I saw some really glowing reviews about Hekla’s Children, and particularly about its originality, so I picked it up despite some reservations about the story as presented by the blurb. There are some kids, check. They vanish mysteriously, apart from one kid who is found a few days later, in a condition as though she is starving — even though she wasn’t missing long enough for that to have been the case. And then a bog body is found in that rough location, yet one of the leg bones — dated to the right period — is nonetheless found to have been pinned to heal from a break using 20th century medical techniques… And this bog body was supposed to protect against some awful horror, which may now be free to terrorise people.
I’m afraid I found it really predictable from the start, and as in another recent read of mine (In the Night Wood), I wasn’t impressed by the stock male character who had his romantic prospects dashed (he was sleeping with a woman who was engaged to be married to someone else, but woe is him, she chose the other guy). Sympathy with him is rather key to the whole thing working and to not seeing the twists coming, so perhaps that’s part of why it didn’t work for me at all.
There were some aspects I felt positive about — there’s a section in the otherworld where a main character gets into a homosexual relationship, and that’s dealt with carefully and sympathetically in a way that works. But otherwise… no, fairly meh.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.