TBR Thursday 367…

Episode 367

Oh dear! Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!!! Okay, well, I’ll just say it fast and get it over… *deep breaths*… the TBR has leapt up by 5 to 175!! What shall I do?? What shall I DO?!?

Maybe I could get the cat to read these ones while I lie down in a darkened room…

Winner of the People’s Choice

The Third Man and The Fallen Idol by Graham Greene

Well, there was never any doubt about the winner this month! Graham Greene raced into the lead within the first hour and never looked back, finally winning with a huge margin over the other three also-rans. An excellent choice, People – it will be an April read!

The Blurb says: The Third Man is Graham Greene’s brilliant recreation of post-war Vienna, a ‘smashed dreary city’ occupied by the four Allied powers. Rollo Martins, a second-rate novelist, arrives penniless to visit his friend and hero, Harry Lime. But Harry has died in suspicious circumstances, and the police are closing in on his associates…

The Fallen Idol is the chilling story of a small boy caught up in the games that adults play. Left in the care of the butler and his wife whilst his parents go on a fortnight’s holiday, Philip realises too late the danger of lies and deceit. But the truth is even deadlier.

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Crime

Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

First up for my brand new Looking Forward challenge is this Scandi crime from an author whom I’ve enjoyed very much in the past, sometimes, while at other times she has become far too gruesome for my wimpy taste. There is one particular murder method she invented that I truly wish I could scrub from my mind! The blurb of this one looks dark…

The Blurb says: At a university in Reykjavík, the body of a young German student is discovered, his eyes cut out and strange symbols carved into his chest. Police waste no time in making an arrest, but the victim’s family isn’t convinced that the right man is in custody. They ask Thóra Guðmundsdóttir, an attorney and single mother of two, to investigate. It isn’t long before Thóra and her associate, Matthew Reich, uncover the deceased student’s obsession with Iceland’s grisly history of torture, execution, and witch hunts. But there are very contemporary horrors hidden in the long, cold shadow of dark traditions. And for two suddenly endangered investigators, nothing is quite what it seems…and no one can be trusted.

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Vintage Crime

Death of an Author by ECR Lorac

Courtesy of the British Library. Always happy to see the wonderful Lorac pop up the BL’s Crime Classics series…

The Blurb says: ‘I hate murders and I hate murderers, but I must admit that the discovery of a bearded corpse would give a fillip to my jaded mind.’

Vivian Lestrange – celebrated author of the popular mystery novel The Charterhouse Case and total recluse – has apparently dropped off the face of the Earth. Reported missing by his secretary Eleanor, whom Inspector Bond suspects to be the author herself, it appears that crime and murder is afoot when Lestrange’s housekeeper is also found to have disappeared.

Bond and Warner of Scotland Yard set to work to investigate a murder with no body and a potentially fictional victim, as ECR Lorac spins a twisting tale full of wry humour and red herrings, poking some fun at her contemporary reviewers who long suspected the Lorac pseudonym to belong to a man (since a woman could apparently not have written mysteries the way that she did).

Incredibly rare today, this mystery returns to print for the first time since 1935.

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Hard to categorise…

The Sanctuary by Andrew Hunter Murray

Courtesy of Random House Cornerstone via NetGalley. Not quite sure what this is – thriller? Dystopian? Science fiction? Speculative fiction? I picked it mostly because I enjoyed his first book, The Last Day, but also because the blurb sounds intriguing. Hopefully by the time I’ve read it I’ll know where it belongs!

The Blurb says: In a disintegrating and increasingly lawless Britain, a young man is travelling north.

Ben is a young painter from the crowded, turbulent city. For six months his fiancée Cara has been living on a remote island known as Sanctuary Rock, the property of millionaire philanthropist Sir John Pemberley. Now she has decided to break off their engagement, and stay there.

Ben resolves to travel to the island to win Cara back. But the journey there is a harsh and challenging one, and when he does arrive, a terrible shock awaits him.

As Ben begins to find his way around the island, he knows he must also work out – what has made Cara so determined to throw her old life away? And is Sanctuary Rock truly another Eden – or a prospect of hell?

By the Sunday Times bestselling author of The Last Day, this high-concept thriller will intrigue and haunt you as you too work to find out what secret is buried on the island.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Amazon UK or Audible UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

FictionFan Awards 2022 – Vintage Crime

A round of applause please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2022.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around in previous years, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2021 and October 2022 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

This year, there will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Anthologies

Vintage Crime

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Modern Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2022

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

VINTAGE CRIME

To keep it simple, I’m calling anything published up to 1971 Vintage, and anything after that date Modern. That way it ties in with the date I use to differentiate classic from modern in literary fiction. My enjoyment of vintage crime continues unabated, though I haven’t read quite so much new-to-me stuff this year, largely because I’ve been re-reading lots of Agatha Christie. Re-reads don’t count for the Awards though so Ms Christie will have to content herself with her unassailable position as Queen of Crime. Some of the shortlisted authors have given her stiff competition this year, though, and some have become firm favourites and regulars on the shortlist…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Post After Post-Mortem by ECR Lorac

The Surrays are a golden family, all highly intelligent and successful in their chosen fields and all happy in each other’s company. But recently the middle sister, Ruth, has been causing a little concern to her older brother, Richard, whose trained eye as a psychiatrist has noted that she seems to be struggling with stress. During a house party, Ruth is found dead in her bedroom at her parents’ home, complete with sleeping pills, farewell note and a new will, leaving little doubt that she has taken her own life. But following the inquest which returns the expected verdict Richard returns to his own home, where he finds a letter from Ruth, written on the evening of her death and delayed in the post, in which she seems quite happy and is making plans for the following week. Richard feels he must show the letter to an acquaintance of his, Inspector Macdonald of the Yard, who confirms that the letter is reason to investigate Ruth’s death more closely…

This one concentrates far more than Golden Age novels usually do on the psychology of the various characters – on the effects of success and expectations, self-discipline and the impact of feeling driven to achieve. Perhaps a little darker than some of her other books as stories that go into the psychology of crime often are, I found it absorbing and very well constructed – another great read from this talented author’s pen!

Click to see the full review

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The Flemish House by Georges Simenon

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

This is a short one even by Maigret standards. It gives an interesting picture of a border town, looking in two directions and split between French and Belgian cultures. Maigret does more actual detection in this one than is sometimes the case, and as always Simenon’s setting is very well portrayed, with the added interest of the mixed culture. An excellent entry in this rather variable series!

Click to see the full review

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The Seat of the Scornful by John Dickson Carr

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

The couple of Gideon Fell novels I’ve read previously have been “impossible crimes” and the emphasis has been on the puzzle rather than the people. This one is entirely different in tone, much more of a standard mystery, and as a result I liked it far more. It still has strong aspects of the howdunit to please the puzzlers out there, but there is also a group of characters with various motives for wanting rid of Morell. Gideon Fell is also rather clearer in how he works his way to the solution of the mystery, again relying more this time on the personalities and motives of the people involved, rather than sticking entirely to the technical aspects of how the crime was done. I’m glad to have finally grown to admire Dr Fell after a fairly rocky start with this series!

Click to see the full review

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Calamity Town by Ellery Queen

When Ellery Queen comes to the small town of Wrightsville looking for inspiration for his new novel, he settles into a house known locally as Calamity House. It was originally built for Nora Wright, one of the three daughters of John F and Hermione Wright, descendants of the town’s founder and acknowledged leaders of local society. But Nora never lived there, since she was jilted three years ago by the man she had planned to marry, Jim Haight. Now, not long after Queen moves in, Jim returns and the wedding is back on. But then Nora is taken ill with all the symptoms of arsenic poisoning… and then another woman dies. Suddenly Queen finds himself with a real murder mystery on his hands and, with the help of Nora’s youngest sister Pat, sets out to investigate…

The focus is less on the crime and more on creating a picture of the Wright family and Wrightsville, and the tone is considerably slower and more literary than I anticipated. The writing is very good, especially the descriptive stuff about the town, and the depiction of how the townspeople are ready to turn on their most revered residents when scandal rears its head is perceptively and credibly done, as is the picture of the impact of the crime on the Wright family themselves. There’s some of the slickness of dialogue usually found in the “hard-boiled” school, but there’s too much warmth and affection for the major characters for it to be in any way noir-ish. Ellery Queen’s first appearance in the Awards but I suspect it won’t be the last!

Click to see the full review

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Crook o’Lune by ECR Lorac

Inspector Macdonald of Scotland Yard is looking ahead to retiring from the police and is searching for a small farm to buy, farming having been his family background. He’s staying with friends in the Lune Valley in Lancashire while he looks around, and they recommend a farm that is likely to come on the market soon, Aikengill in High Gimmerdale. The old owner is recently deceased and his heir, his nephew Gilbert Woolfall, is a businessman in Yorkshire, so the locals expect he’ll want to sell up. At the moment, he’s spending time going through his uncle’s papers – a lengthy task since his uncle was a bit of an amateur local historian. But then there’s a fire at Aikengill, in which the housekeeper dies. The local police know Macdonald of old so ask him to help them investigate and Macdonald soon determines that the fire was deliberate…

This book is full of wonderful descriptions of the landscape as Macdonald tramps o’er hill and down dale in pursuit of evidence, and we get an authentic inside look at the working lives of the sheep farmers and smallholders who farm the land. The plot is also interesting, and rests in part on the long histories of families who live in an area for generations. A second appearance in the shortlist for Lorac, because the books are so different and frankly I couldn’t choose between them!

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2022

for

BEST VINTAGE CRIME

Black Wings Has My Angel
by Elliott Chaze

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

This is undoubtedly noir, but not quite as pitch black as some. Tim has a heart and Virginia is ambiguous enough for us not to be sure till quite late on whether she has too. This gives it a kind of emotional warmth despite their actions. Although this pair are driven by lust and money, you kinda feel they’re both deeper than that – that perhaps there are reasons they are as they are. I found myself liking them both, despite everything, and that meant I was far more interested in their fate than if I’d wholeheartedly despised them. But it’s certainly noir in that there’s no hope of a happy ending, and the sense of impending tragedy grows strongly in the latter stages.

The audiobook is perfectly narrated by Malcolm Hillgartner – he is completely believable as Tim and keeps the emotional level just right, relying on little changes in speed or emphasis to increase the tension as the story moves towards its wonderfully dark climax. I loved it – my favourite noir novel! And I loved Virginia…

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

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Modern Crime/Thriller

Crook o’Lune (Inspector Macdonald 38) by ECR Lorac

Old Macdonald wants a farm…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Inspector Macdonald of Scotland Yard is looking ahead to retiring from the police and is searching for a small farm to buy, farming having been his family background. He’s staying with friends in the Lune Valley in Lancashire while he looks around, and they recommend a farm that is likely to come on the market soon, Aikengill in High Gimmerdale. The old owner is recently deceased and his heir, his nephew Gilbert Woolfall, is a businessman in Yorkshire, so the locals expect he’ll want to sell up. At the moment, he’s spending time going through his uncle’s papers – a lengthy task since his uncle was a bit of an amateur local historian. But then there’s a fire at Aikengill, in which the housekeeper dies. The local police know Macdonald of old so ask him to help them investigate and Macdonald soon determines that the fire was deliberate…

In her own short foreword to the book, Lorac tells us that the places in the book are real although she may have occasionally changed the names, and in fact the house called Aikengill in the book is her own home in the Lune Valley. Her sense of place is always one of her major strengths and never more so than when she’s writing about this rural farming area, which she clearly knows intimately and loves. The book is full of wonderful descriptions of the landscape as Macdonald tramps o’er hill and down dale in pursuit of evidence, and we get an authentic inside look at the working lives of the sheep farmers and smallholders who farm the land.

The plot is also interesting, and rests in part on the long histories of families who live in an area for generations – a real contrast to her London-set mysteries, especially the ones set in the war years, when she often uses the mobility and impermanence of urban living to build her plots around. She has to be one of the most versatile writers from that period, handling rural and urban with equal knowledge and insight, and her skill in this gives her novels an authenticity of atmosphere whatever their setting.

First published in 1953, this one also gives a picture of a Britain still struggling to recover from the war, with the remnants of rationing still lingering and the nature of farming having changed with the drive to increase food production and food security. We also hear about the young men being called up for National Service, and how not all of them were happy to go. She’s excellent at setting her novels in their own time and showing a gradually or sometimes suddenly changing world, and like a lot of vintage fiction her books give a real picture of a period, more authentically than all but the best historical fiction.

We learn more about Macdonald as a person in this one too, because of the element of him looking to move to the area. We already knew from previous books about his love for this hilly country and his background in farming, but Lorac takes us deeper into his thoughts this time. He also interacts with friends – I only remember him with colleagues and suspects before, so this aspect makes him seem more human, as having a life beyond work.

Another one that I thoroughly enjoyed, so I’ll say it again – how can it be that Lorac became “forgotten” when other writers of equal or less talent have remained in print all these years? An injustice that the British Library deserves thanks for putting right. Highly recommended, as always!

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

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday 347…

Episode 347

I’m racing through books at the moment, with the result that my TBR is still shrinking despite the arrival of new books – down 1 again this week, to 171! –  and my list of unwritten reviews is getting out of control! Still, between this week’s rather heavyweight selection of books and the US Open starting next week I think it’s safe to assume I’ll be slowing down!

Here are a few more that should reach the final round soon…

Winner of the People’s Choice

The winner took a huge early lead this week and although the other books fought back gamely they were never able to catch up. They all looked good this time which always makes for fun voting! And the one You, The People, have chosen looks like it could be excellent – good choice, People! Since I like to run three months ahead with these polls, the winner will be a November read. And the winner is…

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

The Blurb says: In 1627 Barbary pirates raided the coast of Iceland and abducted some 400 of its people, including 250 from a tiny island off the mainland. Among the captives sold into slavery in Algiers were the island pastor, his wife and their three children. Although the raid itself is well documented, little is known about what happened to the women and children afterwards. It was a time when women everywhere were largely silent.

In this brilliant reimagining, Sally Magnusson gives a voice to Ásta, the pastor’s wife. Enslaved in an alien Arab culture Ásta meets the loss of both her freedom and her children with the one thing she has brought from home: the stories in her head. Steeped in the sagas and folk tales of her northern homeland, she finds herself experiencing not just the separations and agonies of captivity, but the reassessments that come in any age when intelligent eyes are opened to other lives, other cultures and other kinds of loving.

The Sealwoman’s Gift is about the eternal power of storytelling to help us survive. The novel is full of stories – Icelandic ones told to fend off a slave-owner’s advances, Arabian ones to help an old man die. And there are others, too: the stories we tell ourselves to protect our minds from what cannot otherwise be borne, the stories we need to make us happy.

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Lit-Crit

Honoré de Balzac: My Reading by Peter Brooks

Courtesy of Oxford University Press. Regulars will know from my scrappy reviews that I don’t really research the classics I read to any great extent, nor do I read much literary criticism. But, since I have included my first Balzac on my new Classics Club list, when I spotted this in the OUP’s latest catalogue I thought it might be fun to read it first. Apparently there’s a whole series of these for different classic authors…

The Blurb says: A book on the experience of reading Honoré de Balzac’s La Comédie humaine which recounts the process of Peter Brooks’ own discovery of Balzac.

A personal account of coming to terms with Balzac: moving from more classical and restrained authors to the highly-coloured melodramatic novels of the Human Comedy, which give us the dynamics of a new and challenging world on the threshold of modernity. This volume shows readers how to read, and to love reading, Balzac, and how to engage with his vast work.

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Classic in Translation

Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

So obviously I’ll then have to read my first Balzac before I forget everything I’ve just read! No idea how I’m going to fit this in, to be honest, but at least it doesn’t look like quite as much of a brick as I feared it might be!

The Blurb says: Monsieur Goriot is one of a select group of lodgers at Madame Vauquer’s Parisian boarding house. At first his wealth inspires respect, but as his circumstances are reduced he is shunned by those around him, and soon his only remaining visitors are two beautiful, mysterious young women. Goriot claims that they are his daughters, but his fellow boarders, including master criminal Vautrin, have other ideas. And when Eugène Rastignac, a poor but ambitious law student, learns the truth, he decides to turn it to his advantage. Père Goriot is one of the key novels of Balzac’s Comédie Humaine series, and a compelling examination of two obsessions, love and money. Witty and brilliantly detailed, it is a superb study of the bourgeoisie in the years following the French Revolution.

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Vintage Crime

Crook o’Lune by ECR Lorac

Courtesy of the British Library. I’m always delighted when a “new” ECR Lorac pops up in the BL’s Crime Classics series, and this one sounds as intriguing as always…

The Blurb says: It all began with sheep-stealing. A hateful act among the shepherds of the fells, and yet not a matter of life and death. Then came arson and with the leaping of the flames, death and disorder reached the peaceful moors.

Holidaying with his friends the Hoggetts in High Gimmerdale while on a trip to find some farmland for his retirement, Robert Macdonald agrees to help in investigating the identity of the sheep-stealers, before being dragged into a case requiring his full experience as Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard.

Drawing on her own experience living in Lunesdale, Lorac spins a tale portraying the natural beauty, cosy quiet and more brutal elements of country living in this classic rural mystery first published in 1953.

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Gaskell on Audio

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell read by Juliet Stevenson

Another one for my Classics Club list. I may or may not get on with the audiobook – I’ve struggled a bit with Juliet Stevenson’s narrations in the past – so if it doesn’t grab me I’ll abandon it and read a paper copy later. But fingers crossed – maybe this will be Stevenson’s chance to win me over! And after galloping through the books on the #20(Audio)BooksOfSummer challenge, I intend to take plenty of time over this one!

The Blurb says: Written at the request of Charles Dickens, North and South is a book about rebellion; it poses fundamental questions about the nature of social authority and obedience. Gaskell expertly blends individual feeling with social concern, and her heroine, Margaret Hale, is one of the most original creations of Victorian literature.

When Margaret Hale’s father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience she is forced to leave her comfortable home in the tranquil countryside of Hampshire and move with her family to the fictional industrial town of Milton in the north of England. Though at first disgusted by her new surroundings, she witnesses the brutality wrought by the Industrial Revolution and becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of the local mill workers. Sympathetic to the poor she makes friends among them and develops a fervent sense of social justice. She clashes with the mill-owner and self-made man, John Thornton, who is contemptuous of his workers. However, their fierce opposition masks a deeper attraction.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Amazon UK or Audible UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Post After Post-Mortem (Inspector Macdonald 11) by ECR Lorac

The psychology of crime…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Surrays are a golden family, all highly intelligent and successful in their chosen fields and all happy in each other’s company. But recently the middle sister, Ruth, has been causing a little concern to her older brother, Richard, whose trained eye as a psychiatrist has noted that she seems to be struggling with stress. Her latest book has just been completed and will doubtless meet with the same critical acclaim as her previous work, and Richard suggests to their mother that she might try to tempt Ruth to go away for a holiday with her. But before this can happen, Ruth is found dead in her bedroom at her parents’ home, complete with sleeping pills, farewell note and a new will, leaving little doubt that she has taken her own life. Following the inquest which returns the expected verdict Richard returns to his own home, where he finds a letter from Ruth, written on the evening of her death and delayed in the post, in which she seems quite happy and is making plans for the following week. Although he’d rather not cause his family, especially his mother, any further anxiety, Richard feels he must show the letter to an acquaintance of his, Inspector Macdonald of the Yard, who confirms that the letter is reason to investigate Ruth’s death more closely…

Each time I read one of Lorac’s books I find it harder to understand how it is that she became “forgotten” when so many other writers, of equal or less talent, have remained more securely in print and public favour. I wonder if it’s that she tried so many different things, rather than finding a successful formula and sticking to it? As I was reading this one, I was convinced it must be quite a late novel, post-war, probably well into the ’50s. It concentrates far more than Golden Age novels usually do on the psychology of the various characters – on the effects of success and expectations, self-discipline and the impact of feeling driven to achieve. In that aspect, it reads more to me like the novels of PD James, Ruth Rendell, Julian Symons and their generation rather than the mystery stalwarts of the between-wars era. I was surprised therefore when I read the foreword (after I’d read the book, of course) to discover that it was published in 1936, when I suspect it must have felt well ahead of its time – perhaps so much so that it didn’t quite fit with the expectations or preferences of mystery readers of the time. Pure speculation, of course, but I do feel you never quite know what you’re going to get with Lorac, in the way you do when you pick up a Freeman Wills Croft, a John Dickson Carr or even an Agatha Christie.

Inspector Macdonald is quickly convinced that Ruth’s death was murder, and he has a variety of suspects to consider. As well as the parents, the family includes Ruth’s two brothers and two sisters, and there was a small house party at the time with three men whom Ruth had invited, each connected to her writing career in one way or another. On the face of it, the members of this happy family could have had no reason to kill a beloved sister, but Macdonald feels that more than one of them is hiding something, perhaps to protect their mother from more hurt but perhaps for darker reasons. The same applies to the three guests – each seems reluctant to share information with Macdonald that he feels may be relevant, but that they feel may simply serve to tarnish the reputation and legacy of Ruth as a writer. Ruth herself was something of a contradiction – a brilliant intellectual with much to say in her novels about the human condition, but in her personal life emotionally naive and even repressed. Her recent infatuation with a man who seemed entirely not her type had appeared out of character to those who knew about it, and his rejection of her had broken through her usual cool reserve.

We get to know Inspector Macdonald quite a bit more deeply in this one, and he comes over as someone with empathy for those affected by crime, but with an over-riding belief that justice for the victim takes precedence over the feelings of the bereaved. We also see him take a personal dislike to one of the suspects, and his own self-awareness of that and determination to ensure he doesn’t let it sway his judgement. While he is looking for clues in the psychological make-up of the suspects, the reader is being given clues to his own psychology, and it’s all interestingly and credibly done. Detective Reeves is in it too, and again we get to know him rather better as an individual this time than in other books where he’s appeared.

I think it is more or less fair-play and I felt a bit smug because I spotted one of the crucial clues, although I couldn’t quite get from it to either the who or why. Perhaps a little darker than some of her other books as stories that go into the psychology of crime often are, I found it absorbing and very well constructed, so that there were no dips in interest level along the way. I say it every time, but Lorac really is the brightest star in the BL’s sparkling firmament and even if the series had done nothing else, bringing her back to her deserved prominence would still have made it well worthwhile. Highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my recent reading in quotes…

….Just at that moment a girl, carrying a violin case, came running into Cumberland Street from Abbotsford Place closely pursued by four jeering youths. She wore a hat and was neatly dressed, but her skirt was rather longer than the prevailing fashion and she ran awkwardly, being a little bandy-legged.
….“Hey! See yon lassie carryin’ the fiddle?” shouted Johnnie excitedly. “That’s Lizzie Ramsey. Come on, Bobbie, let’s run. Be a sticker and don’t let those bastards get away w’ it.”
….Johnnie was pounding along the street before his friend knew what was happening. Bobbie ran after him, however, lagging a little when he saw that the four youths were “tough.” He thought they came from the Plantation district.
….The fact that Lizzy Ramsey was from Gorbals, while the four young men were not, was enough for Johnnie. His actions always ran ahead of his thoughts, and when he saw one of the four stopping Lizzie and beginning to twist the violin-case out of her hands, he was enraged and ready to “stick” for all he was worth
….“Nit the jorrie (Leave the girl alone)!” he yelled. “Nark it! Nark it!”

~ No Mean City by A. McArthur and H. Kingsley Long

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….“I have said that there are cases when the findings at the inquest are reconsidered. It is all a matter of available evidence. Let us leave that for the moment, but believe me when I say that if there is any possible way in which I can help you, I will. I understand your feelings on the subject of publicity, and your anxiety to spare your parents further distress, but you – and they – will agree that a wrong verdict cannot be allowed to stand.”
….Richard Surray looked at the lean, clear-cut face of the Chief Inspector and met the glance of his observant grey eyes. When he had first talked to Macdonald he had liked him, liked his clear, straightforward intelligence, his humanity and his anxiety to have a job done properly, without reference to his own personal prestige. Watching him now, Surray knew that there was an element of ruthlessness, too, in that clear mind. Macdonald was not the man to let sentiment interfere with his job. Humane he might be, but he would stop at nothing in the pursuit of justice, and to him justice could only be obtained by minute examination of the evidence – all the evidence, omitting nothing.

~ Post After Post-Mortem by ECR Lorac

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….The sound of voices nearby woke Staci up. She had no idea how long she’d slept, but she could tell that the sky was lightening. It must be close to dawn. She didn’t dare get up, in case whoever it was saw her. But by turning her head just a bit, she could see out from beneath the plastic bag. In a moment, the men whose voices she’d heard came into view.
….“Here’s good,” one of them said. He was tall and had a dark coat.
….The man with him grunted, “About time.” He was a little shorter, and it looked like he was wearing a parka. Together they were carrying a bunch of rolled-up blankets. Now, they put the blankets down. Tall Guy looked around. Staci didn’t even breathe as he glanced at the plastic bag. After a minute, he said, “Let’s get the hell out of here. It’s cold as a witch’s.”
….Parka Guy nodded. “Got that right.” He stuffed his hands into his pockets. At least he had gloves on. Staci’s own hands grew even colder as she thought about how warm those gloves must be. The two men took one more look around, then turned away and headed back where they’d come from.

~ Streets of Gold by Margot Kinberg

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As he crossed this awful square his dizziness cleared. After a few steps he had regained a sense of reality. He began to adjust to the atmosphere of the place. At the start fumes, a vapour, so to speak, had risen from his poet’s head, or perhaps, quite simply and prosaically, from his empty stomach and this, interposed between objects and himself, had let him glimpse them only through the incoherent haze of nightmare, through the obscurity of those dreams which blur every edge, distort every shape, piling up objects into disproportionate groups, inflating things into chimeras and people into phantoms. Gradually these hallucinations were succeeded by a vision less distraught and less exaggerating. Reality dawned around him, touched his sight, touched his feet, and bit by bit dismantled all the poetry of terror with which he had at first believed himself to be surrounded. He was forced to realise that he was not walking in the Styx but in the mire, that he was not being jostled by devils but by robbers; that it was not his soul that was at stake but quite simply his life (since he lacked the precious intermediary which so effectively conciliates thief and honest man: a purse). Finally, as he examined the orgy more closely and coolly, he fell from a witches’ sabbath to a tavern.

~ Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

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So… are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 317…

Episode 317

The TBR is staying stable on 183 this week – 2 out, 2 in. But now that the tennis is over for a while I should be able to do some serious catching up! 

Here are a few more I’ll be racing through soon…

Factual

Their Finest Hour by Winston Churchill

I loved The Gathering Storm, the first volume in Churchill’s six-volume history of the Second World War. In fact, I loved it so much it won the FF Award for Best Factual 2021! So I’m looking forward to finally getting to volume two, though at this rate it’ll take me longer to read the books than it took for Churchill to win the war…

The Blurb says: One of the most fascinating works of history ever written, Winston Churchill’s monumental book The Second World War is a six-volume account of the struggle of the Allied powers in Europe against Germany and the Axis. Recounted through the eyes of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the Second World War is also the story of one nation’s singular, heroic role in the fight against tyranny. Here you will find pride and patriotism in Churchill’s dramatic account and with reason–having learned a lesson at Munich that they would never forget, the British refused to make peace with Hitler, defying him even after France had fallen and it seemed as though the Nazis were an unstoppable force.

What lends this work its tension is Churchill’s inclusion of primary source material. We hear Churchill’s retrospective analysis of the war, but we are also presented with memos, letters, orders, speeches, and telegrams that give day-by-day accounts of the reactions as the drama unfolds. We listen as strategies and counter-strategies unfold in response to Hitler’s conquest of Europe, his planned invasion of England, and his assault on Russia. All contrive to give a mesmerizing account of the crucial decisions that must be made as the fate of the world hangs in the balance.

In Their Finest Hour, Churchill describes the invasion of France and a growing sense of dismay in Britain. Should Britain meet France’s desperate pleas for reinforcements or husband their resources in preparation for the inevitable German assault? In the book’s second half, entitled simply “Alone,” Churchill discusses Great Britain’s position as the last stronghold against German conquest: the battle for control of the skies over Britain, diplomatic efforts to draw the United States into the war, and the spreading global conflict.

In 1953, Churchill won the Nobel Prize for Literature due in no small part to this awe-inspiring work.

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Short Stories

The Impostor and Other Stories by Silvina Ocampo

Courtesy of Serpent’s Tail. Susan over at A Life in Books is a terrible temptress with her regular “Books to Look Out for” posts, and on this occasion resistance proved to be futile! Sounds deliciously strange…

The Blurb says: Whimsical and sinister, each story by Silvina Ocampo is like a knife of spun sugar that can still pierce between your ribs. A thief breaks into the house of a psychic with disastrous results, a bride has her personality subsumed by the previous occupant of her home, and two men switch destinies for a change of pace.

The Impostor offers a comprehensive collection from one of the twentieth century’s great forgotten woman writers. Here are tales of doubles and living dolls, angels and demons, a beautiful seer who writes the autobiography of her own death, and much else that is mad, sublime, and delicious.

With an array spanning the length of Ocampo’s career, these haunting stories are among the world’s strangest and best.

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Crime

Judas 62 by Charles Cumming

Courtesy of HarperCollins. One of the occasional unsolicited books HC send me, and this one sounds as if it could be good. It has pretty high ratings on Goodreads so far… 

The Blurb says: The second book in Charles Cumming’s gripping new thriller series surrounding BOX 88 – a covert intelligence organization that operates beneath the radar.
A young spy in one of the most dangerous places on Earth…

1993: Student Lachlan Kite is sent to post-Soviet Russia in the guise of a language teacher. In reality, he is there as a spy. Top secret intelligence agency BOX 88 has ordered Kite to extract a chemical weapons scientist before his groundbreaking research falls into the wrong hands. But Kite’s mission soon goes wrong and he is left stranded in a hostile city with a former KGB officer on his trail.

An old enemy looking for revenge…

2020: Now the director of BOX 88 operations in the UK, Kite discovers he has been placed on the ‘JUDAS’ list – a record of enemies of Russia who have been targeted for assassination. Kite’s fight for survival takes him to Dubai, where he must confront the Russian secret state head on…

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Vintage Crime

Post After Post-Mortem by ECR Lorac

Courtesy of the British Library. I’m always delighted to see ECR Lorac’s name pop up in the BL’s Crime Classics series, and this one sounds intriguing…

The Blurb says: “Now tell us about your crime novel. Take my advice and don’t try to be intellectual over it. What the public likes is blood.”

The Surrays and their five children form a prolific writing machine, with scores of treatises, reviews and crime thrillers published under their family name. Following a rare convergence of the whole household at their Oxfordshire home, Ruth – middle sister who writes ‘books which are just books’ – decides to spend some weeks there recovering from the pressures of the writing life while the rest of the brood scatter to the winds again. Their next return is heralded by the tragic news that Ruth has taken her life after an evening at the Surrays’ hosting a set of publishers and writers, one of whom is named as Ruth’s literary executor in the will she left behind.

Despite some suspicions from the family, the verdict at the inquest is suicide – but when Ruth’s brother Richard receives a letter from the deceased which was delayed in the post, he enlists the help of CID Robert Macdonald to investigate what could only be an ingeniously planned murder.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

These Names Make Clues by ECR Lorac

MacDonald on the spot…

😀 😀 😀 😀

After being rather rude about detective fiction to a man he later discovered was Graham Coombe, a publisher of the genre, Inspector MacDonald is surprised to be invited to a little party at Coombe’s house. The party is to be a treasure hunt, with a group of thriller writers and a group of more heavyweight writers competing to solve clues which will lead them to the treasure. Coombe thinks it will be amusing to have a bona fide detective there too, especially one who is on record as suggesting that real detectives are better at solving things than fictional ones. MacDonald hesitates, but in the end decides to go. So he’s on the spot when one of the guests is killed…

This is quite different in style to the other Loracs I’ve read. She was clearly having fun at the expense of her own profession and there’s some mild humour over various styles and personalities which Martin Edwards suggests in his introduction may have been influenced by her chums in the Detection Club. But it’s not as light-hearted as it at first seems – there’s a serious plot in there too.

Each guest at the party is given a literary pseudonym and part of the game is for them all to work out who each other is in real life, most of them never having met before. While this conceit is quite amusing, I must say it led to a good deal of confusion for this poor reader. For the first few chapters we are introduced to “Samuel Pepys”, “Jane Austen” and so on, and then after the murder they all start to be called by their “real” names, which, as is normal in the world of novel-writing, are often pseudonyms too. So with each character having at least two names, sometimes more, I spent a ridiculous amount of time going back to the list which is happily provided a few chapters in, of which pseudonym matches which “real” name. This also made me realise that I wasn’t building up a real picture of most of the characters, or they should have been recognisable by that regardless of which name was being used for them.

The plot is as complex as the names and really couldn’t be described as fair-play, I feel. However, since I can rarely work out whodunit and don’t make much of an effort to try, this didn’t bother me. The book has a traditional “closed circle” of suspects – it’s clear that it must have been someone in the house during the party who committed the first crime. It also has the kind of complicated murder method more common in a howdunit style of mystery, but in this one MacDonald very quickly works out the how and the reader is allowed to know too. Of course, there is a second murder, and it has aspects of the locked room mystery, again with a complicated method. So there’s a lot going on, too much, I felt, and too many coincidences at play.

Normally Lorac’s settings play a major part in her books, be it London in the Blitz or the rural Lune Valley. This one hasn’t got that – although Coombe’s house is in London it has more of the feel of the “country house” mystery, with most of the action taking place in people’s drawings rooms.

I enjoyed it more than this review is probably suggesting, but I didn’t think it was quite up to the standard I’ve come to expect of her. I liked that we got to see MacDonald off duty in the first section of the book, making him feel a bit more rounded as a character. And I always enjoy the way he’s a team player, involving his junior officers fully and neither ridiculing nor patronising them, as some Golden Age police ‘tecs do. So plenty to like about it, but I’d tend to suggest it’s one for existing Lorac fans – new readers would be better to start elsewhere, probably with one of her wartime books where I feel she excels.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 304…

Episode 304

The seesaw has sawed. Or seed. Or seesawed. Yeah, I’ll go with that – the seesaw has seesawed! What I’m trying to say is the TBR has gone down again, by two to 186! Perfect reason to recycle this gif…

Here are a few more that should tip the balance even more soon… 

Fiction 

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Ondaatje is one of those many authors I feel I should have read, but haven’t. He’s Karissa’s favourite, and her praise for him eventually brainwashed me into adding this one to my TBR! I’m also hoping it might fill another box on my Wanderlust challenge…

The Blurb says: With unsettling beauty and intelligence, this Golden Man Booker Prize–winning novel traces the intersection of four damaged lives in an abandoned Italian villa at the end of World War II.

The nurse Hana, exhausted by death, obsessively tends to her last surviving patient. Caravaggio, the thief, tries to reimagine who he is, now that his hands are hopelessly maimed. The Indian sapper Kip searches for hidden bombs in a landscape where nothing is safe but himself. And at the centre of his labyrinth lies the English patient, nameless and hideously burned, a man who is both a riddle and a provocation to his companions—and whose memories of suffering, rescue, and betrayal illuminate this book like flashes of heat lightning.

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Vintage Crime

These Names Make Clues by ECR Lorac

Courtesy of the British Library. Always delighted to see ECR Lorac’s name pop up in the BL’s Crime Classics series, and this one sounds like she was having fun at the expense of her writing friends!

The Blurb says: Chief Inspector Macdonald has been invited to a treasure hunt party at the house of Graham Coombe, the celebrated publisher of Murder by Mesmerism. Despite a handful of misgivings, the inspector joins a guestlist of novelists and thriller writers disguised on the night under literary pseudonyms. The fun comes to an abrupt end, however, when ‘Samuel Pepys’ is found dead in the telephone room in bizarre circumstances.

Amidst the confusion of too many fake names, clues, ciphers and convoluted alibis, Macdonald and his allies in the CID must unravel a truly tangled case in this metafictional masterpiece, which returns to print for the first time since its publication in 1937.

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Crime

Still Life by Louise Penny

Another one that’s been hanging around my TBR for years, added originally because of all the glowing reviews I’ve seen around the blogosphere for this series. And another one that might fill a Wanderlust box!

The Blurb says: The discovery of a dead body in the woods on Thanksgiving Weekend brings Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his colleagues from the Surete du Quebec to a small village in the Eastern Townships. Gamache cannot understand why anyone would want to deliberately kill well-loved artist Jane Neal, especially any of the residents of Three Pines – a place so free from crime it doesn’t even have its own police force.

But Gamache knows that evil is lurking somewhere behind the white picket fences and that, if he watches closely enough, Three Pines will start to give up its dark secrets…

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Fiction

Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

I think I read this during my major Graham Greene phase many years ago but I don’t have a clear memory of it, so it sounds like a re-visit is overdue. Plus… it might tick off a square on my Wanderlust card! (You can tell it’s getting towards the end of the year and I’m getting desperately worried about my challenge failures, can’t you? 😉 )

The Blurb says: Published in 1932 as an ‘entertainment’, Graham Greene’s gripping spy thriller unfolds aboard the majestic Orient Express as it crosses Europe from Ostend to Istanbul.

Weaving a web of subterfuge, murder and politics along the way, the novel focuses upon the disturbing relationship between Myatt, the pragmatic Jew, and naive chorus girl Coral Musker as they engage in a desperate, angst-ridden pas-de-deux before a chilling turn of events spells an end to the unlikely interlude. Exploring the many shades of despair and hope, innocence and duplicity, Stamboul Train offers a poignant testimony to Greene’s extraordinary powers of insight into the human condition.

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Review-alongers!

Now that we’ve had a chance to recover from Vanity Fair, it’s time to pick a new book, with a view to reviewing February-ish. Alyson and Christine, I nominate you to select two or three books each and stick the titles in the comments below. I’ll list your selections on next week’s TBR Thursday post and we can see which takes the popular fancy!

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Two-Way Murder by ECR Lorac

The man in the street…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Two-Way MurderAll the young men in the neighbourhood are on their way to the Hunt Ball at Fordings, and most of them also appear to be well on the way to falling in love with lovely young Dilys Maine. It’s a foggy, misty night and local man Nick Brent offers to drive Ian Macbane, a visitor to the district, to the Ball. But Nick makes it clear Ian will have to find another lift back, since he intends to drive Dilys home. As he and Dilys return along the low road, they see something lying in the middle of the road which on inspection turns out to be the body of a dead man. Gentlemanly Nick tells Dilys to walk the remaining short distance home so she can avoid getting involved in giving a statement to the police, since her strict father doesn’t know she’s at the ball. When the police turn up they quickly realise the dead man has been murdered, but before they can find out whodunit they will have to identify him…

In my usual way, I waited till I’d read the book before I read the introduction, so was completely unaware while reading that this book was from a “lost” manuscript, never before published. Martin Edwards had heard about it from a book-dealer friend some years ago, but it’s only now, when he has for some years been editing the British Library Crime Classics series and has done so much to return ECR Lorac to the prominence she deserves, that the BL agreed to publish it. Edwards tells us they have given it a light edit, simply to remove a few repetitions and duplications, but it is substantially as written. In my view, it is right up there with her best, which means it’s very good indeed.

It has a slightly odd structure in that the main investigative viewpoint changes as the book progresses. At first, a rather unlikeable “by-the-book” policeman, Inspector Turner, is in the lead, taking statements and jumping to conclusions and generally being annoying. Then for a bit Ian Macbane is in the limelight, as he sets out to do a bit of amateur detection, driven on by his desire to protect Dilys. Finally, for the bulk of the book, Inspector Waring of the local CID takes over. He’s a complete contrast to Turner – his method is to chat to the locals, pick up on gossip, listen to rumours, and generally feel his way through all the deceptions and half-truths the suspects and witnesses are feeding him, mostly in this unfathomable desire all the men seem to have to protect beautiful but pathetic Dilys (who in my humble opinion would have been vastly improved by having to take responsibility for her own life occasionally).

I liked Waring very much – Edwards speculates that perhaps he was a new venture for Lorac, getting away from her long-running series detective, Inspector MacDonald. Unfortunately she died not long after this book was finished so we’ll never know if she had planned to give Waring more outings. I like MacDonald too, but Waring has rather more personality and works more on instinct and knowledge of human nature, rather than the somewhat more procedural feel of the MacDonald stories.

There’s a fair amount of mild humour in the book and a smidgen of romance, just the right amount. But the important thing is the underlying mystery, and it’s excellent. Lorac shows how unreliable witnesses are when they’re trying to keep all kinds of secrets that have nothing to do with the crime itself, and Waring has a natural talent for sorting the wheat from the chaff and getting to the truth. I loved the crucial clue – very original, I thought – although obviously I can’t tell you anything about it. I had gradually come to suspect the right person, but quite late on and only after several false starts, and I still couldn’t work out how the thing had been done, or why. Waring remained a few steps ahead of me all the way through, and explained everything to my satisfaction in the end. Is it fair play? Yes, I think so – I think I had all the information that Waring had, just not the brainpower to work it out!

20 books 2019Book 2 of 20

Since a lot of it involves people driving around the district on various roads or walking along bridle paths, I longed for a map – I suspect if it had been published in Lorac’s lifetime there may have been one. But Lorac is always great at her settings so I was able to gradually develop a mental map of the area as well as a clear picture of the various types of people in this small rural community – the farmers and business owners, those with a long pedigree and the newcomers, the dissolute and the self-appointed righteous guardians of other people’s morals.

A real find for Martin Edwards, and I’m grateful to him and the British Library for giving us all the opportunity to enjoy it. Lorac continues to be the brightest shining star in the BL’s sparkling firmament. Great stuff!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 282…

Episode 282

During my recent disappearance, I didn’t pick up a book for an entire week, but they still kept arriving through the letter box! Result – the TBR is up a horrendous 4 to 202… aarghhhh!!! So I’m now reading up a storm in an attempt to catch up…

Homer reading gif

Here are a few I should be getting to soon…

Vintage Sci-Fi

Spaceworlds edited by Mike Ashley

SpaceworldsCourtesy of the British Library. Another themed anthology in the BL’s Science Fiction Classics series, which I’m enjoying as much as their vintage crime series. And the covers are just as good too… 

The Blurb says: Astronauts constructing a new space station must avert destruction from a missile sent by an unknown enemy; a generation starship is rocked by revelations of who their secret passengers in the hold truly are; a life or death struggle tests an operating surgeon – in orbit, with an alien patient never seen before.

Since space flight was achieved, and long before, science fiction writers have been imagining a myriad of stories set in the depths of the great darkness beyond our atmosphere. From generation ships – which are in space so long that there will be generations aboard who know no planetary life – to orbiting satellites in the unforgiving reaches of the vacuum, there is a great range of these insular environments in which thrilling, innovative and deeply emotional stories may unfold. With the Library’s matchless collection of periodicals and magazines at his fingertips, Mike Ashley presents a stellar selection of tales from the infinite void above us.

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Fiction

Last Days in Cleaver Square by Patrick McGrath

Last Days in Cleaver SquareCourtesy of Random House Cornerstone via NetGalley. It’s odd how once you get interested in a subject you start noticing books you might otherwise have passed by. I’m hoping this one will be a good addition to my Reading the Spanish Civil War challenge… 

The Blurb says: It is 1975 and an old man, Francis McNulty, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, is beset with sightings in his garden of his old nemesis, General Franco. The general is in fact in Spain, on his deathbed, but Francis is deeply troubled, as is his daughter Gillian, who lives with him in Cleaver Square.

Francis’ account of his haunting is by turns witty, cantankerous and nostalgic. At times he drifts back to his days in Madrid, when he rescued a young girl from a burning building and brought her back to London with him. There are other, darker events from that time, involving an American surgeon called Doc Roscoe, and a brief, terrible act of betrayal.

When Gillian announces her forthcoming marriage to a senior civil servant, Francis realizes he has to adapt to new circumstances and confront his past once and for all. Highly atmospheric, and powerfully dramatic, rich in pathos and humour, Last Days in Cleaver Square confirms a major storyteller at the height of his powers.

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Vintage Crime

Two-Way Murder by ECR Lorac

Two-Way MurderCourtesy of the British Library again! ECR Lorac has become one of my favourites in this series, so I’m always delighted to see her name pop up…

The Blurb says: It is a dark and misty night – isn’t it always? – and bachelors Nicholas and Ian are driving to the ball at Fordings, a beautiful concert hall in the countryside. There waits the charming Dilys Maine, and a party buzzing with rumours of one Rosemary Reeve who disappeared on the eve of this event the previous year, not found to this day. With thoughts of mysterious case ringing in their ears, Dilys and Nicholas strike a stranger on the drive back home, launching a new investigation and unwittingly reviving the search for what really became of Rosemary Reeve.

All the hallmarks of the Golden Age mystery are here in this previously unpublished novel by E.C.R. Lorac, boasting the author’s characteristically detailed sense of setting and gripping police work.

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Thriller

Bullet Train by Kōtarō Isaka

Bullet TrainCourtesy of Random House Vintage via NetGalley. I chose this one purely on the basis of the blurb. Must admit early reviews are pretty mixed but I’ve got my fingers crossed…  

The Blurb says: Five killers find themselves on a bullet train from Tokyo competing for a suitcase full of money. Who will make it to the last station? An original and propulsive thriller from a Japanese bestseller.

Satoshi looks like an innocent schoolboy but he is really a viciously cunning psychopath. Kimura’s young son is in a coma thanks to him, and Kimura has tracked him onto the bullet train headed from Tokyo to Morioka to exact his revenge. But Kimura soon discovers that they are not the only dangerous passengers onboard. Nanao, the self-proclaimed ‘unluckiest assassin in the world’, and the deadly partnership of Tangerine and Lemon are also travelling to Morioka. A suitcase full of money leads others to show their hands. Why are they all on the same train, and who will get off alive at the last station?

A bestseller in Japan, Bullet Train is an original and propulsive thriller which fizzes with an incredible energy as its complex net of double-crosses and twists unwinds to the last station.

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Fiction

A Town like Alice by Nevil Shute read by Robin Bailey

A Town Like AliceAn extra one this week, since I’ve actually already started this one. Recommended by Rose after I’d enjoyed Shute’s On the Beach, and so far I’m loving every minute of it. Robin Bailey’s rather old-fashioned upper-class voice is perfect for the time and class the book is set in…

The Blurb says: Nevil Shute’s most beloved novel, a tale of love and war, follows its enterprising heroine from the Malayan jungle during World War II to the rugged Australian outback.

Jean Paget, a young Englishwoman living in Malaya, is captured by the invading Japanese and forced on a brutal seven-month death march with dozens of other women and children. A few years after the war, Jean is back in England, the nightmare behind her. However, an unexpected inheritance inspires her to return to Malaya to give something back to the villagers who saved her life. Jean’s travels leads her to a desolate Australian outpost called Willstown, where she finds a challenge that will draw on all the resourcefulness and spirit that carried her through her war-time ordeals.

NB I didn’t use the Audible blurb for this one since it contains a huge spoiler – you have been warned!

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Checkmate to Murder (Inspector MacDonald 25) by ECR Lorac

Keep Calm and Carry On!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

It’s wartime London and a thick fog is making the darkness of the blackout even deeper. A perfect night for murder! Four men are together in an artist’s studio. Bruce Manaton, the artist, is working on a portrait of his friend, actor André Delaunier, dressed for the sitting in the scarlet robes of a Cardinal. Meantime two other men, Robert Cavenish and Ian Mackellon, are absorbed in a game of chess. Each couple is in a pool of light while the rest of the studio is in shadow. In the kitchen off the studio, Bruce’s sister, Rosanne, is preparing a meal (because she’s the woman, obviously). Suddenly into this quiet scene bursts the local Special Constable, clutching a young soldier whom he claims has just murdered the old miser who lives next door. But when Inspector MacDonald of the Yard begins to investigate, he’s not convinced it’s as simple a case as it first appears…

ECR Lorac has been one of the major successes of the British Library Crime Classics series as far as I’m concerned, and I guess I’m not alone since they’ve now republished several of the Inspector MacDonald books, as well as a standalone written under another of her pen names, Carol Carnac. One of her real strengths is her settings, and her wartime ones are particularly atmospheric. Here she uses the combination of fog and blackout brilliantly, not just to provide a cloak for nefarious goings-on, but also to conjure up a sense of what it was like to be living in a London still struggling stoically on under the constant threat of air raids.

The worst of the Blitz is over, but the memories of the bombings are still fresh. So much so, that, as Bruce later explains to Inspector MacDonald “Londoners have heard so many bangs during their recent history, that a pistol shot isn’t so impressive a row as it used to be.” This, together with the random blasts of fog horns, means that the group in the studio didn’t consciously hear the shot that killed old Mr Folliner.

Through patient police work, MacDonald and his team soon have reason to doubt that the young soldier, who, it turns out, is Mr Folliner’s nephew, is the murderer, although he was found by the Special Constable in the old man’s bedroom with the corpse. But if he’s innocent, then who did the deed? The list of suspects is small, and it seems almost impossible that anyone in the vicinity at the time could have done it. MacDonald will have to work out not only whodunit, but how.

It’s a good puzzle, with some of the elements of the “impossible crime” about it, though I find it impossible myself to explain why without giving mild spoilers, so I won’t. The characterisation is very good, with Bruce and Rosanne Manaton particularly well developed. Bruce is talented, but he’s moody and selfish, and Rosanne acts almost as much as a mother to him as a sister. People aren’t spending much on art during the war, so Rosanne struggles to make ends meet and stop Bruce blowing what little money they do have on drink. She too is a talented artist, but Bruce kindly lets her sacrifice her own career so that she can do all the cooking and cleaning and worrying for them both.

We also get to know Inspector MacDonald a little better, though his life outside work is still largely a blank. I like that he never works alone – Lorac always makes us aware of the teamwork that is going on in the background to support his detecting, and gives them full credit for their contribution. As used to be the case in those halcyon days (in fiction), the police team work well together, efficiently, professionally and in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Another great read from Lorac’s pen – I remain baffled as to why she is less well known than the other Golden Age Queens of Crime and am very glad that the BL is doing such a great job in changing that.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 255…

Episode 255

Another drop in the TBR since I last reported, despite having received more book post from lovely publishers! Down two to 196 – I’m getting worried…

Here are a few more I’ll be fretting over soon…

Winner of the People’s Choice Poll

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

There was never any doubt about which book would win this time – it took a commanding lead straight away and pulled further ahead as the race was run. Most of you picked it because you hoped I’d enjoy it, but *looks accusingly over top of reading glasses* some of you voted for it because you think I’ll hate it and you’re hoping for a grumpy 1-star review! Don’t try to look innocent – you know who you are! Either way, good choice, People – it’s one I’ve been intending to read for years. I’m falling behind, so it will be December before my review appears…

The Blurb says: The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it — from garden seeds to Scripture — is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.

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Scottish Classic

The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

One from my Classics Club list – I’m in a race for the deadline now so the classics will be coming thick and fast! And this one is certainly thick…  On the upside, it’s not about the Jacobites! 

The Blurb says: Dunnett introduces her irresistible hero Francis Crawford of Lymond, a scapegrace nobleman of elastic morals and dangerous talents whose tongue is as sharp as his rapier. In 1547 Lymond is returning to his native Scotland, which is threatened by an English invasion. Accused of treason, Lymond leads a band of outlaws in a desperate race to redeem his reputation and save his land.

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Vintage Crime

Checkmate to Murder by ECR Lorac

Courtesy of the British Library. Hurrah! Another from ECR Lorac, one of my favourites of the authors the BL has introduced me to…

The Blurb says: On a dismally foggy night in Hampstead, London, a curious party has gathered in an artist’s studio to weather the wartime blackout. A civil servant and a government scientist match wits in a game of chess, while Bruce Manaton paints the portrait of his characterful sitter, bedecked in Cardinal’s robes at the other end of the room. In the kitchen, Rosanne Manaton prepares tea for the charlady of Mr. Folliner, the secretive miser next door.

When the brutal murder of ‘Old Mr. F’ is discovered by his Canadian infantryman nephew, it’s not long before Inspector Macdonald of Scotland Yard is called to the scene to take the young soldier away. But even at first glance the case looks far from black-and-white. Faced with a bevy of perplexing alibis and suspicious circumstances, Macdonald and the C.I.D. set to work separating the players from the pawns to shed light on this toppling of a lonely king in the dead of night.

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Classic on Audio

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë read by Patricia Routledge

Having mentioned this on my recent post about the audiobooks on my To-Be-Listened-to list, I decided it had to be bumped up the priority list, mainly because I simply can’t imagine Patricia Routledge “doing” Heathcliff, and yet the reviews are great! I’ve already started it and… well, I’ll leave you in suspense…

The Blurb says: As darkness falls, a man caught in a snowstorm is forced to shelter at the strange, grim house Wuthering Heights. It is a place he will never forget. There he will come to learn the story of Cathy: how she was forced to choose between her well-meaning husband and the dangerous man she had loved since she was young. How her choice led to betrayal and terrible revenge – and continues to torment those in the present. How love can transgress authority, convention, even death. And how desire can kill.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Amazon UK or Audible UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Fell Murder (Inspector MacDonald 24) by ECR Lorac

Rural but not an idyll…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Old Robert Garth rules his family with a rod of iron and, although he’s a fair landlord, he stands no nonsense from the tenant farmers on his land. A man who, in his eighties, still can put in a long day’s physical work, he has no time for those he sees as weaklings. So when he’s found murdered, there are plenty of people who might have done the foul deed, each with differing motives. But when it’s discovered that his eldest and long-estranged son, Richard, has been seen around the district, he naturally becomes the prime suspect. It’s up to Inspector MacDonald, called in from Scotland Yard to help the overstretched local police, to find Richard, and to decide whether he, or some other person, is the guilty party…

One of ECR Lorac’s greatest strengths is the way she makes her settings central to her stories, whether in the alleys of London or, as in this case, in the farming community of the Lune Valley, a place she apparently knew well. Her descriptions of the landscape are wonderful, showing the rugged beauty of the dales and fells, the unpredictable weather and the way the land has been shaped and formed by the generations who have farmed it. She is clear-eyed about the hard labour involved in farming but shows her characters as having a strong bond to their land and a love of their way of life.

Set towards the end of the Second World War, she also gives us intriguing glimpses of how war affected farming, partly by removing so many men from the labour force and bringing more women on to the land, and partly through government pressure to adopt more intensified farming methods, such as ploughing up traditional pasture land to allow for more planting of vegetable crops to feed a hungry populace no longer able to import food as easily as before the war. She shows too the additional tasks that have fallen on the police to oversee the new war-time regulations – black-out rules, rationing of goods and petrol, licensing and control of all kinds of things that used to be left up to suppliers and consumers – all leaving them under pressure when required to investigate the normal criminal activities that continue regardless of war.

The local Superintendent is a townie with little understanding of the ways of the farmers and a kind of disdain for them, and so he hits a brick wall in getting them to talk openly to him. But Inspector MacDonald is a different breed – he may be a London policeman now, but he’s a Scot by birth and has lived in rural communities before. He understands the land and secretly rather wishes he could take up farming himself. This all helps him to find ways to break down the rural resistance to outsiders and to grasp at motives that a townsman may not think of. It’s not long before he has a good idea of what happened to old Garth – now all he has to do is prove it.

Another excellent entry in the series – of the ones I’ve read so far, I find the books written around the time of WW2 seem to show her at the peak of her considerable talent in terms of plotting and, while I have enjoyed all of her settings, especially wartime London in Murder by Matchlight, the countryside ones always impress me with their affectionate but entirely unromanticised portrayals of rural communities.

As a little bonus, there’s an extra short story at the end of the volume, Live Wire. It’s only a few pages long – a tale of a criminal attempting to steal gold bullion from a train – but it’s very well done, darkly funny and highly entertaining, with a deliciously twisted ending. I usually forget to mention that there’s quite often a short story tucked in at the end of the BL releases, I assume when the page count of the novel is slightly shorter than the norm. It’s a bit like finding there’s still one chocolate left in the box when you think you’ve already eaten them all…

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

FictionFan Awards 2019 – Vintage Crime Fiction

Drum roll please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2019.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2018 and October 2019 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

This year, there will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Vintage Crime Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2019

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

VINTAGE CRIME FICTION

This has been another fab year for vintage crime fiction with publishers re-issuing more and more “forgotten” books, keeping me entertained with some of my most enjoyable reads of the year, not to mention my slowly ongoing Murder, Mystery, Mayhem Challenge. To keep it simple, I’m calling anything published up to 1965 Vintage, and anything after that date Modern. That way it ties in with the date I use to differentiate classic from modern in literary fiction.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley

When Joan Bendix dies of poisoning, it’s quickly clear that the weapon was a box of chocolate liqueurs given to her by her husband. A clear-cut case, it would appear, but on closer examination there are a couple of problems. The police find themselves baffled, so turn (as you do) to a bunch of self-styled amateur criminologists for help…

Berkeley wrote this to parody how most detective fiction is carefully contrived so that each piece of evidence can have only one meaning – the meaning brilliantly deduced and revealed by the detective in the last scene. Berkeley does this by sending the six members of the Crimes Circle off to investigate in their own way for a week, after which, on consecutive evenings, one by one they give their solution only to have it destroyed the next evening as the new solution is put forth. It’s brilliantly done and highly entertaining, with a lot of humour in the characterisation of the members.

Click to see the full review

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A Voice Like Velvet by Donald Henderson

Ernest Bisham is a radio announcer, with the velvet voice of the title making him beloved by the many listeners who, back in 1944, get all their news from the BBC. His picture regularly appearing in the Radio Times means that he is also recognised wherever he goes. Which makes his second career as a cat-burglar even more risky!

Despite the obvious crime element, this is really much more of a character study of Bisham, and a rather humorous look at the oddities of life in the BBC at the time when it was Britain’s sole broadcaster and still finding its feet in a rapidly changing world. But it’s undoubtedly Bisham’s cat-burgling that gives the book its major elements of fun and suspense. Recently re-married, Ernest is rethinking his criminal activities, realising that now he wouldn’t be the only one who suffered if he is caught. But he finds it very hard to fight the temptation to do just one more job… and meantime the police are patiently waiting for the man whom the newspapers call the Man In The Mask to make a mistake…

Click to see the full review

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Murder by Matchlight by ECR Lorac

It’s a cold winter in London during World War 2, with the blackout in full force and the population living with the constant spectre of bombing raids. One night, young Bruce Mallaig is sitting on a bench in Regent’s Park thinking romantic thoughts of the girl he loves, when he sees – or mostly hears due to the pitch darkness – two men near the little footbridge, one on the bridge, the other standing below it. While he ponders what they might be up to, the man on the bridge lights a match and Mallaig catches a glimpse of a face looming behind him. The match goes out and there’s a thud as of someone falling. By the time Mallaig fumbles his torch alight, the man on the bridge is dead…

One of Lorac’s chief skills is in developing her settings with a great feeling of authenticity. This one takes us to the heart of the capital city during the bombings, and gives a wonderful depiction of the dogged Londoners picking themselves up and carrying on, with the kind of defiant resilience that was the hallmark of London’s war-time attitude. Strong plot, good characterisation, plenty of mild humour to lift the tone – all-in-all, an excellent read that gives a real insight into the war on the Home Front.

Click to see the full review

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The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin

As poet Richard Cadogan walks along an Oxford street at night, he notices the door of a toyshop is open. His curiosity gets the better of him so he enters, but is shocked to find the corpse of a woman lying on the floor. Then he is hit on the head and falls unconscious. When he comes round some time later he finds himself locked in a cupboard, but manages to make his escape and go to the police. However when they return with him to the spot, not only has the corpse disappeared but the whole shop has gone, and in its place is a grocer’s shop! Not unnaturally, the police have difficulty believing his story after this, so he turns to his old friend, the amateur sleuth and university professor, Gervase Fen…

This is one of those crime novels that goes way beyond the credibility line, but makes up for its general silliness by being a whole lot of fun. Cadogan and Fen make a great duo as they bicker their way through the investigation, and as a little added bonus, this is the book that inspired the brilliant fairground scene in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Highly entertaining!

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2019

for

BEST VINTAGE CRIME FICTION

Death in Captivity by Michael Gilbert

I gave sixteen vintage crime books five stars this year, so the decision was by no means easy. However, Gilbert had two in serious contention, this one and Smallbone Deceased. In the end, the unique setting of this one made it stand out from the crowd.

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

This is a very different take on the classic “locked room” mystery. In fact, to a degree the mystery becomes secondary to the drama of what’s happening in the prison camp as the Allies approach and it looks as though the Italians may surrender. The prisoners doubt this will lead to their release – they anticipate the Italians will hand them over to the Germans before the Allies arrive – so it’s all the more important that they get their plans for escape ready urgently. Tense and hard-hitting, but the general camaraderie and patriotism of the prisoners also give the story a kind of good-natured warmth and a fair amount of humour. One that shows the wonderful versatility in the genre – great stuff!

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Factual

PS – I suddenly realised I couldn’t bring myself to write any reviews this week, so I’m taking a week or two off till my enthusiasm revives. I’ll still be posting the awards posts on Thursdays though. See you soon! And to those who celebrate it, Happy Thanksgiving! I’m thankful for all of you… 😀

TBR Thursday 221…

Episode 221

Considering my inability to ignore all the political chaos on both sides of the Atlantic – as a spectator sport, it’s all fun so long as you can suspend your disbelief – it’s amazing that my TBR has actually gone down, by 1 to 214! And I’m proud to announce that I survived East of Eden – not unscathed, but ultimately unbowed…

A bumper batch this week, since this will be the last TBR Thursday of the year. Next week I’ll be starting the annual FictionFan Book of the Year posts – get your ballgown ready for the awards ceremony! Meantime, some shorter, lighter reads, mostly vintage crime, to accompany my Dickens book over the festive season… 

Crime

The Mugger by Ed McBain

The second in the long-running 87th Precinct series. I enjoyed many of these back in the day and more recently was impressed by a re-read of the first in the series, Cop Hater

The Blurb says: This mugger is special.

He preys on women, waiting in the darkness…then comes from behind, attacks them, and snatches their purses. He tells them not to scream and as they’re on the ground, reeling with pain and fear, he bows and nonchalantly says, “Clifford thanks you, madam.” But when he puts one victim in the hospital and the next in the morgue, the detectives of the 87th Precinct are not amused and will stop at nothing to bring him to justice.

Dashing young patrolman Bert Kling is always there to help a friend. And when a friend’s sister-in-law is the mugger’s murder victim, Bert’s personal reasons to find the maniacal killer soon become a burning obsession…and it could easily get him killed.

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Vintage Crime

It Walks by Night by John Dickson Carr

Courtesy of the British Library. I have a feeling I read a few John Dickson Carr novels in my teens, but I fear I don’t remember them. More recently, I’ve come across a few of his short stories in various anthologies and have enjoyed them, so fingers crossed. As I’m sure you’ll agree, nothing says Christmas quite like a beheaded corpse…

The Blurb says: We are thrilled to welcome John Dickson Carr into the Crime Classics series with his first novel, a brooding locked room mystery in the gathering dusk of the French capital.

In the smoke-wreathed gloom of a Parisian salon, Inspector Bencolin has summoned his allies to discuss a peculiar case. A would-be murderer, imprisoned for his attempt to kill his wife, has escaped and is known to have visited a plastic surgeon. His whereabouts remain a mystery, though with his former wife poised to marry another, Bencolin predicts his return.

Sure enough, the Inspector’s worst suspicions are realised when the beheaded body of the new suitor is discovered in a locked room of the salon, with no apparent exit. Bencolin sets off into the Parisian night to unravel the dumbfounding mystery and track down the sadistic killer.

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More Vintage Crime

Death in Fancy Dress by Anthony Gilbert

Courtesy of the British Library again. Apparently Anthony Gilbert was one of the pen names of Lucy Beatrice Malleson, who also wrote as Anne Meredith. So since I enjoyed Anne Meredith’s Portrait of a Murderer, I have high hopes for this one…

The Blurb says: The British Secret Service, working to uncover a large-scale blackmail ring and catch its mysterious mastermind ‘The Spider’, find themselves at the country residence Feltham Abbey, where a fancy dress ball is in full swing.

In the tumult of the revelry, Sir Ralph Feltham is found dead. Not the atmosphere bewildered young lawyer Tony was expecting, he sets out to make sense of the night’s activities and the motives of the other guests. Among them is Hilary, an independently-minded socialite still in her costume of vivid silk pyjamas and accompanying teddy bear…

This classic country house mystery, first published in 1933, contrasts the splendours and frivolities of the English upper classes with the sombre over-hang of the First World War and the irresistible complications of deadly familial relationships – with just the right amount of international intrigue thrown in.

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Crime

The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet

I loved the second book about Georges Gorski, The Accident on the A35, actually even more than Burnet’s Booker-nominated His Bloody Project, and have had this first one lingering on the TBR for far too long. (Yes, I know it would have made more sense to read them the other way round… 😉 )

The Blurb says: Manfred Baumann is a loner. Socially awkward and perpetually ill at ease, he spends his evenings quietly drinking and surreptitiously observing Adèle Bedeau, the sullen but alluring waitress at a drab bistro in the unremarkable small French town of Saint-Louis. But one day, she simply vanishes into thin air. When Georges Gorski, a detective haunted by his failure to solve one of his first murder cases, is called in to investigate the girl’s disappearance, Manfred’s repressed world is shaken to its core and he is forced to confront the dark secrets of his past. The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau is a literary mystery novel that is, at heart, an engrossing psychological portrayal of an outsider pushed to the limit by his own feverish imagination.

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Vintage Science Fiction

Courtesy of the British Library again! Another of their fab anthologies, this time on the vexed subject of time travel. As Captain Janeway of the USS Voyager said – or maybe that should be, will say – “Time travel. Since my first day on the job as a Starfleet captain I swore I’d never let myself get caught in one of these godforsaken paradoxes – the future is the past, the past is the future, it all gives me a headache.” Sometimes headaches can be fun…

The Blurb says: The threads of time run forward, backward, round in circles and side by side in this new anthology of stories from the Golden Age of science fiction. How can you comprehend a newspaper whose current events cover the distant future? How do you escape from a day at the office which cycles, cruelly, endlessly? How do you prevent monks from the future smuggling your revolutionary miracle food into the past?

Charting the chronology of the time travel narrative from the 1880s to the late 1950s, classic tales of trips to the past and their consequences run alongside rare experimental and mind-bending pieces, with paradoxes, philosophical dilemmas and every perplexing strand of time travel unravelled in between.

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Even More Vintage Crime

And yet again, courtesy of the British Library! (Clearly we have found the culprit behind my groaning TBR problems…) ECR Lorac is one of my favourite of all the authors the BL has introduced to me, so I’m looking forward to this one hugely…

The Blurb says: First published in 1944 Fell Murder sees E.C.R. Lorac at the height of her considerable powers as a purveyor of well-made, traditional and emphatic detective fiction. The book presents a fascinating ‘return of the prodigal’ mystery set in the later stages of the Second World War amidst the close-knit farmerfolk community of Lancashire s lovely Lune valley.

The Garths had farmed their fertile acres for generations and fine land it was with the towering hills of the Lake Country on the far horizon. Garthmere Hall itself was old before Flodden Field, and here hot-tempered Robert Garth, still hale and hearty at eighty-two, ruled his household with a rod of iron. The peaceful dales and fells of the north country provide the setting for this grim story of a murder, a setting in fact which is one of the attractive features of an unusual and distinctive tale of evil passions and murderous hate in a small rural community.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

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

Hidden secrets…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 19 of 20

TBR Thursday 208…

Episode 208

A huge drop in the TBR this week – down 3 to 223! I wish I could say this is because I’ve been racing through piles of great books, but it’s actually because several have been consigned to the garbage…

Here are a few more that I should be reading soon

History

The Hour of Peril by Daniel Stashower

This one was very kindly sent to me by a blog buddy who clearly knows my tastes very well! Civil War-era history, political conspiracy and an edge of true crime complete with famous detective Allan Pinkerton – sounds great!  

The Blurb says: Daniel Stashower, the two-time Edgar award-winning author of The Beautiful Cigar Girl, uncovers the riveting true story of the Baltimore Plot, an audacious conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln on the eve of the Civil War.

In February of 1861, just days before he assumed the presidency, Abraham Lincoln faced a clear and fully-matured threat of assassination as he traveled by train from Springfield to Washington for his inauguration. Over a period of thirteen days the legendary detective Allan Pinkerton worked feverishly to detect and thwart the plot, assisted by a captivating young widow named Kate Warne, America’s first female private eye. As Lincoln’s train rolled inexorably toward the seat of danger, Pinkerton struggled to unravel the ever-changing details of the murder plot, even as he contended with the intractability of Lincoln and his advisors, who refused to believe that the danger was real. With time running out Pinkerton took a desperate gamble, staking Lincoln’s life and the future of the nation on a perilous feint that seemed to offer the only chance that Lincoln would survive to become president.

Shrouded in secrecy and, later, mired in controversy, the story of the Baltimore Plot is one of the great untold tales of the Civil War era, and Stashower has crafted this spellbinding historical narrative with the pace and urgency of a race-against-the-clock thriller.

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Classic Science Fiction

The Question Mark by Muriel Jaeger

Courtesy of the British Library. Not content with feeding my addiction for vintage crime, the BL is now intent on getting me hooked on vintage sci-fi. Not that I’m complaining… quite the reverse! I prefer older SF to contemporary stuff by far, because it tends to concentrate less on science and technology and more on humanity…

The Blurb says: In 1926 Muriel Jaeger, dissatisfied with the Utopian visions of H G Wells and Edward Bellamy, set out to explore ‘The Question Mark’ of what a future society might look like if human nature were properly represented. So, disgruntled London office worker Guy Martin is pitched 200 years into the future, where he encounters a seemingly ideal society in which each citizen has the luxury of every kind of freedom. But as Guy adjusts to the new world, the fractures of this supposed Utopia begin to show through, and it seems as if the inhabitants of this society might be just as susceptible to the promises of false messiahs as those of the twentieth century. Preceding the publication of Huxley’s Brave New World by 5 years, The Question Mark is a significant cornerstone in the foundation of the Dystopia genre, and an impressive and unjustly neglected work of literary science fiction. This edition brings the novel back into print for the first time since its original publication.

* * * * *

Historical Fiction

The Second Sleep edited by Robert Harris

Courtesy of Hutchinson. A new release from Robert Harris is always a major event in my reading life and this one sounds very intriguing – a little different from his usual, perhaps…

The Blurb says: 1468. A young priest, Christopher Fairfax, arrives in a remote English village to conduct the funeral of his predecessor. The land around is strewn with ancient artefacts–coins, fragments of glass, human bones–which the old parson used to collect. Did his obsession with the past lead to his death?

Fairfax becomes determined to discover the truth. Over the course of the next six days, everything he believes–about himself, his faith and the history of his world–will be tested to destruction.

* * * * *

Vintage Crime

Murder in the Mill-Race by ECR Lorac

Courtesy of the British Library again! ECR Lorac has become one of my favourites of the authors the BL has been re-issuing, so I’m delighted they’ve brought out another. Her settings are always one of her strengths, so I’m looking forward to a trip to Devon…

The Blurb says: When Dr Raymond Ferens moves to a practice at Milham in the Moor in North Devon, he and his wife are enchanted with the beautiful hilltop village lying so close to moor and sky. At first they see only its charm, but soon they begin to uncover its secrets – envy, hatred and malice.

Everyone says that Sister Monica, warden of a children’s home, is a saint – but is she? A few months after the Ferens’ arrival her body is found drowned in the mill race. Chief Inspector Macdonald faces one of his most difficult cases in a village determined not to betray its dark secrets to a stranger.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

Murder by Matchlight by ECR Lorac

Maybe it’s because they are Londoners…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s a cold winter in London during World War 2, with the blackout in full force and the population living with the constant spectre of bombing raids. One night, young Bruce Mallaig is sitting on a bench in Regent’s Park thinking romantic thoughts of the girl he loves, when he sees – or mostly hears due to the pitch darkness – two men near the little footbridge, one on the bridge, the other standing below it. While he ponders what they might be up to, the man on the bridge lights a match and Mallaig catches a glimpse of a face looming behind him. The match goes out and there’s a thud as of someone falling. By the time Mallaig fumbles his torch alight, the man on the bridge is dead…

Of course, this is the story he tells the police, but is it true? There was another witness too, the man under the bridge, whose story sounds less likely but possible. Inspector MacDonald of the Yard will have to decide if either of these witness could have done the deed, or had a fourth person been there in the darkness, unseen except for that brief glimpse Mallaig caught in the matchlight? But first MacDonald will have to identify the victim before he can try to discover the motive for the crime.

This is the third of ECR Lorac’s books that the British Library has re-issued and she’s now become one of my firm favourites. MacDonald is a likeable detective – a moral man but with the ability to make allowances for the moral weaknesses of others. He’s thoughtful and kind, Oxford-educated but doesn’t live in an ivory tower. He’s as likely to go to see the latest variety show at the music-hall as to attend the newest production of Shakespeare, and this stands him in good stead in this investigation, since it soon turns out the victim lived in a boarding-house full of variety performers.

The plot is very good, with plenty of motives to provide red herrings, and an investigation that relies on MacDonald getting to the truth the old-fashioned way – by interviewing the various suspects both formally and informally, while his team carry out the painstaking work of checking alibis and tracking people’s movements. That’s one of the things I like most about these books – Lorac makes it clear that policing is a team sport. While MacDonald has the intuition and insight to make assumptions about who might be lying or telling the truth, he relies on his hard-working and competent subordinates to get the evidence to support or negate his theories.

One of Lorac’s chief skills is in developing her settings with a great feeling of authenticity. This one takes us to the heart of the capital city during the bombings, and gives a wonderful depiction of the dogged Londoners picking themselves up and carrying on, with the kind of defiant resilience that was the hallmark of London’s (and Britain’s) war-time attitude. But she doesn’t shy away from showing that this spirit wasn’t universal – many people were scared, while some took advantage of the confusion caused by the destruction in less than legal ways. In fact, Lorac uses this confusion as part of her plot and gives a real picture of the bombed out areas of the city and the disruption which that caused, with people dispersed from their old communities so that suddenly neighbours no longer knew neighbours in the way they had before the war, allowing the unscrupulous to “disappear” into new lives, even new identities.

I also love her characterisation. The most vivid characters here are the variety performers, and as you would expect they can be a bit larger than life, and their quirky skills again play a part in the plotting. She doesn’t overdo it, though, so they still feel credible. But it’s the “ordinary” people she does so well – the old caretaker who looks after the boarding-house and does a bit of cleaning on the side, Mallaig, MacDonald’s subordinates. This is back in the period when authors used to assume that people who weren’t the baddies were good, and this is emphasised more here because, published in 1945, consciously or unconsciously it plays into the story Londoners told themselves to keep their chins up in the face of adversity: a story of plucky cheerfulness, neighbourliness and acts of heroism – a story they told so convincingly it became their reality. A heinous crime has been committed, with a motivation that might feel somewhat out-dated now, but would have resonated strongly at the time. But, despite the crime and the bombs, all will be well because London and Londoners will never allow Hitler the satisfaction of thinking he can give more than they can take. And with men like MacDonald in charge, London is in safe hands.

London 1944 – fighting Hitler one cuppa tea at a time…

Strong plot, good characterisation, plenty of mild humour to lift the tone – all-in-all, an excellent read that gives a real insight into the war on the Home Front, and the patriotic spirit that carried London through. Great stuff!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

FictionFan Awards 2018 – Vintage Crime Fiction

Drum roll please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2018.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2017 and October 2018 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

This year, there will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Vintage Crime Fiction

Genre Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

VINTAGE CRIME FICTION

This has been another fab year for vintage crime fiction with both the British Library Crime Classics and the Collins Crime Club working hard to keep me entertained with some of my most enjoyable reads of the year, not to mention my slowly ongoing Murder, Mystery, Mayhem Challenge.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Fire in the Thatch by ECR Lorac

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

Lorac’s writing is excellent and the picture she creates of rural England during the war years is totally convincing. Inspector MacDonald is an appealing detective – a thoughtful and kindly man, strictly moral on his own account but with the capacity to make some allowance for moral weakness in others. Although convoluted, the plot is firmly grounded in human nature, giving it a timeless quality. Lorac and MacDonald deserve their return to the limelight!

Click to see the full review

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The Eye of Osiris by R. Austin Freeman

One November day in 1902, John Bellingham disappears from the study of a friend’s house where he had been waiting for his friend to return home. Two years later, there has still been no sign of him and his potential heirs are left in limbo, unable to execute his rather strange will. And then pieces of a dismembered skeleton begin to show up in odd places. Meantime, young Dr Paul Berkeley, our narrator, has fallen in love with Ruth Bellingham, the missing man’s niece, whose father is one of the potential heirs. He persuades Ruth’s father, Godfrey Bellingham, to allow Dr John Thorndyke, an expert in medical jurisprudence, to look into the case. It’s up to Thorndyke to find a way to identify the remains and to find out what was behind Bellingham’s disappearance.

The prose is elegant, reminding me of Conan Doyle’s easy style, and the wit in Berkeley’s observations of the other characters made me chuckle aloud several times. And I adored the romance! Ruth feels remarkably modern considering the book was written in 1911 – humorous and intelligent, strong and self-reliant. A thoroughly entertaining read!

Click to see the full review

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The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson

It’s the early 1930s. Britain’s finances haven’t yet recovered from the Great War and now the Stock Market collapse has brought matters close to crisis. So the Home Secretary has invited an American financier to a private dinner at the House of Commons to schmooze him into agreeing to make the government a substantial loan. But when the Division Bell sounds, the Home Secretary has to leave the room to go and vote. The Home Secretary’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, young Robert West, is also hurrying along the corridor to vote, but as he passes the room where the financier waits alone, he hears a shot. Rushing in with the other people in the corridor, he finds the financier dead! Who killed him? And why? Robert finds himself working as a liaison with the police to find the answers…

This is a lot of fun, with two likeable lead characters in Robert and Grace, a feisty young Socialist MP based on the author herself, who wrote the book during a temporary halt in her own Parliamentary career. The plot is a bit messy perhaps, but that’s more than compensated for by the humour and especially the enjoyable insider look at all the quirky traditions that surround parliamentary procedures. Great fun!

Click to see the full review

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The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux

Mademoiselle Mathilde Stangerson is attacked in her yellow bedroom by a murderer wielding a mutton-bone. When her father and the other people in the house break down the door, Mlle S is on the floor and her murderer is nowhere to be found. How did the murderer get out of a room in which the only door and window were securely locked? Enter our hero, Joseph Rouletabille, a young journalist who at the age of eighteen has already acquired a reputation as an inspired amateur detective.

A classic ‘locked room’ mystery with another ‘impossible crime’ thrown in for good measure, this is a fabulous little romp that is more and more fun as it goes along. Hercule Poirot himself described it as a masterpiece, and who am I to disagree? Essential reading for vintage crime fans and so nearly the winner…

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

BEST VINTAGE CRIME FICTION

The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull

Good though the shorlisted books are, the decision was an easy one. The Murder of My Aunt entertained me as much as any book I’ve read this year.

Edward Powell is an unhappy young man. He lives with his annoying Aunt Mildred who, as his guardian and trustee of his inheritance, holds the purse-strings, rather too tightly in Edward’s opinion. To make matters worse, he’s forced to live in the family home in a small village in Wales, surrounded by landscape and hills and sheep and all that awful stuff, when he should be mingling with artists and bright young things in one of the fashionable hotspots of the world. Really it’s too much to bear. So he decides there’s only one thing to be done… the clue is in the title!

Edward’s voice is what makes the book so special. The writing is fantastic, so that Hull manages to let the reader see both the truth and Edward’s unreliable interpretation of it simultaneously. One couldn’t possibly like Edward, and in real life one would pretty quickly want to hit him over the head with a brick, but his journal is a joy to read. It’s a brilliant portrait of a man obsessed with his own comforts, utterly selfish, and not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. An expert example of how to make an unlikeable character work, and full of wicked humour – brilliant!

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Genre Fiction