Maigret and the Tall Woman (Maigret 38) by Georges Simenon

The mystery of the missing corpse…

😀 😀 😀 😀

maigret-and-the-tall-womanOn a hot summer day in Paris when most people are on holiday, Maigret receives a visit from a tall woman who says he once arrested her. Ernestine tells him she is now married to a well-known safe-breaker, nicknamed Sad Freddie, who has been in and out of prison for years. On his latest job, according to the woman, Freddie discovered the body of a murdered woman in the house he was burgling, and has fled and gone into hiding, fearing he’ll be suspected of killing her. Ernestine wants Maigret to find the real killer so her husband feels safe to come home. The only problem is no murder has been reported…

It’s been many years since I last read a Maigret novel, but the recent Penguin re-issues in new translations have led to a spate of reviews around the blogosphere that piqued my interest in re-visiting him. Also, Inspector Maigret is one of Martin Edwards’ picks for his Top Ten Golden Age Detectives. This is the 38th in the series, so the character is well-established, and Simenon doesn’t spend much time in this one filling in details of his personal life. It works perfectly as a standalone, as I believe most if not all of them do.

Simenon creates an authentic picture of a semi-deserted Paris sweltering in a summer heatwave. Partly due to this, and partly just because he seems to like to drink, Maigret spends an inordinate amount of time popping into cafés for a little glass of wine, or beer, or Pernod – lots and lots of Pernod, in fact. I had to stand back in awe at his sheer capacity – not many men start the day with a glass of white wine before heading off to work, and it must surely be a French thing for the police office to have an account with the nearby café to have regular supplies of Pernod sent round during an investigation. One can’t help but feel Rebus would have been in his element over there…

Maigret's unostentatious little office in Quai des Orfevres, Paris.
Maigret’s unostentatious little office in Quai des Orfèvres, Paris.

However, joking aside, happily none of this constant imbibing leads to Maigret being a drunken detective – if anything, it all sharpens his brain. He is shown as doggedly persistent, worrying away at small clues until by sheer force of will he squeezes their meaning from them. The first thing he has to do in this case is establish that there has actually been a murder, and Ernestine helps by explaining how Freddie selects the houses he burgles. Even with this information, Maigret can find no victim and eventually begins to suspect that Ernestine is lying, or at least mistaken. But then he comes across a small inconsistency in the story of one of the people he has interviewed, and from there on it becomes a matter of breaking his suspect down through some pretty dodgy interviewing techniques – he’s not averse to a bit of mild psychological torture to achieve his ends. The eventual solution is not quite as straightforward as it seems as if it’s going to be, though, and along the way Simenon creates a chilling atmosphere of evil at work, and family dynamics gone horribly wrong.

Georges Simenon, looking not unlike my mental image of Maigret...
Georges Simenon, looking not unlike my mental image of Maigret…

Overall, I found this a thoroughly enjoyable read. It falls somewhere between novella and short novel in length, which again I think is standard for the Maigret series, so perfect to read in one evening. To contrast with the darkness of the crime, Maigret himself is rather laid-back and we get a great feeling of the delightful café culture of Paris. He loves his wife, and they regularly meet up (for drinks!) during the case – Maigret is quite capable of working all night if he has to, and making his men do the same, but he doesn’t let work absorb him to the extent of neglecting his family life. In truth, the detection element relies on little more than guesswork and it all works out a little too easily perhaps, but the story is interesting for all that. It’s well written with some humour to lighten the overall tone, and I found the translation by David Watson excellent. I’ll certainly be keen to read more of the series and happily recommend it to anyone who hasn’t tried Maigret before.

(This novel has been published in previous translations as Maigret and the Burglar’s Wife.)

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

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The Death of Kings (John Madden 5) by Rennie Airth

A new take on the Golden Age…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

the-death-of-kingsWhen retired policeman Tom Derry receives an anonymous letter enclosing a jade pendant that the writer claims belonged to a murder victim, he discusses it with Angus Sinclair, who had worked with him on the original investigation. Sinclair is worried – at the back of his mind he had always had doubts about the guilt of the man convicted and hanged for the crime. Not well enough to look into the matter himself, Sinclair asks his old friend John Madden to check things out.

Now in 1949, Madden is retired too, but he still has contacts in the force, not least Billy Styles who used to be his subordinate but is now a detective inspector. The murder took place back in 1938, when a small-time actress, Portia Blake, was a guest at a house-party. She went out for a walk in the woods, and her body was later discovered, strangled. A man with a previous conviction for attempted rape was in the vicinity and suspicion soon fell on him, and after interrogation he confessed. As a result, the investigation was quickly wrapped up and other possible solutions were never checked. So it’s up to Madden to track down the people who were there that weekend, and see if anyone else had a motive…

I’ve always enjoyed the Madden books, and this is an excellent addition to the series. They are somewhat quieter and slower than most modern crime novels, relying on the quality of the writing and the carefully created post-war setting to carry them. There is most definitely a Golden Age feel to them, quite intentionally, I think, though they are at the more thoughtful end of the Golden Age, or perhaps in the slightly later tradition of PD James.

In this one, we have the country house party, a rather upper class list of suspects, a traditional style of investigation carried out mostly through interviews of the various people who were there at the time, and a restricted time period for the murder, making alibi an important feature. There is also a connection to the Chinese Triads through one of the suspects – a half-Chinese man from Hong Kong. Normally I’d run a mile from a story about the Triads – not my thing at all – but I’m delighted to say that, while it’s an important element of the story, it’s somewhat understated and isn’t allowed to overwhelm the other features. At heart this is a traditional detective story, and the Triad storyline feels realistic within that.

In the last couple of books, I’ve lightly criticised the fact that much of the investigation is carried out off-stage, so to speak, with information being given to the reader via police officers talking to each other. I’m delighted to say this one doesn’t take that approach – it goes back to the, in my opinion, much more satisfying style of Madden actually getting out and about and talking to people himself. This makes the characterisation of the suspects much better developed, which consequently meant I felt more invested in the outcome. It also allows for deepening of Madden’s own character, since we see the investigation proceed from his perspective, though in third person.

The old regulars are here too – Angus Sinclair, curmudgeonly with gout, but his brain still sharp; Billy Styles, still faithful to his old mentor; Lily Poole, the lone female detective in this man’s world. I’ve always liked the way Airth deals with Lily – she is strong and intelligent, but not feminist in the strident sense, and the sexism she encounters isn’t ill-meant – just a true reflection of how things were back then. She realises it’s an unfair world but does her best to progress within the existing rules rather than constantly kicking against them. And Airth always lets her have a major impact on the investigation without it ever feeling forced or unrealistic for the time. Madden’s family is here too – his wife, Helen, able to cast some light on some of the suspects from her days as a society girl, and his daughter, Lucy, now a young woman, constantly sticking her nose in and gossiping about the case, but doing it all with a lot of charm (which manages, just, to stay this side of nauseating).

Rennie Airth
Rennie Airth

The solution relies a little too much on Madden getting a sudden intuition, but otherwise it’s both dark and satisfying. Airth includes the kind of class element that is so often present in Golden Age books, with the rather upper-class old school policemen tending to protect those of their own background; but he has Billy Styles comment on it, suggesting that winds of change are about to shake up the way policing is done in this post-war world. Altogether, an absorbing, rather slow-paced novel, but with excellent timing so that it holds the reader’s attention throughout. This would work fine as a standalone, with enough background given to each of the regulars to let new readers understand how they relate to each other, but as with any series it’s probably best to read them in order, starting with River of Darkness.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mantle (Pan MacMillan).

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Crimson Snow: Winter Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards

Deep and crisp and even…

😀 😀 😀 😀

crimson-snowThe latest addition to the British Library themed anthologies of classic crime, this one includes eleven stories all set around the festive season. A great time for people to get together in family gatherings or country house parties, and bump each other off. Who amongst us hasn’t thought that the one thing that would improve Christmas would be the quick dispatching of one of our nearest and dearest, or that the only way to pay for all those gifts would be to hasten the inheritance from one of our much loved rich relatives? Or is that just me? On the basis of the evidence in this book, I’m not alone in thinking Christmas is a particularly jolly time for a murder…

As with the earlier anthologies, this one is introduced and edited by Martin Edwards who also gives a short introduction to each story telling a little about the author. There’s the usual mix of well-known authors – Margery Allingham, Edgar Wallace – and forgotten ones, and as always the quality of the individual stories varies. However, overall I thought this was a more consistent collection than the last couple – none of the stories rate as less than three stars for me and there are plenty of fours and a sprinkling of fives. The lengths also vary from a few pages to a couple of the stories being what I’d think of as novelette length – taking an hour or so to read.

chalk-outline

There’s a nice variety of whodunits and howdunits, some dark and serious, others lighter and more quirky, and a few with ghostly aspects to add to the winter chills. And there’s fog and feverish policemen, and wicked carol-singers, and isolated houses with all access cut off by snow… perfect accompaniment to a mug of hot chocolate and a seat near the fire!

Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most…

The Ghost’s Touch by Fergus Hume – when the narrator is invited to spend the festive season as a guest in a haunted country house, one feels he should have swiftly invented a prior engagement. However, clearly he doesn’t read crime novels, because off he goes, all cheerful and expecting to have a good time. Hah! After the fire, the ghost, and a meeting with the murderer at the dead of night, I suspect he changed his mind… The plot in this one is totally obvious, but nevertheless the author manages to get a nice atmosphere of tension going, and it’s very well written.

crime-scene-tape

Death in December by Victor Gunn – a great cross between ghost and crime story, this one is probably going to appear on a future Tuesday Terror! post so I won’t go into detail. It’s one of the longer stories in the collection, giving time for a bit more characterisation than usual and both the detectives, grumpy Bill “Ironside” Cromwell and his sidekick, lovely Johnny Lister, are well drawn and fun. There are aspects of both who and how in this one, not to mention some genuinely scary bits, all topped off with a lot of humour. And a nice little bit of detection too…

Mr Cork’s Secret by Macdonald Hastings – When Montague Cork’s firm insures a valuable necklace, Montague begins to worry about its safety. So off he goes with his wife to a top London hotel where the owner of the necklace is expected to be staying. He’s lucky to get a room at such short notice, especially at Christmas time. Not so lucky for the person who vacated the room, though – since he was carried out feet first by the police, headed for the morgue. Could the murder have anything to do with the necklace? It’s up to Montague to find out… This has a nice twist in that when it was originally published the author held one fact back as part of a competition. Edwards has left it like that, but at the end of the book, gives the solution as provided by the author, along with the prize-winners’ suggestions.

handcuffs

Deep and Crisp and Even by Michael Gilbert – PC Petrella is covering for his boss over Christmas, and takes his duties seriously. So it’s unfortunate that he develops a feverish cold leaving him weak and a bit confused. But when he suspects a house in the neighbourhood has been burgled, he’s determined to track the perpetrator, even when he’s near collapse himself. Complete with carol-singing, dreadful weather and seasonal illness, this is a fun little story with a neat twist.

* * * * *

So plenty of good stuff here, and a lot of the stories make excellent use of either weather or the holidays to add to the atmosphere and tension. I’m thoroughly enjoying these anthologies – even the less good stories are always fun for seeing the different attitudes and writing styles of the time, and the little author bios add a bit of context, putting each story into its appropriate place in the development of crime fiction. I also like the way they’re themed, and this theme in particular works well – I suppose that these would mostly have originally been published in Christmas editions of magazines, and perhaps that inspired the authors to show off their best. Next to the London-themed one, this is probably my favourite of the collections so far. I do hope there will be more…

blood-spatterNB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.

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The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham read by David Thorpe

Campion’s first appearance…

😀 😀 😀 😀

the-crime-at-black-dudleyDr George Abbershaw has gone down to Black Dudley Manor to join a house party for the weekend. The house is owned by George’s friend, Wyatt Petrie, but is occupied by Wyatt’s uncle by marriage, Colonel Coombe. The elderly wheelchair-bound colonel likes the company of young people, so often asks Wyatt to bring a group of his friends down for the weekend. George, though, is there mainly because he’s fallen in love with a girl who is also a guest, Meggie Oliphaunt, and he hopes to find an opportunity to propose to her. Colonel Coombe has also invited a few friends of his own.

In the evening, talk turns to old legends and Wyatt reluctantly tells of the ritual of a dagger that hangs prominently on the wall. The ritual involves turning off the lights and running around the house in the dark, passing the knife from person to person. What jolly fun! However when the lights come up Colonel Coombe is found dead. His friends tell the assembled company that his death was expected as he was very ill, and hasten to get a cremation certificate signed and hustle the body off the premises, so as not to spoil the weekend (!). But it soon becomes obvious to George that there’s something fishy going on (!) – and when something goes missing, suddenly the young people find themselves the prisoners of the Colonel’s friends…

This is apparently the book in which Allingham’s regular ‘tec, Albert Campion, makes his first appearance, although in this one, George is the main focus and Campion is a secondary character. George is a sensible young man, but Campion appears to be a foolish fop, like Bertie Wooster, only with fewer brains and a falsetto voice. He does develop a bit more depth as the book progresses, but it’s a strange first outing.

Peter Davidson as Campion and Brian Glover as his manservant Lugg in the TV adaptation
Peter Davidson as Campion and Brian Glover as his manservant Lugg in the TV adaptation

There is much running to and fro through secret tunnels, which are nearly as complex as the convoluted plot involving criminal gangs, mysterious papers and suchlike. Despite the darkness of the plot, and some episodes of viciousness on the part of the baddies, the general tone is light and fun. George and Meggie are both likeable characters, and their romance is handled nicely, not overwhelming the story but giving the reader something to care about amidst all the mayhem. Campion adds a lot of humour to the story, partly laughing with him and partly laughing at him. He’s shrewder than he first appears, but in the end it’s down to George to solve the puzzle of what it is the colonel’s friends are looking for, and who killed the colonel. And of course to engineer the escape from the baddies. In fact, Campion more or less disappears towards the end and plays no part in the final denouement – presumably at that point Allingham didn’t see him as her central character.

I listened to the audiobook version, and I have to say I felt David Thorpe’s narration was great! I’ve seen some critical reviews of it, mainly from Campion fans objecting to the falsetto voice he uses for Campion and for the foolishness Thorpe puts into his character. But this is how he is written in the book and I felt Thorpe was paying attention to the words of this one, rather than basing his characterisation on how Campion develops in later novels. Thorpe brings out all the humour in the story, but also does an excellent job with the darker sections. He held my attention throughout, which doesn’t always happen with audiobooks. A 5 star narration, in my opinion.

Margery Allingham
Margery Allingham

However, I’ve never rated Allingham as highly as the other Golden Age Queens of Crime: Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L Sayers; and truthfully I’m not sure that this book has changed my mind. I found it enjoyable, but too convoluted and not at all credible, and apart from George and Meggie, too many of the characters are caricatures. I didn’t feel it was fairplay at all – the eventual solution seemed to come from nowhere, though of course it’s possible I missed hidden clues along the way (even good audiobooks have a tendency to induce occasional napping). I’m glad I listened though – I think the narration actually made me enjoy the book more than I might have, had I been reading a paper copy. So overall, a fun listen of a reasonably entertaining book, but probably not the best one to start with to get a feel for the character Campion eventually becomes.

I was inspired to seek out this book by Margot Kinberg’s excellent Spotlight of it.

Albert Campion is one of Martin Edwards’ picks for Ten Top Golden Age Detectives.

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The Beautiful Dead by Belinda Bauer

Murder as performance art…

🙂 🙂 🙂

the-beautiful-deadTV reporter Eve Singer is on the crime beat, so she’s called to the scene of a brutal murder committed in the foyer of an office building, just feet from where people are passing by on the pavement outside. This is a murderer who likes to perform his gory crimes in public, and then stage them as if it were some kind of performance art. When he makes contact with Eve, at first it seems like a great thing – she’ll have the exclusive story and it will give her career a much needed boost. But soon she realises that she’s becoming caught up in the murderer’s schemes, almost to the point of becoming an accessory…

First off, let me say that I love Belinda Bauer. And this book has in it many of the things I love her for – the great writing, touches of humour, some nice building of suspense and an original and dramatic climax. However, for me, this isn’t one of her best. It feels derivative – there are touches of Hannibal and Clarice in the relationship between Eve and the killer, and heavy shades of Psycho over the storyline. Perhaps there’s not much new left to say in the serial killer novel – certainly it’s been a while since I read one that felt fresh. But the derivations in this one seemed so blatant that I wondered at points if she was deliberately referencing some of the greats as a kind of inside joke, but if so, it didn’t quite come off, and simply ended up feeling rather unoriginal.

The structure also doesn’t feel up to Bauer’s usual standard. We are given biographies of the characters rather than being allowed to get to know them through the plot – whatever happened to ‘show, don’t tell’? Eve’s father suffers from dementia and this is used partly to give some humour to the book – always tricky with such a sensitive subject and I felt it occasionally passed over into tastelessness. And while I thought the portrayal of his dementia was well done for most of the book, when it became part of the plotting in the later stages it crossed the credibility line and began to feel contrived and inauthentic, and I found myself feeling that this awful disease was being used for entertainment purposes rather than being given the empathy it deserves. The humour didn’t work as well for me as usual, I didn’t take to Eve much, and the amount of lazy swearing throughout became utterly tedious, not to mention Eve’s need to vomit every time a corpse turned up.

Belinda Bauer
Belinda Bauer

On the upside, there are passages where Bauer achieves that delicious feeling of creepiness, for example, when Eve thinks she’s being followed home in the dark, and it does have a great thriller ending which redeemed it a little in my eyes. I was also pleased that this murderer was pretty eclectic in his choice of victims, not exclusively butchering vulnerable young women. But overall, this is one I’m going to put down to an off day, and go back to waiting avidly for her next offering. I’ve given it three stars but, in truth, I think one of those stars is from a mixture of loyalty and the feeling that I may be judging it too harshly because of my perhaps overly high expectations. Because, despite this one, I do love Belinda Bauer. I can’t help wondering in general if the pressure to get a new book out every year is really a good thing in the long run…

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

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Death on the Riviera by John Bude

Sun, sea and murder…

😀 😀 😀 😀

death-on-the-rivieraInspector Meredith and his young sidekick Acting-Sergeant Freddy Strang have been sent to the Riviera to help the French police hunt down a counterfeiter – a Brit who seems to be involved in laundering fake money in the little towns along the coast. While they’re there, a murder is committed amongst some of the English people living on the Riviera, so they become involved in that investigation too, especially since it seems that the two crimes may both link to the various people staying in the home of Nesta Hedderwick. This is quite handy for young Freddy, since he’s fallen in love with Nesta’s niece, Dilys…

The title of the book made me think this would be mainly a murder mystery, but in fact the bulk of the book is about the counterfeiting investigation, with the murder and subsequent investigation only happening quite late on. It’s a personal preference thing, and I’m not quite sure what it says about me(!), but I really prefer my crime fiction to be about murders. I’ve never managed to get up much interest in theft or fraud as a plotline. So, true to form, I enjoyed the murder investigation of this one, but found the counterfeiting plot rather dull.

In both sections, it’s really more of a howdunit – the villains are relatively obvious from fairly early on. In the counterfeiting plot, the question is more about how the money is being disseminated. This involves Meredith and Strang in quite a lot of driving along the coast, visiting the various small towns. Bude creates an authentic feel to the setting, with all the cafés and rich tourists, the gorgeous scenery and glorious weather, and Meredith and Strang have plenty of time to enjoy their stay while working on the case, complete with a fair amount of fine dining and wine-tippling.

The murder plot is something of an ‘impossible’ crime, though not of the locked room variety. I’m not going to reveal much about it since it would be hard without spoilers. But it’s fiendishly contrived, with a neat (if rather incredible) solution. The who is easy, the how less so, though I did guess how it was done a few microseconds before it was revealed. I felt the motive was a little shaky, to be honest, but it’s really more about the puzzle than the motivation.

Both Meredith and Freddy are likeable characters. Meredith is methodical and efficient, while Freddy works more on intuition. Freddy has shades of a Wodehouse character – I felt he would fit in well at the Drones Club (though as one of the more sensible ones – think Kipper Herring rather than Gussie Fink-Nottle), which I have to say made me wonder why he was slumming it working for the police. I’d have liked to know a little more about him, but even without much background to his character he adds a touch of lightness and occasional humour, and his romance with Dilys is nicely handled.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, despite not being enthralled by the counterfeiting strand – the writing is very good, the plotting is clever, especially of the murder, and the characters well enough drawn to be interesting. Another intriguing author resurrected by the British Library – one I’d be happy to read more from.

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

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Cast Iron (Enzo Files 6) by Peter May

Secrets of the past…

😀 😀 😀 😀

cast-ironBack in book 1 of the Enzo Files series, Scottish forensic expert Enzo Macleod, now living in Toulouse, took on a bet that he could use modern forensic techniques to solve the seven unsolved murders that were described in a true crime book written by Parisian journalist Roger Raffin. A few years on, he is now beginning his investigation into the sixth murder, of a young girl, Lucie Martin. Lucie disappeared one day back in 1989, and no trace of her was found until the great heatwave of 2003 when her skeleton showed up in the dried-out shore of the lake near her home. Her parents believe she was murdered by a notorious serial killer who was active at that time, but he had a cast-iron alibi for the time she disappeared. Enzo has very little to go on as he reopens the case, but it soon becomes clear someone is out to stop him from finding out the truth…

Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know that I’m a big fan of Peter May’s work, going all the way back to his China thrillers. I admit, however, that the Enzo Files is the one series of his to which I’ve never really taken. In fact, I haven’t read them all – just the first two, then this one. But this is really due to a matter of personal preference than any real criticism of the books. May’s usual protagonists tend to be unencumbered by family ties, or to develop relationships as the series progress. But Enzo comes with a lot of family baggage, which gets added to in each book. Having left his first wife and their daughter, he moved to France with his new love, who then died giving birth to another daughter. So in the early books there’s a lot of working out of resentments with his first, abandoned daughter, Kirsty, and by the time of this book, both daughters have acquired lovers who featured in earlier cases.

Enzo meantime picks up women at a rate that would make George Clooney jealous, so that by the time of this book he has tense relationships with more than one ex. And in each story, some or all of his extended family get involved in the investigation. May does it very well, and keeps all the various personal storylines ticking over, but it’s just not my kind of thing – I find all the relationship stuff takes away from the focus on the plot (and I frankly don’t see what it is about Enzo that apparently makes him so irresistible to women). But I wouldn’t want to put other readers off – what I don’t like about this series may well make it particularly appealing to people who like their protagonists to have a ‘real’ life beyond the immediate plot.

As Enzo begins his investigation by visiting the victim’s family, he is unaware that his daughter Sophie and her boyfriend Bertrand have been abducted, until he receives a warning to stop if he wants to get them back safely. Naturally, this only makes him redouble his efforts! The strand involving Sophie and Bertrand’s imprisonment and attempts to escape is my favourite bit of the book. It takes us into traditional thriller territory with plenty of action and mounting tension, and May excels at this type of writing.

Peter May
Peter May

The main plot regarding Lucie’s murder is also excellent, showing all May’s usual skill at creating strong characters and interesting settings, and managing to have some credible emotional content to offset the action thriller side of the book. However, there is also an overarching plot to the series which comes to a climax in this one, and I felt there was perhaps a little too much going on and too many coincidental crossovers between the various strands. But May’s writing is a pleasure to read as always, and he manages to bring all the threads together well in the end. Some aspects of this work as a standalone, but because it reveals so much about the background plot, I would strongly suggest this is a series that should be read in order. Reading this one first would undoubtedly spoil the earlier books in a significant way. The first book in the series seems to be known as Extraordinary People now, though it was originally published under the title Dry Bones.

I hope my relatively lukewarm review won’t deter people from trying this series. Even with favourite authors, we all prefer some of their stuff to others, but any Peter May book is still head and shoulders above most of the competition. And this is as well-written and strongly plotted as always, while the French setting gives it an added level of interest. So, despite my personal reservations, I still recommend the series, especially if the complicated family relationships aspect appeals to you.

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

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Murder, She Wrote: Design for Murder by Jessica Fletcher, Donald Bain and Renée Paley-Bain

Danger alert: Jessica Fletcher’s in town…

😀 😀 😀 😀

design-for-murderDuring a catwalk show in New York’s Fashion Week, a young model collapses and dies. Rowena Roth had been an unpleasant girl, arrogant and rude, so few people other than her mother could truthfully say they grieved for her loss. It seems like one of those tragic things that happen sometimes – perhaps a heart condition that she had never been aware of. But then a second model is found dead. The question is: are the deaths connected? Fortunately for the NYPD, Jessica Fletcher is in town, ready to offer them as much advice as they can take…

I love the TV series of Murder, She Wrote. It’s my go-to cosy for winter afternoons, and I’ve been known to binge-watch several shows one after the other. This is largely because I think Angela Lansbury is fab in the role, plus the style of the show means that, despite the phenomenal murder rate, nothing distasteful ever really happens, and Cabot Cove still looks like a wonderful spot to spend some time. Would the books work as well without Lansbury’s presence?

The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 2...
The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 1…

The story is told in the first person (past tense) from Jessica’s perspective, so we get to see the thoughts inside her head. Jessica is all sweetness and charm on the outside, and full of some rather waspish thoughts on the inside. I kinda liked that – I always assumed on the TV show that, behind that ultra-friendly exterior, an astute and clear-sighted brain must be ticking away. Like Miss Marple (from whom she’s clearly directly descended), Jessica must be an ‘expert in wickedness’ if she’s to see through the façade the villain erects to cover his/her crimes. I found I could easily imagine Angela Lansbury speaking her lines, and the marvellous facial expressions she would have used to convey the unspoken thoughts.

The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 2...
The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 2…

I was rather disappointed that the book was set in New York rather than Cabot Cove. But Seth and Mort both appear during phone conversations, so I didn’t have to do without my two favourite men completely. The description of Fashion Week felt thoroughly researched – though given, of course, that Murder, She Wrote spin of cosiness that means it doesn’t feel quite authentic to real life. The plot covers the lengths to which young girls will go to succeed in the cut-throat world of modelling, touching on subjects like extreme dieting and cosmetic surgery. The jealousies are shown too, but it’s all done with a light touch. And, of course, we don’t care about the murder victims, so no dismal grief or angst to contend with.

The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 3...
The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 3…

Jessica is just as irresistible to men as she is in the show – this time it’s Detective Aaron Kopecky who’s badly smitten by her charms. Got to admit, this was the one bit of the book that I found tedious – Kopecky’s admiration became repetitive and his attempts to woo Jessica by dangling information about the case in front of her became laboured and annoying in the end. But it wasn’t enough of an issue to spoil the book for me overall.

The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 4...
The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 4…

The plot is quite interesting, and stays more or less within the bounds of credibility. Jessica is at the show because of her friendship with the designer’s mother – she and her son both hail from Cabot Cove originally. And it’s not long before Jessica is nosing around amongst the models, publicity people, cosmetic surgeons, et al, coming up with stunning insights long before poor Detective Kopecky is even close. I don’t think it could really count as fair-play, though maybe that’s just sour grapes because I didn’t work out the solution. But it’s well written – a nice cosy, with the genuine feeling of the show and enough contact with the familiar characters to prevent me missing the Cabot Cove setting too much. I’ll cheerfully read more of these, and recommend it not just to fans of the show, but to cosy lovers in general. Good fun!

The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 5...
The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 5…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Berkley Publishing Group.

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The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White

…aka The Lady Vanishes

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the-wheel-spinsA young Englishwoman, Iris Carr, is travelling home alone from an unspecified European country. Suffering from sunstroke, she nearly misses her train but a helpful porter shoves her into a carriage at the last moment. The people in the carriage clearly resent her presence – all except one, that is. Miss Froy, another Englishwoman, takes Iris under her wing and carries her off to have tea in the dining carriage. When they return, Iris sleeps for a while. When she awakes, Miss Froy has gone, and the other passengers deny all knowledge of there having ever been another Englishwoman in the carriage…

This is the book that has been made into more than one version of a film under the title of The Lady Vanishes. The basic plot is very similar – Iris is struggling to get anyone to believe her story, partly because she has made herself unpopular with her fellow travellers, and partly because each of those travellers have their own reasons for not wanting to get involved in anything that might delay the journey. But Iris is determined to find out what has happened to Miss Froy, as much to prove herself right as out of genuine concern for the other woman.

We first meet Iris when she and a group of her friends are staying at a hotel in the mountains. They are modern and loud, with the arrogance of youth, and are entirely unaware and uncaring that they are annoying the other guests. When Iris has an argument with one of her crowd, she decides not to travel home with them, but to wait a day or two and go on her own. But as soon as they leave, she begins to realise how lonely and isolated she feels, especially since she doesn’t speak a word of the local language. White is excellent at showing the superior attitude of the English abroad at this period – the book was published in 1936. When the locals don’t understand her, Iris does that typically British thing of speaking louder, as if they could all just understand English if only they would try a bit harder. White also shows how Iris and her gang use their wealth to buy extra attention, and Iris’ assumption that money and looks will get her whatever she wants. All this makes the book interesting reading, even if it doesn’t make Iris a terribly likeable character.

The Hitchcock version - The Lady Vanishes
The Hitchcock version – The Lady Vanishes

Once the mystery begins, White adds an extra dimension to Iris’ concern for Miss Froy by making her begin to doubt her own sanity. There are shades here of the way women were treated as ‘hysterical’ – not really to be depended upon, creatures of emotion rather than intellect. There’s an ever-present threat that the men, baddies and goodies both, may at any time take control of Iris’ life, deciding over her head what’s best for her, and that the other passengers would accept this as normal. With no friends and no language skills, Iris finds herself very alone for almost the first time in her life, and growing increasingly afraid. Oddly, it reminded me a little of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper – the idea that a woman could so easily be declared unstable or even ‘mad’, and find herself treated so dismissively that she might even begin to doubt herself.

Ethel Lina White
Ethel Lina White

There’s also one of those romances of the kind that would make me snort with outrage if it happened in a contemporary book, but which works fine in a novel of this period. You know the kind of thing – man meets ‘girl’ and falls instantly in love even though he thinks she’s a hysteric and quite possibly insane, because she’s very pretty, after all; and she loves him right back even though he treats her like a slightly retarded three-year-old, or maybe like a favourite puppy, because he’s awfully handsome and quite witty. Admittedly the rest of the men are all so much worse that I found myself quite liking him too…

White’s writing is excellent and, although the motive for the plot is a bit weak, the way she handles the story builds up some great tension. She’s insightful and slightly wicked about the English abroad and about attitudes to women, both of which add touches of humour to lift the tone. And she rather unusually includes sections about Miss Froy’s elderly parents happily anticipating the return of their beloved only child, which gives the thing more emotional depth than I’d have expected in a thriller of this era. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and am looking forward to seeking out more of White’s work, and to re-watching the Hitchcock version of the movie.

Book 4 of 90
Book 4 of 90

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Black Widow (Jack Parlabane 7) by Chris Brookmyre

Winner of the 2016 McIlvanney Prize…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

black-widowWhen Peter Elphinstone drives off the road into a river one cold, dark night, it appears to have been a tragic accident. But Peter’s sister isn’t convinced. She knows Peter was stressed and unhappy in his new marriage and fears there’s more to his death than it looks at first sight. So she asks journalist Jack Parlabane to investigate. The uniformed police officer who attended the scene of the crash also isn’t wholly convinced, but CID seem happy to let the incident be filed under accident. So Ali and her new partner Rodriguez carry out a little investigation of their own. Soon all the evidence seems to be pointing towards Peter’s wife, Diana…

This is my first introduction to Chris Brookmyre and I was hugely impressed by the quality of the writing. The book is told partly in third person from Parlabane’s point of view, partly in first person from Diana, and partly from a neutral third person voice covering any aspect not directly involving either of these two characters.

Diana is a surgeon who once kept an anonymous blog where she complained about the sexism shown to women within medicine and the NHS in general, and told some fairly damning stories about colleagues. Her cover was blown when she got hacked, and a huge public scandal ensued that led to Diana being forced to leave her high-flying job down South and head for the small and rather remote town of Inverness in the Scottish highlands where, despite her reputation, the management were keen to have such a skilled surgeon on their books. Alone, forty, and with her body-clock ticking loudly, it’s here that she meets Peter, one of the hospital’s IT guys, and after a whirlwhind romance, they marry. The question is: what lead to Peter’s death only six months later? Diana tells us the story of their relationship, while Parlabane digs into her background.

Inverness - Gateway to the Highlands
Inverness – Gateway to the Highlands

The NHS setting is brought convincingly to life, and I say that as someone who has spent most of her working life in it. All the rivalries, the arrogance of the top medical professionals, the strict pecking order, the cliques and groups, the loyalties and ultimately the professionalism are all very well done. Brookmyre shows the sexism as an institutional thing – that it is hard for women doctors and surgeons to balance such a demanding career with a fulfilling family life – rather than overt sexism from male colleagues, and again I found this very true to life.

The characterisation is very good, especially of the main characters, Diana and Peter, both of whom Brookmyre manages to keep ambiguous even while we learn a lot about them. The plotting also starts out great, though in truth I felt the outcome was pretty well signalled by about halfway through, meaning the twists towards the end came as no big surprise. There are also a couple of pretty big deviations from reality, which I’m not sure would be noticed by non-Scots in one instance, and non-Scottish NHS employees with a good understanding of the rules around NHS IT confidentiality in the other. Unfortunately, being both those things, they leapt out at me and left me wondering if it had been a failure of research or whether Brookmyre had simply decided to twist things to fit his plot. A degree of fictional licence is always permissible, of course, so I did my best to overlook them, but they did kinda spoil the credibility for me, especially since both were important as to how the plot worked out.

Chris Brookmyre
Chris Brookmyre

Despite those criticisms, I found the book very readable and more-ish, doing that just one more chapter thing till the wee sma’ hours. Parlabane is a likeable character. He’s clearly had some ethical problems in the past, and still isn’t averse to breaking the odd law or two, but in this one at least his motives are good and he doesn’t go too far into maverick territory. His divorce has just become final, and he’s finding himself approaching middle-age, single and with his career going through a rocky patch. Brookmyre handles all of this well, including plenty of humour in the book to prevent any feeling of angsty wallowing. The tragic thing is that I now feel I have to add all the previous Parlabane books to my list and investigate some of his other stuff too… oh, my poor TBR!

PS This was the book that won the 2016 McIlvanney Prize, for which regular readers may remember I was involved in the longlisting process. A worthy winner in my opinion, though my own preference is still for Douglas Skelton’s Open Wounds.

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

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Past Tense (Joel Williams 3) by Margot Kinberg

The sins of the past…

😀 😀 😀 😀

past tenseWhen the foundations are being dug for a new performing arts building at Tilton Univerity in Pennsylvania, the building crew are shocked when they discover a skeleton buried there. Forensic tests show that it belonged to a young man and dates from around forty years earlier. Back in the early ’70s, Bryan Roades was a student at the University. Inspired by the great Woodward and Bernstein investigation into the Watergate affair, Bryan hoped to emulate them by becoming a campaigning journalist. He was preparing a story on women’s issues for the University newspaper, focusing on the Women’s Lib movement and how some of the debates of the time were impacting on the female students. Some of the people he approached, though, didn’t want to see their stories in print, but Bryan was more interested in the greater good (and his own advancement, perhaps) than in individuals’ rights to privacy. When he disappeared, the police could find no trace and most people thought he’d simply done that fashionable thing for the time – gone off to ‘find himself’…

This is Margot Kinberg’s third Joel Williams book, but the first I’ve read. Regular visitors will be well aware that Margot and I are long-time blog buddies, so you will have to assume that there may be a level of bias in this review, but as always I shall try to be as honest as I can.

Joel Williams is an ex-police detective now working as a Professor in Criminal Justice in the fictional university town of Tilton, PA. He still has lots of contacts with his old colleagues in the police department and can’t resist using his inside knowledge of the University when a corpse turns up on campus. But he’s not one of these mavericks who works it all out on his own – we also see the police procedural side of the case through the two detectives who are investigating it, and Joel promptly hands over to them any information he finds. I like this way of handling the ‘amateur detective’ aspect – too often, the reasons for amateur involvement stretch credibility too far, and many authors fall into the cliché of having to make the police look stupid in order to make the amateur look good. But here Joel’s investigation enhances the police one rather than detracting from it.

As someone who is tired to death of the drunken, dysfunctional, angst-ridden detective of fiction, I also greatly appreciated Joel’s normality and stability. He has a job that he enjoys and is good at, he stays sober throughout and has a happy marriage. But he also has a curious mind, especially when it comes to crime, and an empathetic understanding of the people he comes across in the course of his investigation.

margot-kinberg
Margot Kinberg

The small-town setting and the rather closed society of the University within it gives that feeling of everyone knowing everyone else’s business – a setting where privacy is harder to come by than in the anonymity of a big city, and is more treasured for that very reason. Kinberg uses this well to show how people feel threatened when it looks like things they’d rather stay secret might be about to come into the open. The time period adds to this too, and Kinberg makes excellent use of the changes we’ve seen in society over the intervening period – many of the things people were concerned about being revealed back in the ’70s don’t seem like such big scandals today, but could have destroyed careers and even lives back then. And as we learn more about the people Bryan was proposing to write about in his article, the pool of people who may have been willing to take drastic action to stop him grows…

In style, the book mirrors the Golden Age crime – a limited group of suspects, clues, red herrings, amateur detective, etc. And, of course, the second murder! But it also has strong elements of the police procedural, with the two detectives, Crandall and Zuniga, sharing almost equal billing with Joel. There’s a little too much grit in the story for it to fall into ‘cosy’ territory but, thankfully, it also steers clear of the gratuitously gruesome or graphic. I’m not sure how well it will work for people who enjoy the darker, more brutal side of crime fiction, but an intriguing and interesting story for those who prefer the traditional mystery novel. Just my kind of thing, in fact, and I found it a thoroughly enjoyable read. Recommended – and well done, Margot!

NB I won a signed copy of the book in Margot’s competition. Aren’t I lucky? 😀

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The Blood Card (Stephens and Mephisto 3) by Elly Griffiths

Long live the Queen!

😀 😀 😀 😀

the-blood-cardIt’s 1953, and Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens is investigating the death of a fortune-teller who drowned off the Brighton pier. It looks like an accident, but the possibilities of suicide and murder have to be ruled out. However, Edgar’s investigation is interrupted when he is called to London by General Petre to look into the mysterious death of Colonel Cartwright, who used to be one of Edgar’s superior officers during the war. General Petre has called on Max Mephisto to help too, since Max also worked with Colonel Cartwright, and there are aspects of the murder that suggest it may have something to do with the Magic Men – the outfit Max and Edgar were involved in, which used illusion to fool the Germans into thinking the Allies had greater defences than they actually did. It soon transpires that Colonel Cartwright was afraid that a plan was afoot to disrupt the coronation of the new young Queen, Elizabeth II, so Edgar and Max are under pressure to solve the case before that event takes place in a couple of weeks time.

I’ve enjoyed the previous books in this new series of Elly Griffiths’ a great deal, so had high hopes for this one. The Brighton setting just after the end of WW2 is brilliantly evoked, especially the rather seedy tone of the theatres and musical halls, and the performers who live a nomadic life around the various seaside towns of England, with, if they’re lucky, an occasional booking amidst the bright lights of London’s West End. Max is currently performing at the Theatre Royal in London, and has been tempted somewhat against his better judgement to appear on the new-fangled television – a medium he fears will lead to the final death of the already fading variety theatre. The TV show is scheduled to be shown on the evening of the Queen’s coronation.

Edgar meantime is still trying to pin Ruby down to setting a date for their wedding, but Ruby is not ready to give up her aspirations to become as great a stage magician as her father, Max. And Edgar’s colleague, Emma, is still harbouring feelings of unrequited love for him. Which is all a little annoying, since this book is set two years after the last one, and yet none of these characters seem to have moved on emotionally from how they were left then. Shades of the tedious Ruth/Nelson saga from Griffiths’ other series beginning to creep in, I fear. I wish Griffiths could either leave the romance out of her books, or else move it along – she seems to stick her characters into a situation and then leave them there forever. Hopefully she’ll resolve this triangle in the next book, or I’m afraid it will become as dull as poor old Ruth’s never-ending non-love story.

The plot of this one takes Edgar to America, which provides quite a bit of humour as Edgar tries to understand a society that feels very foreign to him. The picture Griffiths paints of America at that time feels very much based on movies of the period – it doesn’t give quite the same aura of authenticity as the Brighton scenes. But it adds an extra element of interest by expanding out from the rather restricted setting of an English seaside town.

Elly Griffiths Photo: Jerry Bauer
Elly Griffiths
Photo: Jerry Bauer

For me, the plot of this one is too convoluted and loses credibility before it reaches the end. While it’s very well written and has a great dramatic ending, my disbelief was stretched well past breaking point before it got there. However, the recurring characters remain as enjoyable as ever, and as usual there are plenty of quirky new ones introduced to keep the interest level up. I also enjoyed the glimpse of the early days of television, when it was all still experimental and, of course, broadcast live, giving it plenty of potential for unexpected drama.

Overall, this isn’t my favourite of the series, but it’s still a good outing for Edgar, Max and the other recurring characters, and I look forward to seeing where they go next – with my fingers firmly crossed that they don’t remain stuck in their emotional ruts for too much longer.

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

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Himself by Jess Kidd

Original and intriguing…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

himselfThere’s an unusual heatwave going on when Mahony arrives in Mulderigg, a “benign little speck of a place, uncoiled and sprawling, stretched out in the sun. Pretending to be harmless”. But then everything about Mulderigg is unusual, not least the fact that dead people are wandering all through it. Ghosts, but very human ghosts, looking and acting much as they did when they were alive. Mahony has been in Mulderigg before, when he was a baby, though he has no memory of it. Now he’s back to look for his mother, Orla, and to find out why he ended up in an orphanage in Dublin. But most of the people of Mulderigg don’t seem to want to talk about Orla, and those who do have nothing good to say about her. The story they give is that she left the village and must have abandoned Mahony – but Mahony won’t accept this, and nor does Mrs Cauley, an old woman who used to be an actress and now fancies herself as something of a Miss Marple. This unlikely duo set out to discover the truth, with the dubious assistance of the dead…

The book starts with a strangely off-kilter prologue in which we see a brutal murder carried out, but told in language that reads more as if what we are witnessing is a scene of beauty. And this sets the tone for the whole thing really – the writing is wonderfully crafted and full of beauty, while the story is ugly and the vast majority of the characters are pretty repugnant. It’s executed superbly for the most part, with a good deal of humour, some of it of the black variety. The setting is somewhere in rural Ireland – I’m not sure that we’re ever really told where – and the time is split between a “present” of 1976 and a past in the late ’40s and early ’50s. But the time is pretty irrelevant – this village doesn’t feel as if it exists in normal space and time. It has a Brigadoonish quality to it and, although there are references to the outside world, it seems almost cut off and entirely self-sufficient.

The plot, such as it is, is very stretched out and becomes increasingly far-fetched as it goes along. After I’d reached the end, I was left with a whole slew of unanswered questions and a general feeling that the author had got so carried away with the creation of her setting and quirky bunch of characters that she’d lost interest somewhere along the line in the actual story. There’s no doubt Kidd brings this odd, mystical village to life, though I couldn’t help feeling that sometimes it slipped from being Irish into Oirishness – I found myself thinking I wouldn’t be at all surprised to meet a leprechaun with a shillelagh at any corner, though I hasten to add that she stopped short of that. Personally, I could also have lived without the constant rather childish swearing and vulgarity – to have one fart joke is unfortunate, but to have several smacks of carelessness, or a need for dietetic advice. (FF’s Third Law)

Jess Kidd
Jess Kidd

I enjoyed the early part of the book a lot but gradually found that the style began to grate on me – somehow it feels overworked, every word polished and placed too carefully, giving the language itself precedence over the storytelling. The whimsical idea of the dead characters gains too much prominence in the end, so that every piece of dialogue or action is interspersed with endless descriptions of one or other of the ghosts doing something supposedly amusing in the background. And the extreme brutality of parts of the book feels like too great a contrast to the almost lyrical style in which they are told. This is clearly a deliberate stylistic choice, but one that I felt Kidd took too far, passing the point of acceptable shock to become distasteful.

Having said all that, I think this début shows more originality than anything I’ve read this year and the quality of the prose is extraordinary. It suffers a little, I feel, from a hangover from “creative writing” classes, but I’m certain Kidd has the talent to find a better balance between style and substance as her writing matures, and will learn the art of what to leave out. Despite my relatively low rating of 3½ stars, I would still recommend this one as an intriguing introduction to an author of whom I’m sure we’ll be hearing much more in the years ahead, and one whom I’ll be keenly watching.

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

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Echoes of Sherlock Holmes ed. Laurie R King and Leslie S Klinger

The game’s afoot…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

echoes-of-sherlock-holmesIn their introduction, the editors explain that they asked the contributors to this anthology for stories “inspired by Holmes”, and the contributors have risen to this challenge with a huge dollop of originality and imagination. There are 17 stories, some just a few pages, some more substantial. There are plenty of well known names here – Denise Mina, Anne Perry, John Connolly, et al, along with some I hadn’t come across before. I always enjoy this type of anthology as a way of being introduced to writers of whom I may have heard but not so far read – in this one, both William Kent Kreuger and Catriona McPherson fell into this category.

The standard is remarkably high, both in terms of creativity and writing. Of course, the quality is variable and my own preferences meant that I enjoyed some of the stories more than others, but well over half the stories achieved 4 or 5 star status from me, and of the rest only a couple seriously disappointed. What I liked most was that, because the focus was on inspiration rather than pastiche, each story went off in directions that surprised and often delighted me. Some have based Holmes in the present day, or had their protagonist be inspired by Holmes and attempt to use his methods. Some have looked at stories in the original canon from a different angle. Some concentrate more on aspects of Conan Doyle’s life. And some have really used the original stories as a springboard to leap off into imaginative worlds of their own. Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most…

Holmes on the Range by John Connolly – This is the first story in the book and immediately gave me the feeling I was in for a treat. The Caxton Private Lending Library is a place where the characters of great books go when their authors die. (Isn’t that already just such a brilliant idea?) But one day, something very odd happens – although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is still very much alive, Holmes and Watson appear in the library following the events at Reichenbach Falls. They settle in quite happily and all is well, until ACD is persuaded to resurrect Holmes. What will happen when ACD dies? Will the library end up with another Holmes and Watson? Holmes sets his brilliant mind to finding a way out of this dilemma… A lovely conceit with lots of fun references to literature in general and the Holmes stories in particular, this is extremely well written and well told.

holmes rathbone

Before a Bohemian Scandal by Tasha Alexander – This tells the story of the Crown Prince of Bohemia and Irene Adler, and how she came to have the cabinet photograph that caused all the trouble. Very well told, and remains reasonably true to the spirit of the characters – Irene Adler showing all the spirit and intelligence that led Holmes to think of her as the woman.

The Spiritualist by David Morrell – It’s the latter days of ACD’s life. He has opened a spiritualist bookstore but can’t convince a disbelieving world that it is possible to communicate with the dead. One night when he can’t sleep, he is visited by the ‘ghost’ of Holmes, who takes him back through his life to try to work out why he has become so convinced of the truth of spiritualism. Very well written, and quite moving as we learn of the various tragedies in ACD’s life – his father dying in an asylum, the early death of his beloved first wife, the death of his son in WW1. A great story.

Mrs Hudson Investigates by Tony Lee and Bevis Musson – Ha! Suddenly in the midst of all these written stories a fun little graphic story appears! After Reichenbach, Mrs Hudson and Irene Adler team up to foil the nefarious plans of Moriarty’s housekeeper! The story is silly, but intentionally so, and the drawings add loads of humour. This is a nice little sorbet to cleanse the palate between courses.

mrs-hudson-investigates

Raffa by Anne Perry – This may be my favourite of all the stories, though it’s a close call. Actor Marcus St Giles is the latest TV Holmes. One day he is approached by a distraught little girl who believes him to be the real thing. She tells him that her mother has been kidnapped and begs for his help. He takes her to the police, but they think he’s pulling some kind of publicity stunt so refuse to believe him. So Marcus is forced to try to solve the case himself, with the help of his friend, the TV Watson. Great writing and quite touching in places, but with a humorous edge. The thing that makes it special is seeing Marcus’ character develop as his growing feelings of responsibility towards the little girl overcome his rather spoiled, bored attitude at the beginning of the book.

Understudy in Scarlet by Hallie Ephron – An actress is invited to, she thinks, reprise her role as Irene Adler in a remake of the earlier film that is now a cult success. But when she arrives on set she discovers she has actually been cast as Mrs Hudson and is expected to act as a mentor to the beautiful younger actress cast as Irene. Swallowing her pride, she agrees. But it’s not long before things begin to take a sinister turn… Lots of fun, well told and with plenty of Holmes’ references, but making no attempt to pastiche.

holmes-and-watson

As you can see, there’s plenty of variety in the approach the contributors have taken. Although not every story is 5-star, the standard overall is excellent, and I’m sure will please any fan of the originals as much as it pleased me. Highly recommended.

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

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Black River Road by Debra Komar

A question of character…

😀 😀 😀 😀

black-river-roadOne day in 1869, well-to-do architect John Munroe drove his mistress, Maggie Vail, and their baby daughter out in a cab to Black River Road near Saint John (in Canada). All three got out, ostensibly to visit friends, and later Munroe returned alone. He told the cab driver that Maggie would be staying with the friends. Some months later, the putrified and unidentifiable remains of a woman and child were found by people out picking berries near Black River Road.

Debra Komar starts this true crime story by discussing the trial of Jeffrey Dahmer, and the court’s decision that, despite the nature of his crimes, he was sane and could be held responsible for his actions. This decision was reached on the basis of evidence from Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist, who developed the theory of “universal lethality” – that all people have it in them to kill, and it is only social institutions that train us not to. Komar suggests that before this, character played a large part in criminal trials, including John Munroe’s, at a time when forensic science was still in its infancy. There was, she suggests, a widespread feeling that men of good character (aka rich people) wouldn’t commit horrific crimes, and that moral degeneracy was the preserve of the poor.

Komar then takes us back to tell us the story of how Munroe and Maggie became involved. Munroe was the spoiled child of an indulgent father. By the time he met Maggie, he was an upcoming architect who had married well, but for social position rather than love. His wife, however, didn’t show him the adoration he felt he deserved, so Munroe looked elsewhere. Poor Maggie – unmarried, overweight, and not very attractive – was willing to adore him as much as he liked. When the inevitable happened and her child was born, Munroe attempted to dump them, but Maggie wasn’t so easily dumped. Munroe played hot and cold with her, sometimes turning up unexpectedly, other times writing to her that she should stop contacting him. And then Maggie and child disappeared. Maggie’s sister received a letter, purporting to come from the illiterate Maggie, to the effect that she had met another man and gone off to Chicago to marry him.

This part of the story is very well told, giving a real feel for the coldness of Munroe’s character, and the rather desperate attempts of Maggie, now with a ruined reputation, to force him to meet his obligations to her and their child. The focus of the book is very much on this particular story, but we do get some idea of the wider society of the time, with the usual hypocritical gender bias that despised and ostracised an unmarried mother while cheerfully continuing to respect a male adulterer.

The story then moves on to the investigation and subsequent trial, with Komar showing at each stage how Munroe’s respectable position in society led to a widespread refusal to accept his possible guilt. The newspapers ran stories in outraged defence of him, and thirty-five people were called to give evidence of his good character, even though some of them barely knew him except through business dealings. The problem of identification added a layer of difficulty to the prosecution, and Komar gives dramatic, well written accounts of witnesses having to identify pieces of clothing or, gruesomely, the hair of the corpse.

An interesting crime story, well researched and well written. Komar’s decision to leave all reference to her sources to the notes at the back means there’s a good flow to the narration of events. The fairly narrow focus on the crime keeps the book down to a fairly shortish length. However, it also means we don’t get an in-depth picture of the society, nor of Munroe’s life beyond the crime – for example, we learn little about his relationship with his wife and legitimate children, before or during the trial. Within those limits, though, it’s an enjoyable read that I recommend to fans of true crime.

A re-enactment of the finding of the bodies...
A re-enactment of the finding of the bodies…

* * * * * * *

Spoiler ahead – if you don’t want to know the result of the trial, stop reading now!

True crime books tend to want to make a point and sometimes that rather works against them. I felt this was a case in point. During the trial, as many people were as willing to accuse Munroe as to defend him, though undoubtedly the establishment rallied round him to a large degree. But the police arrested him promptly, the trial allowed a good deal of leeway to the prosecution as well as to the defence, and when the question was finally put to the jury, they found him guilty in under an hour. If the argument is that good character was a strong defence, then it doesn’t seem to have worked in Munroe’s case. Despite appeals from his father, the government promptly refused mercy and Munroe hanged.

Debra Komar
Debra Komar

I had my doubts from the beginning, in fact, as to how well Komar would be able to make the case, because certainly Munroe was not the first “respectable” murderer to hang, nor the last. My cynical nature started out thinking that most humans probably had worked out long before Dietz made it a “theory” that murder is not the exclusive preserve of the obviously insane or degenerate, and I felt the outcome rather proved that than otherwise. This was a story that was interesting enough in its own right – it didn’t really need to make a point. In fact, I felt it made a quite different, and equally interesting, point – namely that, if the prosecution have good evidence, then juries are well able to judge guilt despite a defendant’s previous character, social position or the moral outrage of the press and establishment.

Overall, I’d have been happier to see rather less emphasis on that angle and a wider look at society and Munroe’s life instead. But these things are always subjective, and a different reader is quite likely to feel differently. I enjoyed it despite this reservation, and recommend it both for the story of the crime and as an interesting look at how the Canadian justice system worked at that time, quite efficiently it seems.

Debra Komar was recommended to me by the lovely Naomi at Consumed by Ink. Thanks, Naomi!

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

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Out of Bounds (Karen Pirie 4) by Val McDermid

Murder in the family…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

out of boundsWhen some drunken lads steal a Land Rover and then crash it, a blood sample is taken from the driver and routinely checked for DNA matches. The results show a familial match to the perpetrator of a horrific unsolved rape and murder from 1996, so DCI Karen Pirie and her cold case team, consisting of herself and one DC, reopen the case. However it becomes more complicated when they discover the car crash victim was adopted, so they will have to seek the Court’s permission to access his birth records. Meantime, a young man called Gabriel Abbott is found dead from a gunshot wound in a park, a death that the investigating officer is eager to call suicide and close the case. Karen’s not so sure, and when she discovers that Gabriel’s mother was herself murdered over 20 years earlier, she finds herself drawn to try to solve the older case and see if it impacted in any way on Gabriel’s death.

I really like this new series of McDermid’s. She has always been one of my favourite crime writers, but I tired eventually of the Tony Hill series, so I’m delighted she’s gone off in a new direction. These books are strictly police procedurals, told in a straightforward linear fashion with no flashy gimmicks or unbelievable twists. I’ve only read one other in the series, The Skeleton Road, which had a plot-line that took us back to the Serbo-Croatian war and was as much about the horrors of that as about the crime under investigation. While I enjoyed it very much, in truth I prefer to get my history from history books, so preferred this one which is more traditional in style – a crime or crimes, suspects, motives, clues, red herrings, etc., but all set firmly in the present and with a totally authentic feel to the investigation.

Karen Pirie is an excellent character, perhaps my favourite of all the various lead characters McDermid has created over the years. She is refreshingly non-maverick, working within the rules and procedures of contemporary policing, and getting on with her colleagues on the whole. Somewhat tediously, she has the usual useless boss who’s always trying to do her down, but she gets round him with a combination of wit and manipulation, instead of the rather unbelievable outright defiance and belligerence that so many fictional detectives seem able to get away with. She thinks her young assistant Jason is “thick”, but is nevertheless a good, supportive boss to him, and during the course of this book, as he matures into the role, she finds she’s beginning to appreciate him more. And again unlike many of the loner detectives of today, she has a few good friends and a normal social life outside work.

In this book she is still grieving after the events at the end of the last one. (I’m leaving that deliberately vague to avoid spoilers – the books work perfectly as standalones and don’t have much of a continuing story arc, but like most series they’re probably best read in order.) But her grief is shown believably, without wallowing. It recurs from time to time but lessens as time goes on, and Karen handles it without taking to drink or beating people up or all the other things our dysfunctional detectives usually do.

Val McDermid
Val McDermid

There’s also a strand in the book about some of the Syrian refugees who have come to Scotland fleeing from the horrors in their own country. McDermid handles this very well, showing them not as potential terrorists, rapists, murderers or religious fanatics, but as normal people who have seen and experienced terrible things, but survived, and who now want to find a way to build new lives for themselves and their families in a safer place.

The plotting is great, with enough complexity to keep the reader guessing but without ever straying far over the credibility line. Although there are two separate cases on the go, McDermid juggles them well, never letting one be forgotten at the expense of the other. And personally, I’m delighted to see her set a series in her native Scotland. She doesn’t shine a light on the political zeitgeist in quite the way Rankin often does, but she creates a clear and authentic picture of contemporary Scotland, particularly with regards to policing and justice systems.

All-in-all, an excellent read which I highly recommend. I’m hoping this series will have a long run.

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

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Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Two for the price of one…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

magpie-murdersSusan Ryeland, editor for Cloverleaf Books, settles down happily to read the new manuscript from their star author – Magpie Murders by Alan Conway. Susan may not like the author, but she loves his books, a series of Golden Age style mysteries starring Atticus Pund and his sidekick James Fraser. But she will find that on this occasion the mystery extends beyond the book, and murder might have leapt from the pages into real life…

This is a witty, clever take on the vintage mystery, with more than a nod to the Queen of Crime herself, Agatha Christie. It is in fact two books – the one involving Susan and “real” life, and the fictional book involving Atticus Pund and a gruesome murder in the village of Saxby-on-Avon. The format is weird and on the whole successful, and it’s certainly highly original and entertaining. After a quick introduction to Susan, the reader settles down with her to read the fictional book, which is then given in its entirety up to just before the dénouement. I must say it’s a fantastic take on a Christie murder – country house, lots of characters all with secrets and motives, a nicely unpleasant victim so we don’t have to venture into grief territory, some great clues and red herrings, an intriguing detective in the German-born Pund, and a rather charming if intellectually challenged sidekick in James. Like Christie, it gets that perfect balance between dark and light, depth and entertainment. It left me even more baffled than before as to why the Christie estate hadn’t got Horowitz to do the Poirot follow-ons – he’d have made a vastly better job of it than poor Sophie Hannah’s rather dreadful attempt.

The real life mystery is just as good and the links between the two are ingenious – some easier to spot than others. I did spot the giveaway clue in this story as it happened and so worked out the murderer fairly early on, but I was baffled by the mystery in the fictional book. Again in the “real” story there are plenty of suspects, all with good motives to have done away with the victim. (Forgive the vagueness – the plotting in this one is so intricate, and half the fun is in seeing how it works, so I’m trying hard not to give any accidental spoilers.) There are alibis to work out, connections to be made and misdirection galore. Susan is a likeable protagonist, and her love of books means there are endless references to various mystery writers – a treat for any fan of vintage mystery stories, but not at all problematic for anyone who hasn’t read widely in the genre. There are also lots of sly digs at the world of writing, publishing, book awards, etc., which add greatly to the fun. Both mysteries are fairplay, I’d say, and all the red herrings are explained in the end.

Anthony Horowitz
Anthony Horowitz

My hesitation about the format is a small one. I found that all the time I was reading the story within the story, I was conscious that another story was to come and that made me very aware that the fictional book was fictional. Normally, I can forget the fictional nature of a mystery and treat it as “real” but I found I was more distanced with this one, and I really wanted to know what was going to happen in the real section. Then, when eventually it flips to Susan’s story, I really wanted to get back to find out what happened in the final chapters of the fictional one! I found I wasn’t always totally absorbed in the bit I was reading for thinking about the other storyline. Of course, though this was the teensiest bit annoying, it also shows just how interesting both stories were.

However, when I reached the end and the two parts were each finished off beautifully satisfactorily, my minor discontent evaporated and I could wholeheartedly applaud the skill with which Horowitz had pulled the whole thing off. (Horowitz is one of very few authors who always seems to make me want to give him a standing ovation at the end for the sheer exuberance of his plotting. I imagine he must have had a whiteboard big enough to be seen from space to keep track of all the clues… ) Effectively it’s two books for the price of one – two complete mysteries, linked but separate, with different solutions but each feeding into the other. Again, as with his take on the Holmes mysteries, Horowitz has shown how effectively he can play with these much-loved, established fictional worlds, always affectionately but always with an original twist that prevents them from being mere pastiche. Great stuff, that I’m sure will be enjoyed by any mystery fan. Bravo, Mr Horowitz… encore!

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

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The Methods of Sergeant Cluff by Gil North

Behind the net curtains…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the methods of sergeant cluffAlthough Sergeant Caleb Cluff is still on leave following the events in the last book, when the body of a young woman is found, as the only CID man in Gunnershaw, he is called to the scene. A local man, he knows the people of the town, so he recognises the girl as Jane Trundle and is immediately aware of who the chief suspect will be – a young man who was in love with her despite her constant rejection of him. But Cluff isn’t convinced that Jack would do such a brutal thing and begins to cast his net wider, much to the annoyance of his superiors who’d rather get the case wrapped up quickly.

For the first thirty or forty pages of this short book, I was a bit uncertain of whether it was going to live up to the previous excellent one, Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm. There are a lot of indications that Cluff and the other characters know things about Jane and some of the other characters, but for what seems like quite a long time the reader is kept in the dark. Happily, however, before it becomes too annoying, this background knowledge is gradually revealed, and the plot begins to darken.

Sergeant Cluff is allocated a uniformed officer to work with him, PC Barker. But Cluff is really a bit of a loner and an early version of the maverick cop who has become so ubiquitous now. His methods are mainly to use his local knowledge, together with a bit of intuition and his deep understanding of the passions of the human heart, to help him decide who committed the crime, and then to silently intimidate and harass his suspects until they either confess or do something that incriminates them. He has a strong sense of justice, but doesn’t think the law is necessarily always the best way to achieve that. And while he has a moral code, his methods sometimes step well beyond what would have been considered acceptable even back in those less politically correct days of the early1960s. At loggerheads with several of his colleagues, it is only his habit of getting results that allows him to get away with his behaviour.

Gil North
Gil North

North’s writing style seems improved from the previous book – fewer staccato sentences and a better flow. The dialogue remains somewhat stilted, but I’m delighted to note that his obsession with describing the breasts of every female character seems to have disappeared. (Perhaps some kindly woman hit him over the head with a hardback copy of book 1 – if so, thank you!) The real strength of his writing comes in his descriptions of this industrial town – all blacks and greys and browns, dirt from the mills and factories, and poverty hidden behind a façade of respectability and net curtains. This is a town set in the midst of Yorkshire moors and farming country, though, and himself the son of a landowning farmer, Cluff is as at home with these prosperous countrymen as he is with the townspeople. Some of his insights into his characters are beautifully written – sparsely, but with truth and a real empathy for the narrowness and hardships of their lives.

Cluff climbed to his feet, a mourner at the death of a marriage that could not be broken while they lived, because this was Gunnershaw and they lived in Rupert Street and were middle-aged and had to exist, both of them, on the pittance the man earned, because, more than anything, they were respectable and the wife could not tolerate, if the husband could, what the neighbours would say. The man could no longer deceive himself about the extent of his wife’s disloyalty. Everything between them was finished and had to go on still, as it had always done.

The climax of the book heads towards the over-dramatic and dangerously close to the credibility line, but somehow it works. The plot becomes very dark, and Cluff’s behaviour, to put it mildly, is morally dubious, but it seemed to me to echo the amateur detectives of the old school, who would often allow justice to take its own course outwith the confines of the law. Again, as with the first book, I found that from halfway through I was totally hooked, unable to put the book down until I saw how it all played out. The current trend of lengthy crime novels had almost made me forget the pure pleasure of racing through a book in one or two breathless sessions, and yet there’s as much depth and plot in this as in most books that are three times as long; and considerably more tension. (I suspect that may be why the credibility issue doesn’t matter so much – there’s not enough time for the reader to dwell on the details.)

Excellent – I hope the British Library go on to publish the rest of the series.

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

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A Rising Man (Sam Wyndham 1) by Abir Mukherjee

Murder in the Raj…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

a rising manThe corpse of a white man is discovered in an alleyway in an unsavoury part of Calcutta, and Inspector Sam Wyndham is assigned to investigate. It is 1919, and Wyndham has just arrived in India after recovering from injuries he received during the war, so he will have to depend for local knowledge on his two colleagues – Sergeant Digby, an Englishman with all the worst attitudes of imperial superiority and a grudge against Wyndham for getting the job he felt should be his own; and an Oxford educated Indian from a well-to-do family, Sergeant “Surrender-Not” Banerjee, so called because Digby finds his real name too difficult to pronounce. Back in England, Wyndham had worked in the CID and Special Branch, and had been recruited into the intelligence service during the war. It is his wartime boss, now posted to Calcutta, who has persuaded Wyndham to come to work for him there.

It is soon discovered that the victim is Alexander MacAuley, one of the many Scots working in the Colonial government. His eminent position there means that it is likely the murder was a political act, carried out by the terrorists seeking to achieve independence for India. Wyndham agrees this is the most probable motive but, being a conscientious officer, he is also determined to keep other options open and to look into MacAuley’s personal life. But this isn’t the only case on Wyndham’s plate – a train has been held up by a gang of men, again probably terrorists, who killed one of the guards. When it appears an infamous terrorist leader is back in Calcutta, Wyndham has to ask himself if the two events could be related.

According to the brief author’s bio on Amazon, Abir Mukherjee, I assume of Indian heritage, was born in London and grew up in the West of Scotland. I was intrigued to see how these different influences would play out in a book about India under the Raj, especially given the huge Scottish involvement in colonial India. The answer is brilliantly! Mukherjee knows his stuff for sure, and the picture he paints of Calcutta and the Indian political situation of the time positively reeks of authenticity. His British characters are equally believable and there are many references to Scottish culture that again have the ring of total truthfulness, and are often very funny. The dialects of the Scottish characters are excellent – they give a real flavour of regional Scottish speech patterns without being in any way hard for non-Scots to understand.

Abir Mukherjee
Abir Mukherjee

In truth, I feared in advance that the book might turn out to be something of a fashionable anti-Empire rant, but actually he keeps it very well balanced, steering a careful course between showing the iniquities of the colonial system without being too condemnatory of the individuals operating within it. Through the terrorist aspect of the plot, we hear about the rise of Gandhi and the Congress Party, and the move towards non-violent resistance. Wyndham is an enlightened man, but not anachronistically so. He is aware of the relatively tiny number of Brits in India, meaning that the co-operation of Indians at all levels is essential to the maintenance of the colonial system. So to him, fair play and even-handed justice are more than just desirable for their own sake, they are necessary tools in the struggle to maintain Indian support for the colonial government. Surrender-Not gives the educated Indian perspective. He is ambivalent about the question of independence but believes it will inevitably come, and that it is therefore the duty of Indians to prepare themselves so that they are ready to run their own country when that day comes.

But, lest this make it all sound like a heavy political snorefest, let me hastily say that all the historical and political stuff is done subtly, never feeling that it’s wandering into info-dump territory or veering towards the polemical. Mukherjee uses it to provide an authentic background, but the focus of the book is on the investigation and the development of the characters of Wyndham and Banerjee. The excellence of the writing means that the tone is light and the story entertaining, even though it touches on some dark aspects of life. And the personal outweighs the political – in the end, as with all the best detective novels, the motives lie in the murky depths of the human heart.

A great novel – hard to believe it’s a début. And I’m delighted that it’s apparently the first book in a series. I will be queuing up for the next instalment in Wyndham and Banerjee’s adventures – Mukherjee has leapt straight onto my must-read list!

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

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Different Class by Joanne Harris

Crisis measures…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

different classSt Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys has been put under crisis measures after a scandal hit the school the previous year (in Gentleman & Players, apparently – a book I haven’t read). It’s 2005 and Classics master Roy Straitley is horrified at the changes being forced on this ancient and old-fashioned establishment, not least the introduction of girls into the Sixth Form. But things get worse when he meets the new headmaster and discovers him to be Harrington, an ex-pupil who was involved in events, as yet unspecified, that rocked the school back in 1981. Straitley neither likes nor trusts Harrington, and is convinced Harrington is trying to force him into retirement. But St Oswald’s has been Straitley’s life and he’s determined to stay and fight for the school’s traditions.

Most of the book is narrated by Straitley (first person, past tense) and his voice is excellent. There’s a lot of barbed humour in it as he mocks the political correctness and health-and-safety-ism that has infested all of our public services, but perhaps education worst of all. He shows quite clearly how hard it is for teachers to develop any kind of rapport with pupils without being at risk of being accused of inappropriateness or worse. And he shows that pupils are well aware of this and can use it as a weapon, subtly shifting the power balance in the classroom. Through Straitley’s eyes, we see the more ridiculous aspects of the new culture of managerialism that is imposed on “failing” schools – target-driven, goals-orientated and all the other hideous jargon that comes with that. I loved Straitley’s voice – his views are exaggerated, but just enough to make the thing deliciously humorous while still making some valid observations.

The other strand comes in the form of a diary written by an unnamed pupil, partly back in 1981 and partly in the present day (2005). This tells of three new boys who all started at St Oswald’s at the same time and therefore became rather unlikely friends. Each of these boys has a secret of some kind. The diarist gives them all nicknames, so that we’re not entirely sure who they are in the present day, but we know that one of them must be Harrington. This section is not nearly so successful. The boy’s voice didn’t convince me as that of a 14-year-old, nor did it change for the sections when he was writing as an adult. This, combined with the nicknames, meant I found myself frequently confused – not in that way when a skilled author leads one delightfully up various alleyways and dead-ends, but simply confused as to who was who and what time period we were in, finding I was frequently referring back to the chapter headings for clarification.

The plot follows the currently popular pattern of events in the past coming back to haunt the present, and there are elements of bullying and abuse in both sections. To be honest, I feel Harris handles this rather clumsily, seeming to ask the reader to take a somewhat lenient view of things that this reader doesn’t feel very lenient about – grooming, sexual abuse of children by teachers etc. Somehow I felt that Harris had got so involved in her mockery of current social trendiness that she took it a little far, towards subjects where the humour began to feel rather tasteless.

Joanne Harris
Joanne Harris

While I continued to enjoy Straitley’s voice all the way through, the book dragged quite a bit in the middle with nothing much happening to move things forward. And when the plot finally played out, it crossed the credibility line so often it began to feel too farcical to be taken seriously, and yet not quite humorous enough to be a black comedy.

Overall, I’m struggling to rate it. I did enjoy Harris’ writing and Straitley as a character, and thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing up to about half way. But I felt it became messy in the end, and my own political correctness got in the way of being happy at a resolution that I felt was morally murky at best. I felt that Harris wanted me to sympathise with characters whom I found increasingly unsympathetic. So in the end it gets 3½ stars from me – well worth reading, but didn’t quite live up to my early hopes for it.

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

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Book 16
Book 16