Strong Poison, Dorothy L. Sayers
Featuring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey, Peter Jones as Bunter and Gabriel Woolf as Inspector Parker
For some reason, I can’t find the name of the person who voiced Harriet, and my Audible file doesn’t seem to include that intro. Blast. Still, Strong Poison is mostly not about Harriet, and she appears comparatively little — really, it’s about Lord Peter getting to be a knight in shining armour, and he really starts escalating toward sainthood in his actions here, how he comes to save her and doesn’t push and so on. If you look at it with a cynical eye, it’s all rather obvious lionising of the character.
Still, if you’re a fan of Lord Peter, you can lay that aside and just enjoy him sleuthing away on the trail of the real murderer, plus his sudden feelings for Harriet. The voice acting is excellent, as usual: Ian Carmichael is the perfect Peter, and there’s an awesome little scene with Inspector Parker about Mary which I just had to listen to twice for the fun of it. The adaptation is pretty good, with most details preserved — even down to whole sections of piffle from Wimsey and his mother, and the exact content of various scenes — and though the mystery is a little trimmed down here and there, I think you could almost switch off between the book and the radioplay scenes without losing anything in understanding.
Fair Game, Josh Lanyon
Fair Game is reasonably typical of Josh Lanyon’s books, which is to say it delivers a mystery plotline twinned with the life of a non-stereotyped homosexual protagonist, without dealing solely with his love life (for example, in this book, Elliot’s relationship with his father is another key point — it isn’t just about him and Tucker, although it is about that too). Elliot is an ex-FBI agent who is rebuilding his life after a suspect shot out his knee, and I enjoy the fact that his physiotherapy is mentioned, that he can’t just get up and go go go as if he were still an FBI agent, even though emotionally that is something he hasn’t come to terms with yet.
The mystery itself, well, I guessed where it was going solely because I found a particular character irritating, after one or two red herrings. But that isn’t rare for me, and I was still interested in how Tucker and Elliot worked it out.
I really enjoy Tucker’s character, too. To begin with, he seems like a macho guy who maybe doesn’t want to accept that he’s gay or deal with his feelings, but in fact he’s readier to do so than Elliot is. He’s willing to put himself out there, to apologise for what he’s done wrong, to make the effort to meet Elliot more than halfway. It makes a nice contrast to the couple in Lanyon’s Adrien English stories, for sure. (And the sex scene did not contain any metaphors which made me spit my drink, which is also an improvement, entertaining as those could be.)
I need to get round to reading the sequel, Fair Play; I do like the couple, both individually and apart, though I’d like to see more of Tucker and his life where it doesn’t revolve around Elliot or his job.
The Surgeon, Tess Gerritsen
Originally reviewed May 7th, 2012
Trigger warnings: rape, mutilation, medical details (both descriptions of stuff like cancer and descriptions of accidents/operations).
That had to come first, because I spent much of this book wishing I had something firm and indestructible to crawl into, to keep me safe. The details are just horrifying — it reminds me very much of my experience with Val McDermid’s work. And, as with that, I had to read to the end to find out who the killer/torturer was, before I could begin to feel okay again. (The part of me that’s done a course in Crime Fiction remembers that the end of a crime novel typically ends with the criminal being contained or killed, and therefore that provides a feeling of safety and the reassertion of the rules of society, for a reader.)
I wasn’t really a fan of the characters’ attitudes to rape. The idea that rape makes the victim belong to the attacker in some way is just repugnant, and the idea that what makes a woman a woman is their womb is just — ugh. It seemed to be an ongoing theme in the story, rather than an opinion expressed by just one or two of the characters.
Overall there was a lot that upset/troubled me, and despite Sasha Alexander being in it, I don’t think I’m going to watch the tv series. It’s not actually a bad crime/mystery book: it’s very good in that sense, and I’d recommend it to people who like, for example, Val McDermid. But it was just not the kind of thing I should be reading at all, and I’m going to steer clear.
Death Among the Marshes, Kathryn Ramage
Death Among the Marshes is quite short — more a novella than novel — and essentially a modern take on the Golden Age staple of a country house mystery. The detective, Freddie, bears some resemblance to Sayers’ Lord Peter, in his aristocratic ties, his war-buddy turned valet, etc, and indeed Ramage references Freddie reading Dorothy Sayers’ work, which made me smile.
Unlike the Golden Age country house mysteries, though, this novella is quite frank about the existence of gay people; one couple come under suspicion as their family tries to put a wedge between them and persuade them to be more socially appropriate, and there are possible hints that Billy, Freddie’s manservant, might have feelings for him. All the characters are well-drawn and, if not exactly likeable, understandable in their support of each other, their squabbles, their faultlines.
I found Death Among the Marshes enjoyable and well-structured, and I’ll definitely read any other books by Ramage which feature these characters. This review does more justice to it than mine, I think!
A Surfeit of Lampreys, Ngaio Marsh
There’s stuff to like about A Surfeit of Lampreys; the character portraits, the commentary on the family, the fact that it brings in Bathgate and ties some of that stuff together… but overall, I’ve totally lost my motivation to read Ngaio Marsh’s books. There’s a same-y feel to them, the characters aren’t nearly as brilliant as, say, Dorothy L. Sayers’, and it comes out feeling a little too heavy and flat, with not enough payoff. The mysteries are intricate, but everything just unravels so slowly.
I know other people think Ngaio Marsh is amazing, and I did enjoy some of the earlier books, but Inspector Alleyn feels kind of stale now.
Murder and Mendelssohn, Kerry Greenwood
The last Phryne book so far! Not quite sure what I’ll do without her; in fact, I’m vastly tempted to just pick up Cocaine Blues and begin again, the same way I do with Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter books, sometimes. Murder and Mendelssohn is a strong entry in the series because of the side characters, who no doubt most readers will recognise — the war-damaged John Wilson, and the genius investigator Rupert Sheffield.
They very much follow the BBC Sherlock interpretation of the characters, and if you know anything about the fan community surrounding that show, you can guess what Greenwood does with them. It’s a little weird at times because it feels downright voyeuristic, but of course Phryne plays Cupid and makes Sheffield realise that, in fact, he can’t live without Wilson and that — though he never realised it — he’s attracted to him, and even possessive of him. There is a very… weird scene involving Phryne and Sheffield, and really that whole side plot might not attract readers who aren’t so interested in queer love stories, but I think Phryne’s tenderness for her former lover was compelling, and their shared memories of the war likewise.
The main mystery was not so compelling, relying on Phryne’s sparkle; as usual, Greenwood’s Australia, or at least Phryne’s circle there, are full of queer people, unexpected people, big characters… and small petty killers, too, of course. I figured out the murder method very quickly — I’m trying to think if I read a similar plot somewhere else, or something like that. To me it was just way too obvious, somehow.
I’m very sad to leave Phryne behind, all the same: the mysteries might not always have enchanted, but Phryne and her found family certainly did. I’ll be first in line if there’s ever another book in the offing.
Hasty Death, M.C. Beaton
Hasty Death is very much like the first book in tone, style and mystery. A series of coincidences seems to be all that keeps the characters from disaster — one particular chain of lucky coincidences involving a corpse who becomes unidentifiable before being found constitutes a whole side plot which just doesn’t feel satisfying, because it relies so much on sheer luck. Likewise, the detective skills of Harry Cathcart and Lady Rose are about on that level: it’s a wonder they manage to get anything done, but fortunately they’re a bit more intelligent than the police superintendent, Kerridge, so they do propel the plot along somewhat.
Despite that negativity, it is quite fun to read. I knew it was paper-thin the whole time, of course, and even the will-they-won’t-they of the love story is conducted with the same chain of coincidences (this time involving misinterpretation and misunderstanding, of course). And yet. It’s light enough fun.
Unnatural Habits, Kerry Greenwood
Unnatural Habits is one of the more memorable entries in the series, in that it has a lot of social commentary and some really appalling details which are, as far as I can tell, historically accurate, like the laundry run by nuns, the lying in homes where unmarried women had their babies and they were taken away, white slavery, etc. There’s also some interesting stuff with the Blue Cat Club — a gay club which apparently really existed — and the newspaper office where Polly Kettle, wannabe ace reporter, works. Phryne gets into quite a lot of trouble in this one, and the expanded circle of her minions, including Tinker, stand her in good stead.
The book also has the delightful side plot that someone is going around in a nun’s habit, knocking men out, and very skillfully and carefully operating on them so they can’t have any more children, in cases where they mistreat their wives/children, don’t provide for them, etc, etc. It’s problematic, of course, because it’s an assault, but it’s also just glorious poetic justice in a fictional context, so I don’t feel too bad for laughing about it.
The ending is predictably dramatic, and Phryne predictably kickass in bringing things to a neat conclusion. And I love the glimpses we get beyond her armour in her reaction to the laundries and what she sees in the lying in home.
Dead Man’s Chest, Kerry Greenwood
Dead Man’s Chest takes Phryne from the comforts of her own home to an attempted holiday, much in the vein of Peter and Harriet’s honeymoon in Sayers’ Lord Peter books, that is to say: a busman’s holiday. For all that, it’s a reasonably relaxed mystery, without too many dead bodies or late night attacks. There’s one or two nastier elements, but for the most part it focuses on Ruth getting to play house. In fact, the nastier element is almost entirely glossed over…
In this book, a new character joins the cast, and I rather hope he’ll be a recurring one. Enter Tinker: a young boy who spends most of his time gadding about and isn’t any too clean or conscientious, until Phryne gets her hands on him. He quickly finds a place in the household, and it doesn’t feel forced; I quickly found myself interested in what Tinker was up to and what was going to happen to him. (And poor Gaston, the dog.)
Some of the usual elements are missing here — I don’t think there’s a single sex scene? — but for the most part, it’s what you’d expect from a holiday with Phryne. It captures the feel of a long warm day pretty well, too — and I’d say you can almost taste the gin and tonic, but I have no idea what that tastes like (and not much inclination to find out).
I think these books have essentially stopped surprising me at all, and instead become something comforting that comes out more or less as I’d expect, and deals with characters you can mostly sympathise with and like. There’s a place for that kind of reading, and I’m not disparaging it at all: it’s just that the Miss Fisher mysteries do somewhat lose their spice as they go along, because you get used to it.
Murder on a Midsummer Night, Kerry Greenwood
Murder on a Midsummer Night is not the most striking entry in the series, but if you’re here for Phryne and her found family, her lavish lifestyle and her relationships with the people around her, it’s just what you’d expect. Lin Chung gets to use some of his talents from past books, setting up a creepy seance using his magician’s tricks, and Dot has her own sleuthing work to do on one case, while Phryne deals with another.
At this point, I find the mysteries themselves relatively forgettable: it’s Phryne I read for, her unflappability and good sense, her ability to see right through people and situations. And her family, of course: Jane’s fascination with all things biological, and her interest in becoming a doctor in particular.
Well might people complain that Phryne is too perfect, too privileged. But really she’s the answer to Lord Peter, with an extra heaping of sexuality and feminism. She’s supposed to be impossibly awesome, and it shows us that female characters can be too. I won’t complain!