Genre: Mystery

Review – Who Killed The Curate?

Posted January 1, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – Who Killed The Curate?

Who Killed The Curate?

by Joan Coggin

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Pages: 228
Rating: one-star
Synopsis:

Meet Lady Lupin Lorimer Hastings, the young, lovely, scatterbrained and kind-hearted newlywed wife to Andrew, the vicar of St Marks parish in Glanville, Sussex. When it comes to matters clerical, she is rather at sea. Nevertheless, she is determined to make her husband proud of her.... or at least not to embarrass him too badly.

When, on Christmas Eve, Andrew's unpopular, blackmailing curate gets himself murdered, things all get a bit (hilariously) overwhelming for poor out-of-her-depth Lady Lupin:
"Who was in your sitting room during that interval? Say four-thirty on Tuesday, and ten or eleven yesterday morning?"
"If you had ever lived in a vicarage you wouldn't ask questions like that; people just walk in and out all day long. When Andrew asked me to marry him, he said he was afraid I should find it very quiet here, and what he meant I can't imagine! If I wanted quiet I'd rather retire to the Tower of Babel with a saxophone."

Lupin enlists old society pals Duds and Tommy Lethbridge, as well as Andrew's nephew, a British secret service agent, to get at the truth. Lupin refuses to believe that Diana Lloyd, 38-year-old author of the children's detective stories, could've done the deed and casts her net over the other parishioners. But all the suspects seem so nice - very much more so than the victim.

I was hoping to enjoy Who Killed The Curate?, which is a Christmas mystery by Joan Coggin reissued by Galileo Publishers. I’d hoped to find some more fun classic crime fiction by checking out the books reissued by them, but in this one at least I was pretty disappointed.

It starts out hopefully, with a witty playfulness about it, but it quickly becomes apparent that it’s all going to be that way — and that in part it’s going to be that way at the expense of the characters, particularly Lupin, the female lead. She’s quite silly, gets herself in ridiculous and unlikely tangles, and for someone with second-hand embarrassment issues, it was absolutely excruciating. Would you really get godfather and grandfather mixed up, so totally you don’t actually know the difference between them? And not just that, but also guys and guides? And just making totally inappropriate conversation everywhere —

Aaargh!

All of that made it decidedly unenjoyable to me, unfortunately. If you have a bit of a thicker skin you might make more of it, but I just couldn’t get myself past Lupin in order to enjoy anything else.

Rating: 1/5

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Review – Silent Nights

Posted December 30, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Silent Nights

Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries

by Martin Edwards (editor)

Genres: Crime, Mystery, Short Stories
Pages: 287
Series: British Library Crime Classics
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

Christmas is a mysterious, as well as magical, time of year. Strange things can happen, and this helps to explain the hallowed tradition of telling ghost stories around the fireside as the year draws to a close. Christmas tales of crime and detection have a similar appeal. When television becomes tiresome, and party games pall, the prospect of curling up in the warm with a good mystery is enticing – and much better for the digestion than yet another helping of plum pudding.

Crime writers are just as susceptible as readers to the countless attractions of Christmas. Over the years, many distinguished practitioners of the genre have given one or more of their stories a Yuletide setting. The most memorable Christmas mysteries blend a lively storyline with an atmospheric evocation of the season. Getting the mixture right is much harder than it looks.

This book introduces of readers to some of the finest Christmas detective stories of the past. Martin Edwards’ selection blends festive pieces from much-loved authors with one or two stories which are likely to be unfamiliar even to diehard mystery fans. The result is a collection of crime fiction to savour, whatever the season.

Silent Nights is another anthology of crime/mystery stories in the British Library Crime Classics series — edited as always by Martin Edwards. I think this may even have been the first one in the series, which means it contains an Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock story (Conan Doyle being conspicuous by his absence from the more recent anthologies, presumably owing to running out of Holmes stories that fit the theme) and even a Dorothy L. Sayers story.

It’s a fun collection, with a couple of authors I’d be curious to read more books from (such as Marjorie Bowen). I raised my eyebrows a bit about including back-to-back stories by the same author, one under a pseudonym… but they’re somewhat different in tone, so it didn’t feel too samey.

As ever, it’s a collection greater than the sum of its parts, which is a phrase I’ve typed about these anthologies so often that perhaps I should just assume people will take it as read. Each individual story is mildly entertaining, some more questionable than others, but as a group they’re an interesting cross-section. Or archaeological dig through time, really, since they’re in chronological order…

Rating: 3/5

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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 – Who Killed Father Christmas?

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

Review – Who Killed Father Christmas?

Who Killed Father Christmas? And Other Seasonal Mysteries

by Martin Edwards (editor)

Genres: Mystery, Short Stories
Pages: 264
Series: British Library Crime Classics
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

'The red robe concealed the blood until it made my hand sticky. Father Christmas had been stabbed in the back, and he was certainly dead.'

The murder of Father Christmas at one of London’s great toy shops is just one of many yuletide disasters in this new collection of stories from the Golden Age of crime writing and beyond. Masters of the genre such as Patricia Moyes and John Dickson Carr present perfectly packaged short pieces, and Martin Edwards delivers a sackful of rarities from authors such as Ellis Peters, Gwyn Evans and Michael Innes.

The answer to any classic crime fiction fan’s Christmas wish – and the only way for you to answer Who Killed Father Christmas? – this new anthology is set to muddle, befuddle, surprise and delight.

I think this is the first of the British Library Crime Classics anthologies I’ve read that’s themed around Christmas, though there are three or four others. As usual, it’s edited by Martin Edwards, and features a spread of different authors (within the volume, there are no repeat authors, though many of them have been seen in the other anthologies). This is a rare one without a Sherlock Holmes story, and unlike the usual habit, it’s not arranged in order of when it was written/published, but instead with an eye to increasing the sense of variety between the stories.

I have to say that I probably prefer the chronological order, because part of my interest is in the development of the genre (I studied it during my undergrad, and can’t quite turn off that part of my brain — it adds to the interest for me, so I don’t see why I should). I can’t say that it felt particularly more varied than the other volumes, either.

I was a little shocked by the inclusion of a modern story (from the 90s): it seems a bit early to call that a classic. I was a kid in the 90s, and I’m only in my 30s now: it’s not that long ago. I know some stories are “instant classics”, but with this series I’m really expecting a certain period and a certain fit with the themes of that period — not that style etc through the eyes of a more modern author. So, hmm.

Anyway, it’s a fun seasonal volume. Crime is crime, no matter the time of year, so it’s not exactly about the joy and bounty of the time of year, mind you — but if that’s your cup of tea, you’ll have fun.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Phantom Pond

Posted December 10, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Phantom Pond

Phantom Pond

by Juneau Black

Genres: Fantasy, Mystery
Pages: 57
Series: Shady Hollow #3.6
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

In the woodlands around Shady Hollow, there’s a legend about a mysterious creature known as Creeping Juniper. According to local lore, she’s a sort of witch who dwells deep in the woods, casting spells on the shore of Phantom Pond. It’s a harmless old tale, until a prank goes wrong. When a young creature goes missing, all the clues point to Creeping Juniper. But to solve the mystery and rescue an innocent victim, Vera Vixen and her friends need to find a place that doesn’t appear on any maps. Can they discover the location of Phantom Pond before it’s too late?

Phantom Pond sees Juneau Black’s Shady Hollow in the throes of another holiday. It’d have been perhaps more appropriate, seasonally, to read these the other way round, because Phantom Pond is set during Mischief Night, when pranks and scares are all in good fun, and young beasts spend their time costumed and looking for treats.

The story takes a slightly more serious turn than some of the other books — murder is dire, of course, but the disappearance of a child (apparently kidnapped) is a bit harder to take. This remains a cosy story (I’ll say now that the child comes to no lasting harm), but it feels a bit more serious for a while there.

I felt like it wrapped up a little quickly, after the slow patch in the middle of ratcheting tension as the searchers fail to find any sign of the missing squirrel. But it was fun, and expanded the horizons of Shady Hollow just a little, just enough to see some of the creatures who might live on its edges.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Evergreen Chase

Posted December 5, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Evergreen Chase

Evergreen Chase

by Juneau Black

Genres: Fantasy, Mystery, Short Stories
Pages: 32
Series: Shady Hollow #3.5
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

It’s the winter solstice in Shady Hollow, that magical time of year when creatures of all shapes and sizes come together to honor the season and eat as much pie as possible. Reporter Vera Vixen is eager to experience her first holiday in town and is especially looking forward to the unveiling of the solstice tree. But then disaster strikes. The year’s tree—the tallest in the forest—has disappeared without a trace. Can Vera, her best friend, Lenore, and Deputy Orville Braun find the tree and save the season? Or will this year’s solstice be especially dark?

Evergreen Chase is a short story in Juneau Black’s Shady Hollow mystery series, with a slightly lower-stakes mystery that’s appropriate for the winter season. The creatures of Shady Hollow are due to celebrate the winter solstice with the proper pomp and circumstance — traditions many look forward to all year — when the tree ear-marked to stand in the centre of town is… stolen?! How do you steal a tree?

As ever with this series, the culprit is fairly easy to guess, and even more so because of the length of the story. It’s still a good chance to check in on some lovely characters, and to experience the cosy charm of Shady Hollow for a little longer. The denouement is predictably satisfying: needless to say, the world is set to rights.

I think one of my favourite things is actually the characterisation of Lefty, a raccoon who’s always up to no good… but tries not to do too much bad either. Petty larceny is about the size of it, and when someone’s spoiling the season, Lefty’s doing his best to help. Quietly. Sneakily. And don’t tell anyone!

Rating: 3/5

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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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