Erica Ruth Neubauer – Murder at the Mena House

Title: Murder at the Mena House
Author: Erica Ruth Neubauer
Series: Jane Wunderly Mysteries #1

Well-heeled travelers from around the world flock to the Mena House Hotel—an exotic gem in the heart of Cairo where cocktails flow, adventure dispels the aftershocks of World War I, and deadly dangers wait in the shadows . . .

Egypt, 1926. Fiercely independent American Jane Wunderly has made up her mind: she won’t be swept off her feet on a trip abroad. Despite her Aunt Millie’s best efforts at meddling with her love life, the young widow would rather gaze at the Great Pyramids of Giza than into the eyes of a dashing stranger. Yet Jane’s plans to remain cool and indifferent become ancient history in the company of Mr. Redvers, a roguish banker she can’t quite figure out . . .

While the Mena House has its share of charming guests, Anna Stainton isn’t one of them. The beautiful socialite makes it clear that she won’t share the spotlight with anyone—especially Jane. But Jane soon becomes the center of attention when she’s the one standing over her unintentional rival’s dead body.

Now, with her innocence at stake in a foreign country, Jane must determine who can be trusted, and who had motive to commit a brutal murder. Between Aunt Millie’s unusual new acquaintances, a smarmy playboy with an off-putting smile, and the enigmatic Mr. Redvers, someone has too many secrets. Can Jane excavate the horrible truth before her future falls to ruin in Cairo . . . and the body count rises like the desert heat?

Jane Wunderly is Not Like The Other Girls. Other girls dress up in ridiculously revealing dresses to impress men like whores. Jane has no interest in men.

Except for Mr. Redvers. I mean he doesn’t even tell her his first name, quite obviously lies to her or at least evades her questions but that doesn’t stop Jane from swooning about him while still insisting that she doesn’t need no men. Can we just stop with that? Either give me a character who says she has no interest in relationships and then sticks to it or one who says “Yeah. I want to marry (again) but I don’t want the first guy my overenthusiastic relatives who all think a woman without a man is worthless throw at me. I want to marry someone I actually care about.” In historicals that would still be unusual enough and would not give us the moral of “Actually, everyone wants a relationship and all those who say they don’t, just haven’t realized it, yet.”

So, no, I wasn’t a fan of the setup of the blossoming romance. Especially since, as mentioned, I saw no reason why she should even trust him…And if possible I was even less a fan of the mystery. I admit I’m already not the biggest fan of “Sleuth starts sleuthing because they/someone close to them is a suspect” but that wasn’t even a particularly well-done variety of that trope. It never feels like the inspector is really serious about his suspicions. He barely plays a part in the novel and the most threatening thing he does is ask her not to leave the hotel for a while. That leaves us with the “Sleuth starts sleuthing because they totally know better than the stupid police” trope, except that you could even argue that it’s not Jane doing the sleuthing but her mouth. Without her agreement. Yes, the phrase “And before I could stop myself I found myself saying X” gets overused in this book. Oh and what she finds herself saying is usually stuff she strictly speaking shouldn’t know and occasionally she does it while being alone with the suspect. Yes, Jane is one of the people you find pictured in the dictionary next to “Too Stupid Too Live”. But she still somehow survives…and solves everything thanks to a string of ridiculous coincidences. Because that what sleuths in bad cozy mysteries always do.

ARC received from NetGalley

J. Jefferson Farjeon – The Z Murders

Richard Temperley arrives at Euston station early on a fogbound London morning. He takes refuge in a nearby hotel, along with a disagreeable fellow passenger, who had snored his way through the train journey. But within minutes the other man has snored for the last time – he has been shot dead while sleeping in an armchair.

Temperley has a brief encounter with a beautiful young woman, but she flees the scene.

When the police arrive, Detective Inspector James discovers a token at the crime scene: a small piece of enamelled metal. Its colour was crimson, and it was in the shape of the letter Z. Temperley sets off in pursuit of the mysterious woman from the hotel, and finds himself embroiled in a cross-country chase – by train and taxi – on the tail of a sinister serial killer.

I can only suspend my disbelief so far and this book went further. 

Much further.

It’s the story of Richard Temperley who enters the smoking-room of a hotel just when a woman is leaving. He has never met this woman before and they don’t talk. Richard then finds a murdered man in the room and calls the police as any honest citizen would. He also mentions the woman to the police and of course that makes them curious. But Richard decides that the woman can’t have committed the murder because…she’s a woman and also beautiful? And beautiful women can’t commit crimes. Ever. Even when the inspector patiently points out that the police doesn’t necessarily suspect her but is still looking for her because she might have seen something Richard goes basically “I see. You are planning to lock her in the darkest dungeon and throw away the key. YOU MONSTER! And anyway it’s not like I would know where to find her.” and the inspector then shows massive self-restraint by not murdering Richard on the spot.

Then Richard picks up the handbag the mysterious lady lost and that the police conveniently missed, finds her calling card in it and goes to visit her. He meets her there but she is incapable of giving a straightforward answer and really does nothing that makes it seem she is an innocent bystander who knows nothing about the crime. Does Richard care? No. His blood left his brain long ago and is now somewhere else. So when the lady disappears again he decides to look for her himself instead of talk to the police.

To be fair to the book: this isn’t a classic mystery. This is an unashamedly batshit insane pulp thriller with an unashamedly batshit insane finale (which I admit was beautiful). It’s not meant to be realistic, or even vaguely reality-adjacent in the way Christie et al. are. I didn’t expect it to be. I’ve read Farjeon before. Seven Dead features both a shipwreck and a plane-crash. But -well- I can only suspend my disbelief so far and this plot made me overstretch it and I might have injured my eyes from rolling them so much.

Perhaps I could have lived with it if Richard had known the woman before. It still would have been a shallow reason for his actions but “I know this woman and can’t believe she’s a murderer even if she’s acting oddly” is still better than “she’s too pretty to be evil”

KJ Charles: Slippery Creatures

Title: Slippery Creatures
Author: KJ Charles
Series: Will Darling #1

Will Darling came back from the Great War with a few scars, a lot of medals, and no idea what to do next. Inheriting his uncle’s chaotic second-hand bookshop is a blessing…until strange visitors start making threats. First a criminal gang, then the War Office, both telling Will to give them the information they want, or else.

Will has no idea what that information is, and nobody to turn to, until Kim Secretan—charming, cultured, oddly attractive—steps in to offer help. As Kim and Will try to find answers and outrun trouble, mutual desire grows along with the danger.

And then Will discovers the truth about Kim. His identity, his past, his real intentions. Enraged and betrayed, Will never wants to see him again.

But Will possesses knowledge that could cost thousands of lives. Enemies are closing in on him from all sides—and Kim is the only man who can help.

Is “I stayed up past midnight to finish is ” enough of a review? I feared as much. Well then let me start like this: Slippery Creatures is a romance but ends with a happily-for-now rather than a happily-ever-after. The characters are more or less happy where they are but there are still things unsaid and neither of them really thought about their future and if it includes the other one. And that’s a good thing. Because this way we get a really fun and engaging mystery and a good romance that develops in a sensible and normal time-frame. I mean I love me my romance mysteries but occasionally, when I read one and really enjoyed the mystery, the romance fell somewhat flat because the big obstacle to the relationship conveniently vanished into thin air ten pages before the end. here there’s no need to rush the romance because it’s not ending with Will and Kim getting a whatever is the Edwardian pulp equivalent to a white picket fence is. Just with them having agreed that they really enjoy the time they’re spending with each other.

So there’s is lots of space for the gloriously pulpy mystery and I loved every line of it. It had everything. Coded messages! Menacing gangs with creative nicknames! A very dangerous secret! Traitors! What more can you wish for?

Throughout the story we only get Will’s POV, a somewhat odd choice for romance but it works. Because despite that, Kim’s emotions aren’t kept from the reader. It’s not as easy as him saying what he feels (what do you expect? he’s a posh English guy), but I could still read enough about him between the lines to get to know him and care about him, which I often find hard when it comes to the non-POV character in a romance.

So when is the next book coming out?

Carol Carnac – Crossed Skies

Title: Crossed Skies – An Alpine Mystery
Author: Carol Carnac (E. C. R. Lorac)

In London’s Bloomsbury, Inspector Julian Rivers of Scotland Yard looks down at a dismal scene. Here is the victim, burnt to a crisp. Here are the clues – clues which point to a good climber and expert skier, and which lead Rivers to the piercing sunshine and sparkling snow of the Austrian Alps. Yet there is something sinister beneath the heady joys of the slopes, and Rivers is soon confronted by a merry group of suspects, and a long list of reasons not to trust each of them. For the mountains can be a dangerous, changeable place, and it can be lonely out between the pines of the slopes… 

The blurb for this book intrigued me immediately. A murder in London that is somehow connected to a group of people skiing in the Alps? Exactly my cup of tea. After reading the introduction I was somewhat disappointed after discovering that Carol Carnac is a pseudonym of E. C. R. Lorac. I’ve already read some of her books and while not bad they were quite obviously mass-produced mystery-by-the numbers. C follows B follows A. If you want to be really surprised, you have to look somewhere else.

Admittedly, Crossed Skies isn’t quite as by-the-numbers. We get two stories that run parallel: In London, Inspector Rivers is investigating a murder where he’s not even quite sure who the victim is. In Austria a group of friends are on a skiing-holiday. There is, of course, a connection. And it’s not that much a surprise what the connection turns out to be but it’s different from the formula Lorac usually uses and I found it more entertaining than her other works.

Still, there were some issues; the group of friends that go skiing? 16 people in total. And that in a relatively short book (240 pages in the paperback edition) and half the time we don’t even spend with them but in London with Inspector Rivers. There’s no way that one can really get to know all of those people…I’m not even sure if all of them had a speaking role or if some were just mentioned in passing. You can’t say they were there to enlarge the suspect pool and confuse the reader because that would require the reader to be aware of them and for most of them I can’t say that I was. Overall there were perhaps 5 or 6 characters that played an actual role in the story and several of those could easily be removed from the suspect list for various reasons. And that, once again, leaves us with E. C. R. Lorac. Mass-producer of crime fiction whose work doesn’t offer that many surprises.

What can be said for her is that she put effort in the surrounding/the time her novels were set in. Previous books were firmly anchored in the time of the Blitz/blackout and this one is set shortly after WWII during the time of rationing and with some shadows of the war still looming over everything. I do enjoy that aspect of her work but it doesn’t quite cover up the weakness of the mystery.

John Dickson Carr: Castle Skull

‘That is the case. Alison has been murdered. His blazing body was seen running about the battlements of Castle Skull.’
And so a dark shadow looms over the Rhineland where Inspector Henri Bencolin and his accomplice Jeff Marle have arrived from Paris. Entreated by the Belgian financier D’Aunay to investigate the gruesome and grimly theatrical death of actor Myron Alison, the pair find themselves at the imposing hilltop fortress Schloss Schädel, in which a small group of suspects are still assembled.
As thunder rolls in the distance, Bencolin and Marle enter a world steeped in macabre legends of murder and magic to catch the killer still walking the maze-like passages and towers of the keep.

Before Castle Skull I’d only read a couple of John Dickson Carr short stories in anthologies and was not exactly overwhelmed. They were a bit too outlandish for me. Of course, Carr is “the master of the locked room mystery” and those are rarely down-to-earth and full of realism but there’s “this isn’t that realistic” and there’s the “apart from a 10-step cunning plan by the villain this also requires a riddiculous chain of coincidences to work” that happened in the Carr stories I came across.

This book…well it features a riddiculous mustache-twirling villain and a series of coincidences that should have made me roll my eyes. But it also fully commited to the riddiculousness. I mean, it’s called Castle Skull for God’s sake. And the eponymous castle isn’t called like that for some strange outlandish reason…it simply resembles a skull if you look at it from a certain distance. The murder victim was shot and then set on fire and “danced” and screamed before eventually dying. This book doesn’t pretend to be a normal run-of-the-mill mystery and then hit you over the head with a riddiculous solution (which happened to me with the other Carr stories). It goes: “Do you want to read something over-the top and insane? Sit down with me. I have just the right thing for you.” And I really can’t complain about that.

ARC received from NetGalley

E. Phillips Oppenheim – The Great Impersonation

Title: The Great Impersonation
Author: E. Phillips Oppenheim

East Africa, 1913. The disgraced English aristocrat Everard Dominey stumbles out of the bush, and comes face to face with his lookalike— the German Baron von Ragastein.

Months later, Dominey returns to London and resumes his glittering social life. But is it really Dominey who has come back, or a German secret agent seeking to infiltrate English high society? As international tension mounts and the great powers of Europe move closer to war, Dominey finds himself entangled in a story of suspicion and intrigue. He must try to evade his insane and murderous wife as well as escape the attentions of the passionate Princess Eiderstrom, and will eventually uncover the secret of the ghost that haunts his ancestral home.

There are two mysteries in this novel. though neither is a typical whodunit, it’s more general questions that the reader is supposed to wonder about. The first question is: who exactly is the main character of this book? Because in the first chapter we witness a meeting between Englishman Everard Dominey and German Baron von Ragastein who went to school together and who look so much alike that they could be twins. Then we learn that Ragastein is a German spy and he plans to kill Dominey, take his place and infiltrate British society. In the next chapter, we’re back in Britain and Dominey is welcomed there, though many people remark on how much he has changed. So which of the two has returned? Let’s put it this way: I had my suspicions where this question was concerned and at the end, I wasn’t terribly surprised (and I doubt that others will be).

The second question concerns the reasons Dominey left England in the first place: he quarrelled with a man, attacked him and seemingly killed him but his body was never found. Now the man’s ghost seems to haunt the woods where it all happened. More events are connected to this tragedy: after coming home covered in the man’s blood his wife – being a weak and feeble woman – went mad and now she’s taken care of by the dead man mother who hates Dominey with a passion. The question here is: what exactly happened that day, where’s the body and how does it all together? Here I also had my suspicions. Not about every detail but about some things and again I wasn’t terribly surprised at the reveal.

Which leaves a rather predictable story with characters that are…not exactly deep and complex. Since we’re not told if the main character is Dominey or von Ragastein, we don’t get too much of his inner thoughts and feelings which would give away whom he is fooling. But as a result I never felt much of a connection to him. The women meanwhile get two pick one or more of the following traits: hot, mad, evil and are all obsessed with Dominey/Ragastein in one way or the other and that’s also rather exhausting.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes

Title: The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes

Enthralled by the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Victorian readers around the world developed a fascination with eccentric detectives and bizarre crimes. Featuring an international array of authors and characters, this compilation of 16 short stories showcases the best of the mysteries inspired by the Baker Street sleuth. Holmesians and other lovers of old-time mysteries will thrill to these tales of dark deeds and their discovery.

Who are Holmes’ rivals? One could argue for different answers to this question: other investigators who are not part of the police force, other genius detectives or other detectives who have a faithful biographer who tells their stories. This collection went for: all of the above and also really all sorts of mystery stories written between the Victorian era and the 1910s (yes, the newest story is from 1914, definitely post-Victorian), including stories about people committing crimes and stories about useless policemen who need to have the solution stuffed in their face by someone else. There’s no recognisable order to the presentation of the stories. It’s not chronological or geographical (the foreword promises stories from all over the world which means UK, US and France) and not by any quirk of the sleuth, either.

There’s also only an introduction to the whole collection (that boils down to “ACD wasn’t the only writer of mysteries”) and nothing for the single stories that would put them in some context or give additional information about the author. Why is this Father Brown story in the collection and not a different one? Who is Headon Hill when he doesn’t write uncomfortably racist story about magical Indians? (Btw, a question to which Google only has a rather unsatisfactory answer). What is going on in that Max Carrados story? It would have been nice to have those questions answered in a few sentences but there is nothing. Though some more googling tells me that many of the stories are simply the first in the series with a particular sleuth which really just adds to the feeling that this was all put together rather sloppily. It’s not that those type of stories need to be read in order for full enjoyment.

Of course there’s still the stories themselves and they are the usual mixed bag. There are well-known names and I admit that I even enjoyed some of those that were by authors I’m usually less fond of. (The Ninescore Mystery might truly be the first Baroness Orczy I didn’t dislike). There are also a few authors in there I have never heard of and those mostly fell in the categories “I have no intention of searching for more” and “I wish I could go back to not knowing about them”.

In the end, I’m again wondering Who is this book aimed at? Because if you’ve dug into Victorian (and Edwardian) detective fiction before, you’ll have heard of most of the authors before (and because so many are first in the series, chances are that you even know this exact story). And if you’re new to this kind of fiction, the lack of organisation and additional information can easily be confusing and overwhelming.

ARC provided by NetGalley