Knock, Murderer, Knock by Harriet Rutland

Careful with that knitting needle…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The long-term residents of Presteignton Hydro are mostly an elderly bunch, solid middle-class people, retired military men or the wives or widows of the same, and the occasional member of the titled gentry. So beautiful young Miss Blake stands out and becomes the subject of envy and gossip among the women and the target of lust among the elderly men. When she is found dead with a knitting needle through her brain, Inspector Palk finds himself up to his armpits in suspects, but soon catches his murderer… or so he thinks. And then another woman is found dead…

This is quite a fun mystery in the typical Golden Age style. The Hydro setting means there is a small circle of suspects, each with secrets and possible motives, while the police detective soon has to give way to the talented amateur – not that Mr Winkley, with his background in the military and his links with Scotland Yard, is exactly an amateur, but he doesn’t work through the normal police structure. He also doesn’t show up until the book is more than half over, so although poor Palk is upstaged at the end, it’s him we spend most time with in the early parts of the investigation.

Rutland has a keen eye for class and snobbery, and has a lot of fun with her characters, from the lowly housemaids all the way up to the not-quite aristocratic Lady Warme (her title a relic of her dead husband, knighted for being the man behind “Warme’s Patent Cornflour”, as her fellow residents can’t help reminding her from time to time). Palk is also fun, though we rather laugh at him than with him which I’m never as keen on. He jumps to conclusions, and having jumped is reluctant to ever admit he may have been wrong, so even the introduction of a second corpse, murdered in the same way, doesn’t shake his belief that he has caught the right person for the first murder. The second murder must be a copycat, he feels. But then the third body turns up and even he has to admit that three separate murderers might be stretching coincidence too far…

Although I enjoyed reading this overall, there were a couple of things that didn’t work for me and that I felt stopped it from reaching the top ranks of vintage crime. The first murder was of a perfect Golden Age victim – mysterious, shady background, not quite suited to her surroundings. The second victim, however, is a young woman who didn’t “deserve” to die and she left behind grieving relatives, whom I felt Rutland didn’t handle particularly well. The third murder was of someone else who, in my opinion, was too innocent to be a suitable victim, and I found it hard to reconcile the overall tone with these latter two murders. I also felt that the motive was a bit hackneyed and also a little obvious – I had a good idea of who the murderer was from quite early on, and also of why they were doing it.

As a result of these points I enjoyed the first half considerably more than the second. The characterisation of all the residents is well done – not too in depth and perhaps a little caricatured as “types”, but no less fun for that. As well as the Cornflour Widow and a variety of others, there’s the nurse seeking a husband, the put-upon doctor having to deal with as much hypochondria as genuine illness, the rivalry between the elderly men for beautiful Miss Blake’s attention, and the aspiring mystery writer whom Rutland uses to poke gentle fun at her own craft. In such a small, enclosed community there’s plenty of gossip along with the usual petty squabbles and resentments of those with too much time on their hands. Based on the first half it was heading for the full five stars from me, but I found my enthusiasm wore a little thin when the events darkened to a point where I found the light, humorous tone increasingly jarring.

Four stars, then, and I’d be happy to read more of Rutland in the future, though it appears she only wrote three books and then stopped, for reasons unknown.

This was The People’s Choice winner for September, and another good one – you’re on a roll, People!

Book 9 of 12

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* * * * *

On a personal note…

Last week I had to make the difficult decision to have my dear little Tuppence put to sleep after a short but terminal illness. I tell you this not to seek condolences – I know fellow pet lovers out there know how hard these things are – but because I’ve always joked about her on the blog and didn’t want her disappearance to go unexplained. She was a little cat with a big personality, and her brother Tommy and I are missing her very much.

The Disappearing Act by Catherine Steadman

The road to fame…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

Catherine Steadman

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

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

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

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I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane

Turn up the air-conditioning…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

Book 80 of 90

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

Mickey Spillane

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

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

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The Final Twist (Colter Shaw 3) by Jeffery Deaver

Locked and loaded…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

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

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

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

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

Jeffery Deaver

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

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

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The Black Cabinet by Patricia Wentworth

Dangerous inheritance…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

Patricia Wentworth

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

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

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

Book 8 of 12

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

He didn’t see that coming…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

John Dickson Carr

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

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

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False Witness by Karin Slaughter

Nothing bad happens to the cat…

😦

Back when they were teenagers, sisters Callie and Leigh committed a terrible crime, although they had good justification for it. Since then, Callie has spiralled into drug addiction, partly because of this early experience, and partly from getting hooked on pain medication after an accident that has left her with all kinds of physical problems. Leigh, on the other hand, has lifted herself out of their deprived beginnings, becoming a lawyer now working in a prestigious firm. One day she is asked to defend a man who has been charged with a horrific rape. She doesn’t recognise Andrew at first, but he recognises her – and he knows what she and Callie did that night. And it soon becomes clear he’s enjoying the power this gives him over both sisters…

I’ll admit it straight away – I found the subject matter of this sordid and the graphic descriptions of rape, extreme drug abuse, violence and gore more than distasteful. The constant, casual use of the foulest of foul language didn’t help matters. By the time I finished I felt that I needed to scrub my mind out with a brillo pad to get rid of the slime. Slaughter and I are clearly not kindred spirits.

Trying to be objective, it is well written for the most part and the characterisation of the two sisters is done well, even if that meant that I disliked both of them to the point of not wishing to spend time in their company and not caring what happened to them. Andrew, the rapist client of Leigh, is a stock psychopath from central casting, caricatured way past the point of credibility. But all three of them are merely vehicles for Slaughter to use her clearly well-practised shock tactics on the reader. The plot is entirely secondary to the horrors she shows us along the way, from repeated descriptions of both child and adult rape of the most violent kind, to the lovingly detailed and very lengthy descriptions of Callie’s drug taking, including how best to inject oneself through an abscess to get the thrill of added pain, to violent beatings in which she lingers on the crushed bones, detached eyeballs, etc., etc.

Karin Slaughter

Apart from my general disgust, the real problem from a literary point of view is that it’s incredibly repetitive. We revisit the original event many, many times – not gradually learning more, we already know what happened, but just going over it again and again which, since it involves child rape, I could seriously have lived without. We are told the same things about Callie’s physical problems every time her name is mentioned, and yet, despite their apparently debilitating effects, they never stop her when she wants to beat up someone much larger than herself or climb over a fence or in some other way channel Superwoman – heroin must be a miracle drug! Slaughter incorporates Covid, so we get masking and social distancing thrown at us constantly, as if we haven’t all heard enough about that in real life already. The whole book could have been cut by at least a third simply by removing the worst of the repetitions. If she had also removed the foul language and the loving instructional handbook on how to get the most out of drug abuse, I reckon she could have lost another hundred pages. Take out the graphic descriptions of rape and violence and we’re down to novella length…

Nope, not for me, though since she has a massive following I don’t expect that will bother her too much. If you haven’t already gathered, trigger warnings for just about everything you can think of and several things you probably can’t. But, on the upside, nothing bad happens to the cat.

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

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To Cook a Bear by Mikael Niemi

The Pastor investigates…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

To Cook a BearWhen the Pastor goes walking round the woods and hills around his village in Pajala in the north of Sweden, seeking new botanical specimens, he is always accompanied by the young Sami boy, Jussi. Jussi had run away from his Lapland home and come south, and the Pastor had come across him living wild and near to starving. The Pastor took him in to his own family, and now Jussi is his faithful assistant. The Pastor, we gradually discover, is the founder and leader of the Lutheran Pietist Revival movement, Lars Levi Laestadius – a real person, who as well as his religious work made a name for himself in the scientific field through his work on botany. When a local maid goes missing and is later found dead, the villagers believe it was the work of a killer bear and they set out to hunt the creature down. The Pastor’s scientific knowledge and keen powers of observation lead him to think that the girl died at the hands of a human, but he can’t persuade the local law officer, Sheriff Brahe, to believe him. And then another girl is attacked…

This is one of these books that, despite having a murder mystery at its heart, falls very definitely into the category of literary fiction. As the Pastor and Jussi go about their investigation, the author slowly builds a detailed picture of mid-nineteenth century life here in this remote northern area where Sweden and Lapland meet, not far from the Finnish border. Life is hard, superstition is rife, and drunkenness is a curse on the population. The Pastor, himself of Sami origin, wants to stamp out the drunkenness and bring education to the poor so that they can lift themselves out of their physical and spiritual poverty. This is at the root of his Revival, and while it brings him the loyalty of many of the poorer people, it also makes him many enemies among the rich and powerful, or those who love alcohol more than God. Niemi assumes some knowledge of Laestadius and his movement, which may be the case for Swedes, but I had never heard of him. However, the story stands strongly on its own and a quick visit to my friend wikipedia filled in the background details after I’d finished reading.

Lars Levi Laestadius

Niemi shows how the Sami were treated not just as second-class citizens but as inferior beings, studied by anthropologists in the way botanists study plants. Laestadius’ movement was beginning to teach Sami and other children from these remote regions to read and write, and Niemi shows us this through the Pastor teaching Jussi, who is our narrator for most of the book. Jussi talks about the wonder of letters and how the written word seems to have given him a concept of self – the Pastor recording him in the parish register being the first time he felt that he existed beyond the moment, into a past and a future. He slowly learns to read, having to tackle not just his own native Sami language, but Swedish and even a little Latin so that he can assist with recording the Pastor’s botanical work. His wonder and musings on the importance of writing are beautifully done, and he is clearly a metaphor for what Niemi sees as Laestadius’ major contribution to the advancement of his own people, Niemi himself having been born in Pajala about a century after the time the book is set.

The letters by themselves were silent. But your lips could blow life into them. Turn them into objects, animals, names of people. And equally curious was the fact they continued speaking even when you had closed your mouth. When you looked at the letters, they were converted into words inside your head. No, not words – bodies. My eyes look at “Maria”, at the five letters, the five consecutive shapes, but in my heart and mind I see my beloved. Her cheeks, her shining eyes, her hands holding mine.

We also see the day to day life of the villagers; their work on their farms, their customs around marriage, the food they eat, the clothes they wear, their saunas. The harsh winters are endured here, so close to the Arctic, and the short summers enjoyed despite the hard work of preparing for the next winter. Life is physical and often cruel, and there is no sentimentality about the wild creatures that present a threat or a food source. Some of the most brutal scenes are tough to read, but they ring true.

The plot itself is slow-moving in the extreme, but again that seems to arise naturally out of the way of life. Distances are far when they must be walked in cold, wet weather, and there is no detective force to call in when a crime is committed – just the local Sheriff and his constable, neither of whom has any training, or indeed, desire, to deal with anything more complicated than a drunken brawl. Forensic science doesn’t exist, although Niemi allows the Pastor’s general scientific knowledge to play a part, and finds ways to bring in some of the new sciences happening in the wider world, such as daguerrotypes.

Mikael Niemi
Mikael Niemi

The writing is excellent as is the characterisation, of Jussi and the Pastor especially, but also of a host of secondary characters, such as the Sheriff, the Pastor’s wife, and the girl Jussi loves from afar. The translation by Deborah Bragan-Turner is flawless, with enough Swedish, Finnish and Sami phrases to keep the importance of language in this place before the reader, but always used in such a way that the meaning is either given or is clear from the context. Although more of a depiction of a way of life, the mystery ticks along steadily, giving the book a sense of direction, and the resolution is completely appropriate to the story – if you read it you’ll see what I mean. And I hope that you do read it – a truly absorbing novel, and highly recommended.

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

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Bones and Silence (Dalziel and Pascoe 11) by Reginald Hill

Playing God…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Bones and SilenceWhen Dalziel looks out of his window at the house opposite, he sees two men, one woman and a gun. He rushes over but by the time he gets there the woman is dead and the two men are adamant that she shot herself despite their attempts to prevent her. Dalziel doesn’t believe it – he saw the gun in the hand of one of the men. However when Pascoe arrives he’s less convinced – Dalziel has been drinking and how reliable is his evidence? Meantime, preparations are underway for a community performance of The York Mystery Plays, and the artistic director Eileen Chung thinks that Dalziel will be perfect to play the part of God. For the Devil, she wants to cast local builder Philip Swain – the widower of the dead woman and the man Dalziel claims was holding the gun…

For me, this is one of the very best in this great series not so much because of the murder plot, but because of the two side plots. Eileen Chung is a wonderful character, like Andy himself larger than life, glowing with self-confidence, and able to manipulate those around her to do as she wants. She is the focus of the lustful thoughts of most of the men she meets, and knows it, but women are also drawn to her by her kindness. Those in trouble especially seem to find a kind of strength simply from being in her company. Andy and she are like the two greatest gladiators in the arena, battling for supremacy, and it’s not at all clear who will win. Andy agrees to play God but Chung is going to discover that God has his own ideas about how his role should be performed!

The other side plot concerns anonymous letters Dalziel is receiving, probably from a woman, who tells him she plans to kill herself. She doesn’t want him to do anything about it – in fact she’s relying on him not to. She simply feels she wants to tell someone of her intention, and has picked on him as a kind of confessor because she believes his brashness means he won’t feel any responsibility when she dies. And Andy is indeed brash and believes that people are responsible for their own actions. But he passes the letters on to Pascoe, and Pascoe cares, perhaps too much. So while he is investigating the death of Gail Swain, Pascoe is also keeping an eye out for any woman who seems as if she may be at the end of her tether.

The three major characters are all given great parts in this ensemble piece – Dalziel, Pascoe and Wieldy, who by this point has become as essential to the series as the other two. Ellie, after her last outing when she really had taken her feminist stridency too far, to the point where it was endangering her relationship with Peter, has dialled back a bit for this one, becoming again the feisty but good-natured Ellie of old. But there are also lots of very well-drawn secondary characters in this one – Chung, of course, but also dried-up but still lustful Canon Horncastle, whose permission Chung needs to use the Cathedral grounds for her play, and his downtrodden wife, whom Chung quietly sets out to rescue. Philip Swain is one of Hill’s ambiguous possible villains/possible victims, and his secretary, Shirley Appleyard, defies her stolid appearance by having a razor-sharp mind, a tongue to match, and a predilection for discussing classic literature with Peter.

reginald hill
Reginald Hill

This one also has one of the most memorable climaxes of the whole series. The first time I read it I was shocked to my socks, and still find it intensely affecting even after multiple re-reads. I’m not sure that Hill wholly convinces me psychologically, but dramatically and literarily it’s superb. Is that intriguing enough for you to want to read it? I hope so! Although these books do all work better if you’ve read some of the earlier ones and become emotionally attached to the regulars, most of them work very well as standalones too, and this one does, I think. Hill is at the height of his powers by this point of the series, able to juggle humour, drama, pathos and tragedy seamlessly to give a full-colour panoramic view of his characters and the society they inhabit. As always, highly recommended!

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The Chianti Flask by Marie Belloc Lowndes

The aftermath of justice…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Chianti FlaskLaura Dousland is being tried for the murder of her elderly, miserly husband, Fordish. The whole case hinges on a Chianti flask – the couple’s Italian servant says he put a half-full flask on the tray for his master’s supper before going out for his evening off; Laura says there was no wine on the tray when she took it up to her husband later that evening. Whoever is telling the truth, the fact is that the Chianti flask could not be found the next day and has never turned up. Laura is a demure middle-class Englishwoman of good birth and education. Angelo is an Italian of the servant class, whose English (while considerably better than Laura’s Italian, I imagine) is clumsy enough to cause laughter in court. Naturally, the jury believes Laura and she is acquitted.

(FF muses: Why do murder victims in vintage crime so often have strange names? Did Mr and Mrs Dousland not know that if they called their son Fordish, he was quite likely to be done to death at some point? I’m glad my parents called me FictionFan – a name that I am confident will never show up as a murder victim in any book!)

This is in the nature of prologue and all happens in the first few pages, in case you think I’ve just spoiled the story. The mystery of the missing Chianti flask hangs over the book, but lightly. The bulk of the book is set after the acquittal, and is mostly a psychological study of the effect on Laura of having to live with the notoriety of having been an accused woman. While public sympathy is generally on her side and accepts her innocence, there are still some who think she’s a murderer. Her friends remain totally loyal, sure that she could never have done such a thing, but they can’t understand why she now shuns society and prefers solitude to company. Then young Dr Mark Scrutton falls in love with her, but can Laura bring herself to try for happiness again, and can she bear the idea that her notoriety may come to drive a wedge between them in time?

Although there is a mystery within this, it would be hard to categorise it fully as a mystery novel. The question of Laura’s innocence has been officially settled so there’s no legal jeopardy hanging over her. It’s more about the social mores of the time – the stigma of scandal and how it affects women in particular. There’s an undoubted feminist undertone to it, subtly done, showing first how Laura’s straightened circumstances pressured her into marriage with an elderly man and then how little power she had within the relationship once they were married. Lowndes shows how the husband has full control over money and household arrangements, and of course sex. This particular husband seems to have treated Laura as an unpaid servant, denying her even the money to join a lending library. (Gasps of justified horror all around the book blogosphere!) But we suspect his cruelty may have run even deeper in more intimate matters.

Lowndes also shows, however, that it’s not only husbands who hold disproportionate power over penniless young women. Laura had previously worked as a governess for several years, and her employer had come to look on her as a friend. But her kindness to Laura is of the controlling kind – she expects Laura to follow her advice and basically do what she’s told, as a dependant should. At the other end of the scale is the true kindness of Mark’s elderly parents, shocked that their one beloved son has fallen for a scandalous woman but willing to put their concerns aside if they can convince themselves that Laura is necessary to his happiness.

marie belloc lowndes
Marie Belloc Lowndes

It’s an interesting one, no doubt, and very readable, although I must admit I think the ending lets it down quite a bit. I also found it a little irritating that, presumably because of the time of writing, Lowndes was so obscure about the sexual issues she hints at. Not that I’m keen on graphic sex stuff in books, but I really couldn’t decide if Fordish was doing terrible things or if it was that Laura had simply developed a disgust for her elderly husband’s normal (for the time) sexual demands. In other words, was Lowndes saying that Fordish was cruel in particular, or was she making the wider point that a system that gives a husband full sexual power over a wife is cruel in general? Perhaps this would have been clearer to contemporaneous readers who may have been more familiar with how such matters were “coded” in the time before they were considered acceptable for more open discussion. However, the obscurity made me think harder about the issues as I attempted to interpret her full meaning, so perhaps it served its purpose.

An interesting one that disproves again the idea of the mystery novel genre as being formulaic. First published in 1934, it feels very much ahead of its time in terms of its in-depth look at the psychology of the impact of crime and justice on those caught up in them, whether guilty or innocent.

20 books 2019Book 8 of 20

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

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The Goodbye Man (Colter Shaw 2) by Jeffery Deaver

Make Immortality Great Again!

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Goodbye ManBounty hunter Colter Shaw is on the trail of two young men, boys really, who have been accused of defacing a church with neo-Nazi slogans and then shooting the church janitor who had run out to confront them. But as Colter learns more, he feels it doesn’t add up. Though troubled, neither of the boys have a history of involvement with neo-Nazi groups, nor have shown themselves to be trigger-happy. When his search ends in tragedy, Colter decides he wants to know more about what might have been behind their actions, and his investigation soon leads him to a kind of retreat, called the Foundation, where the boys had been headed during the chase. The more Colter looks into things, the more mysterious and sinister the Foundation appears. So Colter decides to book himself onto a retreat there, undercover…

This is the second book in a trilogy about Colter Shaw, a man brought up by his survivalist father to have all the skills needed to be both hunter and expert in self-defence. He uses this unique background to find missing people for offered rewards, travelling the country in his Winnebago. Sometimes the people he is searching for are accused of crimes, as is the case here, and sometimes they have simply chosen to disappear for more personal reasons. His success rate means he has plenty of money, so that he can choose which cases to take on and sometimes follow something up if it interests him, even without the prospect of financial reward.

As well as each book having an individual plot, there’s an overarching mystery in the background regarding the death, probably murder, of Colter’s father and the disappearance of his brother, also trained in survivalist techniques. That story doesn’t move much in this middle book, but the ending suggests it will probably be the main story in the third and last book of the series.

The main story here is about the Foundation, which Colter soon learns is a personality cult around the charismatic figure of Master Eli, who promises that he has discovered the true way to happiness and immortality. He attracts those who are suffering from grief or depression, and preys on their vulnerability. But is he merely a charlatan, a snake-oil salesman, out for money? Or is there something darker going on? How far will Master Eli and his inner circle go to protect their lucrative business?

Jeffery Deaver
Jeffery Deaver

Jeffery Deaver has an easy style that makes his books very readable even when the subject matter might be a little clichéd, as it is here. He brings nothing new to the idea of the cult, and it all seems a bit too convenient that people should be gullible enough to fall for Master Eli’s nonsense quite as quickly and completely as they seem to. Because, honestly, the basis of his “message” is pretty laughable – the merest soupçon of cynicism should have been enough to protect the new recruits. I found it quite amusing, though, that Deaver occasionally makes Eli sound rather like a better-looking and more eloquent version of a certain orange cult leader with whom we have all become far too familiar over the last few years, which certainly had the effect of reminding me that gullibility is pretty widespread. (I restrained myself from saying “in America” – do I get bonus points for tact? 😉 ) What is also widespread in America is the Great God Gun, worshipped with far greater fervour than the Bible which usually accompanies it, and of course there are Glocks and Colts and hunting rifles aplenty in the book. But Colter also uses his specialist knowledge to create some more innovative weapons, equally capable of killing or maiming, proving that guns really aren’t essential fashion accessories for the true survivalist.

I felt a little too much time was spent on building up the picture of the cult but most of the book is given over to action, which Deaver does very well. Colter is a likeable protagonist although he’s almost too good to be true, always able to come up with some arcane piece of knowledge in a crisis, like which herbs have certain properties, how to deal with various kinds of wildlife threats, how to bypass security systems, and so on. But although Deaver stretches credibility to its limits, he never quite breaks it completely. I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as the first book, The Never Game, purely because I couldn’t fully buy in to the attraction of Master Eli and his cult, but I still found it a fast-paced page-turner and I’m looking forward to getting to the resolution of the background mystery in the final novel (which I already have and will be reading very soon as another of my 20 Books of Summer).

20 books 2019Book 7 of 20

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

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Cécile is Dead (Maigret 20) by Georges Simenon

Maigret’s lapse…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Cecile is DeadCécile Pardon had become a regular visitor to Inspector Maigret at his office in the Police Judiciaire building in Paris. A spinster who lived with her elderly widowed aunt, Cécile had become convinced that someone was coming in to their apartment at night while they slept. Maigret had made a superficial gesture towards investigating, but everyone thought she was imagining things. And worse, everyone was teasing Maigret that she kept visiting because she had a crush on him. So on this morning, when Maigret saw her sitting patiently in the waiting room he left her there and got on with other things. When eventually he went to collect her, she was gone. Later, the body of her aunt is found in the apartment, strangled, and Cécile is nowhere to be found. The title gives a clue as to her fate.

Realising the aunt must already have been dead when Cécile came to see him, Maigret suspects that she knew who the murderer was and wanted to tell him directly rather than report it to the local police. He feels that if he had only taken the time to speak to her, Cécile may not have been killed. Maigret is too sensible and too experienced to blame himself for her death – he’s quite clear in his own mind that the murderer is fully responsible for that – but nevertheless his slight lapse makes him even more determined than usual to see that justice is done.

This one has quite a complicated plot for a Maigret novel, with several suspects and possible motives. Mostly it’s set in the apartment block in Bourg-la-Reine that Cécile and her aunt lived in – a block that the aunt also owned. For it turns out that she was a rich old woman, but miserly, always convinced that her relatives were scrounging from her. She was also unpleasant, treating poor Cécile like an unpaid servant, being unwilling to assist her nephew even though he was out of a job and his wife was about to have a baby, and so on. She played her many relatives off against each other, hinting to each that they would be the one to inherit when she died. But these aren’t the only suspects – rumour has it that she kept large sums of money in the apartment since she didn’t trust banks, so anyone may have decided to break in, kill her and steal the money. However, the apartment has a concierge who controls entry to the building, so that if this was what happened, it must have been one of the other tenants, or the concierge herself.

Later in the book, Maigret finds himself being accompanied on his investigations by a visiting American criminologist, Spencer Oates, who has been given the opportunity to study the great man’s method. But Maigret, as he has said in other books, doesn’t have what he thinks of as “a method” – he simply speaks to the people involved, learns as much as he can about the victim, studies the location and the timings, thinks himself into the mind of the murderer, and uses his intelligence and experience to work out what must have happened. So he uses Oates as a kind of sounding board as he develops his theory, thus allowing the reader to follow his thinking too.

There’s a sub-plot about a man, one of the tenants, who has previously been jailed for his inappropriate behaviour with young girls. Some aspects of this might jar with modern readers, as girls are shown both as vulnerable and predatory. Although it’s an unfashionable viewpoint now, I find this much more realistic than the idea that girls remain innocent angels until the day they are legally adult, so I felt this was an accurate if unflattering portrayal of adolescent girls, and also that Simenon gave a contrast in Maigret and the ex-prisoner of the response of the good man and the bad – one resisting temptation, the other preying on vulnerability.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Gareth Armstrong, and as always he did an excellent job of creating distinctive voices for Maigret and all the other characters.

georges-simenon
Georges Simenon

Overall, I think this is one of the best of the Maigrets I’ve read so far. Simenon’s portrayal of the unglamorous side of Paris is as excellent as always, but this one is better plotted than some, and the themes and characterisation have more depth. And I always enjoy when the solution manages to surprise me but still feel credible. Quite a bleak story, but Maigret’s fundamental decency and integrity and his happy home life always stop these stories from becoming too depressingly noir. Highly recommended.

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Mother Loves Me by Abby Davies

Got myself a crying, talking, sleeping, walking, living doll…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Mother Loves MePoor Mirabelle is never allowed to go outside. Mother has explained that she has a severe allergy to light and if the sun shone on her she would die, painfully. Mirabelle has wondered if she couldn’t maybe go out in the evening then, after sunset, but Mother has told her that there are evil people out there at night who would do bad things to her. So Mirabelle lives her life inside her home, all the windows boarded up to stop light from getting in, all the doors locked to stop Mirabelle from getting out. But there’s one good thing in her life – Mother loves her. Every morning Mother paints Mirabelle’s face and dresses her so she looks just like a doll – Mother’s little doll. And then on her thirteenth birthday, Mother brings home a surprise – a little sister called Clarabelle, although the new little doll claims her name is Emma. And Mirabelle isn’t Mother’s favourite any more…

Written as Mirabelle’s own past-tense narrative, Davies manages to get a huge amount of tension into the story as Mirabelle begins to realise that everything Mother has told her may not be true. Admittedly, her voice and actions don’t always fit with her age – she sometimes speaks and acts like an older teenager, almost adult, and it’s hard to believe that she has as good a knowledge of the world as she has, given that everything she knows comes from books. But for the most part I found that issue quite easy to ignore, and I enjoyed the way Davies references the books Mirabelle has acquired her knowledge from, and how she models her actions on the heroes and heroines she has found in them.

While the thriller aspect goes well over the credibility line in the later stages, the basic premise is pretty terrifying because it’s so believable. And yet it’s not quite as dark as some of these stories about people being kept locked up for years because the baddie in this case is a woman, and therefore there’s no aspect of sexual abuse regarding Mirabelle or Clarabelle. Mother simply wants a living doll of her own, and so long as Mirabelle doesn’t make her angry then life is bearable, and it’s all she’s known. It’s only when she begins to realise Mother’s deception that Mirabelle becomes first confused, then unhappy and finally angry.

Abby Davies
Abby Davies

The writing style is simple, as befits a narrative from a thirteen-year-old, but it has some nice touches that make it an enjoyable read – the book references I mentioned earlier, the way Davies builds tension and shows us Mirabelle’s fear and her methods of controlling it, and her sense of wonder about the world she has never seen. I also liked how Davies managed to give a sense of both time and place to the reader even though all we have to go on is Mirabelle’s very restricted viewpoint. I wouldn’t say I ever came to have any sympathy for Mother, but Davies adds enough depth to her character to prevent her from merely being a pantomime villain, and she does a good job of showing how hard it is for Mirabelle to trust her own judgement about Mother given the years of brainwashing to which she’s been subjected. By the time it all goes a bit over the top towards the end, I was too invested in Mirabelle’s peril to get overly critical. And while it may not be strictly credible, I have to admit that nothing in it would be completely impossible…

Fast-paced, creepy, highly suspenseful, a bit gory in the latter stages but not too much so – given that it’s not really my usual kind of thing, I enjoyed this one considerably more than I thought I would.

20 books 2019Book 6 of 20

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

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The Pact by Sharon Bolton

Poor little rich kids…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The PactIt’s the night before A-level results and a group of six friends have gathered together as they’ve done most nights of this gorgeous summer, to make the most of these last weeks they’ll all be together before going off to their various Universities. They’re confident they’ll get the results they need for they’re the cleverest group in their expensive, academically-renowned school. A privileged childhood lies behind them and now they have a golden future to look forward to. But drink and drugs and youth are a dangerous combination, and they all agree to one last mad escapade that results in the death of a woman and her two young children. Panicked, they flee the scene, but they’re sure the police will soon trace the car they were in. And then Megan, the quiet one, the outsider, offers to take the rap for them all. She knows she’ll likely go to jail, but she’s willing to do that on one condition – that the other five promise that when she gets out, they’ll each do her one favour, whatever she asks. The others grab this lifeline and agree. Fast forward twenty years… Megan is back, and she’s ready to call in the debt…

Goodness, when Bolton’s on form there’s no one to touch her for truly thrilling thrillers! This one grabbed me right from the start as I watched these six kids – selfish, yes, but also programmed to be high achievers by pushy parents and ambitious schools – do one stupid thing and then follow it up with another, even stupider. Even though the blurb reveals this early part of the plot, the tension that Bolton creates is irresistible, the definition of page-turning.

It slows down a little in the middle as we learn what our five remaining golden people have achieved in their twenty years. Tal has followed her father into the legal profession and now runs his well respected law firm. Xav is a successful investment manager. Amber has gone into politics and is being spoken about as a probable Cabinet Minister of the future. Felix has used his chemical expertise to set up his own business, from which he’s made a fortune. Dan is the least successful – he’s “only” become Master of the school the group once attended. But as we get to know them, we discover that beneath the glittering exterior of their lives, the memory of that night has affected them all to one degree or another. And now that Megan is back, all the feelings of guilt and fear are also back at full strength – maybe even more so now that they each have so much more to lose. And they don’t even know yet what favours she’s going demand in return for her silence.

After that slightly slower section it ramps up to full speed again, and never lets up till the end. I don’t want to say any more about the plot, since most of the fun comes from not having a clue what will happen next. So I’ll limit myself to saying that although Bolton dragged me far over the credibility line, it’s such a relentless ride I didn’t have time to worry about that at the time – nor even to really notice it. I believed in the characters and in their actions as they were happening and didn’t stop to analyse too deeply (and this of course is why thrillers work best when they are fast-paced).

Sharon Bolton
Sharon Bolton

Other things I loved, that made this work for me when so many other contemporary thrillers don’t (including one or two of Bolton’s own). Third person, past tense throughout, allowing Bolton to let us into the characters’ minds or keep us out as she chooses – and she uses that brilliantly to lead us on and misdirect us. It’s also much easier to put up with unlikeable characters when you’re seeing them from the outside. No “that day” nonsense – Bolton starts by telling us exactly what happened on that day back then before she brings us into the present, and what a difference that makes. She builds suspense on the basis of what might happen in the future, not by refusing to tell the reader what has already happened in the past. Similarly, no dual timeline – Bolton tells us about the past and then about the present, rather than jumping back and forward between them. And although the characters are all pretty unlikeable, they all feel believable – self-absorbed and selfish, yes, but their instinct for self-preservation is understandable even if it’s not particularly admirable.

I loved this one and raced through it, and the climax had all the thrills it needed and then a couple more. I wish all thrillers were written like this! Highly recommended.

20 books 2019Book 4 of 20

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion via NetGalley.

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The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

Trial by media…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Franchise AffairRobert Blair’s life as a country solicitor is peaceful and contented, though just recently he’s been wondering if it isn’t just a little too contented. When he is contacted by Marion Sharp with a request for his help with a matter involving the police, his first reaction is to refer her to another lawyer specialising in criminal matters. But Miss Sharpe is adamant – she wants someone of her own class, and that means Robert. And the case sound intriguing, so Robert heads off to Miss Sharpe’s house, The Franchise, to meet her, her mother and Inspector Grant of Scotland Yard…

The Sharpes, mother and daughter, are eminently respectable ladies, though fairly new to the neighbourhood having inherited The Franchise just a few years earlier. So the story that schoolgirl Betty Kane tells sounds fantastical – she claims that the two women abducted her, locked her in their attic and tried to force her to work as their servant, doling out regular vicious beatings when she didn’t comply. The whole thing would have been written off as nonsensical, but for the fact that Betty is able to describe things in the house and grounds that she couldn’t possibly have known, since she had never been in the house for legitimate reasons. However, Grant can find no corroborating evidence and so the matter would have rested, except that the local crusading newspaper decided to take the matter up. Now the Sharpes are being vilified and harassed, and the matter is no longer only one of whether or not they will be prosecuted – it becomes imperative to prove that Betty is lying so as to clear their names completely. And for Robert it has become personal as he finds himself increasingly drawn to Marion.

Murder Mystery Mayhem Logo 2Challenge details:
Book: 87

Subject Heading: Fiction from Fact
Publication Year: 1948

This is considered a classic of crime fiction, and it fully deserves its reputation. Although it’s billed as an Inspector Grant novel, in fact he plays only a tiny part – the real “detective” is Robert, floundering a little out of his depth since he’s never had anything to do with the criminal side of the law before, but righteously determined to do everything in his power for his clients. He’s extremely likeable, and the ambiguity over Marion and Mrs Sharpe means that for most of the novel the reader doesn’t know whether to hope his romantic feelings for Marion will blossom, or whether he’s setting himself up for a broken heart. Marion and her mother are great characters – both opinionated individualists with a healthy cynicism about their society’s prejudices, but finding that when that society cuts one off, life, especially in a small town where everyone knows everyone else, rapidly becomes intolerable. Although the reader also finds it difficult to believe that they could be guilty, it’s equally hard to see why and how young Betty could have invented such a detailed and consistent story. It was long, long into the novel before I felt I could decide on the Sharpes’ innocence or guilt.

The writing is great and the plot is perfectly delivered. First published in 1948, the social attitudes are very much of their time, and it becomes pretty clear that Ms Tey was probably a good old-fashioned Tory snob whose ideas on class and politics ought to have roused my rage. But actually I found them amusing, and a great, if unintentional, depiction of that particular class of ultra-conservativism which still exists today, particularly in the letters page of The Telegraph and other newspapers read mainly by the retired colonels and maiden aunts of the Shires.

It’s also a wonderful picture of the kind of trial by media with which we are all too familiar, although it happens more slowly when people must write actual literate and grammatical letters to the newspapers and wait for them to be printed rather than firing off foul-mouthed libellous tweets, as we do now that we’re so much more advanced. Tey shows how quickly mob feelings can be aroused, and how easily some people will proceed to take what they would call justice into their own hands. She also shows, though, that there are decent people in the world who will rally round and help, even when it’s unpopular to do so.

Josephine-Tey-1934
Josephine Tey

I don’t want to risk any spoilers, so I’ll simply say that the gradual revelations are very well paced so that my attention never flagged, and I found the eventual resolution completely satisfying. But more than this, I found it a highly entertaining read with all the elements that make good vintage crime so enjoyable – an intriguing mystery, an atmosphere of building tension, a likeable protagonist who is neither alcoholic nor angst-ridden, a touch of romance, a sprinkling of humour. Great stuff! I now officially forgive Josephine Tey for boring me to death with The Daughter of Time and look forward to getting to know Inspector Grant and her better.

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

The Killing Kind by Jane Casey

Twisted…

🙂 🙂 🙂

The Killing KindThe law says that everyone has the right to defence in court, so sometimes barristers find themselves defending people they’d probably rather not know. So it was with Ingrid Lewis when she was just starting out, successfully defending John Webster from accusations of stalking and harassment. It wasn’t long after the trial before Ingrid learned to her cost just what it was like to be the target of John Webster’s games. Now, a few years later, a fellow barrister is killed and Ingrid becomes convinced that John Webster did the killing, mistaking the other woman for Ingrid. But can she persuade the police to believe her before it’s too late?

Jane Casey always writes entertainingly and well, and I love her police procedural series starring Maeve Kerrigan. This book is something of a departure from her, moving into standalone thriller territory, and it rockets along throwing twist after twist until the poor reader’s head is spinning. This poor reader, I’m afraid, found it went so far over the credibility line that I had to stop trying to take it seriously at all at a fairly early stage, when Ingrid begins to wonder if Webster is really the bad guy, or is he trying to save her? From there on it spirals into ever more ludicrous scenarios, in which the only constant to hang on to is Ingrid’s profound stupidity. She’s the type of heroine who, on being told a house is haunted by murderous ghouls, volunteers to spend the night in it. “I am in fear of a crazed stalker who I believe wants to kill me, so I’ll wander about the dark, lonely streets of London late at night, all alone, rather than getting a cab,” seems to be her general attitude to self-protection.

Jane Casey 2 - telegraph.co.uk
Jane Casey (source: telegraph.co.uk)

I know credibility isn’t considered a plus in contemporary thrillers, so I’m sure this will work well for people who generally enjoy the “I didn’t see that coming” impact of total lack of plot and character consistency. Unfortunately I do like plots to hold together and there are far too many holes in this one for me, and I don’t like when characters have a personality makeover halfway through, as both Ingrid and Webster do in this one. I felt that by the end both were unrecognisable from how they had been drawn at the beginning, not because they had been changed by events, but because they had been changed by the author to fit in with the plot twists. Plus, I regret to say it, but despite all the twists I did see that coming… I had very little doubt from quite early on as to where the story was going to end up, although it’s done well enough that I wondered from time to time if perhaps I was wrong. But I wasn’t.

Overall, then, reasonably entertaining but I think it’s fair to say it’s not my favourite Casey novel by quite a long way. I’d admit, though, that I am probably the wrong reader for the book, and I’m sure it will work better for the many people who love this kind of over-the-top twisty thriller.

20 books 2019Book 3 of 20

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

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Two-Way Murder by ECR Lorac

The man in the street…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Two-Way MurderAll the young men in the neighbourhood are on their way to the Hunt Ball at Fordings, and most of them also appear to be well on the way to falling in love with lovely young Dilys Maine. It’s a foggy, misty night and local man Nick Brent offers to drive Ian Macbane, a visitor to the district, to the Ball. But Nick makes it clear Ian will have to find another lift back, since he intends to drive Dilys home. As he and Dilys return along the low road, they see something lying in the middle of the road which on inspection turns out to be the body of a dead man. Gentlemanly Nick tells Dilys to walk the remaining short distance home so she can avoid getting involved in giving a statement to the police, since her strict father doesn’t know she’s at the ball. When the police turn up they quickly realise the dead man has been murdered, but before they can find out whodunit they will have to identify him…

In my usual way, I waited till I’d read the book before I read the introduction, so was completely unaware while reading that this book was from a “lost” manuscript, never before published. Martin Edwards had heard about it from a book-dealer friend some years ago, but it’s only now, when he has for some years been editing the British Library Crime Classics series and has done so much to return ECR Lorac to the prominence she deserves, that the BL agreed to publish it. Edwards tells us they have given it a light edit, simply to remove a few repetitions and duplications, but it is substantially as written. In my view, it is right up there with her best, which means it’s very good indeed.

It has a slightly odd structure in that the main investigative viewpoint changes as the book progresses. At first, a rather unlikeable “by-the-book” policeman, Inspector Turner, is in the lead, taking statements and jumping to conclusions and generally being annoying. Then for a bit Ian Macbane is in the limelight, as he sets out to do a bit of amateur detection, driven on by his desire to protect Dilys. Finally, for the bulk of the book, Inspector Waring of the local CID takes over. He’s a complete contrast to Turner – his method is to chat to the locals, pick up on gossip, listen to rumours, and generally feel his way through all the deceptions and half-truths the suspects and witnesses are feeding him, mostly in this unfathomable desire all the men seem to have to protect beautiful but pathetic Dilys (who in my humble opinion would have been vastly improved by having to take responsibility for her own life occasionally).

I liked Waring very much – Edwards speculates that perhaps he was a new venture for Lorac, getting away from her long-running series detective, Inspector MacDonald. Unfortunately she died not long after this book was finished so we’ll never know if she had planned to give Waring more outings. I like MacDonald too, but Waring has rather more personality and works more on instinct and knowledge of human nature, rather than the somewhat more procedural feel of the MacDonald stories.

There’s a fair amount of mild humour in the book and a smidgen of romance, just the right amount. But the important thing is the underlying mystery, and it’s excellent. Lorac shows how unreliable witnesses are when they’re trying to keep all kinds of secrets that have nothing to do with the crime itself, and Waring has a natural talent for sorting the wheat from the chaff and getting to the truth. I loved the crucial clue – very original, I thought – although obviously I can’t tell you anything about it. I had gradually come to suspect the right person, but quite late on and only after several false starts, and I still couldn’t work out how the thing had been done, or why. Waring remained a few steps ahead of me all the way through, and explained everything to my satisfaction in the end. Is it fair play? Yes, I think so – I think I had all the information that Waring had, just not the brainpower to work it out!

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Since a lot of it involves people driving around the district on various roads or walking along bridle paths, I longed for a map – I suspect if it had been published in Lorac’s lifetime there may have been one. But Lorac is always great at her settings so I was able to gradually develop a mental map of the area as well as a clear picture of the various types of people in this small rural community – the farmers and business owners, those with a long pedigree and the newcomers, the dissolute and the self-appointed righteous guardians of other people’s morals.

A real find for Martin Edwards, and I’m grateful to him and the British Library for giving us all the opportunity to enjoy it. Lorac continues to be the brightest shining star in the BL’s sparkling firmament. Great stuff!

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

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The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts

Enough to drive a girl to drink…

🤬

The CaskAs a cargo ship is unloading at the docks in London, an accident causes a cask to fall and split. Two employees of the shipping company spot that some gold coins have fallen from it so not unnaturally they decide to have a little poke around inside to see if there are more. There are, but more shockingly there is also a dead hand which appears to be attached to an equally dead woman! So begins this ridiculously over-complicated, utterly tedious investigation into the death of someone I didn’t care about at the hands of one of the tiny group of suspects about whom I cared even less. If only the cask had been full of red wine, I could have got paralytically drunk and been happy…

Dear me, that’s the nearest I’ve come to death by boredom in a while! I’ve read a few of Crofts’ extremely procedural procedurals now, with varying degrees of enthusiasm or lack thereof, but this one is in a class of its own. Pages and pages and pages of shipping routes of casks, three detectives going over and over and over the same pieces of evidence again and again and again, zero characterisation of victims, suspects or detectives – truly it is a mystery to me how anyone manages to make it all the way through to the end of this with their sanity intact. I gave up at 53% when it became clear to me that I would soon be screaming out loud rather than just inside my head. I was “interested” enough to flick to the last chapter to find out which of the suspects had done the deed, and when I got there I realised I’d been right along – I really didn’t care!

Murder Mystery Mayhem Logo 2Challenge details:
Book:
16
Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age
Publication Year: 1920

And since I’m moaning, let me have a brief rant about the dialogue. People do not speak as if they are a business letter. No one – NO ONE – ever – in the history of the universe – has ever said in conversation, and I quote:

“That cask, as you see, was invoiced out via Havre and Southampton on the 30th ultimo, and yet it turned up in London on Monday, the 5th instant,…”

Good grief! And then there’s the convoluted journey of the corpse-containing cask, which turns up in Paris, London, Southampton, Le Havre and Rouen, some of them several times. Why? WHY?? Why would a murderer go to these ridiculous lengths to get rid of a body? What’s wrong with burying it in the woods or, since it crosses the Channel at least three times as far as I could gather, dumping it in the sea? And I don’t wish to lower the tone, but would a corpse travelling about in a cask for days in the height of summer remain… ahem… fresh??

(I realise the answers to the above may be given in the 47% of the book I didn’t read, but despite my mouth-frothing ranting, I DON’T CARE!!)

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Freeman Wills Croft

This was apparently Crofts’ first book, so a very strong argument against reading books in order. He undoubtedly did improve, even if his later books occasionally also bore me into fits of the screaming abdabs. At least he got over the desire to make his characters talk as if they were dictating letters to their secretaries. Apparently writer and critic Julian Symons classed him as one of “the humdrum school” of mystery novelists – on the basis of this one I feel Symons was being too kind. But Martin Edwards is even kinder when he uses the euphemism “meticulous” to describe the endless mind-numbing tediosity of repeated details. Amazingly the book has sold over 100,000 copies. I downloaded my copy free and yet still feel I’ve been overcharged…

If you’ve been having too interesting a time recently and feel the desire to be bored rigid for a change, you too can read this – it’s available here. But get your own cask of medicinal wine first – I’ll need all of mine…

The Man from London by Georges Simenon

Lead us not into temptation…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

The Man from LondonMaloin is a railway signalman who works the night-shift in the signal box at Dieppe, overlooking the harbour. One night, he’s watching the various arrivals and departures of cross-channel ferries as usual when he spots one man throwing a suitcase over the fence to another man, thus avoiding customs. Maloin shrugs – smuggling is commonplace and he’d probably do it himself. But when he later sees the two men fighting over the suitcase and then one of them killing the other, during which the suitcase falls in the dock, he doesn’t do what he knows he should – inform the authorities. Instead, he uses his knowledge of the tides to retrieve the suitcase, which he finds to be full of English banknotes…

This was my introduction to Simenon’s non-Maigret books, and turned out to be a very good one to begin with. It’s a study of a weak man whose greed leads him into an act of which he would not have thought himself capable, and the consequences on his character of the guilt and fear that follow.

Simenon’s settings are always one of his main strengths, and here he gives a great picture of the working life of Dieppe – the shopkeepers, the people who make their living from the fish and shellfish in the sea and on the shore, the hotels and bars, the rather downbeat, humdrum sex trade, and the transient travellers, mostly passing through on their way to somewhere more exciting. Too big to be a place where everyone knows everyone else, it still has a small town feel – the inhabitants carefully graded according to their station in life.

Maloin is an unpleasant character even before he gets himself involved in crime – bullying to his wife and children, using the services of the local prostitute whenever he feels the need to bolster his ego and prove himself a man, jealous of anyone to whom he feels socially inferior. His night work suits his rather misanthropic personality, allowing him to spend his working hours alone and giving him the days free to pursue his hobbies. His family are used to being quiet around the house so as not to disturb his daytime sleep, and mostly they propitiate him so as to avoid his outbursts of unreasonable anger.

But once he commits the act of retrieving the suitcase he sees visions of wealth and at first feels no guilt. However, seeing the murderer searching for the suitcase, he feels the first chill of fear, and as the police become involved in the hunt, first for the money, and then for the murderer, he finds himself entirely consumed by it to the point where he can’t sleep or concentrate on anything else. And then the guilt begins. Without going further into the story to avoid spoilers, it’s a very credible picture of how someone without any particular intelligence and a loose moral compass might behave when temptation comes his way. Maloin’s plans for how to convert the money to francs, how to explain its sudden acquisition, never get past the woolly stage, and meantime he finds himself getting sucked into a quagmire of deceit and a criminal investigation that is growing more serious by the day. What seemed at first like a minor transgression is gradually destroying his state of mind.

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Georges Simenon

Novella length, this doesn’t waste any time on unnecessary padding – the length of the book is dictated by how long it takes to tell the story, a skill Simenon had in spades and which many a modern crime writer would do well to emulate. The suspense element is excellent – while Maloin behaves consistently with the character Simenon has created for him, it’s nevertheless not at all clear where his fear and guilt will ultimately lead him. And I found the ending entirely satisfactory, showing once again that sudden twists are not necessary to produce true suspense – it’s the fundamental unpredictability of human behaviour that does that.

This will certainly encourage me to seek out more of Simenon’s non-Maigret work. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it more or thought it was better, exactly, but it has a somewhat different, darker feel and that aspect of being a story complete in itself that I always appreciate in stand-alones, without losing the features I always enjoy most in Maigret – the settings and the characters of his villains.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Classics via NetGalley.

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The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

When the detective is more complicated than the plot…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Cuckoo's CallingWhen supermodel Lulu Landry falls to her death from her apartment window, the police put it down to suicide. She had been seen earlier that evening having a big bust-up with her boyfriend. But her brother, John Bristow, doesn’t believe that verdict – he’s convinced that Lulu was murdered. So he seeks the help of Cormoran Strike, ex-military man and not very successful private detective, to investigate.

Strike has a complicated family and backstory, clearly designed to be a recurring detective in a long-running series, as of course he has indeed become. Son of a hippy groupie mother and a rockstar father, with a parcel of half-siblings on his father’s side with whom he has very little contact and one half-sibling on his mother’s side to whom he’s close, when we first meet him he is in the middle of a messy break-up with his long-term fiancée which leaves him homeless and sleeping in his office. Add to this his background as a military veteran who lost a leg when his vehicle was bombed, and, as I said, complicated. All of this complication may be why the book is ridiculously overlong. (FF muses: Poirot just came from Belgium – that was enough, wasn’t it? Miss Marple has even less backstory. And yet Agatha Christie books have been selling for a century. I wonder if readers in 2121 will still be reading about Cormoran Strike.)

Lulu Landry has an equally complicated background which we learn about at equal length. The adopted mixed race daughter of white parents, her beauty has made her rich and famous but not necessarily happy. Her boyfriend is perpetually drunk or high on drugs and the two regularly have spectacular rows. Her brother, also adopted, seems to love her to an unhealthy degree. Her adoptive mother, who seems to have treated Lulu like a pretty doll, is now dying of cancer. But there’s no real reason why Lulu would have committed suicide on this particular night – in fact, it seems highly unlikely. Just as well the police were so easily satisfied, though, or there would have been no case for Strike to investigate, I suppose!

Robert Galbraith
Robert Galbraith

Strike is assisted in his investigation by his new temporary secretary, Robin, who has secretly always wanted to be a private detective and discovers to her own delight and Strike’s surprise that she has something of a talent for the work. Soon she’s out from behind her typewriter, joining in on the action. Fortunately she finds Strike’s habit of descending into drunken maudlin self-pity more endearing than I did, and soon becomes a kind of emotional prop to him along with all her other skills.

I feel I’m being unfairly negative about the book. In fact, I quite enjoyed reading it. Galbraith’s writing style has an easy flow to it which keeps those pages turning even when there’s a lot of repetition and extraneous padding. I could have lived without the constant unnecessary swearing, which I assume Galbraith throws in to show she can write for adults as well as children. I’m pretty sure that in fact children would appreciate the foul-mouthery far more than this adult did. But otherwise I found it very readable, easy on the brain and, sadly, almost instantly forgettable. I wouldn’t refuse to read another in the series, but I won’t be rushing out to acquire them either, especially since I believe they actually increase in length as they go on, with the latest one coming in at a frankly ludicrous 944 pages. They would have to be chocolate pages to tempt me to pick that one up!

People's Choice LogoBook 5 of 12

This was the People’s Choice winner for May. A reasonably enjoyable read, and I’m happy it’s off my TBR – so a win! Thanks to all who voted. 😀

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