Freeman Wills Crofts: The 12:30 from Croydon

Title: The 12:30 from Croydon
Author: Freeman Wills Crofts
Series:  Inspector French #11

We begin with a body. Andrew Crowther, a wealthy retired manufacturer, is found dead in his seat on the 12.30 flight from Croydon to Paris. Rather less orthodox is the ensuing flashback in which we live with the killer at every stage, from the first thoughts of murder to the strains and stresses of living with its execution. Seen from the criminal’s perspective, a mild-mannered Inspector by the name of French is simply another character who needs to be dealt with. This is an unconventional yet gripping story of intrigue, betrayal, obsession, justification and self-delusion. And will the killer get away with it?

Rating: not my cup of airplane-coffee (but perhaps yours?)

When I read (or watch) a mystery I mainly enjoy watching the detective figure out who did it. It doesn’t even have to be a ‘fair’ mystery where I can guess along with them. I don’t need the chance to play along to enjoy watching the investigator find clues.

Of course, if you pick up a modern crime novel (or watch a police procedural), chances are you will also spend a lot of time with the personal problems of the detective(s). I don’t mind that too much, provided the character is likeable. And since I rarely read/watch things if I dislike the characters, that’s usually not an issue.

Then there are of course crime stories that don’t focus on the detective but on somebody else that is connected with the murder. The murderer as in this case or – as I have been seeing now and then in procedurals – people who were close to the victim. And I won’t deny that I found some of those really great. You only have to go to another Crime Library Classic – Portrait of a Murderer – to hear me singing the praises of a book that is mostly told from the POV of the killer, and I was also impressed by some procedural episodes that spent more time on the victim’s family than average.

Well…but if you do that you have to be really good to distract me from the fact that I’m not getting what I expected and wanted. If I’m reading an ‘ordinary’ crime novel that’s just average – with an inspector who is not that memorable, clues that are a bit too obscure and a motive that’s a bit far-fetched – I’ll still enjoy myself if I get to see the puzzle-solving I came for. If you tell the whole story from the POV of the killer and I don’t get to see any puzzle-solving, he needs to be really entertaining to make up for that fact. And Charles is just a very average person who’s sort of clever (his murder method admittedly was). He murders a not particularly likeable man because he needs money. For once because his factory is in a bad state and if he doesn’t invest in new machinery he’ll have to close it down and all the workers will lose their jobs but also because he wants money to impress (and marry) a woman. He feels some remorse when it turns out that his plot also led to suspicion falling on his cousin but not a huge amount. All very average. And average isn’t enough to make me forget that this wasn’t what I wanted. (Incidentally, in the final chapter the inspector explains what made him suspicious and how he went on to prove his suspicions and I kept thinking about how much I would have enjoyed the same story told as a regular mystery).

Now if your expectations on the mystery genre are different from mine, this book might be more up your alley. Charles isn’t so loathsome that I disliked spending time in his head. And his plan was clever – I simply would have rather seen Inspector French unravel it.

KJ Charles: An Unsuitable Heir

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Title: An Unsuitable Heir
Author: KJ Charles
Series: Sins of the City #3

A private detective finds passion, danger, and the love of a lifetime when he hunts down a lost earl in Victorian London.

On the trail of an aristocrat’s secret son, enquiry agent Mark Braglewicz finds his quarry in a music hall, performing as a trapeze artist with his twin sister. Graceful, beautiful, elusive, and strong, Pen Starling is like nobody Mark’s ever met—and everything he’s ever wanted. But the long-haired acrobat has an earldom and a fortune to claim.

Pen doesn’t want to live as any sort of man, least of all a nobleman. The thought of being wealthy, titled, and always in the public eye is horrifying. He likes his life now—his days on the trapeze, his nights with Mark. And he won’t be pushed into taking a title that would destroy his soul.

But there’s a killer stalking London’s foggy streets, and more lives than just Pen’s are at risk. Mark decides he must force the reluctant heir from music hall to manor house, to save Pen’s neck. Betrayed by the one man he thought he could trust, Pen never wants to see his lover again. But when the killer comes after him, Pen must find a way to forgive—or he might not live long enough for Mark to make amends.

Rating: a fun but not very memorable artistic performance

Over the course of the Sins of the City trilogy, three couples find love (four if you count the background couples as well) and a case involving secret heirs, bigamy and murder is solved. I loved the twists and turns the mystery took and I enjoyed the romances in each book (admittedly some a lot *cough Justin and Nathaniel cough* and some more in a ‘It’s nice that these nice people get to be happy’ way) but the combination of both didn’t do the story any favours.

Romances often start with the couple’s first meeting and end with their happy end. So far so obvious. But due to various reasons connected to the overarching mystery plot Pen and Mark’s first meeting is halfway through An Unnatural Vice, the second Sins of the City book. And while we don’t see much of them in Vice, a decisions Mark makes leads to a huge event at the end of the book. So when I started An Unsuitable Heir I already knew what was going to happen and was then not too surprised when it did – almost 50% into the book. Since it is such an important and emotional moment in their relationship, knowing what was coming lessened the impact a lot for me. I went through the first half of the book going “So when are we finally coming to the stuff I don’t know, yet?”

I think that was the main reason why I couldn’t really get as invested in the relationship. Sure, there’s a difference: In Vice we only saw the events from an outsider’s perspective while we are in the heads of those directly affected by the events during Heir but I still found that knowing so much about what would happen removed a lot of the tension. 

In the end I very much like the idea behind the Sins of the City trilogy – an overarching background mystery plot with a complete romance in each book but the execution was simply lacking due to the timelimes that overlapped too much.

Max Allan Collins: The Titanic Murders

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Title: The Titanic Murders
Author: Max Allan Collins 
Series: Disaster #1

When a passenger is found dead inside a locked cabin aboard the opulent Titanic, it’s a crime worthy of “the Thinking Machine,” the popular fictional investigator who solves mysteries using formidable logic. So who better to crack this real-life case than author Jacques Futrelle, the man behind America’s favorite detective?

On board for a romantic getaway with his wife, Futrelle agrees to conduct a stealth inquiry. The list of suspects on the Titanic’s first-class deck is long and includes the brightest lights from high society, each with no shortage of dark secrets. As the mammoth ship speeds across the Atlantic toward its doom, Futrelle races to uncover which passenger has a secret worth killing for—before the murderer strikes again.

Rating: Sunk while leaving the harbour

If we ignore for a moment that this book is set on a not exactly unknown ship (and features a real person as sleuth) and just focus on the mystery…I am already not very impressed.

It starts incredibly slow. Partly thanks to the’manuscript in the attic’ opening. You know how Holmes pastiches often start with the narrator telling you about that manuscript he found in his attic and then he did some research and discovered his grandfather served together with Watson and that’s how they got involved into this case together? And he goes on and on about it, while you’re just sitting there going “I know Holmes wasn’t a real person. I know you made this all up. Just spare me and get on with the actual story.” Here, it’s not a manuscript but a midnightly mysterious phone call that leads to some further investigation and many descriptions of things nobody cares about before the story finally starts.

At least it sort of does. Because The Titanic Murders is one of those mysteries where rather obvious who is going to be the victim. One can tell pretty much as soon as the character appears that he won’t have to worry about getting a spot on one of the lifeboats. And that itself is not a bad thing. In some of the most enjoyable mysteries, it takes just a few pages till you can guess who will be killed. But the thing about those is: the person then does get offed pretty quickly. In this eight hour audiobook, it takes more than three till the murder finally happens; and that’s simply too long. Nobody wants to wait almost half a book for something obvious to happen.

At least, once the murder has happened Futrelle can start his sleuthing. And what a brilliant sleuth he is. He just goes from one person to the next and tells them “Hey, there’s this guy who has tried to blackmail me. Has he, by any chance, also tried to blackmail you?” And this sledgehammer approach obviously…works? Because who wouldn’t be inclined to answer such a question? Especially since Futrelle is pretty much a stranger to most of them. (Of course, any story featuring an amateur sleuth will require some suspension of disbelief because normally, people don’t welcome randoms strangers who ask personal questions with open arms but there’s suspension of disbelief and there’s whatever this is – overstretching of disbelief possibly).

And now for the elephant (iceberg?) in the room. This book is set on the Titanic. Now I like dramatic irony as much as the next person and I’m also not averse to some dark humour but this book really overdid it:

  • When the first class passengers learn that Captain Smith intents to retire after the crossing, they tell him that the White Star line should still let him on the ships as passenger so he can be a good luck charm (you see, it’s funny because Smith will have incredibly bad luck, the ship will sink and over a thousand people will die)
  • When Futrelle is asked to investigate the murder on the ship they ask him to keep it quiet and he says that he understands that they don’t want the Titanic to be associated with death forever (you see, it’s funny because the ship will sink and over a thousand people will die and it will be associated with death forever)
  • A passenger tells a story that is supposed to doom everybody who hears it. He explains that he doesn’t believe in such nonsense and laughs that if he did, he would have just doomed the whole ship (you see it’s funny because the ship is doomed. It will sink and over a thousand people will die)
  • Futrelle is reading The Wreck of Titan or Futility while on board so of course, he jokes that the Titanic will be fine as long as there’s no iceberg (you see, it’s funny because there will be an iceberg, the ship will sink and over a thousand people will die)

There’s more but you get the gist. While it does take a certain kind of person to go “A murder mystery set on the Titanic? Yes please.” and I am obviously one of those people since I picked up the book in the first place this kind of sledgehammer approach gets exhausting very quickly. And is really not that funny…just like it isn’t funny that he used the names of real Titanic passengers for all characters. The blackmailing murder victim has the name of a real Titanic passenger. His accomplice as well. And, of course, the murderer, too. Why is that necessary? Why not make up some names? With some minor tweaks to the story, it would have worked just as well without accusing real people who only died in the last century of blackmail and murder.

In my teenage years I was very obsessed with certain US procedurals and Collins wrote tie-in novels for the CSIs and Criminal Minds which I read and quite enjoyed. His plots were engaging and I appreciated his sense of humour, which is why I did have some hopes for this book and was even mildly curious about the Disaster series. But now I really doubt that I will continue.

Mini Reviews November 2018

35218493Niamh Murphy – Escape to Pirate Island
(Historical f/f romance)

dnf

At the start of the book, Cat, one half of the designated couple, is on a smuggling mission that goes badly wrong and gets a lot of her comrades killed. Lily, the other half, just lost her father and he left her seemingly nothing but a huge mountain of debt. So, neither of them is in a very good place emotionally…and that was in no way conveyed by the narration. Sure, we got occasionally told that they were Really Very Sad but it never felt like it because there wasn’t to much time spent on it. We just got a lot of action-scenes and I grant the author that they were good. Only, well-written action scenes can only get you so far if they involve characters I don’t care about. And I didn’t really care about *checks notes…how were they called?* Cat and Lily.

Besides, the author seems to think you can make your dialogue old-timey by characters happily switching between Ye, You, Thou and Thee without any consideration of the fact that they were used differently.

I feel when trying to find good historical f/f romances the inofficial moto is:


23166591Melissa Scott – Fair’s Point (Astreiant #4)
(Fantasy m/m mystery romance)

A fun day at the races

Another fun entry in the series but also one I can’t say much more about that I haven’t already said about the previous books. I’m always there for murder meets magic and this magical murder has likeable characters and a really cool world 😉

Dogs are involved in this books so I have an excuse to post this gif (psst…it’s actually a wolf but we don’t really care, do we?):



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Robert Galbraith: Lethal White (Strike #4)
Crime fiction

4/5 dark family secrets

It takes almost 300 pages till a murder happens. (Well, a fresh murder, there is a perhaps-murder that happened long ago that Strike isn’t supposed to be investigating and that mostly stays in the background). I did not miss anything in these 300 pages and actually only realised that I had been glued to a story that was ‘just’ about blackmail a few pages after the murder. The mystery was just so engaging. It did remind me a lot of Agatha Christie: a highly dysfunctional family (and some people connected to them) with lots of secrets and grudges and the investigator has to figure which of those are connected to the crime. (There was more blood and general ugliness than in the average Christie, though).

And that is what I want from my crime-novels: a good puzzle. Of course, Strike’s and Robin’s private life still features prominently but it never overwhelms the story (a reason I gave up on so many crime novels).

I could have done without certain parts of the ending but that didn’t ruin my reading experience too much.

And it was a very nice murder.

Julian Symons: The Belting Inheritance

41750950Title: The Belting Inheritance
Author: Julian Symons

Lady Wainwright presides over the gothic gloom at Belting, in mourning for her two sons lost in the Second World War. Long afterwards a stranger arrives at Belting, claiming to be the missing David Wainwright – who was not killed after all but held captive for years in a Russian prison camp. With Lady Wainwright’s health fading, her inheritance is at stake, and the family is torn apart by doubts over its mysterious long-lost son. Belting is shadowed by suspicion and intrigue – and then the first body is found. 

Rating: Disinherited

The story’s set up is not that unusual for a classic mystery: A man appears on Lady Wainwright’s doorstep, claiming he is her oldest son David who was declared dead in the second World War after his plane was shot down. Lady Wainwright, whose health is fading, needs not much convincing and happily accepts the man as her son. Miles and Stephen – her two other sons – are less certain that the man is really their oldest brother. Not long after he appears, a murder happens.

The only slightly unusual thing about it so far is the narrator: Christopher. He’s a distant relative who was taken in by the Wainwright’s after his parents’ death in a plane crash. So, he’s neither a policeman nor one of those amateur sleuths who keep tripping over bodies. He’s a family member but removed enough to be more level-headed about the whole affair. He has neither Lady Wainwright’s deep desire to see her favourite son alive nor the other sons’ worry about having to share their inheritance. That means he has neither reason to believe David nor to disbelieve him. 

But the thing about Christopher is, that he is also an extremely annoying narrator. He’s an incredibly patronising 18 at the time of the events in the book but tells the story decades later – as an incredibly condescending old man. Inbetween him recollecting the events he deigns to grace the reader with his opinion on various literary works (like Treasure Island and The Moonstone – both are stupid because they have narrators who would never actually sit down and write down a story), tells us all about the interior decoration in his Thomas Lovell (his bedroom…don’t ask) and generally gives his opinion on everything. And, of course, since he is telling the story as a much older man, he can also give his opinion on his younger self, giving his opinion…

And then there’s the final third of the book: In it, Christopher finds something that suggests a quite definite answer to the question “Is this man really David?” But he doesn’t show it to anybody in the family. He leaves a note saying “I know what’s going on! Now I’m off to Paris” And then he is off to Paris where a string of miraculous coincidences happen and he has a revelation that solves everything while he is drunk on pastis and watching an Ibsen play. It all reads like the author had a maximum page-count and had a hard time resolving the multitude of threads so he just went “Oh who cares? He knows this because…because you are more intelligent when you are drunk! GENIUS! GIVE ME AN AWARD!” That’s a shame because once I had made my peace with Christopher’s annoyingness, I enjoyed the story and all the twists and turns it took. And I think the solution is very clever – but the way we got there isn’t. 

 

ARC provided by NetGalley

Leonard R. Gribble: The Arsenal Stadium Mystery

40861729Title: The Arsenal Stadium Mystery
Author: Leonard R. Gribble

Murder mystery enters the world of English football in this 1939 classic.

In a high stakes final between a team of amateurs and the Arsenal side of 1939, a player drops dead on the pitch shortly after halftime. It’s up to Detective Inspector Slade to unravel the multiplicity of motives and suspects behind this case of the foulest play possible.

Rating: A rather dull 0:0 draw

When Jack Doyce collapses during a football match and dies not much later it doesn’t take long to discover that he was murdered. And a suspect appears just as quickly: Phillip Morring was Doyce’s business partner. His death means Morring receives a large sum of money from the life insurance. They were on the football team together, so Morring had the opportunity to poison him and when Slade discovers that Morring’s fiancée was having an affair with Doyce it seems that everything fits together perfectly.  But Slade isn’t fully convinced, especially after he finds out that Doyce was implicated in a tragedy that happened a few years back. Is someone taking revenge? But the evidence against Morring is piling up as well, so is perhaps the most obvious solution the right one after all?

The mystery itself is solid and keeps you guessing. It does require some suspension of disbelief (among other things, the plot only works because a girl told nobody whom she was getting engaged to, not even her own father) but not more than in the average golden age mystery.

In a solid mystery, I can usually excuse bland detectives and Slade is very bland. (How bland? you ask. Well, on Goodreads his name was mistakenly given as MacDonald and I had not noticed that and happily called him as MacDonald in this review until I looked up a quote in the book and saw that he was in fact called Slade). And with the exception of Pat Laruce – Morring’s fiancée – so are most side-characters. They are in fact, for a mystery novel, surprisingly sensible. Morring, for example, immediately tells the police about the fact that he gains a lot of money from Doyce’s death. He is slightly less forthcoming about his fiancée but once he realizes that the police know, he comes clean immediately – and so do most other characters in similar situations. Only Pat, the already mentioned exception, is as unhelpful as possible and has her own agenda. As such she’s more like a character one is used to from mysteries but next to all the others, she appears more like a comical caricature.

Then there’s the football connection which felt forced. The victim is a football player who died during a match. But he could just as easily have been killed during a weekend country house party.  Neither the football nor the cameos by Arsenal players and the manager added anything to the story. Perhaps you have to be a real football-fan for that and care a lot about Arsenal (and its 1939 team) to get anything out of that and with my casual ‘I pay some attention to the German league table and am happy when certain teams are in the upper half’ attitude it didn’t really work.

And then there’s…

“Well, Inspector?” asked the Arsenal manager. “I’m afraid Dr Meadows doesn’t think it was an accident,” said the Yard detective.

Epithets. So many of them. Any character who appears more than one will have an epithet that gets used frequently. I have spent too much of my teenage years reading bad Harry Potter fanfiction full of the dark-haired boy, the blonde man, the Gryffindor star-pupil and the boy who could talk to snakes* and now I am very allergic to epithets of all kinds.

All in all, I think this book might be interesting for people who are very interested in football history. The rest can easily miss it.

 

*I am not suggesting that only one fandom has this problem. Or even only fanfiction, as this book proves. But that’s where I got my overdose of this particular bad style-advice

 

ARC provided by NetGaööey

Mini Reviews: October 2018

36896898Naomi Novik: Spinning Silver
(Fantasy)

7/7 magical golden coins

This book was beautiful. I love fairy tales and fairy tale retellings but the latter can come over a bit creepy when the author copies things from the original too closely (complete a quest, get the girl even though you never talked to each other before). But Spinning Silver isn’t just a Rumpelstilsken retelling. Of course, it takes a lot of inspiration from it – as well as from Cinderella and many other tales but it turns it into something completely new and different.

Gif: belle from Beauty and the Beast saying "I just finished the most wonderful story"


41724928Aliette de Bodard: In the Vanisher’s Palace
Sci-fi f/f romance

(Sadly) not my cup of world-ending tea

Talking about books inspired by fairy tales: In the Vanisher’s Palace is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast and that is certainly a story that can come over not too great if you don’t pay attention. But the author did pay attention and clearly put a lot of thought into the whole ‘You have to live in my palace now and if you don’t want to that’s your problem’-bit. And I really enjoyed the way it was treated in the book. I liked the characters. There were dragons. But I’m just not really into post-apocalyptic stories and this book is ‘hard’ post-apocalyptic. As in: you can’t just ignore it for most of the story. Which is great if you like it because authors just paying lip-service to a genre when the story could just as easily have taken place anywhere else is usually disappointing. But in my case, it just reminded me over and over again that I don’t care much for that genre.

Gif: Eyeore saying "It's OK, I'll learn to live without it"


42242896Anthology: Teacher’s Pet Volume 2
Romance-anthology

Not my cup of healthy green tea

In short: I started this with the exception there would be rather diverse settings in the stories (contemporary, fantasy, historical) but got three fantasy stories and the rest contemporaries, which isn’t my thing at all. And even the fantasy stories didn’t overwhelm me that much. A more comprehensive review is over at Love in Panels.

Gif: Damien Lewis on HIGNFY looking unimpressed