Curtis Craddock: The Last Uncharted Sky (Risen Kingdoms #3)

Author: Curtis Craddock
Title: The Last Uncharted Sky
Series: Risen Kingdoms #3

Isabelle and Jean-Claude undertake an airship expedition to recover a fabled treasure and claim a hitherto undiscovered craton for l’Empire Celeste. But Isabelle, as a result from a previous attack that tried to subsume her body and soul, suffers from increasingly disturbing and disruptive hallucinations. Disasters are compounded when the ship is sabotaged by an enemy agent, and Jean-Claude is separated from the expedition.

In a race against time, Isabelle must figure out how to ward off her ailment before it destroys her and reunite with Jean-Claude to seek the fabled treasure as ancient secrets and a royal conspiracy threaten to undo the entire realm.

This book tells us that sometimes everyone does their best and…that’s enough. They haven’t solved every single problem, cured all sicknesses and disposed of all bad people but…the world is a considerably better place than if they’d done nothing. And that is a nice conclusion, especially in times when one might feel a bit hopeless.

But even if it wasn’t for *gestures broadly et everything in the real world* it is great to have a book that finds such a great balance. It builds a realistic world; there are selfish and evil people, poverty, sickness, corruption but it’s not so dark and gritty that you wonder why anyone bothers trying to save this world at all – because there are also good and selfless people, there’s beauty (and people who perhaps aren’t totally good and selfless but who still have a sense of right and wrong). But, as already said, the heroes “winning” doesn’t solve everything. There are still bad guys…but good ones as well. Of course, that’s not a completely unique approach, but I do find that (fantasy) books often still tend either in the dark and gritty or in the fairy-tale ending direction. The Risen Kingdoms books just found the perfect balance for me.

And of course, all the characters I loved in book one and two were still as lovable. And the developing romance was delightful and I’ve read enough romance novels to know what I’m talking about. And – just as importantly – the non-romantic relationships were also amazing. For many of characters friendship was an important motivator…and if they aren’t saving each other they make sarcastic comments at each other which are the best kind of friendships.

The Detection Club: Ask a Policeman

Title: Ask A Policeman
Author: John Rhode, Helen Simpson, Gladys Mitchell, Anthony Berkeley, Dorothy L. Sayers, Milward Kennedy

Lord Comstock is a barbarous newspaper tycoon with enemies in high places. His murder in the study of his country house poses a dilemma for the Home Secretary. In the hours before his death, Lord Comstock’s visitors included the government Chief Whip, an Archbishop, and the Assistant Commissioner for Scotland Yard. Suspicion falls upon them all and threatens the impartiality of any police investigation. Abandoning protocol, the Home Secretary invites four famous detectives to solve the case: Mrs Adela Bradley, Sir John Saumarez, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Mr Roger Sheringham. All are different, all are plausible, all are on their own – and none of them can ask a policeman… 

This is a collaboration of six members of the Detection Club. John Rhode introduces a case – the murder of an unlikeable newspaper editor with several high-profile suspects – and Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley, Helen Simpson’s Sir John, Dorothy Sayer’s Lord Peter and Anthony Berkleey’s Roger Sheringham all investigate and offer a solution. Milward Kennedy then wraps it all up. Except there’s a little twist: the writers don’t write the chapter about their own detective but someone else’s. So Mitchell writes Sir John, Simpson Mrs Bradley, Sayers Roger Sheringham and Berkeley Lord Peter.

Martin Edwards promises us in the introduction that this leads to a fun mixture of mystery and parody. And the idea is undoubtedly nice but the first problem for me is…that I’ve only read Sayers and Berkley before. I never read anything by Mitchell or Simpson and so I couldn’t enjoy the parody parts of those stories, except occasionally getting the vague feeling of this odd behaviour is probably a riff on one of the character’s quirks. I do know Sheringham (admittedly not that well) but I did find his chapter funny. I know Lord Peter much better and admittedly like him a lot, so perhaps I’m slightly less inclined to enjoy reading about him being mocked but it’s not that I think Peter is too great to be made fun off. Only that Berkeley goes for the very cheap shot (haha, look how posh he is) and that doesn’t carry through a whole story (I guess each one is somewhere between long short story and short novella).

So with the parody falling somewhat flat for me that leaves the mystery and well – a story like this is inevitably going to end up being very constructed. Not that other golden age mysteries aren’t but the whole set-up of this story really ramps it up to 11 and I also wasn’t the biggest fan of that.

In the end, I think that the whole round-robin style mystery is a fun idea but not one that really works for me. Even if everybody had written their own detective it still would have been a really over-the-top constructed mystery and that’s just not my thing.

J. Jefferson Farjeon – Thirteen Guests

Author: J. Jefferson Farjeon
Title: Thirteen Guests

On a fine autumn weekend Lord Aveling hosts a hunting party at his country house, Bragley Court. Among the guests are an actress, a journalist, an artist and a mystery novelist. The unlucky thirteenth is John Foss, injured at the local train station and brought to the house to recuperate – but John is nursing a secret of his own.

Soon events take a sinister turn when a painting is mutilated, a dog stabbed, and a man strangled. Death strikes more than one of the house guests, and the police are called. Detective Inspector Kendall’s skills are tested to the utmost as he tries to uncover the hidden past of everyone at Bragley Court.

Unlike Farjeon’s The Z-Murders (or Seven Dead) which were more pulp than golden age mystery this one is as classic as it gets: There’s a house-party on the estate of Lord Aveling (who’s a stuffy old lord) who lives there with his wife (who’s a woman) and daughter (who’s a woman). Among his guests are a cricketer (who…likes cricket), a journalist (who’s annoying), an artist (who’s even more annoying), a blackmailer (who’s a blackmailer), his wife (who’s an annoying woman), a young widow (who’s a plucky woman), a female crime novelist (who’s the comic relief woman), an actress (who’s a woman), a doctor (who’s a doctor) and a dude who’s only there by chance because he had an accident near the estate and this is the countryside and there’s no other doctor nearby (he’s…a person…I guess).

Of course, then strange things start happening and soon bodies begin to drop and an inspector start to get involved and at the end there’s a solution I did enjoy a lot…only I did not enjoy the way there…or perhaps rather the characters that brought me there. Because at best my feelings about them are neutral and at worst I strongly disliked them. The inspector himself also fell in the just-did-not-care-about-him category. Additionally, the book has what Martin Edwards likes to call ‘romance’ and what I call ‘otherwise unattached people of opposite genders talk occasionally and then decide that they are perfect for each other’. So all in all that doesn’t make for a gripping read.

KJ Charles: The Sugared Game

Author: KJ Charles
Title: The Sugared Game
Series: Will Darling #2

It’s been two months since Will Darling saw Kim Secretan, and he doesn’t expect to see him again. What do a rough and ready soldier-turned-bookseller and a disgraced shady aristocrat have to do with each other anyway?

But when Will encounters a face from the past in a disreputable nightclub, Kim turns up, as shifty, unreliable, and irresistible as ever. And before Will knows it, he’s been dragged back into Kim’s shadowy world of secrets, criminal conspiracies, and underhand dealings.

This time, though, things are underhanded even by Kim standards. This time, the danger is too close to home. And if Will and Kim can’t find common ground against unseen enemies, they risk losing everything.

Sometimes you read a book that you just love. And occasionally these books have sequels which you love even more. The Sugared Game is one of those sequels.

I admit I was a bit annoyed about the relationship at the beginning. While Slippery Creatures left off with Will and Kim in a happy-for-now situation, at the beginning of book two we learn that Kim has ghosted Will for a while now. In turn, Will has given up on Kim – or that what he’s trying to tell himself. Usually, I’m not overly fond of this trope but then it’s not exactly an out-of-character move for Kim. In fact, if we’ve learned anything about him in book one it’s that this is exactly what he would do. And when they eventually pick up their relationship again they neither just ignore the break and continue where they left off, nor start from the beginning again (both things I came across in romances that stretch over multiple books). Instead, they discuss it and have a (somewhat) healthier relationship afterwards.

The mystery itself meanwhile was just brilliant. I already enjoyed the one from Slippery Creatures but had also managed to guess quite a few twists in advance (mostly because I have consumed far more pulp/mystery fiction than is probably healthy and know the tropes and set-pieces very well). I found that much harder this time. The storyline is still very pulpy and full of fiendish villains and betrayals but all is combined in a way that I went “Wow. I did not see that coming” a few times.

And finally, I have to mention the side characters and especially Phoebe. If you’re like me and love pulp mysteries but are also eternally frustrated that in most of them all the women ever do is scream and make the hero’s life harder by getting abducted at inopportune moments you will love her. She’s still feminine (and into feminine pursuits) and she’s not physically strong enough to fight the bad guys but that doesn’t mean she won’t make their lives as hard as possible. She’s everything I ever dreamed of while watching far too many Edgar Wallace movies while growing up.

black and white gif of a woman on the phone. A man's hand touches her from behind and she looks scared

E.C.R. Lorac: Murder in the Mill-Race

Author: E.C.R. Lorac
Title: Murder in the Mill-Race: A Devon Mystery
Series: Robert MacDonald #37

“Never make trouble in the village” is an unspoken law, but it’s a binding law. You may know about your neighbours’ sins and shortcomings, but you must never name them aloud. It’d make trouble, and small societies want to avoid trouble.’
When Dr Raymond Ferens moves to a practice at Milham in the Moor in North Devon, he and his wife are enchanted with the beautiful hilltop village lying so close to moor and sky. At first they see only its charm, but soon they begin to uncover its secrets – envy, hatred and malice. A few months after the Ferens’ arrival, the body of Sister Monica, warden of the local children’s home, is found floating in the mill-race. Chief Inspector Macdonald faces one of his most difficult cases in a village determined not to betray its dark secrets to a stranger.

I really enjoyed this…*mild exclamation of surprise*. After all, I hadn’t been overwhelmed by my previous experiences with Lorac and the first few chapters of the book didn’t make me think that this time would be different. We follow a young couple – Raymond and Anne – who has just moved to Devon because he’s a doctor and wants to take over the practice of the old village doctor who is about to retire. They meet the other inhabitants of the village, including Sister Monica who oversees the local children’s home and we’re immediately informed that they don’t like Sister Monica. They talk to each other about how little they like her. Anne meets Sister Monica again, they have a conversation and while they have this conversation we’re again told how little Anne likes her. After that she talks to her husband again about…you know. It got boring, especially because we only got to see Sister Monica being somewhat annoying but nothing that seemed to justify the level of hatred aimed at her.

Well, unsurprisingly Sister Monica gets killed and the focus shifts from other people talking about how horrible she was to Inspector MacDonald trying to figure out who killed her (and admittedly, discovering that enough people had reason to do so, so Anne’s initial assessment wasn’t exactly wrong). And the investigation is again good and solid crime novel fare, admittedly not terribly exciting but I enjoyed the backdrop of the small Devon village a lot. I have already mentioned that I think Lorac is very good at describing the settings and anchoring the crime story firmly in those and this is no exception. In many mysteries set in small villages, those places are described as really cozy and charming but this one really focusses on the claustrophobia that comes with the everyone knows everyone and everybody’s buisness which I definitely prefer. So, after a slow start, I really enjoyed this one.

ARC received from NetGalley

George Bellairs: The Body in the Dumb River

Author: George Bellairs
Title: The Body in the Dumb River. A Yorkshire Mystery
Series: Chief Inspector Littlejohn #35

A decent, hardworking chap, with not an enemy anywhere. People were surprised that anybody should want to kill Jim.’

But Jim has been found stabbed in the back near Ely, miles from his Yorkshire home. His body, clearly dumped in the usually silent (‘dumb’) river has been discovered before the killer intended – disturbed by a torrential flood in the night.

Roused from a comfortable night’s sleep Superintendent Littlejohn of Scotland Yard is soon at the scene. With any clues to the culprit’s identity swept away with the surging water, Bellairs’ veteran sleuth boards a train heading north to dredge up the truth about the real Jim Teasdale and to trace the mystery of this unassuming victim’s murder to its source.

The workpeople had returned to their factories and offices and the market was almost deserted now. All the bargains had gone. The man with the cheese and the chickens had sold up and was packing up his belongings and dismantling his stall. Fruit salesmen were altering their prices, chalked up on brown paper bags and stuck among the fruits on the end of a stick. Oranges at 4d. each in the morning were now four a shilling. A man who sold curtains was holding an auction sale. He was drunk already and now and then gave away a length of material for nothing.

Aren’t you fascinated by that paragraph? Isn’t it…thrilling? Especially considering nothing plot-relevant happens on this market. The investigator simply passes it at the end of his workday. And that’s one of the problems of this book; it gets clogged down with so much description of unnecessary details. It’s not enough to say that a character grabbed his coat and left. We’ll read how he got up, walked to his coat, put it on, walked to the door, opened it and went out. It’s extremely boring and there’s no good mystery to distract me from it. The murder victim is a man who turns out to have been leading a double life. He told his family that he was a travelling salesman but actually had a stall on a travelling carnival and lived there with another woman. The investigation quickly focusses on his first family and every single one is a flat caricature whose only aim is to appear as unlikeable as possible. His father-in-law is even described as having “an indescribable odour of evil and corruption around him”. Just so know he even smells evil…

Of course, these kinds of characters aren’t terribly rare in mysteries. Especially horrible family patriarch is a staple in mysteries. But the thing is that these characters usually get murdered in chapter two or three and so you don’t have too much time to think about just how flat this character really is. Sometimes there are books that have the setup “horrible person gets murdered but only halfway through the book” and honestly, I already have a hard time getting through those because I find it exhausting. Here, none of the horrible people get murdered, they just spent all their time being horrible about each other and about the victim. It’s not particularly enjoyable to read about and so the book left me feeling bored and annoyed in turn.

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.