Quick Curtain by Alan Melville

Define “witty”…

😦 😦

It’s the opening night of the new show at the Grosvenor Theatre – Blue Music, produced by the great theatre impresario Douglas B Douglas and starring perennial juvenile lead and heart-throb Brandon Baker, a combination designed to guarantee box office success. The theatre is filled with the great and the good in the dear seats, and the members of the Brandon Baker Gallery Club in the cheap ones. The scene where Brandon Baker is shot takes on an unexpectedly dramatic twist when it turns out the bullet was real, and he collapses onto the stage, dead. Fortunately Inspector Wilson of the Yard is in the audience, along with his journalist son Derek, so the pair are in prime position to investigate the murder.

This is billed as being “witty”. Wit can wear very thin very quickly if it’s not done well. It’s not done well. The Wilsons must have a claim on the title of most annoying crime fighting duo in history. Perhaps if they spent less time being “funny”, they might have been better detectives. I found myself speculating as to the mysterious lack of a Mrs Wilson – I concluded that if I were married to one of these and the mother of the other, I’d probably have run off to a different continent leaving no forwarding address, but perhaps the poor lady simply died of tedium after having to listen to them do their cross-talk act at breakfast once too often.

Realism simply doesn’t exist in this novel. Inspector Wilson acts like an amateur detective, using his son as his sidekick. They don’t interview any suspects or do any real investigation. They simply come up with a theory and then mangle the “facts” to fit. “Facts” is a term that must be used loosely in regard to this novel, since there are glaring continuity errors throughout, such as a man having a wife and children at one appearance and then being an unmarried loner next time he’s discussed. One feels that some editor at some point in the 80-odd years since it was first published would have picked up on these issues, but perhaps they were all laughing too hysterically to concentrate.

Challenge details:
Book: 47
Subject Heading: Making Fun of Murder
Publication Year: 1934

To be fair, it starts out quite well with some gentle lampooning of the whole business of putting on light musicals. Stars, producers, theatre critics and fans all come in for their share of mockery, but it’s done quite affectionately. In his introduction, Martin Edwards tells us that Melville was himself a successful playwright and this shows through in his credible, if caricatured, portrayal of the life of theatricals. It’s really the arrival of the Wilson duo that brings the whole thing down – in fact, it’s the attempt to make it into a crime novel that fails badly. Had Melville written some other kind of theatre based froth, then it may have come off better, but a crime novel really requires at least some pretence at a proper plot and investigation or it becomes nonsensical – and not in a good way. Edwards tells us that Dorothy L Sayers, a regular reviewer of the work of her contemporaries, had similar reservations as my own, saying Inspector Wilson “does all his detecting from his private house with the sole aid of his journalist son. Light entertainment is Mr Melville’s aim, and a fig for procedure!”

Alan Melville

So I guess it comes down to whether the reader finds this kind of arch humour entertaining. Some will, I’m sure, and will therefore be better able to overlook the major flaws in the plot and structure. Sadly I found myself getting progressively more irritated and bored as it went along and was frankly delighted to make it to the deeply unsatisfactory and rather silly end. Not an author I will be pursuing further, I’m afraid. Sometimes authors become “forgotten” for a reason…

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

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The Four Just Men by Edgar Wallace

Surprisingly contemporary…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When the British Foreign Secretary decides to push through a law which will allow the enforced return of political refugees to their countries of origin, he becomes a target of the Four Just Men – a group of vigilantes who set out to right what they perceive as wrongs that the normal systems of justice can’t touch. The story is a kind of cat-and-mouse game where the reader, along with the entire British public, waits to see if the Four Just Men succeed in carrying out their threat to assassinate the Foreign Secretary.

This was a rather odd read for me, in that I hated the premise – vigilantes are not my cup of tea – and yet found the storytelling compelling enough that I found myself racing through it. It’s well written and the pacing is excellent. Wallace sits on the fence himself as to the rights and wrongs of it – he shows both sides, but doesn’t take too strong a stance in favour of either. I believe in later books he chose cases that weren’t quite so murky, where it was clearer that the victims of the Just Men deserved their fate, and I suspect I might prefer those.

This one, however, despite having been published way back in 1905, has a surprisingly relevant plot. The purpose of the legislation is to prevent political agitators from using the safety of foreign countries to stir up revolutions back in their own nation. With my recent Russian Revolution reading, it made me think very much of those Russians, like Lenin, who spent their time in the safety of exile encouraging their countrymen back home to commit acts of terrorism against the state. But I also couldn’t help thinking of the West’s current moral struggle over the question of allowing in refugees at a time when the fear of terrorism is high, or the difficulty of expelling people even when it’s known they are attempting to radicalise others.

Challenge details:
Book: 2
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1905

It’s a quick read – somewhere between a long novella and a short novel. There is a mystery of sorts over how the Just Men plan to carry out the assassination. Martin Edwards tells us in the introduction that, as an advertising ploy, Wallace offered cash prizes to readers who could work out the solution. Apparently, so many did that it nearly bankrupted him. I wish I’d been around at the time, because I thought it was blindingly obvious. I suspect, though, that might be because the key is more commonplace now than it would have been back then. Forgive the vagueness, but to say more would be a major spoiler.

The rest of the plotting works much more effectively. There is a real sense of the building tension as the deadline approaches. The Foreign Secretary is not physically brave, but shows a good deal of moral courage in the end. The police are shown as competent and vigilant, good men determined to protect the Secretary even at the expense of their own lives, if necessary. The press get involved and we see their dilemma of being ordinary good people who don’t want to see murder done but also journalists who do want a huge front page story! Wallace handles all these ethical questions well and believably, I thought. The Just Men themselves are more shadowy, with no real background given as to why they’ve set themselves up as judge and executioner or how they got together. I found them far less credible. But I was pulled along in the need to know whether the Secretary would survive.

An intriguing read that provoked more thought than I was anticipating. I don’t think I’m sufficiently enthusiastic to want to read more of the adventures of the Four Just Men, but overall I found this one interesting and entertaining enough to be glad to have read it, and to recognise its claim to be a classic of the genre. And, on that basis, recommended.

No Amazon links, since I downloaded this from wikisource.

The Mystery of Briony Lodge by David Bagchi

Say nothing of the dog…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a client turns up at Baker Street, she is accidentally shown to 221d by mistake – the room upstairs from the famous consulting detective Sherlock Holmes. This room is occupied by J. Yes, that J. The one from Three Men in a Boat. He’s there that day with Harris and George, to say nothing of the dog, Montmorency. And when the lovely Miss Briony Lodge appeals for his help over some mysterious letters she’s been receiving, he’s so taken with her that he decides to play along with her belief that he is Holmes and investigate the mystery himself, with the rather dubious help of his friends.

So begins this mash-up pastiche of two of my favourite bookish delights of all time. When I was offered a copy of this my first impulse was to shudder violently and issue a haughty thanks but no thanks – regulars will know nothing is more guaranteed to make me froth at the mouth than people messing with my literary idols. However something made me glance at the ‘look inside’ feature on Amazon. The first line made me laugh out loud…

“To Montmorency she is always the woman.”

One good line doesn’t necessarily mean the whole thing will be good though, so I read on…

“Young men such as ourselves, with active minds (naturally I excuse you from this generalisation, George) and active bodies (forgive me, Harris, I don’t mean you, of course) do not need rest. Rest for us is the mere counterfeit of death. There will be time enough for rest when the Grim Reaper taps us on the shoulder and asks to see our ticket.”

This is followed by a delightfully silly argument between the three men on the subject of how many servants a knight of yore would have had as he went off to “try his valour against all manner of foe”

By now I was sold! And I’m happy to say that the entire book lives up to the promise of these first few pages. Bagchi clearly knows the originals inside out and loves them, and he replicates J.’s voice with impressive accuracy and warm affection. Holmes himself is an off-page presence, but there are zillions of references to the stories and it’s great fun trying to spot them all. I’m pretty sure Bagchi must also be a Wodehouse fan, because there are occasional touches of his kind of humour in there too.

The plot is a mash-up of several of the Holmes stories combined with a trip down the Thames to some of the places that appear in Three Men in a Boat. If I have a criticism, it’s that occasionally Bagchi veers too close to the original – such as in J.’s musings on the mysterious workings of the British railway system. But for the vast majority he achieves that difficult balance of staying true to the source while stamping his own originality on top, and the story all hangs together very well.

It’s mostly told by J. in the first person, but it turns out that by coincidence Holmes has sent Watson to follow a chap who happens to be involved in the mystery too (being deliberately vague here). So, in the manner of The Hound of the Baskervilles, we get to read Watson’s reports to Holmes along with extracts from his personal journal, and Bagchi has totally nailed Watson’s style too.

My dear Holmes,
Today’s proceedings have been as full of incident as we could have wished or feared. I only hope that my pen can do justice to the high drama of the day.

Deliciously, even the chapter headings match the style of the originals. Here’s Chapter 2, a J. chapter…

Of the power of female beauty upon the male brain—A decorated ceiling—On the supernatural abilities of dogs—The railway guide a threat to public morality—On the glorious freedom of God’s special creation, the locomotive—Harris has an idea—The moral degeneracy of the downstream man.

David Bagchi

It’s 155 pages – long enough to be satisfying without reaching the point of outstaying its welcome. I’ve said snootily in past rips of dreadful pastiches and follow-on novels that writers shouldn’t set themselves up for comparison with the greats unless the quality of their own writing is up to standard. Bagchi’s is – there are bits which, if taken out of context, I’m sure would fool most of us into thinking they had genuinely been penned by either Jerome or Conan Doyle. I enjoyed every minute of the couple of hours it took me to read, laughing out loud many times along the way. Highly recommended – a better cure for the blues than cocaine, liver pills or clumps on the side of the head…

Oh, and, Mr Bagchi… I think there’s plenty of room for a sequel…

NB This book was provided for review by the author.

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The Linking Rings (Eli Marks 4) by John Gaspard

“To see oursels as ithers see us…”

😀 😀 😀 🙂

When his uncle Harry is invited to perform at the Magic Circle in London, Eli Marks takes the opportunity of turning the trip into a holiday for himself and his girlfriend, Megan. But things take a dramatic turn when one of the magicians slated to appear with Harry dies on stage – killed by a “magic” contraption. As Harry falls under suspicion, Eli and some of Harry’s magician friends must try to find out what happened…

I love this series so approached this book with high expectations and it has a lot of the elements that make the series so enjoyable. Eli is a first person narrator (past tense) and it’s always fun to listen in on his thoughts about the people he meets. Gaspard always presents the stage magic interestingly, without breaking the magician’s code of not revealing how tricks are done. I love the interaction between Eli and his elderly uncle and, by extension, the older generation of stage magicians he knows from the days when stage magic was still bigger than TV magic.

But the transplanting of the characters to London didn’t work so well for me. Thankfully Gaspard doesn’t go the funny accent route, but he does keep suggesting that perfectly commonplace English expressions are actually American in origin and therefore hard for us old-fashioned throwbacks to use confidently. And when Eli began to refer to his hotel as Fawlty Towers, it set my teeth on edge somewhat. It’s such a cliché. I also can’t help but get picky about factual or cultural inaccuracies that could have been sorted by a little research: for example, the suggestion that magistrates are responsible for charging people with crimes, or a police officer using the term ‘capital crime’ in a country that abolished capital punishment back when the Beatles still had short hair. Irritating errors like these, and there were several more of them, tend to throw me out of the flow of the story. I strongly suggest that if American authors want to write books based in Britain and publish them in Britain, they should hire a British editor to give them a final look over before sending the proofs to the printers.

However, I doubt any of these things would annoy American readers, who will make up the bulk of Gaspard’s audience, so hey ho! But I personally will be glad when Eli returns to Minnesota for his next adventure.

John Gaspard

Otherwise, the plot itself is quite fun with its origins back in Harry’s past, leading to enjoyable reminiscing among the entertaining group of magicians who’ve assembled for the performances at the Magic Circle. It seemed to me to cross the credibility line more than is usual in this series, and perhaps not to be quite as “fair play”. But there’s plenty of humour in it and Eli is as likeable a hero as always.

I know this review has been quite critical but I did enjoy reading the book overall, although it certainly isn’t my favourite in the series. However, it was good to see the personal stories of the main characters move forward, and I look forward to meeting up with them all again in their next outing.

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

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I’ll Keep You Safe by Peter May

Back to the island…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Niamh and Ruairidh Macfarlane are the owners of Ranish Tweed, a successful cloth manufacturer. They are in Paris for a trade show, when Niamh receives an anonymous email accusing her beloved husband Ruairidh of having an affair. She finds herself torn. Part of her can’t believe it, but when she sees Ruairidh with the woman, Irina, she follows them. Suddenly to her shock and horror the car they are in explodes, killing both occupants instantly. The police quickly determine that this is no act of random terrorism, but premeditated murder. Niamh returns to her home on the Isle of Lewis, grief-stricken and lost. Who could have had a serious enough grudge against Ruairidh to commit this awful crime? The answer must lie somewhere in the past…

Beginning of Lengthy and Completely Unnecessary Digression on May’s Work
 (Readers are respectfully advised that they may want to skip ahead… 😉 )

I have been a fan of Peter May’s writing for more decades than I care to remember. But for all that I love his books in general and think he’s one of the best thriller writers of his time, I have found in recent years that when he writes about his home country of Scotland and particularly the islands of the Hebrides, his writing takes on a beauty and depth that transcends any of his other work. His language is wonderfully descriptive, filled with colour and texture, so that the reader sees the harsh loveliness of the landscape, feels the never-ending rain and wind, knows the towns and harbours and the people who live and work in them.

As May has reached his middle years, I’ve found that some of his books have taken on a reflective tone, a kind of nostalgic retelling of what feels very much like fictionalised autobiography. This was perhaps most evident in Runaway, which May based around an incident in his own early life. But I felt it strongly again in this one, though I have no way of knowing whether I’m correct in that assumption. When he does this, it seems to me it has two results – the books are deeper, more emotional, with the feel of contemporary or literary fiction, and contain his truest characterisations; and, conversely, the crime story is weaker, less important and feels rather tacked on. I can understand why some readers might find that a little frustrating but, since what I love most about him is his superb descriptive writing and his ability to create a rich sense of place, the relative downplaying of the crime aspect doesn’t bother me too much. Part of me wishes he’d go the whole hog sometime and write a William Boyd-style literary novel.

I’m sure partly my reaction is because when May is writing about his own country, his own people and his own past, he’s also writing about mine. There’s a profound Scottishness in these Lewis books. Though his style is very different to William McIlvanney’s, I find the same kind of clear-sighted truthfulness in them – he doesn’t gloss over the darker aspects of our society but writes with a warm affection for both place and people. There is a tendency amongst some writers to show life in Scotland as either tartan and twee, or all drugs, drunks and foul-mouthed violence – both aspects that exist on the edges, for sure. But May instead shows what life is like for the majority of us – a mix of old and new, the modern emerging, more slowly, perhaps, in these remote island communities, from the restrictions and harsh traditions of the past.

End of Lengthy Digression

Old Loom – New Tweed. Weaver Kenny Maclennan from Breaseclete treading the Hattersley loom at the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village, Isle of Lewis

Anyway, enough of these musings! To the book! It’s written mostly in the third person, past tense, with some sections in the past told in Niamh’s first-person voice, also past tense. (Regulars will know how happy I am not to be forced to read present tense, even if May does do it better than most.) The bulk of the book is telling us the long history of Niamh’s and Ruairidh’s relationship, from their early childhood through to the present day. We know that some incident happened that has led their families to be at odds with each other, but we don’t find out what till late on. Once married, they set up Ranish Tweed – a variation on the real Harris Tweed which is woven exclusively on the island. Again, May’s research and descriptive skill come into play here, never info-dumping, but showing how this old traditional industry has had new life breathed into it in recent years through clever marketing, becoming a niche couture item for the rich. Through this strand we also get a look at the fashion industry in general and how designers and manufacturers are crucial to each other’s success or failure.

Meantime, the crime is being investigated by Sylvie Braque of the French police, and we learn a little of her life as she struggles to balance single parenthood with the demands of the job. When she comes to Lewis as part of her investigation, she is assisted by local Sergeant George Gunn, who is becoming something of a regular feature in May’s various Lewis novels, making them feel loosely tied together and reminding us that each of the stories form one part that together make up the whole of this community. I’m a big fan of Sergeant Gunn, so was delighted that he got a rather larger role than usual in this one. For the most part, the story is a relatively slow meander through Niamh’s life, but it builds up to a typical May thriller ending which, though I’d guessed part of the solution, still managed to shock me.

As a crime novel, I might only have rated this as 4 stars – there’s no doubt it loses focus on the crime for a long section in the middle. But frankly, I’ll happily ramble round Lewis for as long as May is willing to be my guide, so I was in no hurry to get to the solution. If you haven’t already guessed, highly recommended!

Peter May

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

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Behind the Night Bazaar (Jayne Keeney 1) by Angela Savage

A visit to the dark side… 

😀 😀 😀 😀

Jayne Keeney is an Australian woman working as a PI in Bangkok in Thailand. While she is recovering from an injury she received in the course of an investigation, she decides to visit her best friend Didier in Chiang Mai. After a rather strange and disturbing evening in the gay bars behind the Night Bazaar, Didier’s Thai lover, Nou, is found dead and horrifically mutilated. Worse still, Didier is accused of the crime by the police, who shoot him dead, claiming he was resisting arrest. Jayne is determined to clear her friend’s name, so must try to find out who really killed Nou, and why.

I shall start with my usual disclaimer – I know the author, Angela Savage, via our blogs, so you should assume that there may be some bias in my review. However, as always, I’ll try to be as honest as possible. Although Angela has written three novels in this series, this one was her début and is the first one I’ve read.

Despite the PI set-up, the book isn’t really a mystery – we find out who and why quite early on. The real story is about how Jayne navigates her way through the corruption at all levels of society in an attempt to force the authorities to clear Didier’s name. It’s set amid the seamy side of Thai life – prostitution, including child prostitution, police corruption, and foreign sex tourism. Savage pulls no punches, making it something of a grim read, grittier than my personal taste normally runs to. There is also some graphic sex and a sprinkling of strong language.

Didier has been doing outreach work to try to minimise the spread of AIDS not only in the gay community but in the wider Thai society. This has led him to become involved in a project to look at the underlying causes of the massive sex industry in the country and it’s here that the motivation lies. Savage raises some interesting questions, especially around the subject of foreign involvement in the sex industry, as both providers and users, and the attempts of foreign law enforcement agencies to intervene.

To be honest, the little I know about Thailand comes from the various horror stories surrounding sex tourism by sad old perverts and revolting paedophiles that have hit the British news over the decades and I had been hoping that I might get some insights into other aspects of Thai life (I assume there must be some!), but because of the focus of this plot, that wasn’t the case here. So to an extent it reinforced my existing impression of Thailand as a place that I would avoid like the plague. I will be interested to see if the later books in the series will widen the focus to let us see a more enticing side to the country.

It feels very well researched and the picture of this aspect of Thai life feels unfortunately all too believable. The character of Jayne is well developed – she’s strong without having superwoman tendencies, independent but not a loner and, while she’s courageous, we are also allowed to see her fear, which keeps her human and likeable. The writing is very good – happily it’s written in third person, past tense. The story flows well, never dipping into ‘soggy middle’ territory, and Savage manages to keep Jayne’s grief over Didier’s death feeling real without wallowing in the angsty morass so beloved of some of our contemporary crime writers.

Angela Savage

The book paints an excellent picture of how corruption in the police force allows child prostitution and other forms of sex slavery to thrive, but Savage also highlights that not all sex workers are forced into it – many choose the life because they can earn more that way. Without getting overly preachy, Savage through her characters suggests that poverty is the root cause – while I don’t disagree, I felt she took a rather more forgiving approach than I can to parents who sell eight and nine year old girls to the highest bidder, whatever the reason. The foreign sex tourists and the police come off as the baddies – personally I struggled to spot any “goodies”. I was a little disappointed that even Jayne seemed more concerned about Didier’s good name than about the abuse of children, although I do think that’s more realistic than if she’d been portrayed as a moral crusader – a foreign white knight riding to rescue the Thai people from themselves.

The subject matter meant that for me it was more of a thought-provoking read than an enjoyable one. As you may be able to tell from my review, it inspired me to rant about the sexual exploitation – no, let’s call it what it is – the rape of children (even though I’ve edited out about five hundred words of the worst of my frothing at the mouth – kind of me, I’m sure you’ll agree). But on the whole, Savage gets a good balance between the examination of the social issues and the telling of an interesting story, and none of the grittier elements feel gratuitous or voyeuristic. A well-written and intriguing look at the seamier side of Thai culture that will appeal to those who like their crime fiction dark. Recommended, and I look forward to seeing how the series develops.

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A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie

Party games…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a mysterious notice appears in the Chipping Cleghorn Gazette, the villagers don’t take it very seriously.

‘A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.’

The prevailing feeling is that this is a rather odd invitation from Miss Letitia Blacklock, owner of Little Paddocks, perhaps to some kind of murder mystery evening. So all her friends decide to show up at the appointed time. Miss Blacklock knows nothing about it but, being a sensible woman, she realises the villagers are likely to descend on her and makes preparations for a little drinks party anyway. Once everyone is assembled, a shocking event occurs and the end result is that a man lies dead. It’s up to the police, ably assisted by Miss Marple, to find out who he was and why he died…

This has always been one of my favourite Christies, mainly because I thinks she excels herself in both plotting and characterisation. It also has one of the best beginnings, as Christie ranges round the village introducing us to all the characters by means of telling us which newspapers they routinely have delivered. Newspapers in Britain have always been such an indicator of class, social position, education, political standpoint; and Christie uses this brilliantly to very quickly telegraph (no pun intended) the social mix of the village.

Published in 1950, this is post-war Britain, and the first chapter gives us a little microcosm of British middle-class society of the time – old soldiers, the traditionally rich fading into genteel poverty, the new business classes taking over as the wealthy ones, women beginning to find their place in the workforce, people displaced from their original homes forming a mobile and fluctuating population, so that even in villages neighbours no longer know all the long histories of their neighbours – now people have to be judged on what they choose to reveal of themselves. Anyone who thinks Golden Age crime fiction has nothing much to say about society should read this chapter and think again. Christie, of course, understood totally that crime fiction is first and foremost an entertainment though, so all this information is transmitted with warmth and humour, and all in the space of a few hundred words. Many modern crime writers would probably take 150 pages, bore us all to death, and still not produce anything half as insightful…

Agatha Christie

There is one aspect of the book I don’t enjoy and that’s the treatment of Mitzi, Miss Blacklock’s foreign maid. A war refugee from Eastern Europe, she is portrayed with a kind of cruel casualness – her anxiety dismissed as hysteria, her horror stories of her life in the war dismissed as either exaggeration or with an attitude of contempt for her not having the British stiff upper lip. It’s odd, because this book also has some of Christie’s kindest and most moving characterisations – poor old Bunny, Miss Blacklock’s companion, who shows us all the tragedy of the genteel poor at that time, and the Misses Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd, never openly described as lesbian, but portrayed with great sympathy and warmth.

I’m not going to give any details of the plot for fear of spoilers. However, this is entirely fair play – not only are all the clues in there, but Miss Marple kindly summarises them all towards the end to give us one last chance to solve it for ourselves. I’ve read this one so often over the years that I know whodunit and why and now I can more or less anticipate the clues before we get to them, but I think I was suitably baffled first time I read it. Even knowing how it all works out, I still find it an immensely enjoyable read, allowing me to admire Christie’s skill at its remarkable height.

Joan Hickson

This time around I listened to the wonderful Joan Hickson narrating it. She really is perfect for the Miss Marple books. Her old-fashioned accent is just right, and she completely gets the tone of the books – the mixture of tragedy and humour, the sympathy for human foibles and weaknesses, the little romantic interludes. In this one she made me laugh with the younger characters and moved me to tears with Bunny’s story (I’ve always had a huge soft spot for Bunny – she’s one of my favourite Christie characters). Marvellous stuff – the ideal partnership of author and narrator. Highly recommended.

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The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by PD James

Festive felons…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

PD James was one of my favourite crime writers for many years, so much so that for a couple of decades she was one of my elite group of “must read on publication day” authors even back when this meant paying expensive hardback prices rather than waiting for up to a year for the paperback to come out. It’s been a long time though since I revisited her, so I was keen to see if her magic would still work for me in this collection. There are four stories in the audiobook, each quite substantial in terms of length. They were originally written as special short stories for Christmas editions of magazines and newspapers and cover a wide time period from the late ’60s to the mid-’90s. As one would expect, the quality is variable, but only within the range of good to excellent.

I listened to the audiobook version, with two stories each narrated by Jenny Agutter and Daniel Weyman, both of whom give excellent performances. There is also a short introduction, narrated by Agutter, in which James considers the differences between writing in short and long form, and discusses the place of the short story in the history of crime fiction. (I believe there’s a further introduction from Val McDermid in the paper book, but that’s not included in the audio version.)

The Mistletoe Murder narrated by Jenny Agutter, first published in 1995

A country house mystery with the traditional body in the library! This is told from the perspective of a first-person narrator, a war widow who is visiting her grandmother over Christmas while WW2 is still underway. An unexpected and unpleasant guest arrives and is promptly murdered. The narrator uses her status as a family member to uncover the secrets that led to his death. While very well written, I found this a rather uneasy mix of traditional golden age style with a storyline that felt too modern in its concerns to quite fit that approach. It’s also very dark and somewhat depressing for a Christmas story, I felt. Murder is always fun, but the war aspect and the bleakness of the motivation in this aren’t. I admired this story more than I enjoyed it.

* * *

A Very Commonplace Murder narrated by Jenny Agutter, first published in 1969

This is James at her best. Gabriel, a respectable middle-aged lawyer’s clerk, witnesses something that would be vitally important evidence in a murder trial. But since he was doing something he shouldn’t have been at the time, he finds himself reluctant to come forward. This is a deliciously wicked tale where we see Gabriel twist his conscience into knots to justify his actions – a beautifully constructed psychological study of a weak and not very nice man. James maybe goes a little far at the end, but I found this added the touch of melodrama the story needed to make it into a shivery chiller – perfect seasonal entertainment!

* * *

The Twelve Clues of Christmas narrated by Daniel Weyman, first published in 1996

The first of two stories featuring James’ long-running detective, Adam Dalgleish. In this one, Dalgleish is still a young copper with his name to make. He is driving through the snow to spend Christmas at his aunt’s Suffolk house when he is stopped by a man who asks for his help. The man’s uncle, the curmudgeonly old owner of Harkerville Hall, has apparently committed suicide, but Dalgleish soon finds clues that suggest it may have been murder. Again, James is trying to reproduce golden age style here and openly nods to Agatha Christie, as she also did in The Mistletoe Murder. This one works better in that the motivation is more appropriate to the golden age era, and it’s certainly entertaining, but for me it doesn’t have the depth that James achieves when she sticks more to her own style.

* * *

The Boxdale Inheritance narrated by Daniel Weyman, first published in 1979

Dalgleish is asked to look into an old murder by his elderly godfather, Canon Hubert Boxdale. The Canon’s grandfather died of arsenic poisoning many decades ago. His young second wife was tried for the crime but found not guilty. Now she has left the Canon some money in her will, but his conscience won’t let him accept unless he is sure she didn’t acquire it by murder. Again a much more traditionally James-ian story in this one, concentrating more on the psychology of the characters than on clues and tricks, though there’s some of that too. In the short space available, James hasn’t much time to develop a cast of suspects, so Dalgleish’s detection seems a bit too slick. But this is well outweighed by the storytelling and characterisation. Another excellent one to end on.

* * *

PD James

I found it interesting that I enjoyed the two early stories considerably more than the ones from the ’90s. This chimes with my feelings about James’ novels – that she lost her spark towards the end of her career and began to get too involved in ‘issues’ or general ‘cleverness’ at the expense of her real strength – excellent psychological studies. Her ‘gentleman detective’ also started to feel rather out of place among the more realistic police officers of modern crime fiction, and her later books felt somewhat anachronistic – almost out-dated. But she retained her story-telling skills throughout, and this shows through in the later stories from this collection too. Of course, even when she may have gone off the boil a little, a writer of the stature and skill of PD James was still head and shoulders above most of the competition. A thoroughly enjoyable set of stories overall, then, that would work just as well for newcomers as established fans.

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The Eye of Osiris by R Austin Freeman

“Horrible discovery in a watercress-bed!”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

One November day in 1902, John Bellingham disappears from the study of a friend’s house where he had been waiting for his friend to return home. Two years later, there has still been no sign of him and his potential heirs are left in limbo, unable to execute his rather strange will. And then pieces of a dismembered skeleton begin to show up in odd places. Meantime, young Dr Paul Berkeley, our narrator, has fallen in love with Ruth Bellingham, the missing man’s niece, whose father is one of the potential heirs. He persuades Ruth’s father, Godfrey Bellingham, to allow Dr John Thorndyke, an expert in medical jurisprudence, to look into the case. It’s up to Thorndyke to find a way to identify the remains and to find out what was behind Bellingham’s disappearance.

I’ve read a couple of Thorndyke short stories before, but this was my first full length novel, and it turned out to be not at all what I was expecting. Because of the heavy emphasis on Thorndyke being a scientific investigator, I thought it might be rather dry; and I knew that Freeman was famous for the “inverted” story, where the reader gets to see the villain commit the crime before watching the detective solve it. But this novel is laid out as a traditional mystery and is full of wit, with a charming romance between Berkeley and Ruth to give it warmth. I loved it. Actually, don’t tell anyone but I fell a little in love with young Dr Berkeley myself.

The plot is complex, not so much as to whodunit – the pool of potential suspects is very small – but as to how it was done and perhaps more importantly why it was done in the way it was. There’s a lot in it about Egyptology since several of the characters are linked by their involvement in that field, and a lot more about methods of identifying bodies when there’s not much left of them but bones. The missing man’s will provides another level of complexity, since he specified conditions with regards to where his body should be buried – not easy to fulfil unless his corpse turns up and can be convincingly identified. I believe Thorndyke’s sidekick, Jervis, is usually the narrator of these books, but although he appears in this one he only plays a small part. Berkeley acts as the main sidekick and major character – as a medical doctor he’s ideally placed to act as Godfrey’s representative at inquests, etc.

Challenge details:
Book: 9
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1911

In his discussion of this story in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, Martin Edwards says that “the ‘love interest’ did not appeal to every reader; even Dorothy L Sayers – a fervent admirer of Freeman – deplored it.” Edwards also says “the prose lacks sparkle”. Oh dear! It appears I have to disagree with both Sayers and Edwards – I loved the elegance of the prose, which reminded me quite a lot of Conan Doyle’s easy style, and the wit in Berkeley’s observations of the other characters made me chuckle aloud several times. And I adored the romance! Ruth is a lovely love interest – she’s humorous and intelligent, strong and self-reliant. She feels remarkably modern considering the book was written in 1911, and Berkeley’s initial admiration is of her brain and character rather than of her looks or feminine delicacy. And Berkeley’s own realisation that he’s falling in love is done with a lot of beautifully self-deprecating wit and charm. Considering Ms Sayers is responsible for one of the sappiest romances in the history of crime fiction, with the adoring Lord Peter Wimsey languishing after his ladylove for several books, I think she has a bit of a cheek, quite frankly! 😉

“’Orrible discovery at Sidcup!”

I turned wrathfully – for a London street-boy’s yell, let off at point-blank range, is, in effect, like the smack of an open hand – but the inscription on the staring yellow poster that was held up for my inspection changed my anger into curiosity.

“Horrible discovery in a watercress-bed!”

Now, let prigs deny it if they will, but there is something very attractive in a “horrible discovery.” It hints at tragedy, at mystery, at romance. It promises to bring into our grey and commonplace life that element of the dramatic which is the salt that our existence is savoured withal. “In a watercress-bed,” too! The rusticity of the background seemed to emphasise the horror of the discovery, whatever it might be.

In among the more serious characterisation and the scientific stuff, there are a couple of great humorous set pieces that provide a bit of light relief, such as the obstreperous jury member at the inquest, or the maid servant incapable of giving a direct answer to any question, or the various patients Berkeley sees in his professional capacity. Admittedly these smack a little of the golden age snobbery that tends to mock the working classes, but here it’s done with so much warmth I couldn’t find it in me to take offence. I did guess a couple of pieces of the solution but was still in the dark as to motive and exactly how the intricate details of the plot all fitted together until Thorndyke explained all in a typical denouement scene at the end. All together, a very enjoyable read that has left me keen to get to know Freeman and Thorndyke better.

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Foreign Bodies edited by Martin Edwards

Crime in translation…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Another collection of vintage short stories from the great partnership of the British Library and Martin Edwards, this one is different in that these are all translated. Many are from European countries but there are some that range further afield – Russia, India, Mexico, Japan. As always the book begins with a highly informative and entertaining foreword from Edwards who always manages to get the tricky balance between not enough and too much information just about perfect. Each story also has its own little introduction, where Edwards gives some information about the author and in this collection also about the translation. Some of the stories were translated earlier and have appeared in magazines or other collections, but some have been translated specifically for this collection and are appearing in English for the first time.

There are fifteen stories in all, and as always the quality is variable. There are “impossible” crimes, Holmes pastiches with a foreign slant, little stories that are just a bit of fun, dark stories that linger in the mind, stories that verge on gothic horror. For me, the collection got off to a pretty poor start – I wasn’t impressed by the first two or three and began to think I’d made a mistake with this one. But as it goes on, the stories get better and better, and some of the later stories are very good indeed. One of them in particular rates as one of the best crime short stories I’ve ever read. In the end, I rated 6 of the stories as 5 stars and another 5 as 4 stars, and there were only two that I thought were complete duds that didn’t really deserve inclusion on the basis of their quality, although I could see why Edwards had picked them – one for the author’s name (Chekhov), and the other because it plays on a classic of the genre. So despite the iffy start, this ended up being one of my favourites of these collections overall.

Here are a few of the stories that stood out for me:-

The Spider by Koga Saburo translated by Ho-Ling Wong. Japanese. Part crime/part horror and definitely not one for arachnophobes! A scientist built a tower where he keeps vast numbers of spiders for study. But one day a visitor to the tower comes to a sticky end. Our narrator is looking into events after the later death of the scientist himself. This is almost Poe-ish in style in that we learn what happened mostly from the diaries of the scientist – a tale told by a man driven mad. Those spiders have haunted me for weeks now!

The Venom of the Tarantula by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay translated by Sreejata Guha. Indian. Very much a Holmes pastiche and excellently done. The detective Byomkesh Bakshi and his Watson, Ajit, apparently appeared in many stories and I’d happily read more of them. In this one, an old man is driving his long-suffering family crazy – he takes a drug that makes him impossible to deal with and they don’t know how he’s getting hold of it. The solution is very Holmesian even if it’s a little obvious, and the story is highly entertaining.

Poster from the 2015 film based on the stories

The Kennel by Maurice Level translated by Alys Eyre Macklin. French. There is a crime here, a fairly horrific one too, but mostly this is a great little gothic horror story. A man suspects his wife of having an affair, especially when he finds another man in her room. She claims it’s all very innocent but things are about to take a very nasty turn. It has a darkly twisted ending that made me gasp aloud (and then laugh). The author apparently wrote for the Grand Guignol and this story is of that type – melodramatic, gruesome and lots of fun!

The Cold Night’s Clearing by Keikichi Osaka translated by Ho-Ling Wong. Japanese again – there’s something about the Japanese approach to crime fiction that always draws me in, and this is the story I referred to above as being one of the best crime shorts I’ve ever read. It’s also by far the darkest story in the book. A teacher is called out in the middle of the night to his friend’s house, where he finds his friend’s wife and cousin dead, Christmas toys and sweets strewn around the floor, and the couple’s young son missing. Beautifully written and translated, the author uses the winter snow, the dark night and the frozen countryside to create a great atmosphere of uncanny dread, and there’s an excellent puzzle to be solved too. I was blown away by this story – a little piece of dark perfection.

So some great stories in there that well outweigh the less good ones, and make this for me one of the best of these collections… so far! Highly recommended and I hope Edwards and the BL keep ’em coming!

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

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Unplayable Lie (Josh Griffin 1) by Caleigh O’Shea

A strong début…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Thirteen-year-old Lexi Carlisle is already famous in her home state of Texas. A budding golf player, she looks set to be a future champion. When she goes missing, the police and even her parents think at first that maybe she’s just off doing something she doesn’t want her parents to know about – she’s a good kid but she’s at that rebellious stage. But when time goes on, worry turns to fear – and then the ransom note arrives. Meantime, local journalist Josh Griffin is hanging onto his job by his fingernails – he needs a big story and he needs it soon. So when he gets a tip-off about Lexi’s disappearance, at first he’s thrilled. But Lexi’s mother, Amanda, was Josh’s college sweetheart and he soon finds himself torn between getting the scoop and helping Amanda find her daughter…

This is Caleigh O’Shea’s début novel and before I begin I shall make my usual disclaimer – under her real name, Caleigh is a long-term blog buddy of mine, so you should assume that there may be some bias in my review. However, as always, I’ll try to be as honest as possible.

The book is a traditional thriller – ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events – and O’Shea has used this format very effectively. The pacing is excellent – the story keeps moving along, with time for us to get to know the main characters but without too much back story holding up the flow. Although the series title suggests Josh will be the main character, in fact Amanda is the character we spend most time with.

Truthfully, I didn’t find either of them particularly appealing in the early chapters. Josh seems deeply unsympathetic to Amanda’s worry over her daughter, getting quite huffy when she makes it clear that giving him a good story isn’t her primary concern. Equally, Amanda seemed quite cold and controlled considering the circumstances, reacting too calmly and almost unfeelingly to major events which should, I felt, have upset her hugely. I also felt that while Nee-Hi, Amanda’s little dog, brought a lot of warmth into the story, humanising Amanda’s character, there were perhaps too many repetitions of the day-to-day stuff of dog-caring – letting him out to pee, feeding him, putting him in and out of his carry box, etc.

However, I warmed to both of them as time went on. (Josh and Amanda, that is. I didn’t need to warm to Nee-Hi – I fell in love with him immediately!) Josh gradually begins to get his priorities right, and in the later chapters especially we see more deeply into Amanda’s feelings. By the halfway point I had grown to like them both and was therefore fully invested in their welfare as the action ramped up in the second half. I wondered, as I often do with débuts, whether the book had been written linearly – the second half feels much more skilled in showing emotion realistically than the first, as if O’Shea’s style and, perhaps, confidence had been developing as she went along.

Caleigh O’Shea

The plot is more complex than it first appears – this is no random kidnapping of a rich kid. There’s a motive here, and a mystery which gives Josh a chance to use his journalistic skills to uncover what’s really going on. The police are involved but their suspicions are centred on this being some kind of domestic thing between Lexi’s divorced parents, so Amanda and Josh have to do their own investigating. And in true thriller fashion, eventually all the strands come together in a dramatic but credible denouement, in which I was delighted that neither Amanda nor Josh suddenly turned into unbelievable superheroes. For my liking, the body count was a little high, with a couple of events that I didn’t feel were necessary and which made the story rather bleaker than my taste runs to, but that’s a subjective point.

Overall, then, a strong début with a good plot, great pacing, an exciting and believable climax, and main characters whom I grew to care about. I’m looking forward to seeing how Caleigh, Josh (and maybe Amanda?) develop as the series progresses.

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Sweet William by Iain Maitland

Whom the gods would destroy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A man escapes from a secure psychiatric hospital to find his little son, sweet William, and run off to a new life, just the two of them, in the south of France. This is the story of the next forty-eight hours…

And what a story! A complete roller-coaster during most of which we’re stuck inside the head of Orrey, the father, whose frequent assertions that he’s not mad somehow fail to convince us! Dark and disturbing doesn’t even begin to describe it. By all rights, I should have hated it – I’ve bored on often enough about my dislike of using children to up the tension in crime fiction. But it’s a tour de force piece of writing with one of the most brilliantly drawn disturbed central characters I’ve read in a long time – think Mr Heming or The Dinner or Zoran Drvenkar. Then add in relentless pacing that drives the book forward at a speed to leave you gasping – the definitive page-turner!

I don’t want to say too much about the plot since it’s always best to know as little as possible in advance when reading thrillers, but I will mention that little William, who’s only three, goes through a lot, so if you really struggle with bad things happening to fictional children this may not be for you. There is no sexual abuse however.

The book is written in two voices. One is a third-person, past tense narrator who tells us the events of this forty-eight hours as they happen to William’s new family, who adopted him after his mum died and his father was put in the hospital. Although we do learn the names of these characters, for the most part the narrator refers to them as ‘the young woman’, ‘the old man’, etc. This is a fantastic device for keeping us distanced from them – in fact, they’re not even particularly likeable in the beginning – so that somehow we’re not sucked in to being 100% on their side – not for a while, anyway.

I can see her, evil cow, trying to keep up with Veitch. She’s holding William’s hand and every time he stumbles, because she’s going way too fast for his little legs, she pulls him to his feet and keeps walking.
Poor little mite.
I’d like to push on up behind her and jostle her to the ground next time she does that and then, as she stumbles and falls, I’d take little William by the hand and be away into the crowd.
He’d look up at me in surprise and I’d look down at him and smile and say something sweet and kind and he’d smile back as we disappeared away together forever.
You know what, I might even kiss him on the forehead. That’s what you do, that is.
Kiss little children.

Orrey however tells us his own story in the present tense, talking directly to us (or maybe talking to another voice inside his head, but the effect is the same). He doesn’t have much of a plan and has to react to each event as it happens. Frequently, a chapter will end with him summing up what he thinks his options are and then asking what would you do? Now, it’s perfectly possible I’m a very sick person because I found myself being forced to agree that sometimes the most extreme option was really the only possible one. When I discovered that at one point I was agreeing that he really had to do something that no normal person would ever dream of doing, I laughed at how brilliantly the author had pushed me so far inside Orrey’s insane world view that he’d made it seem almost logical.

Despite the darkness of the story, Maitland keeps the graphic stuff firmly off the page for the most part, though that doesn’t stop it from seeping into the reader’s imagination. But it does make it a bearable – dare I say, even an entertaining – read, which wouldn’t have been the case for me had every event been described in glorious technicolor. The oblique references to what has happened during the gaps in Orrey’s narration actually frequently made me laugh in a guilty kind of way – there’s a thin vein of coal black humour buried very insidiously in there, I think, in the early parts, at least. Although the stuff relating to William is difficult to read, if Orrey has a redeeming feature it’s that he truly does love his son, which somehow made it possible for me to remain in his company if not on his side.

Iain Maitland

However, as the book goes on, the darkness becomes ever deeper and Maitland changes the focus with a great deal of subtlety and skill so that gradually our sympathies become fixed where they should have been all along – with William and his adopted parents. But we are left inside Orrey’s unreliable mind right up to the end, so that the book might end but our stress levels take a good deal longer to get back to normal. I finished it four days ago, and I’m still waiting…

I believe this is Maitland’s fictional début – well, I’m kinda speechless at that. While the subject matter might make this a tough read for some, for me the quality of the writing, the way the author nudges and pushes the reader to go exactly where he wants, and the utterly believable and unique voice of Orrey, all make this a stunning achievement. Set aside a few hours to read it in a block though – you’ll either stop for good very quickly or you won’t want to stop at all…

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

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Pietr the Latvian (Maigret 1) by Georges Simenon

Introducing the great man…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Inspector Maigret is at the Gare du Nord on the trail of a notorious conman known only as Pietr the Latvian. He only has a description to go on, but he sees a man get off the train who matches it in every respect. However things get complicated when a corpse turns up on the train, and the corpse also matches the description! Who is the man on the train? And who is the man who got off the train? As Maigret hunts down the living man, his identity seems to become ever vaguer. But Maigret is nothing if not dogged…

This is the first book in the long-running Maigret series and, like many débuts, not one of the best when looked at retrospectively. The plot is a bit messy and the solution relatively obvious. It consists mostly of Maigret hanging around in hotels and bars as he follows his quarry about Paris and the little seaside town of Fecamp, interspersed with the occasional interview. However it shows Simenon’s skill in creating the authentic sense of place that would become a hallmark of the series and provides an introduction to the character of Maigret himself – perhaps more one-dimensional than he would later become, but already with that relentless persistence that would see him through more complex investigations in his future career.

Challenge details:
Book: 97
Subject Heading: Cosmopolitan Crimes
Publication Year: 1930

He was a big, bony man. Iron muscles shaped his jacket sleeves and quickly wore through new trousers. He had a way of imposing himself just by standing there.

Maigret is a bit of a superman in this one, requiring little in the way of sleep and able to battle on even when injured, possibly due to the extraordinary amount of alcohol he puts away. It’s more noir in tone, perhaps, than the later books (of which I’ve only read a couple, so am certainly no Maigret expert), as Maigret wanders through a kind of lowlife underworld full of rather sad and desperate people. His wife is referred to, but not really in the warm terms I’ve come to expect, of being Maigret’s true partner and best friend. Here she’s more of a “traditional” wife – there merely to provide food when required.

Georges Simenon

I listened to it on audio, well narrated by Gareth Armstrong. It’s part of Penguin’s re-issue of the series with new translations, and David Bellos does a fine job with it.

On the whole I felt one could see the kernel of what the series would develop into, but since these are all standalones, I’d tend to recommend newcomers to start with one of the later, better books as I did. In truth, had this been my first introduction to the great man, it may not have encouraged me to try more. But I found it interesting from the point of view of being able to compare this first glimpse of Maigret to the more rounded character he would later become, so would certainly recommend it on that basis.

NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible via MidasPR.

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The End of the Web by George Sims

Beware the spider!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Leo Selver’s marriage has never been the same since his young son died, and he has taken to having a string of short affairs. When we meet him he is just about to embark on a new one, with a beautiful young woman called Judy Latimer. But Leo is worried about some business deal he seems to be involved in with a man he doesn’t really trust. Soon things are going to turn nasty – very nasty – for Leo and his business partner. And it will be up to Ed Buchanan, former policeman and old family friend, to try to work out what’s going on before things get even nastier…

This may be one of the vaguest little intros I’ve ever written and that’s quite intentional. One of the things I’ve noticed most since I’ve being reading some of these older crime novels is that authors were far more willing to mess with the reader’s expectations and play with structure than we tend to think. This book is a prime example of that. The beginning follows a fairly conventional pattern for a thriller – ordinary man caught up in a situation that brings him into danger – and it looks as though it will go on in the traditional way, with him struggling to extricate himself from the mess he’s in. But then the author turns it on its head, and the book suddenly veers off in an entirely unexpected direction. I was taken aback, I must admit, but it works well, lifting this out of standard thriller territory into something a little more original.

Published in 1976, the book is set only a few years earlier in 1973, mostly in London though with trips out to the countryside and also over to Amsterdam. As with most thrillers (back in those happy far-off days, before turgid soggy middles and endless angst became obligatory), it goes at a cracking pace but, despite this, the author creates a good feel for the time period through references to some of the music and clothes, etc., and his sense of place is just as good.

The characterisation is also very good, achieved with an admirable brevity of description. Leo isn’t exactly likeable, especially to a modern (female) audience who might feel that he should have spent a bit more time thinking about his wife’s feelings rather than indulging in sad, middle-aged fantasies about young women, but his grief over the death of his son is real and makes it possible for the reader to sympathise. He’s no hero, as he discovered himself during the war, but when the chips are down he does his best.

Ed, who becomes the main character as the book progresses, is however an excellent hero! Ex-boxer, ex-policeman, all round nice guy with a bit of a romantic streak, he manages the tricky balancing act of being tough with the baddies but gentle and caring with the women in his life – not just his romantic interest, but with Leo’s wife, whom he looks on almost as a surrogate mother. And remarkably for the period, he doesn’t patronise them! It’s a short thriller, but Sims still finds room for Ed to develop over time, so that in the course of the novel he gets to know himself better and make changes in the way he lives his life.

Can’t find an author pic, so here’s a nice spider instead…

There’s plenty of action and a plot that hints at what I discovered later from Martin Edwards’ intro to be true – that Sims himself had connections to the code-breaking facility at Bletchley Park during the war. There are some seriously chilling moments and some touching ones, and a dash of humour from time to time to keep the thing from becoming too bleak. The writing is very good and the pace never falters. Bearing in mind that it’s the ’70s, Sims seems to be quite forward-thinking, managing to avoid the usual pitfalls of blatant sexism, etc., and he in fact paints a positive picture of the burgeoning multi-culturalism that was beginning to really take off in London at that period. All-in-all, I thoroughly enjoyed this, and will certainly look out for more from Sims. I hope the British Library will resurrect more of these thrillers – from this example, they’ll be just as enjoyable as the mystery novels they’ve been re-issuing.

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

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Death at the President’s Lodging (Inspector Appleby 1) by Michael Innes

I simply Kant take any more…

😖

When Dr Umpleby, the President of prestigious and ancient St Anthony’s College, is found murdered, Inspector Appleby of the Yard is rushed to the spot, as the local plods will clearly not be well educated or cultured enough to deal with such a sensitive affair. Fortunately Appleby can quote major and minor philosophers with the best of them and has more than a passing knowledge of all the arcane subjects covered in a classical Oxbridge education, all of which will no doubt help him to uncover who killed the President and why.

The tone of my introduction may have been somewhat of a spoiler for my opinion of the book, so I may as well jump straight to the conclusion – I abandoned this at just under 40%, finally throwing in the towel when one of the characters hinted that the clue to the mystery might be found in an anecdote about Kant quoted in a book by De Quincey. This, only a couple of pages after the following passage…

And he [Inspector Appleby] sipped his whisky and finally murmured to Titlow [a suspect], with something of the whimsicality that Titlow had been adopting a little before, “What truth is it that these mountains bound, and is a lie in the world beyond?”

There was silence while Titlow’s eye dwelt meditatively on the policeman conversant with Montaigne. Then he smiled, and his smile had great charm. “I wear my heart on my wall?” he asked. “To project one’s own conflicts, to hang them up in simple pictorial terms – it is to be able to step back and contemplate oneself. You understand?”

I couldn’t help but feel it might have been more useful had Appleby asked whether Titlow had crept into the college garden in the middle of the night and shot the President, or searched his rooms for the gun, but each to his own, I suppose. And certainly, my method wouldn’t have allowed Innes to show his vast erudition and superior intellect, which appears to be the main purpose of the book.

Challenge details:
Book: 52
Subject Heading: Education, Education, Education
Publication Year: 1936

The actual plot is based on there being a limited number of people, almost all academics, who could have had access to Dr Umpleby’s rooms at the time of the murder. Sadly, this aspect becomes tedious very quickly with much talk of who had or didn’t have keys, where rooms are in relation to each other, where walls and passages are. I felt a desperate need for a nap… oops, I mean a map… after the first several dozen pages of description. Oddly enough, Innes claims Appleby is happier dealing with problems on a “human or psychological plane” and then proceeds to have this great intellectual wandering around in the (literal) dark, playing hunt the missing key. By 40%, only one possible motive had emerged, largely because Appleby seems more interested in listing the academic tomes on the suspects’ bookshelves than in trying to find out where they had been at the time of the crime.

Michael Innes

This is one of Martin Edwards’ picks in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, and I’ve seen several positive reviews of other books of Michael Innes’ recently, so I’m willing to accept that my antipathy to this style of writing isn’t universal, or perhaps Innes improved in later books – this, I believe, was his first. However, the only emotions it provoked in me were tedium and irritation at the perpetual intellectual snobbery. Having been made to realise my own status as dullard, I shall take my inferior intellect and defective education off into the dunce’s corner now… but don’t feel too sorry for me, for I shall take with me an ample supply of chocolate and some books by authors who may not have achieved a First in Classics at Oxbridge but who nevertheless seem to have grasped the definition of the word “entertain”…

In truth, I think my rating of this one is harsh – had I been able to convince myself to struggle through it, it may have earned three stars for the quality of the writing and plot. But since I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, I fear I can only give it one.

PS Appleby and Umpleby? Seriously??

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

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The Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet

When the ordinary becomes extraordinary…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Bertrand Barthelme runs his car off the A35 into a tree one evening and dies, Inspector Georges Gorski has no reason to think it was anything other than an unfortunate accident. But Barthelme’s widow thinks there’s something odd about her husband having been at that spot at that time and asks Gorski to look into it a bit more. Mme Barthelme is an attractive 40-something with more than a touch of the femme fatale in this first meeting, so Gorski finds himself agreeing. Meantime, Barthelme’s 17-year-old son Raymond starts a kind of investigation of his own, in an attempt to learn more about the father with whom he had always had a rather cold, distant relationship. Both investigations will head off in unexpected directions.

This is on the face of it a crime novel, but the quality of the writing, the depth of the characterisation, the creation of place and time and the intelligence of the game the author plays with the reader all raise it so that it sits easily into the literary fiction category, in my opinion at the highest level.

There is an introduction and an afterword, and it’s essential to read them both. The book is presented as a manuscript come to light years after the author’s death, and translated by Burnet from the original French. This device is crucial in getting the full impact of what follows, but I’ll go no further than that since the journey is best taken without a roadmap. This is actually the second book featuring Inspector Gorski. I haven’t read the first one, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, but didn’t find that presented a problem – this one works entirely as a standalone.

The setting is the small town of Saint-Louis, in the corner of France that borders Germany and Switzerland, some time in the 1970s. A drab and dreary little town from the author’s account of it, a respectable backwater. It is brilliantly drawn – I could see the streets and the little run-down cafés and bars, where people have their regular tables and drink their regular drinks each day. I could smell the Gitanes, feel the rain, visualise each person, their class and social standing indicated with subtlety and authenticity. No wonder Raymond thought the next town along the road, Mulhouse, was an exciting metropolis in comparison, with its shops and cinemas and life!

Both towns are important characters in the book but it’s the human characters who make it such an absorbing story. Gorski is a middle-aged man in something of a rut, but without the ambition or desire to find his way out. He is content to be the Chief of Police in Saint-Louis – a medium-size fish in a tiny pool – even if he’s not particularly liked by his subordinates nor respected by those at the top of the social heap. He’s less happy with the fact that his wife has just left him – he’s not altogether sure why and he’s not convinced that he wants to change whatever it is about himself that’s led her to go. He’s a decent man, but rather passively so – neither hero nor villain. It’s the skill of the writing that makes this ordinary man into an extraordinary character.

Raymond is on the cusp of adulthood and, faced with the sudden death of a father with whom his relationship has never been close, is unsure how to react. Burnet does a wonderful job of showing how hard it can be for a young person to know how to deal with these great crises that life throws at us. Raymond struggles to conform to other people’s expectations of how he should behave and seems at first rather unaffected by his father’s death. But as he gets sucked into trying to discover more about Bertrand’s life, Burnet quietly lets us see how grief is there, deep within him, perhaps so deep he can’t make himself fully aware of it – grief either for the father he has lost, or perhaps for the father that he felt he’d never really had. But at that time of life grief is rarely all-consuming – Raymond’s quest leads him into new experiences and new desires, and as he discovers more about his father, so he discovers more about himself.

Graeme Macrae Burnet

All the other characters we meet along the way are just as well-drawn, building up a complete picture of the two neighbouring societies at the heart of the story. Despite the relative brevity of the book, the secondary characters are allowed to develop over time, making them feel rounded and true. Short sketches of people who appear only for moments in a café or on the street all add to the understanding of the culture, which in turn adds to our understanding of how it has formed and shaped our main characters, Raymond and Gorski. Not a word is wasted – with the briefest of descriptions, Burnet can create a person who feels real, solid, entire, as if they might be a neighbour we’ve known all our life.

For me the place and people are what makes this book so special, but there’s an excellent plot at the heart of it too. There are definite undertones of Simenon’s Maigret in the writing, a debt Burnet acknowledges, and lots of references to the greats of French literature. There’s also a noir feel to it, though in line with the town this noir is greyish rather than black. As Raymond and Gorski each come to the end of their separate quests, I found it fully satisfying as both a story and a brilliant display of characterisation. And then the afterword made me reassess everything I’d just read…

Not a word of criticism in this review because I can find nothing to criticise. I loved every lean and beautifully placed word of this slim book, and was wholly absorbed from beginning to end. It deserves and gets my highest recommendation – superb!

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

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The Vanishing Box (Stephens and Mephisto 4) by Elly Griffiths

Staging a murder…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s a cold and snowy December in the Brighton of 1953, and magician Max Mephisto has top billing in the variety show at the Hippodrome, along with his new stage partner, his daughter Ruby. Ruby’s fiancé, DI Edgar Stephens, has to put his plans to see the show on hold when a girl is found murdered in one of the many boarding houses in this seaside resort. Nineteen-year-old Lily Burtenshaw has been found strangled, with her body carefully posed to resemble a famous event from history. This makes Edgar think of one of the other acts at the Hippodrome – a troupe of showgirls called Living Tableaux, who appear almost naked on stage in recreations of historical or artistic scenes, their blushes covered by a few strategically placed feathers and some unobtrusive flesh-coloured pants. Artistic, young DS Bob Willis thinks – or sleazy, in the opinion of his colleague DS Emma Holmes. The first task the detectives face, then, is to see if they can find a connection between Lily and the troupe…

After the last book in the series took us off to London and America, I was pleased that this one returned to the theatre world of Brighton. Griffiths evokes both time and place convincingly, especially the itinerant life of the performers and the boarding houses they make their temporary homes. She’s very good at showing how the paths of the show people cross and re-cross as they travel round the theatres of Britain, so that relationships are always being renewed or broken as bookings dictate. She shows the contrast between the seediness of backstage life and the glamour of performance, and how some love the travelling life while others see it as a short-term thing until they find something more settled.

In both her series, Griffiths tends to concentrate on the romantic lives of her lead characters more than is usual in police procedurals. This is something that a lot of readers particularly like about her books. Personally I don’t mind a bit of romance, but I find it’s often given too much prominence for my taste in Griffiths’ books, although I prefer the way she’s handling it in this series. But in this book, it all becomes a little too much, with every main character being in love or lust with someone, relationships starting and ending and lots of low-level romantic angst. It might actually be quite a realistic portrayal since most of the leads are youngish and single, but it gives the book a cosy-ish feel which somehow takes away from the story of the crime.

Elly Griffiths
Photo: Jerry Bauer

However, the plotting is strong and the story flows well so that it held my interest all the way through. It’s more of a traditional length for a crime novel, thus avoiding the dreaded sagging middle – hurrah! And all three detectives are well-drawn and likeable – I enjoyed seeing Bob getting a bigger role in this one, and I was relieved that Emma didn’t spend too much of her time battling sexism (a theme with which I’m bored rigid). I did feel that Griffiths had to stretch a bit to make Max relevant to the plotting – if the series continues, it’s going to get progressively harder to work him in believably each time. Much though I like him, I’m kinda hoping that the development of Emma and Bob as stronger characters might allow Max to fade out a bit, leaving this as a more traditional police-based series, focused on Edgar and his team.

So overall, another strong entry in this enjoyable series – well researched, well plotted, well written. My criticism of the romantic angle is, I know, entirely subjective – Griffiths does it very well, and while it’s a weakness for me, I’m sure it will be strength for people who enjoy that aspect more. And otherwise, I like these characters very much and love the post-war Brighton setting. I hope there’s more to come…

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

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Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

Thought-provoking…

😀 😀 😀 😀

African-American Texas Ranger Darren Matthews is on suspension when a colleague asks him to look into a case in the small town of Lark in East Texas. Two murders have been committed – a black male lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman, and the racial tensions which were already simmering in the town look like they might explode. It’s up to Darren to try to find out what happened before more violence erupts… but there are people in the town who don’t want old secrets disturbed and will go to any length to stop him.

The book is very well written and the plot is interesting, revolving around the various relationships, open and hidden, amongst the people of this small town. Fundamentally, it’s a book about racism and veers towards being too overt in its message-sending, but for the most part the excellent characterisation and sense of place carry it over this flaw. It has something of the feel of an updated version of In the Heat of the Night, with Darren mistrusted and almost ostracised by the white power-brokers of the town, having to act as a lone hero standing up for the black residents against an institutionally racist system and a bunch of terrifying white supremacists. However, Darren is no Virgil Tibbs – he’s on suspension for acting as a maverick, he has a drink problem and his marriage is on the rocks, surely proving convincingly (and rather tediously) that there’s very little difference between black and white detectives in contemporary fiction.

Had I read this a year ago, I’d have been saying it dramatically overstates the racial divide in the US. But after the last few months of sons of bitches and very fine people, I found it frighteningly possible. However – and I’m going to get polemical myself here – while I understand why people who are victims of any form of oppression are likely to develop opposite prejudices, I can’t say I’m much fonder of anti-white racism than anti-black. There is not a single decent white person in this book, and conversely there are no bad black people. When a black person occasionally does something morally dubious, it’s made clear that they’ve been more or less forced into it by society’s racism against them. The white people however are simply racist with no real attempt to consider why this might be so. Of course, sometimes this form of exaggeration can work in literary terms to highlight an issue, but I can’t feel that it moves the debate on – it’s more of a simple protest, maybe a howl of pain. I can see it feeding into both black outrage and liberal white hand-wringing, but I have to ask, given the state of America as seen from distant Scotland, do either of those things really need feeding at this point? Personally, I feel something more nuanced – more perceptive of the underlying reasons for the polarisation of American society – would be more useful. But then, I’m not a black American and Attica Locke is…

The result of this was that I began to find the portrayal of the town less credible as the book went on. The action takes place mainly in two places – a café where the black people hang out, and a bar where the white supremacists gather. Where are the other townsfolk? Even if they were irrelevant to the plot, I’d have liked to feel that they existed – to see them at least out of the corner of my eye. Maybe all white people in East Texas really are white supremacists, and maybe all black people do spend all day every day in a café scared of being killed, but I found myself progressively less convinced.

Attica Locke

This might all make it sound as if I hated the book, but I didn’t. The quality of the writing and the flow of the story kept me engaged, and if I weren’t a political animal I probably wouldn’t have been so conscious of what I saw as a lack of nuance in the portrayal of the racism. It’s all down to timing – at another time, say, a year ago, I would probably have been saying this makes for an excellent wake-up call for people who, like me, had come to think that America was finally getting over the legacy of slavery. But we’ve surely all woken up now and therefore it feels somehow redundant, or perhaps even part of the problem, as each side continues to stand on the moral high ground throwing rocks at the other side.

I realise this has been more of a political statement than a book review. But perhaps if the book serves a purpose beyond entertainment, and I’m sure Locke intends that it should, it’s to stir rational debate. I certainly recommend it – as you can tell, I found it thought-provoking even if I’m not convinced my thoughts are the ones Locke intended to provoke. But stripping my political venting out, I also found it an enjoyable and well written read.

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

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His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

The quality of madness…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

One day in 1869, young Roderick Macrae walked along the tiny street of his village and brutally murdered three of his neighbours. He is now in custody awaiting trial, and his defence lawyer is trying to get at the root causes that led him to commit these horrific crimes.

The novel is presented as if it were a true crime book with witness statements, medical examiner reports and so on. The first half is taken up with Roderick’s own account of events leading up to the crime, an account he is writing while in jail, at the urging of Mr Sinclair, his defence attorney. There’s then a shorter section told from the viewpoint of J. Bruce Thomson, an authority in the new discipline of criminal anthropology. He has been brought in by Mr Sinclair to determine whether Roderick could be considered insane under the legal definition of that word then in force. J. Bruce Thomson was a real person, as the notes at the end of the book tell us, and Burnet has apparently used his actual writings on the subject to inform this section of the book. Finally, there’s an account of the trial, presented as a kind of compilation of various newspaper reports.

The quality of the writing is excellent and the structure works surprisingly well. I’ll get my major criticism out of the way first: I found it impossible to believe that a 17-year-old crofter living in a tiny, isolated and dirt-poor community in the Scottish highlands at this period could possibly be as literate and eloquent as Roderick is in his own written account. Apart from just the excellent grammar and extensive vocabulary, he writes in standard English throughout, which would absolutely not have been how he spoke. Burnet is clearly aware of this problem, so shoves in a bit about how Roderick was a kind of prodigy at school who could have gone on to further education if circumstances had allowed, but I’m afraid this wasn’t enough to convince. My minor, related criticism is that this also means the book makes no attempt to reproduce Scottish dialect or speech patterns – a bonus, I imagine, for the non-Scots reader but a disappointment for this Scot.

However, the storytelling is first-rate and Burnet creates a completely convincing picture of crofting life at this period – a life of hard work and poverty, where the crofters’ living was entirely dependant on the whim of the local laird. He shows the various powers who held sway over the crofters – the factor who was the laird’s main representative, the constable, elected by the crofters to enforce a kind of discipline among them, and the minister of the harsh and unforgiving Scottish church. And he shows how easily these people could browbeat, bully and abuse those under their power, who had no rights to assert and no power to protest. The section supposedly written by J. Bruce Thomson gives a great insight into contemporary thinking on insanity, particularly as regards the effects of heredity and of in-breeding in these tiny communities.

The trial also feels authentic, especially the various extracts from newspapers which include word sketches of how the witnesses and the accused appeared to those in the courtroom. The reader has slightly more information than the jury, because we have had the opportunity to read Roderick’s account. But when the jury retires to consider its verdict, the jurors and the reader are left debating the same question of criminality versus insanity, and Burnet has carefully balanced the picture so that it’s not an easy question to answer.

I found it an absorbing read with a great marriage of interesting storyline and well presented research. As a character study, Roderick is fascinating – indeed, his whole family are. There are all kinds of hints of things that are never fully revealed or clarified, all of which add to the uncertainty of Roderick’s motivation; and the structure allows us to see him both as he chooses to present himself and from the viewpoints of the many other people who come into contact with him. I felt Burnet got just about a perfect balance between letting us feel we knew Roderick and reminding us that we can never fully understand what’s going on in someone else’s head – lots of lovely ambiguity.

Graeme Macrae Burnet

The book was shortlisted for the Booker and, to be honest, I can’t quite see why. It’s very well written and interesting and I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see it winning crime or historical fiction awards, but I don’t feel it’s particularly ‘literary’ or brings anything hugely original to the table. This is not to criticise the book – it’s more a criticism of the Booker, which seems to have lost its way fairly dramatically over the last few years. Had Burnet taken that extra leap of courage to use at least some Scots rather than go for the easy (and more marketable) option of standard English throughout, then perhaps it would have taken it up that notch that would be needed to raise it from excellent to exceptional.

But excellent it is, and it would be unfair to rate it otherwise because it doesn’t quite live up to the unrealistic expectations the Booker shortlisting has created. As a historical crime novel, then – highly recommended.

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Force of Nature (Aaron Falk 2) by Jane Harper

Lost in the woods…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Two groups set off into the Australian outback on a team-building exercise. The men’s team returns on time, but the women’s team is late. The search for them finds nothing but, just as it’s about to be abandoned for the night, four women burst out of the woods – some hysterical, some injured. But the fifth team member, Alice, isn’t with them. Federal Agent Aaron Falk becomes involved when it turns out Alice made a phone call to him the night before, though all he can make out on the recorded message is a lot of static and two words… “hurt her”. Falk and his partner Carmen had been pressuring Alice to get information for them on her company, since they suspect her boss of money-laundering. What has happened to Alice? Did she just walk away from her team in the middle of the night and get lost or is there a more sinister reason for her disappearance? Just to add to the sense of unease the woods were where a serial killer once brought his victims – the killer is now dead, but his son is alive and no one knows where he is…

It’s not often I have to suspend my disbelief quite so early in a thriller, but I struggled with the whole concept that any company would send its inexperienced staff off into the outback with no professional support, no satellite phone, no flares – no way, in fact, of alerting anyone should things go wrong. Maybe they’re tougher in Aus, but here the company management would be liable to major damages not to mention jail-terms. I also felt the idea that the son of a serial killer would necessarily be a serial killer was… dubious. I didn’t feel Harper did enough to convince me of that likelihood by showing that the son had any kind of track record, nor did I feel that strand was really used effectively as the story developed. So I didn’t get off to the best start with this one.

Having set up Alice’s disappearance, the book then takes us back in time to follow the women on their hike, alternating this with Aaron and Carmen in the present assisting the search and slowly revealing the storyline about their investigation into the company. This works fairly well, and each trip into the woods focuses on a different one of the women so that we gradually get to know them all. It’s not long before they get lost and then we get a kind of accelerated Lord of the Flies syndrome, as the women’s veneer of camaraderie quickly gives way to greed, bullying and the dredging up of old scores. This is not a company I would choose to work for!

I don’t want to be too hard on the book, since I suspect some of my relative disappointment with it is caused by too high expectations following Harper’s excellent début in The Dry. But the technique of flicking back and forwards between two timelines is feeling increasingly tired and, a common complaint of mine these days, the first chapters telling us which women come out of the woods destroy any real suspense when we then go back in time. Every time one of the women other than Alice is in peril, we know she survives. I genuinely don’t get why writers think these prologue-type chapters are a good idea, especially in a thriller. The book is also too long for its content – another common feature of current crime/thriller fiction. It drags badly in the middle and somehow the plot gets too convoluted for a thriller and yet not complex enough for a crime mystery. While Harper does achieve a feeling of creepiness at several points in the woods, the major storyline doesn’t live up to its promise.

Jane Harper

On the upside, Aaron and Carmen mesh together well and are a team I’ll be happy to see work together again. Harper’s writing, characterisation and powers of description are just as good as in her début – the book just needs a sharper plot and tighter structure to create a real feeling of suspense. All the elements are there and, while I think authors always have the primary responsibility, as a newish author I feel Harper deserved a stricter editor who would have made the criticisms several reviewers are now making. I always suspect publishers want to rush second books to market after a successful début, but sometimes it would be better to take a little longer – readers will wait. In the end, this is an averagely good thriller with the potential to have been an excellent one. Now that the always tricky second novel is over I look forward to seeing how Harper develops as the series progresses.

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

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