Tag: crime

Review – Weekend at Thrackley

Posted October 18, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Weekend at Thrackley by Alan MelvilleWeekend at Thrackley, Alan Melville

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.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Fire in the Thatch

Posted October 11, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Fire in the Thatch by E.C.R. LoracFire in the Thatch, E.C.R. Lorac

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.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Unnatural Death

Posted October 10, 2019 by Nikki in Uncategorized / 2 Comments

Cover of Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. SayersUnnatural Death, Dorothy L. Sayers

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.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Murder by Matchlight

Posted October 7, 2019 by Nikki in Uncategorized / 0 Comments

Cover of Murder by Matchlight by E.C.R. LoracMurder by Matchlight, E.C.R. Lorac

This is one of the British Library Crime Classics, and I think one of the better ones in some ways. Lorac is really good with invoking at atmosphere, and this one has the fear and feverish activity of London during the Blitz down so pat you can feel it. Some of the scenes in the darkness gave me… not quite a shiver, because they weren’t exactly creepy, but a breathless suspenseful feeling, and she really makes the most of that. She also uses that mid-war setting to shape the story: things are possible because of the darkness, because of the deaths, because of encounters in air raid shelters…

It’s not stunningly original, and it gets a little tortuous in avoiding really clueing you in as to who committed the murder, but when everything unfolds and the mystery’s all told, it hangs together well and you’re a little relieved that the likable characters come out of it okay. At some points it does actually genuinely conjure up a little anxiety about that: things look so bad for them, maybe they’ll be hauled off to jail… Though the detective is also intelligent, which alleviates that some.

Definitely good enough that I had no hesitation about picking up the rest of the republished books by Lorac! It’s not brilliant, but it’s exactly that kind of comfortable I expect from the British Library Crime Classics.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Red House Mystery

Posted October 6, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Red House Mystery by A.A. MilneThe Red House Mystery, A.A. Milne

It seems weird that the author of Winnie-the-Pooh also wrote a fairly classic murder mystery, complete with amateur detective and his Watson, but there you go. Antony, the amateur detective, shows up more or less coincidentally at the Red House because his friend Bill is staying there, only to find himself immediately involved in the finding of a body, the brother of the home’s owner. The owner of the house is missing, and his faithful cousin/solicitor/man-of-all-work Cayley holds down the fort while the police investigate, obligingly dragging the pond and searching the railways for the missing man. But Antony’s very observant, and can replay in his mind everything that happened, and he notices a few inconsistencies…

It’s one of those stories where I quickly jumped to some conclusions that turned out to be right, but had to wait for the story to work itself out to figure out why it was right. There was some witty dialogue and the mystery isn’t bad, but it’s not one that will stick in my mind. I find that having finished it just yesterday, there’s not that much to say about it. It was okay, and the detective was okay, and I rather liked Milne’s introduction explaining quite firmly that he had written the kind of detective story he thought was worth reading (no forensics, just cool deduction!). I think the forensics can actually add a whole extra line of misdirection under skilled hands, and don’t need to exclude the reader from understanding, so I disagree with him — but it’s an interesting perspective.

Anyway, overall not impressed, but it was fun enough while I was reading it.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The October Man

Posted September 30, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The October Man by Ben AaronovitchThe October Man, Ben Aaronovitch

This is a novella set in the world of Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant novels, but taking place in Germany. Tobias Winter is Peter Grant’s equivalent in Germany, apprentice to their one remaining practitioner in much the same way as Peter is Nightingale’s apprentice. The story rumbles along with much the same formula: mysterious death, Tobias is sent in, has a local sidekick/liaison who does not really freak out about magic, and slowly they pick apart the weirdness and unravel what’s going on. Lots of the elements are clear enough if you’ve read the main series: sequestration, genii loci, etc.

It’s not that it wasn’t a fun enough read, but the voice was so similar to Peter Grant’s that it leaves me wondering whether Aaronovitch can do any other characters, really. It was solid in itself and yet weirdly disappointing because it doesn’t bode well for me to keep enjoying the books — it felt predictable, not just in plot but on a line-by-line basis.

I enjoyed Tobias’ competence as a cop, and Vanessa isn’t a bad character either. But… I don’t know, it mostly left me cold.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Documents in the Case

Posted September 26, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L. SayersThe Documents in the Case, Dorothy L. Sayers

Somehow, I’d never read this one! Well, I have now. This showcases all Sayers’ usual eloquence and flair, and also her tendency to become enamoured of a set-piece that encapsulates a character and carry it on for pages at a time. Jack Munting’s letters to his fiancée are sweet, but they could probably been edited down a smidgeon, and some of the key scenes are likewise rather over-elaborated.

It’s a fascinating format, particularly when it sticks to the letters — it’s a little disappointing when it switches to a long statement, narrative-style, as if anybody ever actually remembers dialogue in such detail. It feels like she got tired of the format and had to round it off with a good long section of narrative just to make life easier. Still, I do love the way she teases out the conclusion, and the fact that it is based on an understanding of chemistry and right/left-handed molecules. Brilliant.

I do have questions about some of the characters: mostly lots to side-eye when it comes to Agatha Milsom, whose institutionalisation is never shown to us directly. It’s hard to judge if she’s actually mentally ill to a great degree, or (more likely) mostly just inconvenient to everyone. Sayers is rather harsh on her — as is Libby Purves, who wrote an introduction to this edition — but it seems to me that she is commenting on something real in the relationship between Mr and Mrs Harrison that other people don’t see. It isn’t the whole story, but the whole idea of her developing a monomania is so very Golden Age and so very irritating as an explanation.

In any case, it’s entertaining and clever, and there are some great character studies. Worth a read, even though it’s not an absolute resounding success on all fronts — it’s pretty darn entertaining despite that.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Smallbone Deceased

Posted September 22, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Smallbone Deceased by Michael GilbertSmallbone Deceased, Michael Gilbert

The preface to this is very effusive in its praise, declaring this one of the best mystery novels of all time. I wouldn’t go that far, but it does work well: the body of a trustee for a particular fund is found in the deedbox of that fund, in a solicitors’ office in Lincoln’s Inn. The body is discovered, somewhat decomposed, shortly after the death of the head of the firm, and a new lawyer at the firm ends up being drawn into the investigation. There are essentially two detectives, working away partly together and partly alone: Inspector Hazlerigg, the police detective, who works methodically, and Henry Bohun, an insomniac with remarkable genius (etc, etc — you can imagine the type of super special amateur detective being described) who can turn his hand to anything he wants to. The obvious solutions turn out to be easily, demonstrably wrong; motives are murky; and, of course, that Golden Age standby… it could be any of us, everyone at the firm thinks.

In many ways, this reminded me of Murder Must Advertise — not because of the plot, per se, but it because it is set in a context of utter familiarity to the writer. The characters are total fictions, of course, but the way they interact in the office is drawn from an intimate knowledge of how offices work… and how, in particular, a law office might work. (There are similarities with Murder Must Advertise in the sense of the team dynamics, as well, but there are also differences.) There’s a realness to the characters and relationships that makes the whole thing work so much better.

Of course, one is led totally up the garden path and there’s a dramatic reveal, but it didn’t annoy me in the way that John Dickson Carr’s books have done (to pick on an example I just reviewed). Instead of being revealed in a set-piece of revelations spilling out to the whole cast, people come to their realisations piecemeal, and the moment of drama is largely off-screen.

Definitely enjoyable; glad I have two more of Gilbert’s books lined up.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – It Walks By Night

Posted September 22, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of It Walks By Night by John Dickson CarrIt Walks by Night, John Dickson Carr

This is my second attempt at reading John Dickson Carr’s work, and I think it’s safe to say I’m unlikely to become a fan. This is, like The Hollow Man, a locked room mystery, and this version contains a short story which is a third locked room mystery. In It Walks By Night, we’re presented with a scenario: the re-marriage of a woman who was formerly nearly killed by her insane husband, to a man who seems nothing at all like him, taking place shortly after her first husband has escaped custody and undergone plastic surgery. He could be any one of their acquaintances, hidden amongst the party with them on their wedding night… And somehow, in that busy house, in a locked room, the new husband is killed by the old.

The French detective Bencolin is already on the case, and making key observations from the start. It’s very much a Holmes-and-Watson situation, with an English gentleman playing the part of Watson to his mentor Bencolin, a friend of his father’s. It all gets very involved, and the detective makes numerous ominous pronouncements, telegraphs ‘this is an aha! moment’ all over the place, and generally seems somewhat supernatural in his ability to find and piece together clues. None of the characters really stand out; to me they felt like cardboard cutouts, with the author attempting to give them life through melodrama.

In the end, we get so many preoccupations of this period — the killer is among us! anyone could be mad and we might not know! drugs! casual sex! — that I feel like I could’ve filled out a bingo card. The by-the-numbers sort of love scenes didn’t work for me, and the moments that were meant to be intense left me cold. And of course, at the denouement, the detective reveals all with a dramatic recital, forcing a confession, etc etc etc.

Meh. I will admit that there’s a certain febrile atmosphere to the whole thing which does work quite well, but overshadowed every other emotion in the book. It’s readable, and I followed along dutifully to find out how the magic trick (the answer pulled from a plethora of disconnected cues) would be done, but I didn’t like it.

I do think the fact that it was originally sold with the ending parts sealed in the book is a very interesting gimmick. I’ll bet few people actually tried to claim a refund (which you could get if you returned the book without breaking that seal) because the seal comes at an infuriating point where, if you’ve sat through it this far, you might as well find out how it comes together.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Body in the Dumb River

Posted September 15, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Body in the Dumb River by George BellairsThe Body in the Dumb River, George Bellairs

As with most of the British Library Crime Classics, this is very readable and entertaining for what it is: a piece of Golden Age crime fiction by a competent writer, with the usual sort of mystery with a solid policeman methodically tracking down whodunnit. I don’t read these reissues because I’m expecting a forgotten masterpiece, so I wasn’t disappointed!

The Body in the Dumb River deals with the death by stabbing of a man who travels around Britain working a hoop-la stall. His assistant and lover must be questioned (in a rather sympathetic scene, without drama), and so must his wife and children — for whom the idea of him running a hoop-la stall is a pretty distasteful surprise. The scenes with his actual family are rather less sympathetic: the murdered man was henpecked, driven to distraction by his indolent, lazy wife, and his wife’s family are all pretty unpleasant.

As I said, it doesn’t stand out above the crowd, but it was a quick and enjoyable read for what it is.

Rating: 3/5

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