The Honjin Murders, Seishi Yokomizo, trans. Louise Heal Kawai
The Honjin Murders is a classic Japanese murder mystery in translation, drawing very much from the sort of locked room mysteries favoured by John Dickson Carr, whose books are even referenced in the story. A couple are slain on their wedding night, and a mysterious three-fingered man is implicated, though the room the two were in was locked from the inside and no one should have been able to gain access.
It’s a bit of an odd set-up, because the story is told by a writer of detective fiction who only finds out about the murder later — it’s written as if it’s a true crime story being reconstructed after the fact, which does at times give it a blandness. There’s no real urgency to it, though partly that’s probably due to the translation. Other than the fact that it’s in translation, it’s not particularly uniquely Japanese; there are kotos and katanas and tatami mats, but exchange a few details and it’s a book by John Dickson Carr. That might be an upside, for you… however, I’m afraid I don’t really get along with John Dickson Carr, though I persist in trying.
It was so deliberately referential and so distant from the action, it just didn’t really work for me.
The second Veronica Speedwell book is much like the first, with Veronica being asked to work to investigate a crime more or less at the whim of her newly discovered family, who are of course highly placed and quite able to make themselves a nuisance if she doesn’t do as they ask. Naturally, Stoker won’t leave her to investigate alone, though he’s more than a bit miffed that she’s agreed to the whole proposal.
Their delightfully adversarial friendship continues, and I find myself torn between them continuing to be more-or-less platonic besties and actually getting together oh my goodness please. It’s obvious that’s where they’re heading, but I find myself impatient for them to get there so I can see how they fit together. Some mysteries continue — what happened to Stoker’s wife? — and there are some new ones introduced in just the last few pages, revealing some more of Veronica’s tumultuous travels but mostly just hinting at the things she’s faced down before.
The mystery itself was fairly obvious, and so was the meta-mystery from the last book (who is pulling Sir Hugo’s strings?), but it remains fast-paced and highly enjoyable. The bond between Stoker and Veronica is what drives things, for me — their needling of each other, and yet their growing reliance on each other too. I’ll be picking up the third book, and soon!
A Curious Beginning opens with the funeral of Veronica Speedwell’s aunt, one of the two women who raised her under somewhat irregular circumstances. She is a foundling and illegitimate, and that’s all she knows of her family. She’s her own woman, interested in lepidoptery and very competent at taking care of herself, arranging expeditions to find butterflies, selling them, and submitting papers. She conducts her love affairs discreetly far from British shores, and is generally a rather anachronistic but appealingly independent character.
This translates at times into her being rather blasé, including about the raid on her aunts’ cottage she finds when she returns to the accommodation. She is met there by a man who helps protect her and then begs her to let him take her to London and keep her safe. To cut a long story short, this ends in his murder and her being thrown together with a foul-tempered naturalist (with nonetheless appealing looks, as we hear frequently), Stoker.
The plot itself… there were points where I literally said “what the fuck” aloud, in the last 50-100 pages. There are period trappings, but Veronica is a firmly modern protagonist, not so much chafing at the rules of her time as barely acknowledging they exist. This would normally drive me up the wall, so I wasn’t sure if I even liked the book… but given how fast I swallowed it down, I guess I did! It’s not great historical fiction, but it is rather fun as a mystery (and probable romance), as long as you go into it with the understanding that it isn’t really a period story, and that the characters aren’t exactly deep. They’re glossy and fun and forever moving, but they don’t have emotional depth, in my view; Veronica’s always so matter-of-fact that she breezes right past emotion, and we don’t get to see much of Stoker’s past to judge his brooding against.
This sounds like damning with faint praise, but I really did fly through the book and immediately pick up the sequel. It’s good fun.
Another British Library Crime Classic! Lorac’s work, as republished in this series, has been solidly satisfying for me, drawing sensitive portraits of people and places that make you care about the solution of the murder. It’s not a mere puzzle, as it can be in other crime fiction of much the same period. Fell Murder is solidly set in a particular landscape, which Lorac clearly loved and described in beautiful detail, so you can almost smell the hay and the damp earth and — yes — the cow sheds. It’s idyllic, even romanticised, and the characters are made sympathetic through their love of the land and their whole-hearted hard work. Even the crotchety old head of the family is dignified by his hard work and his fairness, despite his ruthlessness.
I found this a little slower than Lorac’s other work; I think because I could see who the killer must be far too soon, and thus didn’t appreciated the beating around the bush. In the final chapters of the book, I rather disliked Macdonald’s little gambit about Charles and Malcolm; what a needless risk, with more evidence due to turn up!
It wasn’t bad, and it definitely had its high points, but it didn’t totally work for me.
The second Brother Cadfael book is more deeply rooted in the historical period it’s set in, with everything in it being touched by the civil war between Stephen and Matilda. We see quite a bit of Stephen in this book, in fact, since he is actually in command of the forces that enter the town and kill the garrison. Cadfael gets himself involved first by sheltering a daughter of the local nobility (dressed as a boy and acting as a novice) and then by investigating the murder of the mysterious extra corpse hidden among the bodies of the garrison.
It’s an interesting and nuanced vision of the time; Cadfael is pretty non-partisan (which I believe was actually very difficult to maintain at the time, but he’s a fictional monk, so he can do as he likes) and ends up aiding both sides of the fight through his interest in individual people. I shouldn’t say too much about the characters, because it deliberately takes quite a while to figure out where everyone stands: I ended up feeling very affectionate toward one particular character, in a way that’s very cleverly done.
The idea of a monk solving mysteries sounds kind of gimmicky, perhaps, but the strong roots in the time help make it feel realistic and serious. Both mysteries so far have been uncontrived — a crime of passion in the first book, and this one in a historical framework where the death makes sense and the only wonder is that someone cares — and Cadfael getting involved feels natural. There are so many books in the series that of course it could get a bit Daisy Dalrymple-ish, but it helps that in Cadfael’s times everyone was closer to the fact of death.
(I don’t mean to pick on Daisy too much, because I genuinely enjoy Carola Dunn’s books, but by this point my only explanation for how many independent murders she manages to involve herself with is that some mastermind is tugging the strings to involve her “accidentally” in dozens of otherwise unconnected murders. I somehow doubt that Daisy has a Moriarty, though.)
Definitely enjoyable, and I do rather hope to see some of these characters again.
It’s been ages since I first read this book, but the series has always stuck in my mind — not least because it is the only series that both my parents have ever recommended to me. So after someone mentioned reading them on Pillowfort, I ended up grabbing the ebooks via the library (though none of the libraries I’m a member of has the full series, ugh) and settling down to a reread of the first one. I think I’ve read the second one too, but that might be where I stopped.
In any case, the Brother Cadfael books are mysterious whose main character is a Benedictine monk with a rather colourful past. Content now in the cloister, Cadfael nonetheless manages to get himself taken along to Wales on a small matter of stealing a local saint for the greater glory of the monastery. He’s Welsh, so he’s useful as an interpreter — and he understands the people and the passions stirred up by the Benedictine delegation. He has faith, but a cynical eye, and he doesn’t for a moment accept that gentle Saint Winifred is behind the dastardly murder of a local landowner.
It’s a fun little mystery; the characters are mostly more types than fully drawn people, but with a touch of Cadfael’s cynical view of them to enliven things. The genuinely pious but deeply ambitious Prior is well-done; we don’t see into his heart directly, but his actions and words lay him bare. Likewise, there’s something rather touching about Peredur and his thwarted passion for Sioned.
I do enjoy the setting in Wales, and the us-vs-them mentality that’s so quickly sketched out. It’s carefully dealt with, despite the temptation to put them at each others’ throats; there’s respect and a will to work together, alongside the misunderstandings and stiff-necked pride.
It all wraps up nicely — very nicely and conveniently, but in a way that’s enjoyable because it’s poetic justice — and Cadfael settles back into the status quo, napping through meetings and tending to his garden. Until the next mystery, that is.
Death at Victoria Dock opens with the death of a young man, shot at as Phryne drives past on a cold night. After he breathes his last in her arms, she obviously can’t let it rest — she decides that she must know why he was killed, and avenge him if she can. At the same time, she takes up the totally unrelated case of a missing young girl, meaning this book features the contrasting locations of an Anglican convent and a revolutionary hideout! It’s all pretty high-stakes, with kidnappings and shootings, and Bert and Cec wandering around armed.
It also features the first appearance of Hugh Collins. I did find the Catholic/Protestant drama in the show (what I’ve watched of it) contrived and a little annoying (I know it’s for the drama, but argh, they’re so sweetly uncomplicated in the books, and it’s nice), so it’s nice that he and Dot are both Catholic and all in all quite steady and without drama (although maybe they get it all out here with Dot’s kidnapping and the daring rescue).
As always, it’s an easy read; fairly light (though there is drama and death), and full of Phryne’s ingenuity and practical approach to all matters of life, death and in between.
I picked this up because it’s one of the British Library Crime Classics, of course, but also because I remembered one of the others in this series by Bellairs being pretty entertaining. Surfeit of Suspects begins with a bang, literally: dynamite is set off in the buildings of a small struggling joinery company, during a meeting of the directors. Scotland Yard get called in once the presence of dynamite becomes apparent, and Superintendent Littlejohn starts to pick his way through the tangled web of shell companies and marital mishaps to figure out what the motive might be.
It takes quite a long time to actually see the culprit; I never really suspected most of the potentials, though, because their motive didn’t seem clear enough, so surfeit of suspects is a bit of an exaggeration. There were lots of characters who could’ve done it, but you either suspected they didn’t have the guts or it was just too obvious and therefore obviously wrong. It’s not a bad set of thumbnail sketches of characters, though: you can almost smell the fug of old tobacco coming off some of them.
Bellairs was pretty workmanlike, and his writing is satisfying in that way I find specific to these Golden Age mysteries: you know that there’ll be no hanky-panky, you’ll find out whodunnit, and there’ll be a nice little puzzle along the way. The policemen are professionals, and there’ll be no intimidating of witnesses — though there might be (and there is) a clever scene in which the suspects are gathered to flush out the real criminal.
It’s a good thing I rate by enjoyment, rather than originality or any kind of objective measure like that, because I’d feel bad giving this a low score. If the formulaic nature of these Golden Age mysteries bothers you, most of the Crime Classics series won’t be for you; personally, there’s something very comforting about the world being put in its place. It’s all a mirage, of course — there never was a simpler time quite like this — but it’s a satisfying picture postcard of the past all the same.
Aaand straight on to the third book. This introduces two more steadfast characters, Ruth and Jane, along with a new adventure for Phryne featuring chloroform on a train, hypnotism used to pull young girls away from their families to be raped and abused, and a young girl with a strange gap in her memory… It opens on the train, with Phryne waking to the smell of chloroform and desperately shooting a hole in the window to get fresh air in. She ends up taking under her wing a woman who was badly burned on her face by the chloroform, and agreeing to investigate the murder of her mother.
That gets her into all kinds of hot water, and into personal peril as well, with a horrible struggle between Phryne and the murderer at the climax of the book. It also brings her two adopted daughters, a cat, and a new lover. The fond amusement of her household is a joy, and as always she’s competent and (mostly) fearless and in control. When she doesn’t know what to do, she fakes it ’til she makes it.
It’s hard to keep describing these books in different ways, because in many ways they’re the same: it’s the cast of characters that makes them a joy. Bert with his secretish heart of gold; Cec with his love of waifs and strays; Mr Butler, with the right cocktail always on hand; Dot, who couldn’t be more different to Phryne, but adores her all the same…
It’s a little found-family, so of course it pulls on my heartstrings.
Apparently, all I feel like reading at the moment is the Phryne Fisher books, all rereads for me — and that’s fine with me. This one is the second, and it features a couple of mysteries at once: the kidnapping of a young girl called Candida, whose father recently won a large sum of money, and the death of a man whose wife asked her to “do something!” about her son’s vague threat to “remove” his father. Red herrings a-plenty, of course, as Phryne plunges in with her usual ruthless practicality. Gain the respect of the angry son by doing a controlled dive in an aeroplane and then walking out along the plane’s wings? Fine. Tie herself to the back of a car? Yep.
As always, she’s fashionable, well-fed, well… made-love-to, and capable of the most amazing feats of derring-do without batting an eyelid. There’s also an interesting little portrait of a man swept up in something criminal more or less against his will; I feel like his story isn’t wholly plausible (if he objects so much to certain aspects of the job, why did he agree at all?), but I enjoyed him and his protection of Candida nonetheless. Sometimes it’s nice to think that people aren’t all bad, and Mike gives us a chance at that.
One of the odd things that I noticed and really enjoyed this time through is also Phryne’s appreciation of Candida’s teddy bear; there’s a whole paragraph which shows she fully understands the importance of the bear. As someone still very much attached to my childhood teddy (or teddies, in fact, though I did have one main friend, Queen of all the others), I appreciated this bit a lot — and it makes one like Phryne all the more, if you have a bear of your own whose judgement you trust.