Strong Poison, Dorothy L. Sayers
Featuring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey, Peter Jones as Bunter and Gabriel Woolf as Inspector Parker
For some reason, I can’t find the name of the person who voiced Harriet, and my Audible file doesn’t seem to include that intro. Blast. Still, Strong Poison is mostly not about Harriet, and she appears comparatively little — really, it’s about Lord Peter getting to be a knight in shining armour, and he really starts escalating toward sainthood in his actions here, how he comes to save her and doesn’t push and so on. If you look at it with a cynical eye, it’s all rather obvious lionising of the character.
Still, if you’re a fan of Lord Peter, you can lay that aside and just enjoy him sleuthing away on the trail of the real murderer, plus his sudden feelings for Harriet. The voice acting is excellent, as usual: Ian Carmichael is the perfect Peter, and there’s an awesome little scene with Inspector Parker about Mary which I just had to listen to twice for the fun of it. The adaptation is pretty good, with most details preserved — even down to whole sections of piffle from Wimsey and his mother, and the exact content of various scenes — and though the mystery is a little trimmed down here and there, I think you could almost switch off between the book and the radioplay scenes without losing anything in understanding.
Heresy, S.J. Parris
I’ve had this on my to-read list so long, it’s ridiculous. And finally I got round to it! In tone, it’s very like C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake books, but I have to confess that I think I enjoyed those more. Giordano Bruno’s role in this book was just… he was seeking out secret Catholics, to betray them to Walsingham, okay. But he was a Catholic and he faced the Inquisition, and he was well aware of what would happen to the people he betrayed — some of whom trusted him. It doesn’t sit well with me, and he barely even tried to justify it. It’s not as though he fervently believed that the Catholics were actually going to harm Queen Elizabeth; quite the reverse.
The historical setting and the mystery both work reasonably well, but I found it difficult to care about. There were few characters I wanted to care about; the only one was Sophia, and she was badly treated by the plot and just about every other character. Oh, and Cobbett, the alcoholic but devoted doorkeeper of the college.
If you’re interested in the period and into mystery stories, I’d give it a try — there’s a lot to enjoy about the way the mystery is set within the historical plot. I wouldn’t read the rest of the series personally, but it was okay for a one-off.
Fair Play, Josh Lanyon
Confession time: a long time ago I received this to review, and did not get round to it (partly because I hadn’t read Fair Game yet). So in the end I bought it. But in the interests of full disclosure, I did originally receive a review copy.
I really don’t know what took me so long, apart from the sheer length of my damn to read list. Fair Play is kinda great: I’m not so much talking about the plot of the mystery, though I did also enjoy that. No, what I enjoyed most was Tucker and Elliot’s negotiations about their relationship, the way they had to work around each other, the way they hurt each other sometimes but still cared. And I especially enjoyed that they’re both masculine and open about their sexuality, and open about their wants and needs (at least with each other). Even better, the more emotionally intelligent of the two is Tucker, who would otherwise be a stereotype of a buttoned up cop with issues. Instead, he’s open with his emotions and not afraid of them, and he doesn’t let Elliot run away. It’s great.
Less great is their persistent miscommunications and head-butting sessions, but it does make sense for the characters and where they are in their relationship.
I did enjoy the mystery/thriller plot too; not so much the plot itself, I guess, as the way it made Elliot reflect on his father’s life, on the relationship it revealed between Roland and Elliot. That was already interesting in the first book, and it’s great here too. Again, emotional openness between masculine manly men. And, okay, it was kind of interesting reading about the sort of anti-Vietnam protests that Elliot’s father was involved in. It’s not a world I know much about, given that I’m British, and I liked the way it set the stage. The two books work together really well, and it’s not just about the romance between Tucker and Elliot — the other characters are important too.
Fair Game, Josh Lanyon
Fair Game is reasonably typical of Josh Lanyon’s books, which is to say it delivers a mystery plotline twinned with the life of a non-stereotyped homosexual protagonist, without dealing solely with his love life (for example, in this book, Elliot’s relationship with his father is another key point — it isn’t just about him and Tucker, although it is about that too). Elliot is an ex-FBI agent who is rebuilding his life after a suspect shot out his knee, and I enjoy the fact that his physiotherapy is mentioned, that he can’t just get up and go go go as if he were still an FBI agent, even though emotionally that is something he hasn’t come to terms with yet.
The mystery itself, well, I guessed where it was going solely because I found a particular character irritating, after one or two red herrings. But that isn’t rare for me, and I was still interested in how Tucker and Elliot worked it out.
I really enjoy Tucker’s character, too. To begin with, he seems like a macho guy who maybe doesn’t want to accept that he’s gay or deal with his feelings, but in fact he’s readier to do so than Elliot is. He’s willing to put himself out there, to apologise for what he’s done wrong, to make the effort to meet Elliot more than halfway. It makes a nice contrast to the couple in Lanyon’s Adrien English stories, for sure. (And the sex scene did not contain any metaphors which made me spit my drink, which is also an improvement, entertaining as those could be.)
I need to get round to reading the sequel, Fair Play; I do like the couple, both individually and apart, though I’d like to see more of Tucker and his life where it doesn’t revolve around Elliot or his job.
Gillespie and I, Jane Harris
This book had a really weird effect on me: after I finished, I sat there wondering if I was like the narrator — self-deluding, manipulative, not able to see what I’m doing or worse, knowing and yet somehow still managing to tell the story as if I’m the victim. There was something just so well done and so unpleasant about the way the narrator tells her profoundly skewed version of events, and the slow way the hints pile up about that. The little details you need to keep in mind, because they suddenly reveal something huge.
The main character is not likeable, though she is at times pathetic in a way that makes you pity her; the others around her are much more alive and genuine, though you only see them through the biased eyes of Harriet. Again, you have to watch for the gaps to see why she’s so fascinated, how these characters really feel about her, what is really going on. It’s not a mystery novel, not really, and yet in some ways you need to read it like one, watching out for the gun in the first act that must go off by the fifth.
The narration and set-up is really clever; I enjoyed the book a lot, though I wouldn’t recommend it for people who like a quick payoff. It takes a while to really see where the novel is going and what it’s doing. Worth it, but not everyone’s cup of tea.
The Surgeon, Tess Gerritsen
Originally reviewed May 7th, 2012
Trigger warnings: rape, mutilation, medical details (both descriptions of stuff like cancer and descriptions of accidents/operations).
That had to come first, because I spent much of this book wishing I had something firm and indestructible to crawl into, to keep me safe. The details are just horrifying — it reminds me very much of my experience with Val McDermid’s work. And, as with that, I had to read to the end to find out who the killer/torturer was, before I could begin to feel okay again. (The part of me that’s done a course in Crime Fiction remembers that the end of a crime novel typically ends with the criminal being contained or killed, and therefore that provides a feeling of safety and the reassertion of the rules of society, for a reader.)
I wasn’t really a fan of the characters’ attitudes to rape. The idea that rape makes the victim belong to the attacker in some way is just repugnant, and the idea that what makes a woman a woman is their womb is just — ugh. It seemed to be an ongoing theme in the story, rather than an opinion expressed by just one or two of the characters.
Overall there was a lot that upset/troubled me, and despite Sasha Alexander being in it, I don’t think I’m going to watch the tv series. It’s not actually a bad crime/mystery book: it’s very good in that sense, and I’d recommend it to people who like, for example, Val McDermid. But it was just not the kind of thing I should be reading at all, and I’m going to steer clear.
Death Among the Marshes, Kathryn Ramage
Death Among the Marshes is quite short — more a novella than novel — and essentially a modern take on the Golden Age staple of a country house mystery. The detective, Freddie, bears some resemblance to Sayers’ Lord Peter, in his aristocratic ties, his war-buddy turned valet, etc, and indeed Ramage references Freddie reading Dorothy Sayers’ work, which made me smile.
Unlike the Golden Age country house mysteries, though, this novella is quite frank about the existence of gay people; one couple come under suspicion as their family tries to put a wedge between them and persuade them to be more socially appropriate, and there are possible hints that Billy, Freddie’s manservant, might have feelings for him. All the characters are well-drawn and, if not exactly likeable, understandable in their support of each other, their squabbles, their faultlines.
I found Death Among the Marshes enjoyable and well-structured, and I’ll definitely read any other books by Ramage which feature these characters. This review does more justice to it than mine, I think!
A Surfeit of Lampreys, Ngaio Marsh
There’s stuff to like about A Surfeit of Lampreys; the character portraits, the commentary on the family, the fact that it brings in Bathgate and ties some of that stuff together… but overall, I’ve totally lost my motivation to read Ngaio Marsh’s books. There’s a same-y feel to them, the characters aren’t nearly as brilliant as, say, Dorothy L. Sayers’, and it comes out feeling a little too heavy and flat, with not enough payoff. The mysteries are intricate, but everything just unravels so slowly.
I know other people think Ngaio Marsh is amazing, and I did enjoy some of the earlier books, but Inspector Alleyn feels kind of stale now.
Our Lady of Pain, M.C. Beaton
This is no worse (or better) than the other books in the series, really. It manages to keep up a ridiculous will-they-won’t-they about both main couples, and the same string of coincidences, the same issue where the supposedly smart main characters make silly mistakes. Daisy’s storyline is more interesting than Rose’s, really, but in the latter half of the book I was just rooooolling my eyes at the manufactured drama.
This isn’t a good series. It’s fluff, fine if you like this sort of thing and okay for a quiet evening, but it’s not substantial enough for me in any way — not plot, mystery, character development or setting.
Murder and Mendelssohn, Kerry Greenwood
The last Phryne book so far! Not quite sure what I’ll do without her; in fact, I’m vastly tempted to just pick up Cocaine Blues and begin again, the same way I do with Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter books, sometimes. Murder and Mendelssohn is a strong entry in the series because of the side characters, who no doubt most readers will recognise — the war-damaged John Wilson, and the genius investigator Rupert Sheffield.
They very much follow the BBC Sherlock interpretation of the characters, and if you know anything about the fan community surrounding that show, you can guess what Greenwood does with them. It’s a little weird at times because it feels downright voyeuristic, but of course Phryne plays Cupid and makes Sheffield realise that, in fact, he can’t live without Wilson and that — though he never realised it — he’s attracted to him, and even possessive of him. There is a very… weird scene involving Phryne and Sheffield, and really that whole side plot might not attract readers who aren’t so interested in queer love stories, but I think Phryne’s tenderness for her former lover was compelling, and their shared memories of the war likewise.
The main mystery was not so compelling, relying on Phryne’s sparkle; as usual, Greenwood’s Australia, or at least Phryne’s circle there, are full of queer people, unexpected people, big characters… and small petty killers, too, of course. I figured out the murder method very quickly — I’m trying to think if I read a similar plot somewhere else, or something like that. To me it was just way too obvious, somehow.
I’m very sad to leave Phryne behind, all the same: the mysteries might not always have enchanted, but Phryne and her found family certainly did. I’ll be first in line if there’s ever another book in the offing.