Murder by Matchlight by ECR Lorac

Maybe it’s because they are Londoners…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s a cold winter in London during World War 2, with the blackout in full force and the population living with the constant spectre of bombing raids. One night, young Bruce Mallaig is sitting on a bench in Regent’s Park thinking romantic thoughts of the girl he loves, when he sees – or mostly hears due to the pitch darkness – two men near the little footbridge, one on the bridge, the other standing below it. While he ponders what they might be up to, the man on the bridge lights a match and Mallaig catches a glimpse of a face looming behind him. The match goes out and there’s a thud as of someone falling. By the time Mallaig fumbles his torch alight, the man on the bridge is dead…

Of course, this is the story he tells the police, but is it true? There was another witness too, the man under the bridge, whose story sounds less likely but possible. Inspector MacDonald of the Yard will have to decide if either of these witness could have done the deed, or had a fourth person been there in the darkness, unseen except for that brief glimpse Mallaig caught in the matchlight? But first MacDonald will have to identify the victim before he can try to discover the motive for the crime.

This is the third of ECR Lorac’s books that the British Library has re-issued and she’s now become one of my firm favourites. MacDonald is a likeable detective – a moral man but with the ability to make allowances for the moral weaknesses of others. He’s thoughtful and kind, Oxford-educated but doesn’t live in an ivory tower. He’s as likely to go to see the latest variety show at the music-hall as to attend the newest production of Shakespeare, and this stands him in good stead in this investigation, since it soon turns out the victim lived in a boarding-house full of variety performers.

The plot is very good, with plenty of motives to provide red herrings, and an investigation that relies on MacDonald getting to the truth the old-fashioned way – by interviewing the various suspects both formally and informally, while his team carry out the painstaking work of checking alibis and tracking people’s movements. That’s one of the things I like most about these books – Lorac makes it clear that policing is a team sport. While MacDonald has the intuition and insight to make assumptions about who might be lying or telling the truth, he relies on his hard-working and competent subordinates to get the evidence to support or negate his theories.

One of Lorac’s chief skills is in developing her settings with a great feeling of authenticity. This one takes us to the heart of the capital city during the bombings, and gives a wonderful depiction of the dogged Londoners picking themselves up and carrying on, with the kind of defiant resilience that was the hallmark of London’s (and Britain’s) war-time attitude. But she doesn’t shy away from showing that this spirit wasn’t universal – many people were scared, while some took advantage of the confusion caused by the destruction in less than legal ways. In fact, Lorac uses this confusion as part of her plot and gives a real picture of the bombed out areas of the city and the disruption which that caused, with people dispersed from their old communities so that suddenly neighbours no longer knew neighbours in the way they had before the war, allowing the unscrupulous to “disappear” into new lives, even new identities.

I also love her characterisation. The most vivid characters here are the variety performers, and as you would expect they can be a bit larger than life, and their quirky skills again play a part in the plotting. She doesn’t overdo it, though, so they still feel credible. But it’s the “ordinary” people she does so well – the old caretaker who looks after the boarding-house and does a bit of cleaning on the side, Mallaig, MacDonald’s subordinates. This is back in the period when authors used to assume that people who weren’t the baddies were good, and this is emphasised more here because, published in 1945, consciously or unconsciously it plays into the story Londoners told themselves to keep their chins up in the face of adversity: a story of plucky cheerfulness, neighbourliness and acts of heroism – a story they told so convincingly it became their reality. A heinous crime has been committed, with a motivation that might feel somewhat out-dated now, but would have resonated strongly at the time. But, despite the crime and the bombs, all will be well because London and Londoners will never allow Hitler the satisfaction of thinking he can give more than they can take. And with men like MacDonald in charge, London is in safe hands.

London 1944 – fighting Hitler one cuppa tea at a time…

Strong plot, good characterisation, plenty of mild humour to lift the tone – all-in-all, an excellent read that gives a real insight into the war on the Home Front, and the patriotic spirit that carried London through. Great stuff!

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

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The Moving Toyshop (Gervase Fen 3) by Edmund Crispin

Murder Stalks The University!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Poet Richard Cadogan decides he needs a break from routine so heads to Oxford. As he walks along a street at night looking at the window displays of the closed shops, he notices the door of a toyshop is open. His curiosity gets the better of him so he enters, but is shocked to find the corpse of a woman lying on the floor. Before he has the chance to leave the shop to report what looks like a murder, he is hit on the head and falls unconscious. When he comes round some time later he finds himself locked in a cupboard, but manages to make his escape and go to the police. However when they return with him to the spot, not only has the corpse disappeared but the whole shop has gone, and in its place is a grocer’s shop! Not unnaturally, the police have difficulty believing his story after this, so he turns to his old friend, the amateur sleuth and university professor, Gervase Fen…

This is one of those crime novels that goes way beyond the credibility line, but makes up for its general silliness by being a whole lot of fun. Due to an unfortunate mistake, Cadogan is soon wanted by the police for stealing from the grocer’s shop, so all the time he and Fen are racing round Oxford pursuing their investigations, the local police are racing around too, pursuing Cadogan! Fen tries to get his old friend the Chief Constable to call them off, but the Chief Constable is far more interested in discussing the themes of Measure for Measure – well, it is Oxford after all, where even the truck drivers read DH Lawrence…

He felt about him and produced a greasy edition of Sons and Lovers for general inspection, then he put it away again. “We’ve lorst touch,’ he continued, ‘with sex – the grand primeval energy; the dark, mysterious source of life. Not,’ he added confidentially, ‘that I’ve ever exactly felt that – beggin’ your pardon – when I’ve been in bed with the old woman. But that’s because industrial civilisation ‘as got me in its clutches.’

Challenge details:
Book: 49
Subject Heading: Making Fun of Murder
Publication Year: 1946

Fen is somewhat eccentric to say the least, and does his detection through a series of brilliant deductions well beyond the scope of us mere mortals, aided by large dollops of luck and coincidence. In fact, I can’t say I ever had much of an idea why exactly the villains had gone to such elaborate lengths to complicate a murder that should really have been pretty easy, but given their efforts to baffle and confuse, it’s just as well Fen is on hand to jump to the correct conclusions! He gradually involves his students as a kind of informal mob of enforcers, which might have worked out better if there weren’t quite so many bars in Oxford. Their ham-fisted efforts to help catch the bad guys add a lot to the farcical feel of the thing.

It’s very well written and full of humour. Cadogan and Fen make a great duo as they bicker their way through the investigation, filling in any lulls by playing literary games with each other, such as naming the most unreadable books of all time. (I was pleased to see Ulysses made the list, but was shocked that Moby-Dick didn’t get a mention!) It occasionally takes on a surreal quality when Fen makes it clear he knows he’s a character in a book…

‘Murder Stalks the University,’ said Fen. ‘The Blood on the Mortarboard. Fen Strikes Back.’
‘What’s that you’re saying?’ Cadogan asked in a faint, rather gurgling voice.
‘My dear fellow, are you all right? I was making up titles for Crispin.’

Edmund Crispin

As a little added bonus, I was thrilled to read the part of the book that inspired the brilliant fairground scene in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train – one of my favourite films, largely because of that finale.

A thoroughly entertaining read, and I look forward to improving my acquaintance with Crispin and Fen in the future. Highly recommended.

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The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

“Hell is empty!”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Clare Cassidy is writing a biography of the writer RM Holland, who was best known for his terrifying ghost story, The Stranger. So she’s happy to be teaching at Talgarth Academy, a school in Sussex which was once Holland’s home and where his study is still intact, giving Clare access to his papers. Clare uses The Stranger as part of her lessons, both for her school pupils and for the adults who attend her creative writing classes in school holidays. But when one of her colleagues is brutally murdered, Clare is shocked to learn that a piece of paper was found by her body containing a line from Holland’s story. And soon, as the plot thickens, it becomes clear that somehow the story holds the clue to the case…

Elly Griffiths is brilliant, and so is this! I’m tempted to leave the review at that, since the real joy of the book is going into it completely cold and watching Griffiths gradually build up some great characterisations and a truly spooky atmosphere. So, if you’re going to read it soon, my advice would be to stop reading this and avoid other reviews just in case.

* * * * *

Still here? OK, then! The book is told to us from three points of view – Clare, her daughter Georgie, and DS Harbinder Kaur, the detective in charge of the case. I found each of them a little off-putting at first for different reasons, but as Griffiths gradually developed them more fully, I grew to like them all – though not necessarily to trust them! In fact, as the saying goes, I trusted no-one – Griffiths left me happily in doubt all the way through as to everyone’s guilt, innocence, reliability as narrators, motives.

The pleasure of this one is not so much the destination as the journey. The three voices are distinct, and each is fun in her own way. Through Clare we learn a lot about the background to RM Holland’s story and the rumours that the school is haunted by the ghost of his wife. We also learn about her friendship with Ella, the victim, often through extracts from Clare’s diary. Georgie is a bright, intelligent teenager and her narrative shows her manipulating the adults around her by playing on their expectations of what a teenager should be like. Harbinder gradually becomes the star, however. Indian, gay and still living at home with her parents in her thirties, her sections are increasingly full of humour as the reader realises that her abrasiveness and sarcasm are really a kind of defence mechanism.

I loved the way Griffiths gradually fed us the story of The Stranger, which in itself is a pretty good pastiche of a real Victorian ghost story. But the spookiness doesn’t stop with it – the main story has some seriously goose-pimply moments, and at least two where I gasped out loud! Lovely Gothic stuff, with the old house and all the diary-writing and mysterious messages and other things I’ll leave you to discover for yourself. Even the investigation has a rather old-fashioned feel to it, with the emphasis on suspects, motives and clues rather than on forensics.

Elly Griffiths
Photo: Jerry Bauer

A great read, especially for this time of year. Griffiths is undoubtedly one of the most talented (and prolific) writers out there at the moment, and she shows here that she can step beyond the usual police procedural. I’ve seen a few reviewers say they hope Harbinder will get a series of her own. Much though I enjoyed her character, I vote no! I’m hoping Griffiths will continue to break free from the predictability of series and give us more standalones, complete in themselves, instead. Highly recommended!

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

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A Voice Like Velvet by Donald Henderson

Whatever happened to cat-burglars?

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Ernest Bisham is a radio announcer, with the velvet voice of the title making him beloved by the many listeners who, back in 1944, get all their news from the BBC. His picture regularly appearing in the Radio Times (the BBC’s listings magazine) means that he is also recognised by the Great British Public wherever he goes. Which makes his second career as a cat-burglar even more risky! We follow along as he takes ever greater risks and comes ever closer to having his identity uncovered…

This is a crime novel in the sense that Bisham is a criminal, but there’s no mystery to solve and, although there are some tense episodes, it doesn’t sit comfortably in the thriller category either. According to the informative introduction by Martin Edwards, Henderson’s original publishers put it out as “a novel” under the name The Announcer, and it failed to attract much of an audience. It was his American publishers who changed the title and marketed it as crime fiction, cashing in on the success of Henderson’s earlier crime novel, Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper (note to self: acquire!). I understand where both sets of publishers were coming from because, despite the obvious crime element, this is really much more of a character study of Bisham, and a rather humorous look at the oddities of life in the BBC at the time when it was Britain’s sole broadcaster and still finding its feet in a rapidly changing world. But it’s undoubtedly Bisham’s cat-burgling that gives the book its major elements of fun and suspense.

In general, I’ve never been much of a fan of the gentleman thief or indeed of books where the criminal is the hero. But I make an exception for Bisham – he’s an extraordinarily likeable chap and I enjoyed his company very much. He steals for the excitement rather than for monetary gain and has strict rules about only taking from those who can afford the loss and making sure he doesn’t take things of great sentimental value. He’s a bit like one of those birds who steal shiny things just to jazz up their nest a bit. The risk is everything and one gets the impression that for a long time he’s felt his life was so empty he wasn’t risking much.

But recently he has married again – a rather placid middle-aged marriage between two people each of whom were burned in their disastrous first marriages and are somewhat cautious about love as a result. A large part of the story is about this new marriage and whether he and Marjorie, his wife, will grow together or apart as they get to know each other better. It’s beautifully done, I must say – I was rooting for both of them all the way, even while I was laughing indulgently at their inner thoughts. And this marriage is making Ernest rethink his criminal activities, realising that now he wouldn’t be the only one who suffered if he is caught. But he finds it very hard to fight the temptation to do just one more job… or maybe two… and meantime the police are patiently waiting for the man whom the newspapers call the Man In The Mask to make a mistake…

I found this thoroughly enjoyable – one of those books you read with a smile on your face. It’s not at all certain how it will end, so that there is a steady build-up of tension especially once the police become involved. By that stage I was fully on Ernest’s side, and even more so on Marjorie’s – but I was kinda also on the side of the police, because basically I’m a law-abiding sort and the police detective was a nice chap too! Would Henderson be able to get me out of the moral dilemma he’d created for me? Well, you’ll have to read it to find out…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Crime Club.

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Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull

Snuffed out…

😀 😀 🙂

Henry Cargate has offended just about everyone who has had anything to do with him, so when he takes a huge pinch of snuff unaware it’s been laced with potassium cyanide and dies, really anyone could be a suspect. But a person has been charged with the crime and is now about to be tried. As the lawyer for the prosecution lays out the investigation and evidence for the jury, the reader is invited to tag along. But unlike the jury, the reader is not told the identity of the accused until the end.

This is a rather fun conceit, where most of the story is therefore told in flashback through the eyes of the various people called to give evidence at the trial. Although the whole world had a motive (if being deeply unpleasant is a good enough reason to be murdered, that is), the poison that was mixed with the snuff was only accessible at certain very limited times in Cargate’s own study, so the actual pool of suspects is quite limited.

I’ve had a great run with these British Library Crime Classics recently, but unfortunately I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I hoped. I’d read and loved Hull’s other entry, The Murder of My Aunt, so had high expectations for this one. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the book. It’s just that it depends almost entirely on timing and alibis to discover who could have had access to the poison, and that’s never my favourite kind of crime book. I know loads of people love to try to beat the detective in this kind of puzzle, but my tastes don’t run in that direction. I prefer books that concentrate on characterisation and motives rather than on means and opportunity. I’m afraid as the detective began to make lists of who could have been in a corridor at a specific four-minute period, or calculate whether it would be possible for someone to be seen from a certain angle through a door and so on, my eyes glazed over. I didn’t know, but what was worse, I didn’t care. I eventually began to skip whole pages, though I tuned in again in time for the solution and the rather enjoyable twist in the tail.

Richard Hull

This is very definitely a subjective criticism – a case of wrong reader, wrong book. The quality of the writing is good, there are enough touches of humour to make it entertaining rather than grim and I’m pretty sure all the alibi stuff is very clever. So if that’s the type of puzzle that intrigues you, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the book far more than I did. But sadly, not my cup of tea.

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

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Tombland by CJ Sansom

An England ripe for rebellion…

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It’s the summer of 1549, and young King Edward VI is on the throne following the death of Henry VIII two years earlier. Since Edward is still a child, the guardians appointed by Henry have in turn appointed a Protector to rule in his stead, his uncle Edward Seymour. There is great poverty in the towns and cities while, in the farming lands of the north and west, landlords are enclosing common land for their own sheep, fermenting unrest amongst the smallholders and tenant farmers who relied on that land to eke out their own precarious living. Throw in the usual religious turmoil – the new Book of Common Prayer has just been foisted on a population tired of constant change and with newly developed religious opinions of their own – and an unpopular and unwinnable war against those pesky Scots, and the time is ripe for rebellion. It’s at this moment that Shardlake is summoned by his new patron, Princess Elizabeth, to investigate a murder of which one of her distant Boleyn relatives stands accused. And so he must head for Norwich, a city that will soon be at the heart of the East Anglian rebellion, led by the charismatic Robert Kett…

Generally speaking, when I see that a book has 800 pages I groan and run in the opposite direction. But with Sansom, I sigh and wish it was a few hundred pages longer. His ability to create an entirely immersive and believable Tudor world is second to none, partly because his own background as a historian means that the history is accurate. Sure, he manipulates it a little for literary purposes and he uses his imagination to fill in historical blanks, but he never strays far from actual events; and his characters are equally well and credibly depicted, whether they are real or fictional. Matthew Shardlake, as fans know, is a decent man with real empathy for the poor and disadvantaged, so it’s no surprise that this is a sympathetic portrayal of Kett’s Rebellion, showing him and his followers in a light that may be a little more idealistic than was really likely. But I bow to Sansom’s greater knowledge – maybe they did behave as well as he suggests – and I bow even more deeply to his skill in story-telling, because I was happy to buy into the idea of Kett as a principled leader and his followers as mostly disciplined and fair-minded men and women.

The bulk of the book is spent with the rebels, as Shardlake and his young assistant Nicholas get caught up in events. Nicholas is a son of a landowner, so has a different opinion from Shardlake initially, although his viewpoint is shaken as he is forced to witness some of the cruelties the poor are forced to suffer at the hands of the ruling class. Sansom uses him, though, to give the other side – to make the case for the landowners. Jack Barak is back, too, coping well after the events of the previous book. Being from lower stock himself, he is naturally drawn to the rebels, so with all three of the companions standing at different heights on the social ladder, it’s unclear whether their friendship will be enough to hold them together when the fighting begins.

Robert Kett at the Oak of Reformation
by Samuel Wale (c.1746)

The murder plot is how the book begins and ends, and it rumbles on as a background to the rebellion plot in the lengthy mid-section, but Sansom never allows it to be lost sight of entirely. John Boleyn, a landowner and distant cousin of Anne Boleyn, stands accused of murdering his first wife, Edith. Edith had left him and disappeared some years earlier, and he had eventually had her declared dead and married again. But now Edith’s newly murdered body has been found, displayed in a sordid fashion near John’s estate. Shardlake must find out where she’s been for the last nine years, and who, other than John and his second wife, might have wanted her dead.

The personal lives of the recurring characters are brought up to date, too. Jack’s relationship with his wife Tamasin is rocky, partly because she’s never forgiven Shardlake for the events in the last book (avoiding spoilers, apologies for vagueness). Young Nicholas is of an age to consider marrying and Matthew is concerned that he seems to have set his heart on a woman Matthew thinks is shallow and unworthy of him. Guy is old now and ill, and Matthew fears he may soon lose the man he considers his closest friend. And Matthew himself is feeling rather lonely. The old Queen, Catherine Parr, is dead and Matthew misses her more than a commoner should miss a queen. But he also misses his old servants, many of whom he had taken in as waifs and strays, and who have now grown up and left for lives of their own. So one of the things he wants to do in Norwich is look up his old maidservant Josephine, now married and living in the city. The last time she wrote to him, she was expecting her first child and he’s worried that it’s been some months and he’s heard no more.

CJ Sansom

This is another completely satisfying addition to the series, confirming again my belief that Sansom is the best historical fiction writer certainly today and perhaps ever. He tells his story in a straightforward linear way, without stylistic quirks or “creative” writing, relying instead on creating a great historical setting founded on in-depth research, a strong plot, and a group of brilliantly depicted characters who have all the complexity of real, flawed humanity. Shardlake himself continues to be one of the most appealing characters in fiction – irascible, often lonely, occasionally a little self-pitying, but intelligent, determined, dedicated, charitable and wholeheartedly loyal to those he takes into his generous heart. If I ever stand accused of murder, I hope I have a Shardlake to depend on. A great book in a brilliant series – my highest recommendation!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mantle, an imprint of Pan MacMillan.

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The Bravo of London (Max Carrados) by Ernest Bramah

Fun!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

A criminal gang, led by the evil and monstrous Julian Joolby, have a plan to flood the money markets with forged banknotes. For Comrade Bronsky of Soviet Russia, this is designed to bring the financial systems of the corrupt capitalist West crashing to its knees. For Joolby and his pals, though, being, one suspects, corruptly capitalist, they just want to get rich. But before they can put their plan into action, they need to get the right paper for their banknotes from the sole paper-mill that supplies the Bank of England. They have a plan to get past the super-tight security, but they haven’t factored in Max Carrados, blind amateur detective extraordinaire, and his delightfully interfering niece, Nora.

The book starts by introducing us to Joolby and some of his gang, and I really wasn’t sure whether I’d stick with it. Joolby is evil indeed, but he also has some kind of physical disability that leads to his body being misshapen – a huge bloated upper half, perched on small weak legs. In tune with the time of writing – the book was published in 1934 – Bramah has no hesitation in mocking his physical appearance, describing him as so repulsive that people are repelled and disgusted by him. To add to this, Joolby has a Chinese assistant whose appearance and difficulties with English are also the subject of much light-hearted humour. My initial reluctance was lessened, though, once I realised that much of this was being done tongue-in-cheek, Bramah almost mocking his own mockery and stereotyping. In fact, he does later on suggest that Joolby’s wickedness may have developed in part as a response to the unkind treatment he has received from “normal” people, and Bramah redeems himself in other ways later on too, though I can’t be more specific without spoilers.

So I found the first fifty pages or so a bit of a struggle, with my own political correctness getting in the way of my sense of humour somewhat. But then the scene moves to Tapsfield, the small town which is home to the paper-mill, and the book becomes much more standard Golden Age fare – middle-class people, country cottages, tea on the lawn, a touch of romance. Max Carrados himself is too good to be true, so a hefty suspension of disbelief is required. His blindness has made all of his other senses more acute, so that he can pick up on all kinds of clues that sighted people miss. I believe he had a usual sidekick in the short stories he normally appeared in, but in this, the only novel about him, the sidekick role is taken on by his niece, Nora, feisty but feminine – a lioness when her young man is threatened.

The plot is silly but fun. In fact, fun is the most important feature of the book. I’m aware that my review hasn’t made it sound overly appealing, but that’s because I haven’t mentioned the humour. In Joolby’s world, Won Chou is the main source of comedy, and though at first it feels a bit cruel, as if we’re laughing at him, gradually it begins to feel as if actually we’re laughing with him at the other characters. Comrade Bronsky is delightfully amusing too – Bramah has a lot of fun with him at the expense of the still new communism of Russia. In Tapsfield, the maid Ophelia is comic gold – yes, I know it’s such a cliché to laugh at the lower orders, but again it’s affectionately done and she really is one of the stars of the show. And frankly, Bramah is just as wickedly funny about Ophelia’s employer, Miss Tilehurst, and her susceptibility to all things romantic.

Ernest Bramah

By about a third of the way through, I’d settled into Bramah’s style and from there on thoroughly enjoyed this romp. It’s very well written, with lots of great descriptions of the alleys and backstreets of the less salubrious areas of London contrasting with the idyllic rural scenery around Tapsfield. The baddies are bad and the goodies are good and there are one or two in between who provide a nice touch of moral ambiguity to add a little variety. If you can put aside your modern sensibilities and get into the spirit, then this is highly entertaining. After a rocky start, I ended up loving it!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Crime Club.

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Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

Orange sorbet…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Frances Jellicoe is happy when she is offered a job to survey the gardens of a decayed country house, Lyntons, for the new absentee American owner. Frances’ mother has recently died after years of ill-health, and for the first time in her adulthood Frances is free to make her own life. Leaving London and the flat she and her mother shared gives her a sense of liberty. When she arrives at Lyntons, she finds she won’t be alone. Peter has also been hired, to survey the architectural state of the house, and is there with his beautiful but mercurial wife, Cara. To Frances’ surprise, they befriend her and soon she finds herself caught up in their volatile relationship. As time passes, secrets from the past will be revealed that will impact on the events of that summer, the summer of 1969…

The first half of this book crawls along at a snail’s pace and I nearly abandoned it at the halfway mark. Looking at other reviews suggested, however, that it picks up in the second half, so I stuck with it, and indeed, it did hold my attention more as it went on. But, here I am, a few days later, struggling to think of anything to say about it. It’s one of those books that I neither loved nor hated, that filled a few hours in a reasonably entertaining way (in the second half), and that now, some three days after finishing, I can barely remember anything about.

It’s well written, especially the descriptions of the dilapidated old house, once home to a wealthy family and later requisitioned by the army to accommodate soldiers during WW2. The blurb tells us that Frances spies on Peter and Cara through a Judas hole in her bathroom, though in reality this forms only a tiny, insignificant part of the story. Mostly, she observes them directly, as they rather surprisingly choose to include her in all their activities. There’s also a totally unsuccessful attempt to introduce some ghostliness into the proceedings – this goes nowhere and adds nothing.

The three characters failed to convince me at all, though it’s enjoyable enough to read about them. Peter, a sensible, hard-headed type, seems entirely unsuited to the fanciful, fey Cara, and neither of them seem as if they would be interested in a dull middle-aged woman like Frances. Of course, Frances is an unreliable narrator (is there any other kind these days?) so who knows how much of what she tells us really happens? Not me, for one. There’s also what feels like some attempt to introduce a quasi-religious aspect to the story, which fell flat on its face as far as I was concerned.

Claire Fuller

Was I surprised by the big reveal? Not really. Did I care? Not really.

You know, I started out intending to rate this as four stars because, despite my unrelenting negativity about it, I did find it mostly entertaining once I got past that interminable first half. But I’ve realised while drafting the review that I can’t think of much positive to say about it, except that the writing was good enough to carry me through a rather pointless, unrealistic and ultimately forgettable plot. So a sorbet – enjoyable but not satisfying. Would I recommend it? Not really.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Fig Tree.

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The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson

The best Gentlemen’s Club in England…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

It’s the early 1930s. Britain’s finances haven’t yet recovered from the Great War and now the Stock Market collapse has brought matters close to crisis. So the Home Secretary has invited an American financier to a private dinner at the House of Commons to schmooze him into agreeing to make the government a substantial loan. But when the Division Bell sounds, the Home Secretary has to leave the room to go and vote. The Home Secretary’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, young Robert West, is also hurrying along the corridor to vote, but as he passes the room where the financier waits alone, he hears a shot. Rushing in with the other people in the corridor, he finds the financier dead! But no-one else is in the room, no-one left by the door after the shot was fired and there’s no other exit. Suicide is soon discounted, so how was he killed? Who killed him? And why? Robert finds himself working as a liaison with the police to find the answers…

This is a lot of fun, especially if, like me, you’re fascinated by all the quirky traditions that surround parliamentary procedures in this ancient seat of government. It was written by Ellen Wilkinson, one of the earliest women Members of Parliament, who had temporarily lost her seat. She got back into Parliament at the next election – a gain for politics, but a loss to the world of crime fiction, since this turned out to be the only crime novel she wrote. She gives an entirely authentic, affectionate, but humorously sardonic look at being a working-class woman in an institution still often referred to as the best Gentlemen’s Club in England. The female MP in the story, Grace Richards, isn’t the main character but she provides lots of opportunities for Wilkinson to mock some of the rampant sexism to which women MPs were subjected, and Martin Edwards confirms in his introduction what I suspected while reading – that Grace is a thinly-disguised version of Wilkinson herself.

The main character, however, is Robert West, an extremely likeable young man who wants to do his duty to his party and country, but is fairly easily distracted by a beautiful face. The granddaughter of the dead financier just happens to have a beautiful face, so Robert soon finds his loyalties divided when she asks him for information he should really be keeping secret. The first question the police have to resolve is: was this murder personal or was it politically motivated? But even if they find the answer to that they still won’t be able to prove anything unless they can work out how the murder was done. It’s a good example of a locked room mystery, though it’s dependent on the various investigators not trying very hard to solve it until the last chapter! The plot is pleasingly tricky without being impossible for the reader to make a good stab at guessing the culprit and motive.

Challenge details:
Book: 89
Subject Heading: Singletons
Publication Year: 1932

The two enjoyable characters of Robert and Grace make this fun to read, especially since the victim was a mean old banker so nobody much cares that he’s dead. Even his granddaughter is pretty stoical about the whole thing. One of the reasons I love Golden Age crime is that they tended not to make the reader wallow too deeply in grief for the victims, so that one can actually enjoy the books. What makes this one stand out from the crowd, though, is the way Wilkinson manages to tell us so much about the workings of Parliament without getting heavily bogged down in politics, though she does make enough references to give the reader an informed glimpse of the various concerns of the day, economically and socially, at a time when society was changing pretty dramatically, not least for women. I found it intriguing and amusing that, although she herself was a Labour MP (hence on the left), Robert is a Conservative (on the right). She rather cheekily lets us see his opinions being swayed by fiery young socialist Grace – whose face, while not as beautiful as the victim’s granddaughter’s, is beautiful enough to trouble the susceptible Robert…

Ellen Wilkinson

I thoroughly enjoyed this and recommend it not just as a good mystery, but as an entertaining way to get an insider’s account of the life of early women MPs. Wilkinson went on to play a prominent role in the Jarrow March – a piece of history that eventually fed into huge social change in Britain – so most of me is glad she resumed her political career. But a bit of me wishes she’d chucked it all up and written more books instead…

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

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An April Shroud (Dalziel and Pascoe 4) by Reginald Hill

In which Dalziel becomes human…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Following newly-minted-Inspector Peter Pascoe’s wedding to Ellie Soper, Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel sets off on a little holiday. His plan is to drive around the countryside hoping to find enough of interest to keep him occupied, but in reality he’s feeling a little lost and even lonely. Peter’s wedding has brought home to him his own lack of family, and he’s reached as high as he’s likely to go in his career. But his plans are put on hold when April showers turn into a veritable flood and his car becomes waterlogged. Rescued by a family returning from a funeral, he goes with them to their home, Lake House, to dry off and phone a garage. But the combination of an intriguing death in the family and the friendly charms of the remarkably cheerful widow persuade him to prolong his visit…

One of the things that always kept this series fresh was that Hill regularly changed the focus among the various characters. In this one, Andy gets his first solo outing. Peter makes token appearances at the beginning and end but plays no real part in the story. This gives Hill the chance to let the reader get to know Andy from the inside – prior to this we’d really always seen him through someone else’s eyes, usually Peter’s.

Although I grew very fond of all the major characters – Pascoe, Ellie, Wieldy, Novello – Dalziel was always the one I enjoyed most. He’s such an intriguing mix of brash, uncouth Yorkshireman – a big, loud, crude, bullying brute of a man – and well-hidden sensitivity: a man who might use blatantly offensive homophobic terms, but will defend his gay colleagues at a time when that was highly unusual; who can be hideously sexist in the language he uses to women, but who respects their intelligence and strength far more than many of his politically correct colleagues; who is no respecter of class, but who uses his own mostly artificial veneer of uncultured boorishness as a blunt weapon to dominate any company he’s in, from the rugby club to the manor house.

This is the book where we really begin to see him as more than a caricature. As he finds himself drawn towards the widow, Bonnie, he gets sucked into a moral quagmire largely of his own making. The police have investigated the death of Conrad Fielding and have reluctantly concluded it was an accident, despite the fact that the insurance claim on his death will come in very handy for the rest of the household. Lake House is costly to live in and too run-down to let, so the family have come up with a scheme to convert part of it into a mock-Medieval Banqueting Hall. But funding has run out and bankruptcy looms unless the insurance money comes through in time for them to finish the work on the place before the scheduled opening in a couple of weeks’ time. As Andy gets to know the family better, he has to decide whether to share what he learns about them with the local police or keep his suspicions to himself. It’s not as if he knows anything for sure…

Reginald Hill

Hill also has fun with the characters in the house, from the elderly poet Hereward, about to be given an award he feels he should have been given years ago when young enough to enjoy it, to the budding film-maker who augments his income by taking the kind of girlie photos that show up in the less respectable kind of magazine, to the Woosterish young man who wants nothing more than to punt on the lake, shooting ducks. The widow herself is a typically wonderful Hill woman – strong, intelligent, generous, quite possibly wicked, definitely ambiguous. A Yorkshire femme fatale. Is she attracted to Andy for his innate charm and manly physique? Even Andy is doubtful about that. Or is she using him as protection from the interest of the local police?

The mystery itself becomes more complicated when more bodies begin to show up in unexpected places. Accidents? Murders? Connected or coincidental? Andy will eventually work it all out, but then he’ll still have to decide what to do about it. And meantime, the inaugural Medieval Banquet grows ever closer…

Lots of humour as always, but in this one Hill gives us the first real indication of how the series will develop in terms of depth of characterisation and the complicated relationship between our two main players, Dalziel and Pascoe. And in this one, for the first time, we begin to see that Andy is human too, with all the vulnerabilities and sensitivities he so successfully hides from the world. As always, highly recommended – the best detective series of all time!

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Broomsticks Over Flaxborough (Flaxborough Chronicles 7) by Colin Watson

Devilishly good…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Flaxborough Citizen tells the worthy people of the town that the Folklore Society’s revel to celebrate Roodmas was well attended. It sounds like it was a fun do, with a discussion of old traditions round a bonfire, followed by refreshments and dancing. But sometimes newspapers don’t tell the whole story…

Naked as on the day she was born, save for a double-looped string of amber beads and a pair of harlequin-framed spectacles, Mrs Flora Pentatuke, of 33 Partney Avenue, Flaxborough, leaped nimbly over the embers of the fire.

The next day, it is discovered one of the revellers, a promiscuous young lady by the name of Edna Hillyard, has gone missing, leaving only her car and her neatly folded clothes behind her. Inspector Purbright is at first inclined to think that she’s simply gone off for a bit of jiggery-pokery, but when the newspapers begin to print lurid reports that black magic and witchcraft have turned respectable little Flax into the Town of Fear, he realises he’ll have to take it all a bit more seriously. Especially when some of the town’s prominent citizens become the targets of witchly curses…

Of all twelve of the Flaxborough Chronicles, this is the one I love best. I think Watson peaked here, finding the perfect story with which to lampoon all his favourite targets at once. As always, he pulls aside the net curtains of respectability to let us glimpse the salacious shenanigans going on behind them. But his humour on the subject of sex is of the saucy seaside postcard variety – more “Ooh, you are awful!” than Fifty Shades of Grey. Class is as prevalent in Watson’s books as it is in British society, and he has a delicious lack of reverence for the town’s worthies as, indeed, does Inspector Purbright. It’s a joy to see him manipulating his Chief Constable, Mr Chubb – a man who finds it hard to accept that his social equals could possibly be up to any kind of skulduggery.

….Pook nodded at Miss Parkin’s sapience and looked again at the Citizen report while he drank some coffee and demolished the rest of the KreemiKrunch.
….“What’s a faggot-master?” he inquired.
….Mrs Gloss frowned. “If you must know, we generally have a little bonfire to brighten up our outdoor meetings, and Mr Cowdrey looks after it. He has had experience with the Scouts.”
….“I know,” Pook said, without looking up from the paper. He somehow made the acknowledgement sound like a notice of impending prosecution.

What makes this one stand out even more is the inclusion of the Lucillite campaign, complete with the Lucies – a group of girls going door-to-door as part of the drive to persuade the ladies of the houses to change their laundry detergent. First published in 1972, Watson ruthlessly lampoons the advertising campaigns of the day to persuade women that all their troubles could be solved by changing to a new brand of soap powder, thus enabling them to achieve an idyllic marriage by ensuring their husbands’ shirts are whiter than white. At the same time, he mercilessly mocks the kind of marketing lingo that was coming into vogue then (and still exists in some of our sadder companies – I speak from bitter experience!).

….“An ad-clens revolution. A turn round of the whole concept. Everything up to now has been slanted on women wanting to please men. But do they?”
….“Exactly. Do they? We’ve been hammering away for years on this whiteness thing. And why? Because Motivational Research said whiteness represented lost virginity.”
….“Every washday the woman got her hymen back so she could offer it again to her mate. Sure, sure. You remember the Vurj campaign, Richard? Always a shot of washwife handing the Vurj pack to man in white hubbyshirt.”
….“God! How off-beam can one get? Listen, this is how I see it, Gordon. Copulation equals children equals drudgegrudge. Right?”
….“Right.”

All the regulars are here – Purbright and Chubb, Sergeant Love of the innocent face and rather less innocent mind, and Miss Teatime, up to her delicately feminine armpits in Psychical Research. Oh, and I nearly forgot to mention, the plot’s excellent too. If I haven’t persuaded you to read any of the other books, I’ll take one last stab at letting Mr Watson persuade you to read this one…

….“Well,” said Gordon, “you’ve heard about industrial sabotage. Right?” He pointed at the prints, opened his mouth, shut it again, and began walking rapidly up and down. He stopped and pointed once more at the prints. “Right?”
….“The lady with the very odd eyes,” Miss Teatime began.
….“Agent,” snapped Gordon. “From P and Q probably. Or C and H. KGB even.”
….Miss Teatime looked shocked. “The Russians?”
….“Kleen-Gear Biological. Do I have to spell it out for you?”

Fabulous!

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

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Broken Ground (Karen Pirie 5) by Val McDermid

Peat bogs are dangerous places…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

DCI Karen Pirie of Police Scotland’s Historic Cases Unit is in the middle of re-investigating a series of rapes when she is diverted to a crime scene in the Highlands. A woman and her husband are on a kind of treasure hunt, looking for something that the woman’s grandfather buried in a peat bog long ago. They find the spot, but when they dig down into the peat, they are shocked to discover not only the looted items but the body of a man, almost perfectly preserved. The body only dates back to the 1990s, though, so Karen must unravel the mystery of who killed the man and why. And Karen also finds herself involved almost by accident in the investigation of another crime, one that she hoped she’d prevented. Meantime her new boss has given her an extra team member, a thing Karen would be grateful for if only she felt there wasn’t an ulterior motive behind it…

I’m thoroughly enjoying the Karen Pirie books and this is another excellent addition to the series. Now that a national police force has taken the place of the old regional forces in Scotland in real life, it gives fiction writers the ability to have their detectives travel all over the country, and McDermid is as comfortable writing about the Highlands as she is her hometown of Edinburgh. I’m biased, I know, but I love that McDermid has set this series back in Scotland after too long away. She gives an amazingly good sense of place and a wholly authentic feel to contemporary Scottish life. Forget the unrealistic gun-totin’ gang wars of so much “Tartan Noir” or the tartan twee of the cosier side of Scottish crime fiction (usually written by nostalgic Canadians or Americans). This is modern Scotland: warts and all, for sure, but also with a vibrant, well educated population and a professional police force where dysfunctional drunken mavericks wouldn’t be tolerated.

This falls very much under the category of police procedural rather than mystery or thriller. Karen and her team identify their suspect fairly early on and most of the book is about how they go about finding the evidence to make a case that would stand up in court. It’s an intriguing and realistic look at how policing is done, but could perhaps be a little dull in the wrong hands. McDermid, however, spices the whole thing up by having the HCU working on other cases alongside the main one, by throwing in some office politics, and by having some great characterisation of Karen herself, her young sidekick Jason, her friends and colleagues, not to mention the suspects and witnesses they deal with along the way. Karen is well into recovery from her grief now (deliberately vague, in case people haven’t read the earlier books) and McDermid has handled that whole storyline superbly, I feel – never letting it be forgotten or glossed over, but not making either Karen or the reader wallow endlessly.

Downsides – there’s some swearing, though less than in most Scottish crime fiction, and bits of it, especially relating to the office politics, triggered my over-sensitive credibility monitor. Also, one of the problems of living in such a small country is that all our successful people tend to know each other, and it was very obvious throughout that McDermid thinks of our First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, as a friend. There’s a little too much rather sycophantic praise of her and the Scottish Government in general for my taste – most of us, like the people in most democracies, have a rather higher level of healthy scepticism when it comes to our leaders.

Val McDermid

But these were minor issues that didn’t spoil my absorption in the story. I loved wandering the streets of Edinburgh with Karen, travelling north with her, meeting up with her friends again, and seeing how Jason is maturing and growing in confidence in each book. I enjoyed Karen’s visit to Glasgow and McDermid’s tongue-in-cheek nods to the old rivalry between the citizens of Scotland’s two biggest cities. The pacing is excellent so that, although it’s a longish read, I never found it dragging. The main storyline of the murder is intriguing, with parts of it going back to the war, though most of the book is firmly set in the present day. I even learned a small piece of Scotland’s history I didn’t know before. Third person, past tense, of course, as all the best books are.

It would work fine as a standalone. I have read a couple of these out of order and actually missed one or two of the earlier ones, but I haven’t felt that’s left me struggling in any way. In short, highly recommended – I hope McDermid sticks with this series for a long time to come.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group.

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The Poisoned Rock (Sullivan and Broderick 2) by Robert Daws

The evil that women do…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Tamara Sullivan is still on secondment to the Royal Gibraltar Police Force, and is as intrigued as everyone else that a top Hollywood star has come to the island to make a movie. The film is about a war-time spy, known as the Queen of Diamonds, although no-one is quite sure whether she existed or is a legend. However, the film has triggered a lot of interest in this old story, not all of it positive. Soon Sullivan and her boss, Chief Inspector Gus Broderick, find themselves investigating murder, but to understand the motive and find the culprit they will have to delve into the murky world of espionage on wartime Gibraltar, and the treacheries and betrayals that are still casting a dark shadow into the present…

This is the second in this series of police procedurals set on Gibraltar, and both Sullivan and Broderick already feel like well-established characters. The first, The Rock, was short – almost novella length – but this one is a full-length novel with a much more complex plot. I get a bit tired of Britain’s obsession with WW2 so had lowered my expectations a little, but I must admit Daws has found what feels to me like an original and credible way to make those long past days relevant to his plot. I soon turned my expectations back up, and settled in for a convoluted but never confusing ride through the shadowy world of agents and double agents, blackmail, intrigue and revenge.

The police procedural aspect is done very well. Daws shows the painstaking work of gathering information and evidence while never allowing it to bog the story down with too much detail. But the detectives get to the solution by proper police work rather than by unbelievable leaps of intuition or amazing coincidences. Sullivan and Broderick work well as a partnership, their confidence and trust in each other growing as they get to know each other better. We also see how they work within the wider team, and they try to stick within the rules as much as they can. Happily, the police are the goodies and the villains are the baddies – that shouldn’t feel refreshing, really, but it does! The whole thing leads up to a tense thriller ending, but one that stays well within the credibility lines.

The setting is great. Gibraltar is such an oddity – a little slice of leftover British Empire hanging onto the coast of Spain, and in this book, Daws show the tensions between the Spanish and Gibraltarian authorities over the contested peninsula. He also gives a good feeling for the Rock in wartime, used as a base of operations with most of the civilians evacuated and the place full of troops and spies, all plotting against each other. But it’s not one of the half-past/half-present stories that are so prevalent at the moment. This story takes place fully in the present with only brief snatches of the past, like flashbacks in a TV show.

Robert Daws

In fact, the whole thing reads very much like a blueprint for a TV show with short chapters taking us quickly between fast-moving scenes. Hardly surprising, given Daws’ background as a TV actor and writer, and I believe the series is under consideration for TV adaptation. I reckon it would work brilliantly and can’t help seeing Daws himself as Broderick.

I thoroughly enjoyed my second trip to Gibraltar with Sullivan and Broderick and am looking forward to seeing how the series progresses. I believe the third one is due out this summer sometime, but Amazon is being unusually secretive about the date! I shall be keeping my beady eyes open for it though. Highly recommended as a well-written, fast-paced and credible police procedural with likeable lead characters in an interesting setting – really, what more could you ask for?

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Urbane Press, via a giveaway on The Quiet Geordie‘s blog. Thanks again!

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Somebody at the Door by Raymond Postgate

Murder on the Home Front…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Councillor Grayling is an unpleasant man, meaning that plenty of people would be quite happy to see him got out of the way. One evening he turns up at his own door seriously ill and later that night he dies. When the autopsy is carried out, it becomes clear he was poisoned by mustard gas. Suspicion falls on the people he most recently spent time with – his fellow travellers in the carriage of the train he took home from work, each of whom may have had a motive to do away with him. It’s up to Inspector Holly to discover which of them did it, and how…

In Verdict of Twelve, Postgate told the stories of the various jurors who were to serve on a murder trial, showing how their own lives and experiences impacted on the decision they would finally reach. In this one, he adopts a similar approach by telling each of the stories of the train travellers, showing how their lives crossed with Councillor Grayling’s. The result is that the book reads almost like a collection of linked short stories and some of them are excellent in their own right.

First published in 1943, the book is set in the winter of 1942, when WW2 was at its height and Britain was shrouded in the darkness of the blackout. A couple of the stories relate directly to wartime experiences, not to mention the mustard gas being used as the weapon. The others are less directly connected but still give a fascinating picture of life on the Home Front. Postgate’s descriptive writing is first-class, with the ability to conjure an atmosphere or a scene or a character so that they feel entirely real. Some of the characterisation is brilliant, creating people we feel sorry for, or hate, or despise.

I don’t want to say too much about the individual stories, since the joy is in seeing them develop, so I’ll try to give just a brief idea of them. The first tells of a young man who gets a girl pregnant – this at a time when such a thing was still scandalous and when abortion was illegal. He’s a deeply unpleasant character, but Postgate makes the study of his psychology compelling. This is a dark and disturbing story, and very well told. As is the next one, which tells the story of a Corporal in the Home Guard. Postgate takes us through his life story, and uses it to look bitterly at the class divisions of Britain between the wars. Postgate was himself a socialist, and his political leanings show through clearly here. It’s a story of a fall and a redemption, and paints a frightening picture of wartime London in the blackout, with the constant threat of bombing. I was totally involved in the Corporal’s story and so hoped it might have a happy ending…

Next we are taken into the world of Nazi Germany as we witness the attempt to smuggle a man out of Berlin. This is a great short story, utterly absorbing in its depiction of Berlin in 1938 as a place of growing fear and suspicion, followed by the extreme tension of the journey. It also provides a look at the way German refugees were treated in Britain during the war, often feared as being part of the Fifth Column, resulting in them being objects of suspicion and resentment and in strict curtailment of their liberties. Fabulous stuff that had me on the edge of my seat! I so hoped it might have a happy ending…

Unfortunately the final story isn’t up to the same standard. It tells at too great length of a somewhat mundane love affair between two people who each failed to get my sympathy. The man works for a publisher, so Postgate takes the chance to include a lot of self-indulgent stuff about writers and publishing – a subject that is endlessly fascinating to some writers but perhaps less so to many readers. However, even here Postgate lifts an unremarkable episode by taking our lovers to Paris just before the occupation, and shows his usual skill in drawing a fascinating picture of a place at a particular point in time.

Raymond Postgate

This last section did undoubtedly pull the book down for me, and I intended to give it four stars. However, writing the review has reminded me just how good the other stories are, and they more than made up for my mild disappointment with the lovers. The main story is actually somewhat secondary to the suspects’ own stories, but Postgate wraps it up well. The overall effect is dark and rather bleak, and as a result suits its wartime setting perfectly. Postgate has been a real find for me through the British Library Crime Classics. I get the impression he didn’t write a huge number of crime novels, but I do hope they manage to find at least one or two more. And I highly recommend this one for the quality of the stories within the story.

NB This book was provided for review by the publishers, the British Library and Poisoned Pen Press (for the Kindle version).

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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…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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…

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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.

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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