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.