Two’s company 3…

Two for the Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge this week. One of these I expected to love and didn’t; the other I expected not to love and did. So much for judging books by their covers!

The Floating Admiral by The Detection Club

Thirty-nine…

😦

While out fishing on the local river, Neddy Ware sees a rowing boat floating upstream on the tide. He manages to hook it and bring it to the bank, where he discovers it contains a dead body. Admiral Penistone, the corpse, is a newcomer to the area so no one knows much about him or his niece, Elma, who lives with him. It’s up to Inspector Rudge to find out who could have had a motive to kill him. He’ll be helped or hindered in his investigation by the eleven Golden Age mystery writers, all members of the Detection Club, who wrote this mystery, one chapter each and then forwarding it on to the next author to add their chapter, with no collusion as to the solution. Some of the true greats are here, like Christie and Sayers, and lots of others who have been having a renaissance in the recent splurge of vintage re-releases.

Challenge details:
Book: 27
Subject Heading: ‘Play Up! Play Up! and Play the Game!’
Publication Year: 1931

Lovely idea. I fear I found it a total flop. The first several writers repeat each other ad nauseam, each adding a few more clues or red herrings as they go. Poor Rudge never gets a chance to investigate anything, since each new writer wheels him around and sends him off in a different direction. I was determined to persevere, mainly because it has inexplicably high ratings on Goodreads, but by halfway through I was losing the will to live. Then Ronald Knox decided to use his chapter to list thirty-nine questions arising from the previous chapters, all of which needed to be answered before we could arrive at the solution. Thirty-nine! I gave up. I tried flicking forward to the last chapter as I usually do when abandoning a book mid-stream, only to discover the last chapter is about novella-length (unsurprisingly, really, since I suppose it has to address those thirty-nine questions plus any more that had been added in the second half). I asked myself if I would be able to sleep at night without ever discovering who killed the Admiral, and while pondering that question quietly dozed off, which I felt was a fairly effective answer. I also tried reading the various other solutions from some of the other authors which are given as an appendix, but the first couple were so ludicrous I gave up. Clearly many people have enjoyed this, but for the life of me I can’t understand why. Oh well!

Amazon UK Link

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The Medbury Fort Murder by George Limnelius

Sex in the Golden Age??

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Lieutenant Lepean is found with his throat cut and his head nearly severed from his body in a locked room at the isolated Medbury Fort on the Thames, it soon becomes clear he was justifiably disliked by a whole host of his colleagues. Four in particular had good reason to hate him – two he was blackmailing, one whose family he had dishonoured, and one whose girlfriend the lascivious Lepean was pursuing. But first Chief Inspector McMaster and Inspector Paton will have to work out how someone managed to get into his locked bedroom…

Despite the locked room aspect – never my favourite style of mystery – there’s actually much more in this one about motivation than means. First published in 1929, Limnelius is remarkably open about sex, acknowledging unjudgementally that sex happens outside marriage, that lust does not always equate to love, and that sexual jealousy rouses dangerous passions. The sexual elements are viewed largely from the male perspective, but the women are not all simply passive recipients of male desire – he makes it clear that women are sexual beings too. All very different from the usual chaste Golden Agers, although still couched in terms that are far from the graphic soft porn that some writers tend to go for in these degenerate days!

Challenge details:
Book: 30
Subject Heading: Miraculous Murders
Publication Year: 1929

However, just as I was going to hail Limnelius as a man before his time, he reassured me that while he may be forward-thinking about sex, he’s conventionally Golden Age when it comes to class…

In the history of crime there is no single case of a murder of violence having being committed by an educated man. The sane, educated mind is not capable of the necessary degree of egotism combined with ferocity.

Hmm, tell that to Lord Lucan!

It’s very well written and, classism notwithstanding, I found the psychology of the various characters convincing. The solution shocked me somewhat, not because it’s particularly shocking in itself, but merely that the motivation seemed far too modern for a book of this era, and probably more realistic as a result. I enjoyed it very much. I believe he only wrote a handful of novels, but I look forward to reading more if I can track any down.

Amazon UK Link

The Craftsman by Sharon Bolton

Toil and trouble…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The people who attend the funeral of Larry Glassbrook, dead after spending many years in prison for the murders of several teenagers, aren’t there to mourn so much as to assure themselves he is really dead. Florence Lovelady is one. Now a senior police officer, back then she was a raw WPC who was responsible for bringing Larry to justice, at great cost to herself. But when she visits the house Larry used to live in, she finds something that makes her realise that the story of the murders isn’t over yet…

This is told in two timelines, starting in 1999 (which in terms of the book is the present day), then going back to 1969 when the murders were happening, and then coming back to the present for the last section. The “present” sections are given in the present tense, while the “past” sections are in past tense, so at least there’s slightly more logic to the use of the present tense than many times when it’s used, but it’s still annoying. However, Bolton is such a good writer she can carry it off if anyone can. All sections are first person accounts from Florence.

The setting is the village of Sabden, nestling at the foot of Pendle Hill in Lancashire, famed for being the site of the infamous witch trial in the 17th century. Bolton uses this historical event as a starting point to bring the idea of witchcraft and the supernatural into her story, and to explore the idea of modern witchcraft. If, like me, you don’t believe in the power of crystals and the magical uses of herbs and so on, you will have to be willing to suspend your disbelief at points. Fortunately it doesn’t play a large part in most of the story and Bolton is very good at leaving it ambiguous enough for the rationalists among us to justify all that happens rationally – for the most part. And it creates a deliciously creepy atmosphere, with a growing sense of dread and some real cliff-hanger moments that make reading the next chapter essential!

The 1969 part of the story is excellent. Three teenagers have gone missing, separately, about a month between each disappearance. Tensions are rising in the town at the police’s failure to find either the children or their abductor, and the police are at a loss. Graduate Florence brings with her new-fangled ideas about analysing data to spot patterns and so on, and is rubbing up her colleagues the wrong way. Combined with the usual sexism of the period, this means she has to battle hard to have her voice and her ideas heard. (FF delicately stifles a yawn.) But she’s a determined type, and even her bosses soon have to admit that sometimes her suggestions make sense. And then she finds one of the teenagers, dead unfortunately, and the missing persons case becomes a hunt for a murderer.

Sharon Bolton

The 1999 sections are considerably less successful in my opinion, with Florence behaving in ways that I found hard to believe any senior police officer would. The woo-woo-witchcraft element is also stronger here, especially in the last section. While the story remains compelling and full of atmosphere, the credibility falls away sharply, and I shall draw a kind veil over the last couple of ludicrous chapters, which had they not happened at the very end would probably have led to me abandoning the book.

So overall I loved about 97% of this and thought the ending was silly, hence the loss of a star. If you’re happy with nonsense – sorry, I mean, magic – in your crime novels, you probably won’t have the same issue. I haven’t decided yet whether to read the next book, The Buried, which has just been released – while I enjoyed Florence as a character and loved the setting and atmosphere, I’ll wait for other reviews to give me an idea of whether it returns to real life or remains in the world of potions and spells…

Amazon UK Link

Two’s company 2…

Another double review to help clear my backlog, though this particular pair really demand to be reviewed together…

Dialogues of the Dead (Dalziel and Pascoe 19)
by Reginald Hill

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When an AA man dies after apparently falling from a bridge, it is assumed to be an accident. Then a young musician crashes his car into a tree and dies, again put down to accident. But at the local library, librarians Dick Dee and Rye Pomona are going through the massive pile of entries to a short story competition in the local paper when they come across anonymous stories that show another side to these deaths, and it appears they must have been written before the deaths were reported in the media. As Dalziel and Pascoe begin to investigate, there’s another death, then another, and it appears obvious the team have a serial killer on their hands. The killer is soon nicknamed the Wordman, since each death is accompanied by another short story. Meantime, new member of the team, “Hat” Bowler, is falling in love…

I had forgotten just how good this one is! It’s a wonderful blend of light and dark, and full of Hill’s trademark love of words and wordplay, which this time he puts at the centre of the story by filling the Wordman’s written “confessions” with literary “clues”, and by involving the librarians – Dick Dee especially loves to play word games. There’s a huge cast – essential, since so many of them will be bumped off and there need to be enough left as suspects. It’s mainly set among the self-styled great and good of the town, and Hill has excelled himself in creating characters who stay just the right side of caricature. Dalziel is on fine form, which means the book is full of humour, but Hill is expert at suddenly changing the mask from comedy to tragedy – the murders are dark enough, but the Wordman’s confessions take us deep into a troubled and damaged mind.

The denouement is tense and thrilling, and the solution shocks. And we’re left with the reader knowing more about what happened than Dalziel and Pascoe. They think that everything has finally been wrapped up, maybe not neatly, but securely. However…

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Death’s Jest-Book (Dalziel and Pascoe 20)
by Reginald Hill

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s impossible to see this one as anything other than as Part Two of Dialogues of the Dead. Unlike many of the books in the series, this one does not stand on its own – anyone trying to read it without having read the one before would probably be completely lost, or at the very least feel as if important stuff had been left out. As a result, I’m not giving a little blurb, since almost anything I say about this one could spoil the last one. I’d also say to anyone who’s reading the series in order, make room to read these two one after the other – they’re both intricately plotted and having the details of the first one fresh in your mind helps when reading the second.

Oddly, although it is a sequel of sorts, this one doesn’t work nearly as well as the first, in my opinion. Hill had obviously become fascinated by the character of Franny Roote over the course of the series – a man who appeared in one of the early cases and reappears in several of the later ones, becoming a kind of nemesis for Peter Pascoe. In this one we get screeds of letters he writes to Pascoe which take up probably around a third of the book, and while they’re interesting, often amusing and, of course, well written, they slow the main plot down to a crawl. I’m afraid I never found Franny quite as entertaining as Hill clearly thought he was, although he provides an interesting study in psychology both of himself and of Pascoe’s reaction to him. I’m not sure the psychology is completely convincing, though.

The other aspect that weakens this one is very hard to discuss without spoilers, so forgive my vagueness. As I said above, at the end of Dialogues of the Dead, the reader knows more than the characters. This continues throughout Death’s Jest-Book, which is basically the story of Dalziel and the team gradually realising that their knowledge is incomplete and trying to fill the gap. Hat’s love story continues too but, knowing what we know, we more or less know how that will work out. So all through we’re watching the characters learning about things the reader already knows. Of course it’s more complex than that makes it sound, and there’s still all the usual stuff that makes Hill so enjoyable – the writing, the language, the regular characters, secondary plots, moral dilemmas – but the pace is very slow, and plot-wise it doesn’t build the same level of tension. It’s good – just not as good as the first part of this story, and being a sequel of sorts it’s impossible to avoid making that comparison.

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In summary, then, together the two books form one massive story – both books individually are chunksters. Dialogues of the Dead is excellent and could be read separately as a standalone, although the reader is likely to feel that there are some loose ends. Death’s Jest-Book is good but with some structural weaknesses, and is very much a sequel or second part. It doesn’t work well as a standalone, and should be read soon after Dialogues of the Dead while the details are fresh.

Two’s company…

Still being a million miles behind with reviews, I’m going to do a few double posts over the next few weeks, containing two short reviews each, to cut into the backlog. First up, two mystery novels, one which I enjoyed very much and one which didn’t hit the spot for me…

Death at La Fenice (Brunetti 1) by Donna Leon

In the beginning…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

World-famous conductor, Maestro Helmut Wellauer, is appearing at La Fenice opera house in Venice when he is poisoned with cyanide during the second act interval. The show goes on front-stage with a stand-in conductor, but backstage Commissario Guido Brunetti is already discovering that Wellauer was roundly disliked by almost everyone who knew him. But who disliked him enough to murder him, and why? Brunetti decides that the only way to find the murderer is to learn everything he can about the victim, so he begins to delve into Wellauer’s past, where he will uncover some disturbing secrets…

I’ve read a couple of the recent entries in this long-running series and enjoyed them well enough, but not to the extent of being particularly inspired to read more. However, this first one turned up in an Audible sale and the narrator, Richard Morant, sounded good so I thought I’d give it a try. And I must say I thought this was vastly better than those later ones!

For the first novel in a series, the development of Brunetti as a character is excellent, and we begin to get a picture of his extended (and happily functional) family life. Venice comes alive, not so much in the sense of physical descriptions though they’re there, but as an atmosphere and a culture, a fully-rounded society. Leon talks knowledgeably about opera and music generally, and gives a good picture of a culture where the arts are both highly valued and well and widely understood. And the plot is excellent – it is dark, indeed it shocked me at a couple of points, but Brunetti’s humanity and sympathy towards the various suspects stops it from becoming too bleak. It’s a little weak on the investigative side, perhaps, but Brunetti’s colleagues avoid the mild caricaturing that I wasn’t so keen on in the later books – they are much more believable as real people here. I can now understand why so many people have become hooked on this series, and I look forward to reading more of the earlier ones.

Audible UK Link

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The White Priory Murders (Sir Henry Merrivale 2)
by Carter Dickson

Footprints in the snow…

😐 😐

James Bennett has been invited to a house party in the White Priory, home to the Bohun brothers, John and Maurice. The star guest is Marcia Tait, a glamorous actress who has just walked out of a Hollywood contract so she can act in a play written by Maurice Bohun. The house is full of people connected to Marcia – fellow actors, people from the movie company, lovers actual and hopeful – and Marcia loves to be the centre of attention. In fact, it’s a real mystery why it’s taken so long for someone to murder her…

I’ve had a mixed reaction to Carter Dickson aka John Dickson Carr, loving some of his early books and not getting on well at all with his more famous locked room mysteries. This is one of the latter – in this case, the “locked room” is a pavilion in the ground of the White Priory where Marcia planned to spend the night alone (maybe), and is found dead with only one set of foot-prints, of the man who found her, in the snow outside. I must admit I’m weary of the one/no set of footprints in the snow trope beloved of locked roomsters, so my heart sank as we began to go through and discard all of the usual possibilities – secret tunnels, fresh snow falls, people dropping in from hot air balloons overhead (OK, I made that one up, but at least it would be different).

I’m afraid I found this dull, as I often do with locked rooms, and I didn’t like any of the characters including the detective, Sir Henry Merrivale, retired policeman. All the intricacies of alibis and who could have got to the pavilion and how left me both confused and bored, and there’s lots of jerky dialogue that mainly consists of people being rude to each other. I eventually abandoned it at 60% and flipped to the end to discover whodunit. A week later, I’ve forgotten.

I’m sure this would work fine for people who enjoy locked room mysteries or impossible crimes. Unfortunately it just happens not to be my kind of thing.

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

Amazon UK Link

The Murder on the Links (Poirot) by Agatha Christie

Poirot and the foxhound…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

On his way home from Paris, the ever-susceptible Hastings is charmed by a girl who shares his carriage on the train to Calais. As they part he asks her name and, laughing, she replies “Cinderella”. He never expects to see her again, but of course he does! The next day Poirot receives a letter begging him to come to Merlinville-sur-Mer, a small resort midway between Boulogne and Calais, to look into an urgent matter for a M. Renauld. Renauld says he is in imminent fear for his life, and though Poirot and Hastings travel there as quickly as they can, alas, too late! Renauld is dead, stabbed in the back and tipped into a shallow open grave on the golf course that borders his property. Poirot feels he owes it to his would-be client to work with the French authorities to find his killer…

Christie’s third book and only the second Poirot novel, she still at this stage hasn’t quite settled into the style that would eventually become her trademark, but in terms of plotting this is a big step up from her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Hastings too has settled into the character with which we are familiar. Poirot is still rather different – he’s much more physically active than in the later books, and although there are mentions of things like his passion for order, his eccentricities are not yet so much in evidence. There are odd little things that stand out, like his moustache being described as “military” rather than the later “luxurious” and so on, but he’s closer to his final characterisation than he was in Styles. His relationship with the French police detective, Giraud, is much more of a rivalry than the collaborative approach he has with the police inspectors he works with in later books – his attitude to Giraud, and Giraud’s to him, reminded me much more of Holmes’ sarcastic superiority than Poirot’s later affectionate mockery.

The plot is nicely complicated, with plenty of shifts and twists along the way. On the night before Poirot and Hastings arrive, Renauld and his wife were woken in the night by two masked men, who proceeded to tie up and gag Mme Renauld, and then demanded that Renauld tell them the “secret”. When he refused, they dragged him out of the room, and he wasn’t seen alive again. What was the secret they were after? Renauld had mentioned Santiago in his letter to Poirot, and it transpired he had business dealings there. His son, Jack, was about to set off to Santiago on his father’s instructions, but M Renauld hadn’t told him why, simply that he would send further instructions later. But there are odd things closer to home too. Why has Renauld had several meetings with a neighbour, Mme Daubreuil? Were they having an affair? Why does Mme Daubreuil’s lovely daughter Marthe have anxious eyes? Who is the mysterious Bella Duveen, a letter from whom is found in Renauld’s overcoat pocket? And what has Cinderella to do with the whole thing? And just when things seem complicated enough, another dead body is found…

Agatha Christie

Giraud is the “foxhound” style of detective, minutely poring over the ground in search of physical clues, like the match that appears to be of a kind more common in South America. Poirot is more thoughtfully observant, as likely to spot what should be there but isn’t as to obsess about what is there. While Giraud hides behind bushes to eavesdrop, Poirot simply listens to what people tell him, and uses his little grey cells to spot the tiny inconsistencies that will lead him to the truth. I did work out part of the howdunit aspect of the plot, but was still taken by surprise by the solution to the whodunit.

My memory of this was that it was quite a weak one which is why it’s so long since I revisited it. But I was wrong – it’s a good plot, an interesting story and there’s plenty of fun along the way, plus a touch of romance for our Hastings. It’s also enjoyable for seeing how Christie was continuing to develop her style and her characters. Not one of her very best, but as always with Christie, even her second tier novels are better than most people’s best. Well worth reading!

Book 12 of 12

This was the People’s Choice for December. You were very kind, People, to pick me a Christie – always a sure-fire winner! 😀

Amazon UK Link

Dalziel and Pascoe Hunt the Christmas Killer by Reginald Hill

Christmas comes early…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a collection of eleven short mysteries from the pen of the supremely talented Reginald Hill, none of which have ever appeared in a collection before. HarperCollins and the Reginald Hill Estate got together to produce it, and Tony Medawar did what he does so well in the Bodies from the Library series – tracked down stories that had appeared over the years in newspapers and magazines, and had then to all intents and purposes disappeared from print. The book is foreworded by Val McDermid who admits to her lifelong admiration for Reginald Hill, and to being inspired by him. She writes knowledgeably, warmly and affectionately, and summarises the book as “the best Christmas present any reader could ask for”. I heartily concur!

The book begins and ends with Christmas mysteries, each starring Dalziel and Pascoe and the team, and both are a festive delight. These most famous of Hill’s characters appear in another couple of stories too, while the rest of the stories are non-series tales, showing off Hill’s imagination, plotting skills and range. McDermid considers him a master of the short story form, a thing I’d never really considered before since I know him best for his two major series, Dalziel and Pascoe and the Joe Sixsmith series, and his standalone thrillers. But again, on the basis of the stories presented here, I fully agree. Every one of these stories is a delight, whether Hill is indulging his humorous side or showing the darker aspects of crime. I restricted myself to reading one an evening, and my excited anticipation each time was fully rewarded.

In such a box of delights, it’s hard to pick favourites, but here’s a flavour of a few that hopefully will give an idea of the variety in the collection:

Market Forces – George has murdered his wife by putting a hatchet through her head. Now he has to consider the task of disposing of the body. Rather unoriginally, he decides to bury her beneath the floor of the cellar. But when he digs down, his spade hits a slab which turn out to be, well, burial size. He exerts his strength and manages to lift it, inadvertently releasing the demon who had been trapped there for many years. The demon can’t be truly free though, until it has granted its saviour one wish. But demons are tricky things, and this one isn’t perhaps the most intelligent demon in the underworld… This is full of humour with an absolutely delicious twist that made me laugh out loud. Great fun!

The Thaw – Carpenter is in his cottage in the Yorkshire Dales, waiting for a thaw. Snow had fallen at Christmas and continued on through the winter so that the ground has remained covered for months. Now, in March, it looks as though finally the weather is getting milder. While he waits, we learn why he’s waiting, and the reason is grim. I don’t want to give spoilers so shall say no more, but this is a bleak story, full of human weakness, guilt and duplicity, and the harshness of the snowbound setting makes it darkly atmospheric.

Reginald Hill 1936-2012

Brass Monkey – A Christmas Dalziel and Pascoe story involving the theft of a Cellini monkey, this is light-hearted fun with a rather emotive edge, in that it reprises the story of the 1914 Christmas truce, when British and German soldiers briefly laid down their arms, sang carols together and played impromptu football matches. All the team is there for this one – Wieldy, Novello, even Hector, and Dalziel is on his best form!

Proxime Accessit – which roughly translated means “nearly made it”. Dennis Platt is a school teacher, greatly respected in his hometown of Dunchester. But Dennis feels he is living the wrong life. His childhood friend, Tom Trotter, always beat him at everything, and now Tom is a famous actor, married to a woman Dennis loved first. He feels Tom has stolen the life that should have been his. When the town council decide to present Dennis with an award, they ask Tom to do the presentation and he, being Dennis’ friend, readily agrees. But Dennis knows that this means all the attention will be on Tom, even on this day which should be Dennis’ day. And so he decides that Tom must be prevented from making the speech. Again this is very well done, and with some humour, but there’s a sad undertone to it in Dennis’ dissatisfaction with a life that, to outward appearances, seems to have been quite successful in its own right.

When the Snow Lay Dinted – another Christmas outing for Dalziel and Pascoe, this time very definitely played for laughs. Peter, Ellie and Rosie are going to a hotel for Christmas and in a moment of weakness, Peter invites Andy along. Partly because he’ll be alone otherwise, with no one to cook for him, and partly because he sees that wine and spirits are included in the price, Andy goes. There is a theft from the hotel and Andy sets out on the trail of footprints, while all the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even. Peter, of course, follows – in his master’s step he trod, where the snow lay dinted. Well, you get the picture! Lots of fun, and it ends with a lovely interchange between young Rosie and her Uncle Andy which sheds a sweet light on their friendship – sweet, but not saccharin!

Ever since Hill died, I’ve wished there could be just one more book, somehow, sometime. Not one “finished” by someone else, but one written entirely by the master. My wish has been granted! (And I didn’t even have to release a demon…) A wonderful collection!

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

Amazon UK Link

Death on the Down Beat by Sebastian Farr

A dying fall…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Two thousand people have packed into Maningpool Civic Hall for a performance by the Municipal Orchestra of a Strauss tone poem. Halfway through, the conductor, Sir Noel Grampian, seems to gesticulate even more wildly than is his wont just before he pitches head-first off the podium into the orchestra. Landing on his head probably didn’t help, but it transpires it was a bullet that killed him. And since he was shot in the front it seems that it must have been one of the orchestra who did the deed. Inspector Alan Hope of the Yard is in the area visiting friends, so is quickly put in charge of the investigation. But where to begin? It appears Sir Noel was roundly disliked by almost everyone who had anything to do with him, so anyone from the Piccolo to the Kettle-Drum could have had a motive. And despite there being two thousand eye witnesses, it seems no one saw anything…

Well, this is a unique little puzzle! It’s told almost entirely through letters from Inspector Hope to his wife, Julia, in which he encloses copies of lots of documents related to the case, including newspaper clippings, lots of statements from the orchestra members, a chart of the orchestra and even four pages of the score of the relevant part of the music being played at the time of Sir Noel’s demise! It’s from these documents that Alan hopes to find the clues that will identify the killer, with any help that his more musically minded wife can give him.

The denouement is probably the least successful part of the book, so I’ll mention it first. After being baffled for weeks, Alan suddenly leaps to the correct solution out of nowhere. In retrospect it is technically fair-play, in that the reader has all the same information as Alan, but I’d be amazed if anyone was able to make the necessary connections to have a shot at solving it. The main weakness, though, is that the format means the reader hasn’t ever “met” any of the suspects and there are a lot – a lot! – of them, most of whom never become more than names, and in fact are often referred to as the instrument they play – the 1st Clarinet, etc. So when Alan finally reveals the culprit, my first response was “Who’s that?” However, Alan then reveals what brought him to this conclusion and all becomes clear before the end.

Challenge details:
Book: 90
Subject Heading: Singletons
Publication Year: 1941

For me, this weakness was well outweighed by the sheer fun and novelty of the musical clues. I’m no expert in classical music – far from it – but I found it helped that I basically know how the instruments are usually positioned in an orchestra, and the musical vocabulary wasn’t completely unfamiliar to me. Alan does explain as it goes along, but I think it might be quite a tedious read for someone with no interest at all in orchestral music. But for anyone with even a smidgen of knowledge, like me, it’s a lot of fun checking back to the chart of the orchestra whenever Alan is discussing who could have done the deed, and trying to use the score to see which orchestra members could have stopped playing for a few moments – just long enough to pull out a gun, fire and get rid of the weapon – without the audience noticing. I paused fairly early on in the proceedings to go to youtube and listen to the piece in question – Richard Strauss’ A Hero’s Life – and while that certainly isn’t necessary, it again all added to the fun and meant I knew what Alan was talking about when he mentions various passages as more suitable than others for covering up a bit of skulduggery.

Eric Walter Blom
(Sebastian Farr)
National Portrait Gallery

Sebastian Farr was a pseudonym for Eric Walter Blom, and this was his only novel. He worked as a music critic for some of the top newspapers, and in the book we hear from the two local critics from the town’s rival newspapers, locked in a bitter battle of sarcasm over each other’s musical knowledge or lack thereof. One of them, Ransom, was also feuding with Sir Noel, who didn’t appreciate any form of criticism of his musical genius. All three had taken to insulting each other in the letters pages and music review sections of the papers, and I found these sections highly entertaining.

Definitely an oddity, this one, and I can quite see why it’s attracting a few pretty negative ratings on Goodreads. But its quirkiness appealed to me, I loved all the musical stuff and it’s very well written, so despite the reveal-from-nowhere issue I ended up thoroughly enjoying it. I love when the BL concentrate on the stars they’ve brought back to prominence, like Lorac and Bellairs, but there’s plenty of room in the series for the occasional more eccentric novel like this one, too.

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

Amazon UK Link

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British Library Crime Classics Subscription

The British Library have now set up a subscription service for the Crime Classics series, which you can use to buy the books for yourself (highly recommended) or to gift to some else (if you really feel you must). Here’s the link where you can find out more:

https://shop.bl.uk/collections/crime-classics/products/british-library-crime-classics-subscription

I was delighted to be given a subscription by the BL to replace the review copies I normally get. I found it easy to set up and they were efficient in emailing me confirmation of the subscription. I’ve now received my first book, which came well wrapped and had the extra treat enclosed of a book-mark matching the gorgeous book cover! Don’t know if that’ll be the case every month, but I have my fingers crossed. 🤞 I also live in hope of a similar subscription service for their Tales of the Weird series one day… are you listening, BL?

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Bleeding Heart Yard (Harbinder Kaur 3) by Elly Griffiths

Great expectations…

😀 😀 😀 😀

During a school reunion, prominent politician Garfield Rice is found dead in the boys toilets, apparently from a drug overdose. However, it soon becomes apparent that he has been murdered, and the case is handed to Inspector Harbinder Kaur – her first case since taking a promoted post in West London. Coincidentally one of the other people at the reunion is Cassie Fitzgerald, a member of Harbinder’s new team, and Cassie has a secret. Back when she was a pupil at prestigious Manor Park school, a boy died. It was listed as a tragic accident, but Cassie knows the truth – that she killed him. Now it looks to her as if Garfield’s death might have something to do with that earlier death, and she has to decide how much she’s going to tell Harbinder…

Expectations can be a real pain sometimes. The first two books in this series were so original and excellent that I had extremely high hopes for this one. This meant that, though this is a perfectly acceptable cross between a police procedural and a psychological thriller, my main reaction to it was disappointment. That may also be to do with the fact that it’s the third book I’ve read this year where the current crime arises out of a dark secret surrounding something that a tight-knit and elite group of pupils did at school. And Sharon Bolton did it so much better in The Pact.

(FF muses: I’ve joked about this before, but I do wonder – does a memo go round from publishers at the start of each year telling authors what subject they must include in their books? It seems beyond coincidence when one year every second book is about a group of people trapped in a snow-bound chalet, and the next year every second book is about a school reunion of some kind…)

Anyway…

Harbinder has moved away from her parents’ home at last and is sharing a flat with two other women. She’s both happy and a little nervous about her new job and her new life. She’s loving being in London but is homesick for her family and friends back home. Griffiths handles all this well, without over-dramatising it. Harbinder remains just as likeable in the previous books, but, again, since so many crime series are set in London I feel the South Coast setting of the earlier books in the series gave them an element of uniqueness which is missing from this one. However, she uses her London setting well, especially the deliciously-named Bleeding Heart Yard – a real place, mentioned also in Dickens’ Little Dorrit – and the legends surrounding its name.

We see the action from three main perspectives – a third-person present-tense account from Harbinder’s view, and two first-person past-tense narrators. Cassie is one of those, and the other is Anna, another of the pupils/reunioners. I found their voices indistinguishable, though fortunately each chapter is headed with the name of the character whose perspective it’s from. All the tense and viewpoint jumping is of course obligatory in modern crime, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying.

The plot is quite enjoyable although it strays well past the credibility line on more than one occasion. Without wishing to veer into spoiler territory, there is one point where Harbinder steps so far over the line of how anyone, especially a senior police officer, would react on being told of a serious crime that my jaw dropped. I actually guessed whodunit and why about halfway through, which is rare for me, but I think it was luck rather than it being too obvious. The thriller-ish ending is entertaining despite the total lack of credibility.

Elly Griffiths

Oh dear, this is one of those occasions when my review has turned out more critical than I intended. I did find this an enjoyable read, despite all of the above. The pacing is good and keeps the reader turning the pages, and there’s a good deal of humour, especially around Harbinder getting to know her new colleagues and flatmates. She begins to settle in to her London life, and we see signs of her developing new friendships and possibly even a romance, but she still goes home for visits so the reader is kept up to date with her family and older friends from the previous books. Had this been the first book in the series I’d probably be praising it more highly, but it simply didn’t wow me the way the first two did. I’ll still be eager to see where Griffiths goes with the series in future books though.

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

Amazon UK Link

The Nursing Home Murder (Inspector Alleyn 3) by Ngaio Marsh

His life in their hands…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Home Secretary, Sir Derek O’Callaghan, is in the middle of steering an important bill through Parliament to counter the threat from anarchists and Bolshevists. So although he is suffering from intermittent abdominal pains, he is ignoring them until he has more time to deal with personal issues. And the personal issues are piling up! As well as his health and threats against his life from those Bolshies, his doctor, Sir John Phillips, is furious at the way he has treated a nurse who works in Sir John’s clinic, having seduced and then dumped her. It’s probable his wife won’t be too happy if she learns about that little episode either! His sister, meantime, thinks that all his woes and ills can be cured by one of the many patent medicines she acquires from her pharmacist friend. It all comes to a crisis when Sir Derek collapses while giving a speech in the House of Commons. He is rushed to Sir John’s clinic where he is diagnosed with peritonitis requiring immediate surgery. Hmm… surgery carried out by the doctor who’s furious at him, the nurse he seduced, an anaesthetist who previously accidentally killed a patient, and another nurse who is a Bolshevist in her spare time. So when he subsequently dies, it’s not altogether surprising that suspicions of murder arise! Enter Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn of the Yard…

It’s a long time since I last read a Ngaio Marsh, but I was very fond of her books back in the day, and happily this was a pleasant revisit. It’s a nice mix of whodunit and howdunit, and the investigation is mostly carried out through a series of interviews Alleyn has with the various suspects. It soon transpires that Sir Derek had been poisoned with hyoscine, a drug that had been used as part of his preparation for surgery. So suspicion naturally falls on Sir John, since he gave the hyoscine injection. But Alleyn quickly realises that many other people had the opportunity to give him another injection or perhaps to have given him the drug in another form. So it all comes down to motive and method – who wanted him dead (lots of people!) and who could have given him the drug, and how.

The one thing that makes me not wholeheartedly love Marsh as much as I do, for example, Christie, is the snobbishness in the books – a fault she of course shares with many of the Golden Age writers. Alleyn is one of these aristocratic policeman (did they ever exist in real life, I wonder?) and his sidekick, Inspector Fox, is a “common man”. Alleyn is very fond of Fox but is horribly patronising towards him, as is Marsh herself. When thinking about it, I wonder if part of the reason that Christie has remained so popular is that Poirot’s sidekick is a man of the same or even higher class than Poirot himself, so that while Poirot may mock his intelligence from time to time there’s no feeling of snobbery. Alleyn’s Fox, Sayers’ portrayal of Wimsey’s sidekick, Bunter, and Allingham’s Lugg, sidekick for Campion, all make the books feel much more dated than Christie and in a way of which modern audiences are less tolerant, I feel. Although I do often wonder what contemporary working class readers, who surely made up the bulk of the readership for all these authors, made of their mockery of the working classes. We were more deferential, for sure, back then, but even so. Anyway, I digress.

Challenge details:
Book: 55
Subject Heading: Playing Politics
Publication Year: 1935

Alleyn also has another occasional sidekick in the person of a young journalist, Nigel Bathgate, and he and his fiancée, Angela, appear in this one. Alleyn sends them off to infiltrate an anarchist meeting, and has fun with the portrayal of these bogeymen of the era, complete with stock bearded Russian Bolshevist. Nigel and Angela are Bright Young Things, and provide some levity which lightens the tone. Alleyn himself is quite a cheerful detective, who enjoys his job and has a keen sense of justice. So while the books aren’t quite cosy, nor are they dark and grim.

Ngaio Marsh

The eventual solution veers over the credibility line but the general tone of the book means this doesn’t matter as much as it would in a darker style of novel. I was rather proud of the fact that I spotted one or two clues, but I was still surprised when all was revealed.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Philip Franks, and he did a very good job, getting into the spirit of the more caricatured characters (the Bolshevists, for instance) while making both Alleyn and Fox likeable, as they are on the page.

Overall, an enjoyable reunion with some old friends, and I’m looking forward to revisiting some of the other books. This is an early one, and I may try a late one next, to see if the snobbery gets toned down as time passes.

Audible UK Link

Marple: Twelve New Stories

From treat to travesty…

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There are some great crime writers in this collection of twelve new Miss Marple stories, many of whom are clearly dedicated fans with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the originals. As expected, some catch the style and tone of the originals better than others, meaning that some of the stories are treats, while a couple are total travesties. For some of the authors, Miss Marple has stayed in her own time with her own attitudes, while some have decided to have her as “woke”, pontificating on anti-Semitism, racial injustice, etc. Needless to say the woke ones and the travesties have a considerable overlap! While the good ones are very good and gave me much pleasure, the bad ones left me in my usual state of wondering why on earth Christie’s estate keep allowing people to mess with her legacy in this way. They surely cannot need the money, and this kind of thing does nothing, I’m sure, to attract new readers to the originals.

The collection starts off with a bang, with several good stories one after the other. Lucy Foley gives us Evil in Small Places, where Miss Marple gets caught up in an investigation while staying with a friend. Foley gets the tone brilliantly – the village setting, plotting, murder method and denouement all feeling authentic. And she delightfully references many of Christie’s book titles along the way. Val McDermid’s The Second Murder at the Vicarage takes place in St Mary Mead, with many of the characters from the original book – the vicar, Griselda, the maid Mary, and so on – and she reprises all this entertainingly and well. The plotting is a little weak, but it’s still a fun story. Next up is a new-to-me author, Alyssa Cole. Like many of the authors, Cole has used the trope of Miss Marple’s nephew Raymond providing her with little holidays to vary the location – here Miss Marple Takes Manhattan. While the story is decidedly un-Marple-esque and involves her being terribly progressive about race and communism (the latter being even more unlikely than the former) there’s a lot of humour to keep it entertaining, and I enjoyed the way Cole played on references to Miss Marple’s stay At Bertram’s Hotel.

Natalie Haynes’ The Unravelling is well written and amusing, but the plotting is weak and for some reason she has Miss Marple living in a village that is not St Mary Mead. Did she move? Why? Still, I felt she handled the generic village setting well, and I enjoyed the story. Ruth Ware’s story, Miss Marple’s Christmas, is the star of the collection for me. A Christmas party at the Bantrys, a mysterious theft, and a very Marple-esque plot, Ware’s love for the character shines through. She also references Agatha Christie’s own description of her youthful family Christmases as given in the intro to one of her collections, I think The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, which is a lovely touch. We discover that Miss Marple likes to read detective fiction, and is fond of the work of Dorothy L Sayers who also gets more than a passing nod here. A great story, very authentic and made me smile.

It all begins to go downhill after that, sadly. In The Open Mind, Naomi Alderman fails to catch the style completely – wrong setting (an Oxford college), wrong type of crime, and Miss Marple is given a bunch of modern social attitudes she would not have had, including a relaxed attitude to drug abuse. Jean Kwok’s The Jade Empress sees Miss Marple on a boat to Hong Kong to visit Raymond, waltzing with Chinamen, in a plot all about racial injustice. It’s well enough written, but has little to do with the real Miss Marple. Dreda Say Mitchell achieved the distinction of the only one-star rating for her story A Deadly Wedding Day, where she gets out her usual axe of white colonial oppression and grinds it mercilessly. More about Mitchell’s Caribbean heritage and black victimhood (as usual – her sole subject) than about Miss Marple, and one wonders why she bothered.

Elly Griffiths lifts the quality again in Murder at the Villa Rose, though Miss Marple plays a distinctly secondary role here and the story is not Christie-esque. It is about a crime writer who is bored with his main character and is thinking of killing him off. I felt it may have given some insight into why Griffiths herself tends to start a new series with entirely new characters every few years! In The Murdering Sort, Karen McManus takes a very elderly Miss Marple to Cape Cod in the 1980s, where she is staying in a cottage provided by Raymond for the summer. Raymond’s teenage daughter, Nicola, appears in this one. It’s rather full of plot holes, but is quite fun. I enjoyed The Mystery of the Acid Soil by Kate Mosse, which has a plot that rests on Miss Marple’s knowledge of gardening. She doesn’t quite catch the tone, but she tries, and while I feel authors should be careful not to give away the major clue in the title(!), the story is enjoyable.

Lastly, Leigh Bardugo’s The Disappearance takes us back to St Mary Mead in a story involving Mrs Bantry. Bardugo does a good job with the tone, barring one or two Americanisms that the editor should have picked up. But the ending – which of course I won’t reveal – is a complete travesty, totally out of tune with the originals and leaving a rather bad taste. A terrible way to end the book, sadly.

So a very mixed bag, although overall I enjoyed the good stories enough to make it worthwhile and was glad that many of the authors at least tried to recapture the original Miss Marple, some of them quite successfully. But the travesties left me feeling as I usually do – that authors should stick to their own creations rather than messing with other people’s.

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

Amazon UK Link

Catch Your Death (Cold Case Investigation 6) by Lissa Marie Redmond

Note to self: Never go to school reunions…

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Detective Shane Reese bumps into an old school friend who invites him to a class reunion to take place in a new luxury spa hotel the friend is about to open. His partner, Detective Lauren Riley, is invited along too. But this class has a shared tragedy in their past – just as they graduated high school, one of their classmates, Jessica, was brutally murdered. All the classmates were suspects and the case was never solved, so they’ve all lived with that shadow over them. So when one of them, Erika, announces on the first evening of the reunion that she knows who killed Jessica and is going to reveal it on her true crime podcast, it’s not too surprising when she too is killed. Meantime, a blizzard has blown up and the hotel is snowed in. So the local police are relying on Riley to hold things together till they can get through…

Although this is the sixth in a series, it’s my first Redmond, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a traditional style mystery with the clear intent of mirroring the “closed circle” mysteries that were a standard of the vintage crime writers, but in a modern setting complete with modern technology and policing methods. Not in any way a cosy, but it’s also nowhere near as dark or graphic as a lot of modern crime fiction.

I liked Riley as a character. She bears some scars from physical injuries she has acquired throughout her career, but she is a well-adjusted, stable person who seems happily angst-free. There is clearly a past between her and her partner, Shane Reese, that goes beyond a strictly working relationship. The two live together in the sense of sharing a house, although as the book begins they are not romantic partners. It’s fairly obvious, though, that their relationship may be heading in that direction. In this book Riley has to take the lead because Reese, being one of the classmates, is himself a suspect. I don’t know if they work more closely as equal partners in earlier books in the series.

Lissa Marie Redmond

The plot is interesting and there’s a good variety of suspects – a failing actor, a drunken creep, a jealous husband, the jealousy-inducing wife, a computer games millionaire, the spa owner, and of course Detective Reese. The idea of a group of people being snowed in may not be the most original in the world, but it’s effective, and Redmond handles it well and credibly. The reason the original investigators failed to find the murderer was that all of the suspects had the means and the opportunity to kill Jessica, but no one seemed to have a strong enough motive. This will be the problem for Riley, too, since clearly the motive for Erika’s death is her threat to reveal who killed Jessica. I’m not convinced it could really be described as fair play, but the pacing is very good so that it kept my attention and I didn’t mind so much that I hadn’t had access to the vital piece of information that finally told Riley who the murderer was.

Well written, I felt this was well above average in the current field of traditional police procedurals. A good mystery, nothing too gruesome, zero swearing and some likeable lead characters – my kind of book! I’ll be backtracking to catch up with the earlier books in the series and am looking forward to seeing what Redmond produces in the future.

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

Amazon UK Link

Bodies from the Library 5 edited by Tony Medawar

The mystery of the missing stories…

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This series of “forgotten stories of mystery and suspense” has now become an annual event, and one I look forward to. The stories are all ones that haven’t been collected before, or occasionally have never been published. Every year I feel the well must run dry but each year Tony Medawar proves me wrong. He ranges widely to find his treasures – through old magazines and newspapers, into the BBC archives for radio scripts, digging out stories written originally to boost a charity or good cause, and so on. There are sixteen stories in this collection, ranging from a few pages up to novella-length, and lots of familiar names show up, some very well known – John Dickson Carr, Dorothy L Sayers, Ellis Peters, etc. – and others who are becoming well known to those of us who are reading a lot of the vintage crime currently being re-issued by various publishers – Michael Gilbert, Anthony Berkeley, John Bude, et al. The quality is more consistent than it sometimes is in anthologies – I gave most of the stories a solid four-star rating, with just a couple that didn’t work for me, and a sprinkling that gained themselves the full galaxy of five stars.

Here’s a flavour of a few of my favourites:

The Ginger King by AEW Mason – Inspector Hanaud of the French police is in London, visiting his “Watson”, Ricardo. Because of his expertise, an insurance company asks him to look into a fire at a shop owned by a Syrian furrier. (Yes, there are some unfortunate out-dated racist attitudes – it’s a hazard of the era.) I particularly enjoyed this one because a cat plays a major role – the ginger king of the title. Happily the cat survives unscathed! Lots of humour in this one and a good, imaginative criminal method. Hanaud is more fun when he’s being a foreigner in England than when he’s in France, in my limited experience, especially since he mangles English idioms for our amusement.

Benefit of the Doubt by Anthony Berkeley – This is told as if it were a ‘true’ story, related by an elderly medical man about an incident that happened to him when he was a young, inexperienced doctor. One night he is called out by a worried young wife to see her older husband. However the man appears fine and jokingly assures the doctor his wife just likes to worry, so the doctor leaves it at that. But the next day the man is dead. The wife doesn’t blame the doctor, and since she doesn’t want an inquest and the doctor fears the possibility of being found to have been negligent, he signs the death certificate. That’s not the end of the story, though… A really good picture of a generally moral man doing the easy thing rather than the right thing, and how he himself perceives his own actions at the other end of his career.

The Magnifying Glass by Cyril Hare. A very short story, this one, and not a mystery. It involves two men fighting over some forged banknotes. One murders the other, and then tries to break into the murdered man’s safe. It’s a scorching hot day with a dazzling sun, and Hare uses the heat and the murderer’s awareness that someone may arrive at any time to build up a great atmosphere of tension. Can’t say more since it’s very short, but there’s a lovely twist in the tail.

The ‘What’s My Line’ Murder by Julian Symons. During a live recording, one of the panellists dies – poisoned – and another panellist, Gilbert Harding, investigates. Even my great age isn’t great enough to have a clear recollection of What’s My Line – a long-long-ago TV panel game, where the regular panellists had to guess the profession of mystery guests by asking them questions. However, the story stands even if you don’t remember the show. Symons includes some of the actual panellists – Gilbert Harding was one of them – and I did have a vague memory of one or two of them so that added to the fun, though I felt fairly confident that while he could make one of them be the detective he couldn’t make a real person be the murderer! A good mystery, entertainingly written.

So another great addition to this series – I hope Collins Crime Club continue to bring these out for several more years to come, so long as that well doesn’t dry up!

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

Amazon UK Link

Unfaithful by JL Butler

Be sure your sins will find you out…

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Feeling a little lost and lonely when her only daughter leaves home for university, Rachel Reeves has a moment of madness, a.k.a lust, when she accidentally meets an old boyfriend. Next morning she’s horrified and ashamed. She loves her husband and has never even thought of being unfaithful before. So she hopes she can simply keep it a secret and go on as if nothing has happened. But then the messages begin – texts, messages on her social media pages, phonecalls at inopportune times. And they’re escalating, becoming abusive and increasingly threatening. Rachel doesn’t know what to do. At first she thinks it’s Chris, the man she slept with, but gradually she realises there are other possibilities. If she goes to the police, she’s afraid her husband will find out about her infidelity…

I’ll get the usual complaint over with straight away. The book is a hundred or more pages too long for its content. It’s stuffed full of irrelevant digressions which, although they’re well written and sometimes quite interesting, slow the book down to a crawl. Thrillers, you will be as bored reading as I am writing, must be fast-paced or they don’t thrill. This concept seems to have been forgotten by authors, editors and publishers. They should look at the length of thrillers which have become classics and ask themselves why their books need to be twice the length of those books. They should also take the time to read the proofs prior to printing and correct all the typos and errors. Especially if the heroine of the book is an editor…

Grumps over. I enjoyed Butler’s writing style – it’s descriptive without becoming too “creative” and avoids all fashionable quirks. First person, past tense, proper grammar, even quotation marks. There is virtually no swearing except within the messages Rachel receives, where it feels appropriate and even unavoidable. Her characterisation is very good, especially of Rachel but also of all the secondary characters.

Rachel has been a full-time mother while her daughter Dylan was growing up. Robert, her husband, is an alpha male in the business world, dealing in elite property development and making loads of money, so their lifestyle is pretty luxurious. I admit I tired of the brand-naming and ostentatious displaying of wealth, although it’s not as gratuitous as it sometimes feels – their wealth and social status is relevant to the plot. So financially there’s no need for Rachel to work, but she finds she wants to get back to having some kind of life beyond the home now that her days feel so empty. She is lucky to find a temporary maternity cover role as an editor – the career she had before Dylan came along. I found the picture Butler painted of life in a modern publishing house very convincing – an uneasy mix of love of books and need for profit. Some things have changed in Rachel’s eighteen years away – technology, for instance – but other things are just the same: handling authors, from the anxious to the obnoxious, finding the right demographic for the book and designing the marketing to suit. (I enjoyed Rachel finding out about book blogging and blog tours, and learning that they’re now seen as part of the marketing process.)

At first the plot is excellent, quickly showing us Rachel’s indiscretion and then the mounting campaign of her stalker. But it soon slows down, and gradually Butler adds more and more elements into the mix – Dylan’s love life, Rachel’s job, Robert’s business dealings, and so on – until it eventually gets too crowded and hovers perilously close to the credibility line. A simpler, more stripped plot would have built more tension. I did suspect who the stalker was quite early on, but then I suspected them all in turn so I was bound to have been right at least once along the way! But I thought that for the most part Rachel’s reactions were pretty credible – she’s neither a fainting hysteric nor a superwoman; she reacts much like I think many of us would in similar circumstances, with a mix of fear for her marriage and a desire to pretend it’s not happening and hope it goes away.

JL Butler

I understand JL Butler is a pseudonym for Tasmina Perry, who apparently writes racy mystery/romances. Not my genre so I haven’t come across her before but she seems to have a considerable fan base. This one focuses more on the crime aspect – it does have a couple of sex scenes but they were within my tolerance level so that means they’re pretty mild. Despite the excess length I enjoyed it, especially the publishing aspect. The ending is perhaps a little abrupt, but it tells us everything we need to know, and I’d always rather have abrupt than over-stretched! I’d be happy to read more from her Butler persona and I might even be tempted to try one of her Perry books sometime.

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

Amazon UK Link

Calamity Town (Ellery Queen 16) by Ellery Queen

All in the family…

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When Ellery Queen comes to the small town of Wrightsville looking for inspiration for his new novel, he settles into a house known locally as Calamity House. It was originally built for Nora Wright, one of the three daughters of John F and Hermione Wright, descendants of the town’s founder and acknowledged leaders of local society. But Nora never lived there, since she was jilted three years ago by the man she had planned to marry, Jim Haight. Now, not long after Queen moves in, Jim returns and the wedding is back on. No one but the couple themselves knew the reason for the split, but the Wright family make an effort to forgive Jim because they can see how much Nora still loves him. But then Nora is taken ill with all the symptoms of arsenic poisoning… and then another woman dies. Suddenly Queen finds himself with a real murder mystery on his hands and, with the help of Nora’s youngest sister Pat, sets out to investigate…

“Ellery Queen” is the pen name of a writing duo, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. I read a few of their mysteries back in my teens but have no real recollection of them, so for all intents and purposes this was my first introduction to them, and it wasn’t at all what I was expecting! The focus is less on the crime and more on creating a picture of the Wright family and Wrightsville, and the tone is considerably slower and more literary than I anticipated. The writing is very good, especially the descriptive stuff about the town, and the depiction of how the townspeople are ready to turn on their most revered residents when scandal rears its head is perceptively and credibly done, as is the picture of the impact of the crime on the Wright family themselves. There’s some of the slickness of dialogue usually found in the “hard-boiled” school, but there’s too much warmth and affection for the major characters for it to be in any way noir-ish.

The Wrights have three daughters – Nora, vulnerable, reclusive and somewhat unstable after her jilting, but coming back into the world now that Jim has returned; Lola, who made a disastrous marriage followed by a scandalous divorce, and who is a kind of black sheep, though still loved by her family; and Pat, the youngest, beautiful, feisty, and expected to marry Carter, the town’s Prosecutor. But when Queen enters her life, Pat is more than happy to indulge in some serious flirtation with him, arousing Carter’s justifiable jealousy, and perhaps playing with fire, since it seems that Ellery and Pat are developing real feelings for one another. Pat is the central character along with Queen himself, and she’s very well portrayed – she is a bit weak and reliant on the men in her life, but that’s to be expected of the era, and she has an independent streak which makes her attractive.

Challenge details:
Book: 93
Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic
Publication Year: 1942

The story plays out over nearly a year, and I found this rather odd. Queen seems to put his life on hold for the duration, and we hear nothing about him being in touch with family or friends outside Wrightsville. It’s as if he arrives baggage-free and with all the time in the world, but no real explanation of that is given. Of course, it’s the sixteenth novel in a long-running series, so regular readers probably didn’t need much background by this stage, but I felt he was left as a bit of an enigma – a kind of mystery in himself. What made him pick Wrightsville? Does he fall in love in every book or is Pat special? Does he have a home and, if so, where? I guess the only solution to these mysteries is to read the earlier books! However, Martin Edwards, in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, suggests this novel was a bit of a departure for the Queen duo – a stage in the evolution of their novels from ‘pure intellectual puzzle’ to a more mainstream novelistic style, in recognition of the changing tastes of mystery readers with the advent of writers such as Dorothy L Sayers and Anthony Berkeley.

Manfred Bennington Lee and Frederic Dannay
“Ellery Queen”

The plot itself is perhaps the weakest part of the book. To be honest, I felt the solution was pretty well sign-posted from very early on and my suspicions were proved right in the end. It seemed to take Queen an inordinate length of time to spot the bloomin’ obvious and there was certainly room for some trimming in the mid-section of what is rather a long novel by vintage crime standards. But this weakness wasn’t enough to spoil my enjoyment – the depiction of the town and the characterisation of the family and townspeople is so well done that I was happy to go along for the ride. A very enjoyable introduction to this series and I look forward to getting to know Ellery Queen the writing duo and Ellery Queen the character better.

Amazon UK Link

The Postscript Murders (Harbinder Kaur 2) by Elly Griffiths

Shades of Agatha…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Peggy Smith dies in her flat, nothing could seem more natural, since Peggy was a 90-year-old woman with a heart condition. But something doesn’t feel right to her young Ukrainian carer. Natalka had visited her earlier in the day and she had seemed in good health and spirits. However, the official verdict is natural causes and although Natalka and two other friends of Peggy express their doubts to the police, Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur sees no reason to think otherwise. Until, that is, the appearance of a mysterious man with a gun, who breaks into Peggy’s flat and steals a book…

In the first book in this series, The Stranger Diaries, Griffiths paid homage to the ghost story writers of the Edwardian era and produced an excellently spooky Gothic story. Here she is riffing on the mysteries of the Golden Age and does just as good a job, though as a result the tone of this book is very different to the first. This one has a proper mystery with clues, a group of suspects, a trio of likeable amateur ‘tecs, and a touch or two of romance. Partly set in Shoreham, a small seaside town on the South coast of England, and with a fun road trip culminating in a visit to a book festival in Aberdeen, the tone is light, with lots of humour and plenty of warmth. It wasn’t what I was expecting after the first novel, but I loved it! There’s lots of hat-tipping to the Golden Agers, and indeed it is a Golden Age novel that is stolen from Peggy’s flat. But why?

Peggy is dead before the book begins so we don’t meet her in person. But we get to know a lot about her life as the story progresses, and she’s a woman with a past! Not only that, she had a wide acquaintanceship among contemporary mystery novelists, having become a ‘murder consultant’ – she could be relied upon by novelists stuck for an idea to come up with interesting methods to bump off their victims.

Elly Griffiths

While Harbinder sets up a conventional police investigation, Peggy’s friends take the vintage route of amateur investigation. There’s Natalka, who also has a past of her own that we’ll gradually learn about. Edwin is an elderly neighbour who had become friends with Peggy, often doing crosswords together, or taking short walks with her to the nearby Coffee Shack on the seafront. And there’s Benedict, ex-monk now looking for love and the owner of the Coffee Shack. Natalka, Edwin and Benedict are an unlikely detective trio, but Griffiths makes it work – the warmth and friendship among them makes this a lovely, heart-warming read, despite all the murders. Because, yes, of course there will be other murders – what Golden Age novel stops at one? The trio decide to talk to the various authors who used Peggy as a consultant, hence the road trip to Aberdeen.

The plot is intricate and well done, so I don’t want to say any more about it for fear of spoilers. But it maintains its Golden Age feel all the way through, although all of the characters are modern people in a modern setting. Harbinder herself is as likeable as she was in the first book, still living at home with her ageing parents, and still not having summoned up the courage to tell them she’s gay. I’m so late reading this one that there’s another book in the series due out at the end of this month and the blurb makes me feel Griffiths may have changed the style again for it – can’t wait to read it and find out, and also to see how Harbinder’s life develops! Yet another hugely enjoyable series from Griffiths’ ultra-prolific pen – I wonder if she has a whole team of murder consultants at her command, or just a great imagination…

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Death of Jezebel (Inspector Cockrill 4) by Christianna Brand

Knights in shining armour…

😀 😀 😀

A grand exhibition is taking place in post-war London and part of the show will be a pageant starring eleven mounted knights in armour and a damsel in a tower. Among the cast and crew are three people whose irresponsible actions a few years ago led a young man to commit suicide. Perpetua (Peppi) was engaged to Johnny Wise, but for fun her “friend” Isabel, known to her “friends” as Jezebel, decided to get Peppi drunk and throw her into the willing arms of womanising actor, Earl Anderson. On discovering this, Johnny drove his car into a wall. Now the three begin to receive threatening notes and it appears someone is out to avenge Johnny’s death. And then Jezebel is murdered…

This is only my second Christianna Brand and to be honest I didn’t think it came even close to the wonderful Green for Danger. The plot is relatively simple in the sense that we know the motive from the beginning. But it becomes a hideously complicated howdunit based on which of all these knights or other crew members might have been able to murder Isabel in full view of the audience, helped by the fact that they were effectively all unrecognisable in their armour. Solution after solution is presented, only to be knocked down again by some piece of evidence Cockrill or the local Inspector Charlesworth had forgotten or subsequently learn. Suspect after suspect confesses, only to have their confessions disproved by minute pieces of evidence.

Maybe it all hangs together in the end, but truthfully my eyes had glazed over long before it reached that point. My first problem was that, while the three had behaved a little badly, I felt that Johnny seriously over-reacted when, instead of punching Earl and dumping Peppi, he topped himself, and as such I didn’t feel any of them deserved to be murdered. Secondly, I didn’t like anyone so I didn’t care about the murders nor about whodunit. And lastly, I certainly didn’t care about how it was done, since each of the failed solutions seemed as likely, or that should probably be unlikely, to me as the final one.

Christianna Brand

On the upside, Brand writes well and amusingly. There’s lots of humour in the book, mostly around the unspoken rivalry between Cockrill and Charlesworth. Cockrill is attending a police conference in the area and becomes involved because he knew Peppi long ago, when she lived down in his patch in Kent. He’s used to being a big fish in the Kentish pool, but in the Great Metropolis he discovers most people have never heard of him or, if they have, it’s because of a case where he famously made a complete hash of it. Charlesworth is a younger man and Cockrill is determined to beat him to the solution. It was the entertainment value of this rather one-sided rivalry that kept me reading after the plot had ceased to interest me.

Overall, I enjoyed it well enough but it didn’t meet my perhaps too high expectations. It won’t stop me reading more of the Cockrill books, though – as well as these two novels, I’ve read several of Brand’s short stories in various anthologies and always enjoyed them, so I feel this one was a blip, probably because the intricate how of crime never interests me as much as the why.

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

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Soft Summer Blood (Liam McLusky 4) by Peter Helton

Dead men and missing girls…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When out jogging around his extensive garden one evening, wealthy Charles Mendenhall is shot dead. Detective Inspector Liam McLusky is at first suspicious of Mendenhall’s son, who didn’t get on well with his father and seems keen to get his hands on his inheritance. But a few days later another man is killed, probably with the same gun, and it turns out he was a friend of Mendenhall’s, one of a group of men who are friends through their mutual enjoyment of painting (pictures, not walls!). Now McLusky must try to find out if something in the men’s background has led someone to be targeting them. Meantime Detective Inspector Kat Fairfield is annoyed to be given the job of tracking down a missing girl, the daughter of an Italian politician. Fulvia is legally an adult and normally the police wouldn’t have got involved unless there had been reason to fear that something may have happened to her, but when politicians are involved, cases suddenly get shoved up the priority list. But then another girl dies, and she had attended the same art college as Fulvia, so suddenly finding Fulvia takes on a more serious aspect.

This is a solid police procedural, the fourth and apparently final one in a series about Liam McLusky. I’ve read an earlier one, and this has the same strengths and slight weaknesses. The characterisation is good, especially of Liam himself – I wasn’t so keen on Kat, who seemed permanently grumpy. The main plot is interesting and I failed to work it out – there is a clue early on, but if you miss it then the ending rather comes out of the blue. Actually I did spot the clue, but the solution still took me by surprise, since it had never been mentioned again in the couple of hundred pages since it appeared. Helton often includes art and artists in his plots, probably because he’s a painter himself when he’s not writing. It always adds an extra element of interest – a good example of incorporating the “write what you know” principle into his stories. The secondary plot relating to Fulvia really seemed like an unnecessary distraction to me. It didn’t go anywhere very interesting, and merely served to add to the length of the book. It would have been a tighter and better read, I think, if Helton had just concentrated on the main case. There is a minimum of bad language – none that I can remember, in fact – and while Liam is not problem-free, neither is he an angst-ridden drunk.

However, there’s too much padding in terms of telling us everything Liam eats or drinks throughout the case, and his on-off relationship with his girlfriend didn’t feel as if it added anything to either the story or Liam’s character. Liam mostly follows procedure, which I always prefer, but occasionally steps over the bounds in ways that I didn’t find altogether credible, and unfortunately that applied particularly to how the book ended, meaning that the last few pages left me rather less enthusiastic than I had been up to that point.

Peter Helton

Overall, though, the strengths outweigh the weaknesses. The beginning, when we follow Charles Mendenhall in the lead-up to his death, is very well done, creating a great atmosphere of tension and mild creepiness. The investigation is slow, but keeps a steady pace so that it holds the attention, and there are enough surprises along the way to keep the reader guessing. I’m sorry that Helton seems to have stopped writing these – in fact, his most recent book (in a different series) was published in 2017, so it looks like he may have stopped writing altogether which would be a pity. His books may not be ground-breaking, but ground-breaking can be over-rated. Instead, they are solid well-worked-out mysteries, well written, with interesting plots and, in this series, a detective I’d be happy to spend more time with. #BringBackLiam!

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

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Crook o’Lune (Inspector Macdonald 38) by ECR Lorac

Old Macdonald wants a farm…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Inspector Macdonald of Scotland Yard is looking ahead to retiring from the police and is searching for a small farm to buy, farming having been his family background. He’s staying with friends in the Lune Valley in Lancashire while he looks around, and they recommend a farm that is likely to come on the market soon, Aikengill in High Gimmerdale. The old owner is recently deceased and his heir, his nephew Gilbert Woolfall, is a businessman in Yorkshire, so the locals expect he’ll want to sell up. At the moment, he’s spending time going through his uncle’s papers – a lengthy task since his uncle was a bit of an amateur local historian. But then there’s a fire at Aikengill, in which the housekeeper dies. The local police know Macdonald of old so ask him to help them investigate and Macdonald soon determines that the fire was deliberate…

In her own short foreword to the book, Lorac tells us that the places in the book are real although she may have occasionally changed the names, and in fact the house called Aikengill in the book is her own home in the Lune Valley. Her sense of place is always one of her major strengths and never more so than when she’s writing about this rural farming area, which she clearly knows intimately and loves. The book is full of wonderful descriptions of the landscape as Macdonald tramps o’er hill and down dale in pursuit of evidence, and we get an authentic inside look at the working lives of the sheep farmers and smallholders who farm the land.

The plot is also interesting, and rests in part on the long histories of families who live in an area for generations – a real contrast to her London-set mysteries, especially the ones set in the war years, when she often uses the mobility and impermanence of urban living to build her plots around. She has to be one of the most versatile writers from that period, handling rural and urban with equal knowledge and insight, and her skill in this gives her novels an authenticity of atmosphere whatever their setting.

First published in 1953, this one also gives a picture of a Britain still struggling to recover from the war, with the remnants of rationing still lingering and the nature of farming having changed with the drive to increase food production and food security. We also hear about the young men being called up for National Service, and how not all of them were happy to go. She’s excellent at setting her novels in their own time and showing a gradually or sometimes suddenly changing world, and like a lot of vintage fiction her books give a real picture of a period, more authentically than all but the best historical fiction.

We learn more about Macdonald as a person in this one too, because of the element of him looking to move to the area. We already knew from previous books about his love for this hilly country and his background in farming, but Lorac takes us deeper into his thoughts this time. He also interacts with friends – I only remember him with colleagues and suspects before, so this aspect makes him seem more human, as having a life beyond work.

Another one that I thoroughly enjoyed, so I’ll say it again – how can it be that Lorac became “forgotten” when other writers of equal or less talent have remained in print all these years? An injustice that the British Library deserves thanks for putting right. Highly recommended, as always!

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

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Background for Murder by Shelley Smith

A weak bridge…

😐 😐

When Scotland Yard is baffled by a murder in a clinic for the mentally ill, they hand the case over to Jacob Chaos, a sort of consulting detective. He soon learns that the victim, Dr Maurice Royd, was a deeply unlikeable man, so there is no shortage of suspects among the staff and patients. He sets out to chat to as many people as possible, assisted by the attractive Dr Crawford who has put herself forward to be Watson to his Holmes…

Oh dear, this is another of Martin Edwards’ picks for his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, and yet again I’m left wondering what on earth he sees in it that I’m missing. From my perspective it is dull and pedestrian, only averagely well-written and, despite there being far too long a list of potential murderers, the solution is pretty obvious almost from the start simply from the way it is written. Shelley makes little references to some of the greats of detective fiction – Christie, Conan Doyle, etc. – but sadly this merely had the effect of making me wish I was reading them rather than this. The basic idea of Scotland Yard handing over the entire investigation of a murder to a private detective was enough to destroy any credibility before the story even got underway. Even in Holmes’ time the police may have asked for his help with a tricky murder case but they didn’t then just disappear and leave him to it! By the date of this one, the idea is laughable.

First published in 1942, naturally the language around mental illness is outdated, but to be honest I find it hard to believe that anyone ever behaved like Chaos. He refers to the patients as “halfwits” and “nuts”, and to the clinic as the “nut-house” or “nut-palace”, which would be believable except for the fact that he does this to the patients’ faces. I can’t imagine that would ever have been seen as polite! Frankly, I’m only surprised that he didn’t become the second victim, and I’d probably have enjoyed the book more if he had. When he is interviewing the patients, he rarely asks them any relevant questions or elicits any useful information. Instead, Shelley uses this stream of interviews to amuse us with all the different ways being “nuts” might manifest – this one is a strutting turkey-cock, this one is suicidal, this one thinks he’s still in WW1, this one bursts into tears without provocation, etc. It’s shallow and cheap, and not nearly as entertaining as she presumably meant it to be. Sure, I’m seeing it through more sensitive modern eyes but I’m fairly confident I would have found it pretty shabby even back then – I hope I would, anyway.

Challenge details:
Book: 100
Subject Heading: The Way Ahead
Publication Year: 1942

Suffice to say by 40% I’d had enough, skipped to the end and confirmed yes, the person I thought had done it had indeed done it.

This comes under “The Way Ahead” section in Edwards’ book, which is designed to give a flavour of the period between the true Golden Age and the new breed of crime writers about to burst on the post-war scene – PD James, Julian Symons, etc. The mental illness aspects in this one could indeed have provided that kind of bridge, but I felt they were handled so superficially and badly that the book was a reflection of neither the plotting skills of the Golden Agers nor the greater psychological depth for which the later authors strove. Another one that I feel has been justifiably forgotten.

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The Seat of the Scornful (Gideon Fell 14) by John Dickson Carr

Cat and mouse…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When his daughter announces she is engaged, Mr Justice Ireton insists on meeting the young man. The first meeting doesn’t go well since the judge recognises Tony Morell as someone he has come across before, in the course of his job. The second meeting goes even worse. A phonecall to the local telephone exchange begging for help brings Police Constable Weems rushing to the judge’s holiday bungalow, where he finds Morell dead and Mr Justice Ireton sitting calmly in his chair, gun in hand…

The couple of Gideon Fell novels I’ve read previously have been “impossible crimes” and the emphasis has been on the puzzle rather than the people. This one is entirely different in tone, much more of a standard mystery, and as a result I liked it far more. It still has strong aspects of the howdunit to please the puzzlers out there, but there is also a group of characters with various motives for wanting rid of Morell. Gideon Fell himself seems less rude than in our previous meetings, and in fact has an almost Poirot-esque twinkle over the two young people we all soon hope to see become a romance. He is also rather clearer in how he works his way to the solution of the mystery, again relying more this time on the personalities and motives of the people involved, rather than sticking entirely to the technical aspects of how the crime was done.

Morell is a man with a reputation. A few years earlier he had become the centre of a scandal involving a rich young girl whom he had tried to blackmail into marriage. Now he says he wants to marry Connie, the judge’s daughter, and it’s not surprising the judge is not thrilled by that idea. But nor is Fred Barlow, the judge’s protegé, who fancies himself in love with Connie too. Or perhaps someone is exacting revenge for that earlier scandal, or maybe there are other secrets in Morell’s life that have made him a target. In a sense, this is the opposite of a “locked room” mystery – Morell’s body is found in a room to which many people could have had access, and who could have then disappeared into the night without being seen by any witnesses. So Inspector Graham and Dr Fell have to try work out the culprit from the physical evidence – who could have got access to the gun? Why is there a little pile of sand on the carpet? Why is the telephone broken? – and from what they learn about Morell’s background, through interviewing the various people who knew him or knew of him.

The book is also much stronger on characterisation than the other Fells I’ve read. The judge is a man who seems to enjoy the power his position gives him too much. His daughter, Connie, is dependent on him financially but chafes against his rather cold expectations of how she should behave. Fred Barlow is loyal to the judge for his past support, but is clear-eyed enough to recognise the strain of sadism the judge employs on the criminals who appear before him, and perhaps also on those closer to home. Inspector Graham is a solid, painstaking officer, not at all cowed by having to investigate a judge and his family and friends. Even PC Weems is well developed, as a young man just starting out in his career and sometimes feeling out of his depth but showing promise of developing into a good detective in time.

John Dickson Carr

First published in 1941 the book is set before the war, and among the group of younger characters there is still a mild feeling of the decadence that Carr employed so well in his earlier Bencolin novels. While it doesn’t have a strong element of horror in the way some of his other books have, there is a lot of tension in the latter stages and some scenes that have a definite air of eerie peril. I enjoyed it hugely and raced through it. Although the number of suspects is fairly limited I still changed my mind several times along the way, and found the ending satisfying, when Fell reveals the solution of both who and how, and tells us how he reached it. Good stuff, and I’m glad to have finally grown to admire Dr Fell after a fairly rocky start with this series. I’m now looking forward to reading more with my enthusiasm for Carr’s work fully restored!

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

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