Tag: mystery


Review – The Mystery of the Skeleton Key

Posted 14 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Mystery of the Skeleton Key by Bernard CapesThe Mystery of the Skeleton Key, Bernard Capes

I didn’t know anything about Bernard Capes before reading this, only that this was a reissue of a Golden Age crime fiction book, much in the same line as the British Library Crime Classics. Good enough for me, at least when I’m in the mood to tune out and just read an old-timey mystery: this pretty much delivered on that, though it’s hardly the most original or the most exciting of that line I’ve read.

It actually takes a long time for the story to explain why it’s The Mystery of the Skeleton Key; at times, I was actually tempted to check the right book was inside that slipcover! After a long preamble involving some of the characters meeting in Paris, and a bit of mystery about a Baron who plays chess for half-a-crown and frequents the oddest places, eventually there is actually a murder to be investigated. The wrong people are accused, the timings are all mixed up, and the son of the house (because if it’s not quite a country house mystery, it’s definitely set in a country house) is implicated because the girl who gets murdered — killed with a shot from his gun — was pregnant with his child.

In the end, the solution relies on coincidence, spurious old-fashioned science (a man inherits an injury-induced mannerism from his father due to the fact that his mother saw his father with the injury while pregnant with him), and various people not being quite who/what they say they are. I think it’s actually quite interesting in terms of who the culprit turns out to be — not a common solution, and against Knox’s Ten Commandments in a sense — but otherwise there’s not much to set it apart, and in tone it’s fairly dry and without any sense of urgency. My main feeling was mild curiosity, and that’s about it. Nothing terrible, but nor is it something I’d recommend.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Book of Hidden Things

Posted 11 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco DimitriThe Book of Hidden Things, Francesco Dimitri

I wasn’t sure about this book from the blurb, but some trusted reviewers (e.g. Mogsy of Bibliosanctum) thought extremely highly of it, and I kept seeing it on the shelves, so when I finally spotted it at the library I thought I’d give it a go. I have to say, I’m not sold on it, but I also feel like I need to talk through my thoughts before I really decide.

So, what’s it about? It starts with the Pact: a group of four friends, who knew each other from childhood and grew up in the same Italian town, have agreed that every year they will meet again in the same place, back in their hometown, to eat pizza and talk and stay in contact, no matter what. They can’t call each other to set it up, they don’t necessarily stay in contact in the meantime, but every year, they meet there. The first point of view character is Fabio, a struggling photographer who hates his hometown, going back only to see the others. He missed the previous year out of shame for his less-than-spectacular career, and he’s not entirely sure what’s going to happen.

Two of his friends, Mauro and Tony, show up just as agreed. Mauro’s a lawyer, married with kids, and Tony has since they grew up come out, while maintaining ties to his home town and especially his sister. Art… has not turned up. Worried that this might be linked to their friend’s mysterious disappearance as a child, which had the three of them suspected of murdering him and which he never could satisfactorily explain, the three start to dig into what happened to their friend, talking to the local crime group, the police, anyone who might have information.

The book walks a line the whole time between the supernatural elements and the mental illness explanation, and it’s up to the reader really which you decide it was. The four characters are all fairly unlikeable in their own ways: one can sympathise with Fabio half the time, and then he — well, that’s probably too much of a spoiler. Mauro and Tony aren’t wonderful either, although Fabio is the most annoying. They’re all such boys, too, trying so hard to be macho. It’s realistic, but I tend to prefer likeable characters if I haven’t latched onto the plot/world, and I didn’t really latch on here.

And Art… is a whole ‘nother thing. In the words of Marvel’s Bruce Banner, speaking of Loki: “That guy’s brain is a bag full of cats, you can smell crazy on him.”

In the end, I just didn’t love it, I think. There are some amazing bits evoking the area they’re in, the food, the sense of community. And there are great bits of interaction and banter. But in the end, the whole business of walking the line between fantasy and madness-based mystery isn’t an original one, and I’m not that interested in reading about people being depicted as crazy in stereotyped ways that explain why they go and kill. (Most violence related to mental illness is against the mentally ill person, not committed by them.) Meh.

I’m torn between giving it two stars because I really didn’t feel it, and being coaxed up to three because people did love it and I can see why… but in the end, I rate based on my enjoyment.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Lake District Murder

Posted 8 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Lake District Murder by John BudeThe Lake District Murder, John Bude

For all the praise of the series’ editor in the introduction, I don’t think Bude is that great a writer. His work is certainly enjoyable, but I found some aspects of this mystery painfully obvious, and he steers clear of having a particular character be front-and-center, totally indispensable in that Great Detective sense. His main character is a working man, and his prose is rather workmanlike to go with it. That’s not necessarily a criticism, and if you want to experience the Golden Age of Crime Fiction there’s no doubt it’s worth a read… but if you were to pick just one of the British Library Crime Classics, or just one Golden Age novel, I wouldn’t recommend one of Bude’s to be it.

This particular novel follows Inspector Meredith as he investigates the apparent suicide of a garage owner. There’s a few telltale hints, though, that the suicide might be staged: for example, the man’s hands are totally clean (when they should have been dirtied in setting up the suicide), and he’d lain the table for dinner, even putting the kettle on. As Meredith investigates, some kind of smuggling case becomes apparent in the background — something the dead man was involved in, and wanted to get out of.

The police spend most of the book stumped and trying various convoluted ways to figure out what’s going on, without figuring out a principle that occurred to me right away. I won’t explain what it is, of course — maybe you want the pleasure of working it out for yourself — but I really found myself rolling my eyes. Also, once the why was apparent in the form of this smuggling ring, the who and even the how were fairly obvious.

There are no sparkling characters who can’t be resisted, and to be honest I didn’t think there were any brilliant set-pieces describing the landscape, or delving into the human psyche. It’s just a mystery, moderately well investigated by a bland policeman, and moderately well-written. Not bad to while away some time with, but I couldn’t possibly describe it as unmissable.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Murder at the Brightwell

Posted 4 October, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley WeaverMurder at the Brightwell, Ashley Weaver

When I picked this up, I was looking for something cosy, a bit Kerry Greenwood-ish, a bit Mary Stewart-ish. Mostly crime, maybe some romance, probably a main female character being terribly capable. Most of my wishes were granted: the heroine might not be quite as striking as Greenwood’s Phryne, and Weaver’s writing certainly isn’t as evocative as Mary Stewart’s (particularly not of location), but it’s a nice nibble.

The story opens with Amory being surprised by two visits: one, from her somewhat-estranged husband Milo, last known to be gallivanting about the Continent and linked with plenty of other women, and the second from the man she jilted to marry Milo — a man to whom she’d been engaged. Thus the romantic stage is set: who will she choose? Who really cares about her: her husband Milo, or her ex-fiancé Gil? That tussle is the constant backdrop to the mystery, featuring the unexpected murder of Gil’s sister’s fiancé… whom Gil never did get along with.

It’s a pretty obvious setup, but that’s kind of why I found it a relaxing read. Amory isn’t super-prepared for everything or as in control as a character like Phryne, but she does wear some nice clothes, and isn’t obviously a terrible person (if a bit daft for ever trusting Milo, maybe). Milo isn’t as charming as you’re meant to find him (I’m not distracted from the fact that he hasn’t explained at all why he was away from Amory so long or why he’s suddenly interested again), but I wasn’t expecting astounding characters and complex arcs. Putting aside my critical eye and just relaxing with the story, I had a pretty good time, and I’ve picked up the other books (completely perfect to coddle me through the cold I’m suffering, ugh) from the library. If you’re into cosies, this is worth a look; if you’re not, this won’t convince you.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – And Then There Were None

Posted 28 September, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of And Then There Were None by Agatha ChristieAnd Then There Were None, Agatha Christie

I started reading this to pass a few minutes at the train station, and ended up reading it all in one go. I always forget that Christie’s work is so enjoyable — especially when she stays away from her series detectives (I can’t stand Poirot). She really could write a solid mystery, and I do intend to pick up some more of her one-off mysteries, and possibly also give Tommy and Tuppence a try. She has a way of setting out the scenario, the characters, and really drawing you in.

And Then There Were None features a very careful set-up: ten characters are drawn together on an island where they can essentially be marooned and prevented from calling for help. Slowly, it’s revealed that each one of them has a death on their conscience — a driving accident, treatment withheld from a dying woman, an operation performed while drunk, fellow-soldiers abandoned to die… Each one has their excuses, their reasons, and not all of these are revealed in one go. When they arrive at the island, they don’t know each other or why they’ve been called there, each brought there on false pretences: after their first dinner, however, they get a shock when a voice reads out their names and the names of the person (or people) they killed.

After that, they begin to die, one by one, according to the means specified in a sinister little nursery rhyme… Those remaining come to the conclusion (of course) that the killer is among them.

There are aspects of this which haven’t aged well: the original “Ten Little Niggers” rhyme has been expunged by now and replaced with “Soldiers”, but there’s also some unpleasantness about Jewish characters and about native peoples “not counting”. Some of that is character, of course, but some of it seems built rather unpleasantly into the narrative voice.

However, the solution of the mystery works pretty well for me (it all hangs together and makes sense, and we had the clues), and the feeling of horror/suspense is well built up. It’s an enjoyable read, if you can ignore the unpleasantness about anyone who isn’t white, British and preferably middle-class. (Not that anyone really comes off well in this book, but that group isn’t slandered for the sake of being that particular group.) It’s not exactly groundbreaking, although part of that is hindsight, but it does the job and it definitely held my attention for a solid hour or two of (mostly) enjoyment.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds

Posted 27 September, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Legion by Brandon SandersonLegion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds, Brandon Sanderson

Received to review via Tor

I read Legion ages ago — and then reread it sometime more recently, actually — but never got round to reading the second book, Skin Deep. Once I got my hands on this collected edition, though, it was inevitable: I might be a little late to the party (sorry, Tor; moving is a pain in the butt), but I absolutely raced through it once I did settle down to read. I didn’t stop or put the book down at all, and I’m sure my bunnies got away with murder while I was reading.

So what is Legion about? The main character is Stephen Leeds, but really he’s more of a cipher: it’s his ‘aspects’ that are really intriguing, something like voices in his head or a split personality, but not exactly. He is, as he says several times in the narration, something different — and he doesn’t consider himself insane, since he’s living a (relatively) normal life. That’s arguable, but the fact that he’s a genius and gets along pretty well using his aspects in many ways isn’t. When he needs to know something — speak Hebrew, understand theoretical physics, deal with crime scene investigation — he flips through a book or two on the subject, and a new aspect will join him, genuinely expert on the subject and able to guide him in his investigations. These books are mysteries, too, with a supernatural/science fictional bent. A camera that can take pictures of the past; using the cells of the human body as storage for information…

Through the mysteries, we get to know a little about Stephen and his aspects, and how they work: Ivy, repository of all his social understanding; Tobias, a walking encyclopaedia with a deep knowledge of art and architecture, always able to talk soothingly about something or other; J.C., a trigger-happy Navy SEAL, who knows security and weapons… and all the other aspects who play a more incidental role, like Armando (photography expert and megalomaniac who thinks he’s the king of Mexico), Ashley (far too comfortable with being imaginary), Ngozi (forensics expert) — the list goes on. It’s a fun cast, and Sanderson has been conscious to make the aspects pretty varied, while trying to be respectful of their apparent origins. Aside from the aspects, there’s also Stephen’s butler, who is impressively forbearing and clearly very fond of Stephen, despite the weirdness.

The mysteries themselves are a little light, definitely not the point of the stories, and I’m still not sure what I think exactly about Lies of the Beholder, the third (and final) novella. It’s not the ending I wanted, but it makes a certain amount of sense and answers various questions arising from the events of the previous two books (or less the events than the actions and hints of Stephen’s aspects during that time). It works; maybe I just didn’t really want my time with the characters to be over.

All in all, as a collection it’s very satisfying (perhaps less so if you only try the novellas standing alone), and I do recommend it. Excuse me while I go press my wife to read it soon

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Death of a Clone

Posted 21 September, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Death of a CloneDeath of a Clone, Alex Thompson

Received to review via Netgalley

This has been out for, um, ages now. I did actually start it as soon as I got it, and then I had my dissertation and moving and a thousand other excuses. When I actually sat down to finish it, though, it’s a very easy read and went by quickly. It was a little bit predictable to me, but it comes together nicely, and I do enjoy the constant references to Golden Age crime fiction (or at least Agatha Christie; now I think about it, I’m not sure whether any others were mentioned).

I probably shouldn’t say too much about it for fear of spoiling the reveals — it is kind of fun to just read and let things fall into place for yourself, after all. But I do find it weird that it has a lot of similarities with another recent book, One Way (S.J. Morden). There’s a slightly different angle, but nonetheless a lot of similarities, right down to the ending (which I peeked at in the case of One Way, which I haven’t quite finished). If I remember rightly they must have been being published at the same time, so it’s not a matter of plagiarism — just a kind of synchronicity, I think, but it definitely gave me deja vu!

Not bad, but nothing particularly astonishing either.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Verdict of Twelve

Posted 18 September, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Verdict of Twelve by Raymond PostgateVerdict of Twelve, Raymond Postgate

This book isn’t really about the crime itself, but about the jurors who sit to judge it in court. Each of them has their own experiences, some of them shadier than others, all of them changing the way they look at the woman in the dock. The mystery itself is wholly second to the examination of why each character decides to vote guilty or not guilty. It’s a clever story, albeit rather shallow — after a few characters on the jury, the author gives up really giving them backgrounds and personalities, because twelve is too many to really handle. It makes sense, but it also makes some parts of the deliberation of the jury rather perfunctory.

Overall, it’s clever enough and entertaining, if not massively difficult to figure out, or really all that good a psychological examination of juries.

Warning: one thing that may be distressing for some folks is that a pet rabbit is brutally killed (in a way designed to distress its owner). I honestly found that bit rather disturbing. Yeesh.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Big Sleep

Posted 11 September, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Big Sleep by Raymond ChandlerThe Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler

Whatever else you can say about Raymond Chandler, he was a hell of a writer. He didn’t use tired old imagery — I could probably easily find dozens of phrases and descriptions throughout his book which are specific, precisely calculated and completely fresh, without trying too hard in any way. That and the pace of his novels makes them just roll along at an incredible speed; I don’t always follow his mystery plots entirely, but I’m hooked on them.

Of course, his writing about women is just gross nowadays, objectifying and patronising and just plain unpleasant. There’s not too much that I recall of his racial politics either, but they come up in Farewell My Lovely, and are beyond gross. I don’t think calling him a man of his time excuses it, per se — it’s not that difficult to understand that other people are human, and bother to speak to them for five minutes. But I can’t help but enjoy his work anyway for his writing, for the way he sketches out Philip Marlowe and his reactions to the world around him so that all of it is very clear and in focus. I can almost visualise his scenes because he makes it so easy: you get an idea of what everyone is doing, without him taking a million words to do it.

Honestly, it’s wizardry. I can’t help enjoying it.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Death of a Busybody

Posted 29 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Death of a Busybody by George BellairsDeath of a Busybody, George Bellairs

This is exactly the sort of story you expect from the British Library Crime Classics reissues: a smallish village, a murder, Scotland Yard gets called in… it’s not astoundingly original or surprising, with an alibi that falls apart the second you realise that a certain fact doesn’t necessarily constitute an alibi at all — but it’s comfortable and it rolls along at a reasonable pace. Okay, there’s a madwoman (sigh) who commits violence, but even that’s pretty much par for the course and not something I consider a complete turn-off with classic crime fiction. There’s even a little funny vicar who does his best for his flock and is rather anxious and unhappy about testifying against a parishioner, etc, etc.

The writing isn’t the sort of level where you particularly take note, but it works… apart from maybe the phonetic accents. I could do without those. I wonder how comprehensible they even are to people who haven’t heard the actual accent.

So yeah, fun and worth the read if you’re interested in picking up something cosy-ish (I mean, sure, there’s crime, but nobody likes the victim, so that’s almost okay in these books). I’ll definitely happily read more of Bellairs’ work.

Rating: 3/5

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