Murder in the Mill-Race (Inspector MacDonald 36) by ECR Lorac

Hidden secrets…

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Milham in the Moor looks idyllic to Anne Ferens when she moves there with her doctor husband, Raymond. This isolated village in North Devon has its own social structure and minds its own business. But Anne soon begins to realise that perhaps all isn’t as it seems on the surface. Some months earlier, a young girl, Nancy Bilton, drowned in the mill-race (the stream that turns the paddles of a watermill, in case, like me, you don’t know what a mill-race is) and, although it was decided she’d committed suicide, there are all kinds of rumour and gossip. Nancy had been a maid at the local children’s home, Gramarye, working under the formidable Sister Monica. The more often people tell Anne that Sister Monica is a “wonderful” woman, the more Anne’s instinctive dislike of her grows. And then Sister Monica is found dead, drowned in the mill-race…

ECR Lorac is becoming a regular in the British Library’s Crime Classics series, and her revival is well deserved. This is another enjoyable entry in the Inspector MacDonald series. Lorac’s settings are always one of her strengths, and here she gives a very credible picture of a village that has, in a sense, turned in on itself, preferring to deal with its own problems rather than letting the authorities handle things. So the local police are getting nowhere with their investigation, and when MacDonald is sent in from Scotland Yard he will have to break down the resistance of the villagers to talking to outsiders. As newcomers, Anne and Raymond are in the position of being half-in and half-out of village life – accepted, but not yet fully. MacDonald hopes they’ll be able to give him a clearer picture of the village personalities but, as the new doctor, Raymond doesn’t want to alienate the people who will be his patients.

Sister Monica is very well drawn as someone who likes to dominate others. She may be swimming in a small pond but she’s the biggest fish and relishes her power. It doesn’t do to cross her – she has her own ways of paying back perceived slights, often by ensuring that scurrilous rumours are spread concerning the offending party, sometimes true, sometimes not. So despite the villagers’ avowal that she’s a wonderful woman, when she turns up dead there’s a surprising number of people who might have had a motive. And can it be coincidence that the two deaths should have happened at the same spot?

Chief Inspector MacDonald is accompanied by his Detective Inspector, Reeves, another competent and dedicated officer. They’ve obviously worked together often and know each other’s strengths, each falling naturally into the role that suits him best – MacDonald as the more formal interrogator of the upper echelons of village society, while Reeves uses his easy manner to try to elicit gossip from those lower down the social scale. There’s a bit of the usual snobbery in their relationship, with MacDonald as the more cultured and better educated of the two, but it’s not as glaring as in some Golden Age pairings, and overall they come over as having equal respect for each other.

The plot is interesting, and leads up to a nice denouement. But it takes second place really to the characterisation of Sister Monica and the depiction of the children’s home, both of which are excellent and cast some light on the lack of monitoring of such facilities back in those days (post-WW2) which allowed nasty people to abuse the power they were granted over both children and staff. (Don’t worry, though – no graphic abuse is heaped on the poor children in this one, so it’s not a harrowing read.)

Overall, another very good read from Lorac – I like that each of the ones I’ve read so far have had entirely different kinds of social settings. I’m hoping the BL continues to re-publish more of her work.

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

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Book 19 of 20

The Middle Temple Murder by JS Fletcher

A mysterious victim…

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When young newspaper editor Frank Spargo happens upon a murder scene late one night, his journalistic instincts lead him to follow the story. Fortunately the police detective in charge of the case doesn’t seem to have a problem with sharing all the evidence with a journalist and soon Spargo is taking the lead in the investigation. The first thing is to identify the victim, but this turns out not to be as easy as might be expected. The man’s wallet and papers have been removed from his body, and even when they begin to trace him, he seems to have a mysterious past. Spargo will have to go back into that past to find out who the man is, what he was doing in Middle Temple late at night and who had the motive and opportunity to kill him.

All that is found on the victim’s body is a scrap of paper with the name and address of a young barrister, Ronald Breton. Breton has never met the man, but since he’s just starting his first case and is yet to make his name in legal circles, it seems unlikely the victim would have been looking for him in his professional capacity. When it turns out the man had met Stephen Aylmore the evening before – an MP and the father of Breton’s fiancée – it all begins to look like the motive is more likely to be personal, and Aylmore quickly becomes the chief suspect. Fortunately for Aylmore he has two daughters and Spargo finds himself falling for the other one, giving him an incentive to clear Aylmore’s name.

It took me a while to really get into this one but after a slowish start it begins to rattle along at a good pace, and the plot is that great combination of being twisty and complicated without ever becoming hard to follow. Spargo does his detection the old fashioned way – by talking to people, noticing discrepancies between the stories of various witnesses and using those to prise open the secrets that some of them are hiding. First published in 1919 in the age of the gifted amateur detective, the idea of a journalist being so closely involved in a police investigation doesn’t seem as unbelievable as it would today, and Spargo mostly shares all the information he finds, although eventually he and Rathbury, the police detective, find themselves on opposite sides – Rathbury trying to prove the guilt of Aylesbury and Spargo trying to prove his innocence.

Challenge details:
Book: 14
Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age
Publication Year: 1919

Most of the action takes place in London, around Fleet Street and the Middle Temple, but the story takes Spargo out of the city too, first to a small market town where he uncovers some long past scandals that seem to have a bearing on the case, and then up to Yorkshire for a finale deep in the moors. Fletcher describes each setting well, giving a real feeling for the different ways of life in the various places. None of the characterisation is particularly in-depth, but it’s done well enough so that I soon found myself rooting for some of the characters to be cleared while others I was prepared to see go to the gallows. Fletcher, anticipating the Golden Age style, gave me a solution that meant I could feel justice had been done. I must say it’s a sudden solution, though! Boom – here’s the final piece that makes it all fall into place, and we’re done. My brain could have done with an extra three or four pages to give me time to process what just happened! But I didn’t think it was unfair or illogical – just abrupt.

JS Fletcher

All-in-all, I enjoyed this one a lot. It does feel rather dated in style (which I don’t mind, but some people might) and frankly could have done with a stiff edit to get rid of one or two little discrepancies, but they weren’t enough of a problem to bother me nor to affect the overall outcome. I was disappointed to read in Martin Edward’s entry in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books that Fletcher never revisited the Spargo character in later books – I reckon he could have made a good series detective. However apparently Fletcher did create another series detective later, Ronald Camberwell, and I’d happily try one or two of those if I can get hold of them. Meantime, this one is recommended as well written, cleverly plotted and entertaining.

NB I downloaded this one from wikisource. The formatting is very good.

Book 14 of 20

Surfeit of Suspects (Inspector Littlejohn 41) by George Bellairs

Big bang…

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A huge explosion destroys the offices of the Excelsior Joinery Company, and kills three directors of the company who were there having a meeting at the time. When it turns out that the cause of the explosion was dynamite, the local police call in Scotland Yard to investigate. Enter Inspector Littlejohn…

It soon becomes apparent that the Excelsior was in deep financial trouble and bankruptcy was waiting impatiently in the wings. Could the crime have been an elaborate insurance job? As Littlejohn begins to investigate, he discovers this is only one possible motive. Fraud and corruption are contenders too, and more personal motives may have played a part, since it seems that there were many tensions between the directors, not least that one of them was having an affair with the wife of another. Every line of enquiry seems to turn up more suspects and Littlejohn will have to do some nifty detection to catch the right one.

The setting is very well done, both of the struggling business itself and of the expanding town around it. First published in 1964, fictional Evingden is shown as one of the “new towns” that were created in the decades after WW2, partly to replace bombed out homes and partly to provide “overspill” housing to alleviate the problem of overpopulated areas of poverty and deprivation. It’s no surprise that with so much money being spent this was also a time noted for corruption in local councils and the construction trade, and Bellairs makes full use of this in his plot. The new towns tended to be tacked on to existing small towns or villages, changing their culture and often moving their centres from the old high streets to new developments, much to the annoyance of existing tenants and business owners. Bellairs catches these tensions nicely through his portrayal of the local bank, with its sleepy old branch and tired manager struggling to keep going in the old part of town and the modern, thrusting new branch with its ambitious young manager looking to corner all the new, lucrative business for himself.

George Bellairs

Unfortunately I didn’t find the characters or their motivations as interesting as the setting. We never meet the victims while they’re alive, so only learn about them through other people and, of the three, only one is really fully developed and he’s unlikeable in the extreme. The suspects are better drawn, but are also a deeply unattractive bunch of people. The result was that I didn’t much care about any of them and never found myself fully invested in the criminal being brought to justice. Also, and this is simply an individual preference, I’m never as interested in plots that go so deeply into fraud and corruption as this one, preferring crimes where the motives are more personal. Bellairs does it well, showing how financial desperation can lead people to go off the rails, but I felt it got a bit bogged down in detail at points.

Overall, I enjoyed it, but not as much as the previous Littlejohn stories I’ve read, purely because the story wasn’t as much to my taste. I did feel Littlejohn himself was better developed as a character in this one though, and will be happy to meet him again. Since this is apparently the 41st Littlejohn book, I’ve got plenty more to try!

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

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Conviction by Denise Mina

And… action!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

As Anna does all her usual early morning tasks, she’s expecting this to be a routine day. But then her best friend, Estelle, turns up at the door, and her husband, Hamish, comes downstairs with a suitcase and an announcement – he’s leaving Anna and going off with Estelle, taking the kids with him. Left alone and feeling shattered, Anna looks for something to distract her mind, and begins listening to a true-crime podcast. She’s amazed to discover that an old friend of hers, Leon, is at the centre of the story – as victim, or murderer, or perhaps both. With nothing better to do and not wishing to dwell on her broken life, Anna sets off to look up old acquaintances and do a bit of digging. Along the way she acquires a travelling companion – Estelle’s abandoned husband, Fin…

There are some dark elements to the story – rape, murder, suicide, anorexia – but the tone is surprisingly light. In the hands of someone less skilled I might have said too light – the handling of the anorexia in particular veered close to being a bit too jocular at times, even though I thought it was a quite realistic portrayal. But Mina keeps the book rattling along as such a pace that there’s no time to dwell on the bleaker themes – this is very much an action thriller. We soon learn that Anna is a woman with a past, one that has damaged her but made her strong. She’s a survivor, and since she quickly decides she’s not going to wallow in misery over her marriage, the reader is happily saved from wallowing with her.

Like all thrillers, the less you know going in the more you’ll enjoy it, so I won’t go too deeply into the story. Anna’s past soon erupts into the present and, as she and Fin hunt for the truth about Leon’s death, she in turn becomes hunted by the people she has been hiding from for years. It becomes a dangerous race across Europe as they begin to suspect that past and present might be connected in some way. Anna and Fin are an unlikely pairing (as Anna would be the first to point out) and their interactions add a lot to the humour and give the book its warmth. There’s an enjoyable mix of excitement and humour, with some serious moments to keep it grounded, and the tension gradually builds to an excellent (if improbable) and totally unexpected dénouement.

Denise Mina

OK, credibility got thrown overboard fairly early on and, after struggling to the surface a couple of times, finally sank without trace. If you’re looking for deep and meaningful, this isn’t it, despite it touching on some of the themes of the moment. But I found it thoroughly enjoyable, fast-paced and fun, and very well written. This is only the second Mina I’ve read, the other being the darkly realistic The Long Drop, and I find it hard to imagine two books more different in tone and style. I’m looking forward to getting to know her work better and, meantime, happily recommend this one. If Hitchcock were still with us, he could make it into a great film…

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

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Book 9 of 20

In the Heat of the Night by John Ball

“They call me Mr Tibbs.”

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When night patrolman Sam Wood finds a dead man in the street, it’s quickly apparent the man has been murdered. It also transpires he’s a prominent person – Maestro Enrico Mantoli, a famous conductor who was organising a music festival in the town. The new police chief, Bill Gillespie, has never run a murder investigation before. In fact, he hasn’t much experiencing of policing at all – he was mainly hired because of his intimidating air of authority and his willingness to uphold this Alabama town’s resistance to change in the face of the Civil Rights movement. He orders Sam to check around for anyone who looks like he might be trying to leave town. When Sam comes across a black man sitting quietly in the Colored waiting room of the train station and discovers he has a sizeable amount of cash in his wallet, it seems the case is closed. Until the black man reveals his identity to Gillespie – Virgil Tibbs, a homicide investigator with the Pasadena police, who’s passing through Wells on his way back north after visiting his mother…

I seem to have spent a lot of time recently reading about the American South around the time of the Civil Rights movement. This book is fundamentally a crime novel with a very good plot and some excellent detection elements. But it’s far more than that – it paints an entirely believable picture of being a black man in a town that’s run by the whites for the whites at a time when segregation and racism were still entirely acceptable. It also takes us into the minds of the white people, though, showing how they are the product of their conditioning, and how they react when they are forced to reassess the things they take for granted about their own racial superiority.

(I do have one niggling reservation, about me rather than the book. It was written by a white man showing the perspective of a black man in the American South, and I am a white Scotswoman, so although it rings wholly true to me, I can’t help feeling I’m not the best person to judge the portrayals of either race in that place and time. That said, on with the review!)

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in the 1967 film of the book

Gillespie is prevailed upon by his superiors to bring Tibbs in on the investigation. He has mixed feelings about it – on the one hand, he doesn’t want to be shown up by a despised black man; on the other hand, if the case isn’t solved, then he can blame Tibbs. Sam Wood ends up as a sort of unofficial partner to Tibbs, and although he’s a much nicer man than Gillespie, he too has to fight his repugnance to treating a black man as in any way equal. There are all sorts of subtle nuances that show how pervasive racism is in this society, like the white people all calling Tibbs Virgil, while he is supposed to refer to them by their title and surname, or like Sam’s unease at Tibbs sitting in the front seat of their car.

Book 46 of 90

In fact, Tibbs is the one who is most at ease with himself and with the situation. He grew up in the South, knows the rules and conforms to them, never arguing about being forced to use the Colored washroom or not being allowed to eat in the diner, nor openly objecting to the overt racist language directed at him. But he’s worked in California, a place where racism still exists for sure, but not in this formalised, legally endorsed way. While the white men think they’re superior to Tibbs because of their race, Tibbs is well aware of his own superiority in training and experience. But he’s human enough to need to prove it, so he’s driven to stay and solve the case rather than taking the easy option of simply getting on the next train out of town.

John Ball

The plot itself is very good, and the investigation takes us through all the levels in this society from rich to poor, from the cultural leaders involved in setting up the music festival, to the political class, increasingly divided between the socially conservative and the more liberal elements, to the poor people trying to scratch a living in a town that has lost its biggest employer and is struggling to find a new purpose.

But it’s undoubtedly the characterisation that makes this one special. Tibbs himself is likeable, a hero it’s easy to root for. Woods and Gillespie are more complex and they each grow and learn over the course of the investigation, about police-work but also about themselves. It avoids a saccharine wholesale conversion to woolly brotherhood-of-man liberalism on their parts, but gives hope that people and society can change, given patience and the right circumstances.

An excellent book that deserves its status as a classic of the genre – well written and plotted, and insightful about race and class at a moment of change. Highly recommended.

Book 6 of 20

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Death Has Deep Roots by Michael Gilbert

The original Resistance…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Victoria Lamartine is on trial for murder. The Frenchwoman played a role in the Resistance in WW2 and after the war came to London in search of the young English officer with whom she’d had a wartime affair. She was working as a chambermaid in the Family Hotel in Soho when another wartime acquaintance came to stay, Major Eric Thoseby. That night, Thoseby was found stabbed to death in his room in a style reminiscent of the Resistance’s methods, and Vicky was found standing over his body. Her counsel wants her to plead guilty and beg for mercy, but Vicky’s having none of that! So just before the trial proper is about to begin, she dismisses her legal team and her solicitor asks young lawyer Nap Rumbold to take the case. Nap has just a week to find something to prove her innocence, and he must go to France and dig around in the murky history of war to find it…

This is billed as an Inspector Hazlerigg mystery but he’s barely in it. The focus is on Nap and a friend of his, Major Angus McCann, who run around doing the investigative work in France and England, while famous QC Hargest Macrea does his best to undermine the prosecution in court and string the case out as long as possible to give Nap and Angus time. The story flits between them, so that it’s part action thriller, part legal drama.

I’ve loved both of the other Michael Gilbert novels I’ve read, Smallbone Deceased and Death in Captivity, so my expectations were perhaps too high going into this one. Although it’s good overall, it doesn’t quite hit the heights of the other two. The plotting is a bit looser and the characterisation doesn’t have the same depth. The mix of drama and darkness leavened by occasional humour is still there though and the writing is of the same high quality.

The plot is rather convoluted and I don’t think it could really be described as fairplay – there are hints along the way, but not actual clues that a reader (well, this reader) could grasp. It’s almost a locked room mystery in the sense that there is only staircase leading to the victim’s hotel room and there were always people around who in theory would have seen anyone go up. Having caught their suspect the police haven’t bothered to consider other possibilities, so it’s up to Vicky’s new defence team to cast doubt on the prosecution’s evidence or, better yet, find an alternative solution.

Vicky had a child during the war, which later died. She claims the father was the officer she had been in love with. The prosecution claim that in fact Major Thoseby was the father, and Vicky had murdered him for abandoning them. Vicky is an interesting character, and through her story we get a glimpse of life in France under the Occupation for those who weren’t fully committed members of the Resistance but who helped them when they could – ordinary people, in fact. I felt Gilbert didn’t make the most of her – she fades into the background a bit as the story progresses. Gilbert also treats her rather cruelly at one point purely to make a dramatic scene. It’s very effective, but it left me feeling that he was using her simply as a plot vehicle rather than considering the humanity of her situation. (Vague – avoiding spoilers – sorry.)

Michael Gilbert

The French bit is fun, with Nap quickly getting into danger in the best thriller tradition, and much wartime murkiness to be uncovered. Nap is a likeable character, though somewhat underdeveloped in this one – I believe (from other reviews) he may appear in other Inspector Hazlerigg books so perhaps this is an effect of reading them out of order. Meantime Major McCann is doing his bit to break the locked room mystery back in London. But the star of the show is the QC, Macrea, and the courtroom chapters are particularly good as he spots inconsistencies, demolishes evidence and generally runs rings round the prosecution.

So not quite as excellent as the other two Gilbert books the BL has so far re-published, but still an enjoyable read with much to recommend it and, taken together, the three show that Gilbert is an author who thoroughly deserves this opportunity to be appreciated by a new generation of readers.

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

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Book 5 of 20

A Pinch of Snuff (Dalziel and Pascoe 5) by Reginald Hill

Dark secrets…

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There have been complaints from the local residents about the Calliope Club, a private cinema that shows pornographic films, so the local police in the person of Sergeant Wield are already keeping an eye on it. However, everything is perfectly legal and the only disruption the club is causing is to the respectable sensibilities of its neighbours. But Jack Shorter, one of the club members, is worried, and since he happens to be Inspector Peter Pascoe’s dentist, he takes the opportunity to pass on his concerns. He tells Peter that in one scene of a film, in which the naked heroine is being beaten up her equally naked captor, he is convinced that the beating is real and that the woman has been seriously hurt, if not worse. So Peter goes along to see for himself, starting a chain of events that will uncover some dark secrets around the town and lead to murder…

By the time of this fifth Dalziel and Pascoe book, both of the main characters have become much more fully developed, although they will continue to evolve throughout the long-running series. Dalziel is brash, crude and often uncouth, although he’s perfectly capable of presenting different faces when he wishes. He knows everyone who’s anyone around his patch, and is well tuned in to all the gossip and secrets of his fellow townspeople. Pascoe is educated and cultured, more empathetic and often deeply affected by the things he witnesses as part of his job. He is the modern face of policing, although that modernity of 1978 when the book was first published seems very out-dated now, especially in social attitudes. Because this story involves porn, violence towards women and what would now be considered child exploitation at best, or child abuse at worst, those outdated attitudes make for uneasy reading to modern eyes. If you find it difficult to allow for different times, then this may not be the best book in which to meet Dalziel and Pascoe for the first time.

However, if you can look past that, then there’s a strong plot here – tighter and better paced than in some of the earliest books. The storyline is undoubtedly dark, but there’s plenty of room for some humour in the interaction between the two leads. Hill tended to change the main viewpoint from book to book, and here we see the story from Peter’s perspective, which is a kinder and gentler one than Dalziel’s. The starting point of the story – the suggestion of ‘snuff’ movies, where the supposedly fictional on-screen death is actually real – soon veers off to become more domestic in nature, as Jack Shorter is suddenly accused of seducing one of his underage patients. Meantime, the owner of the Calliope Club is attacked and left to die, and Peter must try to find out if there’s a connection to his investigation into the possible snuff movie. With all the concentration on porn, there are some salacious moments and some earthy language but no graphic descriptions of sex, on or off screen.

As the series progressed, the books gradually widened out from the two main detectives to become more ensemble pieces with several recurring characters. That process is beginning in this one, as we get to know Ellie, Peter’s wife, a little better. She’s a feminist and what we would now call a social justice warrior, so there’s always tension between Peter and her over his job, since she sees the police as a reactionary pillar of a patriarchal society. Sergeant Wield is also coming to the fore, although at this early point in the series, he is almost unrecognisable as the complex and appealing character he will later become.

Reginald Hill

Going back and reading these books in order has made me realise just how much the characters developed and changed over time – a reflection, I suspect, of Hill’s own development as well as of the changes in society during the decades in which he was writing. It’s quite hard to realise it now, but in fact at the time these books were at the forefront of the social changes, with Hill addressing subjects like feminism and homosexuality at a time when they were rare indeed in crime fiction. The way he does it sometimes seems clumsy to us now, with our heightened sensitivity and demand for strict adherence to the rules of liberal political correctness, but the underlying messages are positive ones for those who can see past the blunter style of expression of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Pascoe is already learning to be more sensitive, partly through Ellie’s influence, and later in the series even Andy Dalziel will show he’s not as dinosaurish as he likes to appear.

While there are still a few books to go before Hill hit his peak, this one feels to me like a bit of a turning point, with indications of how the series would later develop, especially in the characterisation. As always, this series is highly recommended!

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The Red Redmaynes by Eden Phillpotts

Blinded by love…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Inspector Mark Brendon is on a fishing holiday in Dartmoor when he first spots the lovely, ethereal, auburn-haired Jenny Pendean and falls instantly in love. Lucky for him, then, that she is promptly widowed, providing him with both a mystery to solve and a woman to woo. Less lucky for her husband, Michael. Jenny’s grandfather was a rich man and had left her a legacy, but only on condition that one of her three uncles approved her marriage. None of the three approved of Michael, though, in part because he wasn’t from the right class, but also because he managed to escape serving in the armed forces during WW1 (not bone spurs – a minor heart condition). However recently Uncle Robert had reached out to the young couple and seemed ready to accept Michael. But one night, after Robert and Michael had been working alone on the house Michael was building, neither man returns. The next day all that is found on the site is a pool of blood and signs of a body having been dragged away. Sightings of Robert making off on his motorcycle leave little doubt that he had killed Michael, probably in a fit of madness brought on by the shell-shock he had suffered in the war. Jenny begs Mark to find Robert…

This was first published in 1922 at the earliest stages of the Golden Age and, perhaps because of that, doesn’t follow the format that later became recognisable as the traditional mystery novel. It’s a bit rambling in parts, takes place over a period of more than a year, and the dénouement comes a few chapters before the end, followed by lengthy explanations and a round up of what happens to the surviving characters in their futures. It feels looser and not as well plotted as many of the later GA mysteries, though oddly I felt it was a good deal darker and more psychologically twisted than most of them too. I found a lot to enjoy in it, though I would have enjoyed it more had it been tighter and a bit more pacey.

Challenge details:
Book: 44
Subject Heading: Resorting to Murder
Publication Year: 1922

The first half takes place on Dartmoor and then on the weather-beaten coast of Devon, and Phillpotts uses these bleak landscapes effectively to create an atmosphere of impending doom. It transpires that Michael was merely the first victim – the murderer seems to want to destroy the remaining Redmaynes too, though no-one can understand his motives. In the second half, Jenny visits her uncle Albert at his home in Italy – again a well realised location – and when danger seems again to draw near, Albert reaches out to both Inspector Brendon and to Albert’s American friend, Peter Ganns, who happens to be a great detective. (Naturally, in such circumstances, one cannot put one’s faith in the Italian police, because after all they’re foreigners…)

This is another aspect of the book which makes it different from the standard – it appears as if Mark is going to be the central detective in the first half, but then, admittedly after Mark has proved his incompetence several times over, Ganns becomes the main man. And it’s he who will finally unravel the mystery. He’s hampered by having to rely on Mark as his sidekick, since Mark is so in love with Jenny his brain has turned to mush. Ganns points this out to him, but still Mark allows himself to get distracted at crucial moments. (One wonders if the Italian police could really have been less competent than the British and American ones…) Ganns is fun, in that I did wonder if Phillpotts had ever actually met an American or if he created the entire portrayal based on characters in pulp fiction of the day. Ganns seems to be a well educated, cultured man but sometimes slips into the kind of wise-guy speech of the fictional American PI or gangster, such as referring to women as “dames”. But he’s psychologically astute, which is more than can be said for poor Mark.

Eden Phillpotts

I had a reasonably good idea of the solution from fairly early on, although I was a bit baffled as to motive. And when the dénouement came and all was explained, it felt much more modern than I was expecting – definitely heading towards psychological thriller territory, which surprised me for a book from this early, and added considerably to the interest level.

Overall, then, despite some weaknesses and an odd format, I enjoyed this. The settings are particularly well done and I found aspects of it pretty original, especially for the time. Another author I’d be happy to meet again.

I downloaded this one from Project Gutenberg.

Case Histories (Jackson Brodie 1) by Kate Atkinson

Nor fish nor fowl nor good red herring…

😐 😐

A child goes missing one night from the tent where she is sleeping. A girl is murdered, seemingly as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A young mother is driven to her wits’ end by her fractious baby and we all know what happens during periods of temporary insanity. These three cases from years ago are suddenly all brought to the door of ex-police detective and current private investigator Jackson Brodie, and he must try to find the explanations his clients are seeking while juggling his own messy private life.

The first three chapters of this are stunningly good, as Atkinson lays the groundwork to each of the three cases. The last few chapters are fairly good as she wraps them all up, not neatly nor particularly skilfully, but at least to a reasonably satisfying level. The vast swathe of repetitive sex and death obsessed tedium in the middle is unfortunate.

I realise that many people love this book, so obviously as always this is merely my subjective opinion, but I found it a complete mess. I’m not at all sure what Atkinson was attempting to do with it. It’s certainly not a crime novel – there is almost zero detection in it. Brodie simply wanders around bemoaning his lot and eyeing women up to see if they’re sexually attractive, then jumps miraculously to the right conclusions. Well, I say miraculously, but actually since I’d already guessed the solution to two of the cases hours earlier, maybe it wasn’t that amazing after all.

It’s not really insightful enough to count as literary fiction either – I hesitate to use the word banal, but I fear it is the one that was running through my mind while I was reading. Contemporary fiction? Well, perhaps, but it really has nothing much to say about contemporary society. There’s plenty of sex and sexual fantasies, but more in the “ooh, aren’t I naughty and daring for writing dirty words and talking about naked bodies” sense than anything that could push it into the romance category! There were moments when I wondered if Atkinson had been spending too much time with fourteen-year-olds since most of her adults seemed to think like them.

Book 1 of 20

The number of deaths described is extraordinary. Not just the cases, but nearly every character’s fathers, mothers, children, siblings, pets – all dead, all dead! Murders, suicides, cancer, road accidents – life in Cambridge is clearly nasty, brutish and short. It gives new meaning to the phrase “ghost town”. And of course, we get all the grief to go along with all these deaths, which isn’t what you’d call cheery exactly. And for those who have managed so far to maintain a precarious hold on life, their loving relatives spend all their time imagining all the horrible deaths that might happen to them. Jackson himself must imagine at least five horrible deaths for his daughter and can barely look at a piece of grass without seeing it as a potential deathbed for her.

The characterisation is reasonably good of a few of the main characters, but there is also what feels like a cast of thousands who never become filled out in any way, so that I found myself having to search for previous mentions of them to find out who they were when they suddenly re-appeared briefly a hundred pages later. To be honest, it felt to me like three pretty good short stories that for some reason Atkinson had clumsily attempted to tie together to make a novel, filling all the rest of the space with weary and pointless meanderings. And there’s a limit to quite how often coincidence can be used before it becomes annoying.

Kate Atkinson

Nope, I don’t get it. Clearly other people are seeing something in this that I’m not. The potential is there – Jackson could be a decent character if he ever stopped brooding about sex and death and did a bit of detecting, and the basic stories are certainly interesting even if the resolutions are weak. However, since I foolishly requested the next three books in the series from NetGalley on the assumption that I was certain I’d love them, I’ll read the next one in the hopes that the series improves, although my expectations are now in the basement. Apologies to all who loved it!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Blotting Book by EF Benson

An excellent vintage…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Morris Assheton is due to come into his inheritance when he’s twenty-five. However, a clause in his father’s will allows him to take control of his money earlier, should he marry a woman of whom his mother approves. Morris has met and fallen in love with just such a woman, so his trustee, Edward Taynton, suggests he might want to look over the accounts of the trust. Young Morris has other more important things to think of, though – his future wife, and his new car which he loves with at least as much fervour. This is lucky for Edward, since he and his partner Godfrey Mills have been gambling unsuccessfully with the trust funds. So all seems well, but things are about to go wrong and when they do, it will all lead to murder…

More of a long novella than a novel, this isn’t really a mystery, or at least the possibilities are so limited that most readers will be able to work out whodunit with a fair degree of certainty pretty early on. Instead, it’s an entertaining and quite insightful character study of the three main characters, Morris and the two trustees, and mostly of Edward Taynton.

Edward isn’t a bad man – in fact, his gambles were meant as much to benefit Morris as himself and he still hopes to make good the losses before the trust is wound up. He’s worked hard to give himself a comfortable life, and hopes to retire soon to enjoy life before he’s too old. But we see how he’s affected by pressure as his secret looks in danger. He makes some odd decisions, but happily manages to justify his behaviour himself. A kindly, friendly man whom everyone likes and respects – with a streak of narcissism hidden beneath the surface.

Morris too is a pleasant character, leading a contented, pampered and happy life and with every reason to expect that to continue. However, when things go wrong, suddenly he becomes filled with a rage that surprises everyone, including himself, by its intensity. Godfrey, Edward’s partner, is somewhat less well drawn, and to a degree is a bit of a plot device. He too suddenly behaves in a way that surprises his partner, but I didn’t feel I knew him nearly as well as the other characters so didn’t feel the same surprise.

Challenge details:
Book: 6
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1908

The murder happens quite late on and Benson builds a great atmosphere of approaching dread, with some fine dramatic writing…

Overclouded too was the sky, and as he stepped out into the street from his garden-room the hot air struck him like a buffet; and in his troubled and apprehensive mood it felt as if some hot hand warned him by a blow not to venture out of his house. But the house, somehow, in the last hour had become terrible to him, any movement or action, even on a day like this, when only madmen and the English go abroad, was better than the nervous waiting in his darkened room. Dreadful forces, forces of ruin and murder and disgrace, were abroad in the world of men; the menace of the low black clouds and stifling heat was more bearable. He wanted to get away from his house, which was permeated and soaked in association with the other two actors, who in company with himself, had surely some tragedy for which the curtain was already rung up.

EF Benson

After a police investigation in which the police show themselves to be sharper than the murderer anticipated, the whole thing winds up in a courtroom drama where there’s an excellent revelation around a physical clue that turns the prosecution’s whole case on its head at the last minute. It is fair play in that the reader was made aware of the clue at the appropriate place, but this reader, while I had spotted that it was A Clue, couldn’t work it out, which always adds to the fun!

I thoroughly enjoyed this one. It can easily be read in an evening and my interest never flagged despite having very little doubt as to whodunit or how it would end. It’s the character of Edward that makes it entertaining – he may be a cheat and a fraudster, but I found him good company anyway. Highly recommended.

I downloaded this one from the excellent www.fadedpage.com

Twisted by Steve Cavanagh

The clue’s in the title…

😀 😀 😀 😀

JT LeBeau is a hugely successful author who specialises in the twist. He, or could it be she, hides his or her identity from the world, and this mystique of course only adds to the hype around her or his books. She, or is it he, will do anything to keep his or her secret…

OK, every review I’ve read of this has started in basically the same way and now I’m adding to it – this is one that’s impossible to say much about without giving away too much, so this review will be short and not very informative!

It’s all in the title – this is a book full of twists about an author who writes books full of twists. It’s clever and amusing and a bit self-referential, in that it’s lightly mocking what it itself is. Cavanagh has fun with the twists and plays with the idea of authors using secret identities, not shying away from referencing the likes of JK Rowling, aka Robert Galbraith.

It’s very well written and the plot holds together pretty well despite the twists. However, it’s light on characterisation – it has to be really, so we can continually be surprised. This makes it a light read despite some dark moments. There’s no feeling of depth, nor does the reader get the opportunity to care much about the characters. The only one I built up any kind of feeling for was the local Sheriff who was investigating the… oh, sorry, can’t tell you what he was investigating. And not surprisingly, as twist piles on twist, credibility is the chief victim.

Steve Cavanagh

One minor irritation is that Cavanagh, clearly feeling that constant repetition of he/she, her/his, etc., would be irritating, chooses to use they/their instead – grammatically tooth-drilling to my pedantic soul. We really need to create a gender-neutral word. So, since the fault lies with the inadequacy of our language, I bit the bullet and forgave the author. Just.

Overall, I found it a fast-paced page-turner that kept me amused while reading, and will almost instantly be forgotten. That’s fine, though – sometimes entertainment is all that’s wanted, and this delivers well on that score. Recommended as a well written bit of fun.

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

Amazon UK Link
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Deadland (DS Alex Cupidi 2) by William Shaw

Ramping up the tension…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a severed limb turns up inside an urn on loan to the local art gallery, DS Alex Cupidi and the team have a real mystery on their hands. First they have to try to work out to whom it belonged and if the owner is dead, and why it was left in a place where it was bound to be discovered, all before they can even begin to investigate who put it there. At the same time, two local lads, Sloth and Tap, are starting out on a life of petty crime. They decide to steal a mobile phone, but unfortunately for them they pick the wrong victim, and soon find themselves being hunted by someone who seems willing to go to any lengths to recover his property, so they run off into hiding. While Alex is tied up in the possible murder investigation, she can’t help being worried for the safety of the boys – criminals they may be, but they’re also victims, of difficult homes, of substandard schools, of a society that doesn’t seem to care. And they’re the same age as Alex’ own daughter, Zoe…

Alex Cupidi is a great detective. She isn’t an angst-ridden maverick, but there are enough complications in her personal life to make her interesting, and her relationship with her daughter is entirely credible. Zoe is seventeen, mostly adult but still part child, and Alex is finding it difficult to get the balance right between protecting her and letting her find her own way in life. The situation is complicated by Zoe’s zealous championing of causes which sometimes bring her into confrontation with the forces of law and order. Shaw handles this excellently, never taking it too far, and there’s plenty of love in the relationship to help smooth over any areas of conflict.

The police procedural aspect is just as good. Shaw lets us know about the painstaking detail that goes into an investigation without allowing the story to get bogged down in it. Alex’ colleague and friend, Jill, has got herself into a tricky personal situation, and this lets us see another side of Alex, trying to juggle loyalty to her friend with the professional demands of the job.

One thing I particularly loved was that Shaw includes people of different ethnicities and sexual orientations without making a big deal of it. I’m so tired of authors feeling they have to write “about” diversity – until we start treating diversity as normal, it never will be. So hurrah for an author who makes it unremarkable…

(This is the second time I’ve made a comment like this recently, the other being in relation to the entirely believable, positive background portrayal of racially diverse Birmingham in Lucie Whitehouse’s Critical Incidents. A new trend, perhaps? If so, a very welcome one.)

The plotting is great – complex and fast-paced, but never to a degree where the reader feels lost. It takes Alex and Jill into the rich and shady world of art-trading, where vast amounts of money changing hands provides opportunities for all kinds of dodgy dealing, and the wealthy shelter behind their security fences and sense of entitlement. But through Tap and Sloth we also see the other end of the social spectrum, where a meal in a burger bar can seem like a feast. There’s no faux “that day” suspense in this one. Instead, Shaw makes us care so deeply about the two boys that the tension level ramps ever higher as the story unfolds, with some real heart-thumping moments along the way. And there’s no cosiness about it, so that there’s a real feeling of fear that one or both of them may pay the ultimate price for their stupid crime. But equally their story is not too grim or gritty to be enjoyable. There’s a lot of warmth and humour in their friendship – two misfits who’ve each found someone they can rely on, even love.

Shaw makes excellent use of his Kent setting, both in town and out on the wild and forbidding marshland landscape of Dungeness. He lets us see all the contrasts in wealth in this area, the secluded and luxurious homes of the rich, while the old seaside hotels and boarding houses along the Kent coast are now hostels housing many of the refugees and migrants recently arrived on our shores.

William Shaw

This is one of those rare masterclasses in crime writing that should be made compulsory reading for all aspiring authors. I loved everything about it, especially the sections of the boys on the run, and raced through it because I needed to know whether they would make it. Did I come out of it smiling or sobbing though? I’m afraid you’ll have to read it for yourself to find the answer to that question. One thing I will tell you – I’ll be backtracking to read Shaw’s earlier books, and adding him to my read-on-publication-day list for future ones…

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

Amazon UK Link
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The Secret Adversary (Tommy and Tuppence 1) by Agatha Christie

Reds under the bed…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As the passengers on the Lusitania scramble for safety before she sinks, a man approaches Jane Finn. Pressing a package into her hands, he tells her that it’s of vital importance to the war effort that the contents are passed to the American authorities, and asks her to take it since women and children will be evacuated first, making her more likely to survive than him.

Some years later, the war is over and two young friends meeting by accident on a London street go to a tea room to talk over old times and new. Tommy Beresford has been demobbed from the army, while Prudence “Tuppence” Cowley is back in London now her services as a war nurse are no longer required. Neither has had much success in finding jobs, so half-joking, half-serious, they come up with an idea to form a joint venture – to advertise themselves as The Young Adventurers willing to take on any job offered…

But a man in the tea room has overheard them talk and, before they can place the ad, he approaches Tuppence with a job offer. Soon the two young people will find themselves embroiled in an adventure full of mysterious crooks, Bolshevik revolutionaries, missing girls, American millionaires, secret treaties and British Intelligence. And the brooding evil presence of the sinister Mr Brown, the criminal mastermind who is behind the plot – a man no-one seems to know by sight but whom all fear by reputation…

As regulars know, my cats are called Tommy and Tuppence, so that will give you some idea of how much I love this pair of detectives. Christie didn’t write many T&T books, but each has its own charm, especially since, unlike Poirot and Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence age in real time, so that we see them develop from youth to old age over roughly the same period as Christie herself did. The Secret Adversary is the first, and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable romp.

James Warwick and the delightful Francesca Annis as Tommy and Tuppence in the ITV adaptation

Reading it now, nearly a century later, some aspects of it are unintentionally amusing, like dear Ms Christie’s obvious mistrust of Labour politicians, belief in the good old right-wing establishment, and a fear of those terrible socialists so great it would almost qualify her to apply for American citizenship! But this was during the Red terror following the Russian Revolution – the book was published in 1922 and there is much talk in it of a possible general strike which the socialists hope to orchestrate in order to start a British revolution. Four years later in the real world, the General Strike of 1926 didn’t quite do that, but it came close for a while, and was only broken by the middle classes volunteering to do the essential work of the strikers. My point is that the plot seems a bit silly now, but wouldn’t have back then – Christie was reflecting the legitimate fears of conservative Middle England.

Le Carré it’s not, however. Underneath all the spy stuff, there’s an excellent whodunit mystery, plotted as misleadingly as any of her later books. It’s decades since I last read this and the joy of having a terrible memory is that I couldn’t remember who the baddie was, and I loved how Christie led me around, suspecting first this person, then that one, then back again. Yes, at one point I suspected the right person, but purely by accident, and I’d moved on to the wrong person before the big reveal!

Agatha Christie

The major enjoyment of the book, though, comes from the delightful characterisation of the two main characters, and their budding romance – a romance the reader is well aware of long before the two participants catch on! Tommy is a typical British hero of the time, strong, rather stolid and unimaginative, but patriotic and decent, determined and resourceful. Tuppence is so much fun – headstrong and courageous, she works on intuition and instinct, and is one of the new breed of modern girls who are more likely to bat the bad guy over the head with a jug than swoon helplessly into the hero’s arms. She’s the driving force in The Young Adventurers while Tommy is the stabilising influence, and they’re a wonderful partnership. Lots of humour in their banter with one another keeps the tone light even when the plot darkens.

I listened to Hugh Fraser narrating the audiobook and, as always, he does a great job. He gets the chance to “do” an American millionaire and a Russian spy along with all the British characters, and has a lot of fun with the somewhat stereotyped characterisation Christie gives of them. All-in-all, pure pleasure either as a read or a listen – highly recommended! My cats recommend it too…

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link – sorry, can’t see the Hugh Fraser version on the US site, though there are other narrators available.

Death of a Red Heroine (Inspector Chen 1) by Qiu Xiaolong

Murder in Shanghai…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When the body of a young woman is found in a canal, Inspector Chen of the Special Cases unit decides to take on the case, initially simply because his subordinate, Detective Yu, was the only detective available to attend the crime scene. But, once the body is identified – in itself no easy task in a country as huge and populous as China – it transpires the victim is Guan Hongying, a national model worker: a title that denotes membership of the Communist Party and a position as a figurehead and public role model for workers. So the case is indeed special, and Chen will have to try to find the murderer without revealing anything about Guan’s life that may tarnish her reputation or that of the Party.

Qiu Xiaolong is Chinese, but left the country following the Tiananmen Square protests, and now lives in America. He writes in English, and as well as being a novelist, he is a poet, a translator and a literary critic. All of these elements feed into this novel, making it an intriguing mix of insider/outsider writing. As an insider, his depiction of Shanghai and the lives of the people there in the 1990s is fascinating and detailed, describing food, clothing, customs and the rapidly changing face of Chinese life at a point where capitalism was beginning to be encouraged after years of strict communism, but where the state still had a stranglehold on every aspect of life. As an outsider, he is quite clearly writing for a Western audience, explaining things that would need no explanation for a Chinese readership, and one has to bear in mind that he is to some degree a dissident, and therefore by definition not an uncritical admirer of the political regime in force in China at that point in time.

However, I felt that he gave a surprisingly balanced picture of the regime, resisting the temptation to make it seem even more repressive than it actually was, and giving credit for some of the positive aspects of it. He also shows that many, perhaps most, people support the regime, even though they grumble about some of the difficulties and inequalities that exist within it. I thought it was a wise decision too to set the book back in 1990, just at the time that he left Shanghai for the West, so that the city he is describing is still the one he knew rather than a researched version of the present. It’s another advantage to the western reader that his faultless fluency in English means there is none of the clunkiness or occasional lack of clarity that often accompanies even the best of translations.

All this description makes the book longer than the average crime novel, but it’s so interesting and well done, and incorporated so well into the story, that I found it didn’t slow the pace to any significant degree. The underlying story is excellent, as Chen and Yu delve deep into Guan’s life, finding that she had her own secrets that didn’t fit the model image she presented to Party and public. The plot takes us deep into the culture of Party privilege, and casts a great deal of light on how the current society has developed and changed during the long years of upheaval that have marked the various stages of the Chinese revolution. But it’s also a human story, of a young woman trying to live her life in the harsh glare of publicity, of love and sex and abuse, of corruption and power.

Inspector Chen is the main character, and Qiu fleshes him out excellently, giving him Qiu’s own expertise in poetry, both Chinese and western. Chen is himself a poet, but unlike, for instance, PD James’ Adam Dalglish, he hasn’t chosen for himself an unlikely second role as policeman – Chen has been allocated his job by the Party and has no real option but to obey or to lose any hope of status and advancement, or perhaps even to mark himself out as a dissident with all the dangers that entails. Again, Qiu doesn’t overplay this aspect – Chen is embedded in the existing culture, and while he might chafe at the strict rules governing his life at some points, he largely accepts them and tries to work within them. Detective Yu is equally well drawn – lower down the social scale, he allows us to see another level of the hierarchy and the control of the Party extending into people’s lives. He’s married, and in the latter part of the book his wife comes to the fore, giving us a glimpse of the life of a traditional wife and mother, while Chen’s love interest is a modern young journalist, showing the changes that are taking place for women too at this time.

Qiu Xiaolong

The book is laced with quotations from classic Chinese poetry and surprisingly this works brilliantly at helping the western reader understand the cultural underpinnings of this society, and of reminding us, who are too ready to look down on any society that doesn’t slavishly follow the western democratic model (which is working out so well, isn’t it? 😉 ), that China has a rich cultural heritage far, far more ancient than our own.

I enjoyed this as a crime novel, but even more as a fascinating insider depiction of China at a turning point in its political journey, and as a revealing portrait of the lives of the people of Shanghai. I look forward to reading more in the series.

Thanks to Margot Kinberg for drawing the book to my attention – your blog is sorely missed, Margot!

Amazon UK Link
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Death In Captivity by Michael Gilbert

A locked tunnel mystery…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1943, and the British officers held in a prisoner-of-war camp in north Italy take their duty to escape seriously, so the camp is riddled with tunnels. The biggest and most hopeful of these is under Hut C, elaborately hidden under a trapdoor that takes several men to open. So when a body turns up in the tunnel the question is not only how did he die but also how did he get into the tunnel? The dead man is Cyriakos Coutoules, a Greek prisoner who was widely unpopular and whom some suspected of having been an informer. When it begins to look as if his death was murder, the camp authorities quickly fix on one of the prisoners as the culprit, but the Brits are sure of his innocence. So it’s up to them to figure out how and why Coutoules died, and who did kill him…

Well, this is a very different take on the classic “locked room” mystery. In fact, to a degree the mystery becomes secondary to the drama of what’s happening in the prison camp as the Allies approach and it looks as though the Italians may surrender. The prisoners doubt this will lead to their release – they anticipate the Italians will hand them over to the Germans before the Allies arrive – so it’s all the more important that they get their plans for escape ready urgently. The Italians meantime, facing almost certain defeat, know that the Allies will be looking to hold people responsible for any war crimes that may have been committed, so they have an incentive to destroy evidence or get rid of witnesses who might be used against them. So tensions are rising all round, and some people are driven to rash actions.

There is a bit of the gung-ho British heroism attitude in the book, unsurprisingly given that it was first published in 1952 when the war was still fresh in people’s minds. But Gilbert actually gives a fairly balanced picture – not all the Brits are heroes and not all the Italians are evil, and the relationships of the prisoners to each other are shown as complex, with everything from close friendships to rivalries and dislikes. As the men begin to suspect that there’s a spy in the camp, suspicion leads to mistrust, and we see how the officers in charge have to deal with that. Gilbert doesn’t pull any punches regarding either the treatment of the prisoners or the dangers associated with their various escape attempts, so the book is hard-hitting at points. But the general camaraderie and patriotism of the prisoners also give the story a kind of good-natured warmth and a fair amount of humour which prevent the tone from becoming too bleak.

The officers in charge delegate the task of investigating the murder to “Cuckoo” Goyles, a young man whose experience of detection is restricted exclusively to having been a fan of mystery novels. He has to try to sift through the little evidence that is available without revealing anything that might alert the Italians to the existence of the tunnel. He uses his knowledge of how the camp works and of some of the weaknesses in security the escape committee has observed while making their plans. And he has to work quickly – the cruel camp commander, Captain Benucci, has a man in custody and no one has any illusions but that he’ll be found guilty.

Michael Gilbert

However, I was far more interested in whether the men would escape safely than in the solution of the murder mystery, in truth. I felt Gilbert’s portrayal avoided the pitfall of being overly dramatic to the point where it crossed the credibility line, but this still left him plenty of room to create genuine tension and suspense. In his introduction, Martin Edwards tells us that Gilbert himself was a prisoner in Italy during the war and had personal experience of both failed and successful escape attempts, which no doubt is why the story feels so authentic. As the Allies draw ever nearer, the book takes on aspects of the action thriller and I found myself reading into the small hours, desperate to know how it would turn out.

This is so unlike the only other Gilbert I’ve read, Smallbone Deceased, but both are equally excellent in entirely different ways. I’m so glad the British Library has brought these books back into print and I now can’t wait to read the third one they’ve republished so far – Death Has Deep Roots. You can count me as a new Michael Gilbert fan, and if you haven’t already guessed, this one is highly recommended.

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

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Critical Incidents (Robin Lyons 1) by Lucie Whitehouse

Strong start to a new series…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Robin Lyons has been dismissed from her job as detective inspector in the Met for disobeying orders and releasing a man her superior believed to have committed a murder because her instinct told her he was innocent. She intends to appeal the dismissal but in the meantime she has to find some other source of income to support herself and her teenage daughter, Lennie. So she’s on her way home to Birmingham, to live with her parents and to work for an old family friend, Maggie, another ex-police officer who now investigates insurance and benefit fraud, and occasionally other things. The first case Robin becomes involved in is the disappearance of a young woman whose frantic mother can’t get the local police to take the matter seriously. But then a crime much closer to home occurs, when Robin’s best friend Corinna is killed and her husband Josh goes missing. Robin can’t help wondering if it’s related to what happened ‘that day’ many years ago, so finds herself doing a bit of investigation into Corinna’s death too.

This book contains some of the features that have made me increasingly unenthusiastic about contemporary crime fiction in the last few years. There’s the ubiquitous ‘that day’ feature, when the crime involves something from the past coming back to haunt the present, but the reader isn’t told what actually happened in the past until the story is almost over, in a bid to create false suspense. There’s the utterly tedious casual swearing which serves no purpose. (It made me laugh that in fact at one point Robin, who never knowingly uses an alternative where the f-word will do, is appalled by the casual swearing of the kids in the local high school and wonders why standards have fallen so badly – yeah, possibly because everything teenagers read or watch is full of swearing maybe? Just a thought…) There’s the personal involvement of the detective with the crime, meaning we have to hear an awful lot about Robin’s grief over the death of her friend – never entertaining to me. And the book is roughly a hundred pages too long for the story it contains, meaning there’s a lot of unnecessary filler in there.

However, there are a lot of good things about it too. The story is interesting and, despite being overlong, the pacing is good so that it didn’t drag through the mid-section. It’s very well written, both in terms of the descriptive writing and the believable dialogue. Third person, past tense – a big hurrah from me for that! I thought Whitehouse’s depiction of her Birmingham setting was excellent, giving a real feel for the physical city and for the culture of what is probably the most racially diverse city in Britain outside London, with a huge and long-established Asian community. Happily, Whitehouse shows that, while racism still rears its ugly head on occasion, the majority of the citizens rub along fine together enjoying the added richness of a mixed culture. I found it a convincing and positive portrayal.

The characterisation is a mix. There are too many minor characters to keep track of and they never come to life, so that whenever one was mentioned I had to pause to try to remember who they were and how they fitted into the story. However, the major characters are very well developed, especially Robin and her parents. Robin is hard to like, opinionated, somewhat selfish and convinced that she knows better than everyone else. This is the first in a series, though, and it’s reasonably clear Robin is on a learning curve – that her recent troubles are giving her a level of self-awareness she’s never had till now. The tension between her and her mother is particularly well done – two women who annoy each other as much as they love each other, but who now have a chance to build a better relationship… or a worse one.

Lucie Whitehouse

Overall, despite a few weaknesses, I enjoyed this and thought it was well above average. This one reads like a private eye novel, but the series is billed as a police procedural so I anticipate that future books will see Robin back in harness. First books in series are always tricky since so much introduction and backstory is necessary, but I felt Whitehouse handled those aspects very well, creating some characters I will be happy to meet again. Recommended – a series I look forward to following.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, 4th Estate at HarperCollins.

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Clouds of Witness (Lord Peter Wimsey 2) by Dorothy L Sayers

My last Wimsey…

😐 😐

The fiancé of Lady Mary Wimsey is found shot dead outside the Yorkshire shooting lodge her brother, the Duke of Denver, has taken for the season. The subsequent inquest finds that Cathcart’s death was murder, and points the finger firmly in the direction of the Duke. Lady Mary had found the Duke standing over the corpse of Captain Denis Cathcart as she had been on her way out of the house at 3 a.m., for reasons she refuses to specify. Added to this is the indisputable fact that the Duke and Cathcart had had a quarrel earlier in the evening, loud enough to be overheard by the various guests staying in the house. When his faithful batman Bunter shows him the report of the murder in the newspaper, Lord Peter Wimsey, brother of the Duke and Lady Mary, rushes to Yorkshire to save his brother from the gallows.

I’m not a fan of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories, but this is one of the books in my Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge to read the novels listed in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. Happily for me, it’s one of the earliest books in the series, the second, before the arrival on the scene of Ms Sayer’s tedious alter-ego, Harriet Vane, and Peter’s interminable courtship of her. Unhappily, the snobbery which infests her books is already present – cultural, intellectual, economic, geographic: you name it, she’s snobbish about it.

Still, at least at this early stage Sayers does concentrate more on the detection than on Lord Peter’s tiresome character, though there’s more than enough of that too. He’s the type of amateur detective to whom the dull police are delighted to hand over their cases, especially this one, since the main desire of the policeman in charge of the case is to languish after the lovely Lady Mary, whose exalted birth means she is far above the reach even of this cultured, well-educated gentlemanly plod.

Challenge details:
Book: 19
Subject Heading: The Great Detectives
Publication Year: 1926

I’m by no means alone in often mentioning the sexism that pervades early detective fiction, but it always stands out particularly for me when the author is female (which, ironically, is quite sexist of me, I suppose). I can’t help feeling that Dorothy L didn’t think much of her fellow women. Here we have a wife so dull she apparently deserves to be cheated on, a couple of mistresses, one out for sex, the other out for money, and a dippy aristocratic type dabbling with those outrageous socialists who threaten the moral fabric of Good Old England, with their uncouthness and revolutionary ideas (like preventing the rich from exploiting the poor). Fortunately, all socialists are, as we know, snivelling cowards, plus their table manners and dress sense are terrible, so she’ll surely be saved from her girly silliness and be “persuaded” to marry a pillar of the establishment and breed up new generations of true blue-blooded Englishmen, just as she should!

Dorothy L Sayers

Oh dear, my reverse snobbery is showing again – I do apologise! What I meant to say is that the book is quite entertaining in some respects, and some parts of it are well written and quite atmospheric, such as when Wimsey and Bunter find themselves lost on the moor in a fog. But the plotting is fundamentally silly and the solution is a major cop-out, and, in case you haven’t spotted it, I do find Lord Peter’s insufferable superiority… well… insufferable. Thankfully this is the only Wimsey novel on Martin Edwards’ list, so I shall be spared reading any more of them, and you will be spared reading any more reviews of them. Win-win!

PS If you’ve never read a Lord Peter Wimsey novel, in fairness I feel I should say my reaction is purely allergic. Many, many people love these books, and you really shouldn’t rely on my opinion of them.

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Blue Murder (Flaxborough Chronicles 10) by Colin Watson

Skulduggery behind the net curtains…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When a Sunday newspaper tantalises its readers with promises of a juicy story about a blue movie ostensibly made in a quiet, respectable English town, the residents of Flaxborough are horrified to see that the accompanying photograph is of their town’s main street. So when top muck-raking journalist Clive Grail and his team arrive in the town, they aren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. In fact, the mayor decides this would be a golden opportunity to use the antique duelling pistols he has just purchased, and issues a challenge to Grail. This may have been intended as a publicity stunt, but things take a more sinister turn when one of the characters dies…

I loved the Flaxborough Chronicles in my youth and have been enjoying reading some of them again as they’ve been published for Kindle by Farrago. However, the series wasn’t of the same standard across its whole length of twelve books – in the first couple, Watson was finding his feet, then there’s a glorious section of six or seven in the middle when he was on top form, before they fell away a little in the last few. Being book 10, this isn’t one of the best. My tendency is always to compare these lesser ones to the best of the series (Broomsticks over Flaxborough, for instance) but this is unfair. Compared to many other books of the same period, even Watson’s less good ones shine.

Part of the problem is that the humour of the earlier books comes from Watson allowing us to peek behind the net curtains of respectability of the middle-classes of the 1950s. By the end of the series, we’re in the ‘70s, and society had changed so much in the intervening years that that kind of show of respectability and class deference had pretty much disappeared, and I never felt Watson really got to grips with how to lampoon the late ‘60s and ‘70s in quite the same way. The delicious, wickedly salacious wit with which he mocks the shenanigans of the ultra-respectable burghers of the town in the ‘50s takes on an edge of crudity in the more liberal ‘70s, and the slang used by his younger characters in particular doesn’t ring wholly true.

Having said that, he still provides an entertaining story, full of characters who are deliberately caricatured and overdrawn. As the newspaper team begin to realise that the story they expected to get isn’t turning out quite the way they anticipated, they have to scramble to save their reputations and jobs, since the paper won’t be pleased if they don’t come up with the goods. Meantime, the townsfolk are split between those outraged at the idea of their town being linked with porn, and those who find it all quite titillating. Inspector Purbright must try to keep the peace by stopping the mayor from carrying through on his threat of a duel, and then must investigate the sudden death which takes everyone by surprise.

Colin Watson

The investigation element of this one is pretty poor. We see the story mainly from the perspective of the newspaper team, with Purbright and his team becoming heavily involved only at the end. Purbright seems to get at the truth too easily and the reader isn’t really shown the connecting links – we’re merely presented with the conclusion. It holds together and makes sense, and in retrospect there are some clues, but on the whole the solution comes out of the blue. Also, while Chubb and Love and the other police regulars show up, we spend very little time with them, and Miss Teatime fans will be sad to know she doesn’t appear in this one at all.

Overall, then, not one of the best but still entertaining enough to be well worth reading. Each of these books stands alone, but I wouldn’t recommend starting with this one. Existing fans will be more willing to make allowances for its comparative weaknesses than newcomers, I think. But the series as a whole is not to be missed! New readers might be better to start at the beginning with Coffin Scarcely Used.

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

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Cruel Acts (Maeve Kerrigan 8) by Jane Casey

A thriller, a chiller and a serial killer…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Leo Stone was convicted of killing two women and sentenced to life imprisonment. But now one of the jurors has revealed that the jury broke the rules and as a result his conviction is certain to be overturned when it comes before the Appeals Court. There will be a retrial, but Superintendent Godley wants to make certain that he’s convicted again, so Detective Sergeant Maeve Kerrigan and Detective Inspector Josh Derwent are assigned to reinvestigate the case and to find more evidence if they can. Maeve quickly discovers in the files that there was a third woman who may have been a victim of Stone’s too, but he was never charged with her murder for lack of evidence. Maeve’s sense of empathy for this victim makes her determined to find out the truth of what happened to her too. In the midst of the investigation, after Stone has been released, another woman goes missing…

Well, it’s been a long wait for this latest instalment in Jane Casey’s excellent Maeve Kerrigan series, but this is well worth waiting for. As always, it’s told in the first person (past tense) by Maeve, so that we get her often humorous take on the people around her, especially Derwent. Their relationship has settled into a rather more equal friendship now that Maeve is more experienced, but that doesn’t stop Derwent from lecturing her about her personal life, being over-protective, embarrassing her at every opportunity and generally winding her up. For all that, she knows there’s no-one she’d rather have beside her when things get dangerous.

The other regulars are back too. Una Burt, Maeve’s boss, still doesn’t much like her and the feeling is mutual. Liv appears a bit more in this one – another colleague and Maeve’s best friend. Godley is back, though he plays only a small role. Maeve still looks up to him, but in a more mature way than the hero-worship she felt for him in the early days. And the new girl on the team, Georgia, is back too, just as obnoxious, and just as jealous of Maeve’s success. Followers of the series are doubtless thinking, yes, but what about Maeve’s love life? Is Rob back? Or is there a new man on the scene? Or are Maeve and Josh…? You don’t really expect me to tell you though, do you? 😉

In general, I’m not wild about serial killer stories and helpless females being tortured and killed, but I was right to trust Casey to handle it with her usual sensitivity and good taste. Although women are killed, the reader is not put in the room with them as it’s happening – there’s nothing prurient or gratuitous in the writing; no lengthy descriptions of torture scenes designed to titillate. That doesn’t stop it from being heart-in-mouth thrilling and chilling at points, though. The prologue is wonderfully scary and the thriller ending is tense and dramatic, with several scenes dotted throughout that also had my anxiety levels rocketing.

When it turns out that Leo Stone has an alibi for the time of the latest disappearance, Maeve and Derwent have to consider whether he was innocent of the earlier murders or if there’s a copycat out there. I thoroughly enjoyed the plotting in this one. I didn’t work it out – I rarely do – but all the clues are there. I always think that Casey plots like a Golden Age author, giving the reader a fair chance to do a bit of armchair detecting, although in every other respect her stories and characters are entirely modern.

Jane Casey

I also love that Maeve tries hard to stay within the rules. While her personal life might be a bit complicated, she’s no angst-ridden maverick. The same goes for her colleagues, in fact – they’re probably the most realistic police team I can think of, and while there are petty jealousies and squabbles, they behave overall like the kind of professional force I’d like to think we actually have. The women are not always struggling to be taken seriously by sexist bosses, which delights me since I think it’s such an out-dated image in most of our public services now, and completely overused in crime fiction. Casey simply has men and women working together as a team as if… gasp… it’s normal! But she still allows room for a bit of banter and the occasional flirtation, and she doesn’t feel the need to make the women superheroes or the men weaklings.

While this could easily be read as a standalone, I do recommend reading this series in order to get the full nuances of all the various relationships within the team, and especially to understand Maeve and Josh’s complicated friendship. For existing fans, you’re in for a treat with this one – isn’t it great to have Maeve back? Highly recommended, and I sincerely hope Ms Casey is hard at work on the next one…

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

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Smallbone Deceased (Inspector Hazlerigg 4) by Michael Gilbert

A unique filing system…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Young Bob Horniman has taken over as partner in the law firm of Horniman, Birley and Craine, following the very recent death of his father, the senior partner, Abel Horniman. Abel was an organisational fanatic, so there’s a place for everything in the office, and everything is in its place. That’s the theory anyway, until one day Bob and his secretary are looking for papers relating to an estate of which his father was a trustee. On opening the relevant deed box, they find the papers are missing, and in their place is the rather decayed body of Marcus Smallbone, the other trustee. Enter Inspector Hazlerigg and his team…

Gilbert was a lawyer in real life, and he has a lot of fun here with the portrayal of a mid-rank law firm – successful enough, with a solid clientele of the rich and respectable, but not dealing in glamorous criminal law. Rather, these lawyers make a living out of wills, estates, trusts and property conveyancing. When it becomes clear that Smallbone has been deceased for several weeks, Hazlerigg’s first task is to determine who was working in the firm over the likely period. He spots a name he knows – Henry Bohun, a newly qualified lawyer who joined the firm on the day the body was discovered, meaning that he is almost certainly innocent. Hazlerigg knows something of the man, that’s he’s intelligent and resourceful with a good war record, so asks him to become a kind of “inside” man for the investigation. And, while we see a fair amount of Hazlerigg and his men, Bohun quickly becomes the main protagonist of the story.

The plot is interesting and reasonably fair-play, though I got nowhere near the solution. The format is rather different from the usual mystery novel, in that, while everyone who was working in the firm is a suspect, none of them are really given known motives. The hunt for the motive is played out alongside a lot of checking of alibis and so on to work out who would have had the opportunity to kill Smallbone. There’s also far less emphasis than usual on the detective interviewing the suspects – we often learn what suspects have said second-hand, through conversations between various policemen or Hazlerigg and Bohun. I must admit I found this all kept me at more of a distance from most of the characters than I prefer, though the young lawyers all come vividly and enjoyably to life.

Challenge details:
Book: 67
Subject Heading: The Justice Game
Publication Year: 1950

But the book has other delights which more than make up for this minor lack. As a new boy, Bohun is more involved with the lowly employees than the exalted partners, and the portrayal of the young, exclusively male, lawyers and the female secretaries is great. Sexism is of course rampant, as it was in offices back in those days, but here it’s treated as fun, with the young men flirting and the women either responding favourably or rejecting them brutally. We get to overhear the women’s view of the men amongst themselves, and also the men’s opinions of the women. It’s all done for humour, so there’s no meanness or nastiness about it, and it keeps the tone delightfully light-hearted for the most part. However, we also see power at play, and how easily employees can be bullied by their bosses with no real means of fighting back.

Meantime, Hazlerigg’s team are checking out other aspects of the case. We follow Sergeant Plumptree as he tries to sift through all the various alibis of the staff, and Mr Hoffman, an accountant, who is examining the trust of which Smallbone was a trustee, and also the wider financial affairs of the firm. Surprisingly, Gilbert manages to make these rather dry subjects highly entertaining. Poor Plumptree has a tough job pinning down the whereabouts of his suspects and we’re shown the plodding, painstaking and often frustrating nature of the work, but all done with an edge of humour. Hoffman is helped in his task by Bohun, that man of many talents, and between them they show how tiny discrepancies can give the clue that leads to the unravelling of the most tightly woven plot.

Michael Gilbert

This is my first Michael Gilbert, so I don’t know how usual it is for Hazlerigg to take a rather muted role in the investigation, but I really didn’t feel as if I got to know him much at all. However I enjoyed Bohun as a kind of amateur sidekick to the police, and found the office flirtations and rivalries highly entertaining. The whole thing is very well written, with that lightness of tone despite dark deeds that I find so characteristic and appealing about Golden Age crime – this was published in 1950, so a little later than true Golden Age, but it feels as if it fits square in that category nonetheless. The British Library has republished three of Gilbert’s books this year, and I’m very much looking forward to reading the other two. Highly recommended.

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

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