Genre: Crime

Review – Murder at Maybridge Castle

Posted December 29, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Murder at Maybridge Castle

Murder at Maybridge Castle

by Ada Moncrieff

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 304
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

It's Christmas 1937 and an eclectic list of guests and staff have gathered for the grand re-opening of Maybridge castle, a newly renovated yet still crumbling hotel deep in the Cumbrian countryside. They are:

The ex-socialite owner
The Doctor and his new wife
The stylish journalist
The know-all housekeepers
The still-grieving widower and his son
The tarot readers
The passionate academic
The persistent investigative reporter
The elder amateur sleuth, and her cat

An innocent game of murder-in-the-dark will turn into a real game of life and death. And by the time the first sherries have been drunk, one of these people will be dead - and one of them the killer. Someone has changed the rules, but who?

I really liked Ada Moncrieff’s past Christmas mysteries, because they were fun, a little bit classic (a country house mystery, no less, for the first one!) and easy to read. They weren’t too surprising in terms of methods and motives, but it’s sometimes enjoyable to just settle into a story where you know the rough shape of it, and let it unfold.

Along much the same lines, I enjoyed Murder at Maybridge Castle, though I feel like there was maybe a little something that didn’t work for me here. Maybe it’s just comparison with how quickly I read her other books, or maybe it’s the particular cast of characters — I don’t quite know. This one does also feature a repeat character, unlike before: Daphne King returns, with a wealth of references to characters we don’t see on the page, leaving me grasping to try and remember the details. I found that a bit offputting, to be honest.

The mystery itself unfolded more or less as I predicted, but I did enjoy the character of Mrs Threwley, and there were nice little moments of characterisation and dialogue that made things feel a bit more alive (such as the interaction between the father and son duo, and Mrs Threwley’s genuine care for her cat, Duke).

So in the end, it was fun, but I’m not quite as enthused as with previous years’ mysteries from Moncrieff. Which will in no way stop me trying out another, should she continue in this vein.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Christmas Card Crime

Posted December 22, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – The Christmas Card Crime

The Christmas Card Crime And Other Stories

by Martin Edwards (editor)

Genres: Crime, Mystery, Short Stories
Pages: 252
Series: British Library Crime Classics
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

A Christmas party is punctuated by a gunshot under a policeman’s watchful eye. A jewel heist is planned amidst the glitz and glamour of Oxford Street’s Christmas shopping. Lost in a snowstorm, a man finds a motive for murder.

This collection of mysteries explores the darker side of the festive season – from unexplained disturbances in the fresh snow, to the darkness that lurks beneath the sparkling decorations.

With neglected stories by John Bude and E.C.R. Lorac, as well as tales by little-known writers of crime fiction, Martin Edwards blends the cosy atmosphere of the fireside story with a chill to match the temperature outside. This is a gripping seasonal collection sure to delight mystery fans.

As ever, this collection of short stories from the British Library Crime Classics imprint is edited by Martin Edwards. It’s one of the older Christmas collections (I think the third, if I remember rightly), and includes stories by John Dickson Carr (under the Carter Dickson name) and E.C.R. Lorac — big names! There are some lesser known ones as well.

I think the story I’ll remember most is Julian Symons’; I don’t entirely love his work, it always seems a little too cerebral (which I’m sure he would’ve prided himself on, but I don’t read mysteries for that) and like he thinks he’s superior… but here in a short story that wasn’t so much on show, and there was something that just stood out about it, in the attention to detail, and the little sting in the tail.

Overall, it’s a fun enough collection, and as usual it’s fascinating to see a range of approaches through the chronological presentation of the various stories. I missed that in the newest volume, even though I hadn’t consciously thought about it before.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Mirror Lake

Posted December 19, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Mirror Lake

Mirror Lake

by Juneau Black

Genres: Crime, Fantasy, Mystery
Pages: 240
Series: Shady Hollow #3
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

A murder to solve. A reporter on the trail. Is this a case of mistaken identity?

Welcome dear reader! You have happened upon the delightful village of Shady Hollow, a place where rabbits and raptors, squirrels and snakes live together in civilised accord...with only the occasional murder to mar the peace of daily life.

Keen journalist Vera Vixen is recovering from the Harvest Festival (and its bounty of local cheeses, cider and pies) when the calm is shattered by a scream from one of the small town's grandes houses. Dorothy Springfield, a rat with a reputation for eccentricity, claims her husband - who is standing right next to her - has been murdered. Has Dorothy finally lost her grip on reality? Or is the rat who claims to be Edward an imposter? Vera's fox nose scents a story. And it's not long before the discovery of a body, minus the read, complicates things further...

Juneau Black’s Shady Hollow books seem to invariably end up being swallowed whole — by me at least. As with the others, I steamed right through it, enjoying myself all the way. As with the others, if you find the situation (the town of woodland creatures living in vegetarian harmony) inherently ridiculous and you’re unable to suspend your disbelief, then it won’t be so much your thing… and, once again, I found the mystery a little obvious. (I blame the fact that I’ve been training my brain on John Dickson Carr and other mystery greats.)

But that’s quibbling, because I personally still enjoyed it a lot. I’m still a little mad that the animals apparently don’t have a sense of smell, not even the creatures who would normally be trackers — it’d add a great extra dimension — but I’m trying not to argue with it, because I’m just having fun.

It helps that it’s a town of basically nice people. There are petty jealousies, of course, and here and there a murder or other crime (though it’s usually an outsider), but it just sounds like a nice place to be, and that makes it a nice place to read about. Vera and Orville’s romance is mostly sweet (without ever being saccharine), and Lenore is the best raven friend you could ever ask for.

Lovely escapism, and I refuse to overthink it any further!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Black Spectacles

Posted December 2, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – The Black Spectacles

The Black Spectacles

by John Dickson Carr

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 222
Series: British Library Crime Classics
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

A sinister case of deadly poisoned chocolates from Sodbury Cross’s high street shop haunts the group of friends and relatives assembled at Bellegarde, among the orchards of ‘peach-fancier’ Marcus Chesney. To prove a point about how the sweets could have been poisoned under the nose of the shopkeeper, Chesney stages an elaborate memory game to test whether any of his guests can see beyond their ‘black spectacles’; that is, to see the truth without any assumptions as witnesses.

During the test – which is also being filmed – Chesney is murdered by his supposed accomplice. The keen wits of Dr. Gideon Fell are called for to crack this brazen and bizarre murder committed in full view of an audience.

It’s still funny how I thought I really disliked John Dickson Carr’s writing, and now here I am inhaling his books in a day. The Black Spectacles has quite a bit going on, with the police detective getting deeply emotionally involved with the whole thing and Gideon Fell coming in all sympathy and understanding. He’s rather human for one of the Great Detective types, albeit you never learn much about his personal life or opinions outside of crime.

The crime isn’t the locked-room mystery that Carr specialised in, but it is an “impossible crime” — though I realised quickly what was up with that (a similar device used in a couple of other crime novels that I happen to like). It’s fun to work out what’s going on and why.

There is something rather dark about the motivations and the way a particular character is treated, that left me wanting a little more at the end of the novel — something to set the world properly to rights for her. Maybe an epilogue or something. But the mystery is resolved well.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Cold Clay

Posted November 28, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Cold Clay

Cold Clay

by Juneau Black

Genres: Crime, Fantasy, Mystery
Pages: 208
Series: Shady Hollow #2
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

It's autumn in Shady Hollow, and residents are looking forward to harvest feasts. But then a rabbit discovers a grisly crop: the bones of a moose.

Soon, the owner of Joe's Mug is dragged out of the coffeeshop and questioned by the police about the night his wife walked out of his life—and Shady Hollow—forever. It seems like an open-and-shut case, but dogged reporter Vera Vixen doesn't believe gentle Joe is a killer. She'll do anything to prove his innocence ... even if it means digging into secrets her neighbors would rather leave buried.

Juneau Black’s Cold Clay is another reasonably cosy mystery in the same vein as the first book: if you didn’t enjoy that, then you won’t find yourself charmed by this one, and if you did enjoy the first one, it’s likely your thing unless the conceit is wearing thin for you already. For me, it wasn’t: I was ready to suspend my disbelief once more, readily engage with the world in which a raven runs a bookshop and a moose a café, and get mildly outraged that the police bear would arrest a hard-working honest moose.

If that all sounds ridiculous, it may not be for you, but the book treats it as obvious (aside from a brief introductory page in which it advises not to get caught up on the how of it all), and it doesn’t get played as ridiculous. Really it’s just about people, except they happen to have some animal traits. Here and there I was annoyed that they didn’t use their animal traits a bit more (flying’s all very well, but some of you have noses, why did nobody ever hunt down a quarry by scent?), but mostly I just suspended my disbelief and settled in to enjoy.

I say it’s a “reasonably” cosy mystery because… I’m never entirely sure where the boundaries are on this one. Murder seems, by definition, pretty uncosy — but a lot of mystery fiction is really about that closure at the end, and saying “everything is going to be okay now”, which is profoundly cosy. Your mileage may vary, but I think this one qualifies.

As far as the actual plot goes, once again I was a bit ahead of the game and identified the culprit quickly, but watching Vera get there was entertaining as far as it goes. I could’ve done without the relationship drama between Orville and Vera — really, kids, just communicate! But all in all, I enjoyed myself once more, and quickly grabbed the next book in the series, the short stories, and the fourth book as well for good measure. I’m having fun.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Settling Scores

Posted November 27, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Settling Scores

Settling Scores: Sporting Mysteries

by Martin Edwards (editor)

Genres: Crime, Mystery, Short Stories
Series: British Library Crime Classics
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

Talented sportsmen inexplicably go absent without leave, crafty gamblers conspire in the hope of making a killing, and personal rivalries and jealousies come to a head on fields of play The classic stories in this new British Library anthology show that crime is a game for all seasons.

I thought I’d read these sporting mysteries (in this collection curated by Martin Edwards) in honour of the Rugby World Cup, the only sport I have so far managed to care about or even half-understand. The majority of these stories need no sporting knowledge at all to understand and follow; the sporting environment is just the backdrop. Even where you do need to know something, it’s fairly minimal.

It’s not a bad spread of stories, though the tone varies a bit (some stories feel rather brutal, and one involves spies and espionage, etc). Not one of my favourite collections, perhaps, but the sporting types might appreciate it a bit more. I did appreciate that it wasn’t just football and cricket stories or something — there was an archery story included, for example.

As ever, the collection is greater than the sum of its parts: it’s nice to read across a spread of the classic crime/mystery writers, and not just the biggest names, though there is (inevitably) a story by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Shady Hollow

Posted November 23, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – Shady Hollow

Shady Hollow

by Juneau Black

Genres: Crime, Fantasy, Mystery
Pages: 208
Series: Shady Hollow #1
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

The first book in the Shady Hollow series, in which we are introduced to the village of Shady Hollow, a place where woodland creatures live together in harmony — until a curmudgeonly toad turns up dead and the local reporter has to solve the case.

Reporter Vera Vixen is a relative newcomer to Shady Hollow. The fox has a nose for news, so when she catches wind that the death might be a murder, she resolves to get to the bottom of the case, no matter where it leads. As she stirs up still waters, the fox exposes more than one mystery, and discovers that additional lives are in jeopardy.

Vera finds more to this town than she ever suspected. It seems someone in the Hollow will do anything to keep her from solving the murder, and soon it will take all of Vera’s cunning and quickness to crack the case.

Juneau Black’s Shady Hollow fell into my hands right when I needed something to restore my faith that I actually enjoy reading and don’t just do it because I always have. In theory I was still fascinated by books, but in practice everything seemed a bit tedious — and then I came across Shady Hollow from someone’s Top Ten Tuesday blog post, and decided… I’ll just give it a chance.

In the end, it’s basically a mystery story like so many others… except that the characters are all animals. Our heroine is a fox, the police detective is a bear, the medical examiner is a snake, and the guy who sells everyone coffee is a moose. If you stop too long to wonder about it, you’ll get jolted out of the story — how does a raven turn the pages of a book, or a moose serve coffee? But you can just settle in and enjoy what there is, and the way the animals’ abilities occasionally give things a bit of flavour (like Lenore’s ability to fly), and the way the various different animals interact.

(And of course, of course, a beaver runs the sawmill. Of course.)

In the end, the mystery didn’t surprise me much, and I was a bit disappointed that while abilities like flight are used, it doesn’t mention scent at all. Vera’s a fox! There’s surely some degree of ability to track there — and Orville too!

But mostly I just had fun, and breezed straight through the book, and felt immensely grateful it fell into my paws — sorry, hands — right now.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Theft of the Iron Dogs

Posted November 21, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – The Theft of the Iron Dogs

The Theft of the Iron Dogs

by E.C.R. Lorac

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 284
Series: British Library Crime Classics
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

While hot on the heels of serial coupon-racketeer Gordon Ginner, Chief Inspector MacDonald of Scotland Yard receives word of an intriguing incident up in Lancashire – the summer cottage of local farmer Giles Hoggett has been broken into, with an assortment of seemingly random items missing which include a complete reel of salmon line, a large sack, and two iron dogs from his fireplace.

What first appears to Insp. MacDonald as a simple break-in quickly spirals into a mystery of contested land grabs for fishing between farmers, made all the more enticing to MacDonald when a body is then found in the river – the body of Gordon Ginner. It’s up to Insp. MacDonald, aided by the locals of Lunesdale, to determine who broke into Hoggett’s cottage, where his irons dogs have gone, and how Ginner met his watery end.

For my money, E.C.R. Lorac is one of the finest classic crime writers. She writes compelling mysteries with an amazing sense of place and setting, and characters who are enjoyable, if sometimes idealised. There’s a sense with her books that the mysteries arise out of place and personality, rather than coming up with a mystery and then inventing a setting to fit around it, which is probably true if Martin Edwards’ introductions about Lorac and her love for Lunesdale are true.

The Theft of the Iron Dogs returns to Lunesdale, in fact, and the mystery is only unravelled because the people of the area have habits, patterns and expectations which aren’t obvious to people from outside the area, meaning the cover-up of the crime isn’t as perfect as the perpetrator thinks. The story features Macdonald, of course, Lorac’s series detective, with his usual conscientiousness and care, and his sense of compassion for the people affected by his investigations.

It’s a slow one, country-paced, in a way that feels right for the place and the story. I really enjoyed this one, and though the crime itself is not terribly “cosy” (is any crime?), the overall feel is a pretty cosy, lower-stakes kind of story.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Seat of the Scornful

Posted November 17, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – The Seat of the Scornful

The Seat of the Scornful

by John Dickson Carr

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 240
Series: Dr Gideon Fell #14
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Judge Horace Ireton didn't care about the letter of the law. He was interested in administering absolute, impartial justice as he saw it. To some, his methods of meting out justice made him seem hardly human, for they were coldly calculated - the same type of "cat and mouse" technique that he used in his chess games with Dr. Gideon Fell, the elephantine detective. The system, as he explained it, consisted in "letting your opponent think he's perfectly safe, winning hands down: and then catch him in a corner." But the system was not infallible. One day Judge Ireton was found with a pistol in his hand, beside the body of his daughter's fiancé, a man he had every reason to dislike, as many people knew; and he found that when one was on the inside looking out, the game had to be played differently.

I really thought I disliked John Dickson Carr’s writing, and didn’t pick up most of his books republished in the British Library Crime Classics series. It seems I was wrong: after I enjoyed He Who Whispers, I decided to give a couple more a shot, and this is the first one I got to. It concerns a judge who is particularly merciless in court, dealing out justice according to his own sense of it, who becomes entangled in a murder case — the murder of his daughter’s undesirable fiancé.

It’s not the usual locked-room puzzle, but more of a puzzle of how people work, and how appearances can be made to serve one narrative or another. It has a bit more humanity to it than some of Carr’s other books (perhaps ones written earlier), and the characters feel a little more real, a little less like archetypes acting out their stories.

It made for a fun puzzle, at least, and I’m convinced enough to try reading John Dickson Carr’s other novels — clearly they can be either hit or miss for me, and must each be judged on their own merits, despite my run of bad luck with his other work that I’d read before.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Heads You Lose

Posted November 13, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Heads You Lose

Heads You Lose

by Christianna Brand

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 159
Series: Inspector Cockrill #1
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

Pigeonsford Estate is playing host to a group of close friends when one of their number, Grace Morland, is found dead in a ditch. The murder is made even more unusual by the fact that Grace was wearing her friend Francesca's hat, the same hat that only the day before she'd claimed she wouldn't be caught dead wearing. Inspector Cockrill has known most of the friends since they were children. They are all from good families and very close to one another; how, then, could one of them be a cold-blooded killer? And if one of them had murdered Grace which one was it and why had they done it?

Heads You Lose did some very interesting things, from my point of view: the sympathy with a particular character was genuinely affecting, to me at least, and I’m noting some patterns with her work that intrigue me. As a story, though, there were a few things that bothered me. It’s a bit spoilery to go into them in depth, so I’ll just start by saying that I think in the end I’d say it was worth reading, at least for me as a fan of this period of mystery/crime fiction, but I do have caveats and content warnings to go with that.

The main caveat is the fact that the plot hinges on the oft-derived trope of a mentally ill killer, one who has blackouts and commits crimes unbeknownst to himself. That means the third-person narration is sometimes a bit unreliable, as it sticks close to particular characters’ POV, and thus misleads the reader. You have to read very closely to catch the clue, and of course you’re not looking there for it.

I did think that the ending was rather better than the “psycho killer with blackouts” trope portended. There’s a lot of pathos in the ending for that particular character and how it comes about.

I would also note that there’s a Jewish character who is treated somewhat sympathetically, and yet at the same time with some anti-Semitic tropes. Of course this was common in the crime fiction in and around the Golden Age (Dorothy L. Sayers did similar in Whose Body?), but it’s worth knowing going in.

I am noticing that Brand doesn’t do much bringing her villains to justice. They usually die in some kind of appropriate way — not in the way that some other detective novels do, with a “you should write a confession and shoot yourself, or I’ll put the police in possession of what I know”, but still, they each die. It has less of a “detective as judge and jury” ring, and more like… “the universe will put things right, somehow”. Either way, an interesting thing to note, as I read more of Brand’s work.

Rating: 3/5

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