The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

“Hell is empty!”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Clare Cassidy is writing a biography of the writer RM Holland, who was best known for his terrifying ghost story, The Stranger. So she’s happy to be teaching at Talgarth Academy, a school in Sussex which was once Holland’s home and where his study is still intact, giving Clare access to his papers. Clare uses The Stranger as part of her lessons, both for her school pupils and for the adults who attend her creative writing classes in school holidays. But when one of her colleagues is brutally murdered, Clare is shocked to learn that a piece of paper was found by her body containing a line from Holland’s story. And soon, as the plot thickens, it becomes clear that somehow the story holds the clue to the case…

Elly Griffiths is brilliant, and so is this! I’m tempted to leave the review at that, since the real joy of the book is going into it completely cold and watching Griffiths gradually build up some great characterisations and a truly spooky atmosphere. So, if you’re going to read it soon, my advice would be to stop reading this and avoid other reviews just in case.

* * * * *

Still here? OK, then! The book is told to us from three points of view – Clare, her daughter Georgie, and DS Harbinder Kaur, the detective in charge of the case. I found each of them a little off-putting at first for different reasons, but as Griffiths gradually developed them more fully, I grew to like them all – though not necessarily to trust them! In fact, as the saying goes, I trusted no-one – Griffiths left me happily in doubt all the way through as to everyone’s guilt, innocence, reliability as narrators, motives.

The pleasure of this one is not so much the destination as the journey. The three voices are distinct, and each is fun in her own way. Through Clare we learn a lot about the background to RM Holland’s story and the rumours that the school is haunted by the ghost of his wife. We also learn about her friendship with Ella, the victim, often through extracts from Clare’s diary. Georgie is a bright, intelligent teenager and her narrative shows her manipulating the adults around her by playing on their expectations of what a teenager should be like. Harbinder gradually becomes the star, however. Indian, gay and still living at home with her parents in her thirties, her sections are increasingly full of humour as the reader realises that her abrasiveness and sarcasm are really a kind of defence mechanism.

I loved the way Griffiths gradually fed us the story of The Stranger, which in itself is a pretty good pastiche of a real Victorian ghost story. But the spookiness doesn’t stop with it – the main story has some seriously goose-pimply moments, and at least two where I gasped out loud! Lovely Gothic stuff, with the old house and all the diary-writing and mysterious messages and other things I’ll leave you to discover for yourself. Even the investigation has a rather old-fashioned feel to it, with the emphasis on suspects, motives and clues rather than on forensics.

Elly Griffiths
Photo: Jerry Bauer

A great read, especially for this time of year. Griffiths is undoubtedly one of the most talented (and prolific) writers out there at the moment, and she shows here that she can step beyond the usual police procedural. I’ve seen a few reviewers say they hope Harbinder will get a series of her own. Much though I enjoyed her character, I vote no! I’m hoping Griffiths will continue to break free from the predictability of series and give us more standalones, complete in themselves, instead. Highly recommended!

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

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Maigret’s Revolver (Maigret 40) by Georges Simenon

Drinking like a fish out of water…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Madame Maigret is upset when a young man who had called to see Inspector Maigret steals the revolver Maigret had been given as a keepsake by the American police. Mme Maigret had taken a liking to the youth and is fearful that he may intend to take his own life. Maigret fears the gun may be used for different, more criminal purposes. Either way, he feels it necessary to try to track the young man down. But first he’ll have to find out who the boy is…

This is an enjoyable entry in the long-running Maigret series. The plot is rather light, though it does eventually involve a corpse in a trunk, but the characterisation is particularly strong, I felt. We see Maigret interacting with his wife more than in some of the others I’ve read, getting a good impression of how strong their marriage is, even if Maigret isn’t the most demonstrative of husbands. We also see them in the company of friends and this gives a more rounded picture of him as someone who has a life outside work. There is a femme fatale-ish female character, with the associated sexism of the day in the descriptions of her (and any other female character who happens along). There’s a rather pathetic character, who might be bad or might be mad or might just be terrified – I’m saying no more for fear of spoilers – but I thought he was very well depicted, and also gave an opportunity for Maigret to show his humanity.

What really made this one stand out for me, though, is that the story takes Maigret to London. Though he stays mostly in one location in the city, I thought Simenon did a good job of contrasting London and Londoners with Paris and Parisians, all with a touch of humour that lightened the tone and let us see Maigret feeling suddenly less secure in an environment of which he wasn’t as much the master as usual. He’s horrified by the strict licensing laws which prevent him from getting a drink in the mornings or afternoons, but happily this doesn’t stop him from putting away enough to sink a ship in the course of the day or so that he spends there.

When he finally does find the youth and the reason behind the theft of the gun, we again see the mix in his character of equal drives towards justice and sympathy – he is not prepared to overlook crimes but he is willing to listen to and understand the reasons, and to do what he can to help those he considers worth helping. But for those whom he considers truly wicked, then he has the patience to spin a spider-like web and wait for them to trap themselves.

Georges Simenon

Good fun. I’ve been reading these randomly – they work perfectly as standalones – and have only read a few to date. Although this isn’t the most exciting plot, I think it’s the one I’ve enjoyed most so far because I got a real feel for Maigret’s character, more than in my other choices, and as a result found I liked him more as a person.

I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Gareth Armstrong, who again does a fine job. He’s very good at giving different voices to each character, each with an accent suited to their class and position, and avoids the temptation to go overboard, especially with the female characters. Overall, an enjoyable book enjoyably narrated.

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A Voice Like Velvet by Donald Henderson

Whatever happened to cat-burglars?

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Ernest Bisham is a radio announcer, with the velvet voice of the title making him beloved by the many listeners who, back in 1944, get all their news from the BBC. His picture regularly appearing in the Radio Times (the BBC’s listings magazine) means that he is also recognised by the Great British Public wherever he goes. Which makes his second career as a cat-burglar even more risky! We follow along as he takes ever greater risks and comes ever closer to having his identity uncovered…

This is a crime novel in the sense that Bisham is a criminal, but there’s no mystery to solve and, although there are some tense episodes, it doesn’t sit comfortably in the thriller category either. According to the informative introduction by Martin Edwards, Henderson’s original publishers put it out as “a novel” under the name The Announcer, and it failed to attract much of an audience. It was his American publishers who changed the title and marketed it as crime fiction, cashing in on the success of Henderson’s earlier crime novel, Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper (note to self: acquire!). I understand where both sets of publishers were coming from because, despite the obvious crime element, this is really much more of a character study of Bisham, and a rather humorous look at the oddities of life in the BBC at the time when it was Britain’s sole broadcaster and still finding its feet in a rapidly changing world. But it’s undoubtedly Bisham’s cat-burgling that gives the book its major elements of fun and suspense.

In general, I’ve never been much of a fan of the gentleman thief or indeed of books where the criminal is the hero. But I make an exception for Bisham – he’s an extraordinarily likeable chap and I enjoyed his company very much. He steals for the excitement rather than for monetary gain and has strict rules about only taking from those who can afford the loss and making sure he doesn’t take things of great sentimental value. He’s a bit like one of those birds who steal shiny things just to jazz up their nest a bit. The risk is everything and one gets the impression that for a long time he’s felt his life was so empty he wasn’t risking much.

But recently he has married again – a rather placid middle-aged marriage between two people each of whom were burned in their disastrous first marriages and are somewhat cautious about love as a result. A large part of the story is about this new marriage and whether he and Marjorie, his wife, will grow together or apart as they get to know each other better. It’s beautifully done, I must say – I was rooting for both of them all the way, even while I was laughing indulgently at their inner thoughts. And this marriage is making Ernest rethink his criminal activities, realising that now he wouldn’t be the only one who suffered if he is caught. But he finds it very hard to fight the temptation to do just one more job… or maybe two… and meantime the police are patiently waiting for the man whom the newspapers call the Man In The Mask to make a mistake…

I found this thoroughly enjoyable – one of those books you read with a smile on your face. It’s not at all certain how it will end, so that there is a steady build-up of tension especially once the police become involved. By that stage I was fully on Ernest’s side, and even more so on Marjorie’s – but I was kinda also on the side of the police, because basically I’m a law-abiding sort and the police detective was a nice chap too! Would Henderson be able to get me out of the moral dilemma he’d created for me? Well, you’ll have to read it to find out…

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

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Tombland by CJ Sansom

An England ripe for rebellion…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s the summer of 1549, and young King Edward VI is on the throne following the death of Henry VIII two years earlier. Since Edward is still a child, the guardians appointed by Henry have in turn appointed a Protector to rule in his stead, his uncle Edward Seymour. There is great poverty in the towns and cities while, in the farming lands of the north and west, landlords are enclosing common land for their own sheep, fermenting unrest amongst the smallholders and tenant farmers who relied on that land to eke out their own precarious living. Throw in the usual religious turmoil – the new Book of Common Prayer has just been foisted on a population tired of constant change and with newly developed religious opinions of their own – and an unpopular and unwinnable war against those pesky Scots, and the time is ripe for rebellion. It’s at this moment that Shardlake is summoned by his new patron, Princess Elizabeth, to investigate a murder of which one of her distant Boleyn relatives stands accused. And so he must head for Norwich, a city that will soon be at the heart of the East Anglian rebellion, led by the charismatic Robert Kett…

Generally speaking, when I see that a book has 800 pages I groan and run in the opposite direction. But with Sansom, I sigh and wish it was a few hundred pages longer. His ability to create an entirely immersive and believable Tudor world is second to none, partly because his own background as a historian means that the history is accurate. Sure, he manipulates it a little for literary purposes and he uses his imagination to fill in historical blanks, but he never strays far from actual events; and his characters are equally well and credibly depicted, whether they are real or fictional. Matthew Shardlake, as fans know, is a decent man with real empathy for the poor and disadvantaged, so it’s no surprise that this is a sympathetic portrayal of Kett’s Rebellion, showing him and his followers in a light that may be a little more idealistic than was really likely. But I bow to Sansom’s greater knowledge – maybe they did behave as well as he suggests – and I bow even more deeply to his skill in story-telling, because I was happy to buy into the idea of Kett as a principled leader and his followers as mostly disciplined and fair-minded men and women.

The bulk of the book is spent with the rebels, as Shardlake and his young assistant Nicholas get caught up in events. Nicholas is a son of a landowner, so has a different opinion from Shardlake initially, although his viewpoint is shaken as he is forced to witness some of the cruelties the poor are forced to suffer at the hands of the ruling class. Sansom uses him, though, to give the other side – to make the case for the landowners. Jack Barak is back, too, coping well after the events of the previous book. Being from lower stock himself, he is naturally drawn to the rebels, so with all three of the companions standing at different heights on the social ladder, it’s unclear whether their friendship will be enough to hold them together when the fighting begins.

Robert Kett at the Oak of Reformation
by Samuel Wale (c.1746)

The murder plot is how the book begins and ends, and it rumbles on as a background to the rebellion plot in the lengthy mid-section, but Sansom never allows it to be lost sight of entirely. John Boleyn, a landowner and distant cousin of Anne Boleyn, stands accused of murdering his first wife, Edith. Edith had left him and disappeared some years earlier, and he had eventually had her declared dead and married again. But now Edith’s newly murdered body has been found, displayed in a sordid fashion near John’s estate. Shardlake must find out where she’s been for the last nine years, and who, other than John and his second wife, might have wanted her dead.

The personal lives of the recurring characters are brought up to date, too. Jack’s relationship with his wife Tamasin is rocky, partly because she’s never forgiven Shardlake for the events in the last book (avoiding spoilers, apologies for vagueness). Young Nicholas is of an age to consider marrying and Matthew is concerned that he seems to have set his heart on a woman Matthew thinks is shallow and unworthy of him. Guy is old now and ill, and Matthew fears he may soon lose the man he considers his closest friend. And Matthew himself is feeling rather lonely. The old Queen, Catherine Parr, is dead and Matthew misses her more than a commoner should miss a queen. But he also misses his old servants, many of whom he had taken in as waifs and strays, and who have now grown up and left for lives of their own. So one of the things he wants to do in Norwich is look up his old maidservant Josephine, now married and living in the city. The last time she wrote to him, she was expecting her first child and he’s worried that it’s been some months and he’s heard no more.

CJ Sansom

This is another completely satisfying addition to the series, confirming again my belief that Sansom is the best historical fiction writer certainly today and perhaps ever. He tells his story in a straightforward linear way, without stylistic quirks or “creative” writing, relying instead on creating a great historical setting founded on in-depth research, a strong plot, and a group of brilliantly depicted characters who have all the complexity of real, flawed humanity. Shardlake himself continues to be one of the most appealing characters in fiction – irascible, often lonely, occasionally a little self-pitying, but intelligent, determined, dedicated, charitable and wholeheartedly loyal to those he takes into his generous heart. If I ever stand accused of murder, I hope I have a Shardlake to depend on. A great book in a brilliant series – my highest recommendation!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mantle, an imprint of Pan MacMillan.

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The Murder at the Vicarage (Miss Marple) by Agatha Christie

Enter Miss Marple…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Colonel Protheroe is one of those men nobody likes, so when he’s shot dead in the vicar’s study the list of suspects is long. He’s a bullying husband to his second wife, Anne, an overbearing father to Lettice, his daughter, a tough magistrate meting out harsh judgement to the criminal classes of St Mary Mead, antagonistic to anyone whose morals he deems to be lax, and an exacting churchwarden, always on the look out for wrongdoing amongst the church officials and congregation. In fact, it was just earlier that very day that the vicar had remarked that anyone who murdered the colonel would be doing the world a favour!

The police are suitably baffled, but fortunately there’s an old lady in the village, with an observant eye, an ear for gossip, an astute mind and an unerring instinct for recognising evil… Miss Marple! Relying on her lifetime’s store of village parallels, she will sniff out the real guilty party while the police are still chasing wild geese all over the village green…

The narrator in the book is the vicar, Leonard Clement, and he and his younger and rather irreverent wife, Griselda, give the book much of its humour and warmth. It’s Miss Marple’s first appearance and she’s more dithery and less prone to Delphic pronouncements than she becomes in some of the later novels. This is her as I always picture her (I suspect it may have been the first one I read) and is the main reason I never think the actresses who play her do so with quite enough of a fluttery old woman feel to the character. Here, she’s a village gossip who watches the ongoings in the village through her binoculars under the pretence of being an avid bird-watcher, and the Clements joke about her as a nosy busy-body, always prying into the lives of her neighbours. As the book goes on, Leonard finds himself investigating alongside her, and gradually gains an appreciation of the intelligence and strength of character underneath this outward appearance, as does the reader.

Challenge details:
Book: 24
Subject Heading: The Great Detectives
Publication Year: 1930

The plot is very good, with as much emphasis on alibis and timings as on motives. Because Colonel Protheroe was such an unpleasant man, the reader (like the characters) doesn’t have to waste much time grieving for him. The suspects range from the sympathetic to the mysterious, from the wicked to the pitiable, as Christie gradually feeds their motives out to us. She shows the village as a place where no secret can be kept for long from the little army of elderly ladies who fill their lives excitedly gossiping about their neighbours. But while some of them are always getting the wrong end of the stick and spreading false stories, Miss Marple has the insight to see through to the truth. In his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, Martin Edwards has placed this novel in his The Great Detectives section, and Miss Marple rightly deserves to be there. But he could as easily have put it in his Serpents in Eden category, for its classic portrayal of hidden wickedness beneath the idyllic surface of an English village.

Agatha Christie

Inspector Slack also makes his first appearance in this book – a dedicated officer, but one who is always jumping to hasty conclusions. He never stops to listen to people properly, and is brash and a bit bullying, and oh, so dismissive of our elderly heroine! A mistake, as he will discover when she reveals all towards the end!

I love this book and have read it about a million times. So it was a real pleasure to listen to the incomparable Joan Hickson’s narration of it this time – I find listening to Christie on audiobook brings back a feeling of freshness even to the ones I know more or less off by heart. Hickson gets the warmth and humour of the books, and gives each character a subtly distinctive voice, though never letting the acting get in the way of the narration. She does the working-class people particularly well, managing to avoid the slight feeling of caricaturing that can come through to modern readers in the books.

Great stuff!

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Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

Orange sorbet…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Frances Jellicoe is happy when she is offered a job to survey the gardens of a decayed country house, Lyntons, for the new absentee American owner. Frances’ mother has recently died after years of ill-health, and for the first time in her adulthood Frances is free to make her own life. Leaving London and the flat she and her mother shared gives her a sense of liberty. When she arrives at Lyntons, she finds she won’t be alone. Peter has also been hired, to survey the architectural state of the house, and is there with his beautiful but mercurial wife, Cara. To Frances’ surprise, they befriend her and soon she finds herself caught up in their volatile relationship. As time passes, secrets from the past will be revealed that will impact on the events of that summer, the summer of 1969…

The first half of this book crawls along at a snail’s pace and I nearly abandoned it at the halfway mark. Looking at other reviews suggested, however, that it picks up in the second half, so I stuck with it, and indeed, it did hold my attention more as it went on. But, here I am, a few days later, struggling to think of anything to say about it. It’s one of those books that I neither loved nor hated, that filled a few hours in a reasonably entertaining way (in the second half), and that now, some three days after finishing, I can barely remember anything about.

It’s well written, especially the descriptions of the dilapidated old house, once home to a wealthy family and later requisitioned by the army to accommodate soldiers during WW2. The blurb tells us that Frances spies on Peter and Cara through a Judas hole in her bathroom, though in reality this forms only a tiny, insignificant part of the story. Mostly, she observes them directly, as they rather surprisingly choose to include her in all their activities. There’s also a totally unsuccessful attempt to introduce some ghostliness into the proceedings – this goes nowhere and adds nothing.

The three characters failed to convince me at all, though it’s enjoyable enough to read about them. Peter, a sensible, hard-headed type, seems entirely unsuited to the fanciful, fey Cara, and neither of them seem as if they would be interested in a dull middle-aged woman like Frances. Of course, Frances is an unreliable narrator (is there any other kind these days?) so who knows how much of what she tells us really happens? Not me, for one. There’s also what feels like some attempt to introduce a quasi-religious aspect to the story, which fell flat on its face as far as I was concerned.

Claire Fuller

Was I surprised by the big reveal? Not really. Did I care? Not really.

You know, I started out intending to rate this as four stars because, despite my unrelenting negativity about it, I did find it mostly entertaining once I got past that interminable first half. But I’ve realised while drafting the review that I can’t think of much positive to say about it, except that the writing was good enough to carry me through a rather pointless, unrealistic and ultimately forgettable plot. So a sorbet – enjoyable but not satisfying. Would I recommend it? Not really.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Fig Tree.

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The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson

The best Gentlemen’s Club in England…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

It’s the early 1930s. Britain’s finances haven’t yet recovered from the Great War and now the Stock Market collapse has brought matters close to crisis. So the Home Secretary has invited an American financier to a private dinner at the House of Commons to schmooze him into agreeing to make the government a substantial loan. But when the Division Bell sounds, the Home Secretary has to leave the room to go and vote. The Home Secretary’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, young Robert West, is also hurrying along the corridor to vote, but as he passes the room where the financier waits alone, he hears a shot. Rushing in with the other people in the corridor, he finds the financier dead! But no-one else is in the room, no-one left by the door after the shot was fired and there’s no other exit. Suicide is soon discounted, so how was he killed? Who killed him? And why? Robert finds himself working as a liaison with the police to find the answers…

This is a lot of fun, especially if, like me, you’re fascinated by all the quirky traditions that surround parliamentary procedures in this ancient seat of government. It was written by Ellen Wilkinson, one of the earliest women Members of Parliament, who had temporarily lost her seat. She got back into Parliament at the next election – a gain for politics, but a loss to the world of crime fiction, since this turned out to be the only crime novel she wrote. She gives an entirely authentic, affectionate, but humorously sardonic look at being a working-class woman in an institution still often referred to as the best Gentlemen’s Club in England. The female MP in the story, Grace Richards, isn’t the main character but she provides lots of opportunities for Wilkinson to mock some of the rampant sexism to which women MPs were subjected, and Martin Edwards confirms in his introduction what I suspected while reading – that Grace is a thinly-disguised version of Wilkinson herself.

The main character, however, is Robert West, an extremely likeable young man who wants to do his duty to his party and country, but is fairly easily distracted by a beautiful face. The granddaughter of the dead financier just happens to have a beautiful face, so Robert soon finds his loyalties divided when she asks him for information he should really be keeping secret. The first question the police have to resolve is: was this murder personal or was it politically motivated? But even if they find the answer to that they still won’t be able to prove anything unless they can work out how the murder was done. It’s a good example of a locked room mystery, though it’s dependent on the various investigators not trying very hard to solve it until the last chapter! The plot is pleasingly tricky without being impossible for the reader to make a good stab at guessing the culprit and motive.

Challenge details:
Book: 89
Subject Heading: Singletons
Publication Year: 1932

The two enjoyable characters of Robert and Grace make this fun to read, especially since the victim was a mean old banker so nobody much cares that he’s dead. Even his granddaughter is pretty stoical about the whole thing. One of the reasons I love Golden Age crime is that they tended not to make the reader wallow too deeply in grief for the victims, so that one can actually enjoy the books. What makes this one stand out from the crowd, though, is the way Wilkinson manages to tell us so much about the workings of Parliament without getting heavily bogged down in politics, though she does make enough references to give the reader an informed glimpse of the various concerns of the day, economically and socially, at a time when society was changing pretty dramatically, not least for women. I found it intriguing and amusing that, although she herself was a Labour MP (hence on the left), Robert is a Conservative (on the right). She rather cheekily lets us see his opinions being swayed by fiery young socialist Grace – whose face, while not as beautiful as the victim’s granddaughter’s, is beautiful enough to trouble the susceptible Robert…

Ellen Wilkinson

I thoroughly enjoyed this and recommend it not just as a good mystery, but as an entertaining way to get an insider’s account of the life of early women MPs. Wilkinson went on to play a prominent role in the Jarrow March – a piece of history that eventually fed into huge social change in Britain – so most of me is glad she resumed her political career. But a bit of me wishes she’d chucked it all up and written more books instead…

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

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An April Shroud (Dalziel and Pascoe 4) by Reginald Hill

In which Dalziel becomes human…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Following newly-minted-Inspector Peter Pascoe’s wedding to Ellie Soper, Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel sets off on a little holiday. His plan is to drive around the countryside hoping to find enough of interest to keep him occupied, but in reality he’s feeling a little lost and even lonely. Peter’s wedding has brought home to him his own lack of family, and he’s reached as high as he’s likely to go in his career. But his plans are put on hold when April showers turn into a veritable flood and his car becomes waterlogged. Rescued by a family returning from a funeral, he goes with them to their home, Lake House, to dry off and phone a garage. But the combination of an intriguing death in the family and the friendly charms of the remarkably cheerful widow persuade him to prolong his visit…

One of the things that always kept this series fresh was that Hill regularly changed the focus among the various characters. In this one, Andy gets his first solo outing. Peter makes token appearances at the beginning and end but plays no real part in the story. This gives Hill the chance to let the reader get to know Andy from the inside – prior to this we’d really always seen him through someone else’s eyes, usually Peter’s.

Although I grew very fond of all the major characters – Pascoe, Ellie, Wieldy, Novello – Dalziel was always the one I enjoyed most. He’s such an intriguing mix of brash, uncouth Yorkshireman – a big, loud, crude, bullying brute of a man – and well-hidden sensitivity: a man who might use blatantly offensive homophobic terms, but will defend his gay colleagues at a time when that was highly unusual; who can be hideously sexist in the language he uses to women, but who respects their intelligence and strength far more than many of his politically correct colleagues; who is no respecter of class, but who uses his own mostly artificial veneer of uncultured boorishness as a blunt weapon to dominate any company he’s in, from the rugby club to the manor house.

This is the book where we really begin to see him as more than a caricature. As he finds himself drawn towards the widow, Bonnie, he gets sucked into a moral quagmire largely of his own making. The police have investigated the death of Conrad Fielding and have reluctantly concluded it was an accident, despite the fact that the insurance claim on his death will come in very handy for the rest of the household. Lake House is costly to live in and too run-down to let, so the family have come up with a scheme to convert part of it into a mock-Medieval Banqueting Hall. But funding has run out and bankruptcy looms unless the insurance money comes through in time for them to finish the work on the place before the scheduled opening in a couple of weeks’ time. As Andy gets to know the family better, he has to decide whether to share what he learns about them with the local police or keep his suspicions to himself. It’s not as if he knows anything for sure…

Reginald Hill

Hill also has fun with the characters in the house, from the elderly poet Hereward, about to be given an award he feels he should have been given years ago when young enough to enjoy it, to the budding film-maker who augments his income by taking the kind of girlie photos that show up in the less respectable kind of magazine, to the Woosterish young man who wants nothing more than to punt on the lake, shooting ducks. The widow herself is a typically wonderful Hill woman – strong, intelligent, generous, quite possibly wicked, definitely ambiguous. A Yorkshire femme fatale. Is she attracted to Andy for his innate charm and manly physique? Even Andy is doubtful about that. Or is she using him as protection from the interest of the local police?

The mystery itself becomes more complicated when more bodies begin to show up in unexpected places. Accidents? Murders? Connected or coincidental? Andy will eventually work it all out, but then he’ll still have to decide what to do about it. And meantime, the inaugural Medieval Banquet grows ever closer…

Lots of humour as always, but in this one Hill gives us the first real indication of how the series will develop in terms of depth of characterisation and the complicated relationship between our two main players, Dalziel and Pascoe. And in this one, for the first time, we begin to see that Andy is human too, with all the vulnerabilities and sensitivities he so successfully hides from the world. As always, highly recommended – the best detective series of all time!

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Broomsticks Over Flaxborough (Flaxborough Chronicles 7) by Colin Watson

Devilishly good…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Flaxborough Citizen tells the worthy people of the town that the Folklore Society’s revel to celebrate Roodmas was well attended. It sounds like it was a fun do, with a discussion of old traditions round a bonfire, followed by refreshments and dancing. But sometimes newspapers don’t tell the whole story…

Naked as on the day she was born, save for a double-looped string of amber beads and a pair of harlequin-framed spectacles, Mrs Flora Pentatuke, of 33 Partney Avenue, Flaxborough, leaped nimbly over the embers of the fire.

The next day, it is discovered one of the revellers, a promiscuous young lady by the name of Edna Hillyard, has gone missing, leaving only her car and her neatly folded clothes behind her. Inspector Purbright is at first inclined to think that she’s simply gone off for a bit of jiggery-pokery, but when the newspapers begin to print lurid reports that black magic and witchcraft have turned respectable little Flax into the Town of Fear, he realises he’ll have to take it all a bit more seriously. Especially when some of the town’s prominent citizens become the targets of witchly curses…

Of all twelve of the Flaxborough Chronicles, this is the one I love best. I think Watson peaked here, finding the perfect story with which to lampoon all his favourite targets at once. As always, he pulls aside the net curtains of respectability to let us glimpse the salacious shenanigans going on behind them. But his humour on the subject of sex is of the saucy seaside postcard variety – more “Ooh, you are awful!” than Fifty Shades of Grey. Class is as prevalent in Watson’s books as it is in British society, and he has a delicious lack of reverence for the town’s worthies as, indeed, does Inspector Purbright. It’s a joy to see him manipulating his Chief Constable, Mr Chubb – a man who finds it hard to accept that his social equals could possibly be up to any kind of skulduggery.

….Pook nodded at Miss Parkin’s sapience and looked again at the Citizen report while he drank some coffee and demolished the rest of the KreemiKrunch.
….“What’s a faggot-master?” he inquired.
….Mrs Gloss frowned. “If you must know, we generally have a little bonfire to brighten up our outdoor meetings, and Mr Cowdrey looks after it. He has had experience with the Scouts.”
….“I know,” Pook said, without looking up from the paper. He somehow made the acknowledgement sound like a notice of impending prosecution.

What makes this one stand out even more is the inclusion of the Lucillite campaign, complete with the Lucies – a group of girls going door-to-door as part of the drive to persuade the ladies of the houses to change their laundry detergent. First published in 1972, Watson ruthlessly lampoons the advertising campaigns of the day to persuade women that all their troubles could be solved by changing to a new brand of soap powder, thus enabling them to achieve an idyllic marriage by ensuring their husbands’ shirts are whiter than white. At the same time, he mercilessly mocks the kind of marketing lingo that was coming into vogue then (and still exists in some of our sadder companies – I speak from bitter experience!).

….“An ad-clens revolution. A turn round of the whole concept. Everything up to now has been slanted on women wanting to please men. But do they?”
….“Exactly. Do they? We’ve been hammering away for years on this whiteness thing. And why? Because Motivational Research said whiteness represented lost virginity.”
….“Every washday the woman got her hymen back so she could offer it again to her mate. Sure, sure. You remember the Vurj campaign, Richard? Always a shot of washwife handing the Vurj pack to man in white hubbyshirt.”
….“God! How off-beam can one get? Listen, this is how I see it, Gordon. Copulation equals children equals drudgegrudge. Right?”
….“Right.”

All the regulars are here – Purbright and Chubb, Sergeant Love of the innocent face and rather less innocent mind, and Miss Teatime, up to her delicately feminine armpits in Psychical Research. Oh, and I nearly forgot to mention, the plot’s excellent too. If I haven’t persuaded you to read any of the other books, I’ll take one last stab at letting Mr Watson persuade you to read this one…

….“Well,” said Gordon, “you’ve heard about industrial sabotage. Right?” He pointed at the prints, opened his mouth, shut it again, and began walking rapidly up and down. He stopped and pointed once more at the prints. “Right?”
….“The lady with the very odd eyes,” Miss Teatime began.
….“Agent,” snapped Gordon. “From P and Q probably. Or C and H. KGB even.”
….Miss Teatime looked shocked. “The Russians?”
….“Kleen-Gear Biological. Do I have to spell it out for you?”

Fabulous!

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

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Broken Ground (Karen Pirie 5) by Val McDermid

Peat bogs are dangerous places…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

DCI Karen Pirie of Police Scotland’s Historic Cases Unit is in the middle of re-investigating a series of rapes when she is diverted to a crime scene in the Highlands. A woman and her husband are on a kind of treasure hunt, looking for something that the woman’s grandfather buried in a peat bog long ago. They find the spot, but when they dig down into the peat, they are shocked to discover not only the looted items but the body of a man, almost perfectly preserved. The body only dates back to the 1990s, though, so Karen must unravel the mystery of who killed the man and why. And Karen also finds herself involved almost by accident in the investigation of another crime, one that she hoped she’d prevented. Meantime her new boss has given her an extra team member, a thing Karen would be grateful for if only she felt there wasn’t an ulterior motive behind it…

I’m thoroughly enjoying the Karen Pirie books and this is another excellent addition to the series. Now that a national police force has taken the place of the old regional forces in Scotland in real life, it gives fiction writers the ability to have their detectives travel all over the country, and McDermid is as comfortable writing about the Highlands as she is her hometown of Edinburgh. I’m biased, I know, but I love that McDermid has set this series back in Scotland after too long away. She gives an amazingly good sense of place and a wholly authentic feel to contemporary Scottish life. Forget the unrealistic gun-totin’ gang wars of so much “Tartan Noir” or the tartan twee of the cosier side of Scottish crime fiction (usually written by nostalgic Canadians or Americans). This is modern Scotland: warts and all, for sure, but also with a vibrant, well educated population and a professional police force where dysfunctional drunken mavericks wouldn’t be tolerated.

This falls very much under the category of police procedural rather than mystery or thriller. Karen and her team identify their suspect fairly early on and most of the book is about how they go about finding the evidence to make a case that would stand up in court. It’s an intriguing and realistic look at how policing is done, but could perhaps be a little dull in the wrong hands. McDermid, however, spices the whole thing up by having the HCU working on other cases alongside the main one, by throwing in some office politics, and by having some great characterisation of Karen herself, her young sidekick Jason, her friends and colleagues, not to mention the suspects and witnesses they deal with along the way. Karen is well into recovery from her grief now (deliberately vague, in case people haven’t read the earlier books) and McDermid has handled that whole storyline superbly, I feel – never letting it be forgotten or glossed over, but not making either Karen or the reader wallow endlessly.

Downsides – there’s some swearing, though less than in most Scottish crime fiction, and bits of it, especially relating to the office politics, triggered my over-sensitive credibility monitor. Also, one of the problems of living in such a small country is that all our successful people tend to know each other, and it was very obvious throughout that McDermid thinks of our First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, as a friend. There’s a little too much rather sycophantic praise of her and the Scottish Government in general for my taste – most of us, like the people in most democracies, have a rather higher level of healthy scepticism when it comes to our leaders.

Val McDermid

But these were minor issues that didn’t spoil my absorption in the story. I loved wandering the streets of Edinburgh with Karen, travelling north with her, meeting up with her friends again, and seeing how Jason is maturing and growing in confidence in each book. I enjoyed Karen’s visit to Glasgow and McDermid’s tongue-in-cheek nods to the old rivalry between the citizens of Scotland’s two biggest cities. The pacing is excellent so that, although it’s a longish read, I never found it dragging. The main storyline of the murder is intriguing, with parts of it going back to the war, though most of the book is firmly set in the present day. I even learned a small piece of Scotland’s history I didn’t know before. Third person, past tense, of course, as all the best books are.

It would work fine as a standalone. I have read a couple of these out of order and actually missed one or two of the earlier ones, but I haven’t felt that’s left me struggling in any way. In short, highly recommended – I hope McDermid sticks with this series for a long time to come.

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

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The Poisoned Rock (Sullivan and Broderick 2) by Robert Daws

The evil that women do…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Tamara Sullivan is still on secondment to the Royal Gibraltar Police Force, and is as intrigued as everyone else that a top Hollywood star has come to the island to make a movie. The film is about a war-time spy, known as the Queen of Diamonds, although no-one is quite sure whether she existed or is a legend. However, the film has triggered a lot of interest in this old story, not all of it positive. Soon Sullivan and her boss, Chief Inspector Gus Broderick, find themselves investigating murder, but to understand the motive and find the culprit they will have to delve into the murky world of espionage on wartime Gibraltar, and the treacheries and betrayals that are still casting a dark shadow into the present…

This is the second in this series of police procedurals set on Gibraltar, and both Sullivan and Broderick already feel like well-established characters. The first, The Rock, was short – almost novella length – but this one is a full-length novel with a much more complex plot. I get a bit tired of Britain’s obsession with WW2 so had lowered my expectations a little, but I must admit Daws has found what feels to me like an original and credible way to make those long past days relevant to his plot. I soon turned my expectations back up, and settled in for a convoluted but never confusing ride through the shadowy world of agents and double agents, blackmail, intrigue and revenge.

The police procedural aspect is done very well. Daws shows the painstaking work of gathering information and evidence while never allowing it to bog the story down with too much detail. But the detectives get to the solution by proper police work rather than by unbelievable leaps of intuition or amazing coincidences. Sullivan and Broderick work well as a partnership, their confidence and trust in each other growing as they get to know each other better. We also see how they work within the wider team, and they try to stick within the rules as much as they can. Happily, the police are the goodies and the villains are the baddies – that shouldn’t feel refreshing, really, but it does! The whole thing leads up to a tense thriller ending, but one that stays well within the credibility lines.

The setting is great. Gibraltar is such an oddity – a little slice of leftover British Empire hanging onto the coast of Spain, and in this book, Daws show the tensions between the Spanish and Gibraltarian authorities over the contested peninsula. He also gives a good feeling for the Rock in wartime, used as a base of operations with most of the civilians evacuated and the place full of troops and spies, all plotting against each other. But it’s not one of the half-past/half-present stories that are so prevalent at the moment. This story takes place fully in the present with only brief snatches of the past, like flashbacks in a TV show.

Robert Daws

In fact, the whole thing reads very much like a blueprint for a TV show with short chapters taking us quickly between fast-moving scenes. Hardly surprising, given Daws’ background as a TV actor and writer, and I believe the series is under consideration for TV adaptation. I reckon it would work brilliantly and can’t help seeing Daws himself as Broderick.

I thoroughly enjoyed my second trip to Gibraltar with Sullivan and Broderick and am looking forward to seeing how the series progresses. I believe the third one is due out this summer sometime, but Amazon is being unusually secretive about the date! I shall be keeping my beady eyes open for it though. Highly recommended as a well-written, fast-paced and credible police procedural with likeable lead characters in an interesting setting – really, what more could you ask for?

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Urbane Press, via a giveaway on The Quiet Geordie‘s blog. Thanks again!

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The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain

Sex and death…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Frank Chambers is a bum who drifts from place to place, making a living out of gambling and petty cons. One day he finds himself at a garage outside Los Angeles without funds or a ride. He cons a meal out of the owner, a Greek by the name of Nick Papadikis. Nick’s looking for help around the place, so offers Frank a job. Frank’s about to refuse when he catches sight of Nick’s wife, Cora, a luscious brunette who oozes sensuality…

Then I saw her. She had been out back, in the kitchen, but she came in to gather up my dishes. Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.

Now Frank has a reason to stick around, and it’s not long before the lip-mashing commences. And soon Frank and Cora feel that two’s company.

My initial reaction to this novella was a feeling of disgust. Frank’s objectification and sexualised descriptions of Cora made me faintly nauseous, and their joint racism about Greeks and “Mex” and anyone else who might not be whiter than white didn’t help much. But then as I got to know Cora better I discovered she was just as revolting as Frank, so I acquitted Cain of misogyny and racism, and convicted him of misanthropy instead. And, oddly, once I reached that point, I found the book much easier to get along with.

….She started for the lunchroom again, but I stopped her. “Let’s – leave it locked.”
….“Nobody can get in if it’s locked. I got some cooking to do. I’ll wash up this plate.”
….I took her in my arms and mashed my mouth up against hers.
….“Bite me! Bite me!”
….I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.

There’s no doubt it’s compellingly written in the true noir style. Reading it is a little like being held up on the motorway because there’s been a crash just ahead – you know you shouldn’t stare but you can’t help yourself. As a study of two amoral, self-obsessed monsters drawn to each other through lust, it’s brilliantly done. But, like Damien Hirst’s dead cow, can it really be considered art? I’ve mentioned more than once that I tend to judge literature on the basis of Flaubert’s famous quote:

Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when all the time we long to move the stars to pity.

I could see the bears frantically dancing but the stars had all gone out. Maybe that’s why they call it noir. I’d call it a glamorisation of sado-masochism, except that it’s way too sordid to be glamorous. When our lovely heroes aren’t indulging in some vicious sex that seems to involve lots of bruising and blood – but it’s OK ‘cos Cora likes being hurt – then Frank’s beating people senseless…

….When he was half out the door I cut the juice in the sign, and it blazed down in his eyes. He wheeled, and I let him have it. He went down and I was on him. I twisted the gun out of his hand, threw it in the lunchroom, and socked him again. Then I dragged him inside and kicked the door shut. She was standing there. She had been at the door, listening, all the time.
….“Get the gun.”
….She picked it up and stood there. I pulled him to his feet, threw him over one of the tables, and bent him back. Then I beat him up. When he passed out, I got a glass of water and poured it on him. Soon as he came to, I beat him up again. When his face looked like raw beef, and he was blubbering like a kid in the last quarter of a football game, I quit.

And yet, oddly, despite their vicious callousness, they are two of the most incompetent murderers I’ve come across. Of course, that’s partly the point – it’s when the police and lawyers become involved that the story reaches its real moral dilemma – under pressure, will their love/lust for one another be enough to hold them together? When you know the bad, bad things your lover has done, can you ever trust him/her? Can you be sure that when he/she says he/she loves you that he/she really does and wasn’t just using you? And once the excitement of murder is over, how do you feel about the dullness of everyday life – does the passion last when you no longer have to sneak around and hide, when there’s nothing left to plot? This second half of the book is far more interesting than the sex-saturated first half – to me, at any rate.

Book 32 of 90

I don’t know how to rate it really. It’s undoubtedly superbly done so I admire it for that. I’m not the greatest fan of pure noir so haven’t read extensively in the genre, but the little I have read has usually given me one good guy to root for amid the gritty darkness, and a femme fatale who may behave badly but is morally ambiguous. This one gives two people with no redeeming features whatsoever, so that I could only hope things would end badly for them. Again, that’s the point, so it succeeds in its aim. I found it well written, psychologically convincing, and it creates a truly noir world in which everything is soiled and corrupt and no gleam of light beckons. But it left me feeling I needed to scrub my mind out with a Brillo pad. I’ve settled on four stars – compelling rather than enjoyable, but I can understand why it’s considered a classic.

This is my Classics Club Spin #18 book.

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Tangerine by Christine Mangan

It all began that day

😦

Alice and Lucy were once best friends, students together at the expensive Bennington College in Vermont. Now Alice is in Tangier with her newish husband. He loves the life there, the seedy bars, the feeling of danger in the streets as Morocco demands its independence from its French colonisers. Alice hates it, scared to go out alone and miserable when she goes out with her overbearing and unsympathetic husband (mind you, he’s also pretty miserable at having to go out with the whining, pathetic Alice). Suddenly one day, out of the blue, Lucy turns up at their door. This is the first time Alice and Lucy have met since that day… but no, of course we don’t get told what happened that day. As Lucy and Alice take turns at the narration, carefully ensuring their voices are indistinguishable to add an element of confusion, they each dance round the subject of what happened that day while being very careful not to tell the poor put-upon reader.

I made it to the 25% mark before deciding I could take no more. I don’t want to be unfairly brutal – this is a début, and it shows some promise. Regulars will know that I’ve spluttered with annoyance often over the whole “that day” faux-suspense thing that seems to be an essential part of so-called thrillers these days – presumably because the authors can’t actually think of anything thrilling to write about. (FF’s Tenth Law: having the narrator constantly refer to ‘what happened that day’ without informing the reader of what did happen that day is far more likely to create book-hurling levels of irritation than a feeling of suspense.) So Mangan is merely following the herd, and sadly it’s a big herd, getting bigger by the day. I was sucked in by the great cover – had this had the ubiquitous girl in the red jacket on it I’d have known to avoid it like the plague.

Had it just been the “that day” tedium, I would probably have stuck with it, though. The picture Mangan gives of Tangier at this point in time (1956) is quite well done, bearing in mind that we see it solely through the eyes of white colonials. This means there are some rather demeaning depictions of the locals that smack a little of good old white superiority, but I felt that was appropriate to the time and social status of the main characters.

Over a year now, and it was still cast in a hazy fog that I could not seem to work my way out of, no matter how long I tripped through the labyrinth. It’s better that way, my aunt had said afterward, when I had told her about the vaporous sheen my memories had taken on, how I could no longer remember the details of that horrible night, of the days that followed. Leave it in the past, she had urged, as if my memories were objects that could be packed away in boxes secure enough to ensure they would never let loose the secrets held within.

Unfortunately, however, I couldn’t tolerate the style of writing. Some people have praised it, so I’ll admit that’s a subjective thing. It’s well-written in a grammatical sense, and thankfully it’s in the past tense, except for the obligatory foreshadowing prologue. But it’s written in a kind of mock-Gothic manner, all overwrought and hyperventilating, that gradually began to drive me insane. I had company in my insanity however – in true Gothic fashion, both women have strange “nervous” conditions that cause them to have imaginary symptoms and so on, and we know from the prologue that at least one of them has totally lost her marbles by the time the story ends. It was at the point that one of them actually fainted – Mangan resisted the temptation to say “swooned” but I bet it was on the tip of her pen – that I gave up. I discovered when I looked at her author bio that Mangan did her PhD on 18th century Gothic literature, and was unsurprised. Nor was I astonished to learn she had then topped that off with a degree in creative writing…

Christine Mangan

I didn’t hate it and I don’t think it’s awful. It’s as good as most of these identikit “that day” thrillers and better written than many. It probably deserves three or even four stars. But it’s not for me, and since I couldn’t bring myself to continue reading, then I’m afraid one star it is. Oddly, I’ll still be intrigued to see how Mangan develops – if she can learn to match her style to her subject matter and free herself from the feeling that she must follow the herd, I feel she has the talent to evolve into an interesting writer. I wish her well in the attempt.

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

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Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott

“Blood will have blood…”

😀 😀 😀 😀

Back in the last days of high school, Kit Owens became friendly with new girl, Diane Fleming. Beautiful, intelligent Diane encouraged Kit to rise above the modest ambitions she had for herself, and instead set her sights on gaining a scholarship to study biology at university. But Diane also told Kit a secret – something so shocking it ended their friendship and has haunted Kit ever since. Now Kit is working as a postdoc for Dr Severin, a scientist both girls had admired and been inspired by. All Dr Severin’s team are hoping for a coveted spot on a new study she’s beginning, into PMDD – Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder – an extreme form of PMT. But suddenly Dr Severin announces she’s taking on a new team member. Kit is appalled to discover that her old friend Diane is now to be her colleague and rival. Old secrets turn into new nightmares…

I always love the way Megan Abbott writes about the hormone-driven intensity of teenage girls and their friendships, but I’m also glad she’s beginning to take her girls into womanhood too in her last couple of books. This follows the almost ubiquitous pattern of current thriller writing of having sections set in past and present (with the past written in past tense and the present in present tense, which is at least slightly more appropriate than some uses of the annoying present tense). It also has a touch of “that day” syndrome (where the narrator keeps referring ominously to something that happened in the past), though in this case the reader is told what happened that day reasonably early on – before I got to full tooth-gnashing, Kindle-hurling mode, although it was close. Kit, of course, is an unreliable narrator. Surprisingly, despite all these stylistic clichés, I enjoyed the book, which is a tribute to Abbott’s writing.

There’s very little I can say about the plot without spoilers. I found the setting of a biology lab intriguing – it feels very well researched and believable, as Abbott shows the teamwork that is essential but also the rivalries for the limited number of grant-funded positions that offer the best opportunities for break-through research and professional triumph. PMDD is a syndrome I hadn’t heard of before, and is mostly peripheral to the plot. But Abbott employs it as a kind of vehicle for using female biology as a theme, with much – too much – concentration on blood. There’s a kind of feeling of throwback to the days of women being perceived as witchy and dangerous because of their dark sexuality. Personally I felt Abbott over-egged that aspect a bit – her adult women seemed to be as intense as her adolescents and, while she clearly wasn’t intending this, it felt to me almost as if she were suggesting that her professional women were all driven to the point of obsession, with an odd unstated link to their femaleness as the root cause. It didn’t ring wholly true to me, though it made for a nicely warped and scary story.

Megan Abbott
(© Philippe Matsas/Opale)

Did I find the plot credible? Well, no, not in the end. But the things that went over the line for me only happened very near the end, so didn’t spoil my enjoyment while reading. As usual, there were one or two twists too many, but that’s another of these laws of contemporary crime writing, sadly. The employment of all these current trends – the present tense, the unreliable first person narrator, the incredible twists, the past/present storyline – prevented me from loving this quite as much as some of her earlier books. But the quality of the writing, the excellent pacing, and the interesting plot and setting meant that as usual Abbott kept me reading well into the wee sma’ hours, so despite my criticisms I recommend it as a thoroughly enjoyable read!

PS I know I’m a tedious pedant but… the past and present sections are headed Then and Now. Fine – simple, clear and means the reader is never left confused. Plus, Now gives some excuse for present tense. Imagine my pedantic surprise then to discover that the final section of the book is headed Ten Years Later. Ten years later than now? You mean, in the future? Are we seeing it through a crystal ball in Divination class? Or do you mean Now is ten years ago – in which case it really can’t be Now, can it? Words matter. Don’t they?

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

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The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux

Brilliantly baffling…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Mademoiselle Mathilde Stangerson is attacked in her yellow bedroom by a murderer wielding a mutton-bone. When her father and the other people in the house break down the door, Mlle S is on the floor and her murderer is nowhere to be found. There are three exceedingly strange things about this – one: how did the murderer get out of a room in which the only door and window were securely locked; and two: why does everyone keep calling him a murderer when Mlle S is still alive…; and three: a mutton-bone???

OK, to my great disappointment I discovered a mutton-bone is actually the name given to a club-like weapon much used by villains of the day, so that solves number three. Number 2 – the murderer with the living victim – becomes progressively more hysterical as the book goes on and Mlle S stubbornly refuses to die. I couldn’t help wondering what she felt every time a newspaper or one of the characters talked about her murder.

The real meat of the thing, though, is not on the mutton-bone, but in the question of how the murderer got out of the room. Enter our hero, Joseph Rouletabille, (a nickname meaning “Roll Your Marble”, given to him, presumably, on account of his large round red head), a young journalist who at the age of eighteen has already acquired a reputation as an inspired amateur detective. He is introduced to us by our narrator, Jean Sainclair, a young lawyer and friend who acts as Rouletabille’s sidekick.

Off they go to the Château du Glandier, where they will meet Mathilde and her father, her fiance, her loyal and devoted servant, and various assorted estate workers and villagers, all with or without alibis and motives, and all behaving suspiciously in one way or another. Even Frédéric Larsan, famed investigator of the Sûreté, will find himself hard put to it to come up with a solution to this baffling mystery, and when he does, it will be entirely different from Rouletabille’s solution. Who will prove to be right? And how will he (the one who’s right) prove he’s right? And will they catch the murderer before the murder victim is finally murdered???

Rouletabille
By Josep Simont i Guillén – Published on October 19, 1907 on the front page of the French newspaper L’Illustration where the story was first serialised

This is a fabulous little romp that is more and more fun as it goes along. First published in French in 1907, I can’t find anything to tell me who the translator was. At first, I felt the language was quite stilted and thought it could do with a modern update. But as the book’s general mildly melodramatic tone began to come through, I realised the style of the translation is actually perfect for it. It makes it feel terribly French and very old-fashioned – both things which add considerably to its charm.

The plotting is great, enhanced by a couple of detailed floor plans allowing the reader to try to get to the solution before Rouletabille. (I failed miserably!) The initial mystery of the locked room is only one of the “impossible crime” features – there is another halfway through which is not only baffling but quite spooky, and there are other sections where Leroux creates a beautifully tense atmosphere. But overall the book leans more towards entertainment with lots of humour, especially in the rivalry between Rouletabille and Larsan. I love that the title of the first chapter is In Which We Begin Not to Understand – sets the light-hearted tone superbly before the book even begins. The villagers are about as welcoming as the ones in The Wicker Man, complete with a surly publican and a witchy old crone with an exceptionally scary cat called Bête du Bon Dieu, so some lovely almost Gothic touches sprinkled into the story.

Rouletabille’s ability to see through the fog of confusion to the truth that eludes all others is well-nigh miraculous, enhanced by Sainclair’s supreme admiration for his young friend. Rouletabille is the master of the enigmatic utterance, throwing suspects into terror while keeping Sainclair (and me) totally befuddled. But when all is revealed, we see that we have indeed had all the clues all along – well, all the important ones anyway – and it’s only our inferior brain-power that has left us trailing in Rouletabille’s brilliant wake…

Hercule Poirot wasn’t baffled, of course, when he read this book. He talks about it in The Clocks, saying…

“And here is The Mystery of the Yellow Room. That – that really is a classic! I approve of it from start to finish. Such a logical approach!… All through there is truth, concealed with a careful and cunning use of words… Definitely a masterpiece…”

… and Poirot (and Ms Christie) knew a thing or two about crime fiction. Poirot is not Rouletabille’s only admirer among the fictional detective classes – John Dickson Carr’s Gideon Fell refers to the book as “the best detective tale ever written”. I must say the physical book from the Collins Crime Club series is gorgeous too, with a great cover, including quotes from Poirot and Fell where normally there would be puffs from fellow writers. Made me laugh with delight before I even opened it.

Gaston Leroux

I’m so glad to have had the chance to read this one, since I’ve seen it referred to often in my recent travels through vintage crime. And I’m even more glad to be able to say that I feel it fully deserves its reputation, both for the skill in the plotting and for the entertainment value in the storytelling. An essential read for vintage crime fans!

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

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Fatal Inheritance by Rachel Rhys

The pink house on the Riviera…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

It’s 1948, and Eve Forrester is living a dull, restricted life in London with her staid, passionless husband. Out of the blue, she receives a letter telling her that a man she has never heard of has left her a legacy. To find out more, she’ll have to travel to the French Riviera. Once there, she discovers she’s been left a share in a lovely pink house overlooking the sea. The dead man’s family don’t know why he named her in his will either, and resent her very much. Pushed to agree to an early sale and division of the proceeds, Eve finds herself unwilling to comply until she can find out what’s behind it all…

Naturally, when writing a slow-burn book set in the fairly distant past, Rhys has used the present tense. Well, you would, wouldn’t you? No, nor would I. So, despite the fact that she does it as well as most, Rhys was always going to have to work extra hard to win me over.

To a certain extent she did, though it took a long time to really grab my interest. The first section in Cap d’Antibes is full of lengthy description that goes well beyond scene-setting. The house in particular is described in minute detail, putting me in mind of the kind of brochure that is produced for a house sale. But I was intrigued to discover the reason for the legacy and that kept me reading. I formed a theory fairly early on which proved to be completely wrong, so that’s always a major plus!

This is one of those books that works best if you switch off your credibility filters going in. If it weren’t for fear of spoilers, I could make a list of plot holes and inconsistencies, and little side mysteries that are left entirely unresolved and are completely illogical once the final revelations are disclosed. They add to the suspense during the read but are left hanging at the end. The story too requires quite a lot of suspension of disbelief. Within a week, this ordinary unremarkable woman is consorting with Princes and Hollywood stars, invited to their parties and weddings, and looked on as an intimate friend.

However, if you can buy into it, then it’s all quite fun. The rather faded glamour of post-war life in this playground of the rich and pointless is portrayed very well, with an underlying feeling of the desperation of people trying to party away the recent horrors of war. Rhys also shows the scars left after the Nazi occupation of France, with the lingering divisions between those who collaborated and those who resisted. And, in a time when the social order has been broken and reformed, she shows how it can be hard to know whether people are who they present themselves as, or if they have remade themselves to hide their unacceptable pasts. There’s a romance element which is quite enjoyable too, if a little clichéd, and there’s more action in the second half which speeds the thing along at a better pace than the slow first half.

Rachel Rhys

I’ve struggled to rate this one. I don’t think it’s up to the standard of her earlier novel, A Dangerous Crossing, and I suspect that may be, as so often, down to rushing it out without the kind of firm edit that was really required to tighten up the various plotting weaknesses and unnecessary padding. (No, I’m not blaming the editor – authors have the ultimate responsibility for their own books.) The present tense feels entirely wrong for the story and was a running, if minor, irritation to me throughout. However, once it speeded up a bit, I found myself turning pages quite happily and was certainly interested in discovering how it would all play out. But afterwards, I found myself asking – “but what about…?” And “why didn’t she…?” And “who…?” And that’s never satisfactory. So three and a half stars and a recommendation as an overall enjoyable read but not one to be taken too seriously.

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

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Fire in the Thatch: A Devon Mystery by ECR Lorac

When the war is over…

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The Second World War is drawing to a close when the tenancy of a piece of land complete with thatched cottage falls vacant on the estate of Colonel St Cyres, in Devon. The Colonel is determined the lease shall go to someone who shares his love of the land and who wants to work it productively. However, his daughter-in-law June has different ideas. A Londoner by birth and a party-girl by nature, June is staying with her father-in-law because her husband, the Colonel’s son, is a prisoner of war in Burma. She wants the Colonel to give the cottage to a “friend” of hers, a Mr Gressingham, who would use it as a place to entertain his (and June’s) rather decadent London friends. Fast forward a few months, and Inspector MacDonald of the Yard is on his way to investigate what might have been a case of accidental death, or possibly one of arson and murder…

Lorac wrote many Inspector MacDonald books and apparently this is the 26th in the series. I’ve only read one other of them, Bats in the Belfry, which I loved. It was published in 1937 while this one came out in 1946. What a world of difference in those two years, reflected in the tone of these two books! This one has none of the light humour and romance of the earlier book; the delightful upper-class slang is all gone. Inspector MacDonald is the same painstakingly professional detective, but with a rather more sober attitude to life, befitting a man who has spent the last several years in a bomb-ravaged London with all its attendant horrors.

What has not changed, however, is the excellent quality of the writing and plotting. Transplanting her setting from London to Devon, Lorac gives an entirely convincing picture of rural life with a real understanding of the deep connection the local farmers have with their land. While there is plenty of description of the loveliness of the landscape, she avoids romanticising country life. These are men and women who work hard to produce a livelihood from the soil and from their animals, all the more important over the last few years during war shortages. Although farming was a reserved occupation (i.e., the men were exempted from compulsory military service), Lorac shows that, as in the rest of the country, there was an absence of younger men and few families remained unscarred by the war. Lorac also touches on the subject of the refugees from London who were sent out to the country for safety, welcomed by some and resented by others.

I’m not entirely sure that the plot is fairplay – certainly I got nowhere near the solution and found the actual details of how it all happened rather convoluted. But the story is excellent and, as with all the best crime fiction, is firmly rooted in human nature. I love Inspector MacDonald as a detective – he is a thoughtful and rather kindly man, strictly moral on his own account but with the capacity to make some allowance for moral weakness in others. Here, he is an outsider sent in to the local force as an expert, but he never sets out to prove his own superiority by finding fault with them. Instead he works closely with the locals, in a spirit of comradeship and mutual trust.

The other characters are all equally well drawn. Colonel St Cyres and his daughter are the kind of gentry that make one long for an earlier age, while Gressingham and his buddies make one want to slap the nouveau riche with a wet kipper (if nothing weightier is available). The young man whom St Cyres chooses as the tenant, Nicholas Vaughan, is an ex-military man, invalided out after receiving serious injuries. June, the daughter-in-law, is nicely unlikeable. But the skill of Lorac’s writing is that these characterisations change over time, so that I found my sympathies shifting as I got to know each of them better, some improving on acquaintance, others revealing a darker side than I first suspected.

When reading these rediscovered vintage crime books, I often find myself trying to work out why some authors stay in print while others are forgotten. Sometimes it’s obvious – badly outdated attitudes and levels of snobbery that take away the pleasure for a modern reader, or plots that are firmly fixed on gadgetry or other features that relate solely to a certain time, long gone. But other times, as with Lorac, it beats me. The two books of hers that I’ve read outdo anything by Ngaio Marsh or Margery Allingham in plotting and quality of writing for me, and are far less snobbish and class-ridden than I find Dorothy L Sayers or even PD James. Her concentration on human nature as the foundation of her plotting makes them timeless in the way Agatha Christie’s are. Her observational skills give a real feel for what life was like in a given time and place, and she makes her “common” people as believable and sympathetic as her landowners and professional people. Her books aren’t easy to get hold of at reasonable prices, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed the British Library re-publishes more of them. I’ll be first in the queue if they do!

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

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The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware

Family ties…

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Hal (Harriet) Westaway is struggling to keep her head above water. The bills keep pouring in and in these winter months she doesn’t get enough custom at her kiosk on Brighton’s West Pier to pay them all. Things are reaching a crisis. So when she receives a letter from a solicitor informing her that she has been left a legacy by her grandmother it seems like the answer to a prayer. There’s only one problem – Hal knows there’s been a mistake. Her real grandmother died years ago. But the temptation is overwhelming, and Hal knows that the skills she uses in her tarot-reading will help her to con her way through the situation. And so she sets off to Trepassen House in Cornwall, to meet a bunch of people who think she’s the daughter of a long-lost relative…

I know I’m very critical of modern crime fiction but truly I don’t ask much. A good story well told; some characters I can like, hate, worry about, mistrust; enough uncertainty about how it will play out to keep me turning pages; a minimum of unnecessary padding; and told in the past tense, preferably third person. And that’s exactly what Ruth Ware has given me in this hugely enjoyable thriller. Add in a dark and dusty old house full of attics and cellars and narrow little staircases, the shade of a wicked old woman who tyrannised over her family, a bunch of squabbling siblings, and a scary old housekeeper who knows more than she’s telling, and I’m pretty much in modern-Gothic heaven!

To be honest, I had a fair idea from pretty early on of the solution to the central mystery, but I found it didn’t really matter. There was enough doubt in my mind to keep me reading, and I didn’t know how it would all come to a head. Although it’s a fairly slow-burn book, and quite long, I found the pacing was just about perfect. I never felt my attention dip, nor had that sensation of wishing it would all hurry up and get to the end. This is because the quality of the writing makes it a pleasure to read, and the characterisation is great, with a sufficiently large and well-developed cast to provide a lot of interest. And the creepy old house itself becomes a character too – a deliciously scary one.

I loved the way Ware manages to make Hal so likeable and easy to empathise with, despite the fact that she’s trying to commit fraud. Hal’s mother had died a few years earlier when Hal was just about to finish school, leaving her penniless and with no relatives to help her out. This makes her financial woes understandable and we see at the same time that she’s doing everything she can to get her life back on track. She doesn’t believe in the mystical side of tarot herself, but is nevertheless sympathetic to the people who consult her, doing her best to give them the space to think through the problems that have brought them to her. And while initially she goes to Cornwall purely for the money, she can’t help beginning to wish she really was part of this big family with aunts and uncles and cousins – all the things her lonely heart craves.

The other characters are just as good, though obviously not all done with the same depth. I loved that Ware makes room for a lot of kindness and generosity of spirit amidst the danger and evil – something modern thrillers often forget to include, but it makes the whole thing more emotionally involving, I find. Plus, for me there’s more tension to be got out of a feeling of “oh, I hope it’s not her/him!” as there is in simply wondering which of an unsavoury bunch will turn out to be the guilty one.

Ruth Ware

This was my introduction to Ruth Ware, goaded on by the relentless stream of glowing reviews for her previous books from so many of my bloggy friends, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. What a pleasure to read a book written without all the stylistic fol-de-rols so many contemporary authors seem to think necessary – a strong story well told doesn’t need “creative writing”, just good writing (FF’s Ninth Law). Highly recommended – I’m off now to get hold of Ware’s earlier books!

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

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The Clocks by Agatha Christie

Time for murder…

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When Sheila Webb is sent out by the secretarial agency for which she works to the home of a blind lady, Miss Pebmarsh, to take some dictation, she is not expecting to find the corpse of a dead man in a room filled with clocks of different styles, but all pointing to the same time – 4:13. In a state of shock, she runs screaming from the house, straight into the arms of Colin Lamb, who is in the street on secret business of his own. Colin is involved in the spy business, and will get together with Inspector Hardcastle to try to discover the identity of the dead man and of his murderer. And along the way, Colin will seek the help of an old friend of his father, a certain M. Hercule Poirot…

This is one of Agatha Christie’s later books, written in 1963. Although nearly all of her books are well worth reading, there’s no doubt that by this period she was no longer producing novels of the same standard as in her own Golden Age, roughly the late ’20s to the end of the ’50s. In this one, which I hadn’t re-read for many years, I found I enjoyed the journey considerably more than the destination.

The set-up is great – the idea of the clocks is a suitably baffling clue, and the scene of the discovery of the body, where blind Miss Pebmarsh nearly steps on it by accident sending poor Sheila into a state of hysterical shock, is done with all Christie’s skill. There’s all the usual fun of interviews of the neighbours, and Christie creates a bunch of credible and varied characters, who each add to the enjoyment of the story. We also get to see life in the secretarial agency, a career that I assume has more or less died out now, certainly in the sense of girls being sent out on brief assignments to take dictation and so on.

It’s also a pleasure when Poirot becomes involved, though that doesn’t happen till almost halfway through the book. Poirot is elderly by now, so doesn’t take an active part in the investigation, instead relying on Colin bringing him information. It works quite well, and Colin is a likeable character, but my preference is for the books where Poirot is more directly involved. There’s a nice little section when Poirot lectures Colin on detective fiction, referencing a mix of real and fictional authors. I suspect Poirot’s views give an insight into what Christie herself though of the various styles.

Perhaps it was because I was listening rather than reading, but I didn’t find this one as fair-play as her earlier books – it seemed to me rather as if Poirot summoned up the solution based on instinct rather than evidence, leaving me rather unconvinced in the end. It feels as if Christie ran out of steam somewhat, and having thought up an intriguing premise, couldn’t quite find an ending that lived up to it. The ending left me feeling a bit let down but, as I say, I enjoyed the process of getting there.

Agatha Christie

What worked less well was the secondary story – Colin’s search for some kind of spy. Again some of this is down to preference – I’ve never been so keen on Christie’s occasional forays into spy stories as her straight mysteries. But I also again felt that Colin reached his solution out of the blue, and the tying together of the two plots contained too much coincidence for it all to feel wholly credible.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Hugh Fraser, who does his usual excellent job of giving all the characters subtly different voices and suitable accents, without distracting from the story by overacting any of them – i.e., no falsetto women, etc.

Overall, then, not one of Christie’s best, but still well worth a read or re-read for fans. It wouldn’t be one I would suggest as a starter to her work, though – there are glimpses of the old magic, but it doesn’t show her off as the genius of plotting she undoubtedly was in her prime.

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The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett

Bodies galore!

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When Edgar Leggett’s home is broken into and some not particularly valuable diamonds go missing, his insurance company send along their operative to investigate – enter the Continental Op, the only name we are given for the first-person narrator. The CO soon decides that there’s been some kind of inside job, and that there’s more to the case than a simple burglary. Leggett has a wife and a weird, strange-looking but oddly attractive daughter, Gabrielle. The plot is entirely incomprehensible so that’s as much of a summary as I’ll give. Suffice it to say, the thing soon turns bloody, with more corpses than you could shake a stick at, supposing you would want to do such a thing. Gabrielle, who seems to be thought of by some as a femme fatale but seems to me way too pathetic to be such a thing, is at the centre of all the mysterious happenings and comes to believe she is cursed. It’s up to the CO to solve whatever it is that’s going on, and amazingly, he does.

Oddly, despite the fact that the plot is nonsensical, episodic, and barely hangs together, I still found the book entertaining. This is largely due to the snappy, hardboiled style of the writing and the relentless pace, which doesn’t give the reader much time to ponder the basic absurdity of the storyline. Plus, in the middle of it there is a passage of very effective horror writing, as the CO battles an evil apparition that may be real or may be the product of hallucination, or is possibly a combination of both. I forgave a lot of the book’s weaknesses for my enjoyment of that piece of writing.

Through the thing’s transparent flesh I could see my hands clenched in the center of its damp body. I opened them, struck up and down inside it with stiff crooked fingers, trying to gouge it open; and I could see it being torn apart, could see it flowing together after my clawing fingers had passed; but all I could feel was its dampness.

Challenge details:
Book: 91
Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic
Publication Year: 1929

It also gives a snapshot of aspects of Californian life at the time of writing – the late 1920s. Inevitably, this involves some pretty strong racist language, but I felt this was an accurate reflection of the time (built-in and possibly incorrect assumption in that phrase that things have improved since) and in fact Hammett treated his non-white characters no worse than his white ones, so at least he was pretty even-handed in that sense. We also get to see that guns were as ubiquitous then as they still are now. In fact, as I write this, I’m realising that it could as easily have been written today – weird religious cults, casual drug-taking, addiction, money-is-the-root-of-all-evil… Prohibition might be the only thing that has really receded into the past, though I liked that he touched on the idea of moral degeneracy showing as a physical thing, identifiable by physical features – a concept that pops up in true crime cases around the turn of the century and also appears in quite a lot of late Victorian horror writing. (Hammett references Arthur Machen in the text and I felt his influence could be seen both in this concept and in the piece of horror writing in the middle of the book.) Another touch I enjoyed is Hammett’s inclusion of a character who is a novelist, which gives him the chance to include some humorously self-deprecating dialogue…

“Are you – who make your living snooping – sneering at my curiosity about people and my attempts to satisfy it?”
“We’re different,” I said. “I do mine with the object of putting people in jail, and I get paid for it, though not as much as I should.”
“That’s not different,” he said. “I do mine with the object of putting people in books, and I get paid for it, though not as much as I should.”
“Yeah, but what good does that do?”
“God knows. What good does putting them in jail do?”
“Relieves congestion,” I said. “Put enough people in jail, and cities wouldn’t have traffic problems.”

Dashiell Hammett

I feel I should have more to say about this one, but I don’t. It’s quite fun, so long as you can get past the silliness of the plot. But in truth I’m not sure why it would be considered a classic any more than most other books of the era. For me, it’s doesn’t even come close to the only other Hammett I’ve read, The Maltese Falcon, which unlike this one is tightly plotted and has a wonderful femme fatale worthy of the title. I suspect that if it hadn’t been for that later one, this one may have been forgotten along with most of the pulp fiction of the time. According to Martin Edwards in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, Hammett himself later described this book as “a silly story… all style”, and I’m forced to agree with him. Still, that style covers a whole lot of weaknesses meaning that I found it an entertaining read overall, and that’s the most important thing…

Book 28 of 90

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