The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Dorothy L. Sayers
There’s no book in this series that doesn’t have its pleasures, and there is much wittiness and cleverness and warmth in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club… but to me, it isn’t one of the more distinctive of the series. When I think about individual elements, like the way it throws Peter into confusion around potentially betraying one of his own class (a fellow sufferer of shellshock, too), it seems pretty good… but it doesn’t shine for me.
It particularly bothers me that I don’t think Sayers ever really examined her noble hero’s tendency to try and let people take their own way out (i.e. suicide) by warning them or talking them into it. Of course, Peter’s not wrong in the people he accuses, and we know he never really will be because Sayers made him a little too perfect… but if he were real, he could be wrong, and justice would not be served if that happened, and he caused someone to confess and take their own life because they felt backed into a corner.
I think that’s a big part of my unease with this one, and this time I reread it I actually stalled on it for quite a while!
I quite liked a previous book by Julian Symons, and this had quite a similar feel: more literary and polished than some of the other crime novels in the British Library Crime Classics series, which just attempt to be good stories. And another experience has led me to conclude that, well… I don’t really like his work, on balance: I find it has a certain self-conscious feel, a knowledge of its own cleverness, that I find somewhat offputting.
That’s more the case with this one that with The Colour of Murder: the narrator is an older man recounting something that happened when he was just barely an adult, describing his naive young stumblings-about and pretentiousness with an older, more temperate eye… and in the meantime showcasing how very clever he was in some ways (like wordplay and random intuitions to dash across to France). The tone felt fussy and slow as a consequence.
The whole family are pretty unpleasant here, as is traditional, and I didn’t really get majorly involved in the mystery: parts of how it would work out were much more obvious than I think the author would’ve liked! It’s just not that clever, and something about that smarmy narrator (both his young and adult selves) just gets up my nose. Bah.
As a piece of writing, I think it’s well done, pretty well-plotted and structured and so on. The neat sketches of the characters are mostly unkind, but do conjure up people quite vividly… But overall, meh for me.
A Dangerous Collaboration is the fourth outing in the Veronica Speedwell series, and is much like the other books: a quick, fun, fairly anachronistic read which somehow still manages to sink its claws into me and make me desperate to read more. Veronica and Stoker continue to be absolute soulmates, and the obvious romantic arc continues beautifully here… though we also get to see more of Stoker’s elder brother, Tiberius, and what really moves him.
(The bit about their obvious romantic arc is not to say that I don’t wish they could’ve remained platonic. Reading Veronica as aromantic would make a lot of sense with some of her previous statements and dalliances, and it’s always kind of cool to read something where a man and a woman can just be friends. That said, Deanna Raybourn was obviously going to go there, so it’s misplaced to fret about wishing it’d steer away from the romance!)
The setting is fun as well, being relatively constrained. No dashing about London here, but instead an exploration of an old castle on an island, and the old mystery of a young bride who disappeared on her wedding day a few years before. I’ll admit I kind of called it, for no reason other than a kneejerk reaction, because I immediately suspected a character so ubiquitous and *nice* sounding.
It’ll be interesting to see how the events at the end of the book impact the next. I’m hoping it isn’t bloody Jack the Ripper, though. That would be a cliché too far for me, most likely… though who knows? I practically eat these books up with a spoon; it’ll take something egregious to shake me.
I was kind of reluctant to read this one, though it’s been out for quite a while and I’ve picked it up in shops a few times already. Football in itself doesn’t interest me at all, so I wasn’t interested in the gimmick of it being set in Arsenal’s stadium or featuring real Arsenal players and staff of the time. It’s a bit of a curiosity, but not more than that. However, I’m not that interested in lawyers’ offices or farms or advertising offices, really, and I see plenty of those in fiction and read it anyway… so I decided to give it a go.
So in case anyone else is worried, there’s really no need to know anything about football. As with the farms and advertising firms, it’s mostly set dressing, and the motivations are love, hate, self-interest, vengeance, obligation, fascination… all the usual stuff. A player is killed during a game, and one of his teammates looks like the perfect culprit… too perfect, perhaps, thinks Inspector Slade from Scotland Yard.
It’s one of those where I didn’t really see the culprit coming; I knew who it wasn’t, from the clues and so on, but not who it was. The story spends so much time on the red herrings that I’m not sure the clues given for the real murderer are fair play. That said, I found it pretty enjoyable.
The Man Who Didn’t Fly has a fairly unique set up for a mystery: a plane has crashed, with three men and the pilot aboard. There were supposed to be four men, but one didn’t fly. The bodies are lost… so who exactly died, and who survived? And why has the survivor stayed quiet all this time?
It’s an intriguing set-up, but it doesn’t end up really working for me. Most of the book is recounting the everyday life of a family who are involved with the case, as it slowly reveals clues to what happened, who exactly died… and what crime was committed. It took a while to see the solution, for sure, but that’s partly because it felt rambly, and because so much time was given over to Hester mooning over one of the male characters. Said male character being an obvious scrounger and pain in the butt, who goes from one house to the other in search of freebies and handouts, it was not a very enjoyable experience.
I just couldn’t believe in the supposed depth of feeling there… and there is another romance in the book, and it comes more or less out of nothing. The whole emotional life of the book is lacking, and it leaves the ending pages hollow. Like, who cares?
Aside from the premise, I can’t say I really liked this at all. I ended up reading to the end because I wanted to know how things turned out, but I felt like I’d been blundering around in a directionless morass. I don’t find Hester particularly likeable, though there are glimpses of likeability (she wants to study medicine; she honestly cares for her father, even as they fight) — and there’s something just so… irritating about the prose. Solidly not for me, despite the effusive preface and the award this book almost won at the time.
From the cover onwards, The Last Smile in Sunder City is a patchwork of influences. Ben Aaronovitch, obviously and brazenly; my bets are on Jim Butcher as well. And, if not directly from Raymond Chandler, then his brand of noir and his style of imagery — there’s something about his comparisons that make it feel like a cut-rate Phillip Marlowe. It’s a very readable book, even though Arnold doesn’t have the control of language that Chandler did (none of his coinages are as good as “shop-worn Galahad”, even though Fetch Phillips suits the description as well as Marlowe does).
Sunder City is just one city in a world that used to be full of magic, but the source of magic has been destroyed by humans. Elves have aged suddenly and cruelly, anyone who uses magic is bereft, vampires are shrivelling to nothing… and Fetch Phillips is a man for hire amidst all this, tracking down missing folks and contemplating oblivion, at the bottom of a bottle or a long, long drop.
You know from the start that Fetch has done something godawful, and you can see it coming in the flashbacks, and you kind of want to stop it or ameliorate it somehow — and that’s when I knew it was really working for me. Fetch is not a good person, but you can see in him the ability to be so much better than he is… and even though he keeps making the stupidest mistakes, and you know nothing can be alright for him again, you can’t help but hope along with him that he can salvage something.
I’m kind of eager to read the next book right now; I don’t know how much this first one will stick with me, but it was a quick and enjoyable read, and I’m really curious to see where Arnold goes next with Fetch.
The Woman in the Wardrobe features a few elements I usually find myself disliking, to wit an amateur detective full of bombast, wit and ego, and a locked-room mystery. There are some definite similarities with Gideon Fell… but the writing style is so breezy — and the included caricatures of various characters so full of life — that it swept me right through my usual objections. It’s one of those with a clever trick ending (as most locked-room mysteries are) and it worked reasonably well.
I can’t say I like the amateur detective, but at least the narration knows he’s a bit of an ass. It doesn’t push too hard on his genius, though there is a very Sherlockian scene with a reverie over a pipe just as the case is reaching its conclusion… It’s all contrived, of course, but it’s fun. It mostly helps that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The Green Mill Murder is one of the books of this series which really sticks in my head, mostly because of the descriptions of the flight over the mountains, and then the silence and space of the mountains. That part is so vividly imagined — including Phryne’s dislike of it — that it can’t help but stick in my head… that and the sheer awfulness of both Charles and Mrs Freeman. The mystery itself feels a little unfair… I knew how it was done and still couldn’t piece it together until Phryne, like magic, pulled it out of the hat. I don’t always mind that, myself, but it does rankle with some mystery readers, so it’s worth knowing.
Ostensibly the main mystery of the book is the murder which happens in its opening page, when one of the dancers in a marathon dancing session suddenly collapses, and seems to have been killed with a very slim knife. Something’s changed about the corpse when Phryne next looks at it, but she can’t put her finger on what… and in the meantime her date has vanished off to be copiously sick. Or just vanished: the policeman who goes to look for him finds no trace.
I find the main mystery oddly forgettable, though, despite the power of Nerine’s voice and Tintagel’s alleged charms. I didn’t really see it myself, for Tintagel’s case, though of course Phryne is susceptible to a pretty face… it’s just that he’s also a bit of an amoral bastard, and that always colours my reading of his character. In any case, the bit that sticks in my head is Vic Freeman and his lonely hut. Or not lonely, really, given he has a horse (actually a donkey or mule, I think? I am too lazy to get up and check), a dog, and a wombat (who proves instrumental). The rest of it is full of awful people, but Vic is just happy to be alone, to have some silence and healing away from the city.
It’s an enjoyable read, but sometimes feels a little lopsided to me, because of the bits of the plot I prefer.
Ooookay this one is just somehow really not my thing. It’s all Italian mobsters and German spies, slathered on thick with a side of racial determinism. The policeman at the centre of the story, McCarthy, is prone to violence to get his way — and has a rather Holmes-ian moves-in-mysterious-ways air about him, along with various sidekicks pulled off the streets and a disguise or two. It’s fairly obvious whodunnit, from pretty early on, and whydunnit comes pretty quickly after as well. After that, McCarthy just knocks some heads together and does some casual breaking and entering.
The joy of Golden Age crime fiction is often the sense of order, the sense that things in Britain are fundamentally good and just. It’s a total nostalgic lie, and always was, and the noble policeman as much as any of it… and this doesn’t have to be everybody’s thing, but I do think it’s a big part of what calls to me about E.C.R. Lorac’s series detective, or John Bude’s: they are decent men, doing a job which they believe to be serving justice, and doing it for the right reasons.
Needless to say, then, I did not enjoy McCarthy, even though he’s probably more realistic in many ways — particularly not since we’re supposed to be entirely on his side. Nope, nope, nope.
Not one for me. 1/5 stars feels kind of unfair, but… no, I can’t honestly point to anything I liked.
I don’t know why it took me so long to read this sequel to Lock In; I really liked the first book, and Scalzi’s work is always breezy in the best way. Unsurprisingly, when I got to this I steamed through it in two days (and I’d gladly have finished it in just one day, but bedtime is a thing that has to happen now I’m getting to the ripe old age of 31). Head On is set a year later than Lock In, and to some extent, I think you can read it without the previous book; it catches you up pretty well on the most pertinent information.
The investigation centres around the death of an athlete during a game in which people piloting robot bodies try to tear each other’s heads off. Something about what happens during play when one of them gets his head torn off causes him to die… and the league pull his details from the live feed, arousing the suspicions of Chris Shane. It gets worse: right before Vann and Shane go to interview him, one of the bigwigs apparently kills himself.
Curiouser and curiouser, as they say. Everything spirals from there, with Scalzi’s usual pace and wit. Some aspects of the mystery were obvious to me pretty early on, but it’s fun to watch Scalzi spin it out and complicate it before bringing it home.
It feels maybe a little less urgent than the first book, somehow, and I probably still prefer Lock In… but it’s a worthy sequel, and I’d love to spend more time following Shane and Vann around as Vann bulldozes her way through all opposition to solve the case.