The Dead in their Vaulted Arches, Alan Bradley Received to review via Netgalley
Very late, I know; I have to be in the right mood to read this series, which is the only excuse I can think to offer. Unfortunately, with this book, I couldn’t even get into it when I was in the mood, because it feels like it’s well and truly jumped the shark. It’s always been a bit of a ridiculous series, and I accept that, but this one was just too much. The whole idea Flavia had about resurrecting her mother was just… Flavia is a precocious little thing with some very odd ideas, but it’s beyond believable even for this series that she would think she could bring back someone who was, what, ten years dead? With ATP and thiamine.
Add to that the whole pomposity of the de Luce family spy ring, and the sheer casual callousness of the murder in this book — a plot device, one which wasn’t even really investigated — and the fun has gone out of this for me. I’m not going to read the next book.
The Killing Kind, Chris F. Holm Received to review via Netgalley
I was excited to get this ARC. I loved Holm’s Collector series, and though this goes more into the detective line and away from the fantastical aspects that got me into it, I still love Holm’s writing, and I love the concept. I don’t know if this is meant to become a series or something — there’s room for it, given the ending, but it would be awkward to put the emotional punch into it. The main character is already a ghost, cut off from family and friends: there’s basically only two people he cares for, and by the end of this book, one of them is dead and the other is going into witness protection where she should, in theory, be safe.
Still, if Holm decides to write more, I trust him to do it well. There’s a redemption plot here, after all: Hendricks is killing hitmen with the eventual goal of redemption. When exactly he might reach that, I don’t think the character knows.
Anyway, this has slick writing, with just the right levels of detail. I love that it has some queer characters, too, just casually in with the rest because that’s how it works. I felt like I knew what was coming a little too often at the end, but maybe that’s just in comparison to mysteries where the end is deliberately from out of nowhere.
The Supernatural Enhancements, Edgar Cantero Received to review via Netgalley
I don’t actually know why I requested this on Netgalley, but since I did, I presume something caught my interest. It didn’t display very well on my ereader, so I waited and grabbed the book when I saw it in the library. The format basically reminds me of House of Leaves, but it does end up making more sense. Some of the supernatural stuff is almost incidental to the plot; there is a supernatural thread in the story, but it’s not really based in the house. It’s not like Weird Fiction in that way where the setting is itself a character.
Overall, I’m not sure what to think. I’m not opposed to epistolary novels, found footage, etc, but it has to come together really well, and it didn’t always work here. Honestly, I found myself skimming some sections because there just wasn’t enough of significance to justify the inclusion of certain scenes. It might work well on the screen, to establish the format firmly, but here… it felt like a waste of space.
It is kind of mesmerising, though. I read it pretty much in one go, and I wasn’t bored while reading it — sometimes confused, a little unsatisfied, but not bored. In the end, I was curious enough to flip back through to look back at hints and see how things came together. It’s not really my thing, and nor would I know who to recommend it for, but there’s a lot of interest here for the right person.
Looking at the reviews for this book, I had to laugh at how many people compared Kearsley’s work to Mary Stewart’s. Including myself, I’m afraid, which leaves me wondering if Kearsley embraces that or is rather sick of it by now. But truly, some of the plot things here are right up Stewart’s street, too: the moment where the villain kisses the heroine, that charged moment between them. Except that there’s something more subtle here: the villain isn’t purely villainous, but motivated by love as well. There seems something genuine in his attraction to the heroine, his interest in her.
And Kearsley is much harder on my heart. As with Season of Storms, I found myself falling for a character who didn’t make it to the end of the book. Kearsley did a great job with character, much more so than Stewart: I can believe in what happens between the protagonists, I adore a lot of the characters, and all of them have an inner life. There is something dreamlike about the whole book, with these moments of clarity where you really get to know characters and see what makes them tick, even less significant ones.
The plot itself is a bit convoluted, and I could perhaps have done without the drama of Hans and Isabelle’s story, the convenient way everything comes back together at just the right time… but then, it was exactly what I expected from the genre, and worked out with sympathetic characters and a sense of place, it doesn’t come off too badly.
I expected to like this a lot. Golden Age crime fiction, I’m pretty sure my mother mentioned liking it, etc, etc. But I couldn’t get past the endless racism, and the general feeling that Josephine Tey would be a men’s rights activist now. I mean, a woman on the stage overshadows her male co-stars, and yet the whole tone is not, wow, her skill and grace and so on, but that she is secretly a conniving bitch. The whole story serves to hammer home that she’s a woman who only cares about herself — with very little actual evidence, which is funny coming from a detective story. Someone else summarised it really well, and I can only quote (warning, spoilers):
So, someone who wants to kill a woman because he can’t have her is sane. Someone who wants to kill a man to save her daughter’s life is crazy. Very, very interesting, Tey. And at the end we’re asked teasingly whether there’s a villain in the story. I strongly suspect the villain we’re meant to think of is the woman the murder victim was going to kill. If she’d been nicer, she’d have appreciated that nice young man, you see, and none of this trouble would have happened.
(From Leonie’s review on Goodreads)
The description and so on can be as clever as it likes, but I couldn’t stand one more slighting reference to “the Dago”, or commentary about the “un-English crime”, or any of that. And the mystery itself… it’s obvious from the length of the book that the inspector is after the wrong man. It’s obvious from the way the man and the people around him act, too. The only excuse for going along with the thin, motiveless explanation Grant dredges up is if you’ve got a prejudice to begin with and you’re going to stick to your theory no matter what — no matter how Tey makes a song and dance about Grant being bothered by the case.
The reason Grant is wrong, well, at least you can’t blame him there. There’s virtually no clue, and nothing tied specifically to any suspect other than the red herring one. You can’t guess it directly from the information given — not a hope.
I sound really scathing, but that’s in part because I hoped I’d really enjoy this. I read it pretty much in one go: the narration is pretty compulsive, and the narrative voice is an interesting choice too. But the pretty sentences didn’t save it from how bothered I was with the outdated stuff (reliance on reading people’s faces, reliance on “national characters”, etc). Now I’ve gone looking at reviews, I can see other people who didn’t think much of this one did like her later work, so I might still be along for the ride there if I can get it from the library.
Not my favourite of Mary Stewart’s novels, but it’s what the library had when I felt like revisiting. It probably hasn’t really been long enough since I first read them, but ah well: they’re still fun. Stewart was brilliant at establishing a sense of mood and place: a hot French town, dust on the roads, shade under the trees, a cool breeze when you drive fast but sticky and heavy when you’re stuck in traffic… I enjoy Charity’s character, her past, and the fact that despite that tragic past, she uses what her husband taught her about life and love to move on, and Stewart never implies that her love for either the new love or the old diminishes the other.
The relationship itself, well. The constant descriptions of the love interest as dictatorial are exactly right, and one can’t help but think the whole relationship a little off-putting. She’s terrified of him at first, she thinks he’s a murderer, and he’s violent to her, and yet… There’s a passion in the relationship, which is something I do like to see, but his violence was waved away all too easily. A different era, I know… and yet.
The mystery itself, well: it’s melodramatic, all kidnapping and attempted murder and links to Nazism. But it works as long as you’re in the right headspace, and I was, since I’m well used to Stewart’s work.
Elizabeth is Missing is a very interesting play on the unreliable narrator. Maud isn’t unreliable because she’s lying or because she has anything to hide – or not exactly. She’s unreliable because she can’t hold onto her memories or make coherent sense of the things around her. It might sound a bit like a weird mystery novel: you could imagine it like that, with Maud being really sane but being gaslighted by the people around her into believing she’s crazy, and that’s why none of them will listen to her when she talks about Elizabeth. But it’s more mundane than that, at least for one strand of the plot.
The real mystery is in Maud’s memories of her sister, Sukey, who went missing. There’s a great sense of time and place here, putting it so firmly in post-WWII Britain in the same way as those youthful memories are the most vivid for elderly people. There’s a lot of really great description, too, which is partly facilitated by the fact that Maud doesn’t remember things right. You can make the most mundane things fresh and new if they’re a surprise to the narrator; you can tilt the world slightly off-balance like that. Healey does pretty well with that, and with the narration; to me, she balances a lot of things very well.
For example, it’d be easy to show the impatient daughter who just won’t listen to her senile mother. But it’s not like that in real life for most people; it’s just that people are impatient, and will say a sharp thing or roll their eyes or utter something sotto voce just to help themselves cope with what’s going on. And we see Helen like that; we see her trying to be patient, trying to understand, and sometimes coming up short. If there’s a carer in the world, especially a family member, who doesn’t feel like that, well, get them sainted.
It’d also be easy to really mess up the narration, over-exaggerating the things Maud forgets, making her memory come and go too conveniently for the story, smoothing over the edges of the illness to give us a tidy ending. Healey doesn’t fall to that temptation, either.
I can see why you might find it tedious, too painful to read, too disjointed; I liked the slow unfurling of the mysteries, even when I expected the endings, and I laud Healey for writing an elderly heroine with patience and understanding.
I do like this series — and tear through the books — when I get round to reading it, but I don’t particularly feel a pressure to keep up. There’s just something too precious about Flavia, and indeed the whole portrayal of idyllic British country life after the Second World War. My usual pet peeves with this series are firmly in place, in that sense.
But it is nice to just relax into it and enjoy the family’s weirdnesses, the unusual set up for the mystery, the intrepid Famous Five feel you get from Flavia — and the fact that hey, she’s a young girl who is great at chemistry, who deserves and demands respect from the people around her for what she can do. Sometimes she overshoots (and, ah, I think I do recognise myself in that; I was quite a mature kid, but also very aware of it and keen for people to know, which then veers toward being immature again), but mostly she’s quite right that she deserves some respect. I do enjoy her little crush on the inspector, too.
The last line is clearly set up for Things To Change, and I’m quite looking forward to that. There’s a formula now to these books; I hope the next book breaks it, at least somewhat.