As ever, a beloved reread. Okay, the cypher bits can be kind of annoying unless you’re really interested in figuring out, but this time I paid close attention so I could use the Playfair cypher to write a daft message to my wife, so there’s that. I love the care Peter takes to try and be fair to Harriet, not to push her, and to do his best by her. I do think sometimes he’s rather self-pitying, but mostly his sense of humour about it alleviates that.
The mystery itself is a fun one to break: if you figure out the key to it too soon, the back and forth as Harriet, Peter and the police try to break the wrong alibis can be a bit infuriating, but it’s also pretty clever. If you don’t love Peter and Harriet (and mostly their banter), I can’t imagine it being a favourite, but for me… yeah. <3
The narrator of most of this book is, by design, pretty repugnant — and honestly, I find the other characters so too, even when we get a little glimpse of the other side of the story. The satisfaction here is in seeing their plans come to grief, and waiting for everyone to get their comeuppance. There’s something satisfying in Hull’s skill about putting together these characters, but at the same time it feels like it would’ve worked better as a short story. Enough time to get the gist, without enough to start getting truly frustrated by the general horribleness (and stupidity, too).
It’s an entertaining enough read, but I was glad when it was over, too!
Like Seven Dead, this actually includes a love story as well, although of a rather different stripe (and maybe a bit less of the focus, since neither party is seriously suspected of the murders). It’s less prominent than the love story in Seven Dead, and thankfully less creepy as well, with some rather good scenes between the two of them negotiating their relationship. At the same time, there’s a convoluted mystery going on with several deaths, complex interrelationships and, well, the usual stock in trade of Golden Age crime fiction, really. It’s a country house mystery, too, just to hit all those traditional notes.
I found it solidly entertaining, and though it’s a bit less weird/creepy than Seven Dead, I think it was probably stronger for it. There’s something about Farjeon’s writing that I find rather more-ish, and I’d gladly pick up a bunch more of his novels. Sadly, I only seem to have The Z Murders left… though I should check for something by other publishers or maybe as an ebook.
The main point of interest in this classic is the fact that it was a first. The introduction is more interesting than the book in many ways, putting it in its context and explaining why it was significant. The introduction is short, don’t get me wrong, but the story itself is a fairly typical one in many ways. You can guess at the motives, and the mysteriousness is not at all mysterious to someone used to the genre. Not that it’s bad, just that it’s not particularly unique or surprising in any way. The writing is workmanlike, and in some places dips into being almost incomprehensible (but then, I find Dickens like that at his worst, and some people think he writes amazing prose, so take me with a pinch of salt). The plot probably was rather shocking at the time, but leaves me going, so? And of course, the poisoning by proxy is rather… impossible.
In any case, I had fun reading it in terms of connecting the dots with other classics of crime fiction, and it wasn’t a bad way to pass the time, but it’s not something I’m wildly enthusiastic about or would particularly recommend.
There is something really sinister and dark about this book. It’s one of those where drug-taking/mental illness really pushes the plot, and it leads to some really gruesome moments. That atmosphere is the best thing about the book, I think: that sense that you don’t quite know what’s going to happen next, because it seems like it could be anything. It’s not very subtle, but it works pretty well.
Of course, I don’t love mysteries which rely on mental illness for their sense of danger and their motives, because the facts are that mentally ill people are more likely to be attacked than to be the attackers, by quite a margin. But it’s a classic trope and this is a classic book, from a less aware time, so while I wouldn’t recommend it if that kind of thing really gets to you, I don’t hold it against it too much in how I enjoyed it.
Mind you, considering I didn’t like the detective that much and found the Watson rather boring, I’m not sure how to rate it. The sense of atmosphere is definitely worth something, though, and it’s not as though I found it a hard read. Until I sat down to think about it, I’d have gone with three stars easily.
I enjoy Phryne as a general proposition, but I find myself saying with almost every book (at least later in the series) that it’s not a favourite and I wouldn’t particularly recommend it on its own. If you like Phryne, it’s more of her usual, with daringness, nice clothes, some good food and a sexy man. It fits the formula and at least this one introduces her sister as an actual character, with interests and problems of her own. It’s all the usual glitz and glamour and peril you expect from Phryne, and nothing particularly surprising, moving or suspenseful. You know she’s going to come out okay in the end.
Which all sounds like damning with faint praise, which isn’t quite what I mean either. If you enjoy Phryne, it’s fine. It’s just not one that stands out to me, except maybe for some of Lin Chung’s interactions with his extended family, which make me laugh (though they are perhaps a tad stereotyped, as well).
The other Miles Burton book I’ve read was fun, but the plot was kind of out there. Death in the Tunnel is a little more down to earth, and I ended up devouring it. Burton’s writing is crisp and sure, and while the story has its twists and turns, it all makes perfect sense. Never are you left feeling that the detective has made a sudden leap and left you behind — you have the clues you need, provided you can make something of them.
I can’t really put my finger on why it worked so well for me: it’s just well-structured, with enough to keep one interested and some odd puzzles along the way. It’s also a glimpse at some interesting characters — the murder victim, for example, is fascinatingly self-righteous and determined he’s doing the right thing, while somehow managing to justify fraud. And it all makes sense, too; you can see the character and what drives him.
The fact that the detective (not the police officer, but the independent guy the policeman consults for some reason) is the same guy from The Secret of High Eldersham is kind of irrelevant: he remains a bit of a non-entity, just distinguished by being clever. The point of the book is more the mystery-solving through the understanding of the characters and clues presented. I enjoyed it, but if you were looking for a good series detective, Desmond Merrion isn’t the one.
This was a favourite when I was a kid: I loved the other books a little less, I think, but this one got very worn and tattered. I reread it during my exams mostly just because it caught my eye, and I wanted to revisit Sally and Frederick and Rosa and the smoky, sinister world of Victorian London which Pullman evokes in these books. I remembered almost every detail of the story, every step in the sequence, but it was still fun to read and think about how I loved and looked up to an independent character like Sally (her immaturity shows to me, now, as an adult, but she’s still pretty awesome all the same).
It was also nice to appreciate the details that went into some of this — Pullman did his homework in learning about the photography business, in painting a picture of that time and place which felt real, if sometimes a bit too squalid to be true. (Though Dickens was praised for realism, and Mrs Holland’s lodging house could have come right out of a Dickens novel, I think.)
The whole opium/India/ruby stuff was a little uncomfortable and felt like exoticisation, treating a troubled time in the history of a British colony like it was just a penny dreadful, but it’s hard to judge, and it still works when you lay that aside and embrace the penny dreadful feel — a thing I’m sure is intentional, because Pullman demonstrates several times in the story that he’s well aware of the kind of content of penny dreadfuls, and lampshades the similarities a bit through Jim’s reading of the whole situation.
Overall, it’s still enjoyable, even if I have more doubts now. I’d probably have given it five stars back then.
Reading these is just like a holiday for my brain — undemanding, quick, but usually reasonably satisfying. I actually got a little bit more involved with this one that I expected, and found myself really disappointed by whodunnit — not because it was badly written or didn’t make sense, but because I didn’t want that character to be the culprit. Alas. Everything was worked out very cleverly, though, and involved a good amount of solid policework rather than gut feelings, etc, which I always find more interesting than magical solutions.
It’s not the most sparkling of writing, but it works. I’m not in a tearing hurry to read more books by Freeman Wills Croft, but I don’t plan to avoid them either. It’s like a nice snack: solid enough to keep me going, though I’ll be wanting a fuller meal later on.
The Secret of High Eldersham is a bit of a weird one, really, with a lot of rather sensational stuff going on. It seems like it’s going to be one of those sleepy little village mysteries, but then there’s a whole mess of occult stuff coming in! Not that it’s unenjoyable, as aside from occasionally rolling my eyes at the drama I did rather enjoy it. It’s fairly typical in many ways of the period, with the intrepid amateur detective (who doesn’t quite run rings round the police, but they’re definitely indebted to him) and a love interest, terrible peril, etc, etc.
Miles Burton makes it work, though, and I’ve enjoyed another of his books too (finding it, on the whole, less sensational and more realistic). I’d recommend at least giving this a try! The pacing isn’t 100% perfect, but for the most part it ticks along pretty nicely.