The Santa Klaus Murder is a competent but (for me) uninspiring mystery; I don’t know whether I’m just reading too many Golden Age crime novels at the moment, and should therefore stop — but then, I don’t think I absolutely loved the other book I read by Mavis Doriel Hay, so perhaps it’s just that. In any case, it’s another case of Christmas in a dysfunctional family, with a controlling patriarch and issues of inheritance looming.
It is told in an interesting way, at least at first, with the opening chapters being different points of view on the early events of the story written by the characters, and that’s a sort of exercise in sketching out characters that’s pretty entertaining. It doesn’t sustain that through the book, though; the later chapters are all from the perspective of the investigator.
Not really sold on it, in any case; it felt a little like going-through-the-motions, and I found the misdirection onto a particular character obvious and rather silly. Not one that worked for me, in the end!
It felt only right to pick this up around Christmas, given the title. Obviously crime books aren’t usually too full of the warmth and joys of Christmas, and so it proved again. Chief Inspector Brett Nightingale gets called out to the home of a Russian emigré, an old woman who seems to have been killed in her sleep and any valuables taken. The valuables turn out to have been very valuable indeed, so a meandering case starts to unfold involving a collector, a perky and pretty girl who works as an assistant in the shop, the old woman’s son, and various red herrings strewn about liberally. The main character is Nightingale, with some glimpses of his subordinate, Beddoes.
(There is a moment which made me laugh where Beddoes realises that Nightingale’s first name is actually David, and his name is Jonathan. I think that’s the allusion which is being made, anyway. Slightly raised eyebrows, given the often homoerotic interpretations of David and Jonathan these days. Not sure that’s what Kelly was going for.)
Overall, “meandering” is really the word that comes to mind. There’s a rather confused action-y bit at the climax, but that part also features a pages-long explanation from Nightingale, for the benefit of the collector, on what might be driving the Russian emigré’s son. It all seems really disorganised and hard to follow, although whodunnit is painfully obvious all along.
It’s engaging enough for a quiet afternoon, but I was hardly in love with it, and I wouldn’t say it’s one of the best of this series.
Things have fallen apart between Elspeth and her long-term partner, so she heads home to her mother, only to find a murder investigation ongoing practically in the back garden. Haunted by what she saw when she checked it out, she looks through her books to discover why it’s so familiar, and finds that it’s a recreation of scenes associated with the local mythology of the Carrion King. She teams up with a childhood friend (now a police officer with a rather slack notion of what should be kept from the public) to dig into it, writing articles for the local paper along the way, and stumbling across more than her fair share of the bodies.
Overall, I found the plot kind of predictable; the mystery side was obvious pretty early on, and it didn’t make much of the tension between ordinary everyday policing and the actually supernatural events. That’s kind of left hanging at the end: the characters agree that there seem to be more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in their philosophy, and then… end of book! I’ve got the second book, and I’m curious enough to dig in, but I’m not overly enthused. I wonder if this might work better for someone who isn’t as steeped in crime fiction as I am? (Because okay, I like my Golden Age crime fiction, and you won’t have anything of this sort in Dorothy L. Sayers, but I did do a module on Crime Fiction during my BA, and I read a lot of Ian Rankin growing up.) For me, the marriage between genres was a rather distant one, tilted toward the crime fiction end, where it wasn’t exactly the freshest doughnut in the box.
Oddly enough, I also found the emphasis on Elspeth’s music choices rather disruptive as well. I don’t know most of the singers/bands mentioned (except Bowie), so if it’s meant to set the mood, it’s totally lost on me. I’m not going to put the book down to spin up Youtube to glean whatever clues to the character’s mental state or the tone of the chapter might be in the music choices.
Peter’s a bit of a non-entity so far, to be honest; Elspeth likes him, but I’m weirded out by the lack of professionalism in giving evidence — interview tapes from people being accused of serious crimes! — to a reporter, childhood friend or not. Elspeth herself… I have no objections to her, but nor am I wildly enthused.
The thing is, although this is all very lukewarm, I read this book in about four sittings tops over the course of 24 hours. It went down easily and I never considered putting it down. That’s worth something, with my current mood (around me lie at least 14 unfinished books, and I haven’t been reading regularly for several weeks now). It’s not that it’s a bad book, but I wanted more from it to be really enthusiastic. I’ll be interested to see what the second book does for me!
I think there’s only one other British Library Crime Classic that I seriously considered just… not finishing, so this book isn’t in the most ideal of company. It opens with the murder, very quickly reveals the murderer, and then goes on to fill in the details of the murderer’s frame of mind, subsequent actions, and eventual end. The ‘portrait’ is both what the book itself does and a plot point… and also mostly why I dislike the book. The murderer in question is to be sympathised with (as the introduction claims), but I can’t find any sympathy for a man who expresses this sort of sentiment:
It was ridiculous, it was pathetic, it was abominably wrong that a man capable of such work should be grinding out his life in a draughtsman’s office.
Yes, we get it, you’re an artist, that’s nice. That doesn’t make you a saint or entitle you to anything. But the narrative sort of agrees with him, with the more sympathetic members of the family being very sorry for him that he’s going to be caught. He’s abusive to his wife, neglectful of his child, kills his father in a rage, forges himself a cheque to take his father’s money, and then cold-bloodedly frames an innocent man (not a good man, but innocent of the crime of murder at least)… but we’re supposed to see his eventual death as a tragedy.
Nooope. Not down with this. Do not pass go, do not collect £2,000 as the winnings of murder, do not try to claim murder is ever justified in this facile way.
The writing itself isn’t bad, though occasionally tending towards the purple and/or grandiose (though the latter is appropriate when writing from the murderer’s POV), but the choice of where the narrative’s sympathies lie… nope nope nope nope nope.
Oof, not a big fan of this. The reason is pretty clear from the glowing introduction: this is a rather comedic take on the murder mystery (strike one), with little recourse to realism in the way the crime is detected and handled (strike two). It’s all about the cunning dialogue and the funny asides about the father and son duo (one a policeman, one a reporter) as they stumble around overcomplicating the crime, ignoring leads, and misreading the situation. Some of the dialogue is alright, and I can appreciate some of the cackling at the dynamic duo, but it just got old really fast for me.
Your mileage may vary, however, if you’re a fan of comic stories. There’s some snideness about the theatrical profession and marketing in general; there are some witty parts; and honestly in the end I’m glad they muff it all up, because I didn’t like either main character. It wasn’t a horrible read — not one I felt the need to abandon. But neither was it something I enjoyed.
And damn it, no one gets to be in that position in Scotland Yard without some basic crime scene handling skills, even in the time this is set.
This is another in the British Library Crime Classics series, and it’s an interesting one: it opens with the opening of the trial, backtracks through interpolated sections of the investigation, and doesn’t reveal the accused until the end, referring to them elliptically right up to the last possible moment. This leaves things a little confused at times, but it’s an interesting way of going about a mystery story and telling it in a fresh way. I’ll admit, part of the interest here was in following just how Hull did that, stylistically, more than the plot or characters!
It is interesting in terms of plot, as well. It goes the whole hog with the traditional Golden Age despicable victim, and everyone involved has, well, excellent intentions. It doesn’t really delve into the psychology of that, though, just presents it as a rather unique motive for murder.
It doesn’t stand out for me as one of the more engaging reprints in this series, but it was definitely interesting.
I’ll admit, I mostly picked this up because the idea of mystery stories in and around museums fascinates me, and the second book is set in the British Museum! Naturally, I had to pick this one up first anyway. It follows the work of a private inquiry agent, Daniel Wilson, who is asked to help investigate the discovery of a body in the Egyptian room in the Fitzwilliam Museum. He teams up with Abigail, an Egyptologist working at the Fitzwilliam Museum, to figure out what’s going on.
I thought the police detective did a bit of a 180 on his attitude to Daniel; he went from being an Inspector Lestrade or Inspector Sugg type character to being quite accommodating and friendly, without much real evidence for why that would happen. It was definitely odd, and there was a similar shortcut in the relationship between two other characters — all of a sudden, they were deciding to get married, despite not really courting or anything like that. There’s also a rather odd tolerance of women as prostitutes or being “ruined” for the time period, and in particular the main character is rather idealised. Calm and level-headed and quick-thinking when he needs to be, but conveniently passionate when the love story needs it. Meh. It all felt a bit rushed, and the characters rather mercurial and volatile — that’s how it felt, rather than that they were passionate; that they kept going from absolute 0 to 60 in seconds, just for plot/relationship development reasons.
It’s a smooth enough read, but I won’t be reading the second book after all, I think. It’s very much trying to hit that Golden Age note, I think, but it really doesn’t manage to in terms of the period elements. Things like the votes for women or men’s unfavourable attitudes to women all feel somewhat pasted on; everyone’s fine with Abigail until it’s convenient to show Daniel being passionate about her, etc. Everything lacked depth.
Weekend at Thrackley is a country house mystery of a sort, but not exactly the cosy comfortable sort. It’s clear fairly early on that the host of the party is a crook, and up to no good, and there’s something very sinister about all the proceedings. I have no idea why the editor of the series refers to this as being like The Red House Mystery, because the tone is utterly different — there might be a couple of points where the style is similar, but really I don’t see much similarity between the two books at all. It’s also an odd duck among the British Library Crime Classics: there’s no murder case per se.
Our Hero is Captain Jim Henderson, who seems chronically underemployed and lodges in a boarding house. One morning he receives a mysterious letter from someone he’s never even heard of who claims to be a friend of his father’s. Intrigued, and definitely up for free food and drink and entertainment for a weekend, he accepts the invitation. Turns out one of his buddies is going too, so they head down there together. The house is odd and secluded, but full of all kinds of comforts, so they settle in. And then… things start to happen, of course. It’s an intriguing set up, and though I had a guess about one of the enduring mysteries, I wasn’t positive until the end.
There’s a love story, of course, and in true Golden Age style it proceeds at a massive pace and doesn’t really reflect much on how real relationships work. There’s some fun dialogue, and like I said, it’s far from a cosy: there’s a genuine sense that people might be murdered any minute, and it’s surprising that the body count ends as low as it does. The story is rife with useful coincidence, but all in all it’s entertaining and a fun read.
This book begins by establishing the character of a little Devonshire farming area, and a young man who comes to settle there and work on the land after having to leave the army before the end of the Second World War. He’s a quiet man, but conscientious, with a love of hard work for the right purpose. The first couple of chapters establish that he’s well thought of, that he gets along with his neighbours, and his efforts on the small piece of land and cottage he leases are painstaking and well done.
In the fourth chapter or so, however, it jumps to a police inquiry into this man’s death. It looks like an accident, but the carelessness that would allow such an accident seems unlike the man, and it also seems unlikely that he — trained as a Navy man — would sleep through the fire to be burnt alive in his cottage. People are reluctant to believe that it could be murder, but likewise find it difficult to square the idea of him being careless… and Macdonald (Lorac’s series detective, though he doesn’t have much characterisation from book to book — they can be read in any order) is inclined to agree that there’s something strange going on.
As in Lorac’s other books, the order of the day is slow careful detection: speaking to the people involved, checking up on all the details, and piecing together the larger picture. It takes a while to come into focus, but it all comes together beautifully — and damn, this one is sad, because the victim sounds like a genuinely lovely person who was just trying to make a life ready for the woman he loved.
Each of Lorac’s books has a great sense of place and atmosphere, and while this one is quieter than her London-based books, the same applies here. You can almost smell the earth. It’s beautifully done.
I had a frazzling week or so there, and so naturally I turned to Dorothy L. Sayers for comfort. (You’ve all heard the story about when my mother used a Lord Peter audiobook to calm me down when I came out of anaesthesia after an operation, by this point, I’m sure.) Unnatural Death is a very clever story which I’ve never really considered a favourite, even though it contains so many things I love: Miss Climpson and the cleverness of her characterisation; quite a lot of banter and partnership between Peter and Parker; and yes, that ingenious murder method that puzzles Peter until almost the end of the book.
It begins in a restaurant: Peter and Parker are debating whether doctors report things they suspect to be murder, or whether any number of murders might be going unsolved and almost unsuspected. Peter says that doctors risk their livelihoods by making accusations, and someone overhears and breaks into their conversation to say it’s happened to him. Naturally Peter’s fascinated, and decides to look into it — and finds that by acting, he actually causes the killer to take further actions, intending to hide their tracks.
The murder method used is indetectable, even on autopsy, and the motive is completely unclear as well: the obvious suspect does not appear to benefit at all by the death of her elderly aunt. Nonetheless, Peter’s sure this is the perfect murder — a well-executed murder which almost defies detection — and he’s completely fascinated. It’s a bit ghoulish, honestly, and a little more examination of the mayhem he’s caused might be warranted on Peter’s part, but it makes for a fascinating story all the same. The motive and means are both ingenious, and we get some delightful bits of dialogue and character sketches along the way.
In short, though it doesn’t have a big hold on me as a sentimental favourite, nonetheless is a solid and clever read.