Bertie and the Seven Bodies by Peter Lovesey

BertieandtheSevenBodiesA few months ago I read and reviewed the first of Peter Lovesey’s novels that featured Bertie, Prince of Wales as a sleuth. Bertie and the Tin Man was a highly entertaining read, rich in humor and character, but the mystery itself disappointed.

Bertie and the Seven Bodies is the second of the three novels and I am happy to say that the plotting here is far stronger. It probably didn’t hurt that I find a week’s shooting holiday to be of more interest than the world of Victorian horse racing!

Once again Lovesey uses the device of presenting his story as a memoir of the case written by Bertie himself in later life. This enables him to inject his narrative with plenty of character, having Bertie pause at points to reflect on events and to go off on little tangents. Lovesey also has fun presenting us with situations where he has Bertie’s words and actions in the past contradict what the older Bertie claims he was doing.

The events the older Bertie recounts to us take place at a shooting party being held in the country house of an attractive young widow. During the dinner that takes place on the first evening Queenie Chimes, an actress who plays bit parts in West End productions, collapses face-first into their dessert and is rushed to a doctor for medical treatment. Near her place setting is a scrap of newspaper with the word Monday written on it and while the guests do not realize it yet, this is just the first in a series of murders that will take place during that party.

Before long Bertie has decided he will take command of the situation and find the killer himself. This is, in part, due to the practical consideration that he wishes to avoid scandalous press coverage of his proximity to several murders but it is also a reflection of his supreme (and somewhat misguided) belief in his own abilities.

Lovesey illustrates Bertie’s overconfidence in his detective prowess early in the novel with several sequences in which he attempts to make Holmesian deductions about people based on small pieces of physical evidence. These scenes are not only quite entertaining, they also establish one of the running themes of the Bertie novels – that those who orbit around him are obliged to be deferential to him regardless of his actual skill as a detective. In fact the reader may justifiably feel that Bertie’s role as detective is, in part, responsible for the book’s high body count as at several points he moves to reassure the other guests that he has identified the guilty party and it is all over.

A quick look at various Goodreads reviews shows that Bertie is quite a divisive protagonist with multiple reviewers labelling him as ‘unlikable’. Certainly he is a pompous figure and his philandering ways will likely prompt some eye-rolling but he can also be quite charming and self-aware showing that he is all too aware of some of his weaknesses. The comparison I would draw would be to the television character Frasier who possessed several similar faults – the fun is in them seeking to maintain their dignity in the face of potential humiliations such as their amorous misadventures.

As the title suggests, multiple murders await the reader and a large part of the fun is in figuring out who the next victim will be and how they will be disposed of. I appreciated the variety of methods utilized and how well this aspect of the novel pastiches elements found in several Christie works.

Lovesey provides us with an interesting mix of suspects from a variety of backgrounds and personality types. I might argue that the female characters are a little stronger and more richly drawn than the males though that really reflects Bertie’s greater interest in getting to know them. Each character is treated seriously as a suspect however and I think several possess interesting motivations.

The solution to the puzzle is quite clever and fairly clued but I did find that I guessed at it after drawing a parallel to another work. This didn’t hugely bother me as I think the manner of the confrontation at the end is interesting but it did dull the impact of the revelation a little. Your mileage may vary however and if you have not read the book it draws from it will likely come as quite a satisfying revelation.

While this is the second book in a series, you do not need to have read the first in order to understand this and so I would suggest that you skip ahead to this one. Also, if you are an audiobook fan I can recommend the splendid readings of the first two books in this series by Terrence Hardiman whose plummy, rich voice is a perfect fit for Bertie and he handles the comedic elements brilliantly

Overall I found Bertie and the Seven Bodies to be a funnier, more tightly plotted outing than his first. It is not just a very good Christie pastiche, it is a fine mystery novel in its own right and I think it managed to blend its comedic and serious elements together very well to create something quite special and surprisingly original.

Shadows in Bronze by Lindsey Davis

ShadowsSeveral months ago I wrote about the first Falco novel, The Silver Pigs, which I noted I had been trying to read for about fifteen years. I came to the conclusion that I rather liked it and I had been looking forward to seeing more of the character but unfortunately this book reminded me why I struggled to finish the first book for so long.

The novel picks up shortly after the first book left off with the Informer now on Caesar’s staff. He is frustrated with the work assignments he is being given, most of which involve tidying up loose ends from his previous case. The task he is set at the beginning of the novel is to find and bribe or threaten the living conspirators to ensure that they fall in line with the new regime.

That is, unfortunately, about as much as I can say about the plot because what you have in store for yourself is a long, winding novel with new goals emerging in a hydra-like fashion as he completes each task he has set for himself. It gives the plot a sort of rambling, unfocused feeling and I think if you are reading this for the mission you will probably feel frustrated. Davis’ focus, it turns out, is actually on another aspect of Falco’s life.

Now I am not necessarily opposed to an entire novel detailing the status of Falco’s relationship with Helena Justina. She was probably my favorite part of the first novel and I enjoy the interactions between the two and the disconnect we see between Falco’s opinion of his knowledge of women and the actuality where he is clearly quite clueless. The problem from my perspective comes from the lack of surprise in the way that plot unfolds.

Davis is clearly heading somewhere from the moment they first encounter each other again but she plays her hand too clearly, showing exactly where their story is headed in a somewhat testy exchange between the pair. You might argue that this is intended to build suspense except that is not how the rest of their interactions unfold – my belief is that this was meant to be a subtle hint that is anything but and the ending seems to play out as though it is intended to surprise the reader.

This would not be an issue if the case Falco is working on had a stronger sense of urgency or mystery about it but actually for the first half of the book everything feels very straightforward. It can sometimes be interesting to follow how Falco will deal with some of the discontents and to share in his cynical observations about the political elites but there is little here to surprise or shock.

This does change when Davis pulls off a very effective twist in the second half of the novel, giving Falco more immediate stakes in the case and also heightening the danger he faces. I will admit to having been completely surprised by this moment in the novel and it does give the plot a much-needed boost but by that point I was already feeling quite disengaged from the story and that a lot of my time had been wasted with unnecessary details of Falco’s journey and with little purpose.

Which brings me back to the problem that this story is more focused on Falco’s relationship drama than establishing anything approaching a mystery. The reader cannot really predict that twist or many of the developments that follow and by the time it happens it feels like we have strayed a long way from the original mission Falco has been given by Vespasian. Even if I were to focus on appreciating it as a romance rather than as a mystery, the book feels slow and filled with unnecessary padding.

In short, this was a big disappointment given my high expectations for the novel. The characters are still enjoyable but the story here could have been told in half the page count and I do not think much would have been lost. As invested as I am in Falco and Helena’s relationship, the weaknesses in the mystery and adventure elements undermine the novel and make it feel somewhat directionless. My hope is that the subsequent volumes get the series back on track and I will at least be curious to see what becomes of them after the events of this book.

The Bloody Black Flag by Steve Goble

BloodyBlackFlagThere is something about pirates that just instinctively appeals to me. One of the television shows that I have most enjoyed in recent years is Black Sails and ever since that ended I have been searching for my next piratical fix. It seems I have found it in the Spider John mystery novel series, the second of which will be released next month.

Spider John Rush and his friend Ezra reluctantly sign onto the crew of the Plymouth Dream after the ship they were on is sunk. Unfortunately it turns out that Ezra is known to one of the crew they join and that man broadcasts that he is a descendent of witches, suggesting that he will bring bad luck to their voyage.

When Spider John finds his friend dead with a flask of spirits and battering around his head he refuses to accept that it was a drunken accident. For one thing, he knows that Ezra didn’t drink. He vows vengeance on the murderer, even if it results in his own death.

The Bloody Black Flag is a literary mash-up of a high seas adventure novel and a traditional amateur detective story and I am very happy to be able to say that it does both genres extremely well. While most of my comments will be addressing this book as a mystery novel, I do want to stress that the adventure elements are suitably exciting and capture the danger of working on the seas and are full of details of life on the account. Even if the murder mystery element does not appeal to you, there is still plenty to enjoy here.

The idea of having a pirate character serve as a sleuth in a mystery novel feels so natural that I was surprised that I haven’t seen it done before. Pirates crews were made up of dangerous men living outside the law and keeping that kind of company it would not be surprising that they might come across bodies regularly enough to make a series credible. That challenge is finding a way to make the sleuth care about finding the truth given the danger that will surely pose to their own life.

Goble meets that challenge splendidly with the creation of his sleuth, Spider John. This is a man who has found himself living as a pirate not by choice but as a result of having been forced to enlist in a crew when he first went to sea and the boat he was working on was captured. He has a wife and child he wants to return to back in Nantucket though there seems to be no prospect of that in his immediate future.

John, by his own reckoning, is neither a good man nor a bad one. He does terrible things, being an efficient fighter, but he points out that he could have been far worse and that he does not enjoy that aspect of the work. For example, at one point he silently prays that a ship they are approaching will immediately surrender to avoid any bloodshed. He, like many real pirates, is a man who is simply doing what he needs to in order to survive.

Goble provides him with a strong motivation to look into this death by having it happen to his only friend among the crew. In the early chapters he establishes that the two men have sailed together for a long time and have developed an incredibly strong bond of trust. In spite of that though John might well have accepted the death as an accident if it were not for a clumsy piece of staging.

His skill set as an investigator is credible for a man with his background. He is naturally wary of others, has seen different types of injury (having caused a few of them himself) and is able to draw on his experiences of different crews to notice when someone is behaving abnormally. He is quite an instinctual sleuth but his reasoning for reaching the conclusion he comes to about why his friend was killed is solid and well thought through.

One aspect of his character that intrigues me but which doesn’t have much of a direct impact on this investigation is that he is largely illiterate, knowing little more than how to sign his name. This is not only an example of the author’s attention to historical detail, I can imagine that this might be an interesting challenge for future investigations and will be curious to see if it affects any of his subsequent cases.

The circumstances of the death itself are, appropriately, quite simple but what makes it challenging to solve are Spider John’s status as an outsider within the crew, making the other pirates wary of confiding in him, and a surfeit of suspects. Given how superstitious many of the crew are, their belief that Ezra might be a source of bad luck could be enough of a motive for murder in itself potentially making everyone on board a suspect. Several characters stand out as suspicious and capable of the murder (and subsequent cover-up) however and I enjoyed the process of discovering who was responsible.

The explanation of the crime is pretty clever and I did find the identity of the killer to be a surprise. There is a fair amount of repetition of a question by different characters in the final third of the novel that is frustrating and while the answer to that question will be important to the mystery, I think it does unfortunately feel a little clumsy and this is one of the few aspects of the novel that didn’t work for me.

Goble smartly combines the revelation of the murderer with some high seas action so fans of both genres will likely feel satisfied by the conclusion and he ends the novel on the sort of cliffhanger that will have you searching out the release date for the second volume (September 11th in the US). The Bloody Black Flag is a very accomplished mystery that introduces a compelling sleuth and I cannot wait to see if the second volume lives up to the promise of this first one.

The Betel Nut Tree Mystery by Ovidia Yu

BetelNutBack at the start of Summer I read and reviewed the first of Ovidia Yu’s historical mysteries set in interwar Singapore, The Frangipani Tree Mystery, which I found to be a charming and entertaining read with a surprising amount of thematic depth. I was left feeling optimistic about this second novel and have looked forward to picking up where that story left off and finding out what happened to its appealing series sleuth, Su Lin.

At the start of The Betel Nut Tree Mystery the Police are providing protection for a wedding party on the new Governor’s orders. The bride groom gives his protectors a scare when he fakes a bloody death but there is nothing to laugh about when he is found dead a short while later, apparently poisoned.

Though Su Lin demonstrated her ability as a sleuth in the previous novel, here she is has returned to performing light housekeeping and secretarial jobs in spite of her hoping to be placed in active duty once again. As such it takes her a while to find herself in the thick of the investigation although she is well placed to observe much of what is happening and we may feel as much in the dark about Le Froi’s motives for doing this as Su Lin herself.

Le Froi remains quite an enigmatic figure throughout this second book. We are given more information about his life in the course of this story, albeit from a possibly untrustworthy source, but have yet to hear his own perspective on events before he came to Singapore or about his reasons for making certain choices since arriving. I appreciate the slow and subtle exploration of his character across these two books and that even at the end of this he remains quite an enigmatic figure. This is only right as the stories are Su Lin’s but I will be intrigued to get some answers about his life in a future installment.

The author provides us with a healthy array of suspects and there are a good mix of motives to consider. More impressively however the author once again manages to simultaneously have these characters behave abominably towards Su Lin or each other and still have the reader feel moments of sympathy for them, however fleeting. I think Yu captures the complexities of people and their relationships very well and makes the game of working out their relationships with each other and to the dead man quite compelling.

These characters have an interesting mix of secrets they are trying to conceal that Su Lin will draw out in the course of this story. As in the first novel, Su Lin finds herself spending time with the suspects informally in their hotel. Most of the family are wary of her ties to the Police but find themselves giving away information in spite of themselves in their interactions with each other and in a couple of cases quite deliberately sharing information about each other with her or Le Froi.

One of the elements of this series that I think particularly stands out is the handling of the racial tensions and relationships within Singapore. It was handled well in the first novel but here it comes to the fore, always being handled in subtle and naturalistic ways, as we learn about the impact international events such as the rise of fascism in Germany or the Japanese invasion of Manchuria are having within the Empire and, in particular, upon life in the multi-ethnic Singapore.

The event that hangs most over the novel however is the abdication crisis that occurred when as Edward VII resigned his office to marry an American divorcee. We not only hear references to the events in conversations but there are even some direct parallels between their situation and that of the would-be bride, Nicole Covington who had also seen two relationships end in less than ideal fashion. It had never occured to me that the impact of this event would stretch so far. As with the previous novel, these sorts of historical details are impeccably researched and I think it is one of the most distinctive features of the series.

The most important feature of any historical mystery is the case to be solved and I am happy to say that this is well plotted and has some intriguing twists and turns. Arguably the identity of the culprit is clued a little too effectively in the chapters leading up to the reveal but the journey to that moment is gripping and executed perfectly making for a very satisfying conclusion to what is an enjoyable and entertaining mystery. I can only hope that more adventures lie in store for Su Lin!

Review copy provided by the publisher. The Betel Nut Tree Mystery is already available as an ebook and will be released in paperback on October 16, 2018.

The Ripper of Storyville and Other Ben Snow Stories by Ed Hoch

StoryvilleLast month I declared that Ed Hoch’s All But Impossible did the unthinkable and made me a believer in the short form mystery. Having enjoyed that one so thoroughly I was keen to jump straight back in and decided I would like to try one of his other characters this time.

Though I am no expert of this particular period of American history, I do find it to be quite fascinating and felt it made for an inspired backdrop for these mystery stories. Many of the stories are quite action-focused and I think Hoch mostly does a good job with those sections.

The collection’s protagonist, Ben Snow, is an interesting creation who frequently falls into the Western trope as a hired hand or because someone mistakes him for Billy the Kid who had died several years earlier. He doesn’t really look out for trouble but it always seems to find a way to him.

Christian Henriksson very kindly has acted as a sort of sherpa for my explorations of Hoch’s work, compiling a frankly amazing blog post where he discusses all of the Hoch short story collections currently available. His view on this particular one is that it is uneven though he thinks there is a standout impossible crime.

My own favorite stories within this collection were The Ripper of Storyville, The Vanished Steamboat and The Sacramento Waxworks. Each of those stories strikes a strong balance between historical details, characterization and scenario and I think the crimes in each of the three stories are interesting.

Some of the others stories hit home too but the overall impression I had of this collection was that it was inconsistent, particularly if you are only in this for the clues. For fans of historical mysteries or this particular time period, there is plenty to enjoy here and some great, striking concepts to puzzle out.

Continue reading “The Ripper of Storyville and Other Ben Snow Stories by Ed Hoch”

The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill

CoronersLunchThe Coroner’s Lunch was one of the first books I purchased after starting my blog last year. I was immediately drawn to its striking cover and unusual setting and while it has taken me longer to get around to reading it than I had planned, I was excited to give it a try.

The novel is the first in the Dr. Siri Paiboun series that is set in Laos in the immediate aftermath of their Communist revolution. The main character is a seventy-two year old medical doctor who unexpectedly (and somewhat unwillingly) finds himself appointed as Laos’ only coroner after the revolution as all the other doctors have fled. He had no experience of the work prior to his appointment and is still learning on the job throughout this investigation.

I say investigation, but The Coroner’s Lunch is actually made up of several cases that are somewhat connected. The first concerns the suspicious death of the wife of a senior government figure. Siri is only part way through the autopsy when he is told to abandon his work and to accept a diagnosis made by a family doctor.

The second concerns the discovery of three bodies in a reservoir, bound and tied to the casings of inactive Chinese bombs. Their tattoos seem to suggest that they may have originated in Vietnam, prompting tensions between the two socialist countries to rise and giving Siri’s work international significance.

Finally there is a third case that takes place in the middle of the novel and which feels quite distinctive both in topic and style from those other two. One of the aspects that makes this case stand out is that it features strong spiritualistic or supernatural elements. Those elements are most strongly featured in this story thread but play a very important part in the story as a whole.

When he sleeps Siri dreams of being visited by the spirits of the corpses he has interacted with that day. At times those spirits simply share his space but at others they reenact aspects of how they were killed, giving him a clearer idea of what may have happened to them. It is a plot device that ought not to work, seeing as how it seems at odds with anything approaching ratiocination, though if you wish I suppose you can imagine that Siri’s dreams are manifesting things he has already seen and worked out on a subconscious level.  Either way it seems to fit and makes some sense within the context of this setting which was what was important to me.

Because Siri is investigating three quite different cases with little apparent overlap there are times where the narrative may seem to be lacking a clear direction or set of unifying themes or ideas. In time though I came to appreciate that Dr. Siri himself is the unifying force of the novel as we grow to know and understand the character, discover a little more about his past and see some of the contradictions within his character.

I have read some reviews that compare the character of Dr. Siri to Precious Ramotswe in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. While I think there are some differences between the two series, not least in terms of tone, both use humor well to balance moments of darkness, develop a cast of appealing characters for the sleuth to rely on and place them in a situation where they are having to work out how to do a job without any training.

What strikes me most about the character of Siri however is the way that Cotterill is able to present us with a portrait of what it may have felt like to live through a political revolution. He is cynical about many aspects of the revolution and the way his society is developing but he does not perceive himself to be living in an extraordinary time but instead it is simply part of his reality. At the same time, Cotterill makes it quite clear that there are dangers with the threat of re-education and that the Police no longer have a list of rights to read those they arrest present in the back of the reader’s mind.

While the characters and the settings are the primary draws here for me, I do want to stress that I did find the cases to be interesting if not imaginative. Cotterill creates a few interesting images and ideas but I found the way Siri is affected by his investigations to be more intriguing than their premises. I was impressed by the way he is able to pull these seemingly very disparate threads together in the final chapters of the book and felt that the ending was particularly satisfying.

I enjoyed The Coroner’s Lunch a lot though I would note that it features a few elements that may frustrate some readers. In particular those who have aversions to detectives who solve things by hunch or supernatural phenomena may be frustrated by the way Siri’s dreams are used at key points in this story. If you like stories that focus on building the character of the detective and exploring a society or period of history then I think there is a lot to enjoy here and would certainly recommend it.

Santa Fe Mourning by Amanda Allen

SantaFeSanta Fe Mourning is the first book in a new series of historical mysteries set in 1920s New Mexico. This setting caught my eye because while the time period is a familiar one for murder mysteries, I was intrigued by the Southwestern locale which I haven’t seen done before in a historical setting.

Allen’s protagonist, Madeline Vaughn-Alwin, has come from a wealthy background but after her husband dies in the First World War she settles in Santa Fe where she works as an artist to her family’s disapproval. There she has established a circle of friends and built a home.

The novel begins with Maddie returning home by train after a trip to New York. At the station she is met by Eddie, the son of the Native American couple she employs as her gardener and cook. He has some bruising on his face and she soon hears that relations between Eddie and his father have deteriorated, the latter having become increasingly erratic in his behavior, while she was away and that his mother is contemplating sending his sisters away to a convent school.

Soon Tomas Anaya is discovered dead near a speakeasy, covered with blood from what looks to have been a brutal beating. Eddie is arrested on suspicion of murdering his father and Maddie, feeling sorry for the family, decides to intervene to try to comfort them and make sure that Eddie is not mistreated or wrongly convicted for a crime she cannot believe he would have committed.

This brings me to the aspect of the book that I responded to most positively: that Maddie becomes involved not because she wants to snoop or out of a sense of danger, though she does exhibit a little of the latter as she gets deeper into the case, but because she has compassion for the family who live and work with her.

This is shown in the initial actions that she takes of trying to work out a way to expedite the release of the corpse to the family so that they can carry out the funeral rites and finding a lawyer to help Eddie come home to his family. What makes this approach feel so refreshing to me was because it feels truthful, simple and organic. I also appreciated the way it establishes and develops the novel’s central theme about how we experience and react to great losses because Maddie’s experience of losing her husband is part of what drives her to act.

Allen’s focus on that theme was, for me, the most successful aspect of the novel and I was fascinated by the various examples of characters who have suffered some loss and experience a rebirth or a new sense of purpose. In some cases this plays out quite subtly such as Maddie herself because when the novel begins she is already part way through that journey – in others it can be quite dramatic as when we learn more about the Anaya family’s past. This is variations on a theme but done very well with each subplot complementing the others.

Another aspect of the book that I think is successful is the author’s attention to historical and cultural details which feels authentic and quite on point. Some may quibble about the level of freedom that Maddie has at times, though I think Allen does address that by having her seek out her best friend to serve as a chaperone for some of the adventure. I do think that the background of the story feels very well conceived and I appreciated that she is able to give us some real locations and individuals without making it feel like a research project.

Unfortunately as much as I appreciated the themes and the setting, I cannot be quite so glowing about the novel as a piece of mystery fiction.

To be clear, I think the book is an entertaining read and I think the plot is clever and I appreciate that it is clearly developed out of the novel’s setting but there is little in the way of misdirection. Part of this reflects that the author spends a lot of time establishing the character and the dynamics of her household and circle of friends but I think the bigger problem is that almost all of the characters are ruled out as suspects from the beginning.

Even if you do work out the murderer’s identity you do still need to figure out how and why this has happened but here, once again, I think the attentive reader will be able to infer the solution quite early in the novel. This is a pity because there are some good ideas here and I think one aspect of the solution is quite neatly set up and revealed but I think the story would have benefited from devoting a little more time to building up the alternative killers.

While this frustrates me, I will say that this was not a deal killer. I found the book entertaining and enjoyed its setting and the way the author developed her ideas. I also liked that the novel ends on a cliffhanger, setting up a second volume nicely should this one prove to be a success. My hope is though that when that one does come out that a little more time will be given over to creating red herrings and alternative suspects to beef up the mystery element of the novel.

For those who like a dash of adventure in their mystery fiction or stories set in this time period or area of the world, I do think there is quite a lot to enjoy here.