It’s been ages since I first read this book, but the series has always stuck in my mind — not least because it is the only series that both my parents have ever recommended to me. So after someone mentioned reading them on Pillowfort, I ended up grabbing the ebooks via the library (though none of the libraries I’m a member of has the full series, ugh) and settling down to a reread of the first one. I think I’ve read the second one too, but that might be where I stopped.
In any case, the Brother Cadfael books are mysterious whose main character is a Benedictine monk with a rather colourful past. Content now in the cloister, Cadfael nonetheless manages to get himself taken along to Wales on a small matter of stealing a local saint for the greater glory of the monastery. He’s Welsh, so he’s useful as an interpreter — and he understands the people and the passions stirred up by the Benedictine delegation. He has faith, but a cynical eye, and he doesn’t for a moment accept that gentle Saint Winifred is behind the dastardly murder of a local landowner.
It’s a fun little mystery; the characters are mostly more types than fully drawn people, but with a touch of Cadfael’s cynical view of them to enliven things. The genuinely pious but deeply ambitious Prior is well-done; we don’t see into his heart directly, but his actions and words lay him bare. Likewise, there’s something rather touching about Peredur and his thwarted passion for Sioned.
I do enjoy the setting in Wales, and the us-vs-them mentality that’s so quickly sketched out. It’s carefully dealt with, despite the temptation to put them at each others’ throats; there’s respect and a will to work together, alongside the misunderstandings and stiff-necked pride.
It all wraps up nicely — very nicely and conveniently, but in a way that’s enjoyable because it’s poetic justice — and Cadfael settles back into the status quo, napping through meetings and tending to his garden. Until the next mystery, that is.
Death at Victoria Dock opens with the death of a young man, shot at as Phryne drives past on a cold night. After he breathes his last in her arms, she obviously can’t let it rest — she decides that she must know why he was killed, and avenge him if she can. At the same time, she takes up the totally unrelated case of a missing young girl, meaning this book features the contrasting locations of an Anglican convent and a revolutionary hideout! It’s all pretty high-stakes, with kidnappings and shootings, and Bert and Cec wandering around armed.
It also features the first appearance of Hugh Collins. I did find the Catholic/Protestant drama in the show (what I’ve watched of it) contrived and a little annoying (I know it’s for the drama, but argh, they’re so sweetly uncomplicated in the books, and it’s nice), so it’s nice that he and Dot are both Catholic and all in all quite steady and without drama (although maybe they get it all out here with Dot’s kidnapping and the daring rescue).
As always, it’s an easy read; fairly light (though there is drama and death), and full of Phryne’s ingenuity and practical approach to all matters of life, death and in between.
I picked this up because it’s one of the British Library Crime Classics, of course, but also because I remembered one of the others in this series by Bellairs being pretty entertaining. Surfeit of Suspects begins with a bang, literally: dynamite is set off in the buildings of a small struggling joinery company, during a meeting of the directors. Scotland Yard get called in once the presence of dynamite becomes apparent, and Superintendent Littlejohn starts to pick his way through the tangled web of shell companies and marital mishaps to figure out what the motive might be.
It takes quite a long time to actually see the culprit; I never really suspected most of the potentials, though, because their motive didn’t seem clear enough, so surfeit of suspects is a bit of an exaggeration. There were lots of characters who could’ve done it, but you either suspected they didn’t have the guts or it was just too obvious and therefore obviously wrong. It’s not a bad set of thumbnail sketches of characters, though: you can almost smell the fug of old tobacco coming off some of them.
Bellairs was pretty workmanlike, and his writing is satisfying in that way I find specific to these Golden Age mysteries: you know that there’ll be no hanky-panky, you’ll find out whodunnit, and there’ll be a nice little puzzle along the way. The policemen are professionals, and there’ll be no intimidating of witnesses — though there might be (and there is) a clever scene in which the suspects are gathered to flush out the real criminal.
It’s a good thing I rate by enjoyment, rather than originality or any kind of objective measure like that, because I’d feel bad giving this a low score. If the formulaic nature of these Golden Age mysteries bothers you, most of the Crime Classics series won’t be for you; personally, there’s something very comforting about the world being put in its place. It’s all a mirage, of course — there never was a simpler time quite like this — but it’s a satisfying picture postcard of the past all the same.
Aaand straight on to the third book. This introduces two more steadfast characters, Ruth and Jane, along with a new adventure for Phryne featuring chloroform on a train, hypnotism used to pull young girls away from their families to be raped and abused, and a young girl with a strange gap in her memory… It opens on the train, with Phryne waking to the smell of chloroform and desperately shooting a hole in the window to get fresh air in. She ends up taking under her wing a woman who was badly burned on her face by the chloroform, and agreeing to investigate the murder of her mother.
That gets her into all kinds of hot water, and into personal peril as well, with a horrible struggle between Phryne and the murderer at the climax of the book. It also brings her two adopted daughters, a cat, and a new lover. The fond amusement of her household is a joy, and as always she’s competent and (mostly) fearless and in control. When she doesn’t know what to do, she fakes it ’til she makes it.
It’s hard to keep describing these books in different ways, because in many ways they’re the same: it’s the cast of characters that makes them a joy. Bert with his secretish heart of gold; Cec with his love of waifs and strays; Mr Butler, with the right cocktail always on hand; Dot, who couldn’t be more different to Phryne, but adores her all the same…
It’s a little found-family, so of course it pulls on my heartstrings.
Apparently, all I feel like reading at the moment is the Phryne Fisher books, all rereads for me — and that’s fine with me. This one is the second, and it features a couple of mysteries at once: the kidnapping of a young girl called Candida, whose father recently won a large sum of money, and the death of a man whose wife asked her to “do something!” about her son’s vague threat to “remove” his father. Red herrings a-plenty, of course, as Phryne plunges in with her usual ruthless practicality. Gain the respect of the angry son by doing a controlled dive in an aeroplane and then walking out along the plane’s wings? Fine. Tie herself to the back of a car? Yep.
As always, she’s fashionable, well-fed, well… made-love-to, and capable of the most amazing feats of derring-do without batting an eyelid. There’s also an interesting little portrait of a man swept up in something criminal more or less against his will; I feel like his story isn’t wholly plausible (if he objects so much to certain aspects of the job, why did he agree at all?), but I enjoyed him and his protection of Candida nonetheless. Sometimes it’s nice to think that people aren’t all bad, and Mike gives us a chance at that.
One of the odd things that I noticed and really enjoyed this time through is also Phryne’s appreciation of Candida’s teddy bear; there’s a whole paragraph which shows she fully understands the importance of the bear. As someone still very much attached to my childhood teddy (or teddies, in fact, though I did have one main friend, Queen of all the others), I appreciated this bit a lot — and it makes one like Phryne all the more, if you have a bear of your own whose judgement you trust.
The first time I read this, it completely got on my every nerve. I don’t know what prompted me to try it again after that, but I’m glad I did, because this is now my fourth reading or so, and it’s a solid favourite. Phryne is a great character; her faults are all strengths as well, or only faults if you happen to disagree with her views, and that can be a little annoying — how can she be so cool and collected and capable of doing everything?
But it’s awesome to imagine, too; she’s refreshingly competent, in contrast to other female detectives set in that period. I can’t help but compare her to Carola Dunn’s detective: I enjoy Daisy Dalrymple a lot, really, but she gets by on coincidence, guileless charm and shameless bias. Phryne is deliberate in everything she does, even if it’s foolhardy, and clear-eyed about people and what they can be like. Daisy’s probably the easier to get along with, but there’s something delicious about Phryne’s pure determination. She expects she’ll get what she wants, so she does.
This first book introduces the characters who will appear again later (Jack, Cec, Bert, Dot…), and solidly sets the stage for Phryne’s love affairs and dalliances with her passion for Sasha (undeceived by his wiles though she is). She’s asked by a friend of her family to look into why their daughter seems so ill, and they hint that her husband must be poisoning her. It seems like a good break from the tedium of Britain, so Phryne agrees and sails off to the land of her birth, Australia. There she gets embroiled not only in the case she’s gone there for, but also in Bert and Cec’s concern over a girl’s botched abortion, the woes of a young housemaid (Dorothy), and the toils of a drug lord.
Near the end, the mystery is rather neatly turned on its head to give the reader a bit of a shock (but if you’re in on it, you get to watch the hints), and then all’s well at the end — all in all, it’s exactly the comfort-read I needed. Phryne’s too good to be true, but that’s the best part.
The Luck of the Vails is fairly slow, taking its time to build up an atmosphere to set the characters against. Harry Vail is the heir to his family, and he’s just found the most miraculous treasure: a cup called the Luck of the Vails, originally owned by a rather wicked ancestor and said to give the owner luck — whilst putting them in peril of fire, frost and rain. A rather lonely person before, he finds a close friend in his elderly uncle, and begins to go around in society and make friends there as well.
There’s just one slight hitch: an old story about his uncle and the accidental death of a man who happened to be in debt to him. It lies like a shadow across things, colouring Harry’s meeting with a young woman who happens to be the dead man’s daughter…
I was surprised that at every turn the author ducked the obvious next piece of events. Instead of scorning Harry and his uncle, the young woman forgives it all, despite her mother’s whispers of murder — indeed, instead of the characters dodging around it, trying to avoid the revelation, they get it right out in the open. Later, instead of doubting Harry for long, the young woman wrestles with her conscience about it and realises what a stupid mix-up has been made. It’s rather refreshing.
I can’t say too much about the characters or where the plot tends toward without giving it away. I did find myself very curious in the first third or so as to where things would go wrong, but once they did, they did so very obviously. The first third might lull you a little, but the clues are pretty obvious after that, and it’s just a matter of how things come to pass. I did thing the somewhat ambiguous characters were fascinating; there’s genuine affection between a would-be murderer and the victim, and a rather ambivalent character who sounds like a villain but becomes an ally.
It wraps up much as expected, and there’s nothing really stunning about it, but I did find it interesting, and appreciated the avoidance of certain tropes.
Flight of Magpies rounds this trilogy off beautifully. Of course, as it opens, the two are struggling: Stephen’s work-life balance is dreadful, while Crane has too much time on his hands. They’ve come a ways from the start of the last book, but they haven’t really resolved their priorities and their future intentions. That has to play out against the background of even more work issues for Stephen, something going on with Saint, and mysterious deaths that are clearly magical in some way, but hard to trace back.
That’s really just the start of the problems, but I shan’t spoil it. Suffice it to say that everything comes together beautifully, and Stephen and Crane get the ending they deserve. I’ll confess to wandering through the flat with my hands flailing saying “aaaaa” and refusing to spoiler it for my wife, having started and finished the book in one evening.
I’m intrigued by the glimpses of Pastern and his story — which is good, since I have Jackdaw lined up to read soon. None of the revelations in that part of the plot were particularly surprising, but the climax was nail-biting all the same. I’ll admit I was surprised about Merrick, and still don’t quite understand how that relationship developed, as such — like Crane, I was blindsided by it.
There were several sex scenes, some of them including plot-relevant information, for those who might be averse to reading them or might prefer to skip.
The Santa Klaus Murder is a competent but (for me) uninspiring mystery; I don’t know whether I’m just reading too many Golden Age crime novels at the moment, and should therefore stop — but then, I don’t think I absolutely loved the other book I read by Mavis Doriel Hay, so perhaps it’s just that. In any case, it’s another case of Christmas in a dysfunctional family, with a controlling patriarch and issues of inheritance looming.
It is told in an interesting way, at least at first, with the opening chapters being different points of view on the early events of the story written by the characters, and that’s a sort of exercise in sketching out characters that’s pretty entertaining. It doesn’t sustain that through the book, though; the later chapters are all from the perspective of the investigator.
Not really sold on it, in any case; it felt a little like going-through-the-motions, and I found the misdirection onto a particular character obvious and rather silly. Not one that worked for me, in the end!
It felt only right to pick this up around Christmas, given the title. Obviously crime books aren’t usually too full of the warmth and joys of Christmas, and so it proved again. Chief Inspector Brett Nightingale gets called out to the home of a Russian emigré, an old woman who seems to have been killed in her sleep and any valuables taken. The valuables turn out to have been very valuable indeed, so a meandering case starts to unfold involving a collector, a perky and pretty girl who works as an assistant in the shop, the old woman’s son, and various red herrings strewn about liberally. The main character is Nightingale, with some glimpses of his subordinate, Beddoes.
(There is a moment which made me laugh where Beddoes realises that Nightingale’s first name is actually David, and his name is Jonathan. I think that’s the allusion which is being made, anyway. Slightly raised eyebrows, given the often homoerotic interpretations of David and Jonathan these days. Not sure that’s what Kelly was going for.)
Overall, “meandering” is really the word that comes to mind. There’s a rather confused action-y bit at the climax, but that part also features a pages-long explanation from Nightingale, for the benefit of the collector, on what might be driving the Russian emigré’s son. It all seems really disorganised and hard to follow, although whodunnit is painfully obvious all along.
It’s engaging enough for a quiet afternoon, but I was hardly in love with it, and I wouldn’t say it’s one of the best of this series.