The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes

A deadly dilemma…

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Mr and Mrs Bunting are becoming desperate. Having left domestic service to run their own lodging house, they’ve had a run of bad luck and are now down to their last few shillings with no way to earn more unless they can find a lodger for their empty rooms. So when a gentleman turns up at their door offering to pay a month’s rent in advance, they are so relieved they overlook the odd facts that Mr Sleuth has no luggage and asks them not to take up references. He seems a kindly, quiet gentleman, if a little eccentric, and the Buntings are happy to meet his occasionally odd requests. Meantime, London is agog over a series of horrific murders, all of drunken women. The murderer leaves his calling card on the bodies – a triangular slip of paper pinned to their clothes with the words “The Avenger” written on it…

Well, what a little gem this one turned out to be! Written in 1913, it’s clearly inspired by the Jack the Ripper murders but with enough changes to make it an original story in its own right. It’s the perspective that makes it so unique – the Buntings are just an ordinary respectable little family struggling to keep their heads above water, who suddenly find themselves wondering if their lodger could possibly be living a double life as The Avenger. Lowndes does a brilliant job of keeping that question open right up to the end – I honestly couldn’t decide. Like the Buntings, I felt that though his behaviour was deeply suspicious, it was still possible that he was simply what he seemed – an eccentric but harmless loner. With the constant hysteria being whipped up by the newspapers, were the Buntings (and I) reading things into his perfectly innocent actions? Of course, I won’t tell you the answer to that!

Ivor Novello in Hitchcock’s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog 1927

The book isn’t simply a question of whether Mr Sleuth is The Avenger or not, though. What Lowndes does so well is show the dilemma in which Mrs Bunting in particular finds herself. It’s not long before she begins to suspect her lodger – his strange habit of taking occasional nocturnal walks, his reading aloud from the Bible when he’s in his room alone, always the passages that are less than complimentary about women, the exceptionally weird and suspicious fact that he’s a teetotal vegetarian (I’ve always been dubious myself about people who don’t like bacon sandwiches…), the mysterious bag that he keeps carefully locked away from prying eyes. And then there are the “experiments” he conducts on the gas stove in his room, usually when he’s just come back from one of his little walks…

….Mrs Bunting returned to the kitchen. Again she lighted the stove; but she felt unnerved, afraid of she knew not what. As she was cooking the cheese, she tried to concentrate her mind on what she was doing, and on the whole she succeeded. But another part of her mind seemed to be working independently, asking her insistent questions.
….The place seemed to her alive with alien presences, and once she caught herself listening – which was absurd, for, of course, she could not hope to hear what Mr Sleuth was doing two, if not three, flights upstairs. She wondered in what the lodger’s experiments consisted. It was odd that she had never been able to discover what it was he really did with that big gas-stove. All she knew was that he used a very high degree of heat.

But, on the other hand, there’s nothing definite to say he’s the killer, and Mrs Bunting rather likes him, and feels sorry for him since he seems so vulnerable somehow. And, just as importantly, the Buntings rely totally on the rent he pays. Lowndes starts the book with a description of the extreme worry and stress the Buntings have been under over money, which makes their reluctance to report their suspicions so much more understandable. For what if they go to the police, and it turns out he’s innocent? He’ll leave, of course, and what will they do then? But what if he’s guilty and they do nothing – does that make them guilty too? It really is brilliantly done – great characterisation and totally credible psychologically.

Marie Belloc Lowndes

The other aspect Lowndes looks at is the role of the newspapers in whipping up a panic (perhaps not undeservedly in this instance), printing lurid details of the horrific murders, and giving out little bits of dodgy information as if they are facts. The Buntings have a young friend, Joe, who’s on the police force, so they get access to more of the truth, though the police are thoroughly baffled. As the murders mount up, so does the tension, and we see both of the Buntings becoming more and more obsessed with reading every detail of the case, desperately hoping for something that will prove their suspicions wrong.

The story is dark and sinisterly creepy but the gore is all left to the imagination, and the tone is lightened in places by a nice little romance between Joe and Mr Bunting’s daughter, Daisy. It’s very well written and Lowndes, like so many writers of that era, has made great use of the notorious London fogs to provide cover for dark and dastardly deeds. One where I really did spend the entire time wondering what I would have done, and fearing for the poor Buntings – no wonder Hitchcock used this as the basis for his first big success back in the silent movie era. But will the movie live up to the book? I’ll find out soon…

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Miraculous Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards

Locked doors don’t guarantee safety…

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Anyone who’s been reading my blog over this last year or two will be aware that I have developed something of an addiction for the themed anthologies being published under the British Library Crime Classics label. This one concentrates on “impossible” crimes – “locked room” mysteries and others of the kind where the emphasis is more on how it was done than on whodunit. As always, the stories have been selected by Martin Edwards who gives a brief introduction to each one telling a little about the author. They’re printed in rough chronological order, covering the period from the beginning of the 20th century (or just before) through to 1960.

There are lots of well-known names here – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, etc – as well as some more obscure authors, some of whom have appeared in the earlier anthologies and some who I think are making their first appearance. The crimes are a lot of fun, ranging from the fiendishly clever but quite possible to work out if you have that kind of mind, to ones that rely on something that couldn’t have been known – trick doors or things of that nature. I did guess a few, but was baffled by plenty, and even the easier to solve ones are still entertaining.

As with all anthologies, the quality is variable but I must say I think the average standard throughout this collection is actually higher than in some of the earlier collections. Perhaps this kind of puzzle just appeals more to me, but I don’t think that’s it, really – I think this is just a particularly good group of stories. There are sixteen of them in total, and I ranked ten of them as either 4 or 5 stars, with only one getting a rating lower than 3 (and that was the GK Chesterton story, which can be put down to my own prejudice – I simply don’t enjoy his style).

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

The Lost Special by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – a special train goes missing between two stations and, though the driver is later found dead by the side of the tracks, nothing is heard of the passengers or other crew for eight years…until a man waiting to be executed in France reveals how it was done. ACD is a master storyteller and builds up a nice air of almost supernatural mystery around the disappearance, though the answer is firmly of this world. And there’s a brief cameo appearance from an anonymous man who writes to a newspaper with a possible solution to the crime – a man who sounds very like a certain consulting detective we all know and love…

The Diary of Death by Marten Cumberland – when a woman dies in poverty, she leaves behind a diary blaming all her former friends for deserting her in her time of need. Now someone is bumping those friends off one by one. Loreto Santos, an amateur ‘tec from Spain, is on site when the third murder happens in a locked room during a house party. In truth, the method in this one is blindingly obvious, but the writing is very good, there’s some nice characterisation and the story is interesting, so that being able to work out how it was done didn’t spoil the entertainment.

The Music-Room by Sapper – Forty years earlier, a man was found killed in the middle of the locked music room. No-one ever worked out how it happened. Now, during a dinner party, the new owner of the house tells the old tale to his guests. Later that night, his nephew and business partner is killed in the same room, apparently accidentally. But amateur sleuth Ronald Standish is unconvinced. This is one of the ones where it wouldn’t really be possible to work out the how – though one can make a rough guess – and the who is relatively obvious. But the plotting is tight and the telling of the story is done very well.

I could just as easily have highlighted any of half a dozen others, and now feel quite qualified to bump off anyone who annoys me in ways that will baffle the greatest detective minds. So probably best if you were to send me some chocolate, just to be on the safe side…

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

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Book 1

The Vanishing Lord (PorterGirl 2) by Lucy Brazier

Missing paintings and medieval rumpy-pumpy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

In this second book, PorterGirl has settled in now at Old College and begun to understand some of the weird traditions. So when the famous portrait of the college’s founder Lord Layton disappears, she knows not to call the police – the college keeps its problems to itself. Unfortunately the police aren’t quite so au fait with the college’s rules, so when word leaks out, they come snooping around and soon begin to suspect that the wall of silence they’re being met with from the Dean and porters suggests they must know more about the alleged theft than they’re letting on. Meantime a mysterious man is spotted around the college – who is he? And why does Deputy Head Porter keep getting the feeling she’s being followed? And did the Master of neighbouring Hawkins College die a natural death or is he one in the long line of mysterious murders that afflict these ancient institutions? And, most importantly, can Deputy Head Porter manage to filch a few more giant cookies from Head of Catering?? A girl has to keep her strength up after all…

The PorterGirl stories originated as a blog in which Lucy fictionalised her real life experiences as the first female Deputy Head Porter at one of our most ancient colleges. One hopes she exaggerates quite a bit! Lucy is a long-time blog buddy of mine, so you will have to assume that I’m biased.

Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed this second outing and felt it was a significant step up in terms of structure and writing from the first. Knowing Lucy, I’m aware that following the initial issue of the first book she was signed up by a publisher and, as a result, this book has had a professional edit. One of my criticisms of The First Lady of the Keys (originally published as Secret Diary of PorterGirl) was that sometimes the bloggy nature of its origin showed through, with the early chapters reading more like rather loosely related journal entries before she got properly into her stride later in the book. This slight problem has been eliminated in the new book, so that it flows much better, with the humorous digressions arising out of the plot rather than impeding it.

This is not to suggest it has become sensible – I’d never accuse Lucy of that! The characters are just as quirky, the plot proudly struts far over the credibility line, the vocabulary is as grandiloquent as ever, and the humour takes priority.

Deputy Head Porter

The main characters are developed a bit more in this outing. Porter gets a bit of a love interest while Head Porter is behaving very mysteriously, leading to all kinds of suspicions as to what he might be up to. The Dean continues to cause mayhem wherever he goes, and seems to look to Deputy Head Porter to provide him with with a constant supply of mysteries for them to investigate – which in Old College isn’t too tricky since barely a day goes by without some poor academic keeling over under unexplained circumstances. There are some great humorous set pieces, like the drunken night in the Dean’s office – or, to be more specific, the resulting hangover the following day. Or the occasion when the Dean thinks it might be a good idea for them all to don fancy dress and invade the neighbouring college…

To add to the fun, Deputy Head Porter stumbles across an ancient diary kept by one of her earliest predecessors and we are treated to occasional extracts. The diary explains the origins of some of the traditions which have baffled Deputy Head Porter, but also tells us a good deal about the diarist’s complicated love-life, all in deliciously mock medieval language. We also find out a bit about the original Lord Layton, the man behind the portrait – a man who makes the Borgias seem quite cuddly.

Fie! Today hast been a wonder, I tellst thee. The wants of these educated gentlefolk taketh it out of a man. The Order of the Lesser Dragon hast invited other learned muggins to the College to work as tutors and run matters. They are naming themselves ‘The Fellowship’ and now I wonder about what the mynster said ere about them having the occult ways because since they arrived the morrow there hast been strange and terrible ceremonials in the chapel and they weren’t no ways of God I can tell thee that as I know well the ways of God, which can also be strange and terrible, but leastways there is the promyse of Heaven at the end of it and all you get at the end of College days is a fancye parchment with your name on it.

If I was being hypercritical (which, as you know, I am!) I’d mention that, just occasionally, the high-flown language which is a trademark of the books leads to words being used when they don’t quite mean what they’re being used to mean, which makes this pedant twitchy. And, viewing it as a standalone, I’d suggest the ending is perhaps a little anti-climactic. However in many respects this is a serial rather than a series, so there are plenty of hanging threads ready to be picked up and woven into the next volume.

All-in-all, a most enjoyable romp – the kind of book that brightens up a dull day. I hope Lucy is working hard on the next episode!

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* * * * * * *

PS My apologies for suddenly disappearing and not responding to comments etc for the last few days. I had a mini domestic trauma, involving cat fight, emergency vet, stitches, etc – all’s well though. Tuppence is almost fully recovered, and my wounds should heal soon too – she really doesn’t like being put in a catbox!

And now I’m disappearing again…gotta support my boys…

See y’all in a couple of weeks! 😀

Testimony by Scott Turow

Much more than a legal thriller…

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Middle-aged successful American lawyer, Bill Ten Boom, is having a bit of a subdued mid-life crisis. He has ended his marriage, not over another woman but simply because he felt there was no real love or passion in it. And he has given up his partnership in a big legal firm – a role he primarily took on to satisfy the aspirations of his ex-wife. So when he’s offered the job of prosecuting a case at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, he decides it’s too good an opportunity to pass up. The case involves the rumoured brutal killing of four hundred Roma in Bosnia in 2004. It happened near an American base, so the case is further complicated by the fact that the US, under George W Bush, pulled out of the ICC. First, Boom (as he is known) must establish that the atrocity did in fact happen, and if so, must then try to find out who should be held responsible.

Scott Turow is one of those writers whose books transcend easy genre definition. On the surface this is a legal crime novel with all the aspects of an investigation, suspects, clues, trial procedures, and so on. But it is also a careful, revealing look at the way the Roma have been dealt with throughout history, in Bosnia and elsewhere – a group at least as victimised as the Jews over the centuries but somehow still left under the radar of popular concern. Turow avoids the easy route of making the Roma seem too much like helpless victims though – he shows how their determination not to assimilate into the societies within which they live puts them in the position of always being seen as outsiders, who are often involved in criminal activity of one kind or another. He also discusses their cultural attitudes towards girls and women, which to our western eyes display all the sexism we have fought so hard to overcome. But Turow doesn’t do any of this as an information dump. It’s woven into the story as Boom himself learns about the Roma during his investigation, and as he becomes attracted to a woman of Roma heritage who is acting as a support to one of the witnesses.

We are also given a look at how the ICC operates: slow to the point of glacial on occasion, bound up in all kinds of procedures and restrictions, but grinding on in its efforts to bring justice for some of the most atrocious crimes in the world. Turow shows how the process can seem cold and unemotional, almost clinical in its approach, but how even this great legal bureaucracy can be shocked by some of the evidence that comes before it.

….“…I knew there was no point. I could claw at the rock the rest of my life and get no closer. I knew the truth.”
….“And what truth was that, sir?”
….“They were dead. My woman. My children. All the People. They were dead. Buried alive. All four hundred of them.”
….Although virtually everyone in the courtroom – the judges, the rows of prosecutors, the court personnel, the spectators behind the glass, and the few reporters with them – although almost all of us knew what the answer to that question was going to be, there was nonetheless a terrible drama to hearing the facts spoken aloud. Silence enshrouded the room as if a warning finger had been raised, and all of us, every person, seemed to sink into ourselves, into the crater of fear and loneliness where the face of evil inevitably casts us.
….So here you are, I thought suddenly, as the moment lingered. Now you are here.

The story also touches on the other big American war of the early years of this century – some of the errors and miscalculations that turned “victory” in Iraq into the quagmire of factionalism that is still going on today, with consequences for us all. But while Turow is perhaps grinding a political axe of his own to some degree, he also shows the dedication and sacrifice of so many US soldiers at all levels, and the basic integrity of much of the legal and even political classes. And if all that isn’t enough, there’s another minor strand about Boom’s European roots and the seemingly never-ending after-effects of earlier atrocities under Nazi Germany.

Scott Turow

Turow’s writing is as good as always – he’s a slow, undramatic storyteller, so that he relies on the strength of the story and the depth of his characterisation, and he achieves both in this one. If I have made it sound like a political history, then that’s my error, not his. Running through all this is an excellent plot – almost a whodunit – that kept me guessing till very late on in the book. He is skilled enough to get that tricky balance when discussing the various atrocities of bringing the horror home to the reader without trading in gratuitous or voyeuristic detail. And as well as Boom, he creates a supporting cast of equally well drawn and credible secondary characters. More political than most of his books, I’m not sure I’d recommend this one as an entry point for new readers (Presumed Innocent, since you ask), but existing fans, I’m certain, will find everything they’ve enjoyed about his previous books plus the added interest of him ranging beyond his usual territory of the US courtroom. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grand Central Publishing.

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A Necessary Evil (Sam Wyndham 2) by Abir Mukherjee

Royal shenanigans…

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When the son and heir of the Maharaja of Sambalpore is assassinated in front of him, Calcutta police captain Sam Wyndham quickly manages to catch the assassin, but unfortunately the man dies before he can be questioned. Although the authorities and even the Maharaja are willing to let the matter rest as the work of a fanatic, Sam isn’t so sure, so he manages to get himself and his sergeant, Surrender-not Bannerjee, invited to the prince’s funeral so he can do a bit of investigating. Soon they are both sucked into the skulduggery going on beneath the glittering surface in this fabulously wealthy kingdom…

This is another excellent historical crime novel following on from Mukherjee’s début, A Rising Man, which was one of my top books from last year. The year is 1920, the power of the Raj is in decline and the British need the support of the Maharajas to give a veneer of Indian participation in the rule of the country, so Sam has to handle things sensitively so as not to ruffle any political feathers.

Within Sambalpore, the Maharaja is still the ultimate power – the British police hold no official sway there. But the Maharaja is old and it’s rumoured that he may be dying, so his family and subjects are beginning to look to the future and to jostle for positions of power when the kingdom passes to the next in line. And with three wives, vast numbers of concubines and hundreds of children, there’s plenty of scope for trouble just in the Maharaja’s family alone. Throw in some dodgy politicians, a couple of princes who insist on falling in love with unsuitable women, some diamond mines and an avaricious businessman or two and it’s no wonder I didn’t have a clue what was going on for the bulk of the book! But happily, neither did Sam, and once he finally worked it out it all made sense in the end.

The book is narrated by Sam in the past tense and he’s a likeable character. He has a strong desire to get to the truth and, more than that, to see that justice is done. But, though he may not always like it, he understands that sometimes politics will get in the way. He relies on Surrender-not for knowledge of local customs and religious practices. Surrender-not is more than just a guide though – he comes from a wealthy, high caste family and was educated in England, so he’s often as much of a partner as a subordinate.

Lord Jagganath Chariot Parade, Puri

There’s not quite so much about the politics of the Raj in this one. Instead, Mukherjee gives a picture of what life was like in one of the many small kingdoms that still existed within the country at this time – a curious mix of modernity and tradition. The royals are opulently, ostentatiously wealthy and are revered as godlike by their people. The royal wives and concubines live in seclusion in the zenana – the women’s quarters – but Mukherjee suggests that they had plenty of power to influence things within the kingdom, and the wives, at least, had their own roles to play in the many traditions surrounding the court. Mukherjee also shows some of the religious rituals of the Hindus, especially the cult of the deity Lord Jagganath, all of which adds to the interest.

Abir Mukherjee

For me, this book had a couple of slight weaknesses. In the first book, Sam occasionally indulged in opium – in this book, that seems to have become an addiction, and I got a little tired of being told about his withdrawal symptoms and then about how wonderful he felt whenever he had a hit. I find all the many addicted detectives of current crime fiction tedious, whether their addiction is to drugs or alcohol, so I’m seriously hoping Sam can get himself clean soon. I also felt that there were occasional anachronisms, not in the history or setting, but in the language. Would anyone from that period really talk about someone being “hands on”? Were paper cups so commonplace they would be used as part of a simile? These anomalies weren’t frequent or major enough to spoil the book but they did tend to throw me out of the story for a few moments each time, and a more careful revision and edit could have easily got rid of them.

Overall, though, an excellent second book that assures this series its continued place among my must-reads. It could be read as a standalone, but to understand the relationships among the characters, I’d recommend reading in order.

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

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The Follower by Koethi Zan

The tricky second novel…

🙂 🙂 😐

As she is making her way back to university one evening, Julie is abducted. She is kept in a locked room and gradually learns a little about her captors. The man, James, is a fanatic who has created his own distorted religion and for a time had a small group of followers. All have since deserted him except for his wife Cora – a woman he has abused to the point where she is entirely submissive to him. Julie begins to wonder if somehow she can win Cora over, so that she will help her escape.

Alongside the story of Julie’s plight, we gradually learn Cora’s story – the troubled childhood and adolescence that led to her coming under the sway of the evil James. James himself is given no real backstory, so his motivation is left undeveloped – he’s simply a mad monster. The final strand of the book belongs to Adam, an ex-policeman who hunts for abducted women in his own time, as a kind of penance for the loss of his own sister to a predator before Adam was born.

The first third of this book is great and then I’m afraid it all begins to slide downhill, eventually landing with a crash which shatters the last remaining pieces of credibility. The quality of the writing is high and at first it builds a good level of tension. The storyline is very dark – Julie’s treatment in her captivity is horrific with repeated episodes of violence and rape, although happily Zan doesn’t make us watch the latter – it is implied rather than described. Each of the characters is deeply damaged except Julie, so it’s unfortunate that she’s so unlikeable. Despite the traumas she undergoes, I found it hard to empathise with her or, indeed, to care much what happened to her.

Cora’s story is perhaps more interesting and she is rather more empathetic during her teen years, when she is dragged around the country by her drunken father, never staying in any place long enough to put down roots or make friends. But sadly, her story gradually descends from being dark but credible, going straight past melodrama and on down to ridiculous. Adam never really comes to life as a character and feels rather tacked on, as if he exists only so that he can be around for the denouement – a denouement that regrettably becomes somewhat farcical.

The basic idea is good and the quality of the writing makes it quite readable. At first, the characterisation seems as if it’s going to be good too but somehow after a bit they stop ringing true. It all becomes a bit over the top – too many crazy people with poorly developed motivation. I think the problem is that none of it feels psychologically believable, and in the end I’m afraid they all begin to feel cartoonish. A pity, but now that Zan has the notoriously tricky second book out of the way, here’s hoping her next one will replicate the much higher standard she reached in her excellent first one, The Never List.

(PS I realise some people don’t mind a lot of swearing in novels, but plenty of others do, for various reasons, so it seems crazy to me that an author would put off potential purchasers and readers by including the f-word in the first line, exactly where a casual browser would look. Even stranger, given that actually the swearing content in the book as a whole is fairly low, with only the victim being consistently and obnoxiously foul-mouthed (which is a large part of what makes her so unlikeable, quite frankly). It’s up to writers, of course, but I’d assume most writers would want to reach a maximum audience, and putting a considerable number off with the first, in this case unrepresentative, line seems a bit silly…

FF’s Eighth Law: Swearing never attracts readers who wouldn’t otherwise read the book, but frequently puts off readers who otherwise would.)

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

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And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Ten little soldier boys…

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Ten people all arrive for a stay on Soldier Island, off the coast of Devon. Some have been employed by the new owners, others have been invited as guests, and all but Mr and Mrs Rogers, the butler and housekeeper, are unknown to each other. And talking of “unknown”, all they know of their hosts is that the letters of invite were signed by either Mr or Mrs U.N. Owen. But when they get there, they discover the island’s owners haven’t arrived yet. It’s a strange kind of house party, with all kinds of people from different backgrounds and walks of life – a retired judge, an old military man, a young playboy who likes to drive fast cars, a puritanical spinster, an adventurer with a murky past, a doctor, a young woman who has been hired as secretary to the owners, and an ex-policeman. After dinner on the first evening, they discover they all have one thing in common when a disembodied voice welcomes them to the island and tells them why they’ve been gathered there – they have each, in one way or another, been responsible for the death of another person and escaped punishment for it. Until now…

Undoubtedly one of Christie’s masterpieces of plotting, this is also one of her most chillingly suspenseful novels. As one by one the guests are bumped off, the tension increases exponentially among the rest. The book moves along at a rattling pace, but there’s still time for us to get to know the characters, and to learn about the crimes that have led to them being brought here. While no-one comes across as wholly innocent, Christie does a great job of showing how some could be considered more guilty than others – some of their “crimes” could be considered almost accidental, some have suffered guilt and remorse, while others are callous and cold, having committed their crimes for gain, or unfeeling monsters who have managed to justify the cruelty of their actions to their own moral satisfaction. For some of them, their stay on the island forces them to re-assess the past and begin to feel the guilt they have previously managed to suppress.

Christie is often disparaged for poor characterisation, but this book really confounds that criticism – not only are all these characters believable, but several of them are beautifully nuanced, and their actions and attitudes feel psychologically sound. One of the other aspects of Christie’s genius is that her victims generally are rather unpleasant people, so that the reader isn’t thrown into a state of grief when they get their come-uppance. No sobbing relatives, no wailing and gnashing of teeth, no rending of garments. This means that she can have umpteen murders and yet still make the books entertaining to read – a lesson that could be well learned by some of the purveyors of today’s misery-fests.

Instead what she gives us is impeccable plotting, entirely fairplay with all the real clues carefully hidden amongst the shoals of red herrings she strews in the reader’s path. In this one, the characters too are desperately trying to spot the clues – their lives depend on it. And as the group gets smaller and smaller, miraculously Christie still manages to misdirect all over the place! Though I was re-reading and therefore knew whodunit, I was still marvelling at her skill in never omitting relevant pieces of information and yet hiding them so well. It’s only when it’s all explained at the end – another thing Christie’s great at, never leaving loose ends hanging around – that her true plotting skill is revealed along with the identity of the murderer.

Quite brilliant, and I totally understand why this one is the favourite of so many Christie fans. The end (prior to the explanations) in particular is a fabulously tense bit of writing, so dark it almost counts as horror, and yet retaining entire credibility. My favourite is still The Moving Finger for sheer entertainment, but in terms of plotting, characterisation and suspense, I don’t think this one can be beaten.

I listened to the wonderful Hugh Fraser’s narration via Audible. Not only is his voice pure pleasure to listen to, he brings the various characters to life, giving each a subtly distinct persona that matches perfectly to Christie’s characterisation. And as the suspense grows, he manages perfectly to develop an atmosphere of rising dread without ever slipping into melodrama. A truly great performance – I’m loving revisiting the books in his company.

So, just in case I’ve left you in any doubt – my highest recommendation, book and narration both.

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Maigret Takes a Room by Georges Simenon

Street life…

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Following a robbery, the police are staking out a rooming-house where the suspect had been living in the hopes that he will return. But one evening, one of the police officers, Janvier, is shot outside the house. The police think it may have been the robbery suspect, Paulus, who shot him, so it’s even more vital now that they catch him. Maigret is on his own at the moment as his wife is away looking after her sick sister, so he decides to move into the rooming-house to be on the spot should Paulus return.

I enjoyed this one a lot. We know straight away that Janvier is still alive, so the plot isn’t quite as dark as it would have been had he been killed, but we still get to see the emotional impact of the shooting on Janvier’s wife. The rooming-house is run by the charming Mademoiselle Clément, a lady of middle years and twinkling eye, whose somewhat over-the-top personality provides a lot of fun and humour. As always, Simenon creates an authentic feel of Paris, and the rooming-house setting allows for there to be several characters, each with their own story. Maigret is at something of a loss without his wife though part of him is rather enjoying the adventure of living in the rooming-house, and he doesn’t seem averse to a little mild flirting with his landlady. He gradually chats to most of the people in the street, the shop and café owners as well as the neighbours, and while Maigret is gathering together clues that will lead to the solution, Simenon is building up an affectionate picture of life in one of the less fashionable streets of Paris.

Georges Simenon

I listened to the Audible version, narrated by Gareth Armstrong. He speaks more quickly than most narrators and I rather liked that and felt it suited the tone of the book – kept it going at a rattling pace. He gives different voices to the various characters, using English accents throughout and suiting them well to the class and position in society each holds. I prefer the use of English accents when “foreign” characters are supposed to be speaking in their own language – it sounds more natural than having the characters speak English in a faux foreign accent. His portrayal of Mlle Clément is a little caricatured, which works for her character and adds to the lightness in tone of the book. All-in-all, I think it’s an excellent narration.

The solution is more complex than it seems as if it’s going to be, and Maigret gets there by a nifty little piece of detective work. And the story behind the crime gives us a glimpse into darkness, so that in the end the tone is nicely balanced. The translation is by Shaun Whiteside, which means that it’s smooth and flawless. Most enjoyable – I’m looking forward to reading more of Maigret’s adventures, or listening to them.

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

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Amazon UK Link
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He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly

Let’s twist again…

🙂 🙂 😐

Laura and Kit are newly in love. Kit is an eclipse-chaser, travelling the world to experience full solar eclipses as often as he can. So they’ve gone together to a festival at Lizard’s Point in Cornwall to witness the 1999 eclipse – Laura’s first. Still on a high following this semi-mystical experience, as they make their way back to the festival site Laura comes across two people who at first she thinks are making love. But then she sees the girl’s face, frozen in shock, and reassesses what it is she’s actually seeing. Now she’s going to be the major witness in a rape trial. Fifteen years later, Laura and Kit are still together, awaiting the birth of their twins, but hiding from the world. The book tells the story of how the events after the eclipse have led them to this…

The beginning of the book is excellent, with a very realistic portrayal of an attack and subsequent trial where the whole thing hinges on the matter of consent. Jamie, the man accused of raping Beth, comes from a wealthy, respectable family who can afford the best lawyers. He said she gave consent/she said she didn’t. It’s up to the jury to decide, and Laura is the only witness who can give them an independent account of what she saw.

Kelly writes very well, even when she’s using my pet hate first person, present tense for the parts of the book relating to the present day. Laura tells most of the story, both of what happened back in 1999 and now, while we also hear Kit’s point of view on the present day events. Kelly shows how difficult these cases are by letting us see everything Laura saw and yet leaving some small area of doubt as to whether Laura has interpreted it correctly. She shows not only that we bring our own beliefs and prejudices to things we witness, but also how a good lawyer can chip away at a witness until doubt creeps into even the witness’s own mind, much less the jury’s.

Unfortunately, the book also follows many of the on-going identikit features of the domestic thriller that drive me crazy: skipping between past and present, multiple points of view, the aforesaid present tense – the full ticklist. Worse, it’s another one of those where the narrators know all kind of stuff which they carefully conceal from the reader in an attempt to build false suspense. Some dreadful incident or incidents have happened in the intervening years, changing the course of Laura’s life and leaving her suffering from extreme anxiety. But we don’t learn what until nearly two-thirds of the way through, by which time I was so annoyed I didn’t care any more. It’s a pity, because there is a suspenseful element as to how the story is going to play out which would have been sufficient, so it really wasn’t necessary to clumsily withhold stuff that had already happened.

Erin Kelly

Having said that, when the book finally reaches the point of beginning to reveal all, it becomes progressively less credible with each passing twist. And my, there are a lot of them! Too many. And the final couple are so silly and pointless they take away the last shreds of realism, leaving me sad that a book that began as something thoughtful and well-written ended up like every other trashy domestic thriller of the last five years. Oh well, no doubt this trend will end one day – can’t come soon enough for my liking. I’d like to see writers of the undoubted quality of Erin Kelly produce something with a little more heft and originality and less reliance on false suspense and incredible twists. As these things go, though, this is as good as most and better than many, which I’m afraid is as much praise as I can give it.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Hodder & Stoughton.

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The Ghost Marriage by Peter May

Take this woman…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This short novella is a new follow-up to Peter May’s China Thrillers. This was the series that originally turned me into a May fan, long before the Lewis Trilogy made him a major star in the firmament of crime fiction. So it was a pleasure to revisit Margaret, the American forensic pathologist, and her Chinese partner, Li Yan of the Beijing police.

Margaret and Li Yan are still living together, now with the addition of their young son, when Margaret is approached by an elderly woman who tells her that her granddaughter has gone missing, and begs Margaret to use her influence with Li Yan to get him to investigate. As Li Yan gradually finds out what happened to the girl, the story takes us into a mysterious and macabre aspect of Chinese tradition, and into the secrets and lies that can exist in families.

Because the story is so short, I won’t say any more about the plot for fear of spoiling it. What has always attracted me most to May’s writing is that he chooses interesting settings for his crimes and his impeccable research allows him to create a great sense of place. This was always particularly true of the China Thrillers, especially since he began the series way back when the idea of visiting China still seemed like an exotic dream for most of us. The length of this one doesn’t allow for much description of Beijing itself, but the plot gives an insight into some of the strange superstitions and rituals that still exist in the country, while also touching on some of the issues thrown up by China’s long-standing but now abandoned one-child policy.

From the South China Morning Post: Dolls represent the happy couple in a Chinese-style “ghost wedding”

With Margaret being a pathologist, the China Thrillers also contained some rather gruesome autopsy scenes, and that tradition continues in this one. There isn’t room for a huge amount of detection – really we just see the story unfold along with Li Yan as he gradually uncovers the truth. I enjoyed it as a way to catch up with two characters who feel like old friends, but I think it would work equally well as a brief introduction to the style of the series for people who haven’t tried it yet. There was never much doubt that Margaret and Li Yan would stay together as a couple so although this takes place after the other books, it’s otherwise spoiler free.

Peter May

I listened to the Audible audiobook version, narrated by Peter Forbes who, I believe, has been the narrator for May’s books for a long time now. I thought his narration was very good – I have no way of knowing whether his pronunciations of Chinese words and names is accurate, but I certainly found them convincing. The decision to give the Chinese characters Chinese accents didn’t really work for me, I admit – I feel that if characters are supposed to be speaking their own language, then they shouldn’t be made to sound ‘foreign’. I listened to a Maigret novel immediately following this, where the narrator gave all the French characters English accents appropriate to their class and position in society, and I must say that felt much more natural and authentic. However, it’s a debatable point, and some people may prefer the ‘foreign’-sounding accents.

Overall, a short but enjoyable return to the world of Beijing. I’m now wondering whether this is a kind of coda to the series, or whether it’s to whet our appetites for a future new novel? I hope it’s the latter…

NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible UK via MidasPR. The story is also available as an e-book.

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The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A thrilling adventure yarn…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The story begins when Holmes receives a message in cipher from one of his contacts within the Moriarty organisation. Unfortunately they don’t have the key to the cipher but after some lovely banter between Holmes and Watson and some brilliant deductions on the part of the great man, they solve it, to discover it warns of danger to someone called Douglas and mentions Birlstone Manor. Just at that moment, Inspector MacDonald turns up to seek Holmes’ aid in the baffling murder of John Douglas of – you’ve guessed it! – Birlstone Manor. And the game’s afoot…

Like all bar one of the long stories, this one takes the format of a deduction of the crime followed by a journey into the past to learn what led to it. In this case, John Douglas had lived in America for most of his life and the gun that killed him was of American make. Holmes does a nifty bit of investigating, involving a moat and drawbridge, an umbrella, a curious mark on the victim’s arm, and a dumbbell; and promptly gets to the truth, though not before driving poor MacDonald almost apoplectic with frustration first.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The background story takes us to the Pennsylvanian coal-mines of the 1870s, where we meet Jack McMurdo, an Irishman who has just arrived there after fleeing justice in Chicago. He quickly becomes involved in the Scowrers, a gang of unscrupulous and violent men who control the valley through fear, intimidation and murder. McMurdo’s personal bravado and intelligence soon allow him to become a valued member of the gang. But this doesn’t sit well with the father of the woman he has fallen in love with, Ettie Shafter. Gradually, it is revealed how this earlier story links to the later murder at Birlstone Manor, and it is a dark story indeed, especially since it is based largely on real events of the time. The tale finishes back in Baker Street, where we learn the final fate of some of the characters we have come to know.

This is another great story from the hands of the master. The first half is a typical Holmes investigation, with plenty of humour and warmth to offset the grimmer aspects of the plot. Holmes’ deductive powers are in full working order, and the crime itself is nicely convoluted, with a good bit of misdirection along the way. The second half allows ACD to give full rein to his marvellous story-telling powers as he takes us deep into the darkness at the heart of the brutal Scowrer gang. His characterisation is superb, both of the rather mysterious McMurdo and of the cruel and barbaric leader of the gang, Boss McGinty. I love the short stories, but I always find the long stories more satisfying, with the extra room allowing ACD to do what he does best – spin a first-rate, thrilling adventure yarn.

Illustration from the New York Tribune – the Scowrers’ initiation ceremony

Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection introduced and narrated by Stephen Fry

I listened to the story this time around, from this fabulous new audio collection from Audible. It includes all the short and long stories, set out in the traditional order. Fry gives a short introduction to each of the five books of short stories and individually to each of the long ones. The collection runs to over seventy hours, so needless to say I haven’t listened to it all yet, but will have great fun dipping in and out of it over the coming months and years.

In the intro to this one, Fry puts the book into its historical context, telling the story of the Molly Maguires, a secret society active among the immigrant Irish coalminers in Pennsylvania during the 1870s; and of the Pinkerton agent who infiltrated them, ultimately leading to their destruction. He points out how soon after the Civil War this was, and that the bosses of the Pennsylvania mines were effectively their own law and could hire people of their own choosing to enforce it. He also tells the other side of the story – the appalling working conditions and extreme poverty of the workers. He manages all this without giving any spoilers for the story to come. An excellent introduction – brief, but interesting, clear and informative.

Stephen Fry

His narration of the story itself is great! He had to compete with my favourite Holmes narrator, the wonderful Derek Jacobi, so he was going to have to work hard to convince me. And I found myself laughing sympathetically because ACD didn’t make his task an easy one. Almost every character has his accent described, usually something like “half-English, half-American” or “Chicago with a hint of Irish” or “German overlaid with the twang of the new country”. And then there are the characters who are not who they first seem, so that when their true identity is revealed, they change to their real accents. I must say Fry did brilliantly with all of them and, despite there being a pretty huge cast in this story, he managed to differentiate them all quite clearly. There are two characters with straight Irish accents, so to make them different, he made one sound Northern Irish and the other Southern, both done totally convincingly. Even Inspector MacDonald’s Aberdonian accent got a high pass mark from me. He brings out the humour and the warmth of Watson’s character, and makes the adventure parts suitably exciting without over-dramatising them. I always think you can tell when a narrator loves the material he’s reading, and Fry’s strong affection for the Holmes’ stories comes through clearly.

My love for the Jacobi recordings remains, but these are just as excellent, and the little introductions are a great addition, making this a fabulous collection which I highly recommend to all Holmes fans out there.

NB The audiobook was provided for review by Audible via MidasPR. Lucky me!

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Book 9 of 90

The Ice by Laline Paull

The root of all evil…

😦

It’s the very near future, global warming continues to advance and the Arctic sea-ice has largely melted. A cruise ship has promised its passengers sightings of polar bears, now even rarer than before. Eventually the wealthy and powerful passengers begin to put pressure on the captain, so the ship takes a detour into an area of the sea that’s off limits to cruises. There they finally see a bear, but when an iceberg calves in front of them, they see something else – a preserved body that pops out from the frozen ice. Tom Harding was an environmentalist, lost as a result of an accident three years earlier. Now the investigation into his death will be re-opened and his business partner, Sean Cawson, will have to relive that terrible moment…

At least, I had to assume it was a terrible moment, based on Sean’s general level of angst. Unfortunately, this is yet another of the books that works to the overused formula of past and present sections, where all the characters know what happened that day, but the reader isn’t told until the book is more than half over. (I feel I may have mentioned before (!) how annoying I find this formula of keeping the reader in the dark for excessive periods in a futile attempt to build suspense. Real suspense comes only when at least some of the characters are also in the dark – otherwise it’s just an author playing tricks on the reader. In this one, it would have been perfectly possible to tell us up front what happened to Tom, and then build the suspense over the questions of how and why it happened, which most of the characters didn’t already know.)

The beginning is very good with some nice descriptions of the changes to the Arctic landscape and the calving of the iceberg is excellently dramatic. The description of the passengers demanding bear is also done well, though it’s the first indicator of the fairly overt polemical stance the author has taken – capitalists bad, destroy land and wildlife: environmentalists good and noble, fighting the good fight. Actually I sort of agree with at least bits of that, though I don’t think the question is quite so black and white, but frankly I neither need nor want to have messages hammered at me – subtlety makes for more interesting storytelling, and when the author makes it so clear that only one side of the debate has any merit, then it hardly leaves much room for thought to be provoked.

Sean has bought a property in the Arctic and turned it into an exclusive retreat where mega-rich businessmen can relax or meet each other privately. But Sean has an underlying motive – he wants to take the opportunity of getting these capitalists to understand the damage they’re doing and convert them to support environmentalism. (Hmm!) So he has asked his old friend Tom, a noted environmentalist, to join him in the venture. But Tom doesn’t know that Sean has agreed to keep a kind of private army on the property on behalf of the British and Danish governments, for reasons that I found vague and unconvincing.

Laline Paull

I’m afraid I found the book dull, the writing flat in places though good in others, the story overly contrived, the suspense entirely missing. The environmental messages are too overt and overly simplistic. Nothing happens for huge swathes, except Sean agonising over what happened that day while managing to not actually tell us. There are little snippets at the beginning of each chapter – extracts from real Arctic explorers which have nothing to do with the story. I quite quickly stopped reading them. In an attempt to evoke an emotional response, I assume, Paull throws in lots of little things like polar bears being killed, or whales being eaten, but always with a little message about conservation or environmentalism tagged on so that it ceases to feel real and just becomes part of the message-hammering, and thus left me entirely unmoved.

By a third of the way through I really wanted to abandon it, and by two-thirds I couldn’t take any more. The major problem was that I simply didn’t care what happened that day any more – the moment had passed. So I abandoned it, flicked forward and discovered that once I finally knew where it was going, sadly, I still didn’t care. I did enjoy some of the writing and feel that the author has potential if in future books she can manage to deliver her message more subtly and find a better way to create real suspense. But, since I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, then 1-star it is.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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Scarweather by Anthony Rolls

Digging up the truth…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

The story begins in 1913 when our narrator, John Farringdale, is just twenty-one. He and his cousin Eric are more like brothers, so when Eric meets the famous amateur archaeologist Professor Tolgen Reisby, he’s keen to introduce him to Farringdale too. Eric has a bit of a hero-worship for Professor Reisby, but he’s also well on the way to falling in love with Reisby’s much younger wife, Hilda. Farringdale also has a friend who is considerably older than him – Frederick Ellingham, a man of eclectic tastes and knowledge and a wide acquaintanceship across the classes, from seamen to aristocrats. Ellingham knows something of Reisby and hints that there may be darkness hidden beneath his boisterous extrovert exterior! And so when Eric goes missing in what seems like a sailing accident, Ellingham decides to investigate further…

…which takes him roughly a decade and a half to do. Admittedly they all had to stop and go and fight a war in the middle of it all, but frankly those of us with at least one functioning braincell had the whole thing worked out before the war began, so one certainly can’t accuse Ellingham of rushing things. Fortunately, there’s plenty to enjoy in the book, though, even if the plot is so slight as to be almost non-existent.

As Martin Edwards informs us in his introduction, Rolls was himself an archaeologist and he puts his expert knowledge to good use. He pokes a lot of fun about the world of archaeology – the digging up of a shard of broken pot and extrapolation from that of an entire civilisation, the dismissal of anything that seems a bit peculiar as ‘ritual’, the arguments between experts over time periods, and the jealousies over access to the best sites and acquisition of the choicest finds. He also has his characters comment on the ghoulishness of the archaeologist’s enthusiasm for digging up corpses, with Reisby himself keeping a kind of charnel house of finds in his own study. In fact, even the denouement makes fun of the cavalier fashion in which archaeologists spin theories based on the location of a few bones. (I’m sure it’s all very different and much more professional now, even though it all rather reminded me of Tony Robinson rapturising over half a femur or a mangled old bit of bronze in many an episode of Time Team… 😉 )

On another table were the remains of about a dozen skeletons. One or two of these had a remarkably fresh appearance and were nearly complete; but most of them were in a fragmentary state, and the bones were mottled with a dark stain of manganese – the indication (though by no means invariably present) of considerable antiquity. The skeleton of a young woman, slightly burnt, was particularly attractive.

The set-up is a spin on the Holmes/Watson pairing, but I fear Ellingham and Farringdale don’t match up to their illustrious predecessors in either detection or characterisation. Reisby himself is a fun character – a giant of a man, loud and jolly with an uproarious laugh, but also opinionated and quick to fury when crossed. I would definitely cast Brian Blessed in the role.

Scarweather is a remote place on the coast of Northern England, and Rolls does a good job with the setting, allowing the wildness of the landscape and sea to play their part in the story. The isolation of the setting also allows him to show the kind of unlikely friendships that blossom when people live close to each other but far from the rest of society. Many of these secondary characters add to the humour of the book, slightly caricatured but still believable and, on the whole, likeable despite their idiosyncrasies.

So, overall, while this isn’t the most thrilling or fiendish crime novel in the world, it’s still an enjoyable, well-written entertainment.

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

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Penance by Kanae Minato

Survivor guilt…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Five young girls sneak into their school playground on a holiday to practice volleyball. While there, a workman arrives and asks if one of them will help him do a small job in the changing room. It’s a while before the other girls notice that Emily hasn’t returned, and when they look for her, it’s too late – all they find is her body. None of the girls is able to describe the man well – they are young, they weren’t paying particular attention, they are suffering from shock. As time passes without an arrest, in her grief Emily’s mother tells them they must either give the police enough information to catch the killer, or do something that she will accept as appropriate atonement. She gives them a deadline – the statute of limitations on the crime will run out in fifteen years…

In Minato’s earlier excellent book, Confessions, she looked at the motivation for crime and at revenge. In this one, she takes a fascinating look at how a crime affects not only the direct victim, but the people touched by it in other ways. Each of the four surviving girls, now women, tells her tale in turn. We see how their immediate reactions to the crime were affected by their own personalities, and then Minato takes us into their families so that we can see how each of those personalities was formed. This provides a base for taking us forwards from the crime, seeing how it affected each child as she grew up – not just the horror of the day itself, but the guilt of knowing that they had neither protected Emily nor helped bring her killer to justice, and the fear of knowing that the killer is still at large knowing they are the only witnesses.

As the deadline for the statute of limitations approaches, we see how for each girl this leads indirectly to a kind of crisis. Minato doesn’t forget the grieving mother in all this – years on, does she still feel the same? Does she still require the girls to do penance, or has time enabled her to see that the girls were victims too? And lastly, almost as a minor story, will time allow the girls to recognise small clues that they missed in their youth, in time for the murderer to be caught?

When reading Japanese fiction, I often find the society so different from our Western one that it’s almost incomprehensible to me. I’ve commented in the past that there seems to be a huge disconnect between the generations, that young people seem to have rejected the values of their parents but haven’t yet found anything to replace them with, leaving a dangerous moral vacuum. Intriguingly, that isn’t the case with this one. Perhaps because it’s set in a small town rather than in Tokyo, the family structures seem stronger and more traditional, though we see clearly how sons are still more valued than daughters. Some of these families have problems, indeed, but the kind of problems we would be familiar with in our own society. I also noted that Minato mentioned in passing that there seems to be a slight move away from driving the children quite so hard towards educational success at the expense of all else – a small recognition of the harm that can be caused by the excessive stress that was being put on young people. And this is one of the reasons I enjoy her books – she always provides intriguing insights into society, especially family life and education, in modern Japan.

Kanae Minato

But she also tells a great tale! I was completely caught up in each girl’s story and, while there are moments that stretch credulity, it never goes past the breaking point. The characterisation is excellent, and though we see the murder again and again, each voice and perspective is original enough to stop it feeling repetitive. After the murder, the girls’ lives go off in different directions, so Minato has room to cover a lot of ground with four very different stories, but all linked to the central event so that with each telling the reader learns a little more about the lead up to and aftermath of the crime. And in the final chapters she manages to bring it all together, so that there’s a real feeling of resolution – not a slick happy ending, but a sense of closure for some of the characters at least. Another excellent novel from Minato – my tentative love affair with the strangeness of Japanese crime fiction continues…

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

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The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude

I, said the sparrow, with my little bow and arrow…

🙂 🙂 🙂 😐

The people who live in Regency Square in Cheltenham form a little community set somewhat apart from the rest of the town. They all socialise with each other, and there are all the rivalries and grievances that grow up in any group over time. So when someone shoots Captain Cotton with an arrow to the head through the open window of a neighbour’s house, there are plenty of suspects, since many of the residents are members of the local archery club, and Captain Cotton had annoyed several of his neighbours in one way or another. Unfortunately for the murderer, Superintendent Meredith is visiting a friend in the square at the time, and the local police quickly enlist his help…

…which is a wonder really, since on the basis of this he’s not terribly good at his job! Mind you, he’s better than the local chap, who seems almost entirely clueless. Things were different back then, of course, as can be seen when the police pick up the body, carry it across the square, and leave it unattended on the captain’s own bed till the inquest. The thing is that there’s a major plot point which is so blindingly obvious that the biggest mystery in the book is that it doesn’t even occur to the police till the book is nearly over – I won’t specify for fear of spoilers, even though I defy anyone not to spot it. And it’s not the only easy to spot clue – easy for the reader, that is, but seemingly impenetrable to our dogged but hopeless detectives. On the other hand, Meredith seems amazingly, almost supernaturally, perceptive when it comes to less important clues, making astounding leaps of intuition to arrive at the truth. The powers-that-be keep threatening to hand the whole thing over to the Yard, and I really felt they should do this pronto – intriguingly Meredith’s own superiors seemed willing to leave him seconded to the Cheltenham force for as long as possible necessary. One could see why…

However, there’s still a lot to like in the book. The characterisations of the various residents of the square are well done, even if they tend to be a little stereotyped. This is a typically upper middle class square, full of bankers and retired army officers and elderly spinsters. Some of the people are just what they seem, but some have secrets hidden behind their respectable façades which are gradually revealed as the book progresses. Bude creates the setting well and some of the secrets give it a slightly darker tone than it feels as if it’s going to have at first. And there’s lots of humour in it too, sometimes a bit clunky like when the local Inspector uses his young subordinate as the butt of his stupidity jokes (ironic, given the profundity of his own intellectual lapses!), but at other times light and fun, like the two elderly sisters and their dismay at not really knowing the correct etiquette for dealing with a murder investigation. The detectives get there in the end, of course, but more by luck than anything else.

Not one of the better of these British Library Crime Classics, in truth. I found it dragged quite a bit, mainly because it took the police so long to realise things that had been obvious for chapters. The quality of the writing and characterisation lifted it, but the whole detection aspect lacked any feeling of authenticity for me, and the murder method, while quite fun, struck me as overly contrived. I didn’t enjoy it as much as the other John Bude I’ve read, Death on the Riviera, but it was still a reasonably enjoyable read overall. So a fairly half-hearted recommendation for this one, I’m afraid.

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

Can’t find an author pic, so you’ll just have to make do with this instead…

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Rather be the Devil (Rebus 21) by Ian Rankin

Hail! Hail! The gang’s all here… 

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

While Rebus is having dinner with his long-term girlfriend, forensic pathologist Deborah Quant, in the Caledonian Hotel, he tells her of a murder that took place there years ago, when a famous rock star and his entourage were staying in the hotel – a woman who, it appeared, was probably murdered by her lover, except that the lover had an alibi. The murder was never solved and, as he tells the story, Rebus’s interest in it revives. Time for a little amateur sleuthing! Meantime, gangster Darryl Christie has been beaten up and Siobhan is on the case. The obvious suspect is Big Ger Cafferty, the older gangster whom Darryl has pushed aside, but Cafferty hints to Rebus that there’s a Russian connection. (No, fear not, Comrade Trump isn’t in it!) Malcolm Fox has been moved to the Specialist Crime Division in Gartcosh. They are quietly looking into some of Darryl’s business interests and reckon the investigation into his beating will be a good opportunity to nose around his affairs, so Malcolm is sent back through to Edinburgh to liaise with Siobhan. And so the scene is set for another full-cast outing, all the detectives and gangsters gathered together one more time.

Ian Rankin

Anyone who’s been reading my reviews for a while will know that Rebus is up there at the top of my list of favourite detectives, and Ian Rankin can really do no wrong in my eyes. As always, the plotting is great, with the various strands crossing and interconnecting. The old murder story is a traditional whodunit, where alibis and motives are key, while the gangster story allows for plenty of action and a good, believable thriller ending. There’s lots of room for the regulars to interact with each other, which is always one of the major joys of the books – tension between Siobhan and Malcolm because she’s jealous of his move to Gartcosh, concern over Rebus’s health as he undergoes some tests, and Rebus and Big Ger continuing their roles as the elder statesmen of policing and crime, running rings around the young’uns as usual.

However, in truth, I couldn’t help but notice that there are a good deal of similarities to the last book. The rivalry among Darryl, Big Ger and their Glasgow counterpart, Joe Stark, has been rumbling through a few books now, and shows no signs of coming to a conclusion. In retirement, it’s harder to create reasons for Rebus to be involved, and the excuse of Big Ger only being willing to deal with him is becoming a little worn. I hate to say it because I love the old man so much, but I think it’s time to let Rebus go and allow Siobhan and Malcolm to take over as the lead characters. Either that, or Rankin should break his own rule and take us back in time to revisit Rebus as a younger man, when he was still on the force. That’s not to suggest I didn’t enjoy this one – I did, thoroughly, and I’m sure other Rebus fans will too. But this and the last one have felt like encores, given as a treat to those who’ve watched the whole show and want a little bit more. And I think it would be better if Rebus left the stage while the audience is still applauding.

James Macpherson

I listened to the Audible audiobook version of this, narrated by James Macpherson whom some of you will remember as Chief Inspector Michael Jardine in the long-running STV series, Taggart. I’d listened to him narrate Rebus before, in the short story collection The Beat Goes On, so knew he’d be good. But actually he’s even better in this one – the length allows him to create different personalities for all the characters, and his range of Scottish accents and voices is fabulous. From posh Morningside gents to wee Glesca nyaffs, he can do them all brilliantly! He has a real understanding of the recurring characters, so his interpretation never jars. And his timing for the humour is perfect – he often made me laugh out loud. I heartily recommend his readings to any Rebus fans out there – I can’t imagine a better narrator for them, and fully intend to back track and listen to his readings of some of the older books.

For anyone coming new to the series, I’d definitely recommend starting much further back – this one depends to a large extent on familiarity with all the relationships amongst the regulars. But for existing Rebus fans, another thoroughly enjoyable book. Rankin writing and Macpherson narrating are a dream team – pure pleasure! Highly recommended.

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Audible Link UK
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Siren by Annemarie Neary

A soggy sandwich with a great filling…

🙂 🙂 😐

Twenty years ago, Róisín Burns had to flee her home in Northern Ireland after getting caught up in the Troubles. Now the IRA man she fled from, Lonergan, has reinvented himself as a politician, and Róisín has returned to take revenge, sort of. Or something.

This is another of the ubiquitous trend for books set part in the past and part in the present and, like so many of them, one part is much stronger than the other. The past section is set at the height of the Troubles, and Neary gives a convincing picture of a young girl trapped into doing the IRA’s bidding in a city where fear is a constant presence. The present is a silly thriller with absolutely no credibility whatsoever and drags interminably. In fact, had I not been reading this for Reading Ireland month, I would undoubtedly have abandoned it before I even got to the past, since it takes almost a third of the book to get there, apart from the brief prologue.

Róisín, now known as Sheen, has turned up on Lamb Island off the coast of Northern Ireland, where Lonergan now has a cottage. Sheen rents a little cottage too, isolated of course, just up the road from the resident nutter whom everyone assumes murdered the previous woman tenant. They don’t bother to tell Sheen this though, contenting themselves with warning the nutter, Boyle, to behave himself. He doesn’t. But he’s not the only bad man on the island – for such a small population it seems to attract more than its fair share of men willing to bump off lone women, for personal as well as political reasons. We spend an inordinate amount of time inside Boyle’s foul-mouthed and lustful head – ugh! (Constantly using “fucken” instead of “fucking” really doesn’t make it cute, by the way, especially when there’s no other attempt to reproduce Irish speech or accent.) Tedious in the extreme.

Then we go back to Belfast to what seems like the mid-’70s, though we’re not told exactly. The Troubles are at their height, with frequent beatings and bombings directed at both British soldiers and civilians fairly indiscriminately. This section feels almost as if it’s written by a different author. The city and its people are recreated with a real feeling of authenticity, and Neary raises a lot of intriguing questions about where moral responsibility begins and ends in a situation where the norms have disappeared and law and order have almost completely broken down. At first Róisín is tricked into helping the IRA, but after that she has to make choices – pay the consequences or continue down the path of terrorism, this time knowingly. Neary shows how grey that question becomes in a sharply divided society, where informers on either side are at extreme risk. She also touches on the question of how far the crimes of the past must be forgotten or forgiven in the pursuit of peace.

Annemarie Neary

And then sadly back to Lamb Island for a ridiculous thriller ending. The idea is ludicrous that a middle-aged woman with no combat experience or training would decide to take on members of the IRA whom she knows have no compunction about killing. And so unnecessary, since if Róisín simply wanted to destroy Lonergan, she could have sent an email to the police or the newspapers from the safety of her American home. But instead she comes back to Ireland to face Lonergan herself, to… I’m not really sure what… threaten him? Shame him? Neither tactic likely to work on an IRA terrorist, I’d have thought. And then it gets even sillier…

So a mixed bag. If Neary had stuck to telling the real story – the one in the past – this could have been an excellent book. Instead it’s like a sandwich with a great filling, but slapped between two thick pieces of soggy and underbaked bread. Maybe it’s time for authors to start telling one story again, instead of feeling obliged to stick in an extra timeline and a thriller ending – as all trends do, this one has seriously lost its novelty value. Sadly I see her new book follows the same double timeline format, so I think I’ll pass on that one.

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

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The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie read by Hugh Fraser

A great narration of a true classic…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the-abc-murdersWhen Captain Hastings comes back on a trip to London from his new home in the Argentine, he hastens round to visit his old friend, Hercule Poirot. After they’ve done a bit of catching up, Poirot shows Hastings a bizarre letter he has received, warning that a crime will be committed on a certain date in Andover. When the day comes, so does news of a murder – Alice Ascher, the owner of a small newsagents, has been found dead, with a copy of the ABC railway guide lying beside her body. Poirot and Hastings head to Andover, and soon find that Mrs Ascher’s drunken husband had every reason to want her dead, and would surely be arrested for the crime were it not for the strange coincidence of the letter. Some weeks pass before Poirot receives a second letter, this time warning of a murder to take place in Bexhill and, sure enough, a body turns up on the due date, along with another copy of the ABC. Poirot is already suspicious that this murderer is working to an alphabetical plan; a suspicion that is confirmed when the third letter speaks of Churston…

This is a rather typical Agatha Christie story – typically brilliant, that is. It has everything that makes her books such a joy: intriguing clues, plenty of suspects all with strong motives, lots of red herrings and misdirection, and, of course, the hugely entertaining interplay between Poirot and Hastings. It is narrated by Hastings, partly in the first person for the sections where he was present himself, and the rest in the third person, which he tells us he reconstructed from accounts from Poirot and other people.

There are possible suspects for each of the crimes – relatives, lovers and so on – but Poirot must find the link that connects them all. Chief Inspector Japp is always happy to have help from his little Belgian friend, and some of the suspects get together to offer their assistance too, so that they can have justice for the dead and also get out from under the cloud of suspicion that is hovering over them.

Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie

People sometimes sneer at Christie for working to a “formula” but I say, if a formula works so well, then why not? There are some things in this one that I feel are standard Christie, and they add as much to the enjoyment here as they do in so many of her other books. Her victims are carefully chosen so that we hope for justice for them, while not having to go through too much of the angst of grief. Poirot and Hastings spend much of their time interviewing people until Poirot’s little grey cells give him the solution, which he then reveals at a get-together of all the suspects. The tone is lightened by the warmth of Hastings’ narration – his occasional humour at Poirot’s expense never hiding the warm regard he feels for his friend. And although Poirot is obviously more intelligent than Inspector Japp, the police are never shown as bumbling incompetents. There is a general respect in the books that makes Christie’s world a pleasure to visit, and despite the similarities in tone and structure, the plots are different and original enough to make each book feel unique.

The plot of this one is beautifully complex and elegantly simple at the same time – a true Christie trait – so that when the solution finally comes, it seems both fiendishly clever and satisfyingly obvious. This is a major part of Christie’s success, I think – her “twists” are an untangling of a complicated knot, rather than the sudden introduction of some new layer of hitherto unsuspected silliness, as with so much contemporary crime. Her denouements don’t so much make one gasp with stunned disbelief as nod with satisfaction at the logical working out, and grin with pleasure at her cleverness in first hiding and then revealing her clues.

I listened to the Audible version of this, narrated by Hugh Fraser, whom Christie fans will recognise as the actor who played Hastings to David Suchet’s Poirot in the long-running ITV series. Fraser does a marvellous job – he captures the tone of the books perfectly, bringing out the humour and the warmth of the friendship between Poirot and Hastings. He has a lovely speaking voice and, though he doesn’t “act” all the parts, he differentiates enough between the characters so that it’s easy to follow who’s speaking. Obviously, when he’s reading Hastings’ dialogue, he sounds just like Hastings. But remarkably, when Poirot is speaking, he sounds just like Suchet’s Poirot! I guess Fraser must have spent long enough listening to Suchet do it that he has mastered a faultless impersonation. It gives the narration a wonderful familiarity for fans of the TV adaptations.

hastings-and-poirot

So to conclude, one of Christie’s finest, enhanced by a fabulous narration – I promptly shot off back to Audible and used up all my spare credits on getting as many of Fraser’s Poirot readings as I could, and happily he has done loads of them. My highest recommendation for both book and reading – perfect entertainment!

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PS One thing that really bugs me is that the cover, which I otherwise love, has bullet holes on the letters. No-one gets shot in this story. FF’s Seventh Law: Cover artists should read the book before designing the cover.

The Legacy (Children’s House 1) by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

A great start…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When a horrific murder is carried out, there’s only one witness, 7-year-old Margrét, but she’s too shocked to tell her tale. So it’s decided to ask the Children’s House to help out – a place that specialises in helping traumatised children. Meantime the police are searching through the murder victim’s background to try to find any reason for her murder, but Elísa seems to have been normal in every possible way: happy marriage, a group of long-time friends, good at her job, and generally popular. And the next victim – because of course there’s a next one – seems equally unlikely. Margrét’s testimony seems to be the only hope…

This is the beginning of a new series for Yrsa Sigurdardóttir, based around Freyja, the psychologist in charge of the Children’s House, and Huldar, the detective in charge of the case. I’m not sure if both will appear in future books or just Freya, but they definitely share the billing in this one. The book is written in third person, past tense throughout. The crime seems to have its roots in the past but we learn about it through events in the present. Personally, I’m thrilled to see a crime book returning to this more traditional format of storytelling – the single time period flows more naturally than chopping backwards and forwards, the third person allows the author to range more widely across the characters without being restricted by what a first person narrator can know, and the past tense is so much more natural and appropriate that I really can’t understand why there’s such an insistence on using present tense. (I have never once seen anyone complain about a book being written in the past tense, have you?) I’m hoping maybe trends are finally shifting again…

As often happens with the first of a series, this one starts off pretty slowly, with much filling in of the backgrounds of the main characters – perhaps a little too much. There are places where it drags a bit and I found myself wishing that the plot would move along a little faster. However, I like both Freyja and Huldar as lead characters. Neither of them are perfect, but nor are they angst-ridden weirdos or drunks. They are both professionals who take their jobs seriously. Freyja clearly cares deeply about the children who pass through her care, but she’s professional enough not to get too emotionally involved to do her job well. This is Huldar’s first time in charge of an investigation, and we see him do his best to keep his team working well together, even though they get progressively more snappy with each other as the pressure mounts and time passes with no real leads appearing.

My one real complaint is that the murders are particularly horrific, and though in fact Sigurdardóttir only lingers over the detail of the first one, she writes so effectively that I found the images that she was putting in my head were too graphic for me, and unnecessarily so. The story is strong enough to stand without the gruesomeness, so that it felt pretty gratuitous to me.

Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

The plotting, however, is great! Twisty, credible (apart from the murder methods), and full of some lovely misdirection – nope, I didn’t get there until it was revealed at the end, but on looking back, the clues are all there, so no ‘cheating’. It is a whodunit to a degree, but it’s actually more about the why of the crime – once the motive is clear, so is the culprit. We see events unfold from various perspectives – Freyja and Huldar, of course, but also through the victims’ eyes, as baffled as we are as to why this is happening to them. And then there’s Karl, a young student and radio ham who has come across a strange station emitting strings of numbers that somehow seem to be connected to both him and the victims. The sections relating to Karl provide both the central mystery and some great characterisation of him and his friends, as they find themselves drawn into something they don’t understand.

Sigurdardóttir’s writing is as excellent as always, and the translation by Victoria Cribb is first class – had I not known it was a translation, I would have assumed it was written in English. The rather slow start and the too graphic murders meant that for most of the read it was heading for a solid four stars from me, but the strength of the last hundred pages or so lifted it – I found myself totally absorbed and the skill of the lead-up to the eventual solution both satisfied and impressed me. So I’m going with 4½, and will certainly be looking out for the next in what I hope will turn out to be a fine series, especially if Sigurdardóttir can rein in her imagination just a little on the gruesome front…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Hodder & Stoughton.

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A Dangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys

Escaping the past…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

a-dangerous-crossingDays after the outbreak of WW2, a ship arrives in Australia, and a passenger in handcuffs is escorted off by the police. A local reporter tries to snatch an interview, to find out if the rumour is true that someone aboard the ship was killed…

After this great prologue that hints at much but tells us nothing that will spoil the story, we are whisked back to the beginning of the voyage. Lily Shepherd has left her home in England to go to work in Australia as a domestic servant. She’s trying to escape from the memory of something bad that happened, though at first the reader doesn’t know what this is, other than that it involved a man she had been in love with. She is on an assisted passage organised by the Church of England along with six other young women, all chaperoned by an older woman employed by the Church.

Lily meets the two girls with whom she’ll be sharing a cabin, and then later is introduced to the other passengers who have been placed at the same table with her in the dining room for the duration of the voyage. They’re a varied group, all of different classes and backgrounds – people whose paths wouldn’t cross socially in the normal course of things. But thrust into the sudden intimacy of having to live and eat together, barriers break down and unlikely friendships are quickly formed. Isolated from both past and future in this bubble, Lily soon finds that life on board becomes all-consuming, and begins to forget that when they arrive at journey’s end, all the passengers will revert to their own class and concerns, and that, as a domestic servant, she will be beneath the notice of most of them.

There is a young man at Lily’s table to whom she quickly becomes attracted – Edward, who is going to Australia for the sake of his health, having recently recovered from TB. His sister, Helena, is going with him and Lily is soon on friendly terms with them both, and has reason to think that her attraction to Edward is mutual. But their quiet life in tourist class is disrupted by the arrival of a glamorous couple from the first class deck, Max and Eliza, who promptly suck Lily and her new friends into their little circle. There is an air of scandal about Max and Eliza, though the gossip about them is vague, but it’s soon obvious that Edward has become infatuated. And while Eliza flirts with Edward, Max begins to show attention to Lily…

Rachel Rhys also writes psychological thrillers as Tammy Cohen, and I’ve had a mixed reaction to her in the past, partly because of my weariness with that genre. I much prefer her in this incarnation – although there is a crime here, this is more historical fiction in style. Her writing and characterisation are excellent, and she brings the claustrophobic atmosphere of forced intimacy aboard the ship brilliantly to life. When the voyage begins, the spectre of war is hanging over Europe but there is still hope that Germany might pull back from the brink. Rhys works this uncertainty through the plot, with some eager for war and some running from it. There are Jewish passengers aboard, fleeing from their homes to escape Nazi persecution, and we see the various reactions to them from sympathy to outright anti-Semitism.

Rachel Rhys
Rachel Rhys

But the main story is personal rather than political, as Lily gradually discovers that she’s not the only passenger who is trying to leave the past behind. The story is told in the third person, but as secrets are revealed, we see it all from Lily’s rather naive perspective. She is a level-headed, intelligent young woman though from a fairly sheltered background, and Rhys manages the tricky task of making her likeable and empathetic, while allowing the reader to see her flaws and weaknesses. The various on-board relationships take on an intensity in the confined setting, and soon little resentments become magnified until these sudden friendships begin to crack under the strain. Truthfully, I’d kinda guessed the big secret fairly early on but it didn’t matter – Rhys still managed to create a real atmosphere of tension and apprehension as she led the way to the shocking climax.

For all of us in book blog world, the book has another special treat. One of the characters is called after our very own Cleo, who bid for and won this honour in a charity auction – check out her post on it. Fictional Cleo did make me chuckle since I couldn’t help imagining the real Cleo in the character. It would have been worth reading it for that reason alone, and I freely admit that’s why I got the book. But I’m glad I did – it’s an excellent book with strong characterisation, a great sense of place and time, an intriguing plot and a dramatic but credible denouement. I’ll be looking out for more from Rachel Rhys in the future.

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

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