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

Cat and mouse…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

John Dickson Carr

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

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

Amazon UK Link

By the Pricking of My Thumbs (Tommy and Tuppence) by Agatha Christie

“Was it your poor child?”

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When Tommy and Tuppence visit Tommy’s elderly Aunt Ada in the Sunny Ridge nursing home, Tuppence falls into conversation with a sweet but rather confused old lady called Mrs Lancaster. As Tuppence, in a thoughtful moment, gazes at the fireplace, she is startled when Mrs Lancaster asks, “Was it your poor child?” The way she asks sends a shiver down Tuppence’s spine (and mine). A few weeks later Aunt Ada dies and when they return to the home to collect her belongings, Tuppence determines to speak to Mrs Lancaster again. But they discover Mrs Lancaster has gone – collected by her relatives. Tuppence, with nothing but her instincts to go on, finds this puzzling and worrying, and decides to track Mrs Lancaster down. She meets with a brick wall, however, of lawyers and bankers none of whom seem to know exactly where Mrs Lancaster might be…

This is a late Christie, published in 1968, and as with many of the later books the plotting isn’t as tight as when she was at her peak. But although it all gets a bit rambly in the middle, it has a wonderfully spooky atmosphere. From Mrs Lancaster’s spine-shivering question, Tuppence finds herself entering a maze of old rumours and gossip, much of them about murdered or missing children. People are very willing to talk, but memories are vague and Tuppence finds it impossible to pin down hard facts or dates.

All she has to go on is a painting that Mrs Lancaster had given to Aunt Ada, of a house by a canal that Tuppence feels sure she has seen once before, perhaps from a car or a train. So while Tommy is off at a hush-hush conference with his old colleagues from his days in the Secret Service, Tuppence digs out train timetables and old diaries, and sets out to repeat any journeys she has made over the last few years in the hope of spotting the house again. But it seems that someone doesn’t want Mrs Lancaster to be found, and Tuppence soon finds herself in danger. Will Tommy find her in time?

Book 20 of 20

Tommy and Tuppence are the only detectives of Christie who age in real time, so in this book they are now in their sixties. Between this and the nursing home theme, there’s quite a bit of musing on ageing in the book, both on the physical limitations it brings and on the mental decline that faces some elderly people. Christie, herself ageing of course, does this rather well. Tommy and Tuppence still spar as much as they always have, but Tommy perhaps worries about his wife a little more now, feeling that Tuppence should recognise that she’s not a young adventurer any more and should take more care for her safety. But that wouldn’t be Tuppence’s style at all! Once she gets her teeth into a thing she doesn’t let go, no matter where it leads her.

Hugh Fraser

Hugh Fraser really is a fantastic narrator! He always brings out the humour in the books, but in this one he also creates the spooky atmosphere brilliantly, never over-acting but knowing exactly how to chill the reader. He copes with a range of elderly lady voices beautifully, bringing out all the fun of Aunt Ada’s rudeness and the pathos of Mrs Lancaster’s confusion. He differentiates the characters with a different voice for each and never slips, so that it’s always easy to tell who’s speaking even when several people are conversing together. And he does a great job with Tuppence’s character, making her just as enjoyable as she is on the page!

Despite the woolliness in the mid-section, the basic plot is strong and the unsettling atmosphere lasts all the way through to the chilling ending. A great way to finish the #20(Audio)BooksOfSummer challenge!

Audible UK Link

The Misty Harbour (Maigret 15) by Georges Simenon

Mystery man

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A man has been picked up in the streets of Paris, wandering around in what is clearly a state of distress. There is nothing on him to identify him and he doesn’t speak. Beneath the wig he’s wearing, the police discover a recently healed gunshot wound, which seems to account for his befuddled state. After a publicity appeal, a woman comes forward and identifies him as Yves Joris, formerly a captain in the merchant navy, now the harbour-master at Ouistreham, a small port in Lower Normandy. The woman is his maid, Julie, and she’s upset to find him in his present condition. She tells the police that he disappeared six weeks ago, and had no wound at that time. So when and where was he shot? And who tended his wound? How did he end up wandering the streets of Paris? Who gave him the little bundle of new banknotes found in his pocket?

Maigret accompanies Joris and Julie back to Ouistreham with a view to finding out what has happened to Joris. But the case takes a darker turn when the next day Joris is found dead in his bed, poisoned with strychnine…

This one is a real puzzle and Maigret has to do a lot of proper detective work to get at the truth. He also stays largely sober, spending more time on the case than in bars for once, which works well for me – I find his usual endless drinking rather tedious. He soon realises he needs assistance so sends for his dependable colleague, Sergeant Lucas, to join him. It becomes apparent that many of the people of the small town may be involved in some way, and as is the way in tight-knit communities, people are not always willing to share what they know with the police. So Maigret and Lucas have to do a lot of spying and eavesdropping to find out what’s been going on.

Book 18 of 20

As always, the setting is one of the main strengths of the book. Ouistreham is frequented by merchant ships plying their trade around the Nordic countries and across to Britain, and Simenon works this into the story. We soon learn there’s some kind of Norwegian link, while Julie’s brother, Big Louis, is a seaman on a ship that becomes the focus of Maigret’s investigation, since it was in port both when Joris disappeared and again when he is murdered. Louis has a history of violence and has spent time in jail, but Julie is convinced of his innocence in this matter. But then, is Julie innocent? It appears that Joris has left her everything he had, and since a large deposit has recently been made into his bank account she’ll do quite well out of his death. Suspicion doesn’t only fall on these two though – the local mayor is behaving oddly too, and Maigret soon becomes aware of a mystery man who was also in the town at the relevant time.

Georges Simenon

I must say I had no idea what this was all about until Maigret revealed all at the end, and I’m still not sure that all the loose ends are properly tied up. However, as I say regularly, I find my concentration levels dip more when listening to an audiobook than when reading, so it may well be that I missed some bits of explanation along the way. No matter – the fact that I felt a couple of minor questions were left unanswered didn’t spoil my enjoyment overall. Maigret’s depiction of this small working port is excellent, the detection element is well done, there is some good characterisation, and the major story revolves around messy human relationships – my favourite kind! One of the stronger Maigret novels for me, and I may well read it in a “proper” book format sometime to see if it clears up those bits of the story that remained misty for me this time!

Audible UK Link

Latter End (Miss Silver 11) by Patricia Wentworth

Repent at leisure…

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Two cousins are attracted to Lois – Jimmy Latter, older, well established and with a large house; and Anthony, young, good-looking, but just starting out in life. For purely mercenary reasons Lois opts for Jimmy, and becomes the chatelaine of Latter End. But now she has inherited a fortune of her own and is rather bored with Jimmy, which is a shame since he worships her. Which is more than can be said for his large household of distantly connected relations and ancient retainers, who can’t stand Lois – a feeling that is mutual. Lois wants to run things her own way and the first thing she wants is to get rid of all these people – Jimmy’s two younger step-sisters, a woman he grew up with and views as a kind of surrogate sister (although her view of Jimmy is somewhat less platonic), old servants who have been around so long they have come to be treated almost as part of the family, and so on. And she has Jimmy wrapped round her little finger, so she can always persuade him that her plans to send all these people away to fend for themselves are made for their own benefit. So when Lois turns up dead, poisoned, the field of suspects is wide. Jimmy, however, fears he may have driven Lois to suicide, so begs Miss Silver to investigate, hoping she will prove that Lois was murdered…

Lois is that stalwart of vintage mysteries, one of the things that makes them so enjoyable – a truly unlikeable victim that neither characters nor readers feel much need to grieve over. True, Jimmy grieves, but only to an extent – even before Lois died his eyes had been opened to her true nature, so if he can only be assured that her death wasn’t his fault he’ll be able to get over her pretty easily. The rest of the characters are frankly overjoyed that she’s gone – their only concern is that they don’t want themselves or each other to be accused of the murder.

Book 11 of 20

Although Lois’ duplicity and manipulation undoubtedly make her ripe for murdering, in her defence I have to admit that she had a point about the hangers-on in the household. Only two of them, step-sister Julia and cousin Anthony, seem to feel that they should make their own way in life. All the rest seem quite happy to live eternally in Jimmy’s home and off his generosity. Jimmy is old-fashioned enough to think his new wife should meekly fit herself in to all the existing household routines and traditions. Lois is not that kind of woman! She wants to be mistress of her own home, especially once she finds that she is in fact wealthier than Jimmy. Wentworth was clearly less sympathetic to that attitude than I was, and anyway when we first meet Lois she is attempting to revive her rejected suitor’s love for her despite now being a Married Woman so I quite agreed she is a Bad Lot Who Deserves All She Gets!

Patricia Wentworth

I loved this one. Wentworth writes exceptionally well for this genre, and while she doesn’t quite compare to Christie in terms of plotting, she manages a similar mix of mystery, suspense, occasional humour and a touch of romance. Miss Silver is not unlike Miss Marple in that she uses her status as an elderly spinster to open up the world of gossip above and below stairs, while her long life and keen intuition allow her to judge when people are hiding secrets. Like Miss Marple, she works in tandem with the police who know her of old and have a grudging respect for her abilities. However, she’s also different enough to avoid feeling like a carbon copy of Miss Marple. Miss Silver is a professional investigator, who takes on investigations for financial reward, and she therefore has a businesslike efficiency in place of Miss Marple’s disguise of fluffy ditheriness and random village parallels. Both ladies knit, however! Google tells me they both first appeared in 1927, so if this is correct, clearly their similarities are entirely coincidental.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Diana Bishop, and she did an excellent job. She has recorded millions of the Miss Silvers (approximately), and I can see they are going to feature regularly in my future listening! Highly recommended, book and audiobook both.

Audible UK Link

Autopsy (Kay Scarpetta 25) by Patricia Cornwell

My last Scarpetta…

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Kay Scarpetta has returned to where she started out all those long years ago, to be Chief Medical Examiner in Virginia. The location means she’ll be handy for her other job, as advisor on the POTUS’ Doomsday committee. She is investigating the brutal murder of a woman when she receives a call informing her she’s needed in the Situation Room. There’s been an incident in a space station and two astronauts have died, the third escaping in the shuttle back to land in Russian-controlled territory.

This, I’m afraid, is a bit of a mess. Cornwell has thrown everything into it – serial killers, cutting edge technology that feels more like science fiction, politics, international skulduggery, poisoning by mystery drugs, personal problems, staffing problems, hints at corruption, etc., etc. Every topic is treated with total superficiality and it’s hard to see exactly what the connecting story is supposed to be. There are hints that somehow the woman’s murder and the space deaths may be connected, which, if true, really is a coincidence too far.

The real problem is that the story doesn’t fill the pages. All these strands are started off, and then nothing happens to move them forward until they are all resolved in a tacked-on climax which of course involves the usual peril to Scarpetta and her family. How many close shaves can these people endure? They’d be safer in a war zone than in government employment in America, apparently. Instead of plot momentum, the pages are filled with pointless detail. Scarpetta cannot walk down a corridor without us being told what colour the carpet is, what the doors are made of, what pictures hang on the wall, how loud or soft her footsteps sound, whether she’s carrying her scene case or rolling it. It can take a page to get from the entrance of a building to the elevator, and the poor reader soon learns to know that there will be another corridor to be described when Scarpetta reaches the desired floor. I don’t need to know that a basin is marble, that a car is a Tesla, that Scarpetta puts gel in her hair in the morning. Not every noun requires an adjective. And I do not need or want to know the make and qualities of every gun every gun-obsessed American owns.

Patricia Cornwell

Scarpetta herself is so tedious and self-important and this is not helped by the book being in the always annoying first-person present tense. Everyone is incompetent except for her and her immediate family and inner circle (and frankly even several of them are a bit on the crazy side). Virginia has collapsed into a morass of incompetence and corruption since she left, and she knows she’s been given the job because she’s the only one – the only person in the whole wide world and space above – who’s capable of running the department efficiently. Why is it her responsibility to investigate every crime single-handedly? Does Virginia not employ police detectives? What qualifies her to advise the space programme? Do NASA and the US military have no medics, no scientists, no procedures, no contingency planning? What would happen to America if she died? Would it simply collapse, unable to carry out any function without her?

I stuck it out for over two-thirds and was determined to finish, but it broke me. I couldn’t take one more paragraph of Scarpetta complaining about her secretary, her predecessor, her colleagues, her sister. I couldn’t take one more page of unnecessary description. I couldn’t bear to wait any longer to see if any of the story strands would ever move forward. So I skipped to the end and discovered the dénouement was even worse than I feared. My last Scarpetta. My last Cornwell.

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

Amazon UK Link

Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton

A locked train carriage mystery…

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When Sir Wilfred Saxonby is found dead in a locked carriage in a train, it looks like it must have been suicide, for how could a murderer have got onto and then off a moving train? But Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard can find no evidence that Sir Wilfred had been suicidal, and those who know him find it impossible to believe. And there are one or two odd things – like the mysterious red light that caused the train driver to slow down while the train was passing through Blackdown Tunnel, or the fact that Sir Wilfred apparently used an unlicensed gun even though he owned several licensed ones. Arnold can make no sense of it, so consults his old friend Desmond Merrion, a man with a gift of imagination that sometimes enables him to make sense of the seemingly senseless…

Although there’s a slight whodunit aspect to this, mostly it’s a howdunit, with the mystery revolving around various aspects of how the crime could have been committed, and who had alibis and who didn’t. It starts out well – the point about the red light and slowing train is intriguing, and the solution to that aspect, which comes quite early on, is fun. But then it kind of collapses into a morass of ever more complicated, and ever less interesting, speculation as to how the unnamed murderer or murderers did the deed, with Arnold and Merrion each spouting theory after theory, only for the next fact to come along and change everything.

This felt very different in style to the only other Merrion book I’ve read, The Secret of High Eldersham. That one had a wonderfully creepy atmosphere and aspects of a thriller, in that Merrion and others were put in peril. Merrion also had an enjoyable sidekick in it. This one had none of that – it is a cerebral puzzle with no peril and therefore very little atmosphere. Whoever turned out to be the culprit, I feel I’d have met it with a mental shrug, since none of the suspects were developed in a way to make me care about them. Having said that, Merrion himself is likeable and not nearly as insufferable as some of these brilliant amateur ‘tecs, and Arnold too is quite fun, even if he’s not exactly the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

Miles Burton

Although it’s well written and will probably appeal to the puzzle-orientated reader, I gradually found myself losing interest. I had decided on the most likely suspect fairly early on, and found it odd that neither Merrion nor Arnold seemed to be spotting what seemed like fairly obvious indicators. But I had no idea why the crime had been committed, and was disappointed that when all was revealed it was clear that the reader had had no chance to work that out, since the required information was withheld until very close to the end.

Overall, then, I found the plotting rather dull despite its “impossible” cleverness, and felt too much emphasis was given to the puzzle aspect at the expense of developing any sense of atmosphere or tension. However, it’s redeemed a little by the quality of the writing and the likeability of the two leads, Merrion and Arnold.

Book 7 of 12

This was the People’s Choice for July, and it was more enjoyable than not, so we’ll call that a success, People! 😉

Amazon UK Link

The Mystery of the Skeleton Key by Bernard Capes

Painful…

😦

The story begins in Paris, where Vivian Bickerdike is waiting for the arrival of a friend. He falls into conversation with a stranger, who turns out to be Baron Le Sage. So it’s something of a coincidence when they meet again a short while later, this time as they each make their way to a country house party in Hampshire. The Baron is on his way to play chess with Sir Calvin Kennett, while Bickerdike has been summoned by his friend, Sir Calvin’s son Hugo, a young man of volatile moods who seems to have something on his mind. But before Bickerdike finds out what the trouble is, there’s a murder. One of the maids, Annie Evans, was an unusually good-looking young woman (for a maid), and had been the unintentional cause of a feud between two of her admirers. Now Annie is dead, shot with Hugo’s gun. Enter Sergeant Ridgway of Scotland Yard…

This is dire. The writing is so clunky that many of the sentences are almost indecipherable. Not that it matters, because most of them are pointless waffle anyway. Have an example:

Le Sage, in the course of a pleasant little drive with Audrey, asked innumerable questions and answered none. This idiosyncrasy of his greatly amused the young lady, who was by disposition frankly outspoken, and whose habit it never was to consider in conversation whether she committed herself or anyone else. Truth with her was at least a state of nature – though it might sometimes have worn with greater credit to itself a little more trimming – and states of nature are relatively pardonable in the young. A child who sees no indecorum in nakedness can hardly be expected to clothe Truth.

Imagine over 200 pages of this. Imagine my pain.

Challenge details:
Book: 15
Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age
Publication Year: 1919

The plotting is so bad that I would say I lost interest early on, except that would be inaccurate, since in fact at no point did I have any interest to lose. There are no clues cunningly sprinkled for the discerning reader to misinterpret – we simply have to wait for the author to get bored and reveal the solution. Unfortunately it took him far longer to reach that point of ennui than me, so I skipped the last 40%, tuned back in for the solution, laughed hollowly at the ridiculousness of it all, and deleted the book from my Kindle in a marked manner.

Bernard Capes

I’ve said it before – sometimes the books that Martin Edwards has chosen to include in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books baffle me. I can’t see that this badly-written, rambling nonsense of a book has contributed anything to the development of the mystery novel – anything good, at least – and it certainly isn’t high on entertainment value. However, Edwards says that GK Chesterton found the prose poetic – clearly Chesterton defines that word differently than I. And Julian Symons apparently described the book as ‘a neglected tour de force’. Justifiably neglected, in my opinion.

I often wonder in these cases if it’s simply that I can’t see wonders other people are marvelling over, so I checked the ratings on Goodreads, and no, I am not alone! This has an exceptionally low rating, even though it has been read by very few people and most of them are dedicated vintage crime aficionados. Proving yet again that fellow readers are often the most trustworthy guides.

So, I think it would be safe to say this one falls into the Not Recommended category.

Amazon UK Link

The Edinburgh Mystery and Other Tales of Scottish Crime edited by Martin Edwards

Taking the low road…

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Another anthology of vintage crime from the British Library, this one has the theme of Scottish stories – either stories written by Scots, or written by people from elsewhere (generally England) but set in Scotland. There are seventeen stories in total, though a handful of them are very short and quite slight. There’s the usual mix of weel-kent names, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson; some regulars of these anthologies, such as Michael Innes and GK Chesterton; and several that I’ve never come across before. Some of my favourite stories were from these never previously encountered writers, of whom several were Scottish, so that pleased my patriotic little soul and has given me a few names to investigate further – always one of the pleasures of these anthologies. The geographical spread is good too – a few of the stories are set in the big cities, but the writers have taken full advantage of the less populated areas of the Highlands and the Borders too.

In terms of quality, there was only one outright dud and that was the Chesterton story. However, regular readers of my reviews might remember that I can’t stand Chesterton’s silly religiosity, and he compounded his usual faults in this one by throwing in just about every negative Scottish stereotype you can think of, so I suspect my rating is quite subjective! Of the rest, I rated ten as either good, very good or excellent, which makes this one of the stronger of these collections. I really liked the variety – everything from humour, both dark and light, to veering towards the noir end of crime fiction, and Edwards has picked a lot of stories that show different aspects of Scottish life, from urban to rural to wilderness, from the mean streets of Glasgow to the huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ Lairds of the Highlands. The vast majority of the stories are about the middle or upper classes but that’s standard for British vintage crime generally.

Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

A Medical Crime by J Storer Clouston – Carrington, a sort of consulting detective, tells of a case in Kinbuckie, a smallish town where a series of burglaries have taken place. The local provost has asked Carrington to investigate, since the police seem baffled. The local Superintendent tells Carrington that there are signs that lead him to believe one of the six local doctors must be involved, and Carrington has to work out which. He uses some clever trickery to do just that. An excellent story, well-written and clever enough to be enjoyable though I did have my suspicions which proved to be right for once. But what lifts it is the gentle humour that Clouston pokes at small-town Scottish prejudices. Lots of fun!

Footsteps by Anthony Wynne – Starring Dr Hailey, who was Wynne’s regular detective. Here he is invited to visit a friend who is staying in an old Scottish castle, where a few years earlier the Laird’s wife had died and the Laird had killed himself. Now ghostly footsteps sound along the corridors and Hailey’s friend’s nerves are frayed to breaking point. Hailey is a strictly rational man, so sets out to discover the truth of the footsteps and in so doing uncovers a dark story of jealousy and murder. A delightfully creepy start to this one and it gradually becomes very dark towards the end. Wynne uses the Gothic setting to create a deliciously sinister and spooky atmosphere.

The Body of Sir Henry by Augustus Muir. MacIver, now a bigwig in the police, tells a tale of when he was a young beat policeman in the Borders. One rainy night a car stops and the driver asks him for directions to a nearby village where there is only one big house (the obvious inference being that anyone who could afford a car back then must be gentry). As the car drives away, it is suddenly lit up by the reflection of its headlights in a shop window, and MacIver sees that the back seat is occupied by a beautiful woman… and what looks to him like a dead man! He decides to follow them on his bicycle to the big house to investigate. The mystery element of this is very slight but the story-telling is great, with a touch of creepiness, some humour and a healthy dash of danger.

The Running of the Deer by PM Hubbard. Our narrator, himself a member of the gentry, has been asked by a friend to supervise the culling of the deer hinds on the friend’s estate. The other two men who are helping with the culling seem to be a little at odds with each other. During the hunt, something spooks the deer and they begin to run towards the stalkers. In the ensuing chaos, one of the two men dies. Accident? Or murder? A very well-written story, full of great descriptions of the hills in winter and of the traditions and rules surrounding deer-stalking, and the behaviour patterns of deer. The strength of the central story is all in the ambiguity of it. My favourite story of the collection!

So loads of variety and lots of writers who deserve to be much better known than they are. I’m off now to see if any of their books are in print!

Amazon UK Link

The Dark (Lacey Flint 5) by Sharon Bolton

Lacey’s back!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a baby is snatched from its mother and thrown into the Thames aboard an inflatable unicorn, off-duty police officer Lacey Flint gives chase in her kayak. It soon becomes clear this terrifying incident is to be the first of many. DCI Mark Joesbury has been following the trail of a group of women-haters who have been communicating through the dark web, and had known that something was about to happen. Now he and his team know that the men involved are planning a campaign of terror, directed at women. And by getting involved in this first incident, Lacey has made herself a target…

Wow! When Sharon Bolton is on top form, there is no one to beat her. And she is most certainly on her top form in this one! Of course it’s a pleasure to meet up with Lacey and Mark and the rest of the regulars again, and to see how their lives have developed since we last saw them, which seems like a very long time ago. Dana and Helen are now the proud parents of a son, and this makes the whole terror campaign even more frightening for Dana since these men realise that one of the best ways to frighten women is to go after their children. I don’t want to reveal much about Lacey and Mark, since there may be people reading this who haven’t read the rest of the series, so I’ll just say that their running on/off relationship continues to move forward in this instalment. And Bolton continues to use her chosen setting of the Thames to brilliant effect, with Lacey still working in the Metropolitan Police’s marine unit.

The storyline is both fantastic and terrifyingly possible. It’s based on the idea of incels, which has become one of those words that gets bandied around these days, usually as an insult. However Bolton shows them not as a trivial group of disgruntled men who can’t get girlfriends, but as the basis of a seriously misogynistic movement with the aim of removing the hard won rights of women and returning them to a position of subservience within a new patriarchy. She does an amazing job of showing how feasible such an organisation would be, and compares their aims to the kinds of strict patriarchal regimes that already exist in other parts of the world, which makes the whole idea seem considerably less unlikely than it might do on face value in our (supposedly) liberal world. (As I was reading it, The US Supreme Court was in the process of removing the right to abortion, while in most of the West a heated debate is underway on all aspects of women’s rights, with many things that we have fought long and hard for suddenly seeming to be under threat amid attempts by extremist activists to silence women’s voices. Johnny Depp was suing Amber Heard, and whichever side you’re on in that one I suspect we would all agree that the sexualised abuse and death threats directed at Heard daily on social media have been a real sign that misogyny is alive and well, and very often propped up by women.)

Bolton also uses the idea of the dark web to great effect, showing it as a place where all kinds of organisations can group and recruit members, spread information and disinformation, and conspire to commit all kinds of criminal acts under the noses of the authorities but with them unable to identify the names or locations of the people involved. I don’t know whether this is true or not, having no experience whatsoever of the dark web, but I found it scarily believable.

However, Bolton knows how to get the balance right between this all too believable background and the main thriller elements that keep the pace hurtling along. There are aspects that aren’t wholly credible, but I didn’t have time to stop and think about them as my need to keep turning those pages was too strong. I did guess who the baddie was quite early on, but because this is more of a thriller than a straight mystery that didn’t matter – the tension comes from fear of what will happen in the future rather than from discovering the culprit.

Sharon Bolton

I do like the way Lacey has evolved over the series. Bolton has done it slowly and naturally, so that it feels realistic. She’s now less of a loner, beginning to let her guard down a bit with the people she has come to think of as friends. This makes her more likeable than she was in the beginning, and from my perspective that’s a good thing – I always prefer a likeable central character. And no spoilers, but the very last line left me gobsmacked – I did not see that coming! Unfortunately, or that should really be fortunately, you’ll have to read the entire series in order to find out what I’m talking about – my advice would be to start now… 😉 Great book, great series! Keep ‘em coming, Ms Bolton!

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

Amazon UK Link

Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

Drink and death…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When Claude Margolis is found stabbed to death, suspicion falls not unnaturally on a woman who has been spending time with him recently, Virginia Barkeley, who is found wandering the streets nearby in a drunken state and covered in blood. Virginia’s husband hires lawyer Eric Meecham to defend her. However his lawyerly skills aren’t needed for too long, since although Virginia can’t remember the events of the evening, another witness has come forward whose evidence seems to clear her. But something doesn’t feel quite right about the whole thing to Meecham, and he finds himself trying to find out exactly what did happen to Margolis…

This is billed as noir, but although it has some noir elements I don’t think it sits fully in that genre. It’s closer to a traditional mystery in style with Meecham playing the role of the unofficial detective. None of the various women fulfils the requirements of the femme fatale, being considerably more realistic and well-rounded than those usually are. Meecham is a little cynical about human nature, but he’s not completely world-weary, he works within the law, and he treats women like real people even if he does display the occasional “me Tarzan, you Jane” mentality typical of the time.

However, there are undoubtedly bleak aspects to the story that may be why some consider it noir. Drink plays a large part – not just Virginia’s blackout, but there’s another character, an elderly woman who, late in life, has become an alcoholic after a lifetime of not drinking. As her son says of her “One drink, and she was a drunk. She’d been a drunk for maybe thirty years and didn’t find it out until then. For her the world vanished in that instant.” It’s a really excellent portrayal of the shame of alcoholism for an elderly, respectable woman – hiding and lying, trying to keep up appearances, and always desperately trying to find the money to buy the next bottle.

Book 7 of 80

Her son, Earl Loftus, is another interesting characterisation. Still a young man, he is dying of a then incurable condition – leukaemia – and Millar shows how this affects his thoughts and actions, and the people around him. I am deliberately avoiding saying how Earl fits into the story, since the plot is revealed slowly and steadily as the book progresses and almost any information about it could count as a spoiler. But I found the depiction of him as a dying man credible and quite moving, and his actions seemed to arise naturally out of his situation.

The pace is slow and steady throughout, perhaps a little too slow in the middle section where I found my interest dipping for a while. But Meecham is a likeable lead character who shows a lot of empathy and understanding for the weakness and frailties that lead the other characters to act as they do. I could have done without the instant “true love” he finds with a character with whom he has exchanged all of about six sentences, especially since I found the girl annoyingly keen to become his adoring, submissive slave. (Is it just me, or are female authors of this era often more sexist than their male counterparts? Seems to me male crime writers of the ‘50s and ‘60s like their female love interests to be strong, sexy and a bit dangerous, while female authors make them clingy and pathetic. Maybe I just notice it more when it’s a female author who annoys me in this way.)

Margaret Millar

Some aspects of the plot are fairly easy to work out, but enough is held back to allow for a surprise at the end – a surprise that in truth seemed to me to lessen the general credibility up to that point, although not enough to lose me completely. It’s very well written, with the strength lying more in the characterisation than the plot. Overall, I preferred the only other Millar I’ve read to date, The Listening Walls, but I enjoyed this one enough to cement her in her place as an author I’d like to investigate further.

Amazon UK Link

Knots and Crosses (Rebus 1) by Ian Rankin

A study in psyche…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Three young girls have been abducted from the streets of Edinburgh, and Detective Sergeant John Rebus has been assigned to the team investigating the disappearances. Soon the discovery of the bodies of the girls makes the case even more serious, and the race is on to find the killer before any more girls go missing

This is the first book in what became the long-running Rebus series, and it is very different in style from the way the series developed later. Apparently Rankin hadn’t originally intended it to become a series – he wrote this as a one-off, as an examination of a damaged man, suffering from PTSD following his experiences in the SAS.

I’m very glad that I didn’t originally read this series in order because, to be honest, had I read this book first I doubt very much whether I would have gone on to read any of the others. (Thus confirming my general belief that the first book in any series is often the weakest, and it’s often better to jump in around the third or fourth and then work backwards.) The quality of the writing is already here – Rankin could already evoke Edinburgh in all its contrasts of wealth and poverty, the powerful and the marginalised. But the story, as a crime story, is well nigh non-existent. The missing girls are so forgotten about that I still couldn’t tell you any of their names. There is almost no detection, on the page at least, and we spend far more time learning about Rebus’ psychological problems than about either the victims or the perpetrator.

And while it’s an interesting thought to see how a man suffering from the effects of PTSD would have difficulty coping in the police, I’m afraid the implausibility of the reasons for Rebus’ problems made it impossible for me to fully buy in to the premise. Having read many of the later books, I’ve always been aware that Rebus had served in the SAS at an earlier point in his life, but here in the first book we learn that in fact he was so traumatised during the training that he never made it through. In itself this is hard enough to accept since, although the SAS has the reputation of being only for the toughest of the tough, I can’t believe that they would put new recruits through the kind of extreme experiences to which we are expected to believe Rebus was subjected, and send them back into civvy street as broken men.

But what I found even more unbelievable is that the police would employ someone so badly damaged. Because he is very badly damaged, to the point of frequently collapsing, losing awareness of where he is, losing consciousness, becoming violent, etc. And it’s certainly not due to the stress of his current job, since he doesn’t really appear to do anything very much.

The other thing that surprised me is that Rebus is shown here as a man of faith, battling to reconcile his belief in an all-powerful, loving God with the horrors he sees happening daily in the world around him. It’s interestingly done, with that distinctive Scottish flavour of ambivalence towards the whole subject of religion, but again feels very different to the cynical Rebus who develops in the later books.

This whole concentration on Rebus’ psyche goes on for far too long. The story of the abductions is really packed into the last few chapters, by which point I had pretty much forgotten all about the dead girls. I was also disappointed that Rankin fell back on the old clichés of the motivation of the killer arising out of personal animosity for the detective, together with a side story involving Rebus’ brother. However, in these final chapters we see the beginnings of the more traditional style of noir-ish police procedural that Rankin would develop in future books and, throughout, his skill in invoking atmosphere and excellence in characterisation are already clear. Although the Edinburgh setting is already well developed, there isn’t the focus on specifically Scottish society and culture that would become a major feature down the line.

Ian Rankin

So, all in all, my recommendation to newcomers would be to come in a few books further on, when Rankin had begun to focus more on the crime aspects and had allowed Rebus to become rather more functional! For existing fans this one is interesting to see how it all began, but with the proviso that the Rebus of this book has become a very different man by the time Rankin fully hits his stride. I’ll be interested to see over the next few books if that transformation is done by a process of slow evolution, or if Rankin merely threw out the bits of Rebus’ original character that didn’t work so well once he had decided to use him as the lead in a long-running series.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by James Macpherson, who has narrated all of the Rebus books and does a fine job with them.

Audible UK Link

N or M? (Tommy and Tuppence 3) by Agatha Christie

Careless talk costs lives…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1940, and Tommy and Tuppence are desperate to help the war effort in any way they can. But they’re in their forties now, and Tommy is seen as too old for the armed services while Tuppence’s old skills from her days as a nurse in WW1 don’t seem to be in demand either. Tommy gets in touch with Mr Carter, now retired from the Secret Service, and asks if he can pull any strings. And then a Mr Grant shows up, ostensibly offering Tommy a dull but useful clerical role in Scotland. But when Tuppence leaves the room, Mr Grant tells Tommy this is a cover story – really the Secret Service want him to go undercover to a boarding house in the South of England from where they believe a top Nazi spy is operating. But they don’t know who – all they know is that it’s one of two people known only by their code initials, one male, one female – N or M. It’s vital the spy should be uncovered – the whole war depends on it! The operation is top secret and no one must know he’s going, not even Tuppence. So off Tommy goes, but when he gets there he’s in for a big surprise when he meets one of his fellow guests – Mrs Blenkinsop, who bears an uncanny resemblance to his eavesdropping wife…

I’m afraid when Ms Christie gets into espionage plots they become so convoluted and unlikely that I’m always left feeling if this was the best the Nazis could do the only wonder is they didn’t lose more quickly! But I don’t care – Tommy and Tuppence, especially Tuppence, are so much fun to spend time with that the plot can be as silly as it likes and I’ll still love the book! And there’s so much in it about the anxieties that would have been forefront in the minds of people on the Home Front that I expect it didn’t seem nearly so unbelievable when it was published in 1941 – Fifth Columnists, parachuting spies, those perfidious Irish, Nazi sympathisers, German refugees who might be spies… and all while Britain was standing alone against the mighty Nazi war machine, and victory was far from certain. As would have been the case for so many people too old to serve, Tommy and Tuppence’s two children – adults now – are in the forces, and both doing jobs requiring a lot of secrecy so that their parents don’t even know where they are much of the time. It’s partly to take their minds off this constant worry that makes them both so keen to be doing something – anything – to help.

Book 3 of 20

The boarding house is filled with a variety of characters who all look innocent enough, but equally could all be N or M. There’s the retired military man who seems to despair of democratic Britain and feels the Nazis are doing quite a good job of running Germany – but is he really a Nazi sympathiser or just a grumpy old man? Is the Irishwoman loyal to Britain despite her husband’s Irish nationalism during WW1? Is the young German really a refugee from a regime he hates, or is he an infiltrator? What about the hypochondriacal man and his put-upon wife – are they what they seem? Surely the mother evacuated from London with her young child must be just what she claims? That was what made the idea of the Fifth Column so frightening – once you accept the idea as possible, then anyone could be a Nazi spy. And so every careless word could lead to death or disaster for our troops. Christie captures this feeling of paranoia very well.

Despite all this serious stuff, there’s also enough humour in it to stop the tone from becoming too dark. The banter between Tommy and Tuppence is always entertaining, and here there’s an added element in that we see how their children treat them as if they were ancient and past it, while Tommy and Tuppence in reality are doing a far more important and secret job than either of them. Albert makes an appearance, and while it’s always fun to see him, sadly he follows in the tradition of Lord Wimsey’s Bunter or Campion’s Lugg – the comedy working class character who adores and idolises his master or mistress. Albert actually refers to Tommy as his master, for goodness sake! So I’m glad he plays a fairly minor role, and am devoutly thankful that neither Poirot nor Miss Marple saw the need for a working class sidekick.

Hugh Fraser

Hugh Fraser is as wonderful as always. Here he gets the chance to play loads of different characters, from grumpy old men to beautiful, moody young women, not to mention the toddler who speaks mostly in baby language and gurgles, and he handles them all brilliantly! So, despite my niggles with the plot, this is a hugely enjoyable listening experience, and Tommy and Tuppence are as much fun as ever!

Audible UK Link

The Murder Rule by Dervla McTiernan

A question of guilt…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Young law student Hannah Rokeby is desperate to get taken on by the Innocence Project, a group run by charismatic attorney Rob Parekh to fight to free prisoners they believe have been wrongly convicted. Places on the project are coveted by students, since it looks good on a new lawyer’s CV. But Hannah has deeper reasons for wanting to be part of it – personal reasons. The Project is trying to free Michael Dandridge, convicted of rape and murder, but long ago Hannah’s mother was a victim of Dandridge too and Hannah feels she must ensure Dandridge stays in prison for the sake of her mother’s mental health. So she tricks her way in, but then slowly begins to discover there may be things about Dandridge’s past that don’t quite fit with what she believes…

Written in the third person past tense, we see the story unfold from Hannah’s perspective so that we know what she knows – no more and no less. In the beginning, mostly what she knows comes from an old diary her mom kept back when she knew Dandridge and his friend Tom. This diary is given to the reader in short chapters between the present day story of Hannah settling in at the project. Happily, though, McTiernan is not playing the overused “that day” game – we know pretty quickly what happened to cause Hannah’s mother to fear Dandridge for all these years, and that lets us sympathise to some extent with the lies and tricks Hannah plays to get on the project, although some of them are rather cruel and make her hard to like.

Dervla McTiernan

It’s very well written and keeps up a good pace, avoiding any mid-book flab. In fact it comes in at under 300 pages, so quite short for a contemporary crime novel, but I felt it’s the perfect length for the story. It held my interest throughout and kept me turning the pages, so a successful read from the sheer enjoyability aspect. However, my credibility meter went into the red zone at a fairly early point and by the end was screeching out overload signals. The final courtroom scene was almost farcical – any last remnants of believability disappeared into the distance, never to be seen again. I don’t want to go into the plot in any detail, since it has so many twists and turns it would be hard to avoid spoilers. But oddly, it isn’t the basic plot that has the credibility issues – all of that I could believe reasonably easily. It’s the silly way it’s played out, with unnecessary drama, people being beaten to a pulp one day and then being back to being action-man the next day, Hannah brilliantly spotting things missed by all the qualified lawyers, the evil pantomime baddies, the aforesaid courtroom scene. I felt that had McTiernan written it as a straight mystery it could have been excellent, but trying to turn it into a thriller simply took it far too far from any sense of realism.

So although I enjoyed reading it for the most part, I was left with a slight feeling of disappointment that it could have been so much better than it was. However, I believe this is something of a departure for McTiernan, and I certainly enjoyed it enough to try another of her books to see if her usual style works better for me. Meantime, if you enjoy a fast-paced mystery/thriller and aren’t as picky about credibility issues as I am, this is a well-written and entertaining read.

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

Amazon UK Link

The Flemish House (Maigret 14) by Georges Simenon

Culture clash…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Maigret has been approached by a young woman, Anna Peeters, who wants his help. Her family is suspected of having killed another young woman, the lover of Joseph, Anna’s brother, and the mother of his child. Anna fears the local police are about to arrest them and wants Maigret to investigate separately. Since Anna has been introduced to him by an old friend, Maigret agrees, and heads to the small town of Givet on the Belgian border to look into the matter in an unofficial capacity.

This is a short one even by Maigret standards, coming in at just 132 pages, or 3 hours for the audiobook. It gives an interesting picture of a border town, looking in two directions and split between French and Belgian cultures. Simenon was Belgian by birth, although he moved to France as a young man. Here he shows how the French people in Givet look down on the Flemish residents, and because the Peeters family have done well for themselves they also meet with a lot of resentment, of the kind that suggests they are aiming above their station as members of a “lower” culture.

The Peeters themselves behave as if they think they are something special. The missing girl is a young French girl called Germaine Piedbouef and the Peeters see her as too common to marry their precious Joseph, who anyway is more or less betrothed to his cousin Marguerite. Germaine was last seen when she visited the Peeters’ house, looking for the monthly allowance that Joseph paid her for the maintenance of the child. Although no body has been found, the local police are assuming that she has been murdered and that the Peeters must have been involved, either having committed the murder as a group or at the least covering up for whichever one of them did the deed.

Book 1 of 20

Maigret is less sure – perhaps the girl has simply given up hope that Joseph will marry her and run away to Paris, or perhaps despair has caused her to take her own life. And so he wanders around Givet talking to people, drinking plenty of the local Flemish drink of choice, genever (a kind of gin, apparently), and waiting for the local police to find Germaine, dead or alive. He becomes increasingly fascinated by the Peeters family. To him Joseph seems an unremarkable, rather weak young man, but his mother, sisters and cousin Marguerite all adore him immoderately and see him as the centre of their world. Anna particularly intrigues Maigret – she seems so sure of herself, so unemotional, but determined. He realises she is the true centre of the family, the person who holds them together and gives them strength.

Gareth Armstrong

Maigret does more actual detection in this one than is sometimes the case, and as always his setting is very well portrayed, with the added interest of the mixed culture. The dynamics within the Peeters family is also shown very believably, from a time when men were seen as the most important members of a family due largely to their greater opportunities to have a career and a place in the public sphere. The ending is a little odd in that it left me wondering why Maigret decided to do what he did – vague to avoid spoilers, sorry – but it added an interesting element to his character. A good one, and as usual the excellent narration by Gareth Armstrong added to my enjoyment.

Audible UK Link

The House by the River by A.P. Herbert

Murder and waffle…

🙂 🙂 😐

Fashionable poet Stephen Byrne lives with his wife in Hammerton Close, in a lovely house overlooking his beloved Thames. When he’s not poeting, he’s to be found out on the river, paddling his rowing boat over to the island opposite the house, or going further afield in his motor boat. Often he’s accompanied by his best friend, John Egerton. So when Stephen “accidentally” strangles his maid to death when she unaccountably resists his attempts to seduce her while his wife is out, it’s to John he turns for assistance in disposing of the body, and where better than in the river? But submerged bodies have a habit of rising to the surface…

There’s actually a great little story hidden in here, but it’s surrounded by so much waffle that I had to exercise maximum willpower to stick it out to the end, and even then I eventually began to skip past the endless descriptions and digressions.

When the inquest is held, circumstances arise that throw suspicion on John, though there’s not enough evidence for the police to arrest him. So what we have are two competing moral dilemmas, and two contrasting characters. Stephen is selfish and egotistical, easily able to find reasons why everything is always someone else’s fault. His belief in himself as a great poet means he feels he is more valuable than all the ordinary people in the world. John, on the other hand, is loyal to a fault, ready to accept a sacrifice of his own reputation to save Stephen and, more chivalrously, Stephen’s wife from the consequences of Stephen’s guilt. But if it looks as if John will be arrested, will Stephen allow him to take the rap even if it means John will be hanged? And will John’s loyalty take him all the way to the gallows?

Challenge details:
Book:
73
Subject Heading: The Psychology of Crime
Publication Year: 1920

The book is quite short, so I felt that it could easily be filled by these dilemmas and the impact of them on the two men and the wider community. Instead, Herbert fills the pages with extraneous waffle – a lengthy description of the new styles of dancing, endless descriptions of the river and its human inhabitants, jocular character portraits of people who play no real part in the plot. The entire extent of the police investigation is that they turn up when the body is found, ask the two men if they know anything and accept their assurances that they don’t. We never hear another word about the police – they interview no one, search no houses, make no effort to find if the maid had any personal relationships, etc. Herbert could have got some drama into it by having the police net slowly tighten around the guilty men, but instead he prefers to describe the river again and again.

AP Herbert

Then there’s the treatment of the maid. No one in the Close is bothered about her having been murdered. It doesn’t even make them fear that there might be a madman on the loose. Even those who suspect John merely seem to rather disapprove of murdering maids, mostly because good maids aren’t easy to get. The girl’s parents don’t appear to care either – they see it as a money-making opportunity, demanding that John pay them compensation. It’s all too unrealistic, even for this era.

And yet those central dilemmas are interesting and Herbert handles them well, when he’s paying attention to them. The sections where we are allowed inside the minds of the two men are excellent, and both feel psychologically believable in how they act and then react as time passes. The denouement is very good, with some of the tension that I felt should have been there all along. And the ending is quite satisfying, though marred by another lengthy, supposedly humorous digression between the climax and the last pages. As a novella, this could have been great. As a novel, the story is strangled by digressions, smothered by descriptions, and drowned in the endless river.

I downloaded this one from Project Gutenberg.

The Perfect Crime edited by Vaseem Khan and Maxim Jakubowski

The spice of life…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

The blurb for this anthology claims that it includes stories from “twenty-two best selling crime writers from diverse cultures coming together from across the world”. I’ll start by saying that I don’t think this is an accurate description. All bar one of the authors lives in Britain, US, or one of the old Dominions. The exception is that there’s one author from Nigeria. So while it is true that all the authors bar one are from what we consider in our majority white countries to be ethnic minorities, I would find it hard to say that they represent “the world” unless we consider the English-speaking nations to constitute the world.

So, putting the fashionable diversity selling-point to one side (which is where I wish publishers would put it permanently), how does it work as an anthology of crime stories? As with most anthologies, I found it something of a mixed bag. It divided for me more or less half and half between stories in the poor-to-OK range and stories in the good-to-great range. Some of this is due to my subjective taste – any story, for instance, with excessive swearing or violence is always going to get a low rating from me, but these are such commonplaces in contemporary crime fiction that presumably plenty of people find them enjoyable. A couple of others played the anti-white racism game too unsubtly for my taste. Happily, though, despite that virtue-signalling blurb, most of the authors have steered clear of “diversity” as a subject and have concentrated on writing interesting and entertaining stories.

Overall, the good stories more than made up for the less good ones. I have added several authors to my list to read some of their novels in the future, which is always a sign of success in an anthology. There are noir stories, bleak stories, funny stories, tense stories, and stories that veer very close to horror, sometimes of the camp variety. Lots of originality and variety on display. I’m a bit out of touch with contemporary crime these days, but several of the names were familiar to me – Abir Mukherjee, Sulari Gentill, Ausma Zehanat Khan, etc., while many more were new to me which again is always part of the fun of anthologies.

Here’s a brief flavour of some of the ones I enjoyed most:

Jumping Ship by Oyinkan Braithwaite – Ida’s lover asks her to take some photographs of his new-born baby. She’s reluctant, but agrees. When she gets to his house, he is not there but his wife Mina and the baby are. Then Mina disappears – and later the body of Ida’s lover is discovered. This is very good, quite creepy and tense and very well written. I haven’t read any of Braithwaite’s work before, but when I looked her up I realised that she was the author of the recent very successful My Sister, the Serial Killer, which I’ve now added to my wishlist.

The Beautiful Game by Sanjida Kay – While on a night out with her sisters, Selene meets top footballer Luke Allard. He invites Selene to his house, and they become lovers. Next morning his mum Colette takes Selene under her wing, explaining how she has to behave now she’s Luke’s girlfriend. Selene’s family are thrilled that she has caught the eye of this rich and famous young man, and tell her she has to get a ring on her finger. But there’s a room in Luke’s house… a room that Selene is told she must never enter… 😱
This is excellent – both tense and fun! It’s so far over the top as to be almost camp horror, and it’s very well written. Kay has also written several successful novels, though she’s new to me.

Chinook by Thomas King – A small town in the Rockies. A man is found dead outside the saloon. The police chief, Duke, brings in his pal, Thumps Dreadfulwater, on the investigation. The victim was a bad man so plenty of people might have wanted him dead, and Thumps and Duke work together to find out what happened. The investigation in this one is nearly non-existent but the story and storytelling are great fun. Thumps and Duke are a great pairing, and the small town setting is done very well. While I haven’t read anything by Thomas King before, I was aware of him because of the enthusiasm for his books of Anne at ivereadthis.com. His Thumps Dreadfulwater books are not easily available over here, but I have my fingers crossed that the publisher might put them out on Kindle at some point in the future.

Buttons by Imran Mahmood – Our narrator is Daniel, a narcissist, possibly autistic, with a fetish for buttons. Is he a serial killer? The question becomes important when he goes on a date – will he kill her? This is very well done, ambiguous and scary, and feels fresh and original. Again Mahmood has had a couple of successful novels, although to be honest neither of them appeals to me terribly much. I will look out for his name in the future though.

So, as I said, lots of introductions for me to new authors who have sparked my interest to investigate further. And because of the variety and range, I’m fairly sure every crime fiction fan will find some new authors and some stories to enjoy in this anthology.

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

Amazon UK Link

The Grell Mystery by Frank Froest

Man hunt!

🙂 🙂 🙂

On the night before his wedding, American millionaire Robert Grell leaves his club, telling his friend, Sir Ralph Fairfield, that he’ll be back shortly. He does not return, however, and Sir Ralph later learns that he has been found murdered in his flat. Chief Inspector Heldon Foyle of the CID takes personal charge of the case since Grell is a prominent figure with ties to his government in the States. The case already seems difficult since no one has a known motive to murder Grell. But it soon becomes even more mysterious when it transpires the dead man is not Grell at all – it is in fact another American, called Goldenburg, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Grell. Grell has disappeared, as has his Russian valet, Ivan, not to mention the mysterious veiled woman who was in the flat around the time of the murder, who might be Princess Petrovska or is possibly Lola the showgirl or could be someone else entirely. So to have any hope of solving the crime, first Foyle must find all these missing people…

And that’s exactly what he does. The book almost entirely concentrates on the hunt for Grell and the others, the theory being that, when they are found, they will be able to reveal what exactly happened to Goldenburg and why. So there’s no real investigation of the murder in terms of motives and so on – it’s strictly a police procedural account of a man (and woman) hunt, filled with details of how the Metropolitan Police went about their job back in 1913 when the book was published. This isn’t too surprising since the author was himself an active police officer from 1879 until his retirement in 1912 from the post of Superintendent of the Met’s CID – effectively Foyle’s boss, though one feels Foyle is probably something of an alter-ego for Froest himself. Which is a bit of a worry, since Foyle seems to feel that as far as police officers go, following the law should be optional…

There were things, of course, that could not be put in writing, but Foyle never invited his subordinates to act against the law. Such things have to be done at a man’s own discretion without official sanction.

It seemed to me that Froest’s aim was not so much to tell a mystery story as to describe the workings of the CID and the types of people and criminality they deal with on a daily basis. So in the course of the hunt we are taken to gambling dens, we meet petty crooks and informers, we learn about fingerprinting and record-keeping and liaising with foreign police forces, we get an idea of the police hierarchy and discipline, we spend time with the river police on the Thames, and so on. Foyle and his colleagues also tell each other anecdotes about previous cases they have dealt with. It’s all quite interesting, giving a snapshot of police work at this specific time in these early days of the twentieth century, when forensic techniques were in their infancy.

Challenge details:
Book:
60
Subject Heading:
The Long Arm of the Law
Publication Year: 19
13

However, in order to have room for all this it’s necessary for the police to be singularly incompetent at actually finding any of the missing people! Near miss follows near miss, with all of the detectives making blunders just as they’re about to lay hands on Grell, letting him escape so that Foyle can go on hunting for another few chapters, then another few, and so on. I gradually found I had tired of the chase – I would probably have preferred to be reading a factual memoir of Froest’s time as a detective than have it all rolled into a fictional mystery. The mystery element is well set up in the first few chapters and then is put on hold for a couple of hundred of pages while the manhunt takes place, before being wrapped up rather quickly in the last few pages with a written confession from the murderer to explain all. I confess I started to skim at about the halfway mark, eventually leaping over chunks of the procedural stuff and only tuning back in properly when the solution finally hove into view.

Frank Froest

So overall I found it overly detailed, with too much concentration on the minutiae of detective work at the expense of moving the plot along. However, the minutiae was interesting, and probably even more so in 1913 when the mystery novel was still a new concept and the readership might well be reading about police practices for the first time. For those of us modern readers who have read a million police procedurals it doesn’t feel quite so original and therefore the detail just serves to slow the book to a crawl. I feel the impatience I developed with it is quite subjective, though, and I can imagine that plenty of people would thoroughly enjoy this detailed look at early policing.

I downloaded this one from Gutenberg.org – here’s the link.

Killing Rock (Sullivan and Broderick 3) by Robert Daws

Complicated but satisfying…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Detective Sergeant Tamara Sullivan has decided to make her temporary transfer from London’s Met to the Royal Gibraltar Police permanent, but bureaucracy means that she must have a month’s break between the two jobs. She opts to spend the time looking after a friend’s small ranch across the border in Spain. The friend’s daughter is an Inspector with the Spanish police and the two young women immediately hit it off. So when cases arise in both Gibraltar and Spain, each of which seems to have a cross-border element, Tamara and Consuela find themselves putting their talents together. Meantime, Gus Broderick finds he might be connected to the victim in the Gibraltar case, so for much of the time he has to take a back seat and trust that Tamara will be able to clear his name.

This has a hugely complicated plot (not helped by the outbreak of war while I was in the middle of the book, resulting in a long gap in reading and a complete loss of concentration!), but it all comes together very satisfactorily in the end. Sullivan is very much the lead character in this one and she’s a likeable detective who plays by the rules, is intelligent, occasionally a little reckless but not too much so, and has a healthy social life and good working relationships with her colleagues. She’s developing into one of my favourite contemporary detectives. Broderick too is a professional, and he has the family life that Sullivan hasn’t yet, so between them they give a nicely rounded picture of normal life, and isn’t that refreshing in modern crime fiction! And the Gibraltar setting is great – Daws has been a regular visitor there for many years and clearly knows the place and the culture very well. I find this surviving outpost of the old British Empire fascinating, and in this one we get to see some of the tensions between Gibraltar and Spain, and also how local people work well together across the border, leaving the politicians to do the squabbling.

The Gibraltar case involves the discovery of the body of a woman, long buried beneath what was then a building site. A letter is found in her possession that suggests she knew Gus Broderick long ago, so her death in Gibraltar, far from her own home but close to his, makes him a suspect. His colleagues are never in any doubt of his innocence, but to prove it they must discover why the woman was there and what happened to her. This involves painstaking tracing of all the people who were connected to the building site at the time of her death.

The Spanish case is both more spectacular and far more complicated, and I’m wary of giving any possible spoilers so forgive some vagueness. It begins when three bodies are found drowned in a swimming pool, and it soon becomes clear this is one in a series of similar killings. But the victims don’t appear to be completely random, and it’s up to Consuela, with a good deal of unofficial assistance from Tamara, to find out the connection. The third-person narrative allows the reader access to information before the detectives, so we meet a couple of mysterious characters that we know must be involved in some way, but it’s not till the end that all the different strands come together and make sense. I felt as if I was floundering a bit halfway through and feared it was all going to be too much to pull together credibly, but Daws does a great job of showing how all the different parts are ultimately connected. 

Robert Daws

This is settling down to be a very good series. It’s not at all cosy, but it avoids a reliance on shock twists, gore and angst-ridden detectives. Swearing is kept to a minimum, professionals behave professionally, plots are complicated and intriguing but also solid and credible. It’s not obsessed with the fashionable and grossly overused subjects of the day – race, gender and identity issues – which is a boon and a blessing to personkind! And the unique setting provides an added level of interest. Each book acts perfectly as a standalone so there’s no particular need to read them in order. I do hope Daws’ acting commitments allow him to keep finding the time to write – he’s as good at each job as the other!

Amazon UK Link

The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley

Peril in Paris…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Jess has left her job in England rather suddenly, and in a way that means it’s advisable that she make herself scarce for a while. So she tells her brother Ben that she is coming to visit him in Paris. However, when she arrives Ben is not there, and no one in the opulent apartment building where he’s been living seems able to tell Jess where he might be. He isn’t replying to texts or phone calls, and when Jess breaks into his apartment she finds his wallet and other items that she would have expected him to take with him had he left voluntarily. All alone in a foreign country, the language of which she doesn’t speak, Jess sets out to find out what can have happened to Ben…

Jess and Ben haven’t been close for years. When they were children, their mother committed suicide and they were taken into care. Ben, good looking, always able to charm people, was quickly adopted while Jess stayed in the care system being passed from foster home to foster home. So Ben was the one who got a good education and all the opportunities in life, while Jess has had to scrabble in a series of no-hope jobs to survive. But Jess still loves her brother and has turned to him for help from time to time. Now it seems that perhaps Ben needs her help for once.

Jess is surprised that Ben can afford to live in an apartment as expensive as this one seems to be, but she soon learns that one of the other tenants, Nick, is a friend of his from his university days and got him in at a reduced rent. All the tenants in the building seem reluctant to talk about Ben and Jess soon comes to suspect that there are some kinds of dynamics going on that she doesn’t understand. And soon she begins to feel threatened, though she can’t quite work out where the threat is coming from…

This is a fast-paced page-turner which I enjoyed considerably more than the only other Foley I’ve read, The Guest List. As usual there’s too much adolescent swearing for my taste, and as well as Anglo-Saxon cursing Foley has clearly googled common French swearwords and shoehorns them in as often as she can. The writing is good, though rather simplistic – there are no great descriptions or evocations of Paris. However, for me that suited the style of story and kept the pace rocketing along. The apartment building itself is very well depicted and has some lovely Gothic touches which help to ramp up the tension.

Lucy Foley

I liked Jess as a character. She’s had a tough life so she doesn’t scare easily and she feels she can take care of herself. She’s a bit out of her depth in this city where she knows no one and doesn’t know whom she can trust, but her love for her brother gives her the courage she needs to keep searching even when things get scary. The other residents of the apartments are an unlikeable bunch, intentionally so, and secrets abound! There are alternating chapters from the viewpoints of several of the characters, and although their voices are not really distinctive enough their personalities and thoughts are, so it’s quickly easy to recognise each of them as the perspective shifts.

The story touches on some serious topics, but lightly – this is an entertainment rather than a preachy “issues” book (hurrah!). The ending, though unlikely, didn’t feel impossible, so my credulity meter stayed in the safety zone and I found it all quite satisfying.

So an entertaining thriller, certainly not cosy, but not too dark and grim either. I raced through it over a couple of days and thoroughly enjoyed it.

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

Amazon UK Link

Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze

Built for one thing…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

On the run after a prison-break, Tim Sunblade stops off in a cheap motel and hires himself a ten-dollar hooker. But when Virginia shows up, all lavender eyes and sinuous limbs and expensive scent, Tim sees she’s clearly used to a much classier trade. Next day he takes her along with him, telling himself he’ll drop her somewhere when he tires of her. But his fascination with her grows, to say nothing of his lust, and anyway he needs someone to help him with the big job he’s planning. Virginia has her own reasons to get away for a while and doesn’t object at all to the idea of getting rich, so Tim’s plan suits her just fine…

A noir thriller from 1953, apparently the book went out of print for many years and the difficulty of getting hold of it added to its aura as a cult classic. It’s now been back in print for a decade or so, and seems to be pleasing its new readership just as much as its reputation suggested. Noir sometimes works for me and sometimes not, so I was intrigued to give it a try at least, especially since the audiobook narrator, Malcolm Hillgartner, has also been highly praised.

Tim is our narrator and in true noir style we know from the beginning that his story is going to end badly. Virginia is the mystery that keeps the suspense going. Will she betray him, or will she share his downfall? The more time Tim spends with her, the more addicted to her he becomes – and it is an addiction, one he often wishes he could shake, but her looks, her sensuality, even her calculating coldness all exert a growing hold over him, so that he finds he can’t face losing her. But what of her? Is there a heart underneath her hard exterior? Does Tim mean anything to her or does she simply see him as a means to an end? Does she feel any of the lust and passion Tim feels for her, or is she just very good at her profession?

Elliott Chaze

This is undoubtedly noir, but not quite as pitch black as some. Tim has a heart and Virginia is ambiguous enough for us not to be sure till quite late on whether she has too. This gives it a kind of emotional warmth despite their actions – there’s not quite the level of amorality as there is in The Postman Always Rings Twice, for instance, which is way too dark for me. Although this pair are driven by lust and money, you kinda feel they’re both deeper than that – that perhaps there are reasons they are as they are. I found myself liking them both, despite everything, and that meant I was far more interested in their fate than if I’d wholeheartedly despised them. There’s a strong feeling that they are both emotionally affected by their actions too, that guilt may not be an altogether foreign emotion to either of them, which isn’t generally the case in the blackest noir, I think.

But it’s certainly noir in that there’s no hope of a happy ending, and the sense of impending tragedy grows strongly in the latter stages. We don’t know what the tragedy will be, exactly, but there’s a kind of inexorable quality to it, as if all things are fore-ordained, and once on the path there’s no way to turn off.

You’ve never heard a siren until you’ve heard one looking for you and you alone. Then you really hear it and know what it is and understand that the man who invented it was no man, but a fiend from hell who patched together certain sounds and blends of sounds in a way that would paralyze and sicken. You sit in your living room and hear a siren and it’s a small and lonesome thing and all it means to you is that you have to listen until it goes away. But when it is after you, it is the texture of the whole world. You will hear it until you die. It tears the guts out of you like a drill against a nerve and it moves into you and expands.

The writing is great, with rather more literary qualities than a lot of pulp noir – it has more depth of characterisation and a wider focus, so that we see the world these two live in rather than being laser-focused on their lust, greed and crimes, though all those aspects are there too.

I loved it – probably my favourite noir novel, though I admit I haven’t read a lot of the genre. I also loved Malcolm Hillgartner’s narration – he is completely believable as Tim and keeps the emotional level just right, relying on little changes in speed or emphasis to increase the tension as the story moves towards its wonderfully dark climax. And one last bit of praise – isn’t it a wonderful cover? Perfect for the story and the expression on the blonde’s face is exactly Virginia.

She was a creature of moonlight, crazy as moonlight, all upthrusting radiance and hard silver dimples and hollows, built for one thing and only one thing and perfectly for that.

Great book, great narration – highly recommended!

Audible UK Link (For UK Audible members, it’s included on APlus)