The Ghost Marriage by Peter May

Take this woman…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This short novella is a new follow-up to Peter May’s China Thrillers. This was the series that originally turned me into a May fan, long before the Lewis Trilogy made him a major star in the firmament of crime fiction. So it was a pleasure to revisit Margaret, the American forensic pathologist, and her Chinese partner, Li Yan of the Beijing police.

Margaret and Li Yan are still living together, now with the addition of their young son, when Margaret is approached by an elderly woman who tells her that her granddaughter has gone missing, and begs Margaret to use her influence with Li Yan to get him to investigate. As Li Yan gradually finds out what happened to the girl, the story takes us into a mysterious and macabre aspect of Chinese tradition, and into the secrets and lies that can exist in families.

Because the story is so short, I won’t say any more about the plot for fear of spoiling it. What has always attracted me most to May’s writing is that he chooses interesting settings for his crimes and his impeccable research allows him to create a great sense of place. This was always particularly true of the China Thrillers, especially since he began the series way back when the idea of visiting China still seemed like an exotic dream for most of us. The length of this one doesn’t allow for much description of Beijing itself, but the plot gives an insight into some of the strange superstitions and rituals that still exist in the country, while also touching on some of the issues thrown up by China’s long-standing but now abandoned one-child policy.

From the South China Morning Post: Dolls represent the happy couple in a Chinese-style “ghost wedding”

With Margaret being a pathologist, the China Thrillers also contained some rather gruesome autopsy scenes, and that tradition continues in this one. There isn’t room for a huge amount of detection – really we just see the story unfold along with Li Yan as he gradually uncovers the truth. I enjoyed it as a way to catch up with two characters who feel like old friends, but I think it would work equally well as a brief introduction to the style of the series for people who haven’t tried it yet. There was never much doubt that Margaret and Li Yan would stay together as a couple so although this takes place after the other books, it’s otherwise spoiler free.

Peter May

I listened to the Audible audiobook version, narrated by Peter Forbes who, I believe, has been the narrator for May’s books for a long time now. I thought his narration was very good – I have no way of knowing whether his pronunciations of Chinese words and names is accurate, but I certainly found them convincing. The decision to give the Chinese characters Chinese accents didn’t really work for me, I admit – I feel that if characters are supposed to be speaking their own language, then they shouldn’t be made to sound ‘foreign’. I listened to a Maigret novel immediately following this, where the narrator gave all the French characters English accents appropriate to their class and position in society, and I must say that felt much more natural and authentic. However, it’s a debatable point, and some people may prefer the ‘foreign’-sounding accents.

Overall, a short but enjoyable return to the world of Beijing. I’m now wondering whether this is a kind of coda to the series, or whether it’s to whet our appetites for a future new novel? I hope it’s the latter…

NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible UK via MidasPR. The story is also available as an e-book.

Audible UK Link
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Amazon UK Link
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The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A thrilling adventure yarn…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The story begins when Holmes receives a message in cipher from one of his contacts within the Moriarty organisation. Unfortunately they don’t have the key to the cipher but after some lovely banter between Holmes and Watson and some brilliant deductions on the part of the great man, they solve it, to discover it warns of danger to someone called Douglas and mentions Birlstone Manor. Just at that moment, Inspector MacDonald turns up to seek Holmes’ aid in the baffling murder of John Douglas of – you’ve guessed it! – Birlstone Manor. And the game’s afoot…

Like all bar one of the long stories, this one takes the format of a deduction of the crime followed by a journey into the past to learn what led to it. In this case, John Douglas had lived in America for most of his life and the gun that killed him was of American make. Holmes does a nifty bit of investigating, involving a moat and drawbridge, an umbrella, a curious mark on the victim’s arm, and a dumbbell; and promptly gets to the truth, though not before driving poor MacDonald almost apoplectic with frustration first.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The background story takes us to the Pennsylvanian coal-mines of the 1870s, where we meet Jack McMurdo, an Irishman who has just arrived there after fleeing justice in Chicago. He quickly becomes involved in the Scowrers, a gang of unscrupulous and violent men who control the valley through fear, intimidation and murder. McMurdo’s personal bravado and intelligence soon allow him to become a valued member of the gang. But this doesn’t sit well with the father of the woman he has fallen in love with, Ettie Shafter. Gradually, it is revealed how this earlier story links to the later murder at Birlstone Manor, and it is a dark story indeed, especially since it is based largely on real events of the time. The tale finishes back in Baker Street, where we learn the final fate of some of the characters we have come to know.

This is another great story from the hands of the master. The first half is a typical Holmes investigation, with plenty of humour and warmth to offset the grimmer aspects of the plot. Holmes’ deductive powers are in full working order, and the crime itself is nicely convoluted, with a good bit of misdirection along the way. The second half allows ACD to give full rein to his marvellous story-telling powers as he takes us deep into the darkness at the heart of the brutal Scowrer gang. His characterisation is superb, both of the rather mysterious McMurdo and of the cruel and barbaric leader of the gang, Boss McGinty. I love the short stories, but I always find the long stories more satisfying, with the extra room allowing ACD to do what he does best – spin a first-rate, thrilling adventure yarn.

Illustration from the New York Tribune – the Scowrers’ initiation ceremony

Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection introduced and narrated by Stephen Fry

I listened to the story this time around, from this fabulous new audio collection from Audible. It includes all the short and long stories, set out in the traditional order. Fry gives a short introduction to each of the five books of short stories and individually to each of the long ones. The collection runs to over seventy hours, so needless to say I haven’t listened to it all yet, but will have great fun dipping in and out of it over the coming months and years.

In the intro to this one, Fry puts the book into its historical context, telling the story of the Molly Maguires, a secret society active among the immigrant Irish coalminers in Pennsylvania during the 1870s; and of the Pinkerton agent who infiltrated them, ultimately leading to their destruction. He points out how soon after the Civil War this was, and that the bosses of the Pennsylvania mines were effectively their own law and could hire people of their own choosing to enforce it. He also tells the other side of the story – the appalling working conditions and extreme poverty of the workers. He manages all this without giving any spoilers for the story to come. An excellent introduction – brief, but interesting, clear and informative.

Stephen Fry

His narration of the story itself is great! He had to compete with my favourite Holmes narrator, the wonderful Derek Jacobi, so he was going to have to work hard to convince me. And I found myself laughing sympathetically because ACD didn’t make his task an easy one. Almost every character has his accent described, usually something like “half-English, half-American” or “Chicago with a hint of Irish” or “German overlaid with the twang of the new country”. And then there are the characters who are not who they first seem, so that when their true identity is revealed, they change to their real accents. I must say Fry did brilliantly with all of them and, despite there being a pretty huge cast in this story, he managed to differentiate them all quite clearly. There are two characters with straight Irish accents, so to make them different, he made one sound Northern Irish and the other Southern, both done totally convincingly. Even Inspector MacDonald’s Aberdonian accent got a high pass mark from me. He brings out the humour and the warmth of Watson’s character, and makes the adventure parts suitably exciting without over-dramatising them. I always think you can tell when a narrator loves the material he’s reading, and Fry’s strong affection for the Holmes’ stories comes through clearly.

My love for the Jacobi recordings remains, but these are just as excellent, and the little introductions are a great addition, making this a fabulous collection which I highly recommend to all Holmes fans out there.

NB The audiobook was provided for review by Audible via MidasPR. Lucky me!

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Book 9 of 90

The Ice by Laline Paull

The root of all evil…

😦

It’s the very near future, global warming continues to advance and the Arctic sea-ice has largely melted. A cruise ship has promised its passengers sightings of polar bears, now even rarer than before. Eventually the wealthy and powerful passengers begin to put pressure on the captain, so the ship takes a detour into an area of the sea that’s off limits to cruises. There they finally see a bear, but when an iceberg calves in front of them, they see something else – a preserved body that pops out from the frozen ice. Tom Harding was an environmentalist, lost as a result of an accident three years earlier. Now the investigation into his death will be re-opened and his business partner, Sean Cawson, will have to relive that terrible moment…

At least, I had to assume it was a terrible moment, based on Sean’s general level of angst. Unfortunately, this is yet another of the books that works to the overused formula of past and present sections, where all the characters know what happened that day, but the reader isn’t told until the book is more than half over. (I feel I may have mentioned before (!) how annoying I find this formula of keeping the reader in the dark for excessive periods in a futile attempt to build suspense. Real suspense comes only when at least some of the characters are also in the dark – otherwise it’s just an author playing tricks on the reader. In this one, it would have been perfectly possible to tell us up front what happened to Tom, and then build the suspense over the questions of how and why it happened, which most of the characters didn’t already know.)

The beginning is very good with some nice descriptions of the changes to the Arctic landscape and the calving of the iceberg is excellently dramatic. The description of the passengers demanding bear is also done well, though it’s the first indicator of the fairly overt polemical stance the author has taken – capitalists bad, destroy land and wildlife: environmentalists good and noble, fighting the good fight. Actually I sort of agree with at least bits of that, though I don’t think the question is quite so black and white, but frankly I neither need nor want to have messages hammered at me – subtlety makes for more interesting storytelling, and when the author makes it so clear that only one side of the debate has any merit, then it hardly leaves much room for thought to be provoked.

Sean has bought a property in the Arctic and turned it into an exclusive retreat where mega-rich businessmen can relax or meet each other privately. But Sean has an underlying motive – he wants to take the opportunity of getting these capitalists to understand the damage they’re doing and convert them to support environmentalism. (Hmm!) So he has asked his old friend Tom, a noted environmentalist, to join him in the venture. But Tom doesn’t know that Sean has agreed to keep a kind of private army on the property on behalf of the British and Danish governments, for reasons that I found vague and unconvincing.

Laline Paull

I’m afraid I found the book dull, the writing flat in places though good in others, the story overly contrived, the suspense entirely missing. The environmental messages are too overt and overly simplistic. Nothing happens for huge swathes, except Sean agonising over what happened that day while managing to not actually tell us. There are little snippets at the beginning of each chapter – extracts from real Arctic explorers which have nothing to do with the story. I quite quickly stopped reading them. In an attempt to evoke an emotional response, I assume, Paull throws in lots of little things like polar bears being killed, or whales being eaten, but always with a little message about conservation or environmentalism tagged on so that it ceases to feel real and just becomes part of the message-hammering, and thus left me entirely unmoved.

By a third of the way through I really wanted to abandon it, and by two-thirds I couldn’t take any more. The major problem was that I simply didn’t care what happened that day any more – the moment had passed. So I abandoned it, flicked forward and discovered that once I finally knew where it was going, sadly, I still didn’t care. I did enjoy some of the writing and feel that the author has potential if in future books she can manage to deliver her message more subtly and find a better way to create real suspense. But, since I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, then 1-star it is.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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Scarweather by Anthony Rolls

Digging up the truth…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

The story begins in 1913 when our narrator, John Farringdale, is just twenty-one. He and his cousin Eric are more like brothers, so when Eric meets the famous amateur archaeologist Professor Tolgen Reisby, he’s keen to introduce him to Farringdale too. Eric has a bit of a hero-worship for Professor Reisby, but he’s also well on the way to falling in love with Reisby’s much younger wife, Hilda. Farringdale also has a friend who is considerably older than him – Frederick Ellingham, a man of eclectic tastes and knowledge and a wide acquaintanceship across the classes, from seamen to aristocrats. Ellingham knows something of Reisby and hints that there may be darkness hidden beneath his boisterous extrovert exterior! And so when Eric goes missing in what seems like a sailing accident, Ellingham decides to investigate further…

…which takes him roughly a decade and a half to do. Admittedly they all had to stop and go and fight a war in the middle of it all, but frankly those of us with at least one functioning braincell had the whole thing worked out before the war began, so one certainly can’t accuse Ellingham of rushing things. Fortunately, there’s plenty to enjoy in the book, though, even if the plot is so slight as to be almost non-existent.

As Martin Edwards informs us in his introduction, Rolls was himself an archaeologist and he puts his expert knowledge to good use. He pokes a lot of fun about the world of archaeology – the digging up of a shard of broken pot and extrapolation from that of an entire civilisation, the dismissal of anything that seems a bit peculiar as ‘ritual’, the arguments between experts over time periods, and the jealousies over access to the best sites and acquisition of the choicest finds. He also has his characters comment on the ghoulishness of the archaeologist’s enthusiasm for digging up corpses, with Reisby himself keeping a kind of charnel house of finds in his own study. In fact, even the denouement makes fun of the cavalier fashion in which archaeologists spin theories based on the location of a few bones. (I’m sure it’s all very different and much more professional now, even though it all rather reminded me of Tony Robinson rapturising over half a femur or a mangled old bit of bronze in many an episode of Time Team… 😉 )

On another table were the remains of about a dozen skeletons. One or two of these had a remarkably fresh appearance and were nearly complete; but most of them were in a fragmentary state, and the bones were mottled with a dark stain of manganese – the indication (though by no means invariably present) of considerable antiquity. The skeleton of a young woman, slightly burnt, was particularly attractive.

The set-up is a spin on the Holmes/Watson pairing, but I fear Ellingham and Farringdale don’t match up to their illustrious predecessors in either detection or characterisation. Reisby himself is a fun character – a giant of a man, loud and jolly with an uproarious laugh, but also opinionated and quick to fury when crossed. I would definitely cast Brian Blessed in the role.

Scarweather is a remote place on the coast of Northern England, and Rolls does a good job with the setting, allowing the wildness of the landscape and sea to play their part in the story. The isolation of the setting also allows him to show the kind of unlikely friendships that blossom when people live close to each other but far from the rest of society. Many of these secondary characters add to the humour of the book, slightly caricatured but still believable and, on the whole, likeable despite their idiosyncrasies.

So, overall, while this isn’t the most thrilling or fiendish crime novel in the world, it’s still an enjoyable, well-written entertainment.

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

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Penance by Kanae Minato

Survivor guilt…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Five young girls sneak into their school playground on a holiday to practice volleyball. While there, a workman arrives and asks if one of them will help him do a small job in the changing room. It’s a while before the other girls notice that Emily hasn’t returned, and when they look for her, it’s too late – all they find is her body. None of the girls is able to describe the man well – they are young, they weren’t paying particular attention, they are suffering from shock. As time passes without an arrest, in her grief Emily’s mother tells them they must either give the police enough information to catch the killer, or do something that she will accept as appropriate atonement. She gives them a deadline – the statute of limitations on the crime will run out in fifteen years…

In Minato’s earlier excellent book, Confessions, she looked at the motivation for crime and at revenge. In this one, she takes a fascinating look at how a crime affects not only the direct victim, but the people touched by it in other ways. Each of the four surviving girls, now women, tells her tale in turn. We see how their immediate reactions to the crime were affected by their own personalities, and then Minato takes us into their families so that we can see how each of those personalities was formed. This provides a base for taking us forwards from the crime, seeing how it affected each child as she grew up – not just the horror of the day itself, but the guilt of knowing that they had neither protected Emily nor helped bring her killer to justice, and the fear of knowing that the killer is still at large knowing they are the only witnesses.

As the deadline for the statute of limitations approaches, we see how for each girl this leads indirectly to a kind of crisis. Minato doesn’t forget the grieving mother in all this – years on, does she still feel the same? Does she still require the girls to do penance, or has time enabled her to see that the girls were victims too? And lastly, almost as a minor story, will time allow the girls to recognise small clues that they missed in their youth, in time for the murderer to be caught?

When reading Japanese fiction, I often find the society so different from our Western one that it’s almost incomprehensible to me. I’ve commented in the past that there seems to be a huge disconnect between the generations, that young people seem to have rejected the values of their parents but haven’t yet found anything to replace them with, leaving a dangerous moral vacuum. Intriguingly, that isn’t the case with this one. Perhaps because it’s set in a small town rather than in Tokyo, the family structures seem stronger and more traditional, though we see clearly how sons are still more valued than daughters. Some of these families have problems, indeed, but the kind of problems we would be familiar with in our own society. I also noted that Minato mentioned in passing that there seems to be a slight move away from driving the children quite so hard towards educational success at the expense of all else – a small recognition of the harm that can be caused by the excessive stress that was being put on young people. And this is one of the reasons I enjoy her books – she always provides intriguing insights into society, especially family life and education, in modern Japan.

Kanae Minato

But she also tells a great tale! I was completely caught up in each girl’s story and, while there are moments that stretch credulity, it never goes past the breaking point. The characterisation is excellent, and though we see the murder again and again, each voice and perspective is original enough to stop it feeling repetitive. After the murder, the girls’ lives go off in different directions, so Minato has room to cover a lot of ground with four very different stories, but all linked to the central event so that with each telling the reader learns a little more about the lead up to and aftermath of the crime. And in the final chapters she manages to bring it all together, so that there’s a real feeling of resolution – not a slick happy ending, but a sense of closure for some of the characters at least. Another excellent novel from Minato – my tentative love affair with the strangeness of Japanese crime fiction continues…

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

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The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude

I, said the sparrow, with my little bow and arrow…

🙂 🙂 🙂 😐

The people who live in Regency Square in Cheltenham form a little community set somewhat apart from the rest of the town. They all socialise with each other, and there are all the rivalries and grievances that grow up in any group over time. So when someone shoots Captain Cotton with an arrow to the head through the open window of a neighbour’s house, there are plenty of suspects, since many of the residents are members of the local archery club, and Captain Cotton had annoyed several of his neighbours in one way or another. Unfortunately for the murderer, Superintendent Meredith is visiting a friend in the square at the time, and the local police quickly enlist his help…

…which is a wonder really, since on the basis of this he’s not terribly good at his job! Mind you, he’s better than the local chap, who seems almost entirely clueless. Things were different back then, of course, as can be seen when the police pick up the body, carry it across the square, and leave it unattended on the captain’s own bed till the inquest. The thing is that there’s a major plot point which is so blindingly obvious that the biggest mystery in the book is that it doesn’t even occur to the police till the book is nearly over – I won’t specify for fear of spoilers, even though I defy anyone not to spot it. And it’s not the only easy to spot clue – easy for the reader, that is, but seemingly impenetrable to our dogged but hopeless detectives. On the other hand, Meredith seems amazingly, almost supernaturally, perceptive when it comes to less important clues, making astounding leaps of intuition to arrive at the truth. The powers-that-be keep threatening to hand the whole thing over to the Yard, and I really felt they should do this pronto – intriguingly Meredith’s own superiors seemed willing to leave him seconded to the Cheltenham force for as long as possible necessary. One could see why…

However, there’s still a lot to like in the book. The characterisations of the various residents of the square are well done, even if they tend to be a little stereotyped. This is a typically upper middle class square, full of bankers and retired army officers and elderly spinsters. Some of the people are just what they seem, but some have secrets hidden behind their respectable façades which are gradually revealed as the book progresses. Bude creates the setting well and some of the secrets give it a slightly darker tone than it feels as if it’s going to have at first. And there’s lots of humour in it too, sometimes a bit clunky like when the local Inspector uses his young subordinate as the butt of his stupidity jokes (ironic, given the profundity of his own intellectual lapses!), but at other times light and fun, like the two elderly sisters and their dismay at not really knowing the correct etiquette for dealing with a murder investigation. The detectives get there in the end, of course, but more by luck than anything else.

Not one of the better of these British Library Crime Classics, in truth. I found it dragged quite a bit, mainly because it took the police so long to realise things that had been obvious for chapters. The quality of the writing and characterisation lifted it, but the whole detection aspect lacked any feeling of authenticity for me, and the murder method, while quite fun, struck me as overly contrived. I didn’t enjoy it as much as the other John Bude I’ve read, Death on the Riviera, but it was still a reasonably enjoyable read overall. So a fairly half-hearted recommendation for this one, I’m afraid.

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

Can’t find an author pic, so you’ll just have to make do with this instead…

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Rather be the Devil (Rebus 21) by Ian Rankin

Hail! Hail! The gang’s all here… 

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

While Rebus is having dinner with his long-term girlfriend, forensic pathologist Deborah Quant, in the Caledonian Hotel, he tells her of a murder that took place there years ago, when a famous rock star and his entourage were staying in the hotel – a woman who, it appeared, was probably murdered by her lover, except that the lover had an alibi. The murder was never solved and, as he tells the story, Rebus’s interest in it revives. Time for a little amateur sleuthing! Meantime, gangster Darryl Christie has been beaten up and Siobhan is on the case. The obvious suspect is Big Ger Cafferty, the older gangster whom Darryl has pushed aside, but Cafferty hints to Rebus that there’s a Russian connection. (No, fear not, Comrade Trump isn’t in it!) Malcolm Fox has been moved to the Specialist Crime Division in Gartcosh. They are quietly looking into some of Darryl’s business interests and reckon the investigation into his beating will be a good opportunity to nose around his affairs, so Malcolm is sent back through to Edinburgh to liaise with Siobhan. And so the scene is set for another full-cast outing, all the detectives and gangsters gathered together one more time.

Ian Rankin

Anyone who’s been reading my reviews for a while will know that Rebus is up there at the top of my list of favourite detectives, and Ian Rankin can really do no wrong in my eyes. As always, the plotting is great, with the various strands crossing and interconnecting. The old murder story is a traditional whodunit, where alibis and motives are key, while the gangster story allows for plenty of action and a good, believable thriller ending. There’s lots of room for the regulars to interact with each other, which is always one of the major joys of the books – tension between Siobhan and Malcolm because she’s jealous of his move to Gartcosh, concern over Rebus’s health as he undergoes some tests, and Rebus and Big Ger continuing their roles as the elder statesmen of policing and crime, running rings around the young’uns as usual.

However, in truth, I couldn’t help but notice that there are a good deal of similarities to the last book. The rivalry among Darryl, Big Ger and their Glasgow counterpart, Joe Stark, has been rumbling through a few books now, and shows no signs of coming to a conclusion. In retirement, it’s harder to create reasons for Rebus to be involved, and the excuse of Big Ger only being willing to deal with him is becoming a little worn. I hate to say it because I love the old man so much, but I think it’s time to let Rebus go and allow Siobhan and Malcolm to take over as the lead characters. Either that, or Rankin should break his own rule and take us back in time to revisit Rebus as a younger man, when he was still on the force. That’s not to suggest I didn’t enjoy this one – I did, thoroughly, and I’m sure other Rebus fans will too. But this and the last one have felt like encores, given as a treat to those who’ve watched the whole show and want a little bit more. And I think it would be better if Rebus left the stage while the audience is still applauding.

James Macpherson

I listened to the Audible audiobook version of this, narrated by James Macpherson whom some of you will remember as Chief Inspector Michael Jardine in the long-running STV series, Taggart. I’d listened to him narrate Rebus before, in the short story collection The Beat Goes On, so knew he’d be good. But actually he’s even better in this one – the length allows him to create different personalities for all the characters, and his range of Scottish accents and voices is fabulous. From posh Morningside gents to wee Glesca nyaffs, he can do them all brilliantly! He has a real understanding of the recurring characters, so his interpretation never jars. And his timing for the humour is perfect – he often made me laugh out loud. I heartily recommend his readings to any Rebus fans out there – I can’t imagine a better narrator for them, and fully intend to back track and listen to his readings of some of the older books.

For anyone coming new to the series, I’d definitely recommend starting much further back – this one depends to a large extent on familiarity with all the relationships amongst the regulars. But for existing Rebus fans, another thoroughly enjoyable book. Rankin writing and Macpherson narrating are a dream team – pure pleasure! Highly recommended.

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Audible Link UK
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Siren by Annemarie Neary

A soggy sandwich with a great filling…

🙂 🙂 😐

Twenty years ago, Róisín Burns had to flee her home in Northern Ireland after getting caught up in the Troubles. Now the IRA man she fled from, Lonergan, has reinvented himself as a politician, and Róisín has returned to take revenge, sort of. Or something.

This is another of the ubiquitous trend for books set part in the past and part in the present and, like so many of them, one part is much stronger than the other. The past section is set at the height of the Troubles, and Neary gives a convincing picture of a young girl trapped into doing the IRA’s bidding in a city where fear is a constant presence. The present is a silly thriller with absolutely no credibility whatsoever and drags interminably. In fact, had I not been reading this for Reading Ireland month, I would undoubtedly have abandoned it before I even got to the past, since it takes almost a third of the book to get there, apart from the brief prologue.

Róisín, now known as Sheen, has turned up on Lamb Island off the coast of Northern Ireland, where Lonergan now has a cottage. Sheen rents a little cottage too, isolated of course, just up the road from the resident nutter whom everyone assumes murdered the previous woman tenant. They don’t bother to tell Sheen this though, contenting themselves with warning the nutter, Boyle, to behave himself. He doesn’t. But he’s not the only bad man on the island – for such a small population it seems to attract more than its fair share of men willing to bump off lone women, for personal as well as political reasons. We spend an inordinate amount of time inside Boyle’s foul-mouthed and lustful head – ugh! (Constantly using “fucken” instead of “fucking” really doesn’t make it cute, by the way, especially when there’s no other attempt to reproduce Irish speech or accent.) Tedious in the extreme.

Then we go back to Belfast to what seems like the mid-’70s, though we’re not told exactly. The Troubles are at their height, with frequent beatings and bombings directed at both British soldiers and civilians fairly indiscriminately. This section feels almost as if it’s written by a different author. The city and its people are recreated with a real feeling of authenticity, and Neary raises a lot of intriguing questions about where moral responsibility begins and ends in a situation where the norms have disappeared and law and order have almost completely broken down. At first Róisín is tricked into helping the IRA, but after that she has to make choices – pay the consequences or continue down the path of terrorism, this time knowingly. Neary shows how grey that question becomes in a sharply divided society, where informers on either side are at extreme risk. She also touches on the question of how far the crimes of the past must be forgotten or forgiven in the pursuit of peace.

Annemarie Neary

And then sadly back to Lamb Island for a ridiculous thriller ending. The idea is ludicrous that a middle-aged woman with no combat experience or training would decide to take on members of the IRA whom she knows have no compunction about killing. And so unnecessary, since if Róisín simply wanted to destroy Lonergan, she could have sent an email to the police or the newspapers from the safety of her American home. But instead she comes back to Ireland to face Lonergan herself, to… I’m not really sure what… threaten him? Shame him? Neither tactic likely to work on an IRA terrorist, I’d have thought. And then it gets even sillier…

So a mixed bag. If Neary had stuck to telling the real story – the one in the past – this could have been an excellent book. Instead it’s like a sandwich with a great filling, but slapped between two thick pieces of soggy and underbaked bread. Maybe it’s time for authors to start telling one story again, instead of feeling obliged to stick in an extra timeline and a thriller ending – as all trends do, this one has seriously lost its novelty value. Sadly I see her new book follows the same double timeline format, so I think I’ll pass on that one.

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

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The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie read by Hugh Fraser

A great narration of a true classic…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the-abc-murdersWhen Captain Hastings comes back on a trip to London from his new home in the Argentine, he hastens round to visit his old friend, Hercule Poirot. After they’ve done a bit of catching up, Poirot shows Hastings a bizarre letter he has received, warning that a crime will be committed on a certain date in Andover. When the day comes, so does news of a murder – Alice Ascher, the owner of a small newsagents, has been found dead, with a copy of the ABC railway guide lying beside her body. Poirot and Hastings head to Andover, and soon find that Mrs Ascher’s drunken husband had every reason to want her dead, and would surely be arrested for the crime were it not for the strange coincidence of the letter. Some weeks pass before Poirot receives a second letter, this time warning of a murder to take place in Bexhill and, sure enough, a body turns up on the due date, along with another copy of the ABC. Poirot is already suspicious that this murderer is working to an alphabetical plan; a suspicion that is confirmed when the third letter speaks of Churston…

This is a rather typical Agatha Christie story – typically brilliant, that is. It has everything that makes her books such a joy: intriguing clues, plenty of suspects all with strong motives, lots of red herrings and misdirection, and, of course, the hugely entertaining interplay between Poirot and Hastings. It is narrated by Hastings, partly in the first person for the sections where he was present himself, and the rest in the third person, which he tells us he reconstructed from accounts from Poirot and other people.

There are possible suspects for each of the crimes – relatives, lovers and so on – but Poirot must find the link that connects them all. Chief Inspector Japp is always happy to have help from his little Belgian friend, and some of the suspects get together to offer their assistance too, so that they can have justice for the dead and also get out from under the cloud of suspicion that is hovering over them.

Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie

People sometimes sneer at Christie for working to a “formula” but I say, if a formula works so well, then why not? There are some things in this one that I feel are standard Christie, and they add as much to the enjoyment here as they do in so many of her other books. Her victims are carefully chosen so that we hope for justice for them, while not having to go through too much of the angst of grief. Poirot and Hastings spend much of their time interviewing people until Poirot’s little grey cells give him the solution, which he then reveals at a get-together of all the suspects. The tone is lightened by the warmth of Hastings’ narration – his occasional humour at Poirot’s expense never hiding the warm regard he feels for his friend. And although Poirot is obviously more intelligent than Inspector Japp, the police are never shown as bumbling incompetents. There is a general respect in the books that makes Christie’s world a pleasure to visit, and despite the similarities in tone and structure, the plots are different and original enough to make each book feel unique.

The plot of this one is beautifully complex and elegantly simple at the same time – a true Christie trait – so that when the solution finally comes, it seems both fiendishly clever and satisfyingly obvious. This is a major part of Christie’s success, I think – her “twists” are an untangling of a complicated knot, rather than the sudden introduction of some new layer of hitherto unsuspected silliness, as with so much contemporary crime. Her denouements don’t so much make one gasp with stunned disbelief as nod with satisfaction at the logical working out, and grin with pleasure at her cleverness in first hiding and then revealing her clues.

I listened to the Audible version of this, narrated by Hugh Fraser, whom Christie fans will recognise as the actor who played Hastings to David Suchet’s Poirot in the long-running ITV series. Fraser does a marvellous job – he captures the tone of the books perfectly, bringing out the humour and the warmth of the friendship between Poirot and Hastings. He has a lovely speaking voice and, though he doesn’t “act” all the parts, he differentiates enough between the characters so that it’s easy to follow who’s speaking. Obviously, when he’s reading Hastings’ dialogue, he sounds just like Hastings. But remarkably, when Poirot is speaking, he sounds just like Suchet’s Poirot! I guess Fraser must have spent long enough listening to Suchet do it that he has mastered a faultless impersonation. It gives the narration a wonderful familiarity for fans of the TV adaptations.

hastings-and-poirot

So to conclude, one of Christie’s finest, enhanced by a fabulous narration – I promptly shot off back to Audible and used up all my spare credits on getting as many of Fraser’s Poirot readings as I could, and happily he has done loads of them. My highest recommendation for both book and reading – perfect entertainment!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

PS One thing that really bugs me is that the cover, which I otherwise love, has bullet holes on the letters. No-one gets shot in this story. FF’s Seventh Law: Cover artists should read the book before designing the cover.

The Legacy (Children’s House 1) by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

A great start…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When a horrific murder is carried out, there’s only one witness, 7-year-old Margrét, but she’s too shocked to tell her tale. So it’s decided to ask the Children’s House to help out – a place that specialises in helping traumatised children. Meantime the police are searching through the murder victim’s background to try to find any reason for her murder, but Elísa seems to have been normal in every possible way: happy marriage, a group of long-time friends, good at her job, and generally popular. And the next victim – because of course there’s a next one – seems equally unlikely. Margrét’s testimony seems to be the only hope…

This is the beginning of a new series for Yrsa Sigurdardóttir, based around Freyja, the psychologist in charge of the Children’s House, and Huldar, the detective in charge of the case. I’m not sure if both will appear in future books or just Freya, but they definitely share the billing in this one. The book is written in third person, past tense throughout. The crime seems to have its roots in the past but we learn about it through events in the present. Personally, I’m thrilled to see a crime book returning to this more traditional format of storytelling – the single time period flows more naturally than chopping backwards and forwards, the third person allows the author to range more widely across the characters without being restricted by what a first person narrator can know, and the past tense is so much more natural and appropriate that I really can’t understand why there’s such an insistence on using present tense. (I have never once seen anyone complain about a book being written in the past tense, have you?) I’m hoping maybe trends are finally shifting again…

As often happens with the first of a series, this one starts off pretty slowly, with much filling in of the backgrounds of the main characters – perhaps a little too much. There are places where it drags a bit and I found myself wishing that the plot would move along a little faster. However, I like both Freyja and Huldar as lead characters. Neither of them are perfect, but nor are they angst-ridden weirdos or drunks. They are both professionals who take their jobs seriously. Freyja clearly cares deeply about the children who pass through her care, but she’s professional enough not to get too emotionally involved to do her job well. This is Huldar’s first time in charge of an investigation, and we see him do his best to keep his team working well together, even though they get progressively more snappy with each other as the pressure mounts and time passes with no real leads appearing.

My one real complaint is that the murders are particularly horrific, and though in fact Sigurdardóttir only lingers over the detail of the first one, she writes so effectively that I found the images that she was putting in my head were too graphic for me, and unnecessarily so. The story is strong enough to stand without the gruesomeness, so that it felt pretty gratuitous to me.

Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

The plotting, however, is great! Twisty, credible (apart from the murder methods), and full of some lovely misdirection – nope, I didn’t get there until it was revealed at the end, but on looking back, the clues are all there, so no ‘cheating’. It is a whodunit to a degree, but it’s actually more about the why of the crime – once the motive is clear, so is the culprit. We see events unfold from various perspectives – Freyja and Huldar, of course, but also through the victims’ eyes, as baffled as we are as to why this is happening to them. And then there’s Karl, a young student and radio ham who has come across a strange station emitting strings of numbers that somehow seem to be connected to both him and the victims. The sections relating to Karl provide both the central mystery and some great characterisation of him and his friends, as they find themselves drawn into something they don’t understand.

Sigurdardóttir’s writing is as excellent as always, and the translation by Victoria Cribb is first class – had I not known it was a translation, I would have assumed it was written in English. The rather slow start and the too graphic murders meant that for most of the read it was heading for a solid four stars from me, but the strength of the last hundred pages or so lifted it – I found myself totally absorbed and the skill of the lead-up to the eventual solution both satisfied and impressed me. So I’m going with 4½, and will certainly be looking out for the next in what I hope will turn out to be a fine series, especially if Sigurdardóttir can rein in her imagination just a little on the gruesome front…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Hodder & Stoughton.

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A Dangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys

Escaping the past…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

a-dangerous-crossingDays after the outbreak of WW2, a ship arrives in Australia, and a passenger in handcuffs is escorted off by the police. A local reporter tries to snatch an interview, to find out if the rumour is true that someone aboard the ship was killed…

After this great prologue that hints at much but tells us nothing that will spoil the story, we are whisked back to the beginning of the voyage. Lily Shepherd has left her home in England to go to work in Australia as a domestic servant. She’s trying to escape from the memory of something bad that happened, though at first the reader doesn’t know what this is, other than that it involved a man she had been in love with. She is on an assisted passage organised by the Church of England along with six other young women, all chaperoned by an older woman employed by the Church.

Lily meets the two girls with whom she’ll be sharing a cabin, and then later is introduced to the other passengers who have been placed at the same table with her in the dining room for the duration of the voyage. They’re a varied group, all of different classes and backgrounds – people whose paths wouldn’t cross socially in the normal course of things. But thrust into the sudden intimacy of having to live and eat together, barriers break down and unlikely friendships are quickly formed. Isolated from both past and future in this bubble, Lily soon finds that life on board becomes all-consuming, and begins to forget that when they arrive at journey’s end, all the passengers will revert to their own class and concerns, and that, as a domestic servant, she will be beneath the notice of most of them.

There is a young man at Lily’s table to whom she quickly becomes attracted – Edward, who is going to Australia for the sake of his health, having recently recovered from TB. His sister, Helena, is going with him and Lily is soon on friendly terms with them both, and has reason to think that her attraction to Edward is mutual. But their quiet life in tourist class is disrupted by the arrival of a glamorous couple from the first class deck, Max and Eliza, who promptly suck Lily and her new friends into their little circle. There is an air of scandal about Max and Eliza, though the gossip about them is vague, but it’s soon obvious that Edward has become infatuated. And while Eliza flirts with Edward, Max begins to show attention to Lily…

Rachel Rhys also writes psychological thrillers as Tammy Cohen, and I’ve had a mixed reaction to her in the past, partly because of my weariness with that genre. I much prefer her in this incarnation – although there is a crime here, this is more historical fiction in style. Her writing and characterisation are excellent, and she brings the claustrophobic atmosphere of forced intimacy aboard the ship brilliantly to life. When the voyage begins, the spectre of war is hanging over Europe but there is still hope that Germany might pull back from the brink. Rhys works this uncertainty through the plot, with some eager for war and some running from it. There are Jewish passengers aboard, fleeing from their homes to escape Nazi persecution, and we see the various reactions to them from sympathy to outright anti-Semitism.

Rachel Rhys
Rachel Rhys

But the main story is personal rather than political, as Lily gradually discovers that she’s not the only passenger who is trying to leave the past behind. The story is told in the third person, but as secrets are revealed, we see it all from Lily’s rather naive perspective. She is a level-headed, intelligent young woman though from a fairly sheltered background, and Rhys manages the tricky task of making her likeable and empathetic, while allowing the reader to see her flaws and weaknesses. The various on-board relationships take on an intensity in the confined setting, and soon little resentments become magnified until these sudden friendships begin to crack under the strain. Truthfully, I’d kinda guessed the big secret fairly early on but it didn’t matter – Rhys still managed to create a real atmosphere of tension and apprehension as she led the way to the shocking climax.

For all of us in book blog world, the book has another special treat. One of the characters is called after our very own Cleo, who bid for and won this honour in a charity auction – check out her post on it. Fictional Cleo did make me chuckle since I couldn’t help imagining the real Cleo in the character. It would have been worth reading it for that reason alone, and I freely admit that’s why I got the book. But I’m glad I did – it’s an excellent book with strong characterisation, a great sense of place and time, an intriguing plot and a dramatic but credible denouement. I’ll be looking out for more from Rachel Rhys in the future.

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

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Let the Dead Speak (Maeve Kerrigan 7) by Jane Casey

Maeve’s back!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Chloe Emery returns home early from a visit to her dad’s new family, she is horrified to find her house covered in blood and her mother missing. Maeve Kerrigan has been promoted to Detective Sergeant, and is called to the scene by Una Burt, who’s still acting head of the team. The sheer volume of blood suggests there’s no hope the victim could have survived, so they’re treating it as a murder case, with the first item on the agenda being to find the body.

I was quite unhappy with the way the previous book ended, with Maeve and Josh turning into typically unbelievable vigilante-style mavericks, so I’m delighted to say that in this one Maeve’s back on track. There are lots of reasons this series stands out from the herd, and one of the major ones is Maeve’s refreshing normality. Of course she’s affected by her experiences, but she’s basically a good cop who works well within a team and tries to stick within the rules as much as possible. And for my money, the books are better when she does.

Now that she’s a sergeant, Maeve has supervisory responsibilities and in this one is looking after the newest team member, Gloria, a graduate entrant. Maeve’s not finding it easy – Gloria’s pretty annoying, ready to feel herself slighted for the smallest reason. But she also seems ready to develop a bit of hero-worship for Josh and Maeve’s horrified to find herself feeling a little bit jealous. It’s professional jealousy though – Maeve is still hoping that she and Rob can get back together, and every girl’s favourite male chauvinist Josh (amazingly!) has his own little family now, having taken on the role of father to his girlfriend’s young son. (My mind still boggles at the idea of him giving the boy dating advice a few years from now!)

Plotting is another of Casey’s major strengths and this one is particularly convoluted. It soon transpires that the street is filled with people with secrets and jealousies, and Kate, Chloe’s mum, seems to have been at the centre of many of them. Chloe is staying with her friend Bethany and her parents, an ultra-religious family who belong to a church that’s not quite a cult, but is tending in that direction. Chloe herself is, perhaps, a bit slow intellectually – certainly her mother had been keen to have her diagnosed as such – but some people think she’s more intelligent than she seems. She’s also physically attractive, all of which makes her vulnerable to any unscrupulous predators she might meet.

Jane Casey

As always, the writing is excellent and there’s plenty of humour to lighten up the tone. It’s narrated by Maeve in the first person, past tense, so that we’re privy to her thoughts and her rather spiky comments about her colleagues. Her relationship with Josh is more equal now that she’s been promoted – he’s still her superior, but she’s no longer the new girl. He’s still just as protective towards her though, which she appreciates even though it annoys her sometimes. And it’s nice to see his softer side peeking through now that he has his little family to humanise him.

This one would work fine as a standalone, though as usual I’d recommend reading this series in order, starting with The Burning, to get the full benefit of the characterisation, and especially the development of Maeve’s unlikely friendship with Josh. Great to have them back in action, and here’s hoping we don’t have to wait too long to see them again!

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

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The Dry (Aaron Falk 1) by Jane Harper

Revisiting the past…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the-dryKiewarra has been suffering from drought for a couple of years now with no sign of rain coming soon. The farmers are worried, many having to kill their livestock for lack of water, and the knock-on effects are being felt through the town. As tensions rise, a tragedy occurs – Luke Hadler shoots his wife and young son, and then kills himself. Or so it seems, but Luke’s parents can’t accept that their son would have done this awful thing. So when Luke’s childhood friend Aaron Falk turns up for the funeral, they ask him to look into it. Falk is now a police detective working in the financial crimes section in Melbourne. It’s twenty years since he was last in Kiewarra, when he and his father left the town under a cloud of suspicion after another death. Many of the townsfolk are unhappy to see him back…

I’m in the highly unusual position of being unable to find a single thing to criticise about this book! So get ready for a dull review – or here’s a better idea, skip the review and read the book instead.

The writing is great – Harper conjures up this drought-ridden and anxious community brilliantly, showing the deep connection between man and nature in a town that relies on its farmers for survival. There’s are some dark descriptions right from the start, with blowflies being the first to find the bodies of Karen and her little son, Billy, but Harper stops well short of being gratuitously gruesome – the balance is just about perfect.

Jane Harper
Jane Harper

I liked Falk as a character very much, so am rather glad to see that the book is listed as the first in a series. Although he had to face a terrible incident in his past, he hasn’t allowed it to make him either embittered or angst-ridden. He’s professional and intelligent and is someone I’d happily spend more time with. The new local policeman Raco, too, is a refreshing character – a happily married man looking forward to the birth of his first child, he treats people with respect and uses his brains rather than his brawn to get to the truth. And the characterisation is just as good of the other townspeople – from Luke’s grieving parents, to Aaron’s childhood friend Gretchen, to the people who still hold Aaron responsible for what happened back in the past – a whole range from nice to nasty, and each equally convincing.

The plot is strong and well-executed; the familiar device of a crime from the past resurfacing in the present feeling fresh because of the skill in the telling. Raco also has doubts about Luke’s guilt, because of a couple of things that don’t make sense to him. His main issue is that little baby Charlotte survived, and he’s convinced that if Luke had decided to destroy his family out of desperation, he’d have killed the baby too. So Raco and Falk team up, and as they investigate the current crime, the shadows of the past loom ever larger. Harper plants false trails all the way through – I freely admit that I suspected everyone in turn, but was still surprised by the solution. And yet it feels totally fair – all the clues are there and, when the reveal comes, it’s completely credible. Add to all this one of the best and most original thriller endings I’ve read in a long time, and you can see why I’m at a loss to find anything to grumble about.

I part read this book and part listened to it on the Audible audiobook version narrated by Stephen Shanahan. Annoyingly, I can’t fault it either! Shanahan’s narration is the perfect complement to the book. He has a lovely Australian accent, but not at all broad enough to be difficult for non-Australians – it reminded me a little of Pat Cash’s voice (*brief pause while FF swoons*). He doesn’t exactly “act” all the parts, but he manages to differentiate between the different voices. There is one Scottish character, and I was impressed by the accuracy of his Scottish accent.

the-dry-audioOne thing I really liked was that Shanahan used a “younger” voice for Aaron in the sections set in the past – a little quicker and lighter than the voice of adult Falk in the present. And, whether intentional or not, Harper also made this an easier listen than some audiobooks, by calling the young version Aaron and the present version Falk throughout, which was a huge help in clarifying which period we were in. On the printed page, the past sections are in italics, but of course, this is no help when listening. It would be great, now that audiobooks are becoming such a big thing, if more authors thought about how to differentiate for a listening audience as well as a reading one.

All-in-all, a brilliant read and an excellent listen! I’m enjoying the read/listen experience in general – a good narration adds another level to the characterisation and for books set elsewhere it also means you get the correct pronunciation of place names and so on. Expect to see this one turning up in my annual awards at the end of the year, but don’t wait till then – grab it if you can!

Since I couldn't track down a pic of Stephen Shanahan, here's a gratuitous Pat Cash pic instead...
Since I couldn’t track down a pic of Stephen Shanahan, here’s a gratuitous Pat Cash pic instead…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group Ltd., and the audiobook was provided for review by Audible via MidasPR.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Maigret and the Tall Woman (Maigret 38) by Georges Simenon

The mystery of the missing corpse…

😀 😀 😀 😀

maigret-and-the-tall-womanOn a hot summer day in Paris when most people are on holiday, Maigret receives a visit from a tall woman who says he once arrested her. Ernestine tells him she is now married to a well-known safe-breaker, nicknamed Sad Freddie, who has been in and out of prison for years. On his latest job, according to the woman, Freddie discovered the body of a murdered woman in the house he was burgling, and has fled and gone into hiding, fearing he’ll be suspected of killing her. Ernestine wants Maigret to find the real killer so her husband feels safe to come home. The only problem is no murder has been reported…

It’s been many years since I last read a Maigret novel, but the recent Penguin re-issues in new translations have led to a spate of reviews around the blogosphere that piqued my interest in re-visiting him. Also, Inspector Maigret is one of Martin Edwards’ picks for his Top Ten Golden Age Detectives. This is the 38th in the series, so the character is well-established, and Simenon doesn’t spend much time in this one filling in details of his personal life. It works perfectly as a standalone, as I believe most if not all of them do.

Simenon creates an authentic picture of a semi-deserted Paris sweltering in a summer heatwave. Partly due to this, and partly just because he seems to like to drink, Maigret spends an inordinate amount of time popping into cafés for a little glass of wine, or beer, or Pernod – lots and lots of Pernod, in fact. I had to stand back in awe at his sheer capacity – not many men start the day with a glass of white wine before heading off to work, and it must surely be a French thing for the police office to have an account with the nearby café to have regular supplies of Pernod sent round during an investigation. One can’t help but feel Rebus would have been in his element over there…

Maigret's unostentatious little office in Quai des Orfevres, Paris.
Maigret’s unostentatious little office in Quai des Orfèvres, Paris.

However, joking aside, happily none of this constant imbibing leads to Maigret being a drunken detective – if anything, it all sharpens his brain. He is shown as doggedly persistent, worrying away at small clues until by sheer force of will he squeezes their meaning from them. The first thing he has to do in this case is establish that there has actually been a murder, and Ernestine helps by explaining how Freddie selects the houses he burgles. Even with this information, Maigret can find no victim and eventually begins to suspect that Ernestine is lying, or at least mistaken. But then he comes across a small inconsistency in the story of one of the people he has interviewed, and from there on it becomes a matter of breaking his suspect down through some pretty dodgy interviewing techniques – he’s not averse to a bit of mild psychological torture to achieve his ends. The eventual solution is not quite as straightforward as it seems as if it’s going to be, though, and along the way Simenon creates a chilling atmosphere of evil at work, and family dynamics gone horribly wrong.

Georges Simenon, looking not unlike my mental image of Maigret...
Georges Simenon, looking not unlike my mental image of Maigret…

Overall, I found this a thoroughly enjoyable read. It falls somewhere between novella and short novel in length, which again I think is standard for the Maigret series, so perfect to read in one evening. To contrast with the darkness of the crime, Maigret himself is rather laid-back and we get a great feeling of the delightful café culture of Paris. He loves his wife, and they regularly meet up (for drinks!) during the case – Maigret is quite capable of working all night if he has to, and making his men do the same, but he doesn’t let work absorb him to the extent of neglecting his family life. In truth, the detection element relies on little more than guesswork and it all works out a little too easily perhaps, but the story is interesting for all that. It’s well written with some humour to lighten the overall tone, and I found the translation by David Watson excellent. I’ll certainly be keen to read more of the series and happily recommend it to anyone who hasn’t tried Maigret before.

(This novel has been published in previous translations as Maigret and the Burglar’s Wife.)

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

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The Death of Kings (John Madden 5) by Rennie Airth

A new take on the Golden Age…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

the-death-of-kingsWhen retired policeman Tom Derry receives an anonymous letter enclosing a jade pendant that the writer claims belonged to a murder victim, he discusses it with Angus Sinclair, who had worked with him on the original investigation. Sinclair is worried – at the back of his mind he had always had doubts about the guilt of the man convicted and hanged for the crime. Not well enough to look into the matter himself, Sinclair asks his old friend John Madden to check things out.

Now in 1949, Madden is retired too, but he still has contacts in the force, not least Billy Styles who used to be his subordinate but is now a detective inspector. The murder took place back in 1938, when a small-time actress, Portia Blake, was a guest at a house-party. She went out for a walk in the woods, and her body was later discovered, strangled. A man with a previous conviction for attempted rape was in the vicinity and suspicion soon fell on him, and after interrogation he confessed. As a result, the investigation was quickly wrapped up and other possible solutions were never checked. So it’s up to Madden to track down the people who were there that weekend, and see if anyone else had a motive…

I’ve always enjoyed the Madden books, and this is an excellent addition to the series. They are somewhat quieter and slower than most modern crime novels, relying on the quality of the writing and the carefully created post-war setting to carry them. There is most definitely a Golden Age feel to them, quite intentionally, I think, though they are at the more thoughtful end of the Golden Age, or perhaps in the slightly later tradition of PD James.

In this one, we have the country house party, a rather upper class list of suspects, a traditional style of investigation carried out mostly through interviews of the various people who were there at the time, and a restricted time period for the murder, making alibi an important feature. There is also a connection to the Chinese Triads through one of the suspects – a half-Chinese man from Hong Kong. Normally I’d run a mile from a story about the Triads – not my thing at all – but I’m delighted to say that, while it’s an important element of the story, it’s somewhat understated and isn’t allowed to overwhelm the other features. At heart this is a traditional detective story, and the Triad storyline feels realistic within that.

In the last couple of books, I’ve lightly criticised the fact that much of the investigation is carried out off-stage, so to speak, with information being given to the reader via police officers talking to each other. I’m delighted to say this one doesn’t take that approach – it goes back to the, in my opinion, much more satisfying style of Madden actually getting out and about and talking to people himself. This makes the characterisation of the suspects much better developed, which consequently meant I felt more invested in the outcome. It also allows for deepening of Madden’s own character, since we see the investigation proceed from his perspective, though in third person.

The old regulars are here too – Angus Sinclair, curmudgeonly with gout, but his brain still sharp; Billy Styles, still faithful to his old mentor; Lily Poole, the lone female detective in this man’s world. I’ve always liked the way Airth deals with Lily – she is strong and intelligent, but not feminist in the strident sense, and the sexism she encounters isn’t ill-meant – just a true reflection of how things were back then. She realises it’s an unfair world but does her best to progress within the existing rules rather than constantly kicking against them. And Airth always lets her have a major impact on the investigation without it ever feeling forced or unrealistic for the time. Madden’s family is here too – his wife, Helen, able to cast some light on some of the suspects from her days as a society girl, and his daughter, Lucy, now a young woman, constantly sticking her nose in and gossiping about the case, but doing it all with a lot of charm (which manages, just, to stay this side of nauseating).

Rennie Airth
Rennie Airth

The solution relies a little too much on Madden getting a sudden intuition, but otherwise it’s both dark and satisfying. Airth includes the kind of class element that is so often present in Golden Age books, with the rather upper-class old school policemen tending to protect those of their own background; but he has Billy Styles comment on it, suggesting that winds of change are about to shake up the way policing is done in this post-war world. Altogether, an absorbing, rather slow-paced novel, but with excellent timing so that it holds the reader’s attention throughout. This would work fine as a standalone, with enough background given to each of the regulars to let new readers understand how they relate to each other, but as with any series it’s probably best to read them in order, starting with River of Darkness.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mantle (Pan MacMillan).

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Crimson Snow: Winter Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards

Deep and crisp and even…

😀 😀 😀 😀

crimson-snowThe latest addition to the British Library themed anthologies of classic crime, this one includes eleven stories all set around the festive season. A great time for people to get together in family gatherings or country house parties, and bump each other off. Who amongst us hasn’t thought that the one thing that would improve Christmas would be the quick dispatching of one of our nearest and dearest, or that the only way to pay for all those gifts would be to hasten the inheritance from one of our much loved rich relatives? Or is that just me? On the basis of the evidence in this book, I’m not alone in thinking Christmas is a particularly jolly time for a murder…

As with the earlier anthologies, this one is introduced and edited by Martin Edwards who also gives a short introduction to each story telling a little about the author. There’s the usual mix of well-known authors – Margery Allingham, Edgar Wallace – and forgotten ones, and as always the quality of the individual stories varies. However, overall I thought this was a more consistent collection than the last couple – none of the stories rate as less than three stars for me and there are plenty of fours and a sprinkling of fives. The lengths also vary from a few pages to a couple of the stories being what I’d think of as novelette length – taking an hour or so to read.

chalk-outline

There’s a nice variety of whodunits and howdunits, some dark and serious, others lighter and more quirky, and a few with ghostly aspects to add to the winter chills. And there’s fog and feverish policemen, and wicked carol-singers, and isolated houses with all access cut off by snow… perfect accompaniment to a mug of hot chocolate and a seat near the fire!

Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most…

The Ghost’s Touch by Fergus Hume – when the narrator is invited to spend the festive season as a guest in a haunted country house, one feels he should have swiftly invented a prior engagement. However, clearly he doesn’t read crime novels, because off he goes, all cheerful and expecting to have a good time. Hah! After the fire, the ghost, and a meeting with the murderer at the dead of night, I suspect he changed his mind… The plot in this one is totally obvious, but nevertheless the author manages to get a nice atmosphere of tension going, and it’s very well written.

crime-scene-tape

Death in December by Victor Gunn – a great cross between ghost and crime story, this one is probably going to appear on a future Tuesday Terror! post so I won’t go into detail. It’s one of the longer stories in the collection, giving time for a bit more characterisation than usual and both the detectives, grumpy Bill “Ironside” Cromwell and his sidekick, lovely Johnny Lister, are well drawn and fun. There are aspects of both who and how in this one, not to mention some genuinely scary bits, all topped off with a lot of humour. And a nice little bit of detection too…

Mr Cork’s Secret by Macdonald Hastings – When Montague Cork’s firm insures a valuable necklace, Montague begins to worry about its safety. So off he goes with his wife to a top London hotel where the owner of the necklace is expected to be staying. He’s lucky to get a room at such short notice, especially at Christmas time. Not so lucky for the person who vacated the room, though – since he was carried out feet first by the police, headed for the morgue. Could the murder have anything to do with the necklace? It’s up to Montague to find out… This has a nice twist in that when it was originally published the author held one fact back as part of a competition. Edwards has left it like that, but at the end of the book, gives the solution as provided by the author, along with the prize-winners’ suggestions.

handcuffs

Deep and Crisp and Even by Michael Gilbert – PC Petrella is covering for his boss over Christmas, and takes his duties seriously. So it’s unfortunate that he develops a feverish cold leaving him weak and a bit confused. But when he suspects a house in the neighbourhood has been burgled, he’s determined to track the perpetrator, even when he’s near collapse himself. Complete with carol-singing, dreadful weather and seasonal illness, this is a fun little story with a neat twist.

* * * * *

So plenty of good stuff here, and a lot of the stories make excellent use of either weather or the holidays to add to the atmosphere and tension. I’m thoroughly enjoying these anthologies – even the less good stories are always fun for seeing the different attitudes and writing styles of the time, and the little author bios add a bit of context, putting each story into its appropriate place in the development of crime fiction. I also like the way they’re themed, and this theme in particular works well – I suppose that these would mostly have originally been published in Christmas editions of magazines, and perhaps that inspired the authors to show off their best. Next to the London-themed one, this is probably my favourite of the collections so far. I do hope there will be more…

blood-spatterNB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.

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The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham read by David Thorpe

Campion’s first appearance…

😀 😀 😀 😀

the-crime-at-black-dudleyDr George Abbershaw has gone down to Black Dudley Manor to join a house party for the weekend. The house is owned by George’s friend, Wyatt Petrie, but is occupied by Wyatt’s uncle by marriage, Colonel Coombe. The elderly wheelchair-bound colonel likes the company of young people, so often asks Wyatt to bring a group of his friends down for the weekend. George, though, is there mainly because he’s fallen in love with a girl who is also a guest, Meggie Oliphaunt, and he hopes to find an opportunity to propose to her. Colonel Coombe has also invited a few friends of his own.

In the evening, talk turns to old legends and Wyatt reluctantly tells of the ritual of a dagger that hangs prominently on the wall. The ritual involves turning off the lights and running around the house in the dark, passing the knife from person to person. What jolly fun! However when the lights come up Colonel Coombe is found dead. His friends tell the assembled company that his death was expected as he was very ill, and hasten to get a cremation certificate signed and hustle the body off the premises, so as not to spoil the weekend (!). But it soon becomes obvious to George that there’s something fishy going on (!) – and when something goes missing, suddenly the young people find themselves the prisoners of the Colonel’s friends…

This is apparently the book in which Allingham’s regular ‘tec, Albert Campion, makes his first appearance, although in this one, George is the main focus and Campion is a secondary character. George is a sensible young man, but Campion appears to be a foolish fop, like Bertie Wooster, only with fewer brains and a falsetto voice. He does develop a bit more depth as the book progresses, but it’s a strange first outing.

Peter Davidson as Campion and Brian Glover as his manservant Lugg in the TV adaptation
Peter Davidson as Campion and Brian Glover as his manservant Lugg in the TV adaptation

There is much running to and fro through secret tunnels, which are nearly as complex as the convoluted plot involving criminal gangs, mysterious papers and suchlike. Despite the darkness of the plot, and some episodes of viciousness on the part of the baddies, the general tone is light and fun. George and Meggie are both likeable characters, and their romance is handled nicely, not overwhelming the story but giving the reader something to care about amidst all the mayhem. Campion adds a lot of humour to the story, partly laughing with him and partly laughing at him. He’s shrewder than he first appears, but in the end it’s down to George to solve the puzzle of what it is the colonel’s friends are looking for, and who killed the colonel. And of course to engineer the escape from the baddies. In fact, Campion more or less disappears towards the end and plays no part in the final denouement – presumably at that point Allingham didn’t see him as her central character.

I listened to the audiobook version, and I have to say I felt David Thorpe’s narration was great! I’ve seen some critical reviews of it, mainly from Campion fans objecting to the falsetto voice he uses for Campion and for the foolishness Thorpe puts into his character. But this is how he is written in the book and I felt Thorpe was paying attention to the words of this one, rather than basing his characterisation on how Campion develops in later novels. Thorpe brings out all the humour in the story, but also does an excellent job with the darker sections. He held my attention throughout, which doesn’t always happen with audiobooks. A 5 star narration, in my opinion.

Margery Allingham
Margery Allingham

However, I’ve never rated Allingham as highly as the other Golden Age Queens of Crime: Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L Sayers; and truthfully I’m not sure that this book has changed my mind. I found it enjoyable, but too convoluted and not at all credible, and apart from George and Meggie, too many of the characters are caricatures. I didn’t feel it was fairplay at all – the eventual solution seemed to come from nowhere, though of course it’s possible I missed hidden clues along the way (even good audiobooks have a tendency to induce occasional napping). I’m glad I listened though – I think the narration actually made me enjoy the book more than I might have, had I been reading a paper copy. So overall, a fun listen of a reasonably entertaining book, but probably not the best one to start with to get a feel for the character Campion eventually becomes.

I was inspired to seek out this book by Margot Kinberg’s excellent Spotlight of it.

Albert Campion is one of Martin Edwards’ picks for Ten Top Golden Age Detectives.

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The Beautiful Dead by Belinda Bauer

Murder as performance art…

🙂 🙂 🙂

the-beautiful-deadTV reporter Eve Singer is on the crime beat, so she’s called to the scene of a brutal murder committed in the foyer of an office building, just feet from where people are passing by on the pavement outside. This is a murderer who likes to perform his gory crimes in public, and then stage them as if it were some kind of performance art. When he makes contact with Eve, at first it seems like a great thing – she’ll have the exclusive story and it will give her career a much needed boost. But soon she realises that she’s becoming caught up in the murderer’s schemes, almost to the point of becoming an accessory…

First off, let me say that I love Belinda Bauer. And this book has in it many of the things I love her for – the great writing, touches of humour, some nice building of suspense and an original and dramatic climax. However, for me, this isn’t one of her best. It feels derivative – there are touches of Hannibal and Clarice in the relationship between Eve and the killer, and heavy shades of Psycho over the storyline. Perhaps there’s not much new left to say in the serial killer novel – certainly it’s been a while since I read one that felt fresh. But the derivations in this one seemed so blatant that I wondered at points if she was deliberately referencing some of the greats as a kind of inside joke, but if so, it didn’t quite come off, and simply ended up feeling rather unoriginal.

The structure also doesn’t feel up to Bauer’s usual standard. We are given biographies of the characters rather than being allowed to get to know them through the plot – whatever happened to ‘show, don’t tell’? Eve’s father suffers from dementia and this is used partly to give some humour to the book – always tricky with such a sensitive subject and I felt it occasionally passed over into tastelessness. And while I thought the portrayal of his dementia was well done for most of the book, when it became part of the plotting in the later stages it crossed the credibility line and began to feel contrived and inauthentic, and I found myself feeling that this awful disease was being used for entertainment purposes rather than being given the empathy it deserves. The humour didn’t work as well for me as usual, I didn’t take to Eve much, and the amount of lazy swearing throughout became utterly tedious, not to mention Eve’s need to vomit every time a corpse turned up.

Belinda Bauer
Belinda Bauer

On the upside, there are passages where Bauer achieves that delicious feeling of creepiness, for example, when Eve thinks she’s being followed home in the dark, and it does have a great thriller ending which redeemed it a little in my eyes. I was also pleased that this murderer was pretty eclectic in his choice of victims, not exclusively butchering vulnerable young women. But overall, this is one I’m going to put down to an off day, and go back to waiting avidly for her next offering. I’ve given it three stars but, in truth, I think one of those stars is from a mixture of loyalty and the feeling that I may be judging it too harshly because of my perhaps overly high expectations. Because, despite this one, I do love Belinda Bauer. I can’t help wondering in general if the pressure to get a new book out every year is really a good thing in the long run…

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

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Death on the Riviera by John Bude

Sun, sea and murder…

😀 😀 😀 😀

death-on-the-rivieraInspector Meredith and his young sidekick Acting-Sergeant Freddy Strang have been sent to the Riviera to help the French police hunt down a counterfeiter – a Brit who seems to be involved in laundering fake money in the little towns along the coast. While they’re there, a murder is committed amongst some of the English people living on the Riviera, so they become involved in that investigation too, especially since it seems that the two crimes may both link to the various people staying in the home of Nesta Hedderwick. This is quite handy for young Freddy, since he’s fallen in love with Nesta’s niece, Dilys…

The title of the book made me think this would be mainly a murder mystery, but in fact the bulk of the book is about the counterfeiting investigation, with the murder and subsequent investigation only happening quite late on. It’s a personal preference thing, and I’m not quite sure what it says about me(!), but I really prefer my crime fiction to be about murders. I’ve never managed to get up much interest in theft or fraud as a plotline. So, true to form, I enjoyed the murder investigation of this one, but found the counterfeiting plot rather dull.

In both sections, it’s really more of a howdunit – the villains are relatively obvious from fairly early on. In the counterfeiting plot, the question is more about how the money is being disseminated. This involves Meredith and Strang in quite a lot of driving along the coast, visiting the various small towns. Bude creates an authentic feel to the setting, with all the cafés and rich tourists, the gorgeous scenery and glorious weather, and Meredith and Strang have plenty of time to enjoy their stay while working on the case, complete with a fair amount of fine dining and wine-tippling.

The murder plot is something of an ‘impossible’ crime, though not of the locked room variety. I’m not going to reveal much about it since it would be hard without spoilers. But it’s fiendishly contrived, with a neat (if rather incredible) solution. The who is easy, the how less so, though I did guess how it was done a few microseconds before it was revealed. I felt the motive was a little shaky, to be honest, but it’s really more about the puzzle than the motivation.

Both Meredith and Freddy are likeable characters. Meredith is methodical and efficient, while Freddy works more on intuition. Freddy has shades of a Wodehouse character – I felt he would fit in well at the Drones Club (though as one of the more sensible ones – think Kipper Herring rather than Gussie Fink-Nottle), which I have to say made me wonder why he was slumming it working for the police. I’d have liked to know a little more about him, but even without much background to his character he adds a touch of lightness and occasional humour, and his romance with Dilys is nicely handled.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, despite not being enthralled by the counterfeiting strand – the writing is very good, the plotting is clever, especially of the murder, and the characters well enough drawn to be interesting. Another intriguing author resurrected by the British Library – one I’d be happy to read more from.

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

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Cast Iron (Enzo Files 6) by Peter May

Secrets of the past…

😀 😀 😀 😀

cast-ironBack in book 1 of the Enzo Files series, Scottish forensic expert Enzo Macleod, now living in Toulouse, took on a bet that he could use modern forensic techniques to solve the seven unsolved murders that were described in a true crime book written by Parisian journalist Roger Raffin. A few years on, he is now beginning his investigation into the sixth murder, of a young girl, Lucie Martin. Lucie disappeared one day back in 1989, and no trace of her was found until the great heatwave of 2003 when her skeleton showed up in the dried-out shore of the lake near her home. Her parents believe she was murdered by a notorious serial killer who was active at that time, but he had a cast-iron alibi for the time she disappeared. Enzo has very little to go on as he reopens the case, but it soon becomes clear someone is out to stop him from finding out the truth…

Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know that I’m a big fan of Peter May’s work, going all the way back to his China thrillers. I admit, however, that the Enzo Files is the one series of his to which I’ve never really taken. In fact, I haven’t read them all – just the first two, then this one. But this is really due to a matter of personal preference than any real criticism of the books. May’s usual protagonists tend to be unencumbered by family ties, or to develop relationships as the series progress. But Enzo comes with a lot of family baggage, which gets added to in each book. Having left his first wife and their daughter, he moved to France with his new love, who then died giving birth to another daughter. So in the early books there’s a lot of working out of resentments with his first, abandoned daughter, Kirsty, and by the time of this book, both daughters have acquired lovers who featured in earlier cases.

Enzo meantime picks up women at a rate that would make George Clooney jealous, so that by the time of this book he has tense relationships with more than one ex. And in each story, some or all of his extended family get involved in the investigation. May does it very well, and keeps all the various personal storylines ticking over, but it’s just not my kind of thing – I find all the relationship stuff takes away from the focus on the plot (and I frankly don’t see what it is about Enzo that apparently makes him so irresistible to women). But I wouldn’t want to put other readers off – what I don’t like about this series may well make it particularly appealing to people who like their protagonists to have a ‘real’ life beyond the immediate plot.

As Enzo begins his investigation by visiting the victim’s family, he is unaware that his daughter Sophie and her boyfriend Bertrand have been abducted, until he receives a warning to stop if he wants to get them back safely. Naturally, this only makes him redouble his efforts! The strand involving Sophie and Bertrand’s imprisonment and attempts to escape is my favourite bit of the book. It takes us into traditional thriller territory with plenty of action and mounting tension, and May excels at this type of writing.

Peter May
Peter May

The main plot regarding Lucie’s murder is also excellent, showing all May’s usual skill at creating strong characters and interesting settings, and managing to have some credible emotional content to offset the action thriller side of the book. However, there is also an overarching plot to the series which comes to a climax in this one, and I felt there was perhaps a little too much going on and too many coincidental crossovers between the various strands. But May’s writing is a pleasure to read as always, and he manages to bring all the threads together well in the end. Some aspects of this work as a standalone, but because it reveals so much about the background plot, I would strongly suggest this is a series that should be read in order. Reading this one first would undoubtedly spoil the earlier books in a significant way. The first book in the series seems to be known as Extraordinary People now, though it was originally published under the title Dry Bones.

I hope my relatively lukewarm review won’t deter people from trying this series. Even with favourite authors, we all prefer some of their stuff to others, but any Peter May book is still head and shoulders above most of the competition. And this is as well-written and strongly plotted as always, while the French setting gives it an added level of interest. So, despite my personal reservations, I still recommend the series, especially if the complicated family relationships aspect appeals to you.

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

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