Genre: Crime

Review – London Particular

Posted May 20, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – London Particular

London Particular

by Christianna Brand

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 256
Series: British Library Crime Classics
Rating: two-stars
Synopsis:

Night falls in the capital, and a “London particular” pea-souper fog envelops the city. In Maida Vale, Rose and her family doctor Tedwards struggle through the dark after a man has telephoned from Rose’s house, claiming to have been attacked. By the time they arrive the victim, Raoul Vernet, is dead. The news he brought from Switzerland for Rose’s mother has died with him.

Arriving to the scene, Inspector Cockrill faces a fiendish case with seven suspects who could have murdered their guest – family members and friends with alibis muddled by the suffocating fog and motives wrapped in mystery. Now, the race is on to find the truth before the killer strikes again.

First published in 1952, London Particular was Brand’s favourite among her own books, and it remains a fast-paced and witty masterpiece of the genre, showing off the author’s signature flair for the ruthless twist.

Christianna Brand’s mysteries aren’t entirely my thing, and London Particular is perhaps the not-my-thingest. One of the major characters, Rosie, has been sleeping around and got pregnant, and much of the narrative revolves around tearing her down for it — exposing her petty lies without sympathy, and to put it baldly, slut-shaming her all the way. Some of the other characters pity her, and yet it’s not a kind sort of pity.

Of course, the book and its judgements are a product of their time, but that doesn’t make it any more pleasant to read. Rosie’s a careless girl, true enough, and her actions make her a little unlikeable at times, but none of that is helped by the fact that the narrative doesn’t like her. Oddly enough, she reminds me of Thea Gilmore’s song “Rosie“, not just in name.

Anyway, the mystery itself is alright. It avoids some of the trends I’ve seen in Brand’s other books, so it surprised me a little in that sense, and there’s some genuine tension in the court scenes, and in the way some of the characters try to shield each other, stand up for one another. But… mostly Brand’s work isn’t quite my thing. I don’t think she had much sympathy for other women who didn’t fit her mould, and it shows.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Murder in Vienna

Posted May 14, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Murder in Vienna

Murder in Vienna

by E.C.R. Lorac

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 194
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Superintendent Macdonald, C.I.D., studied his fellow-passengers on the Vienna plane simply because he couldn’t help it, because he hadn’t conditioned himself to being on holiday. The distinguished industrialist he recognised: the stout man he put down (quite mistakenly) as a traveller in whisky. The fair girl was going to a job (he was right there) and the aggressive young man in the camel coat might be something bookish. Macdonald turned away from his fellow-passengers deliberately; they weren’t his business, he was on holiday - or so he thought.

Against the background of beautiful Vienna, with its enchanting palaces and gardens, its disenchanted back-streets and derelicts of war, E. C. R. Lorac constructs another great detective story with all its complexities, an exciting and puzzling crime story.

I really love E.C.R. Lorac’s work, for a lot of reasons I’ve written about before, and it boils down to two gifts that she had. One, she was good at characters, and especially at creating likeable characters. Two, she has a great sense for place, and for showing how a place is lived in — I thought at one point she was mostly good at describing rural locations and small towns, but this book (and others set in London) show she just had a gift in general of making anywhere sound lovely in its way. In this case, post-WWII Vienna.

The other thing to bear in mind is that even a character you like a lot might turn out to be a murderer, and that someone who’s a bit of a slimeball needn’t be the one who killed someone. If you read only one or two of her books, it’s easy to think that she’ll always point the finger at a certain type of character, but it isn’t the case.

Murder in Vienna captures the unsettled feeling of a city uneasy with what some of its inhabitants have done. The collaborators walk free, and it’s unclear who collaborated because they felt that they had to and who collaborated willingly. That isn’t completely germane to this story, it’s just part of the feeling of everything. But Vienna itself is beautiful in Lorac’s words, and through the eyes of Macdonald, one of the most human of the detectives of classic fiction (in my view). I found it all really enjoyable, not so much the mystery itself, but how the mystery inhabited Vienna and the anxious minds of those trying to believe that the ordeal is over and normality has returned.

Poor Macdonald really should be allowed a proper holiday at some point, though. If he could please be returning from holiday at the start of a book or something, that’d be nice. No more busman’s holidays for him, please.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Ha-Ha Case

Posted May 7, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – The Ha-Ha Case

The Ha-Ha Case

by J.J. Connington

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 230
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

Johnnie Brandon is found dead while out shooting rabbits with his friends, and the problem is: Accident, Suicide, or Murder? It is all made very complicated by the financial entanglements in which his rapscallion of a father has tied up the estate, and by the fact that a gentlemanly lunatic with large gaps in his memory wanders on to the scene at the crucial moment. Time for the acumen of Chief Constable Sir Clinton Driffield to be brought to bear on the case.

J.J. Connington’s The Ha-Ha Case is a fairly run-of-the-mill mystery for the period, in many ways, but it relies on an interesting little quirk of inheritance law that I’d never seen before. “Borough English” is an inheritance law whereby the youngest child inherits, and it’s part of the mystery that the story revolves around, adding to the thicket of red herrings and complicating one’s intuitions. It sets up a neat little puzzle, and there’s a neat little trick to draw you astray as well.

It’s not really a fair-play mystery, in some ways, but I think that made it a better story… and I think a thoughtful reader can get there anyway. It’s more interesting as a puzzle than for any great insight into character, for all that the police detective is vividly evoked (with all his faults, including total self-absorption).

If you’re interested in mysteries of this period, then it’s a fun one; if you read mysteries of this period now and again for the soothing predictability, this one isn’t a stand-out in the bunch, but a solid choice. If you lack any special interest at all and are just a bit curious, it’s not where I’d start you out, but it wouldn’t be a terrible choice either. All in all, it’s pretty middle-of-the-road. Which sounds like damning with faint praise, but I won’t say no to trying a couple more by Connington.

By the way, it isn’t released by the British Library Crime Classics series. Someone just got clever with cover design.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Religious Body

Posted April 30, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – The Religious Body

The Religious Body

by Catherine Aird

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 232
Series: The Calleshire Chronicles #1
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

The day begins like any other for Sister Mary St. Gertrude. When her alarm sounds at 5 a.m., Sister Mary begins rousting her convent sisters from their beds, starting with the Reverend Mother. Down the Order she goes with a knock and a warm blessing. But when the young nun reaches Sister Anne’s door, there is no answer. She assumes that Sister Anne got up early, and continues on her way.

But later, when a fellow nun leaves a bloody thumbprint on the sheet music for a hymn, and Sister Anne is nowhere to be found, it becomes apparent that something is very wrong. Then Sister Anne’s body is found at the bottom of a steep set of stairs, her veil askew and her head crushed.

Religious Body introduces the sophisticated Detective Inspector C. D. Sloan along with his eager and trustworthy sidekick, Detective Constable Crosby, and the acerbic Superintendent Leeyes in a mystery of holy proportions that will have readers guessing until the last page.

I think I picked up The Religious Body by Catherine Aird as a result of its inclusion in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (by Martin Edwards), if I recall correctly — it’s been a while since I added it to my wishlist, even though I read it surprisingly quickly after snagging a copy (I’m such a mood reader). Anyway, it’s a fairly standard-feeling mystery, partly from the point of view of the police, and partly from the point of view of the nuns who find one of their number dead in the cellar.

To me, the best parts are actually about the routine of the nunnery: the details of their lives, their interactions, their thoughts, all have something a bit different to offer, while the careful investigation by the police is all routine, and familiar from dozens of other books. I’m sure some of the details are inaccurate, but it’s a good stab at imagining (from an outsider’s point of view, as I presume Catherine Aird was not a nun) what it might be like to be part of such a community.

I didn’t guess the murderer right away, but possibly I should have — it didn’t seem too surprising once we got there, and I definitely realised who he was after his reaction to the joke the police repeat.

In the end, it’s a reasonably solid mystery that doesn’t particularly stand out except by virtue of the setting. I liked it well enough, without feeling a burning urge to read more by Aird.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Corpse in the Waxworks

Posted April 18, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – The Corpse in the Waxworks

The Corpse in the Waxworks

by John Dickson Carr

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 288
Series: British Library Crime Classics
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

"The purpose, the illusion, the spirit of a waxworks. It is an atmosphere of death. It is soundless and motionless... Do you see?"

Last night Mademoiselle Duchêne was seen heading into the Gallery of Horrors at the Musée Augustin waxworks, alive. Today she was found in the Seine, murdered. The museum's proprietor, long perturbed by the unnatural vitality of his figures, claims that he saw one of them following the victim into the dark—a lead that Henri Bencolin, head of the Paris police and expert of 'impossible' crimes, cannot possibly resist.

Surrounded by the eerie noises of the night, Bencolin prepares to enter the ill-fated waxworks, his associate Jeff Marle and the victim's fiancé in tow. Waiting within, beneath the glass-eyed gaze of a leering waxen satyr, is a gruesome discovery and the first clues of a twisted and ingenious mystery.

John Dickson Carr’s The Corpse in the Waxworks was surprisingly in the middle for me — usually I quite dislike John Dickson Carr’s earlier work and books involving Henri Bencolin, though I’ve later come to enjoy some of his Gideon Fell stories.

This one’s not one of his more famous, and isn’t a locked room mystery, meaning it actually felt less contrived than some of them. And Bencolin wasn’t quite as annoying as I usually find him, though I wasn’t a huge fan either; his sidekick (Marle) is just kind of vanilla, really, though he gets his own little action sequence (predictable as it is).

In the end, it felt relatively straightforward as Carr’s mysteries go, and without any femmes being too fatale, and it did have an intriguing sense of atmosphere around the masked club and the waxworks — a little bit creepy, a little bit high-strung.

Not a new favourite by any means, but more enjoyable than I expected.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Eye of Osiris

Posted March 31, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – The Eye of Osiris

The Eye of Osiris

by R. Austin Freeman

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 286
Series: Dr Thorndyke #3
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

John Bellingham is a world-renowned archaeologist who goes missing mysteriously after returning from a voyage to Egypt where fabulous treasures have been uncovered. Bellingham seems to have disappeared leaving clues, which lead all those hunting down blind alleys. But when the piercing perception of the brilliant Dr Thorndyke is brought to bear on the mystery, the search begins for a man tattooed with the Eye of Osiris in this strange, tantalisingly enigmatic tale.

I haven’t read anything by R. Austin Freeman before (unless there’s a short story or two amongst the British Library Crime Classic collections), but The Eye of Osiris turned out to be an unexpected pleasure. Sometimes with classic crime fiction, it’s just kind of cosy and predictable, and that’s very enjoyable but not surprising. In many ways this was a typical mystery of the period, but The Eye of Osiris did make me think: I felt like this was a fair-play mystery, and that I had the clues I needed to figure out the end result. I got there before the main character (who is very much in the John Watson vein, including by being a doctor), but there were some aspects I wasn’t sure of.

And of course, there’s the fact that it’s related to Egyptian archaeology. It’s set in London, but the missing man whose absence is the object of investigation is an archaeologist, and his brother (Godfrey Bellingham) and niece (Ruth) are also fascinated by the subject. Ruth quickly becomes close to our protagonist, as he manufactures an excuse to help her with her work (a commission to write notes on Egyptian history to help someone who doesn’t have the time to research), and becomes fascinated with the case of her missing uncle, drawing in an old teacher of his (Thorndyke) to help.

The romance isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but I did enjoy the interplay of the characters, and that Ruth is a fully realised woman who is fascinated with her own work, and that our otherwise rather nondescript main character is in turn fascinated with her work and eager to help her. In part that’s to get close to her, of course, but he’s clearly attracted not just by her prettiness, but by her eagerness for knowledge.

In the end it’s not groundbreaking, but it was enjoyable, and I’m planning to read more of R. Austin Freeman’s mysteries, especially as some are available on Project Gutenberg.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Big Ben Strikes Eleven

Posted March 21, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Big Ben Strikes Eleven

Big Ben Strikes Eleven

by David Magarshack

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 333
Series: British Library Crime Classics
Rating: two-stars
Synopsis:

The discovery of Sir Robert Boniface’s body on the floor of his blue limousine was made quite accidentally on a sultry Friday evening towards the end of June.

The industrial and financial tycoon, and former stalwart of the British Cabinet, had been shot in the head and left in the quiet Vale of Health alongside London’s Hampstead Heath. Nearby, a rejected portrait of Sir Robert is found riddled with bullets in the studio of the now- missing romantic artist Matt Caldwell. As it hurtles towards its feverish denouement under the bells of the capital’s most famous clock, this closely observed and stylish study of both character and motive transports the reader from the Stock Exchange to Scotland Yard. It asks the question of what it means to be crooked and how immense power corrupts.

I found David Magarshack’s Big Ben Strikes Eleven a bit disappointing vs the way it was described (as being for grownups, and apparently earning Dorothy L. Sayers’ praise). It sounded like it was maybe going to be a bit more literary, but it felt fairly by-the-numbers police procedural ish, with each clue and hint dragged out of the supporting cast.

It felt like the basic facts got recapitulated — along with needless baroque levels of speculation — every chapter or so, without getting much further forward, while there was a strangely laissez-faire attitude to getting the various witnesses to explain themselves. He won’t explain where he was? Oh well. She won’t give information because she says it’s a privacy thing? Fine, that’s fine. What?!

There are some interesting bits, like unpicking a certain alibi, though there’s a certain reliance on coincidence and a whole bizarre interlude with a love story that feels self-destructive and not at all appealing. Sure, one of the suspects is involved, but it added relatively little (just a slight potential explanation of a clue we already had), and just felt weird.

So… not what I hoped for, alas.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Impact of Evidence

Posted February 21, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Impact of Evidence

Impact of Evidence

by E.C.R. Lorac, Carol Carnac

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 221
Series: British Library Crime Classics
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

Near St Brynneys in the Welsh border country, isolated by heavy snow and flooding from the thaw, a calamity has occurred. Old Dr Robinson, a known 'menace o the roads', has met his end in a collision with a jeep at a hazardous junction. But when police arrive at the scene, a burning question hints at something murkier than mere accident: why was there a second body - a man not recognised any locals - in the back of Robinson's car?

As the local inspectors dive into the muddy waters of this strange crime, Chief Inspector Julian Rivers and Inspector Lancing are summoned from Scotland Yard to the windswept wilds, where danger and deceit lie in wait.

Puzzling and atmospheric, this exceedingly rare mystery from one of the masters of crime fiction's Golden Age returns to print for the first time since its publication in 1954.

It’s always exciting when the British Library Crime Classics series bring out another of E.C.R. Lorac’s books, especially the rare and out of print ones. I’m slightly less fond of Lorac’s work under the Carol Carnac pseudonym, perhaps because I’m not as fond of the detective — though Lorac’s McDonald doesn’t show us a lot of his personal life, he does show a constant decency and patience, and that impression has been cumulative through the books in which he’s featured. Lancing and Rivers don’t really compare (and don’t really stand out to me, either, though nor did McDonald at first).

In any case, Impact of Evidence is the latest, a book which is out of print and almost unattainable until now. The setup is intriguing: details are drawn from Lorac’s own experience of Lunesdale, but transplanted to the Welsh borders, and she depicts farm life with her usual care for what’s needed and how those communities worked. As usual, she’s idealised the working farmer a little here, with her usual “salt of the earth” rock-solid decent characters — but having read more of her work, one’s always aware of the tension there, and when those people might do wrong.

I admit I was onto what happened fairly early on just because of certain details that were drawn to the reader’s attention multiple times, but it was still interesting to see how it worked out, and how some things were subverted (like the Derings matter-of-fact behaviour about the accusations of them).

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Someone from the Past

Posted February 14, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Someone from the Past

Someone from the Past

by Margot Bennett

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 256
Series: British Library Crime Classics
Rating: one-star
Synopsis:

Sarah has been receiving threatening anonymous letters, seemingly from a former lover. Just one day after revealing this information to her co-worker Nancy, Sarah is found shot in her bedroom by one of her past flames, Donald. Hearing the news and desperate to clear any evidence of Donald’s presence at the scene due to her own infatuations, Nancy finds herself as the key suspect when she is discovered in the apartment.

As the real killer uses the situation to their advantage, Bennett crafts a tense and nuanced story through flashbacks to Sarah’s life and loves in this Gold-Dagger-award-winning, Hitchcockian story of deceit and murder.

It’s rare that I give a British Library Crime Classic a really low rating, but Margot Bennett is one of those writers I don’t really get on with… and Someone from the Past got on my last nerve. The introduction is all about what a fine book it was thought and how amazing it is, but I found it really tiresome.

The main reason was that the main character does some completely daft stuff, lies badly, tries to be witty and fails, and then tries to run away to Ireland like the police don’t know all the tricks and all the ways you might try to skip the country. She has these long dialogues with people that Martin Edwards (the editor of the British Library Crime Classics series) thinks are great, and which to me just end up being set pieces for the sake of showing off how oh-so-wittily Bennett thinks she writes dialogue.

One or two scenes like that might be okay, but I just don’t believe this character has a braincell in her head, and I’m not interested in her sparring with people. And then the book goes and ends with a get together where the man in question literally spends the whole book manipulating her “for her own good”, and sometimes being physically threatening to the point of terror for her. And I’m supposed to believe that’s a happy end?

Maybe not: maybe the point is to look at Nancy getting back on the merry-go-round of stupid and think “oh boy”. But it felt more like an attempt to tidy up loose ends, to let the reader feel like things are going to be okay now — and either way, I just didn’t enjoy it.

Rating: 1/5

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Review – Memoria

Posted February 12, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Memoria

Memoria

by Curt Pires, Sunando C, Mark Dale, Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou

Genres: Crime, Graphic Novels, Mystery
Pages: 132
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

When an aged terminally ill detective and a young burnout are partnered up and saddled with an unsolvable case, they begin to unravel a sprawling conspiracy that points to one thing: The most prolific serial killer in american history. As they further investigate the case they make discoveries that will force them to question everything and everyone they know.

Memoria is a gritty crime story in graphic novel form, from a team of four. It’s pretty short, with a structure that makes it clear some dark stuff is coming later on, and it won’t be a terribly happy ending — it’s just not quite clear how unhappy the ending will be. It relies on a couple of coincidences, though to be honest it wasn’t clear to me how much those were engineered by a particular character in order to bring the truth out.

The story wasn’t too surprising to me: it felt like watching a cop show, like I was watching actors run through the usual stereotyped parts. Tough talk, roughing up a witness, the department’s gonna dump a case on the fuckups in order to have them take the fall, etc, etc.

In the end I was just curious enough to finish, and I think my rating reflects the fact that it just isn’t a genre I enjoy (I’m a fan of classic crime/mystery, which is usually a lot less gritty). The art suited it, even if I didn’t love it, and I did appreciate it being a standalone and crafted to work as such.

Rating: 3/5

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