus’ company a couple of times, so his guilt seems certain. But Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez, another outsider, isn’t convinced…

This is the first novel in Cleeves’ Shetland series, the books behind the successful TV series of the same name. She captures the atmosphere of the island beautifully – the mixture of that feeling of claustrophobia where everyone knows everyone else’s secrets and the isolation of the small villages outside the main harbour town. She also shows how old traditions remain side by side with the increasing modernisation of life, as the islanders prepare for the big annual festival of Up Helly Aa; perhaps not as ancient a festival as some like to believe, but one that has become a part of life and a major tourist attraction over the years.

The plotting is excellent, as Perez tries to work out whether the two cases are linked or separate. Being in the third person past tense, the reader is allowed to see the story develop from a variety of perspectives, including Perez himself as he investigates, Magnus Tait as he waits knowing that the finger of suspicion will be pointed in his direction, and Sally, daughter of a teacher at the local school and Catherine’s best friend. This lets us see events from different angles, gradually giving a rounder picture of the victim and the various suspects.

Up Helly Aa – when the Shetlanders celebrate their Viking connections by burning a longboat…
Photo by David Gifford

Magnus is very well done – he is a man with what we’d probably call learning difficulties, able to function but well aware that he lacks social skills. Cleeves does a great job of making the reader find him both creepy and rather sad at the same time. Through Sally’s eyes we see the life of youngsters on the island, socially and at school. She and Catherine were drawn together mainly by being treated as outsiders – Catherine because she has newly arrived on the island, and Sally because she’s the daughter of a rather unpopular teacher.

Perez’ character is only revealed to certain extent in this opening novel, leaving plenty of room for development in later instalments. He’s from Fair Isle, an even smaller, more remote community, and is under pressure from his parents to return there. The break-up of his marriage has left him unsure of what he wants in life, but he’s no angst-ridden maverick. He’s a thoughtful, fair officer who tries hard not to be swayed by popular opinion but instead to look to the facts of the case. In this one, he finds himself becoming attracted to a young woman, Fran, another incomer, who found Catherine’s body, and this budding relationship allows us to see his human, off-duty side.

Ann Cleeves

There are plenty of other characters – parents, other pupils, boyfriends and so on – to provide a wide pool of suspects and witnesses, and these are all drawn equally believably although with a little less depth. Late on, I had an inkling about how one aspect of the story was going to play out, but I didn’t get close to the main solution. When it came though, I found it both credible and satisfying.

Overall, I thought this was an excellent start to the series and am keen to read more. I’m also happy to have finally broken my duck with this well-known and much loved author, and am now equally eager to read her Vera Stanhope novels. If someone as successful as Ann Cleeves actually needs my recommendation, then she most certainly has it!

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The Red House Mystery by AA Milne

Pleasingly devious…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Antony Gillingham receives a letter from his old friend, Bill Beverley, saying that Bill is currently visiting at Red House, Antony decides to pop along since he’s in the neighbourhood. But he arrives just as a shot has been fired, to find one of the country house’s residents, Cayley, banging frantically on the locked living-room door. Two men had entered the room – the house’s owner Mark Ablett, and his brother, Robert, a ne’er-do-well just returned from Australia. Now Robert lies dead on the living-room floor, and Mark has disappeared…

….“Of course it’s very hampering being a detective, when you don’t know anything about detecting, and when nobody knows that you’re doing detection, and you can’t have people up to cross-examine them, and you have neither the energy nor the means to make proper enquiries; and, in short, when you’re doing the whole thing in a thoroughly amateur, haphazard way.”

Well, this was a lot of fun! It’s very well written, with lots of humour and two very likeable protagonists in Antony and Bill. Antony is a man of means but with an interest in human nature. So rather than living the life of the idle rich, he has worked in a variety of roles, from shop-keeping to waiting. Now he decides to try his hand at amateur detection. He’s helped by having the ability to record anything he observes with his subconscious mind and then to retrieve those observations later at will. Bill is a pleasant young man, not unintelligent but without his friend’s perceptiveness. He proves to be a loyal and faithful sidekick, though, who cheerfully plays Watson to Antony’s Holmes – Milne openly and affectionately uses Holmes and Watson as a running joke between his two amateur ‘tecs.

….“Are you prepared to be the complete Watson?” he asked.
….“Watson?”
….“Do-you-follow-me-Watson; that one. Are you prepared to have quite obvious things explained to you, to ask futile questions, to give me chances of scoring off you, to make brilliant discoveries of your own two or three days after I have made them myself – all that kind of thing? Because it all helps.”
….“My dear Tony,” said Bill delightedly, “need you ask?”

Challenge details:
Book: 17
Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age
Publication Year: 1922

The plot is in the nature of a locked room mystery, though not in terms of how anyone could have got in or out. The mystery is in working out what happened inside the room and why Mark has apparently run off. There is (of course) a house party at the time of the murder, so that there are plenty of people to be witnesses and/or suspects. Cayley, the man who was banging on the door as Antony arrived, is Mark Ablett’s young cousin, whose education Mark had paid for. Cayley now lives with him and fulfills the functions of a secretary and general man of business for Mark. No-one really knows what it is that the victim Robert did all those years ago that resulted in him being sent off to Australia to avoid scandal, nor why he has suddenly returned. There are a couple of young women to provide love interests or possibly motives. The domestic staff add to the humour, with Milne showing just a touch of Golden Age snobbery but not enough to spoil the fun. And secret tunnels! Really every book should have secret tunnels, I think, don’t you?

….“It isn’t everybody’s colour,” said Audrey, holding the hat out at arm’s length, and regarding it thoughtfully. “Stylish, isn’t it?”
….“Oh, it’ll suit you all right, and it would have suited me at your age. A bit too dressy for me now, though wearing better than some other people, I daresay. I was never one to pretend to be what I wasn’t. If I’m fifty-five, I’m fifty-five – that’s what I say.”
….“Fifty-eight, isn’t it, auntie?”
….“I was just giving that as an example,” said Mrs. Stevens with great dignity.

AA Milne

Antony uses his knowledge of human nature and his observational skills to spot little inconsistencies in the stories of the other occupants of the house to gradually uncover the truth. It’s very well plotted – I did have a kind of idea of part of the how of it all, but was nicely baffled by the why. And I loved Antony and Bill as a team. My only disappointment is that Milne never wrote another mystery novel – I feel they’d have made the basis of a great detective duo series. But at least we have this book, and happily it’s available for download from wikisource. Highly recommended for the next time you want something that’s well written, pleasingly devious, and above all, entertaining!

Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie

“You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Poirot is on a little holiday in Egypt, and his poor unsuspecting fellow travellers have no idea that this means one of them, at least, will surely be murdered before the trip is over. As he closes his hotel window one evening, he overhears two unidentified characters talking in another room. “You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?” Poirot smilingly dismisses it – they’re probably discussing a play, he thinks, or a mystery novel.

After this great start, Poirot recedes into the background for a bit, while the reader is introduced to all the other characters. The main group is the Boynton family, a strange and nervy bunch ruled over by their manipulative and sadistic matriarch, Mrs Boynton – one of Christie’s greatest creations, in my opinion. Her step-children are all grown up in the physical sense, but have never managed to cut loose from her control. Lennox, the eldest, is married to Nadine, the least affected by Mrs Boynton since she wasn’t brainwashed in childhood as the others were. Then there are the two younger step-children, Carol and Raymond, who are desperate for freedom but caught like moths in a flame, unable to work out how to escape. But the most troubled member of the family is the youngest, Ginevra, Mrs Boynton’s own child, now on the brink of womanhood and driven to the edge of madness by her mother’s evil games.

There are others on the trip too, who will all find themselves involved with the Boyntons in one way or another. Sarah King provides the main perspective, though in the third person. Newly qualified as a doctor, she is concerned about what she sees happening to the younger Boyntons. There’s also a French psychologist on the trip, Dr Gerrard, and it’s through the conversations of the two doctors that Christie lays out the psychology of Mrs Boynton for the readers. Add in an elderly spinster who’s abroad for the first time, an American who’s in love with Nadine, a British lady politician who does a good line in bullying on her own account, and the Arab servants, and there’s a plentiful supply of suspects and witnesses for Poirot to interview when the inevitable happens…

Agatha Christie

A bit like with Dickens, my favourite Christie tends to be the one I’ve just read, and this is no exception. For the Egyptian setting, which Christie paints in shades of exotic menace; for the great plot, one of her best; for the psychologically diverse and well drawn group of characters; and most of all for the brooding, malignant presence of Mrs Boynton, a bloated, poisonous spider at the centre of her web, this is a top-rank novel from the pen of the High Queen of Crime.

Much of the first half of the novel is taken up with Christie allowing each character their turn in the spotlight, and the opportunity to say or do something that will look deeply suspicious later on. I’ve read it so often that, of course, I spot all the clues now as they happen but, for me, this contains the best delivered crucial clue in all the detective fiction I’ve read. It’s hidden in plain sight – it’s right there, and yet I defy you to see it. And if that’s not enough, just before the denouement Poirot lays out every clue in a list for the local British dignitary, Colonel Carbury. Fair play taken to its extreme, and yet the case is still utterly baffling until Poirot brilliantly solves it, at which point it’s completely satisfying.

Hugh Fraser

I listened to Hugh Fraser’s narration, which is excellent as always. He doesn’t “act” the characters, except for Poirot, so no falsely high voices for the women and so on, but he subtly differentiates between them so it’s always clear who’s speaking, and he gives them American or English accents as appropriate. For his version of Poirot, Fraser reproduces a very close approximation to David Suchet’s Poirot accent, giving the narration a wonderful familiarity for fans of the TV adaptations.

Fabulous stuff – I’m having so much fun listening to the audiobooks of all these favourite Christies. It’s a great way to make even the ones I know inside out feel fresh again. And for new readers, what a treat! Highly recommended.

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Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White

The long and the short of it…

🙂 🙂 😐

An insane murderer is rampaging through the countryside, killing young women. Helen, a young woman, has taken a job with the Warren family in their manor house right slap bang in the middle of where the murderer is doing his thing. But she’s perfectly safe, because there are lots of other people in the house with her. Except that, for one reason or another, gradually all the other people either leave the house or become incapable of helping. Soon Helen is on her own… or is she??

Fairly recently, I read Ethel Lina White’s short story, An Unlocked Window, in the British Library’s Murder at the Manor anthology. While I can’t find a direct reference to back me up on this, the book and the story share so many similarities that I’m convinced the story is a reworking of the book – the book was written in 1933 and the story six years later in 1939. I thought the short story was great – with a credible plot and really effectively scary. The book, on the other hand, has so many sillinesses that I found it quite hard to take seriously, and it’s so stretched out and repetitive that any scare factor disappeared long before the end was reached. Perhaps I’d have felt less critical if I hadn’t read the story first – having seen how well the premise worked in the short form, my expectations might have been too high going in.

There are good things about it and overall it’s a light, entertaining read for the most part, although I did find myself beginning to skim in the last third, feeling that I was more than ready for the thriller ending. It has a nice Gothic feel to it, with the rambling old house and a bunch of eccentric and not very likeable upper class characters, whom White, via Helen, has some fun showing up as arrogant snobs and relatively useless members of the human race. The servants come off much better, though they’re not exactly saints either. To call Helen curious would be an understatement – she pokes her nose in everywhere and always has to be where the action is. The cook likes to drink her employer’s brandy, while her husband’s main feature is his laziness. But still, they all have good hearts, which is more than can be said for the Warrens. On the whole, I enjoyed the characterisations although unfortunately Helen annoyed me intensely throughout.

Challenge details:
Book: 38
Subject Heading: Murder at the Manor
Publication Year: 1933

My first real problem is with Helen’s position in the household. I have no idea what she’s actually employed to do. She refers to herself as “the help” but beyond dusting the bannisters occasionally so she can eavesdrop on conversations, I couldn’t work out her duties. If she’s supposed to do housework, then how come she’d never been in the Professor’s study before that night? If she’s a maid, she most certainly wouldn’t don an evening gown and eat her meals with the family, as she does. In fact, I can’t think of any servant other than a governess or a companion who would ever have eaten with the family in a household like this one, and she’s neither of those. So right from the start, credibility was gone.

It is assumed by everyone that Helen is to be the murderer’s next victim – no idea why. Perhaps she was the only remaining young woman in the district. The assumption is also that he’ll come for her this dark and stormy night (despite him having committed another murder just that afternoon – prolific!). So Professor Warren puts all kinds of safety measures in operation which everyone then promptly ignores, even Helen, who doesn’t seem to be able to remember basic things like don’t open the door to potential murderers late at night. Gradually all the people who could have protected her either leave the house or become incapacitated in one way or another, until she is left only with horrible old Lady Warren, whose hobby is throwing things at menials, and Lady Warren’s even more horrible nurse, whose hobby is tormenting Helen. It’s a fun premise, but it takes far too long to get there. The ending when it finally came sadly didn’t surprise me (although it’s entirely different from the short story’s ending) – it had seemed increasingly obvious as time went on, both whodunit and what form the denouement would take.

Ethel Lina White

I didn’t dislike it as much as this critical review is probably suggesting – for the most part, it held my attention and was quite amusing. But in the end I’d recommend the short story far more highly than the book – it’s tighter and most of the extraneous stuff is stripped out, meaning that it works much more effectively as a chiller thriller. I can only think White herself must have felt that she could do better, so took the main plot points and created something much better. I find it interesting that Hitchcock chose to use An Unlocked Window for an episode of his TV series, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, rather than filming the full book, and he knew a thing or two about scariness! However, this book was filmed too, as The Spiral Staircase, and I’ll be watching it soon to see how it compares to the written version.

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The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

Detecting the Detection Club…

😀 😀 😀 😀

During the Golden Age of crime fiction in Britain – between the two world wars – some of the leading authors got together to form the Detection Club, an organisation that’s still going strong today. At the time of writing this book, Martin Edwards had been elected to membership and was the archivist of the club, although he has since become President, following in the prestigious footsteps of such luminaries as GK Chesterton, Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie and, more recently, HRF Keating and Simon Brett.

Although the Club was largely social in nature, Edwards sets out to show how the interactions of its members helped to define the style and direction of detective fiction in these early years. He suggests that in fact the existence of the club may be part of the reason that the Golden Age style of detective fiction lasted longer in Britain than elsewhere. Membership was by election only, so that existing members decided which writers could get in, and, as a result, exerted considerable control over which types of book were highly regarded within the community. Over the years several of the original members had a go at defining the “rules” of detective fiction, usually half-jokingly, but clearly indicating their own opinion of what fell within the definition.

Ruler: Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on, nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God?
Candidate: I do.
Ruler: Do you solemnly swear never to conceal a vital clue from the reader?
Candidate: I do.
Ruler: Do you promise to observe a seemly moderation in the use of Gangs, Conspiracies, Death-Rays, Ghosts, Hypnotism, Trap-Doors, Chinamen, Super-Criminals and Lunatics; and utterly and forever to forswear Mysterious Poisons unknown to Science?
Candidate: I do.
Ruler: Will you honour the King’s English?
Candidate: I will.

Extract from the initiation ritual for the Detection Club in the Thirties.

The book is clearly very well researched – not an easy task since apparently many of the records of the Club were lost during the years of WW2. It’s written in what I’ve come to see as Edwards’ usual style for non-fiction – conversational, feeling as if one were having a discussion with a knowledgeable friend – and is therefore easy and enjoyable to read. It covers a lot of the same ground that he covers in his introductions to the various British Library Crime Classics and in his most recent The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Novels. By their nature, those other books force a structure on the way he gives information. In contrast, this one struck me as much looser in structure, often going off at tangents – one chapter, for example, starts with Agatha Christie meeting her second husband, then goes on to talk about séances in various writers’ work, then ends up with a discussion on the Depression and the formation of the National Government! Personally, I enjoyed the structured style of The Story of Classic Crime more, but I think this is very much down to reader preference.

Detection Club Dinner 1932

Where this book differs is by going much more deeply into the personal lives of the various authors who were members of the Club during the Golden Age – Sayers, Christie, Berkeley, the Coles, et al. I’ve said this before, but I’m not keen on knowing a lot about the authors whose books I enjoy since, if I end up not liking them on a personal basis, it can affect my enjoyment of their books. There were undoubtedly aspects of this that I found verged on the intrusive – tales of secret love affairs, unacknowledged illegitimate children, etc. But for the most part, Edwards is warm and affectionate towards his subjects, so there’s no feeling of a hatchet job being done on any of them. Edwards also shows how these hidden episodes of their lives may have influenced their writing, which I suppose is a justification for revealing things they tried hard to keep private while they were alive. (Do I sound somewhat disapprovingly judgemental there? I tried hard not to, but I think I failed…)

Two important Club members – Dorothy L Sayers and Eric the Skull.

To a degree, the book follows a linear timeline although with a lot of digressions. Edwards talks informatively about how detective fiction was influenced by current events, such as the Depression of the ’30s, or the rise of the various dictatorships in the pre-WW2 years. He also discusses and rather argues against the idea that Golden Age crime fiction was culturally snobbish – I disagree – but suggests that it was often intellectually snobbish – I agree. I do find that just occasionally Edwards comes over as somewhat dogmatic in his opinions – he has a tendency to be a little dismissive about anyone who holds a different point of view. He also clearly has favourites amongst the authors – Sayers is mentioned more often than everyone else put together, I suspect! But that all adds to the personal, conversational feel of the book. I’m sure if I knew anything like enough to write a similar book, Christie would appear just as often.

Martin Edwards (left) taking over from past President, Simon Brett, 2015

Overall, then, an enjoyable and informative read, maybe more geared towards people who enjoy personal biographies of their favourite authors, but with plenty of stuff about the history of the crime novel for the rest of us. And because there’s quite a lot of crossover between this and The Story of Classic Crime, they could easily be read either as companion pieces, or the reader could select the style that would most suit – more biographical about the authors in this one, more concentration on the books in the other.

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The Long Arm of the Law edited by Martin Edwards

‘Allo! ‘Allo! ‘Allo! Wot’s going on ‘ere, then?

😀 😀 😀

Another of the British Library’s collection of vintage detective stories, this one takes us away from the amateur detective beloved of Golden Age authors and gives the downtrodden policeman* his place in the spotlight.

(*Yup, no female police officers, of course, in these older stories, so I’m not going to attempt to be pointlessly politically correct with lots of he/she-ing, etc.)

The book is informatively introduced by Martin Edwards as usual, plus he gives a little introduction to each story telling the reader a little about the author. He points out that although policemen were somewhat overshadowed by their amateur rivals, they were still there throughout the period, and not always as the simple stooge or sidekick.

The stories in these collections always tend to be variable in quality, and that’s the case in this one too, with several of the fifteen stories getting an individual rating of three stars (OK) or below from me. However, I also gave three stories four stars (liked it) while another four achieved the full five stars (loved it). Overall, that makes this one of the weaker collections for me, and I found I was having to plough through quite a lot of mediocre stuff to find the gems. Perhaps I’ve just read too many of these collections too close together, but my enthusiasm certainly wore a little thin halfway through this one.

There are fewer of the usual suspects among the authors, presumably because most of the well known ones who’ve shown up in previous collections concentrated on their gifted amateur ‘tecs. But Edgar Wallace is there, along with Freeman Wills Croft, Nicholas Blake and Christianna Brand, among others. There are several I haven’t come across before and one or two who I felt didn’t succeed quite as well in short form as in their novels (always bearing in mind I’m no expert and am comparing tiny sample sizes – often one story versus one novel) – ECR Lorac, for example, or Gil North.

Here’s a flavour of the stories I liked best:

The Man Who Married Too Often by Roy Vickers – an excellent “inverted” mystery where we know whodunit and the story revolves around how the police prove it. A fortune-hunting woman tricks a man into marriage only to discover he’s a bigamist when his wife shows up. Murder ensues. It turns neatly on a fair-play clue and a quirk of the law, and it’s perfectly possible for the reader to get the solution before it’s revealed. But I didn’t.

The Chief Witness by John Creasey – a story of secrets within families and their sometimes tragic consequences. A child lies in bed listening to his mother and father argue. Murder ensues. The motivation is a bit weak in this one, but the writing is good and it’s very well told, especially the opening with the child discovering his mother’s body. Plus I liked the policeman in this one – he’s one of those ones who cares about the people as much as the puzzle.

Old Mr Martin by Michael Gilbert – Old Mr Martin is a sweet-shop owner, much loved by generations of children to whom he often gives free sweeties. (No, no, it’s not what you’re thinking, I promise!) But even so, murder ensues. When he dies and his premises are sold, a body is found buried in the cellar. The police assume it must have been a previous tenant, because it couldn’t have been nice old Mr Martin. Could it? Again I liked the writing, and this one had an intriguing plot point based on how people sometimes disappeared without trace in the chaos of the wartime bombing of London.

Alastair Sim as Inspector Cockrill in the film version of Green for Danger

After the Event by Christianna Brand – easily the highlight of the collection for me, starring Inspector Cockrill whom I’d met before in Green for Danger. In this story, an old detective is recounting one of his past cases to a group of admiring listeners, but Inspector Cockrill keeps chipping in and stealing his thunder. During rehearsals for a stage production of Othello, murder ensues. Othello’s wife is strangled – that is to say, the wife of the actor playing Othello. The old detective charged someone for the crime but the accused got off. Cockrill then takes over to show where the old detective went wrong and to reveal who actually dunit. Lots of humour in this one, a nice plot with some good clues, and very well told.

So plenty here to interest vintage crime enthusiasts even if it wouldn’t be the first of these collections I would recommend to newcomers. (Capital Crimes, since you ask, or Miraculous Mysteries.)

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

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Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar by Olga Wojtas

Crème de la crème…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Shona McMonagle works in an Edinburgh library, putting to good use the excellent education she received at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls. Woe betide anyone who requests a copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, though – That Book, as Shona calls it, which she believes so misrepresented all that the School stood for. Being a middle-aged woman of steady nerves and common sense, Shona takes it in her stride when the supposedly long-dead Miss Blaine shows up in the library one day. Miss Blaine is not dead, however – she is a time-traveller, and wants to recruit Shona to her elite team of people who travel through time on missions to sort out problems. Soon Shona finds herself transported back to Russia, sometime in the early 19th century, where she believes her task is to save young Lidia Ivanovna from marriage to an elderly general, and instead make sure she marries the super gorgeous and charming Sasha. But, despite her encyclopaedic knowledge of history, her multilingual abilities, and her skill in martial arts, sometimes Shona gets things wrong…

….“Yes,” I said, “every single Blainer is the crème de la crème by virtue of our outstanding education. But a depraved novelist claimed that this epithet applied only to a small coterie, the pupils of one particular teacher. And in a salacious misrepresentation of our beloved school and its irreproachable staff, she portrayed that teacher as a promiscuous adulteress who was prepared to prostitute her pupils. Pupils whose prepubescent sexual fantasises she described in sordid detail.”
….I had to clutch a nearby gilt salon chair for support, and to let my pulse slow down. I pride myself on my self-control, but this is a wound that will never heal.
….A lady sitting nearby leaned forward eagerly: “Please, Shona Fergusovna, may we have the name of this book and its author? In order that we may avoid it, of course.”

Well, this is a total hoot! Olga Wojtas has created a wonderful character in the astonishingly talented but oddly myopic Shona, a woman who can do just about anything but fails to see the blindingly obvious even when it’s right under her nose. The book cover mentions Wodehouse, and I see that comparison – Shona’s Russia has the same unreal quality as Wodehouse’s England, though not nearly as idyllic, and there’s no doubt the book had me laughing as much as Wodehouse does. But I’d be more tempted to compare it to Blackadder – based on ‘proper’ history grossly exaggerated for comic effect and with a central character who is somewhat apart from the others. The Russian aristocracy reminded me very much of Queenie and her courtiers, with their total disregard for their inferiors and their general level of silliness, while Shona’s chief serf Old Vatrushkin could easily have stood in for Baldrick. But Shona Fergusovna (as she calls herself in Russia) is much nicer than Blackadder – her ambition is to help everyone around her, even if they don’t particularly want to be helped.

….“If you’re not able to follow my instructions, then Lidia Ivanovna is not able to go to Madame Potapova’s party,” she said, yellow wool flowing from her needles. “Which is a pity, since I know she would enjoy wearing this fichu.”
….I sighed. “All right. I agree.”
….“You swear?”
….“Never. I believe it’s the sign of a limited vocabulary.”

The plot involves a whole host of ghastly deaths but it’s fine, because nobody cares and they mostly deserve it. One of the most fun aspects is that, unlike in most crime fiction where the point is for the reader to be way behind the fictional ‘tec and surprised by the solution, in this one, the reader sees what’s going on long, long before Shona catches on. Since we’re being told the story by Shona in first person (past tense), we are treated to her constant misinterpretations of the events around her. This could have been annoying if Shona had been less likeable, but it’s her desire to see the best in people and her kindness that lead her astray time and again, plus she’s very funny, sometimes even intentionally. She’s also a feisty feminist, who can’t help trying to spread political correctness everywhere she goes, much to the utter bafflement of everyone she meets, who seem to think their society is fine the way it is. It’s beautifully done – Wojtas manages to make fun of non-political correctness and political correctness at one and the same time.

….“We’ll start with a Dashing White Sergeant,” I told them…
As I played, the other musicians gamely following my lead, I called out clear, simple instructions for dancing the reel. “Forward, back, forward! Grab an arm! Twizzle! Hoppity-hop!”
….But despite the precision of my directions, it was a catastrophe. The dancers careered into one another, crashing into tables and chairs, smashing glasses, knocking over footmen. Then came an ominous commotion at the far end of the ballroom, and a shriek of “Saints in heaven! Save him!”

Olga Wojtas

Then there’s the Scottishness – such joy! So many Scottish writers abandon their Scottishness, understandably, so that their books can appeal to a wider audience. I sympathise, even though it annoys me. Wojtas instead makes a feature of it, and does so brilliantly. There’s no dialect at all that would make it hard for non-Scots to read, but lots of specifically Scottish references and figures of speech that had me howling. Any book that includes a reference to Jimmy Logan, a John Knox joke, a running gag on Jock Tamson and his bairns, and more than one side-swipe at the Glasgow-Edinburgh rivalry will work for me! But it will also work for non-Scots, because Wojtas lightly provides just enough information to explain the references, so that the jokes still deliver.

Great fun! I hope Wojtas is working hard on the follow-up because I really don’t want to wait too long to meet up with Shona again…

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

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