Death of a Busybody by George Bellairs

Busybody
Death of a Busybody
George Bellairs
Originally Published 1942
Inspector Littlejohn #3
Preceded by Four Unfaithful Servants
Followed by The Dead Shall Be Raised

Miss Tither, an elderly spinster who lives in the village of Hilary Magna, is widely regarded by her neighbors as a judgmental pest. She has routinely stuck her nose into their affairs, revealing perceived infidelities and berating those who are not religious with unwanted debate as well as pamphlets and tracts. Few in the village like her but, being a small community, there is shock when she is discovered drowned in the vicar’s cesspit.

Bellairs introduces us to a broad cast of possible suspects, most of whom she has wronged in some way. Given the complexity of the case, the local police decide to request that Scotland Yard provide some help, although they are careful to request someone with an understanding of country ways. Scotland Yard sends Inspector Littlejohn to investigate.

Right up front I want to acknowledge that this book does something I find deeply frustrating in novels: it features whole passages of speech from multiple characters written in phonetic dialect. This in itself is not enough for me to write off a book – after all, my favorite novel, Wuthering Heights, contains considerable amounts of dialogue styled in a rough Yorkshire voice – but I do find that approach frustrating for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, I rarely feel that the phonetic spellings produce an accurate rendering of a style of speech. More importantly though, it becomes a distraction as the reader is forced to devote much of their time to simply figuring out what on earth a character is saying. In this book a significant portion of the characters, including the village constable, are represented in this way which mostly served to distract me from other facets of the story.

On a more positive note, the manner of the crime is quite striking and the choice of Miss Tither’s final resting place is perhaps an example of the slightly subversive tone to be found in much of the novel. Some of Bellairs’ commentary can be rather amusing and the various village types are all well observed.

Other elements of the plotting seem a little shallow though and the story suffers a little from its clues being too clearly flagged to the reader. One instance of this is particularly frustrating as it involves a familiar Golden Age plotting trick that becomes very clear when highlighted for the reader directly in dialogue and once that point is settled on the rest falls into place very easily. While I am normally excited when I figure out the solution of a crime, here I felt the author had gifted it to me which was not particularly satisfying.

This is a shame because there is much here to admire. Bellairs writes some genuinely witty prose and creates a variety of striking and entertaining secondary characters to enjoy. The actual process of the investigation is well thought out and there is some solid detection work carried out both by Littlejohn and his helper in the city.

One of my favorite sequences involves a character named Cromwell carrying out a series of linked interviews. It is a nice piece of procedural detective work that is not overwritten but features both some fun examples of Bellairs’ wit and character observation and also some useful information that feeds into the broader case.

Unfortunately wit and investigation structure were unable to overcome my frustrations with the story drawing too much attention to one of the most important clues or with the mangled attempts at replicating country voices in prose. While the opening is strong and I thought there were some very solid moments, the piece did not capture my imagination the way I had hoped and once I had figured out the solution it struggled to hold my attention.

Having voiced my disappointment with this story, there were aspects of this book I enjoyed and I have already added some other Bellairs works to my to read pile. I am hoping that my next dip into his work proves a better match for me.

Lament for a Maker by Michael Innes

LamentforaMaker
Lament for a Maker
Michael Innes
Originally Published 1938
Inspector Appleby #3
Preceded by Hamlet, Revenge!
Followed by Stop Press

Ranald Guthrie, the laird of Erchany, is widely considered to be mad by those who live on his lands. He is a miser who lives in seclusion and his behavior seems to be increasingly erratic.

Late one night he is observed falling from the highest tower of his run-down castle and is found dead in the snow below. Did his madness drive him to commit suicide or was his death an act of murder?

If that seems like a very general summary of the novel it reflects how difficult it is to write about it without spoiling it heavily. The book is an oddity, being constructed of several sections written from the perspectives of different characters that often overlap in the events they depict, casting them in different lights as we learn more information.

This is an interesting approach in theory and its success will likely depend on how much you like the characterizations of the different narrators. I will certainly credit Innes for managing to create several distinctive voices and personalities for these narrators and I did appreciate that each takes on a slightly different style reflecting that character’s outlook.

Now, I should say at this point that I have never really cared for the idea of writing in dialect. I accept it when it happens and will certainly admit that it can convey a strong sense of place or character but it is also an unnecessary obstacle for the reader. In Lament for a Maker, the entire first third of the book is written in Scots dialect and although I lived for years in Glasgow and had a Scottish grandmother, I found deciphering the text to be a chore. It is not that it is impossible to decipher – Innes is good at situating dialect terms in a context where their meaning is generally quite clear – but it slows the pace down for anyone who is not familiar with the terms.

What makes this approach all the more frustrating is that while almost all of the characters involved in the story and narrating sections are Scottish, none of the other characters narrating do the same. It may have added mood and atmosphere but I think more selective use of Scots terms could have had the same effect and made the work more accessible.

Once we transition to the second narrator I found it much easier to engage with the work and to follow what was happening. The story’s structure mean it is constructed less like a traditional whodunit and more as a haunting, highly literate Gothic mystery told by a series of narrators who simply do not have the complete story. It is an interesting approach to take and I did find many of the answers provided to be quite surprising and satisfying.

Erchany is a compelling setting for a story and I did find the descriptions of its crumbling architecture and the infestation of rats to be extremely effective at setting the scenes and creating a haunting atmosphere. At times the narrative seems to skirt on the edge of the supernatural in some of the elements it employs though in the end the story is quite rational and driven by its characters’ psychology. I certainly would describe myself as being generally satisfied by the solution.

The book’s chief problem is that its stylistic and structural choices dominate the storytelling, creating a book that delivers plenty of atmosphere but which suffers from a lack of clear storytelling focus. I gather that this is not the typical sort of structure that Innes would create, so if you are curious to sample his work I would suggest that you may want to start with one of his other stories.

There is one other thing I should mention which is, again, an example of how this book is somewhat atypical. You may be puzzled how I managed to write over six hundred words without commenting on the story’s sleuth, Sir John Appleby, who would go on to appear in many other stories. The reason I haven’t commented on the character is that their role in this story is extremely minimal and, when he does appear, he hardly makes an impact.

The lack of a strong presence for a sleuth does not diminish the mystery or its solution. This is a clever tale and one that has a lot of personality. I am not sure, on reflection, whether I would have wanted this to be my first experience of Innes’ style if I had known how different it is from his other works. Still, it builds atmosphere masterfully and I did respect Innes’ skill at creating several distinct narrative voices. While I won’t be rushing to read any further works by Innes, I am sure I will return to him at some point.

Review copy provided through NetGalley.

Say Nothing by Brad Parks

Say Nothing
Brad Parks
Originally Published 2017

There are many ways that becoming a parent three years ago changed my life but the one I could never have predicted is that I, being the sort of man who regularly gets described as stony and unemotional, would get verklempt at the mere sight of an old pair of baby shoes or stay up half the night with worry when the kid has a particularly bad case of the sniffles. It’s a cliche but like most good cliches it comes from a truthful place; the moment you become responsible for another person’s life that changes you.

Say Nothing absolutely preys on that parental emotional with a premise that would strike fear into any father or mother’s heart. Federal Judge Scott Sampson receives a text message from his wife telling him that he doesn’t need to pick the children up from school and is astonished later that evening when his wife arrives home without the children. Moments later the kidnappers get in touch, making it clear that in exchange for their children’s safety Sampson will need to act according to their instructions in his rulings on a case but if they tell anyone there will be severe consequences.

Parks focuses on the psychological impact that the kidnapping has on the parents and explores the way it affects their relationships with each other and their family and colleagues. Knowing that they cannot contact the FBI, Scott and Alison try to figure out who might be responsible but paranoia drives some of their actions and accusations and their seemingly perfect marriage threatens to crumble around them.

The decision to have most of the story told from Scott’s perspective is a solid one and it certainly allows the reader to feel that sense of paranoia build within him and to share in the choices he makes. The remaining chapters are told from the perspective of the kidnappers which I feel was a less successful choice as this gives away a lot of what is going on and at times only serves to remove some of the mystery about what is going on.

To Parks’ credit, he does sustain the premise and builds a sense of tension throughout his novel which is quite long for a thriller at close to 440 pages long. The chapters are relatively short, helping add to the suspense and keep the pages turning.

I appreciated the way Parks builds up the characters of Scott and Alison and introduces elements of their backstory as a family. I had a strong sense of empathy for both characters at points in the novel and when I was frustrated by them I could at least understand what led them to act the way they did.

Unfortunately I was less convinced by the depiction of the two children who seem unnaturally mature in the way they speak at points in the novel. As they play a relatively small role in the story I was able to overlook this and while it may not have been realistic, I do think that the choice did contribute to the clarity of the story.

As you might expect from a thriller there are several significant twists and revelations that help to keep things moving though there are remarkably few action sequences. Instead Parks builds a sense of mystery as Scott and Alison try to figure out just who may be responsible and what their ultimate aim is. While I am not sure if the fair play thriller is really a thing, I can say that the book gives the reader all you need to deduce this information and I felt that the conclusion was strong, if not spectacular.

While I am not sure that I would have felt quite so emotionally engaged in the story prior to becoming a father, I must admit that this story hit those parental trigger points very effectively and kept me turning the pages. I was pleasantly surprised by the development of the mystery which felt well-clued and engaged to the end. It worked for me and I will certainly consider trying some of Parks’ other work in the future.

Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts

Antidote
Antidote to Venom
Freeman Wills Crofts
Originally Published 1938
Inspector French #17
Preceded by Found Floating
Followed by The End of Andrew Harrison

Antidote to Venom is an example of a crime fiction sub-genre that I have absolutely fallen in love with over the past year: the inverted crime novel.

While I had been aware that there were mystery stories written from the perspective of the criminal, in the past year I have come to read several really excellent examples of this form, several of which are from this range of British Library Crime Classics. When written well, this allows the reader to experience the crime from the perpetrator’s perspective, understand their decision making and watch them sweat as the detective seems to get closer and closer. As the reader knows who did the crime and how, the question they must consider is just how the detective will manage to piece everything together.

Our criminal in this book is George Surridge, the director of the Birmington Zoo. At the start of the novel we learn that he is trapped in a marriage that has turned loveless and cold because he and his wife are unable to afford their lifestyle on his small salary. George feels sure that if only he could receive a promised inheritance from his Aunt, all of his problems would be solved…

A recurring theme of the inverted mystery form is that the events begin to spiral out of the murderer’s control, forcing increasingly reckless actions. When George meets a sweet and charming young woman he falls hopelessly in love with her and ends up making her his mistress, only exacerbating his financial woes. Ultimately these pressures all build on George and push him to commit murder in the hopes of staving off ruin and starting a new life for himself.

Crofts’ approach to writing is extremely methodical and, at times, seems to be a little ponderous and heavy-handed. This is particularly true of the end of the book which incorporates some spiritual reflection that can feel a little preachy and heavy-handed but the conclusion of the novel benefits from the clear and careful buildup as Wills is able to clearly explain to the reader what has happened and why.

George struck me as a convincing character, even if his plan for dispatching his victim seems ludicrously convoluted. He does some very grubby things in the course of this narrative, not least committing murder, yet I could understand his feelings of hopelessness and empathize with his desire to feel loved and a sense of affection.

The scheme that he utilizes to dispatch his victim is rather ingenious and quite memorable. It is certainly an original enough scheme that it threatens to stump Crofts’ series investigator, Inspector French, who finally shows up in the narrative’s final third to attempt to piece things together by being incredibly methodical and diligent.

The author, Freeman Wills Crofts, has something of a reputation as being quite a dull writer which I think is not particularly fair. I certainly have found several of his stories to be quite exciting and to be based on some interesting ideas. Yet while I think that descriptor is unfairly applied to the writer, I certainly think it can be used about his series detective.

I find it quite mystifying that a character such as Inspector French managed to appear in such a large number of books and yet seems so devoid of personality. While there is no questioning his brilliance at solving mysterious murders, I never feel he has a life beyond the narratives he gets caught up in. Here it is interesting to observe how he works to piece this case together when the murder method seemed so foolproof.

So, if the writing can be ponderous and the investigator is a bore, why do I like this book? Firstly, I think that the zoo setting is fun and quite memorable and I liked the way the zoo itself figures into the crime that is committed.

Secondly, George is an interesting and complex character. He does a terrible thing in the course of the story and yet we understand part of what has driven him to that place. While I think the elements of the ending reflecting issues of faith are heavy-handed, I did appreciate that Crofts is trying to introduce some ideas and a process of introspection for a character that are quite unusual in the genre.

Finally, the concept of the crime here is rather clever and it is the sort that sticks in the head. I was quite impressed by the way George attempts to set up the crime scene to hide his own involvement and I was curious to see how French would seek to piece things together.

Is it Crofts best work? No. Nor do I consider it to be even his best inverted mystery. Still, the story is quite pleasing in spite of its flaws and I resolved on completing the book that I would try to give French another shot soon.

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

I had been thinking a little about some of the features I would like to incorporate into this blog alongside the reviews of new and old books when it occurred to me that it might be interesting to take a look at a novel and an adaptation of that work in some format. The idea would be to comment on whether it captures the tone and spirit of the original work, some of the changes that were made and whether I felt it does the original work justice.

The novel and film I have selected to start with is Devil in a Blue Dress which I read for the first time over a decade ago. At that time I had never read a hard-boiled detective novel before and while I enjoyed aspects of the novel, I struggled to engage with the writing style and the novel’s grim outlook on the world.

Had it not been for an Audible special offer I might never have given the book a second thought but when the chance came to snap up an audio recording read by Michael Boatman for under a dollar I snapped it up on an impulse. Boatman brought Mosley’s hard-boiled prose and the character of Easy Rawlins and the characters he interacts with to life for me.

If you have never read the book or seen the movie, here is a potted summary:

It is 1948 and we are in Los Angeles. Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins is out of work and in desperate need of some money to help him pay his mortgage when into the bar walks DeWitt Albright, a white man who is offering to pay him to help locate a missing girl, Daphne Monet who he believes may be frequenting an African-American bar. That is, of course, just the start of an adventure that sees Easy getting beaten up, accused of murder and manipulated by just about everyone.

The Novel

Devilinabluedressbook
Devil in a Blue Dress
Walter Mosley
Originally Published 1990
Easy Rawlins #1
Followed by A Red Death

The first thing to say about Walter Mosley’s novel is that it is an incredibly significant and influential work within the hard-boiled mystery genre. Mosley was not the first successful African-American mystery novelist but he remains one of the most widely read and enjoyed. Easy Rawlins sees Los Angeles from a different perspective than other hard-boiled characters do and encounters different barriers in his investigations.

Simply being historically significant does not mean that the experience of reading it will necessarily be rewarding or enjoyable. After all, the first time I read the novel I was just as aware of its reputation but perhaps focused my attention on the plot without appreciating the skillful way Mosley builds a sense of time and place. What I noticed in my second reading that I had missed the first time through were the discussions of perception of a person’s race, of the lack of integration within society in that time and the way that Easy prizes his sense of agency above security at several points within the novel.

His story is compelling, especially in those sequences that feature the character of Mouse who is something of a wild card within Easy’s life and perhaps the ultimate example of the destructive friend who is really bad news. We learn about their relationship in flashbacks throughout the novel, building our anticipation for the moment when Mouse will inevitably enter the story.

While I found the narrative engaging, I did feel that the female characters in the story were somewhat one-note being defined primarily by their sexual presences. I recognize that this is hardly unusual for a hard-boiled work but it does make those characters seem a little flat and two-dimensional which is a shame when the characters of Easy and Mouse are so well drawn.

I am curious to see where the series leads and plan to listen to the next story at some point soon.

The Adaptation

DevilinaBlueDressmovie

Carl Franklin’s movie adaptation stars Denzel Washington in the role of Easy. By the time this film was made he was one of the highest profile actors around, having found critical and commercial success with Glory, Malcolm X and Philadelphia. Looking at the cast list, he was really the only established star in the mix which may help explain why the film was not a box office hit in spite of some strong reviews from critics.

Franklin keeps the initial set-up of the story the same but makes some changes to some character motivations and adds a new subplot to help condense and simplify the narrative. Characters such as Frank become less of a presence in the movie than they do in the book while Terrell’s significance is increased.

There are two changes to the story that I found to be particularly significant however. The first is that Daphne’s relationship with Easy is not consummated as it is in considerable detail in the book. That choice, in my opinion, strengthened her character and made her feelings about a third character clearer.

The second change really arises from the first and is hard to write about without spoiling both the book and the film. What I can say is that while many aspects of the ending remain in place in the film, the character motivations in those final scenes are notably different and give the ending a very different tone. I think that this different ending largely remains in keeping with the themes of the novel but it does put a different spin on a key relationship.

Generally though I was impressed at how well the film bought the world of 1940s Los Angeles to life. Visually the film is not glossy or lush but it is competently directed and does a good job of setting the scene and evoking a sense of time and place.

I was also quite pleased with the way most of the parts were cast with most of the characters being fairly good matches for how I had imagined them when reading. The exceptions were Todd Carter and DeWitt Albright. In the case of Carter I had imagined someone a little younger and childish, though the actor cast matched the character as portrayed in the film. In the case of Albright however I had thought the novel had mentioned being from the Georgia and I imagined him to physically look like a lawyer rather than the enforcer interpretation we see from Tom Sizemore. While those changes may sound cosmetic, in the case of Albright I felt it diminished the character a little, simplifying him.

Where the film gets it absolutely right is in the casting of Don Cheadle as Mouse for which he won a number of awards. While I cannot say that Cheadle is how I had imagined the character physically, his interpretation makes a lot of sense and captures the character’s sense of bravado. When you consider just how much material from his story is cut, in particular the flashback descriptions of how he committed two murders and his discussion with Easy about guilt, it is remarkable just how complete his presentation of that character is. The film noticeably shifts a gear when he arrives in the narrative and he gets several of the most powerful moments in the picture.

As for Denzel Washington, he does a very solid job with the role of Easy, particularly given we are only treated to the character’s internal monologue as a bookend to the movie. Given how important his internal voice is to the character and to helping the reader understand what he is doing and his feelings about the people around him, it is impressive how much of those feelings Washington is able to convey through his physical performance.

Overall, I think the film has stood the test of time fairly well and works well as an adaptation of the novel. I was struck as I watched it though that the material would surely be even more suited to television where the story could be given more room to breathe.

Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver

MurderattheBrightwell
Murder at the Brightwell
Ashley Weaver
Originally Published 2014
Amory Ames #1
Followed by Death Wears a Mask

Murder at the Brightwell is a charming novel that evokes many of the tropes and elements of the Golden Age mystery novel as well as the society comedies of the time. Stylistically it falls comfortably between being a historical mystery and a literary pastiche, perhaps being too modern in sentiment to be entirely either.

Regardless of how you categorize or label the novel it is a joy and that in large part comes down to its characterization. Our lead, Amory Ames, is a smart, witty and capable woman who has been left frustrated and disappointed by her marriage to the charming but reckless playboy Milo who she sees more of in the society pages and gossip columns than she does in person.

Years before the novel began she threw over her solid, dependable fiancé, Gil, to run off with and marry Milo on an impulse. Now Gil has turned up at her home to ask her to stay with him at the Brightwell Hotel in the hopes that she will speak with his sister about her experiences and scare her off marrying her own version of Milo, the dashing Rupert Howe.

Their plan is quickly derailed when, shortly after they arrive, they find Rupert murdered. Gil is arrested for the crime and Amory is determined that she will find some evidence to exonerate him, all the while dealing with her confusion about how she feels about him. And, if that wasn’t complicated enough, Milo turns up at the hotel and is soon drawn into the investigation himself.

If ever someone acquires the movie rights to this book and a time machine capable of going back and catching actors at the right age I am absolutely sure I can cast that movie. To me, Milo is Rupert Graves in the mid-to-late 90s or possibly a James Purefoy from around the time he did Rome. Dark, dashing and utterly charming with a little pinch of self-obsessed ass thrown into the mix. Amory is an Emma Thompson-type being confident, cutting and dignified in the most awkward and embarrassing of scenarios. As for Gil, read a solid and dependable Matthew Macfadyen.

Now, wouldn’t you want to see that movie?

I rarely read a story and imagine it being acted out – I am not that visual a reader – but this book so perfectly pitches its characters that I think most readers will be able to associate them with an analog. That does not mean that I think those characters are simplistic; Amory and Milo’s feelings about their dysfunctional relationship are surprisingly complex and I imagine many readers would feel conflicted about whether they would be happier apart.

The pair soon find themselves working together, with slightly different objectives, to prove Gil’s innocence. As a sleuthing team they are a highly entertaining pair but then I have always been a fan of bickering dialogue. I found their reasons for getting involved in this case credible and I appreciated that the tension between those characters at times inspires them to fresh discoveries and at others threatens to derail the whole case.

To my delight, that case was actually a pretty solid mystery complete with a good array of suspects and clues for Amory and Milo to consider as well as a healthy supply of red herrings to throw our detectives off the trail. The solution is unlikely to surprise many readers but I thoroughly enjoyed the process of getting there and felt satisfied by the conclusion.

Some may feel that the mystery plot is overshadowed by the romance elements. Others may regard the love triangle as lopsided with one man clearly set up as the character Amory will pick. Both of these complaints are justified, although neither troubled me. The romantic angle of the book is important because it has a bearing on how Amory and Milo are working together and it provides the motivation for the investigation in the first place.

Murder at the Brightwell may not be for everyone but I had a very enjoyable time reading it. The characters and setting are lively, the dialogue is witty and the mystery itself entertains. Weaver clearly has an enormous affection for the era of detective fiction she evokes and while this does not match the best of those for ingenuity, it certainly does for charm.

The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach

Collini
The Collini Case
Ferdinand von Schirach
Originally Published 2011

The Collini Case opens with a moment of brutality as Fabrizio Collini walks into a hotel room where Hans Meyer, a man in his eighties, is staying and viciously kills him. He then reports himself to the Police and waits calmly in the lobby to be taken into custody. He freely admits that he was responsible and offers no explanation for why he has committed the crime.

His court-appointed lawyer, Casper Leinen, has only been qualified for two months and has never defended a case before. He is already stumped about how he will mount a defense when he learns that he has a personal connection to the case that causes him to doubt whether he should have taken the case in the first place.

While I have described The Collini Case as a legal thriller for the purposes of categorization on this blog, it is perhaps better described as having two clear themes that it develops. The first is the question of the role the public defender must play and their responsibility to a client, even if they do not like them. This is best summed up in an early conversation between Leinen and his adversary and mentor, the prosecution lawyer Professor Richard Mattinger, which is recalled at several points throughout the work.

The second theme concerns the nature of justice and its relationship to the law. My determination not to provide spoilers in my reviews prevents me from being more explicit about how that manifests in this case but as this book draws on aspects of the author’s own life that he referred to in interviews around the time this was released in the English-speaking market, a quick Google search should give you a little more context on what precisely is being discussed here.

Not that this will be much of a mystery for many readers. While these questions suggest that this book might be a mystery, the context of the crime makes motivation quite easy to infer within the first few chapters and so our focus remains fairly tightly on these two themes.

That tight thematic focus is reinforced by the structure of the book which only presents us with the steps in the trial that most clearly relate to the novel’s themes. The actual trial itself is confined to just a couple of chapters at the end of the novel and focuses almost entirely on a single cross examination of a witness. This is not ineffective but it may lead some to question whether it can really be called a mystery or a legal thriller at all.

As I finished reading the novel I was struck by a comparison to a work by John Grisham, The Confession. In that novel Grisham seems to be primarily writing to make a political point about the death penalty and aspects of the plot are developed in service of that theme. The Collini Case takes a similarly campaigning approach to its storytelling, especially in some of the comments made during that long cross examination sequence but its brevity and the tone of the ending keep this from feeling manipulative.

The downside of that brevity is that it does not allow space for supporting characters to develop. Arguably the key character of Johanna never quite makes her stamp on the narrative, being seemingly portrayed more as a representation of what Leinen is giving up for the sake of the case rather than a fully fleshed out character in her own right. This is particularly frustrating because her perspective on the case ought to be so interesting based on her own involvement and because her first interaction with Leinen after he accepts the case is one of the most powerful moments in the book.

In spite of some weak characterization, I did appreciate how well this book devotes itself to its themes and I did appreciate the spartan prose style the writer adopts. While the mystery content is lacking, it will interest readers with an interest in criminal justice systems and its themes lend themselves well to discussion. Though this didn’t entirely hit the spot for me,  I would certainly be curious to try another of von Schirach’s works in the future.

October in Review

Having started my blog part-way through a month, the end seems like a good day to pause and take a moment to introduce myself properly before posting a summary of what I have reviewed over the past few weeks and what I have in store for November.

My name is Aidan and I am originally from the UK though I now reside in Georgia in the US. These days it is much easier to acquire works from overseas so it shouldn’t make much of a difference in what I review but I mention it because it helps account for the occasional inconsistency in spelling as I’m at that stage where both sets of spellings and grammar rules look right to me and it can be anyone’s guess which I’ll use on any given day.

Book of SlaughterMy love of mystery fiction is an inheritance from both of my parents who are both crime fiction enthusiasts. My father, Graham, is a crime fiction writer published by Endeavour Press but you won’t see his work reviewed on this blog for the obvious reason that, however impartial I may feel I am being, I am probably not distant enough from the work to be completely free of bias. For what it’s worth though, I think The Outrageous Behaviour of Left-Handed Dwarves is a really entertaining thriller that builds to a powerful conclusion. For those with relatively long memories, that book was the runner up in the 2011 Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger award. The second title in that series, The Book of Slaughter and Forgetting, comes out this November.

My mother seemed to always have a Morse or Dalziel and Pascoe book in the glove compartment of her car while Saturday and Sunday evenings were inevitably spent watching television adaptations of crime novels or original series such as Jonathan Creek as a family.

Independently of my parents, I was reading The Three Investigators, The Secret Seven and the Hardy Boys in my formative years. Sadly when I became a teen I found that the then-fledgling young adult market did not really offer much for mystery readers and found myself drawn more to fantasy and science fiction. I wouldn’t really read much in the mystery fiction line until I was nearing my late-20s and I discovered the works of I. J. Parker and her medieval Japanese mystery novels which really reengaged my interest in the genre.

These days I continue to enjoy historical crime fiction as well as reprints of Golden Age puzzle fiction or books that mimic that style. While this blog will mostly be focused on reviewing materials I have not read before, I will find the time every now and then to write a little about the specific writers who inspired me to love the genre.

My scope for this blog will be pretty wide as I interpret the mystery genre fairly broadly to include thrillers and adventure stories. I expect I will occasionally mix in a television, movie or radio adaptation or talk about original mystery series in other formats.

Books Read In October

The Detective Wore Silk Drawers by Peter Lovesey – a case of second album blues. Lovesey has a really great grip on the Victorian sporting world but while pedestrianism seemed strange and fascinating, the world of bare-knuckle boxing is far less engaging and the crime is quite drab.

The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude – an entertaining read with the victim dispatched in a memorable fashion! The unusual nature of the crime forces the writer to drop in information early in the novel to play fair with the reader that does rather give things away though.

The Birdwatcher by William Shaw – a standalone crime novel and one of my favorite books of the year. The way the chapters are split between action in the past and the present works wonderfully and Shaw creates some wonderful characters. This is my Book of the Month.

The Problem of the Green Capsule by John Dickson Carr – a wonderfully plotted story that I read after being inspired by a post by The Puzzle Doctor (he uses its other title, The Black Spectacles) I read after listening to a few Dr. Fell audio dramas. I plan on digging more into Carr’s work in the months ahead.

Murder Gets A Degree by Theodora Wender – I’ll totally admit that I bought this for the tag line and the hope it would set the mood for a Halloween celebration. After a promising start it missed on the latter and it never quite decides what type of mystery it wants to be. It’s not a mystery why there wasn’t another one of these but I felt I got value for my $0.75.

Death of Anton by Alan Melville – Another book from the British Library Crime Classics range and it’s one of the best I’ve read. Witty, clever with a very memorable setting. The lighthearted tone may not be to everyone’s taste but I loved it.

A Few Right Thinking Men by Sulari Gentill – The hardest review I wrote this month because while I really enjoyed the book, I felt it missed the mark as a mystery novel which is, after all, the focus of this blog. Go check out what I wrote about it though because it is a really entertaining read. I am also very pleased that I managed to get through 800 words about an Australian crime novel with a wealthy playboy not wanting to live up to societal obligations set in the early 20th century without referencing Kerry Greenwood’s Miss Fisher.

The Month Ahead

What can you expect from me in the next month? I tend to make plans and change them on a whim, especially when I get inspired to try a book by another blogger, but near the top of my To Read pile at the moment is Death of a Busybody by George Bellairs, The Master Key by Masako Togawa and I am currently reading Say Nothing by Brad Parks. You can also expect I will be among the first in line to see the new Murder on the Orient Express when it comes out.

See you in November and thanks for checking out my blog!

A Few Right Thinking Men by Sulari Gentill

RightThinking
A Few Right Thinking Men
Sulari Gentill
Originally Published 2010
Rowland Sinclair #1
Followed by A Decline in Prophets

Rowland is the youngest son in one of Australia’s wealthiest families, the Sinclairs. He was too young to have fought in the Great War which took his eldest brother’s life and, as an adult, he has shrugged off any high society obligations to live and work as an artist with a group of friends that include a sculptress, a poet and a painter, to his remaining brother’s disapproval.

One family member who is much more positive about his choices is his namesake, Uncle Rowly, who lives a hedonistic lifestyle. When this uncle is found dead, having been brutally beaten by a gang of assailants, Rowland is frustrated at how little progress the Police are making in investigating the murder.

Meanwhile Australian society seems to be headed towards a crisis point. Tensions are growing between the socialists and conservatives as Rowland notices when a left-wing rally he attends to support a friend degenerates into a brawl and he notices his conservative older brother seems obsessed with talk of revolution and insurrection when he visits his home to sort out his uncle’s estate. Soon Rowland begins to wonder if his Uncle’s murder may have had political motivations and he undertakes an investigation of his own.

One of the reasons I love to read historical mystery fiction is the sense that you may learn something while you are reading. I knew very little about this period in Australian history and so the events described were entirely new to me. I found the setting to be quite fascinating and having done a little research since finishing reading, I was interested to see just how much of the novel draws on established history and impressed at how well Sulari Gentill weaves her narrative around those events.

Rowland is a natural sleuth and I was impressed by how well Gentill is able to use his unconventional background to drive the investigation. Like Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, Rowland straddles two distinct social worlds and can live in each of them, albeit without ever truly being at home. The book is at its most successful when exploring the ways Rowland doesn’t quite fit with his family’s expectations or with the social group he chooses to associate with. He is a wonderful creation and I am certainly keen to read other stories featuring this character.

Gentill’s supporting characters are similarly well drawn and I appreciated that several of them were allowed to be ambiguous at points in the story. For instance, it is clear that Rowland feels something for Edna and Edna feels something for Rowland but it is not exactly a romance. Similarly, I appreciated that Wilfred is something more than just the disapproving older brother. While his relationship with Rowland is certainly frosty and awkward, Gentill gives them moments where you see hints of affection and takes the time to speculate on the reasons that these two men developed so differently and struggle to see the world in the same way.

As I turn to discuss the plot, I do have to acknowledge an issue that must inform my review on a mystery fiction blog. I think those expecting a puzzle mystery with multiple suspects and clues to consider may feel frustrated by how straightforward the solution to the murder turns out to be.

While the book is marketed as a mystery, an attentive reader will soon be able to infer much of what happened to Rowly simply by the choices the author makes in the developing the structure of their story. The writer does not offer enough alternative explanations and the only other reading of events is dismissed a little too effectively. In part that reflects just how tidy Gentill’s plotting is and how clearly the explanation makes sense.

The only question in relation to the murder that I think the reader will have by the midpoint of the novel is why Rowly was a target at all, and the revelation of the reason is unlikely to surprise the reader. In fact, some are likely to feel frustrated that Rowland considered that reason earlier in the narrative.

Structurally the book has more in common with a thriller or adventure story. Our hero identifies a possible suspect, puts themselves in danger to gather evidence and provide a resolution. The story even provides the hero with high stakes that gives their investigation national significance. This is still not quite a perfect fit but I think it is a better match for the expectations a reader may have.

To be clear, I did not feel that my enjoyment of this book suffered for the lack of a traditional detective story structure and I do think that there are a number of mysterious hooks to the narrative, even if they do not relate to the murder itself. I enjoyed discovering the broader historical context to this story, seeing how Rowland’s investigation would be managed and discovering more about his character and the people around him.

Assessed on its own merits, A Few Right Thinking Men is a really entertaining and interesting read. I would certainly encourage readers who enjoy historical novels to seek it out and I think readers who enjoy following an investigation will find much to enjoy here. Unfortunately the underdevelopment of the murder mystery keeps me from giving it a wider, more enthusiastic recommendation but I will certainly be seeking out a copy of the second title in the series.

Death of Anton by Alan Melville

death-of-anton-v2.indd
Death of Anton
Alan Melville
Originally Published 1936

I was impatient.

Death of Anton, a crime story originally published in 1936, was released as part of the British Library Crime Classics range in Britain over two years ago and it instantly caught my eye with its charming cover and intriguing description. I had waited patiently to be able to buy it but after two years I had given up hope that Poisoned Pen Press would be releasing it Stateside. I did however notice that it had been available for some time on Audible and decided that I was fed up of waiting. In fairly typical fashion I learned the next day that it would be released here this December.

As it happens I have no regrets. The book is a delight and one of the most enjoyable I have read in this range to date. For those who care about such things, I would add that the audiobook version is very well performed and that the narrator has an excellent handle on how to deliver the author’s witty prose.

Inspector Minto is a detective from Scotland Yard but when we first encounter him he is staying in a hotel in the hopes of dissuading his sister from marrying a man his brother deems unsuitable. Over breakfast he meets a clown who performs at a circus that is beginning a week’s run nearby and who, after hinting at some illegal intrigue taking place there, invites Minto (and guests) to a party he is giving after the evening’s performance.

Some time after dinner however as the party begins to die down the body of Anton, a tiger tamer, is found having seemingly been attacked by his own beasts. Minto becomes suspicious that this is not the simple accident it appears to be and begins his investigation.

I want to leave my description of the plot there because part of the fun of what follows is the way the story evolves as Minto tries to piece things together. There is one further development that I must reference however because it is one of the most distinctive elements of this story.

The brother of Mr. Minto is the priest at a nearby Catholic church and, following the murder, the person responsible goes to him and confesses to the murder. That details of that discussion cannot be divulged as they are under the confessional seal and so we have a character who is aware of the identity of the murderer and yet cannot knowingly provide any details to aid his brother’s investigation. This device works pretty well here as it means we have a character who can ultimately confirm the identity of the killer at the end of the story. It also provides an entertaining source of frustration for our detective at several points in the investigation.

Melville finds ways to frustrate his detective throughout the novel which I found quite delightful. Minto of Scotland Yard is often a competent detective and yet he is far from a brilliant one. At several points in the narrative he makes crucial mistakes or incorrect assumptions and yet he is also shown to be quite methodical and diligent in the way he approaches working on his leads and theories.

The circus setting is every bit as colorful and lively as you might expect and provides us with a collection of larger-than-life characters to suspect and enjoy. Their rivalries are another constant source of comedy throughout the book and some of their personalities are very amusingly observed.

Having focused on my comments on how amusing and colorful the book is, I think I should end by reflecting on the crime itself and its solution. Although the plot twists on several occasions and gives us some very memorable developments, the eventual solution is fairly straightforward and I found it to be the least interesting part of the book. Happily Melville figures out a way to work some laughter into the conclusion to keep his tone consistent while also providing some resolution but I suspect few readers will be wowed by Minto’s deductions.

Generally the solution to what is going on makes sense though I do believe there is a point in the story where Minto presumes something that he did not have evidence for at that moment. I didn’t feel cheated because I think that by the time that assumption becomes important the reader would have reached a similar conclusion by themselves and I don’t think it affects the outcome of the investigation at all and overall I would say Melville plays fair in the ways that matter.

Death of Anton is yet another triumph for one of my favorite ranges of mystery titles and is certainly an unusual and entertaining read. It is remarkable how effectively Melville makes a story that possesses several potentially dark moments feel light and whimsical in tone. It is Highly Recommended.

Availability Note: Death of Anton will be released in North America on December 5, 2017 and is already available on audio.