Genre: Mystery

Review – Curiosity Killed The Cat

Posted July 10, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Curiosity Killed The Cat

Curiosity Killed The Cat

by Joan Cockin

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 276
Series: Inspector Cam #1
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Little Biggling: a village that had been taken over by The Ministry of Scientific Research during the Second World War ... and after the War the Ministry had stayed on, much to the annoyance of several of the residents. However, being annoyed was one thing, being murdered quite another. It seemed that one of the members of the Civil Service who billeted in the village had been a little too curious about everybody and everything in Little Biggling, and there was a terrible price to pay. Inspector Cam found that he wasn't getting much help in finding the person who had most to hide...

Joan Cockin’s Curiosity Killed the Cat was pretty good: set in the aftermath of WWII, but still echoing with it, as many of the characters are part of a scientific unit doing research related to the war/recovery from the war, and living with a lot of secrets and inconvenience. That made for an interesting setting.

The characters were enjoyable enough too: Inspector Cam isn’t too fond of working hard, and would rather stay an Inspector and avoid working on such big cases as murder — but he does his duty and works hard at figuring out the mystery, which makes him perhaps a little more real than detectives who just enter the stage as police officers without much real life around them. I wouldn’t say that the characters are all really fleshed out, but there’s enough there to be enjoyable, and to care about Charity and Robarts and Ratcliffe.

It’s hard sometimes to say what counts as a three-star or a four-star book, and to compare between books to figure out what to rate them. In the end, though, I kept wanting to read more, “just a little bit more”, and figure out the mystery, and I do want to read Cockin’s other books — so four stars it is.

Rating: 4/5

Tags: , , , ,

Divider

Review – Foreign Bodies

Posted July 1, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Foreign Bodies

Foreign Bodies

by Martin Edwards (editor)

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

Today, translated crime fiction is in vogue - but this was not always the case. A century before Scandi noir, writers across Europe and beyond were publishing detective stories of high quality. Often these did not appear in English and they have been known only by a small number of experts. This is the first ever collection of classic crime in translation from the golden age of the genre in the 20th century. Many of these stories are exceptionally rare, and several have been translated for the first time to appear in this volume. Martin Edwards has selected gems of classic crime from Denmark to Japan and many points in between. Fascinating stories give an insight into the cosmopolitan cultures (and crime-writing traditions) of diverse places including Mexico, France, Russia, Germany and the Netherlands.

Foreign Bodies, edited as usual by Martin Edwards, is an interesting addition to the British Library Crime Classics series. The series normally focuses on British work or at least work published in English, but this series of short stories is from the same era but in translation, by a range of writers that are much less familiar.

It was an interesting choice, and it was fascinating to see some familiar tropes and themes from a slightly different angle. I was horrified at the punctuation of two of the stories, and I don’t understand why it wasn’t edited — when you’re writing dialogue, the punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. It was really jarring to read. I don’t mean to be prescriptivist, but it jumps out because it’s so far out of the ordinary.

A fascinating collection, though to those who are purists about what should be included in the British Library Crime Classics series, undoubtedly an annoying aberration.

Rating: 3/5

Tags: , , , ,

Divider

Review – Death Came Softly

Posted June 24, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Death Came Softly

Death Came Softly

by E.C.R. Lorac

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 251
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

This crime puzzle features Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald, who is a “London Scot” and an avowed bachelor with a love for walking in the English countryside. But what will he make of the body found dead in a cave?

Death Comes Softly has a lot to recommend it; if it weren’t an E.C.R. Lorac book, it’d unquestionably be four stars, whereas as it is I’m weighing in the balance with her other books and wondering if four stars is quite fair. Sometimes when I’m reading classic crime, I’m just looking for a mystery with all the traditional bells and whistles, and that’ll be satisfying in and of itself. It feels like with E.C.R. Lorac’s work, I look for a little more.

Still, with her usual skill she summons up a landscape that feels beautiful, peaceful and real — and a group of characters who also feel like humans. Macdonald is, as ever, a fundamentally decent person, and Lorac’s usual ability to make her characters feel memorable and worth knowing is present too.

I tumbled to the why of the mystery quicker than the how, and feel like maybe it could’ve used a little more hinting. Mind you, maybe when it was written this kind of thing would’ve been more obvious. I’ve never handled a charcoal brazier at all, after all.

Rating: 4/5

Tags: , , , ,

Divider

Review – The Lost Gallows

Posted June 17, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – The Lost Gallows

The Lost Gallows

by John Dickson Carr

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

John Dickson Carr lays on the macabre atmosphere again in this follow up to It Walks by Night in which Inspector Bencolin attempts to piece together a puzzle involving a disappearing street, a set of gallows which mysteriously reveals itself to a number of figures traipsing through the London fog, and the bizarre suggestion that a kind of fictional bogeyman, Jack Ketch, may be afoot and in the business of wanton execution. An early gem from one of the great writers of the genre. Also includes the rare Bencolin short story "The Ends of Justice."

The Lost Gallows is, I think, one of John Dickson Carr’s earlier novels, so I went in with fairly low expectations — the melodrama and bombast of his other Bencolin books isn’t entirely for me, but he’s still a plotter of ingenious mysteries. I don’t know if it was because I went in fully prepared for that, or maybe I’ve learned more sympathy through enjoying his later books, but this one wasn’t so bad.

It is of course very colourful and highly dramatic, with some surprisingly prosaic explanations; it’s full of atmosphere, using the London fog as a device in a similar way (though a very different tone) to Christianna Brand’s London Particular. It’s funny thinking about how ubiquitous that fog was, and yet I can barely imagine fog being so thick, so awful.

If you like a bit of adventure in your mystery novels, this one has that as well — the narrator puts himself in the thick of things, and there are a couple of very breathless scenes.

It all ends up feeling almost too prosaic for the fantastic atmosphere, but it works out interestingly enough.

Rating: 3/5

Tags: , , , , ,

Divider

Review – Final Acts

Posted June 9, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Final Acts

Final Acts: Theatrical Mysteries

by Martin Edwards (editor)

Genres: Crime, Mystery, Short Stories
Pages: 347
Series: British Library Crime Classics
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

"… and what a motive! Murder to save one's artistic soul… who'd believe that?"

Behind the stage lights and word-perfect soliloquies, sinister secrets are lurking in the wings. The mysteries in this collection reveal the dark side to theatre and performing arts: a world of backstage dealings, where unscrupulous actors risk everything to land a starring role, costumed figures lead to mistaken identities, and on-stage deaths begin to look a little too convincing...

This expertly curated thespian anthology features fourteen stories from giants of the classic crime genre such as Dorothy L. Sayers, Julian Symons and Ngaio Marsh, as well as firm favourites from the British Library Crime Classics series: Anthony Wynne, Christianna Brand, Bernard J. Farmer and many more.

Mysteries abound when a player's fate hangs on a single performance, and opening night may very well be their last.

Final Acts is another collection from the British Library Crime Classics series, edited as always by Martin Edwards, and this time all themed around the theatre and acting. It’s a fun spread of stories, not all using the theatre in quite the same way, and as usual demonstrating a bit of a spread across time as well.

The one thing to note is that there’s a repeat story in here, by Christianna Brand. I’m not sure which other anthology it appeared in, or whether it was maybe included with one of her novels, and I’m also not sure (because of that) whether this is the repeat or the other is the repeat. Still, bit disappointing.

Still, as usual, a fun handful of stories.

Rating: 3/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – Murder in the Basement

Posted June 3, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Murder in the Basement

Murder in the Basement

by Anthony Berkeley

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 224
Series: British Library Crime Classics
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

When two newlyweds discover that a corpse has been buried in the basement of their new home, a gruelling case begins to trace the identity of the victim. With all avenues of investigation approaching exhaustion, a tenuous piece of evidence offers a chance for Chief Inspector Moresby and leads him to the amateur sleuth Roger Sheringham, who has recently been providing cover work in a school south of London.

Desperate for evidence of any kind on the basement case, Moresby begins to sift through the manuscript of a satirical novel Sheringham has been writing about his colleagues at the school, convinced that amongst the colourful cast of teachers hides the victim – and perhaps their murderer.

A novel pairing dark humour and intelligent detection work, this 1932 ‘whowasdunin?’ mystery is an example of a celebrated Golden Age author’s most inventive work.

Anthony Berkeley was a clever writer, and never one to rest on his laurels. I’m not a fan of his detectives, nor particularly the way he wrote female characters, but Murder in the Basement was structured really interestingly, and it’s not the first book by him that played around with structure which I’ve read. In this case, the middle section of the book is a fictionalisation of the chief suspects, written by Roger Sheringham before the crime was committed, and which allows us to begin to guess at the motives — and identity — of both murderer and victim.

I found it a little frustrating to go so long without being able to guess even who the victim was, and I’m not certain that part was really fair-play. But perhaps it’d have made it too obvious too soon to reveal it earlier…

Anyway, the story itself is fascinating, and Berkeley’s playing around with the rules of the genre as well, so it’s not the cosy and neatly contained package that some classic mysteries are. I definitely admired it, even as I wished he could just once like a woman and portray one positively!

Rating: 4/5

Tags: , , , , ,

Divider

Review – Eight Detectives

Posted May 26, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 1 Comment

Review – Eight Detectives

Eight Detectives

by Alex Pavesi

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 352
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

A thrilling, wildly inventive nesting doll of a mystery, in which a young editor travels to a remote village in the Mediterranean in the hopes of convincing a reclusive writer to republish his collection of detective stories, only to realize that there are greater mysteries beyond the pages of books.

There are rules for murder mysteries. There must be a victim. A suspect. A detective. The rest is just shuffling the sequence. Expanding the permutations. Grant McAllister, a professor of mathematics, once sat down and worked them all out – calculating the different orders and possibilities of a mystery into seven perfect detective stories he quietly published. But that was thirty years ago. Now Grant lives in seclusion on a remote Mediterranean island, counting the rest of his days.

Until Julia Hart, a sharp, ambitious editor knocks on his door. Julia wishes to republish his book, and together they must revisit those old stories: an author hiding from his past, and an editor, keen to understand it.

But there are things in the stories that don’t add up. Inconsistencies left by Grant that a sharp-eyed editor begins to suspect are more than mistakes. They may be clues, and Julia finds herself with a mystery of her own to solve.

Alex Pavesi's The Eighth Detective is a cerebral, inventive novel with a modern twist, where nothing is what it seems, and proof that the best mysteries break all the rules.

I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Alex Pavesi’s Eight Detectives is certainly a fascinating idea: the odd-numbered chapters are short stories, written in-world by one of the characters, which each have strange contradictions and illustrate a mathematical theory — the mathematics of mystery fiction, no less. One of the characters thinks that each story also holds a clue to a particular murder, and spends her time trying to pry into it and figure out the puzzle within the mysteries.

It all fell apart a bit for me with the alternative endings to each of the stories — too much recapping, and sometimes the story as you first read it makes more sense. Of course something like it is needed to bring the stories together and complete the puzzle around in the frame story, but it felt clunkily done. Maybe if there had been just one or two changed endings, or if the changed endings were shorter.

Also, it’s a silly thing to nitpick, but for some reason one of the characters says that nobody was interested in mystery fiction after the war, meaning World War II. I can’t tell if that’s supposed to be a genuine explanation (which would be ridiculous) or if it’s meant to be highlighting a certain character’s inconsistencies and lack of knowledge. I suppose I’d think better of it if it were the latter, and it would make sense given the givens, but hmm…!

It’s an interesting puzzlebox of a story, all the same.

Rating: 3/5

Tags: , , , ,

Divider

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

Tags: , , , , ,

Divider

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

Tags: , , , ,

Divider

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

Tags: , , , ,

Divider