The Lodger by Helen Scarlett

A war to end all wars…

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Elizabeth Smith has lodged with the Armstrong family in Tufnell Park in London for several years, becoming a friend to them all, and especially to Grace, the daughter of the house. While Grace is away from home on a visit, Elizabeth receives a letter – a highly unusual occurrence for this rather isolated woman – and a visit from a strange man, whom the servants felt was threatening. By the time Grace returns, Elizabeth has destroyed all her personal property and left, leaving no forwarding address. Grace is a little hurt, but mostly she’s concerned – it all seems so out of character for Elizabeth. And then a body is found in the Thames. When it is confirmed that it is Elizabeth and the police seem content to call it suicide and let the matter drop, Grace finds she can’t let go – she must find out more about Elizabeth’s past and what drove her to leave as she did.

Set just after the end of the Great War, this is as much an examination of the impact of the losses so many endured as it is a mystery. Scarlett evokes her post-war setting excellently, both physically and emotionally. She shows a society where no person has been untouched by loss – even those lucky enough to have their sons or husbands return to them have to deal with the psychological aftermath, or in many cases with lives shattered by life-changing injuries. But she also shows the resilience that somehow allows people to go on, to start fresh and to begin the slow process of rebuilding lives or building new ones. She shows society changing, with the working classes unwilling to go back to the rigid class systems of before and less deferential than they once were. Servants are hard to come by, since women have had the experience of doing more exciting and better paid jobs in factories and offices during the war, and don’t relish returning to the drudgery of domestic labour. For the middle and upper classes, the old rules of social interaction between the sexes are gone too – no more chaperones, nightclubs springing up, ladies drinking cocktails and smoking! For by far the most part, it’s entirely credible and free of anachronism, with just an occasional word choice that doesn’t quite feel right.

Unfortunately near the end two of the compulsory themes of the decade are dragged in – homophobia and sexual abuse. I assume authors can’t get publishing contracts without them, a bit like the new Oscar rules. At least racism was omitted for once. It’s not that I object to any of these themes – I’d just like them not to be quite so ubiquitous. I love chocolate fudge cake, but I don’t want it with every meal. Believe it or not, there are other aspects of the human condition worth exploring. And in this case, I felt the subjects of loss and renewal were more than sufficient, especially since she dealt with them so well.

Apart from that box-ticking exercise, I found the story interesting and compelling. Grace, who is our main character, has herself lost both a brother and her fiancé, and the story of her slow process of grief and gradual recovery is sensitively done. She too has had grim wartime experiences, working with severely injured men as a VAD nurse, and is now, still only at the age of 22, working with a nursing magazine, hoping it might lead to an opening into journalism. She is a strong, resilient and likeable character whose investigations stay well within the limits of believability throughout. With the help of her friends and the family servants, she begins to trace back through Elizabeth’s life on the basis of the few scraps of information they have all gleaned from this very private woman over the years. As Elizabeth’s past is slowly uncovered, we are led to some dark and shocking revelations.

Helen Scarlett

It’s a slow unravelling of the mystery, but steady, so that I didn’t feel it dragged at any point. The pace allows for plenty of space to explore different reactions to the cataclysm of the war, from those men directly affected trying to deal with mental and physical injuries, to those who had endured a long wait ending perhaps with the awfulness of the telegram telling them their son or brother or lover would not be coming home. Scarlett reminds us that for many the verdict was missing, presumed dead, leaving a tiny glimmer of hope that cruelly drags out the process of acceptance. She shows us how this feeds into the rise of spiritualism, as people desperately seek some kind of closure – the possibility at least of saying goodbye, when there isn’t even a grave to visit. We see how society is divided into those who find comfort in the belief that the fallen had died gloriously for a great cause and those who feel it had all been an unforgivable waste, and how each side of that divide unintentionally adds to the hurt of the other. And yet through all this, Scarlett avoids mawkishness and over-sentimentality.

So, despite my mild disappointment at the late introduction of over-used themes, overall I loved this one. A strong mystery contained within an authentic in-depth look at a specific and significant period in time, and peopled by characters I grew to like and care about. I will certainly be reading more from this talented author, and recommend this one highly.

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

Amazon UK Link

Twice Round the Clock by Billie Houston

Death of a sadist…

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Bill Brent is disturbed in the middle of the night by what sounds like a scream coming from outside the window of the room below his. He rushes down and discovers the body of his host, Horace Manning, stabbed in the back as he sat at the desk in his study. Outside a storm rages, the storm that has forced a reluctant group of guests to spend the night in the house, and Bill finds the phones are down. Then when two of the younger guests offer to drive through the storm to fetch the police, they discover all the cars have been immobilised, with their tyres slashed and their tanks emptied. The guests must spend the next twenty-four hours in the house waiting for the storm to blow over, knowing that one among them is a murderer. We are then taken back twenty-four hours to meet all the characters, discover why they were in the house and learn that many, if not all, of them had good reason to want Manning dead…

Martin Edwards mentions in his introduction that sometimes books are forgotten for good reason, a sentiment with which I heartily concur. But I’m happy to also agree with him wholeheartedly that this is not one of those – this one fully deserves to be re-introduced to a new generation of readers. I can only assume it has been allowed to lapse into obscurity because it was the author’s only novel. Billie Houston was apparently one half of a very successful vaudeville act along with her sister Renée, in which Billie tended to play a boy to Renée’s girl. She wrote this novel backstage during performances. Unfortunately her stage career was cut short by illness, though she lived to a good age and in later life became a championship level chess-player. I’m also delighted that she and her talented sister, who had a much longer career that took her into the world of movies, hailed from my home town of Glasgow. I’ve spent far too much time in the last week looking both sisters up on the internet and searching for rare clips on youtube – again it’s surprising that two people who were big stars in their day now seem to be almost entirely forgotten, even here where they were presumably most famous.

Renée and Billie Houston

Anyway, the book! It’s remarkably well written and, perhaps unsurprisingly from someone used to writing comedy sketches, there’s quite a lot of humour amidst the darkness. The characters are rather stock ones for the most part but nonetheless very well drawn, and most of them are likeable. The exception is the victim, who is a horrible sadist, and so we need not waste tears over him. In fact, one is only surprised that it took so long for someone to do the world a favour and do away with him! Horace Manning is a scientist, working on a deadly gas to be used as a weapon of war. He has only one child, his daughter Helen, and although he has never physically abused her he has ruled her by psychological terror – he reminded me of Mrs Boynton, Christie’s wonderful sadist in Appointment with Death.

Now Helen is in love and Tony Fane, her young man, has sought Manning’s approval for their engagement which, to everyone’s surprise and disbelief, he has given. He invites the whole group over for dinner – Helen and Tony, Tony’s parents, Tony’s sister Kay (whom I couldn’t help feeling was something of an alter-ego for the author), and a couple of assorted friends who were present at the Fanes – Bill Brent, who along with Kay plays the role of amateur ‘tec and hero, Teddy Fraser who is in love with Kay, and Dr Henderson – Hendy – who is an old friend of Manning and Helen. The servants also play their part in the story, more so than is often the case in Golden Age mysteries – Mrs Geraint, the sleep-walking housekeeper who also lives in terror of Manning and stays only out of love for Helen, the two maids, Alice and Mary, and Strange, the chauffeur,

But it is clear that Manning doesn’t intend to let Helen go as easily as that, so a feeling of impending doom hovers over the dinner table, while outside the storm that will trap them in the house approaches. And after dinner Manning does something so awful that everyone’s distrust of him turns to hatred, giving everyone a motive.

(Slight spoiler: this awful thing involves animal cruelty. It is a short episode and not too graphic, and despite my hatred of animal cruelty in books I was able to read on past it without feeling too upset. I think the fact that all the other characters had the same reaction of horror as I did made the author’s own opinion of it clear, and it is an important part of the plot. But be warned!)

Billie Houston

I admit it becomes ridiculous in the last thirty pages or so, but by that time I was having far too much fun to care. I guessed early whodunit and why, and was proved right, but again didn’t mind. The characterisations are so enjoyable, from blustering Sir Anthony Fane to his long-suffering wife, constantly shocked by the very modern manners of her children, to the young people with their various romantic entanglements that all need to be worked out by the end. Kay is delightful, and Bill is true romantic hero material. The rest of the women spend an inordinate amount of time fainting and swooning and being told to lie down and have a nice cup of tea, but it all added to the fun! I am truly sorry that Houston never wrote another, but I’m very glad the British Library has given us all the opportunity to enjoy this one.

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

Amazon UK Link

The Black Spectacles (Gideon Fell 10) by John Dickson Carr

Why do Golden Age criminals keep poisoning chocolates??

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Inspector Andrew MacAndrew Elliot of Scotland Yard has been sent to the village of Sodbury Cross to look into a case that has baffled the local police for some months. Several people who had bought chocolates from the local sweet shop one day had fallen ill, and one child died. It transpired that some of the chocolates had been poisoned. The local gossip has fixed on Marjorie Wills as the guilty party – the young niece of a local peach farmer, Marcus Chesney. The local police don’t object to this suggestion but haven’t been able to find any evidence that Marjorie, or anyone else for that matter, switched the chocolates in the shop. When Elliot arrives in Sodbury Cross, he discovers that he has met Marjorie before, or seen her, at least, while on holiday in Pompeii, and he’d developed a bit of a fancy for her. So that gives him an added motivation to find the real culprit… assuming Marjorie is innocent. Marcus Chesney, meantime, thinks he’s worked out how the chocolate switching was done, and sets up a dramatic performance to prove his theory to his assembled relatives and friends. It all goes wrong when, during the performance, Chesney dies – poisoned! Everyone involved in the case was watching at the time, but they all saw different things…

While this is mostly a howdunit, there’s plenty of interesting characterisation and focus on the psychology of poisoners to stop the how aspects from making it too dry. The initial poisoning appears to have been completely random – anyone could have bought and eaten the poisoned chocolates. This suggests insanity on the part of the murderer. However the second poisoning, of Chesney, suggests a much more intricately planned and deliberately targeted murder, more indicative of a sane, intelligent mind. Along the way Carr has his characters discuss many real life cases as they try to get at the root of what is behind the crimes and whether the murderer is insane or not, and this is an added interest although some of the cases he mentions, which were probably well known at the time this book came out in 1939, have faded from the public consciousness now – or my consciousness, at least! But he gives enough information about each of these cases for the reader to be able to follow the discussions about them.

The howdunit aspect is more interesting than I usually find them. It depends less on fantastical devices and crazy methods than most “impossible crimes”, which made me quite happy! Instead the focus is on the unreliability of witnesses, sleight of hand, misdirection, etc., and, while it’s all a very complex way to commit a crime as howdunits usually are, it actually makes sense once all is revealed, for once. And because it’s not about widgets that miraculously open windows when an arrow is shot up a fireplace at the moment the clock strikes a quarter past nine (yes, I do get fed up with that kind of nonsense in Golden Age howdunits!), but instead is about what people have seen as opposed to what they think they have seen, it’s quite possible for the reader to follow along with the various theories and revelations.

Elliot is a likeable detective, although his decision to hide his pre-existing attraction to the chief suspect is a bit morally dubious. However, he reveals all to Gideon Fell, who happens to be in the neighbourhood. I haven’t quite got my head around who exactly Gideon Fell is. The police seem to use him on a semi-formal basis as some kind of consultant, but is he an ex-policeman? Or a private detective? Or simply a gifted amateur? The two or three books I’ve read so far don’t seem to clarify this – one day I might have to read the first in the series to find out. Anyway, everyone seems quite happy to have him involved. His personality in this one is rather less annoying than sometimes, and again I think that’s because the psychology is more important than the widgetry on this occasion.

John Dickson Carr

I enjoyed this one a lot. While I always admire Carr’s writing, especially his ability to create a tense, sometimes creepy, atmosphere, I sometimes find he gets too bogged down for my taste in the how at the expense of the why, which always interests me more. This one focuses about equally on both aspects, allowing me to admire the intricacy with which he plots while also having a proper mystery around motivation and psychology to keep me interested. I still feel his criminals could find much simpler methods to commit their crimes, but I know lots of people love the puzzle aspect of his books. I love him much more when, like here, the questions of who and why are at least as important as how.

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

Amazon UK Link

The Darkest Room (Öland Quartet 2) by Johan Theorin

Who ya gonna call?

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Joakim and Katrine Westin have come to live on Öland with their two young children, in a house built at Eel Point where twin lighthouses stand, one still operational, the other now deserted. The house was built long ago by the man responsible for the construction of the lighthouses, and he used the timbers from a deadly shipwreck. This is seen as bad luck, and the house has its own history of tragedies which will slowly be revealed to us through a journal Katrine’s mother has sent her. She too had once lived in the house at Eel Point with her own mother, whose paintings of the blizzards that afflict the coast in winter have become posthumously famous and valuable. When Joakim returns from a final trip to their old house in Stockholm to pick up the last of their stuff, he learns that Katrine has drowned, having apparently slipped from the rocks below the lighthouses. Meantime, there are three men who are systematically burgling the houses left empty for the winter by summer visitors, but they’ve now decided that the pickings will be better from inhabited houses…

I’ve loved two of the four books in this quartet, The Voices Beyond and Echoes from the Dead. (The first four books are still being listed as a quartet, even though Theorin seems to have added a fifth now.) One of Theorin’s main strengths is his ability to use the harsh weather conditions and isolation of the island to create a creepy, tense atmosphere, and he certainly does that again in this one. There are parts that truly deserve to be called spine-tingling. However in this one, unlike the other two, he introduces the supernatural – Eel Point is full of ghosts, and not metaphorical ones. You’re either a person who can go along with the idea of ghosts existing, or you’re not. I’m not, not in contemporary fiction anyway, so sadly this book didn’t work for me as well as the others did.

Book 5 of 14

It’s as much about Joakim’s grief as it is a mystery about Katrine’s death, though the mystery element does come more to the fore towards the end. It’s well written, and gives a real sense of the bleakness of life here during the harshest months of winter, even today with modern heating and communication methods. The flashbacks via the journal show how much harder things were when the winters led to almost complete isolation. The almost total darkness that lasts for months and the occasional severe blizzards have taken their toll in human life, and shipwrecks have left their mark on the coast and its people.

The grief motif is never my favourite – I prefer rather more cheerful murder mysteries! But it’s done credibly, and the book takes place over a long enough timescale for us to see Joakim and the kids begin the process of healing. The solution happily is grounded in reality, and the motivations of the dark crime at the heart are fully human, if perhaps a little over the credibility line. Gerlof is the character who links the quartet – an old man now living in an assisted living facility who has lived all his life on the island, and knows some of the dark secrets of its history. This one also features his great-niece, Tilda, who has come to the island as a rookie cop, and we see the particular challenges of that task in such a bleak, isolated spot. The two strands – Katrine’s death and the burglaries – will eventually come together in a rather over-dramatic thriller finale. Overall, though, there’s plenty to enjoy, especially the setting and the descriptions of the harsh conditions.

Johan Theorin

But those ghosts! Nope! When the solution of a mystery comes about through hints given by ghosts, I fear it loses me. I stuck with it to the end, although it was touch and go for the latter half. And I will probably go on to read the fourth (which is actually the third since as usual I’m reading them out of order). But I’ll check reviews first to be sure that it stays firmly in the real world. As always, my middling rating is a subjective measure of my lukewarm enjoyment, not an objective measure of quality – this is a simple case of wrong reader, wrong book. I’d happily recommend it to the many readers who don’t mind a ghostly element in crime fiction.

Amazon UK Link

Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie

But solving them isn’t…

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As he travels to London by train, Luke Fitzwilliams finds himself sharing a carriage with an elderly lady who reminds him of his favourite aunt. Miss Pinkerton chatters in the way elderly people do (in Christie books, anyway), and Luke listens with half an ear as young men do (ditto). She tells him that she’s going to London to visit Scotland Yard, and then shocks him by saying she’s going to report a series of murders in her village of Wychwood. He doesn’t believe her, of course, but encourages her to go to the Yard anyway since he thinks they probably know how to deal with dotty old dears with vivid imaginations. A couple of days later he is sad to read in the paper a notice of her death, killed by a car on that day in London. But then a couple of weeks later he reads another death notice, this time of Dr Humbleby in Wychwood, the man Miss Pinkerton had mentioned as being the murderer’s next intended victim. So Luke decides to go to Wychwood to investigate…

Luke is an ex-policeman of the colonial kind, so investigation is something he’s used to. He manages to get an invite to stay with the local bigwig, Lord Whitfield, by pretending to be the cousin of Lord Whitfield’s fiancée, Bridget Conway, who happens to be the cousin of a friend of his. Complications ensue when he immediately falls for Bridget. He soon tells her the real reason he’s there and she helps him with local knowledge and introductions to the various people who might have been in Miss Pinkerton’s social circle. Because the whole story is so nebulous he doesn’t contact the police till quite late on, at which point Superintendent Battle plays a very small role. In the way publishers do at the moment, this is now listed as one of the “Superintendent Battle series”, but it really isn’t – it’s a standalone and Luke is the central character. Both Luke and Bridget are enjoyable leads, and there are lots of interesting secondary characters, many of them acting suspiciously in one way or another.

Agatha Christie

The plot is up there with her best, fair-play but still baffling, and with a great motivation for the murderer who, as Miss Pinkerton promises in Chapter 1, is “just the last person anyone would suspect”! There are two different kinds of pleasure for me when re-reading Christie. Either I’ve forgotten the plot and the solution, so have the fun of being baffled all over again, or I remember whodunit so have the pleasure of spotting the clues as I go, and admiring the way Christie deploys them. This was one of the latter for me, and it has some of her very best clues! In fact, the crucial clue almost equals the brilliance of the one in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd which I have often declared to be my favourite piece of misdirection of all time. It’s right there, in front of the reader’s face, and yet not only does the poor reader miss the significance, it actually sends her off in completely the wrong direction. I don’t know any other writer who can do that with the apparent ease of Ms Christie – it truly is a joy to see such skill in action.

Great stuff, and Hugh Fraser’s narration of the audiobook is as wonderful as always. Pleasure guaranteed!

Audible UK Link

P.S. I’m running dramatically behind this week – will catch up with all your posts and comments over the weekend. Apologies!


Death of Mr Dodsley by John Ferguson

Highs and lows…

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When a beat policeman stops a man running down the road late one night and demands to know what he’s up to, the drunken young man tells a rambling story of a door that opened and closed as if by itself in a shop that should have been locked up for the night. The policeman investigates, and discovers the body of Mr Dodsley, shot in the head, in the office at the back of his bookshop. Meantime, the House of Commons is having a late sitting amid an air of anticipation – “coming man” David Grafton is scheduled to lead the debate on an amendment which, if successful, may bring down the government. While waiting for the debate to begin, he is reading Death at the Desk, the new debut mystery novel written by his daughter, Margery, who happens to be engaged to the son of Mr Dodsley…

This one is a real mix of high and lows. The best bits are great, but the bits between are a real slog to get through. It starts with the lengthy conversation between the drunk and the policeman, that seems to go on and on for ever. Then it jumps to Parliament, where Ferguson skilfully evokes the late-night atmosphere in the gentleman’s club-like environs of the Commons, as the MPs discuss Grafton’s chances of success in the debate. Next day we meet the Grafton family at home, and they are a bunch of interesting, well-drawn characters – the ambitious Grafton himself, his social-climbing second wife, his son, just reaching adulthood and more interested in cars than politics, his secretary, who is also a friend of the son, and we learn that Margery’s engagement to Dick Dodsley has caused an estrangement, since the son of a bookseller is in the wrong social class for this upwardly mobile family.

Sadly, we then leave the Graftons and they almost entirely disappear for most of the rest of the book, except for Owen, the secretary, and Margery, the estranged daughter. Now we move to the police investigation, and I’m afraid that’s where it becomes a slog. Far too much time is spent on cigarette ends, timings, etc. There are too many clichés, such as the broken watch fixing the time of the murder (or does it?), the mysterious code in Mr Dodsley’s diary, and so on. It becomes ever more convoluted and less interesting as it progresses. The police are joined in their investigation by a private investigator, Francis McNab, who had been hired by Mr Dodsley to look into the theft of some valuable second-hand books.

There continue to be highs – it comes to life when various people are being interviewed by the police, since Ferguson has a knack for characterisation and is good at setting people within their social class, always so important at that time. But these highs are always followed by another of the interminable bits where the police and McNab discuss the same clues again and again. The basic plot is well worked out. However, despite the fact that I wouldn’t say it was fair play, somehow the guilty party seemed fairly obvious from early on, as did the probable motive, and neither of these were as interesting as the early Parliamentary setting suggested they might be.

On the whole, then, I feel this one can be summed up as ‘unfulfilled potential’. I’d be willing to read more from Ferguson because of his skill with setting and characterisation, but in the hopes that next time he’d avoid too many clichés in his plotting and cut out some of the repetition and drag in the investigation.

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

Amazon UK Link

A Man Lay Dead (Inspector Alleyn 1) by Ngaio Marsh

Murder with added Russians…

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Nigel Bathgate has been invited to a house party at Frantock Hall, the home of Sir Hubert Handesley. It is his first visit, made in the company of his older cousin Charles Rankin who is a long-time friend and regular guest of Sir Hubert. Likewise, the other guests are regulars too, so they all share an intricate web of relationships, friendships, affairs and jealousies. Sir Hubert has planned for this to be a murder weekend, where one guest will be appointed murderer and choose a victim, with the other guests playing detective. But after the lights go out as planned to signal the murder, the guests are shocked to find one of their number, truly dead, lying at the bottom of the stairs with a dagger through the heart. Enter Chief Detective Inspector Alleyn of the Yard…

This is an entertaining romp that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and nor must the reader! It’s always interesting to get a glimpse of how a long-running detective series starts out. Sometimes the detective springs fully formed onto the stage. Sometimes it takes a book or three for the author to settle into a style. This is one of the latter. While Alleyn is fundamentally the same man as in the later books, here he’s relentlessly light-hearted, always with a smart quip even when it seems entirely inappropriate, and horribly smug about his own superior mental prowess – not in an endearing-Poirot way, more in an I-want-to-punch-him way.

Inspector Fox, Alleyn’s right-hand man in most of the series, hasn’t yet been created, and Nigel Bathgate is given the role of sidekick instead. Nigel is a very young journalist whom Alleyn doesn’t know prior to this case, so it’s extremely odd that Alleyn takes him into his confidence when he has an entire police force of subordinates available to him, but never mind! Nigel is quite fun and promptly falls in love with fellow guest, Angela North, who is a modern young woman in the style of Tuppence Beresford. Nigel himself is not entirely unlike Tommy Beresford, and his role vis-a-vis Alleyn is reminiscent of the role a certain Captain Hastings plays elsewhere. I think it’s reasonably easy to see where Marsh’s early influences came from! In reality, Nigel’s role is to allow Alleyn to explain his thought processes for the sake of the reader, and it works despite the unlikeliness of it. The books do feel more realistic later in the series, however, once this sidekick role is handed over to Fox, a fellow police officer, although Bathgate continues to pop up quite often throughout the series if I remember rightly.

The plot! Hmm, well, let’s be kind and call it fun. The victim (whom I won’t name since it takes a while before the murder happens and we don’t know who will die) turns out not to have been a very nice person, so lots of people have motives, be it ill-treated lovers or jealous spouses of said lovers, or people who hope to inherit either money or some of the precious objects in the victim’s collection of rarities. And does the presence of not just one sinister Russian, but two, portend some kind of secret society with strange reasons for grudges? Of course it does! But is their grudge against the victim or are they up to something equally nefarious but coincidental? It always makes me laugh how often sinister Russians appear in Golden Age mysteries – they are responsible for a lot of the more preposterous plots of the time. I fear in this one the whole Russian strand was more like a comedy sketch than an actual plot, and became a little wearing in the number of clichés packed into it. Talking of preposterous brings me to the murder method. I wouldn’t say it’s the most unlikely way to kill someone I’ve ever read – the Golden Agers were inventive, after all – but it’s high up the list.

Ngaio Marsh

I always feel a lot of leeway has to be given to the first in a series, especially when it’s also the author’s first novel. If it persuades a reader to come back for the second book, it has basically done its job, and happily the entertainment level in this one is high enough to make the reader willing to overlook some of the less polished aspects and leave her wanting more. And we’re in the happy position of knowing that Alleyn and Marsh went on to have a successful and highly regarded partnership. I’m enjoying revisiting this old favourite series and look forward to seeing Marsh’s style develop over the next few books.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Philip Franks, who does a fine job for the most part, although his Angela sounded a little too much like Lady Bracknell or Aunt Dahlia for my taste. But he did the comedy Russians well!

Audible UK Link

Exiles (Aaron Falk 3) by Jane Harper


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Aaron Falk is on his way to attend the christening of the young son of his friends Greg and Rita Raco. This is the second time the christening has been scheduled – the year before it was cancelled when the day before it was due to be held a local woman, Kim Gillespie, went missing during the Marralee Valley Annual Food and Wine Festival. Exactly a year later everyone is gathering again for the delayed christening, and Kim’s family and friends intend to make an appeal at the festival for anyone who may have been there the year before to come forward with any information. Greg Raco is a police officer, though not in Marralee, and Aaron also works with the police in their financial crimes squad based in Melbourne. So although neither of them is officially involved in the investigation into Kim’s disappearance, they both find themselves looking into it unofficially.

Harper goes from strength to strength since she broke through with a huge success on her debut, The Dry. This is another excellent slow-burn mystery where the setting and characters are carefully developed and are as important as the question of what has happened to Kim. It starts with us getting to meet those closest to Kim – she was the long-term partner of Greg’s brother and their teenage daughter is the driving force behind the festival appeal. It then moves slowly out into the wider community, letting us see how Kim was regarded and how her disappearance has had a ripple effect through the lives of many people. The police think that Kim probably drowned in the reservoir next to the festival site, perhaps deliberately since she was already suffering from depression even before the birth of her new baby to her new husband, Rohan. But those closest to her can’t accept that she would have killed herself, and especially not that she could have left the new baby unattended in her pram in the festival car park while she did so.

Marralee is another great setting – a small town servicing a rural area filled with small-scale agricultural ventures, especially wine-growing. Everyone knows everyone else, and most of the adults around Kim grew up together as a close-knit group. So there are all the secrets and tensions that come with that shared history, but also the loyalty and looking out for each other that lasts when people have been so close for so long. Aaron is the outsider, which allows him to be more objective, although he relies very much on Greg’s inside knowledge of the various relationships in the group. And Aaron finds himself attracted to the slower pace of life and the less impersonal feel of the small town, although he enjoys his stressful and time-consuming job in Melbourne too.

He’s also attracted to Gemma, the festival organiser, whom he met once before in Melbourne, and it seems she might be attracted to him too. The festival started out years before as a small local thing but has gradually grown to be a big tourist attraction playing a vital role in the local economy, and Gemma has had a large part in that success. Harper handles the romantic aspect as skilfully as the mystery – this is no instalove, but two mature people considering whether they can and should find a way to be together, or whether it would be too disruptive to their lives and careers. There’s a secondary mystery around the death of Gemma’s husband a few years earlier – he was killed by a hit-and-run driver who has never been identified. Unusually I found this secondary story just as gripping and involving as the main plot.

Jane Harper

I don’t want to risk spoilers by giving away too much about the story, since it’s the slow build towards the solution that makes it work so well. We gradually get to know Kim through the recollections of the people who loved her, and we see possible motives, both for why she may have been murdered or for why she may have chosen suicide. All is made clear at the end, and the underlying story is dark indeed – I found the climax very tense even though it’s clear by then how it will turn out.

Nothing to criticise on this one – how unfair of her! Great setting well portrayed, excellent characterisation of a fairly large group of people – even the two teenagers in the story are convincing, which isn’t always the case in fiction – likeable lead characters and a good, credible plot surrounded by a wider interesting story. If you haven’t already guessed, highly recommended!

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

Amazon UK Link

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? by Agatha Christie

Did he fall or was he pushed?

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Bobby Jones, fourth son of the vicar of Marchbolt in Wales, is playing a round of golf on the links near the Vicarage when a stray ball leads him off the course towards the cliff. As he looks over for his lost ball he sees the crumpled body of a man. He and his golf partner, who is the local doctor, rush to help but the doctor sees quickly that there is no hope – the man will soon be dead. The doctor goes off to seek help, and Bobby stands vigil with the dying man. Just before the end, the man recovers consciousness briefly and utters one phrase, “Why didn’t they ask Evans?” Bobby and his friend, Lady Frances Derwent, soon find reason to doubt the coroner’s verdict of accidental death, and set off to find our more about the dead man and what brought him to Marchbolt. And incidentally to find out the meaning of the dying man’s last words…

This is a lovely romp, half mystery, half thriller, with a delightful pair of amateur sleuths that are very like my favourites Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. The plot gets progressively more convoluted as time goes on, with murders and forgeries and impersonations and drugs gangs and women in peril and sinister men and… and… and… But Christie, at the height of her powers in 1934, never loses control of it for one moment, and the pace never lets up so that the reader is carried merrily through all the complications along with Bobby and Frankie, chasing down each red herring but gradually getting closer to the truth.

As often in her thrillers, there’s a romantic element in this and it’s clear from the start that Bobby and Frankie are destined for one another. However, like any good lovers, they will have to negotiate obstacles before they can realise their destiny! Bobby is ex-Navy and currently unemployed, looking out for an opening. He feels he is too lowly to aspire to the aristocratic Lady Frances. She is more egalitarian – in theory – but Bobby is probably right that in reality she wouldn’t be exactly happy in the very reduced circumstances which are all he could offer. So as well as the central mystery, there’s the equally absorbing question of how Christie will find a way to bridge this social gap for them. Just to mess things up even further, both of them are attracted along the way to other characters, not seriously, but enough to make each other amusingly jealous. They are a lot of fun, and again like Tommy and Tuppence, Frankie is spunky and daring, and as often as not Bobby is following her lead.

Agatha Christie

Despite the fact that it’s primarily light entertainment and full of humour, the plot is actually quite good, and the eventual answer to the question of why didn’t they ask Evans is another of Christie’s excellent clues! It had been so many years since I last read it I really couldn’t remember the plot at all, and Christie was able to baffle me all over again. I’m not sure it could be described as fair play exactly since the crucial clue isn’t given till very late on, but I did get to the solution a little before Frankie and Bobby, though not much, and the ending is nicely thrillerish. Will Frankie and Bobby find their happy-ever-after, though? You’ll have to read it to find out! Great fun!

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

Amazon UK Link

The Floating Light Bulb (Eli Marks 5) by John Gaspard

Magic in the Mall…

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Eli Marks and his Uncle Harry are in the audience at a magic show in the Mall of America in Minnesota. The final illusion, the Metamorphosis, reaches its climax – the spotlight swings towards the door where Billy Blume, the magician, should enter, but . . . he doesn’t appear. Billy has been killed, shot as he made his way round the back of the theatre for his big finale. Because of Eli’s skills as a stage magician and his history of getting involved in investigations, the Assistant DA, Deirdre Sutton-Hutton, who happens to be Eli’s ex-wife, and her new husband, Homicide Detective Fred Hutton, who happens to be in charge of the case, ask him to apply for the vacancy at the Mall and see if he can sniff out who might have had a motive to kill Billy. What they don’t tell him is that Billy’s wasn’t the first mysterious death in the Mall and, as it turns out, it won’t be the last…

A few years ago I had great fun reading the first few books in this series, and then they stopped appearing on NetGalley and I’m afraid I assumed Gaspard had stopped writing them. Then I stumbled across this one on Audible and discovered there are actually now eight books in the series! The whole series is now available on Audible, all narrated by Jim Cunningham who does a great job, getting the humorous tone just right. (For UK Audible members, several of the early ones are included in the subscription.)

Over the course of the series, the little group of regulars has expanded, and it was great meeting up with them all again. Eli tells the stories himself in first person, and as well as occasional stage work he has now taken over his uncle’s magic shop, which just about breaks even. Uncle Harry has retired but is still going strong, now engaged to Franny, a once-professional psychic also now retired. Eli’s own romance with Megan (also a psychic) is now a settled thing, and they’re about ready to set a date for the wedding. Eli’s relationship with Deirdre and Fred is better now that he’s settled with Megan. And Uncle Harry’s group of elderly magician friends still meet regularly and are always on hand to give Eli advice about how the great magicians of the past performed their tricks.

Looking back at my old reviews, I have to say this book seemed considerably more on the cosy side than I said about the earlier ones. The mystery takes a real back seat to all the relationships between the characters, and a lot of time is given over to descriptions of life as an employee in the Mall, big enough to rank almost as a small town in its own right. Eli has to design a show and inherits an assistant, Nimisha, and a stage manager, Morgan, and we see their relationships developing as they all learn to work with each other. There are lots of other Mall employees we meet, who might be new friends or might be suspects, but it’s quite late on in the book before the plot takes centre stage. When it does it’s a lot of fun, though I had to turn off my credibility monitor to silence its frantic bleeping!

One of the things I always love is that each book involves a classic magic trick, which Gaspard discusses without ever breaking the magician’s code of not revealing how it’s done. In this one he describes the Floating Light Bulb, made famous by Harry Blackstone, Jr. As always, this led me to spend (too much) time on youtube, watching not just that but various versions of the Metamorphosis trick that had ended so badly in chapter 1.

John Gaspard

I’m so pleased to have re-discovered this series and to know that there are more available. Light-hearted fun with a group of enjoyable characters who have come to feel like old friends. If they take your fancy, I recommend reading them in order, starting with The Ambitious Card, since all the relationships develop as the series goes along. I won’t leave it so long next time before spending a few more hours in the company of Eli and his friends!

(NB One of the problems with listening rather than reading is that I have to guess at the spellings of characters’ names, so please forgive any errors!)

Audible UK Link

Tilt-a-Whirl (Ceepak 1) by Chris Grabenstein

All the fun of the fair…

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Young cop Danny Boyle and his partner John Ceepak are having an early breakfast in one of the many eating places in Sea Haven, a small seaside resort town, before going on duty. Suddenly a young girl comes running along the street, covered in blood. She tells them her father has been shot in one of the many funfairs in the resort, while sitting on the ride known as the Tilt-a-Whirl. When they get there, the man is dead, riddled with bullets. It turns out he’s a prominent citizen – billionaire real estate tycoon, Reginald Hart. His daughter, twelve-year-old Ashley, saw the shooter and is able to give a good description, and suspicion soon settles on a local drug addict and leftover from the hippie era, known as Squeegie because he sometimes works in a car wash. But before they can find him, Ashley disappears…

This is the first in a long-running series about Danny, Ceepak and the town of Sea Haven. I’d read one of the later books a few years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, so decided to go back to the beginning. With only a couple of small reservations, I loved it! So let’s get those out of the way first. There’s way too much use of the f-word, especially for a book that is essentially a cosy in style. And the story takes a very dark turn which again I felt was out of tune with the overall style.

However, there’s so much to love that I was easily able to overlook these things. The story is told by Danny, a young man who has taken a job as a summer cop to boost the police presence in the town during the tourist season. He’s a lot of fun – innocent and maybe a little naive, but intelligent and good natured, and with a sense of humour. He’s developing something of a hero-worship for his partner, Ceepak, who lives by a strict moral code of his own devising. Ceepak has been through some harrowing experiences in his life which we learn about in this first book, so it was worth going back to the beginning for that. It explains why Ceepak has set himself such high standards, and also why Danny grows to admire him so much. But he’s not so perfect that he’s unlikeable – he makes mistakes sometimes, and he occasionally mocks himself, so as he would say, it’s all good.

Book 2 of 14

Sea Haven is a great setting. A ‘sunny, funderful’ place, as the advertising goes, tourism is its main business and it does it well. It reminded me of the town in Jaws, especially when the mayor tries to assure the tourists that a vicious killing and a child abduction shouldn’t put them off having a good time and spending money! Danny’s a native so he knows the town and most of the regular inhabitants inside out, which makes him very useful as a partner to the incomer, Ceepak.

The plot is very well done, though as I said it descends a little too far into darkness as it goes along. But Grabenstein misled me nicely, sent me off after red herrings, made me think at least twice I’d got it all worked out, and still managed to surprise me in the end. From about halfway through I was so hooked I found it quite difficult to pause and go do other things – the sign of a successful mystery!

Chris Grabenstein

The writing is very good – the style is light and Danny has a distinctively youthful voice, and makes a fun Watson for the more experienced Ceepak who does all the smart detection. The secondary characters are all given real personalities, some humorous, like the ageing hippy woman, some a little caricatured, like the mayor and the police chief, a couple of sultry temptresses, or at least they seem so to impressionable young Danny. The characterisation is enhanced by the truly great narration, by Jeff Woodman, who apparently has deservedly won numerous awards for his audiobooks. I’m delighted to see he’s the regular narrator for this series and I certainly won’t wait as long next time before grabbing another. Thoroughly enjoyable!

Audible UK Link

The Cry by Helen Fitzgerald

The mistress, the wife and the baby…

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Flying to Australia from the UK with a nine-week old crying baby and a partner with the remarkable capacity to sleep through it all has poor Joanna at the end of her tether. When fellow passengers complain about the noise, Joanna loses her temper and behaves in a way that makes her look like an unstable mother. This will come back to haunt her when baby Noah goes missing from the car while the couple have stopped to grab a couple of things from a store in a little town, on route from the airport to Alastair’s mother’s house. While initially there is an outpouring of sympathy for the parents, this soon turns to suspicion, and social media is awash with the usual conspiracy theories and abuse. Meantime it is all Joanna can do to hold it together in the midst of her grief, while Alastair is determined to keep the story in the forefront of public consciousness…

I suspect almost everyone knows the story of this since it was not only a bestselling book when it came out in 2013, but was subsequently made into an equally successful TV series. However in case there are other people, like me, who have managed to miss both, I’ll keep the review vague to avoid spoilers.

When Alastair and Joanna first started “dating”, Joanna was unaware that he was married. She still suffers feelings of guilt about breaking up his marriage, but she loves him and believes they were meant to be together. Now with a new baby, Alastair has decided he wants custody of his first daughter, Chloe, whom his ex took with her back to Australia, Alastair’s home country. So here they are, going to Australia so that Alastair can try to prove in court that his ex-wife Alexandra is a bad mother, and to rip his daughter away from what has been her home for the last four years. Do you hate Alastair yet? Even Joanna is beginning to see a side to him that shakes her belief in him, and even more so when she finally meets Alexandra and realises she’s not quite the crazed drunk that Alastair had painted her as. The story is told partly from Joanna’s perspective and partly from Alexandra’s, and the character of Alastair is slowly revealed from the information we get from the two women.

I thought the characterisation of the two women, and of Chloe, the teenage daughter, was brilliant and found the book entirely compelling even though I had a good idea from fairly early on of what the big twist was going to be at the end. The writing is great, pitched at the right level for the story without too many literary flourishes and “creativity”, and the thought processes of the two women felt true to me though happily I’ve never been in the situation of either of them – one with a lost baby, the other fearing that she will lose her teenage daughter. Alastair is perhaps a little less convincingly drawn – I found it hard to imagine why either of these intelligent, capable women had fallen so easily for charms that I struggled to see, and were allowing themselves to be manipulated by him.

Helen Fitzgerald

I had one major problem with the book, though, and that was the tone. The underlying story is about as dark as it gets – I generally prefer children not to be the focus of crime novels since I find it disturbing and often distasteful. Despite the real tragedy in the book, there is a lot of humour in it, especially in Alexandra’s parts, and that jarred, even though it was very well done. I found myself smiling and enjoying the read as I would with a cosy or a vintage mystery, and then I’d be reminded that the heart of the story is a missing newborn and a grieving mother, and suddenly I’d feel bad for enjoying it. I know this won’t bother a lot of contemporary crime readers who are better than I am at remembering that it’s all fiction and that baby Noah doesn’t actually exist. But maybe it’s a tribute to Fitzgerald’s skill that I cared so much about him that the fun element seemed entirely out of place. (This is the major reason that I struggle with a lot of contemporary crime – that the crimes are too dark to be “enjoyable” – so I’m aware that it’s very much a subjective (over?-)reaction.)

Difficult to rate therefore. It certainly deserves full marks for the writing, characterisation and sheer compulsive readability, but I’m deducting one star because of my negative reaction to the tone. As I often repeat, my ratings are always a subjective measure of my enjoyment, not an objective measure of quality. I’ll certainly be interested in seeing what else’s she’s written, though.

Amazon UK Link

Sinister Spring by Agatha Christie

Watching the detectives…

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Over the last few years, HarperCollins have been bringing out a series of lovely hardback collections of Agatha Christie short stories. Some have been reprints of existing collections, like The Tuesday Club Murders (aka The Thirteen Problems) or The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, while others are a mix of stories culled from various collections and put together to create a seasonal theme, such as Midsummer Mysteries and Midwinter Murder (which I haven’t read). This is their latest and, as you can tell from the title, it’s perfect for this time of year (unless you’re on the upside down half of the world!). If you’ve read a lot of Christie collections you may well find you’ve come across most of the stories before, but I always enjoy reading them again anyway and there are usually two or three in each collection that are new to me. Because these are taken from various other collections, there’s a real mix of detectives – Poirot and Miss Marple, of course, but also Tommy and Tuppence, Parker Pyne and Harley Quin, plus a couple of stories that don’t star one of her recurring ‘tecs.

There are twelve stories in this one, and since regular Christie readers might want to know whether there are enough unfamiliar stories to tempt them, here’s a list of all twelve with tiny synopses that hopefully will be enough to let you know if it rings bells. My rating is in brackets:

The Market Basing Mystery (4) – Poirot, Hastings and Japp are on a little break in Market Basing when a man is found dead. It looks like he’s shot himself, but the doctor thinks this isn’t possible. A man is arrested and it’s up to our three sleuths to determine whether he is guilty or innocent.

The Case of the Missing Lady (5) – A Tommy and Tuppence story from Partners in Crime. In this one, Tommy is playing Holmes. An adventurer returns from the North Pole to find that his fiancée is missing. Can T&T track her down? Manages to be both tense and humorous – delightful twist!

The Herb of Death (4½) – One from The Tuesday Club Murders, I think. (I’m basing all these references to original sources on my unreliable memory, so forgive errors and omissions!) Mrs Bantry tells of a house party where foxglove got mixed in with the sage. All the guests recovered but one – a young girl called Sylvia. Was it bad luck or deliberate murder, and if so, why? Miss Marple will soon tell us…

How Does Your Garden Grow? (4) – Poirot receives a letter from an old lady requesting his help in an unspecified matter, but before he sees her, she dies. With the help of Miss Lemon, he starts quietly investigating her household to see if her death was suspicious or merely convenient. Rather reminiscent of the plot of one of her novels.

Swan Song (4) – An unexpected death during a performance of Tosca kicks off this dark and well-told revenge tragedy – a standalone with none of the usual ‘tecs.

Miss Marple Tells a Story (5) – From Miss Marple’s Final Cases. A woman is murdered while sleeping in a hotel bedroom. Her husband is accused, and his lawyer turns to his old friend Miss Marple for help. She soon works out why it seems no one noticed the murderer enter the room. An excellent howdunit!

Have You Got Everything You Want? (5) – Parker Pyne is on a train journey to Venice when a fellow passenger asks for his advice. She is travelling to meet her husband, but before she left she saw a message on his blotting pad which has left her fearful that something is planned to happen just before they reach Venice. Well-told and quite humorous, especially the ending!

The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (4) – A howdunit about a woman whose priceless necklace is stolen while she and her husband are dining with Poirot. Another one where the plot is overly familiar to provide much in the way of surprise.

Ingots of Gold (4½) – Another Tuesday Club one, I think, this time told by Miss Marple’s nephew Raymond. It’s quite convoluted for a short story, involving two lots of missing bullion – one from Spanish Armada days, and one from a recent shipwreck. Set in Cornwall, it’s well told and entertaining.

The Soul of the Croupier (5) – The story of an ageing Countess, past lover of many rich men who showered her with jewels. But now her charms are beginning to fade, and she’s desperate for money, having long ago turned all those jewels to paste. While there is a mystery starring Harley Quin, it’s really the oddly sympathetic depiction of the Countess that raises this one above the average.

The Girl in the Train (5) – Light Wodehousian romp as our young hero, George Rowland, gets mixed up in the elopement of a Balkan Princess, plus a spy ring, and falls in love. Silly, but fun!

Greenshaw’s Folly (5) – Greenshaw’s Folly is a house built by a rich man, long dead. His elderly granddaughter now owns the place, and she has been dropping hints to various people that she intends to leave them the house in her will. When the old lady is murdered, Miss Marple becomes involved! An excellent story, taken from The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding.

As you can see, all the stories rated between 4 and 5 for me – it is Christie after all! So unless you’re already familiar with most of the stories, this would be a great way to sample her range of detectives. And the hardback editions all have lovely bright designs which make them an attractive gift idea for the Christie fan in your life!

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

Amazon UK Link

Last Rituals (Thóra Gudmundsdóttir 1) by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

Icelandic sorcery…

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The head of the History Department at the University in Reykjavik is shocked enough when he opens a cupboard in his room early one morning only for a corpse to tumble out and land on him. But when it turns out the corpse is one of the department’s students and has been gruesomely mutilated, his shock, and that of the cleaning staff who run to his aid, turns to horror. Harald Guntlieb was a young German student specialising in the history of German witch trials who had come to Reykjavik on a student exchange programme to make a comparative study of how witches had been treated in Iceland. Highly intelligent, but troubled and strange, Harald was also delving into the subject of witchcraft and sorcery, and the combination of his wealth and odd charisma had gathered around him a little group of friends who shared his fascination for the subject. When the autopsy shows that he has had a magic symbol carved into his chest, it seems that his death may be connected to his interest in sorcery.

The police quickly decide on a suspect – a drug dealer who kept Harald and his friends well supplied – and charge him with the crime. But Harald’s parents don’t believe they’ve got the right person, and hire local lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir to work with their own security man, a German called Matthew Reich, to investigate the murder on their behalf.

Despite the mutilations and the subject of witchcraft and witch trials, this isn’t nearly as grim and dark as that little blurb makes it sound. Sigurdardóttir doesn’t shy away from the gruesome bits, but nor does she dwell on them unduly. The result is that the book is shivery rather than disturbing. It’s written in the third person, past tense, although told firmly from Thóra’s perspective throughout, and there’s a lot of humour in the growing relationship of Thóra and Matthew to keep the overall tone light. Sigurdardóttir also manages to pack in a load of history about the Icelandic Reformation and resulting witch trials without it feeling too much like an info dump – for the most part she keeps it focused on what is needed for the plot and she works it through the story interestingly.

Book 1 of 14

Thóra is a likeable main character. She’s in her late thirties, with two children – a boy of 16 and a girl of 6 – whom she shares with her ex-husband, though she has main custody. Despite being busy with a full-time job and the stresses of single parenthood, she’s delightfully angst-free. She doesn’t regret her divorce nor seem particularly bitter over it, and now, two years on, she’s beginning to think it might be nice to have a romantic life again. At work she has a partner who really doesn’t appear much in this one, and a truly dreadful secretary, Bella, whom they can’t sack because she’s the daughter of their landlord. Bella also adds to the humour, though I must admit it didn’t take long for that joke to wear thin, and by the end of the book I was finding her tiresome as a character. Matthew starts out as rather cold and serious, but he warms up quickly and becomes a fun sparring partner for Thóra. Their banter is done very well and meant that their inevitable romantic attraction felt credible – quick, yes, but not the dreaded instalove!

Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

The investigation mainly centres around Harald’s friends, and they’re a rather unpleasant bunch. Academic ambition plays its part too, and Sigurdardóttir gives a good picture of the lengths historians might go to in pursuit of a piece of evidence to back their pet theory, or sometimes for fame and fortune. As the story progresses we learn more about Harald’s family and childhood, and that casts some light on his character flaws. The plot itself is complex, and I felt that it occasionally got a little too convoluted. Unless I missed some fairly major clues, I’d have to say it’s not fair play and it seemed to me the solution came out of the blue quite abruptly at the end. That aspect is probably the book’s one weakness, but the rest of it was so enjoyable that it didn’t bother me too much.

I’ve had a mixed reaction to Sigurdardóttir in the past – I always admire her writing and style, but sometimes she gets too dark and graphic for me. This is the second Thóra book I’ve read, the other being much later in the series, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them both – they seem to me to be at the lighter end of Sigurdardóttir’s range and that suits me perfectly. I look forward to reading more in the series.

Amazon UK Link

The Two-Penny Bar (Maigret 11) by Georges Simenon

Down by the river…

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It all begins when Maigret tells a villain, Lenoir, that his final appeal has been refused, and that he will be executed the next morning. In his bitterness, Lenoir says it’s unfair that he should pay the ultimate penalty when others who’ve committed equally serious crimes go free. He then tells Maigret of the night that he and a friend witnessed a man drop a body into the Canal Saint-Martin. They then blackmailed the man for a while, but he later disappeared. Then, a couple of years later, Lenoir saw him again, in a little place called The Two-Penny Bar. But Lenoir was arrested for the crime for which he’ll be guillotined before he got the chance to start his blackmail again. He doesn’t tell Maigret the man’s name, but Maigret decides to visit The Two-Penny Bar anyway…

This turns out to be one of the best of the Maigrets, but I must admit it has an incredibly sloppy start. Not only doesn’t Maigret ask for the name of the murderer, but nor does he get a description of him nor even the address of the bar. It also relies on the premise that the murderer frequents the bar all the time, and wasn’t just a casual visitor on the occasion Lenoir saw him there. And finally, by an amazing coincidence, another murder just happens to take place in the bar while Maigret is there. I did consider giving up on it at this early stage on the grounds that it was all so unlikely, but I’m glad I stuck with it.

It takes Maigret a while to find the bar (which he finally does by another amazing coincidence), but when he does he finds it’s on the Seine on the outskirts of the city, and frequented by a group of regulars who either live nearby or visit regularly to row on the river, play cards, drink and generally relax. They’re a close-knit group. Maigret strikes up an acquaintanceship with James, a man who drinks even more than Maigret but is full of a kind of good-natured charm. Maigret soon comes to think he might develop into a friend in time, and the feeling seems to be mutual. James gives him the entry to the group, and since Maigret’s wife is off visiting her sister for the summer, Maigret takes to spending a lot of time with them all, gradually getting to see the dynamics and relationships among them. But he still doesn’t know who the murdered man was, nor if anyone in the group is the murderer.

Short even by Simenon’s standards, the pace of the book picks up a lot once all this preparatory stuff is out of the way. As I mentioned, there is another murder and there’s an obvious suspect for this one. What’s not so clear is the motive, and since the suspect has run away Maigret’s first job is to find him. But this crisis in the group has brought some of its secrets to light and given Maigret the leverage he needs to investigate them on a more formal basis. Another coincidence gives him the name of the original murder victim, and now he can look for a connection with any of the bar regulars.

Georges Simenon

It’s the characterisation that makes this one so good, though of the group as a group rather than of each individual within it. They’re a rather louche bunch, lazily drinking their way into flirtations and affairs with each other’s spouses, but always willing to lend a hand to each other whenever trouble looms. Their social gatherings seem to be the main purpose of their rather empty middle-class lives – their tedious day jobs merely the things that fund their lifestyle. However there are a couple of them that we get to know individually – James, whose incipient friendship with Maigret is very well depicted and whose character flaws become clearer as we, and Maigret, get to know him better; and Basso, the man initially suspected of the second murder, and we see his weaknesses and guilt at his feeling that he has betrayed his put-upon but loyal wife. And the last few chapters, when Maigret manages to trick the murderer into a confession, have considerably more emotional depth than is often the case in this series.

Lest you’re wondering that I haven’t mentioned Maigret’s drink problem as usual, I shall merely say that his drink of choice in this one is Pernod, and he downs enough of the stuff over the course of a couple of weeks to float a good-sized armada. However, he manages to stay sober despite it all – what a man!

So after a distinctly dodgy start, this turned into one of my favourites so far. I loved the portrayal of the group and fell under James’ always tipsy but never drunk charm, helped by an excellent interpretation of his character by the ever-reliable narrator of the series, Gareth Armstrong, who always makes these books a pleasure to listen to.

Audible UK Link

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré

Written in a secret code?


Normally at the beginning of a review I write a little blurb to give an idea of the plot. Unfortunately I have zero idea what this book is about. I only know it bored me to sleep several times, so I eventually gave up before I ended up in permanent hibernation. So let’s see what Goodreads thinks it’s about…

A mole, implanted by Moscow Centre, has infiltrated the highest ranks of the British Intelligence Service, almost destroying it in the process. And so former spymaster George Smiley has been brought out of retirement in order to hunt down the traitor at the very heart of the Circus – even though it may be one of those closest to him.

Oh, is that what it’s about? That sounds moderately interesting. And there’s no doubt that many people think it’s brilliant, heaping praise on it as the best espionage fiction ever written in this world or any other, full of suspense and tension. Amazing. I missed all that, I’m afraid. Maybe I was too busy trying to work out what all the unexplained jargon means – lamplighters, scalphunters, et al. Or perhaps I was distracted by the frankly offensive portrayal of the various beddable, sex-hungry, needy women who put in an appearance in the first third of the book. Or maybe it was the ludicrous dialogue – no one speaks like this. Or the jumping back into flashback after flashback. Or the twenty thousand names without attached characters (I may have exaggerated the number slightly). Or the dreary misery of it all. Woe, woe, and thrice woe.

Odd, because I loved The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. But I couldn’t bear this one. I stuck it out to 33% and then gave up, read the plot on wikipedia who kindly also explained the jargon, and decided I was glad I didn’t stick it out since even the plot summary nearly put me to sleep again. Clearly a mismatch between book and reader and if this kind of thing is your kind of thing I’m sure you won’t allow my reaction to put you off.

Book 2 of 12

This was the People’s Choice for February and despite my reaction I still think it was a great choice – I should have loved it and it would have been the one I voted for too. So thank you, People! And at least it’s off my TBR now…

Amazon UK Link

Death of an Author by ECR Lorac

Behind the nom-de-plume…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Vivian Lestrange has become a publishing sensation with his literary mystery novels, especially his most recent smash hit, The Charterhouse Case. He is a recluse, however, refusing to meet journalists or even provide a publicity photograph. Eventually his intrigued publishers persuade him to meet them in person, and to their amazement he turns out to be a young woman! And then Vivian Lestrange disappears…

A very short blurb for this one because it’s so much fun I really don’t want to spoil it by giving too much away. It’s all about noms de plume and authors pretending to be someone other than they are, and the question raised again and again is whether it is possible to determine the sex of an author if all you have to go on is his or her writing. Lorac has her characters muse on whether we would know Dorothy L Sayers was female on the basis of her books alone? Is Conrad’s writing so masculine that no woman could have written his books? I loved this aspect because it’s a question I’ve often mulled, like most readers, I assume. Did anyone ever really believe George Eliot was a man, or do I just feel her books are unmistakeably feminine because I know she’s a woman? More recently, I don’t remember people saying Robert Galbraith’s first book couldn’t have been written by a man, but now that we know that’s a nom de plume for JK Rowling, it seems obvious they come from the pen of a woman. Of course, it has added piquancy because ECR Lorac is a gender neutral nom de plume and I have never been able to find a photograph of her. I know believe she was a woman because Martin Edwards tells me so, but I don’t know that her writing is distinctively feminine – her books are usually low on romance, for example. But then they’re also low on action thrills, often seen as the hallmark of male crime writers in that generation, and largely even still today.

Some of it is done slightly tongue-in-cheek, and I imagine probably reflected Lorac’s own experience within the publishing world. The men who claim that Lestrange’s books couldn’t possibly have been written by a woman clearly think that because the books are so good. How could a woman possibly put herself inside a male character’s head, they ask, dumbfounded, never wondering how male writers manage to think themselves into a female character. How could a mere woman understand so much about the less salubrious side of life, to come up with plots about vicious crimes and criminals? Lorac has other characters who answer those questions from the female perspective – i.e., that men really need to get over themselves and recognise that the days of women being pampered little Dickensian simpletons are long over. (I paraphrase!) Great fun!

The disappearance of Lestrange is investigated by two detectives – the local man, Inspector Bond, and Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Warner. They work very well together, although they both hold wildly different theories of what’s happened. Again I have to be vague to avoid spoilers, but Bond believes Lestrange could indeed be a woman while Warner is adamant that the books could have been written only by a man. This means both men are carrying out separate but joined investigations, each trying to prove his own theory but open to the idea that the other man may be in the right. I swayed back and forward all the way through, and wished I could have read Lestrange’s novel to see if I could tell his/her gender for myself!

(Just as an aside, I mentioned a while ago that I now have a subscription for these books, and each month so far a little extra has been included – a bookmark matching the book cover or something like that. This book came with a postcard showing a book cover of Lestrange’s book, The Charterhouse Case, done as a BL Crime Classics book. A lovely touch that made me smile once I realised how it connected to the story.)

The plot itself is convoluted to the point where sometimes I had to read bits again, but it’s very clever and it all works. If I have a criticism it’s that the ending is a bit of an anti-climax, but in this case I enjoyed the journey so much it didn’t bother me. One of the things I love most about Lorac is her unpredictability – she’s not afraid to try different things and often comes at her stories from an unusual angle. This one is delightfully different to her MacDonald books, and I loved it. I sound like a stuck record when it come to Lorac but… highly recommended!

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

Amazon UK Link

The Mysterious Mr Badman by WF Harvey

Blackmail and murder…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Athelstan Digby is holidaying in Keldstone, in Yorkshire, where his young nephew Jim is thinking of buying the local doctor’s practice. Digby is lodging with a couple who own the local bookshop and when they both want to attend a funeral one afternoon, Digby offers to look after the shop for them. During the course of the afternoon three different customers all come in looking for the same book – not the latest bestseller, but a rather obscure book by Bunyan called The Life and Death of Mr Badman. Digby can’t help since the shop doesn’t have a copy, but he’s intrigued. And he’s even more intrigued when a boy comes in later in the day with a bunch of books to sell, one of which just happens to be Mr Badman

This is another rather quirky one from the British Library – they seem to be going through a little spate of really obscure one-off books at the moment. Billed as a bibliomystery, in fact the Bunyan book and the bookshop have very little to do with the plot once the initial set-up is done. The real mystery concerns a letter found inside the book, which alerts Digby to the idea that a high-ranking politician may be being blackmailed. Reluctant to involve the police, he and his nephew Jim, along with a girl whom Jim is in the process of falling for, set out to investigate, with the idea of putting a stop to the blackmail. But then a man is found dead – one of the men who’d been looking for the book – and while the police think it was suicide, Digby, with his knowledge of the letter, suspects it was murder.

I found I had a bit of an issue with the moral stance the author seems to take over the blackmail. I don’t want to go too deeply into it for fear of spoilers, but I felt that the victim of the blackmail didn’t deserve Digby’s efforts to keep his name free of scandal. We live in a less deferential society now, and the idea of covering up dodgy behaviour simply because the dodger happens to be a high-ranking politician is more jarring than perhaps it was back then. The result was that I rather hoped the “good guys” would fail in their cover-up, so wasn’t able to wholeheartedly cheer them on.

WF Harvey

Otherwise, however, I found it quite an entertaining read. Both Digby and Jim are likeable characters and it was a good contrast to have one old and one young. Digby does the thinking while Jim takes care of the action side. The girl, Diana, is a good character too, who plays an active part in the investigation. The plot is a kind of mix of mystery and thriller that rattles along at a steady pace, which helps to disguise the inconsistencies, plot-holes, coincidences and basic lack of credibility! I quickly decided the best way was to avoid analysing it too deeply and simply go with the flow, which was made easier by the general quality of the writing.

Not one that will go down as a classic of the genre, then, but an enjoyable way to fill a few hours.

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

Amazon UK Link

Two’s company 3…

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

The Floating Admiral by The Detection Club



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

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

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

Amazon UK Link

* * * * *

The Medbury Fort Murder by George Limnelius

Sex in the Golden Age??

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

Hmm, tell that to Lord Lucan!

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

Amazon UK Link

The Craftsman by Sharon Bolton

Toil and trouble…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

Sharon Bolton

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

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

Amazon UK Link