KJ Charles: The Gilded Cage

Author: KJ Charles
Title: The Gilded Cage
Series: Lillywhite Boys #2

Once upon a time a boy from a noble family fell in love with a girl from the gutter. It went as badly as you’d expect.

Seventeen years later, Susan Lazarus is a renowned detective, and Templeton Lane is a jewel thief. She’s tried to arrest him, and she’s tried to shoot him. They’ve never tried to talk.

Then Templeton is accused of a vicious double murder. Now there’s a manhunt out for him, the ports are watched, and even his best friends have turned their backs. If he can’t clear his name, he’ll hang.

There’s only one person in England who might help Templeton now…assuming she doesn’t want to kill him herself.

One of the beautiful things about KJ Charles romances is that they feature fairly reasonable people. What stops them from being together isn’t a misunderstanding that could be cleared up with one conversation. Sometimes something beyond their control stops them from being together and sometimes it’s less, that something stops them from being together and more that there are angry murderers/demons after them who have no objection to them being a couple but to them being alive.

Where Susan and Templeton are concerned: there was a misunderstanding in their past but it happened due to understandable reasons. And once they are stuck together, they both decide to talk about it like adults and realise that neither was as bad as the other had been led to believe. But that doesn’t solve everything. Templeton has still made mistakes, Susan can’t quite forgive. Well and he’s the main suspect in a double murder and unless they can figure out who really did it, he’ll hang for it.

So now Susan and Templeton have to figure out if their relationship has a second chance and have to catch a killer. And there’s not enough space for both of these things in the book. I enjoyed the romance a lot. Both of them were likeable and reasonable people (well, Templeton needed some reminding of how much an idiot he’d been but he eventually came round to being fairly reasonable). Susan is the historic novel heroine every girl dreams of (hairpins as weapons are involved…and some punching and kicking in sensitive parts of the male anatomy). There’s a scene in which there is Only One Bed (gasp, you’ll never guess what happens next). All of it is great fun. But since it’s also the story of two fairly reasonable adults who have realised that talking with each other can be really useful, I wasn’t exactly on the edge of my seat thinking “Oh God! I wonder how they are going to get together!”

I was on the edge of my seat wondering how they would figure out who framed Templeton for murder and that’s where things fell flat for me. Because there’s not enough space for much on-screen investigation. Much of it is done off-screen or one of the characters has a light-bulb moment at the most convenient time. So that leaves nice people, having a fun time together while solving a mystery that wasn’t given enough space to be as engaging as it could have been. And that makes a book that’s fun but not great.

ARC received from the author

Anthony Berkeley: The Silk Stocking Murders

Title: The Silk Stocking Murders
Author: Anthony Berkeley
Series: Roger Sheringham Cases #4

When the daughter of a country parson goes missing in London, Roger Sheringham receives a letter from her father pleading for help. As the amateur sleuth investigates, he discovers that the girl is already dead, found hanging from a door by her own silk stocking. It is presumed suicide, but when more young women are found dead in the same manner, questions arise. Was it merely copycat suicide, or will the case lead Sheringham into a maze of murder?

Roger Sheringham is clever but not quite as clever as he thinks he is. The author is very aware of this fact and uses occasionally for some light which immediately earns the books some bonus points. I do enjoy it when mystery writers don’t take themselves/their books and heroes completely serious.

At the same time, everybody takes the case very serious. As they should, since this is the story of a serial killer who is targeting young women. You know, the plot of 2/3 of all Criminal Minds episodes and 3-4 episodes per season of Any Other Crimeshow. Now, of course this book pre-dates all of them, so it’s not its fault that I have seen far to many screaming women and men feeling sad because women are suffering. And I admit, I didn’t expect much from this book. After all it’s from a time when murder mysteries were mostly puzzles, so I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had just one women after the other dropping dead and Roger Sheringham proclaiming “I must solve this mystery!” But it’s not like this at all. Instead he meets friends or family of most of the victims and sees them all as people. And while he does want to solve the puzzle, it’s also quite clear that he wants justice for these women.

So, a perfect book that I can whole-heartedly recommend? Sadly, not quite. For one, you’ll easily guess the killer, if you’ve some prior experience with crime fiction. Once again, it’s not the book’s fault that I’m reading it in 2019 and not in 1928, when the twists were probably more surprising due to not having been used extensively in crime fiction of all sorts.

The other issue is…well Welcome to Eva’s Period-Appropriate -ism-Corner. Or rather more than the period-appropriate isms. Because you can’t read books written in the 20s and 30s and expect them to be perfect in their treatment of minorities. Chances are there are some questionable throwaway comments in many of them. But The Silk Stocking Murders doesn’t just have some throwaway comments. Roger Sheringham – surprisingly considering what I wrote above – has some very questionable thoughts about women. Though I at least had the feeling that the author doesn’t necessarily share all of those and mocks him slightly for it, in the same way he mocks Roger for being not quite as clever as he thinks he is. Perhaps that’s wishful thinking on my part, and even if it isn’t it’s not a joke that aged very well. But that’s not the only thing. The book also features a Jewish character and pretty much everybody – including Roger Sheringham – keeps going on about how surprising it is that he’s a decent person, you know considering…conversations along those lines happen several times, sometimes featuring explanations attempts as to why that is, that only make everything worse.

I still found it interesting to look at such an early attempt at a mystery featuring a serial killer and I did like Roger in those moments when he wasn’t giving the reader his questionable opinions but if you think about reading this book, you should know that he isn’t too shy about sharing them.

Deep Waters: Murder on the Waves

Title: Deep Waters – Murder on the Waves

From picturesque canals to the swirling currents of the ocean, a world of secrets lies buried beneath the surface of the water. Dubious vessels crawl along riverbeds, while the murky depths conceal more than one gruesome murder.

The stories in this collection will dredge up delight in crime fiction fans, as watery graves claim unintended dwellers and disembodied whispers penetrate the sleeping quarters of a ship’s captain. How might a thief plot their escape from a floating crime scene? And what is to follow when murder victims, lost to the ocean floor, inevitably resurface?

This is the first BCLC-Anthology I read that featured a story by Doyle that’s an actual Holmes story: The Adventure of the ‘Gloria Scott’; a story I didn’t remember at all, even though I have read/listened to all Holmes stories at least once. The reason for my memory-loss is…well that it’s not a very good story. It’s a lot like the non-Holmes story that featured in some of the previous anthologies that had no sleuthing and just a considerate person turning up and explaining everything. Here Holmes makes a couple of deductions early in the story, but the actual mystery is again solved by a convenient letter.

One of Holmes’ rivals (and an old acquaintance for Crime Library readers) also turns up: Dr Thorndyke solves another ‘inverted mystery’ in The Echo of a Mutiny and while it is a nice story, every reader with some prior experience with mystery will easily spot the mistake that will be the killer’s downfall.

Two more familiar names for me were E. W. Hornung who sends Raffles and Bunny after The Gift of the Emperor and William Hope Hodgson has a sailor telling a story of strange events on a ship in Bullion! I only read a couple of stories by both authors and in the case of the Raffles story that’s clearly a disadvantage. There are several references to past events that meant nothing to me and then the story also leaves you hanging at the end. Meanwhile the Hodgson-story was more of a positive surprise. I hadn’t much liked what I read by him so far but Bullion! is very nice and creepy.

Talking about creepy: to my great delight Gwyn Evans’ The Pool of Secrets is again a very pulpy story featuring a deadly swimming pool, lots of dead bodies and an utterly absurd solution. I loved it.

My totally reasonable and valid reason to include this gif is that the collection also features a short story by C. S. Forester who is better known for his Horatio Hornblower books. I was aware that he’d written a crime novel but didn’t know about any short stories. The Turning of the Tide also has some pulp elements. A dark and stormy night and an unusual and gruesome punishment for the bad guy but the story took itself a bit too seriously for me to enjoy it.

A first is that I ended up skipping a story completely: The Swimming Pool by H. C. Bailey. As Martin Edwards informs us in the introduction, Bailey’s “idiosyncratic prose” fell out of fashion. Idiosyncratic apparently means “Why use one short word when five long ones will do?” I tried to read it but kept forgetting how one sentence had started by the time I had come to the end of it.

From the rest of the stories two more were memorable to me because they also didn’t take themselves too serious. In Man Overboard Edmund Crispin lets Gervase Fan meditate on the usefulness of (dead) blackmailers. And in Kem Bennett’s The Queer Fish a lot of things go wrong for several people and in the end the right ones triumph. The remaining handful of stories were mainly…OK. Nothing I hated but also nothing that made me want to check out more by the author.

Sam Hawke: City of Lies

Title: City of Lies
Author: Sam Hawke
Series: Poison War #1

Jovan wears two faces. Outwardly, he is the lifelong friend of the Chancellor’s charming, irresponsible heir. He’s quiet. Forgettable even. But in truth he is a master of poisons and chemicals, trained to protect the Chancellor’s family. Then there is his sister, Kalina. She hides her frustrations behind a mask of serenity. While other women of the city holds positions of power and responsibility, her path is full of secrets and lies – some hidden even from her own brother.

It’s when the Chancellor succumbs to an unknown poison and an army lays siege to the city that the siblings’ world begins to truly unravel. Trapped and desperate, they soon discover that the society into which they were born and grew up also possesses two faces – for behind the sophistication and the beauty lies an ugly truth – this is a world built on oppression and treachery…

This book does a few things very well: the world building is great. Silasta – the city the story takes place in – isn’t just a thinly disguised historic Venice/London/Paris; it has a unique setting and history. Besides: there’s no historical accurate sexism. Women and men are equal and it’s no big deal – there’s just a throwaway comment when an emissary from a different country appears, that it’s different there but since he doesn’t have a big role, that’s it. (It probably should’t be as refreshing as it is but that’s a dissertation for another day).

The plot is also gripping. It’s a mystery at heart. I’d argue with the “It’s like Agatha Christie” but yeah…somebody got poisoned. And then the city is suddenly under siege, something that hasn’t happened in living memory. It’s not a big mental leap to assume that both are connected but how? Who is the poisoner and how many other people are involved?

Jovan and Kalina aren’t just some random people from the city who get caught up in the whole thing. They have been trained to protect the city and its chancellor from a young age. They are prepared to deal with problems…they just didn’t expect the problems to be that huge and for them to happen that early. Really that feels very Millennial Mood to me. But it’s still very different from clueless farmboy who just happens to be the chosen one, which is another thing I really liked about the book. I do prefer it if the world-saving is done by people who know what they’re doing.

Now for the big weakness of the book: the characters. The POV chapters alternate between Kalina and Jovan and there is nothing distinctive about their voices. At one point I put the book down mid-chapter, forgot who the current POV-character was and then wondered why Kalina was suddenly talking so much about poisons before realising that this was actually a Jovan-chapter. That’s…not good.

Then there were all the side-characters which were all really hard to keep apart, especially the city council. There are about a dozen of them and…well they’re also the suspect pool for the poisoning/treason and it’s kind of hard to guess along or just follow a whodunit if you cannot tell the suspects apart.

So that’s really a rather big but. It’s also a first novel, so I’m willing to give the author another try and read the sequel because I’m curious how things will continue (admittedly mostly for the city and the politics and only a bit for the characters but I still want to know).