Tag: crime

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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Review – Mistletoe and Murder

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

Cover of Mistletoe and Murder by Carola DunnMistletoe and Murder, Carola Dunn

Well out of season, whoops! In this instalment of the series, Daisy’s found a new country house of potential interest to her readers, and has arranged to stay there over Christmas. Her mother, being overbearing and knowing that the place is owned by someone with a title, signs herself up to join them, leaving Daisy to juggle with two children (Derek and Belinda are both along for the ride), work, and a very displeased mother who expected the titled personage to be present and is furious with Daisy when she finds he won’t be. Oh, and of course: murder.

Daisy doesn’t actually stumble across the body herself this time, for a wonder, though I was constantly waiting for the moment when she would! So thank goodness for slight variations in the formula, even now the Fletchers are back in Britain. She’s indispensable, of course, with her knowledge of the house and of the squabbles between and potential motivations of the inhabitants.

It’s a fairly standard plot for a Daisy Dalrymple book, all the same, and honestly, perhaps that’s part of why I like them (even though I can’t read too many of them back to back because of that same thing). You know how things are going to go, Alec and Daisy are delightful, and in the end the right chickens are brought home to roost. It’s restful and familiar — in fact, cosy in its own way, despite the deaths and the complicated and acrimonious feelings between some of the characters.

It isn’t deeply thrilling or wildly exciting, and that’s what’s nice about it.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – A Talent for Murder

Posted June 16, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of A Talent for Murder by Andrew WilsonA Talent for Murder, Andrew Wilson

I was quite interested in this story based on what I know about Golden Age crime fiction, and about the mysterious disappearance of Agatha Christie for several days at one point in her life. As far as I know it’s genuinely still a bit of a mystery what happened during the days she was missing, and this story attempts to fill in the gaps, introducing a mysterious man who wants Christie to kill for him, and thus engineers her disappearance.

There are some aspects of this that are genuinely interesting — Wilson’s description of the helplessness and disgust his version of Christie feels when the man makes her dance to “Yes! We Have No Bananas!” is quite effective. For the most part, though, I felt like the handling was clumsy: details from Christie’s life, no doubt gleaned from her autobiography and other materials, are sort of shoehorned in to convince the reader that yes, this really is Christie, this is really is what happened. It doesn’t work for me — the “verification” is just a little too blatant. (Even if I can’t tell what’s real and what’s invented!)

What’s more, the tone — apart from a couple of scenes — didn’t much work for me. There’s something so bland and generic about it, even while Wilson is working with a rather colourful person. So all in all, I found it rather disappointing and after a hundred pages or so, I found myself putting it down for good without regret. The library can have it back, with pleasure.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Incredible Crime

Posted May 9, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of An Incredible Crime by Lois Austen-LeighThe Incredible Crime, Lois Austen-Leigh

The Incredible Crime takes place partly in the country and partly in Oxford, and mostly follows Prudence Pinsent, the daughter of the Master of Prince’s College. She’s a rather independent and strong-minded young women who takes care of her father and clearly has it in her to kick over the traces and do something truly scandalous one day. Meeting a friend by coincidence, he ends up confiding in her that there’s a drug problem — smuggling and sale of a really dangerous new drug, both in the estate of a relative of hers, and in Oxford itself. What follows are various red herrings, entwined somewhat questionably with a romance plot that came across as really outdated and unpleasant.

Suffice it to say that Prudence’s story is not solving the mystery, not figuring things out, not remaining the smart, strong-minded person who starts out the book — her character arc is to fall in love with someone who previously didn’t attract her, and to learn to “order herself meek and lowly” towards him, and understand him to be her superior and rightful master. No, seriously! There are aspects that are quite endearing — the guy in question is rather shy and unsure of how to court her, and gladly changes himself quite significantly in terms of personal grooming in order to attract her notice and to seem suitable for her. The changing for her is less cool, but the whole attitude he takes to it is rather sweet. But the way it plays out, with her learning to be humble because he’s so much greater than she is… Meh, meh, and meh again for good measure. Let’s skip it.

The mystery itself… you mostly worry about it resolving in a way that makes any of the nicer characters being at fault, rather than having much invested in the resolution of the mystery itself. The clues are fairly scarce and superficial; it doesn’t really work for me.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Ragged Alice

Posted April 20, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 8 Comments

Cover of Ragged Alice by Gareth L. PowellRagged Alice, Gareth L. Powell

Received to review via Netgalley

I really enjoyed the setting of Ragged Alice: Powell captures certain Welsh phrases perfectly, and I couldn’t help but smile at the phrasing “Owen the meat” — and wonder how other readers will feel about that and whether they’ll “get it”. Maybe if you’re not raised knowing that the undertaker named Dafydd (David) should be known as “Dai the death” (pronounced “Die”), this world is a little too foreign, for all that it’s just Wales.

There’s a lot of familiarity, though. It’s basically a police procedural, really, except with a supernatural element: DCI Holly Craig can see people’s souls, and she knows when they’re carrying guilt around with them. She’s come home to Pontyrhudd through her work in the police, to investigate a simple-seeming hit and run accident. But one murder turns into two, and there’s some connection to the horrible death of Holly’s own mother…

It’s more or less predictable in plot, to my mind, and I’m not sure I really quite understand why the ritualistic deaths were required. The ending felt a little sudden/contrived, as well. It’s an enjoyable novella and I wouldn’t mind more in the same world, but apart from enjoying the setting a lot (more Welsh books, please!), it didn’t stick out for me especially.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Clouds of Witness

Posted April 16, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. SayersClouds of Witness, Dorothy L. Sayers

Listening to the radioplay and watching the TV adaptation of Clouds of Witness with Lisa made me really appreciate the actual book all over again. Every detail that she quibbled in the radioplay or TV series had an answer in the book; Sayers really knew what she was about. (Which is not to say that she never dropped a brick, but she made choices in her books for good reasons, and adaptors of her work should pay attention to her intentions there. (I’m looking at you, whoever adapted The Nine Tailors for TV — never mind that you’re blatantly disregarding history by having the Spanish flu occur in the 30s.)

Anyway, the book itself: in this second book of the series, Lord Peter finds his own brother accused of murdering his sister’s fiancé, and has to rush back to England from Paris to help investigate what happened. The book isn’t short of physical peril for Peter: he nearly drowns in a bog, is shot by his sister’s other fiancé, attacked by a farmer, and flies from the US to the UK in a two-person aircraft to hurry back with evidence for Gerald’s trial. He gets to be a hero here for Gerald’s sake, and readers see more of his depth of feeling, sense of responsibility and duty, and of course his wit and brains.

People often think little of mystery books, and consequently of Dorothy L. Sayers, and it’s true there aren’t many mystery novels whose solution turns on the plot of an 18th Century French novel. Still, Sayers ensured there is at least one (and several other books with equally erudite references and plots).

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Whose Body

Posted April 3, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Whose Body by Dorothy L. SayersWhose Body? Dorothy L. Sayers

We were watching the Petherbridge TV adaptations again, Brexit is terrible, and it was that kind of day. Of course I gave into the temptation — threw myself into it, more like, from Peter’s first “oh damn” to the denouement. When I review a book over and over again like this, I start to think about new ways to approach the review: it’s no good me telling you every time that this book is the first book in Sayers’ favourite series, in which Peter investigates the mysterious discovery of the body of a vagrant, shaved and cleaned up to look like a wealthy man, found in an architect’s bath wearing nothing but a pair of pince-nez. You’ve heard that from me before.

So what really caught my attention this time was the fact that even here, with Peter being a new series detective, when a lot of other Golden Age novels settled for dealing with the puzzle and leaving the detective to enigmatically take care of themselves around the edges of the mystery, Sayers is doing interesting things. She discusses Peter’s character at length — the shell shock is a prominent feature, yes, but also she deals with the fact that he’s an aristocrat, and thus there’s something very public school about how he approaches crime. The scene between Peter and Charles during which they discuss the rights and wrongs of pursuing criminals is great.

What also struck me a lot this time is how casually anti-Semitic it can sound. There’s one line about Sir Reuben having “the shekels” to stop a deal that just… modern Twitter shudders at the phrasing. Sayers thought she was actually quite positive toward the Jewish characters, but… gah.

It remains entertaining, and I was glad to focus on the scenes that give Peter a little more depth — but I’m also excited to get to Clouds of Witness and onwards.

Rating: 4/5

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