Mavis Doriel Hay: Death on the Cherwell

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Title: Death on the Cherwell
Author: Mavis Doriel Hay

For Miss Cordell, principal of Persephone College, there are two great evils to be feared: unladylike behaviour among her students, and bad publicity for the college. So her prim and cosy world is turned upside down when a secret society of undergraduates meets by the river on a gloomy January afternoon, only to find the drowned body of the college bursar floating in her canoe. 

The police assume that a student prank got out of hand, but the resourceful Persephone girls suspect foul play and take the investigation into their own hands. Soon they uncover the tangled secrets that led to the bursar’s death – and the clues that point to a fellow student. 

Rating: Julian, Dick, George and Ann would approve

Have you ever read a Famous Five, a Three Investigators or any of the other teen detective stories and thought “This was cool, I wish they would get to solve a real murder one day, instead of just hunting smugglers”? Then this book might be for you. Did you ever read any of those stories and think “Who lets these kids do these dangerous things? Why are even the police going ‘hey can you guys help us with that?’ instead of ‘stop what you’re doing, it’s dangerous’?” Then you should give this one a pass. Because this book is basically Famous Five but with undergraduates (and no dog). The girls find the body of the bursar and while they call the police immediately they also keep some information from the police. (Some of it would make themselves look bad and suspicious, other a fellow undergraduate).

And then they decide to do their own investigation. In the cause of it, they trample around a potential crime-scene and touch some evidence, ruining potential fingerprints. When they eventually come clean about it to the inspector he just shrugs and mumbles something along the lines of “if there had been any fingerprints they probably wouldn’t have helped us anyway” and then he even asks them to continue their sleuthing.

So this book will require you to suspend your disbelief a lot and I freely admit that one reason I enjoyed it despite that (and despite the rather easy to guess solution) was that I still have many fond memories of all the teen detectives I used to read and the book hit a very sweet spot for me. Another is probably also that I listened to the audiobook version which was magnificently narrated by Patience Tomlinson. She gives the reading of the book the seriousness it deserves – i.e. a certain tongue-in-cheek attitude that never veers too much into pure comedy. If I’d read the book myself I might have rolled my eyes at a few scenes that made me grin in the audio version.

Mini Reviews – December 2018

Ben Aaronovitch – Lies Sleeping
(Urban Fantasy)

3/5 for the first half, 7/5 for the second

The book started somewhat slow and aimless. Peter and the others knew that the faceless man was planning something. And that bells were involved in his plan (it makes sense in context). But for quite a while that’s all they know. Something so vague just failed to really hook me. It was watching people go “We have to stop…the thing…whatever it is. And we need to do it quickly. Probably. Because otherwise…something will happen. Probably.” For my taste, it simply took to long until they had at least a somewhat clear picture of what exactly their task was but once they did I was glued to the pages until the very end. And once again it ended with a loud BANG that made me go what? without giving me the feeling that Aaronovich is trying to add shocking twists for the sake of being shocking and not caring if it fits the flow of the story.

Gif: New Star Treck: Spock removing his glasses. Caption "Mother of God"

Miles Burton – The Secret of High Eldersham
(Mystery)

10/10 witches want to curse the author

This book and I already didn’t start off very well because it became clear very early on that it featured one of my least favourite tropes: The Village With A Secret. Yes. A whole village is in on it, so when the Scotland Yard detective appears he has to deal with far more than the usual hostility towards strangers.

Now that whole conspiracy is more of a backdrop. The murder still had a typical mystery-motive and wasn’t “The villagers sacrificed him to the Old Gods” but that typical mystery at the core wasn’t very good. It had a moustache-twirling villain who must have fallen straight out of a cheap gothic novel – and he brought the damsel in distress he could threaten and abduct with him. And of course, our sleuth falls madly in love with her after talking to her once for five minutes. So madly, that he withholds evidence that implicates the damsel’s family members because surely her poor female nerves wouldn’t be able to cope with the shock.


George Bellairs – Death of a Busybody
(Mystery)

Extremely average

Death of a Busybody is set in a small village in which – as the title suggests – one of its more unlikeable inhabitants comes to an unnatural end. A Scotland Yard detective is called in and he works together with the quirky but loveable village constable to discover which of the quirky villagers not only wanted her dead but also acted on that impulse and why the victim changed her will only days before her death. It’s all a bit paint-by-numbers-mystery and has nothing that distracts from that fact. There’s humour but it’s not sparkling wit, just “Haha! Aren’t those villagers backwards?!?”, the detective is entirely bland and I called the “How was it done?” very early and after that, most of the rest of the mystery also fell into place. Admittedly, at the time of writing, it was probably less obvious but that left me with nothing to catch my interest.

The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories

Title: The Christmas Card Crime (and other stories)
Editor: Martin Edwards

A Christmas party is punctuated by a gunshot under a policeman’s watchful eye. A jewel heist is planned amidst the glitz and glamour of Oxford Street’s Christmas shopping. Lost in a snowstorm, a man finds a motive for murder. 

This collection of mysteries explores the darker side of the festive season – from unexplained disturbances in the fresh snow to the darkness that lurks beneath the sparkling decorations. 

With neglected stories by John Bude and E.C.R. Lorac, as well as tales by little-known writers of crime fiction, Martin Edwards blends the cosy atmosphere of the fireside story with a chill to match the temperature outside. This is a gripping seasonal collection sure to delight mystery fans.

We open with an old acquaintance for mystery readers: Baroness Orczy. A Christmas Tragedy features her Lady Molly of Scotland Yard and like in some previous Orczy-stories I read, I got the feeling that she didn’t have a high opinion of women (unless they were her precious main characters). They’re stupid, heartless, cruel or any combination of those characteristics (and they’re always out to ruin poor men’s lives). We get a similar moral from John Bingham’s Crime at Lark Cottage, only it manages to be even worse because it also tells us that a man won’t hit his wife unless she gives him a really good reason.

Other stories are more festive: The title-giving Christmas Card Crime by Donald Stewart has many of the typical Christmas-mystery setpieces: a group of strangers are stranded in the middle of nowhere and suddenly one of the group members is found murdered and another has disappeared. Stewart has a somewhat unfortunate love for epithets. The story is full of the Scotland Yard man, the dramatist, the little cockney or the landlord which is really grating but otherwise, the story is fun. The only other that fits in more classical Christmas crime story mould is E. C. R. Lorac’s A Bit of Wire Pulling. It also features a group that is stuck together over Christmas, murder and strange tracks in the snow. It’s also a story that is told by one of the witnesses long after the events have taken place and he does it in a way that I found somewhat hard to follow. Another story in which we are also told the events long afterwards is Ronald Knox’ The Motive and the less said about that one the better.

Apart from Orczy, there are also some other well-known names in this collection. There’s the master of the locked room mystery John Dickson Carr’s Blind Man’s Hood (written under his pseudonym, Carter Dickson) and while I understand that locked room mysteries are not the most realistic pieces of crime-fiction and often require an extremely special set of circumstances to work this was a bit too out there for me. Frances Durbridge also lets Paul Temple have his White Christmas in Switzerland but it reads more like a single chapter from a full-length novel than a proper short story. If you’re a fan of the British Crime Library Classic series you’ll probably also have heard of John Bude. I wasn’t too fond of his Pattern of Revenge because I’ve never been a fan of mysteries where nobody does any detecting and the bad guy just kindly confesses everything.

We also get some stories that were written from the POV of the bad guy. Cyril Hare’s Sister Bessie or your Old Leech is somewhat weak and has a twist you can see coming from a mile off but the other two almost make the otherwise underwhelming collection worth it. Selwyn Jepson’s By The Sword has a delightful twist and a killer so unlikeable that it is incredibly satisfying to see him getting arrested. In ‘Twixt The Cup And The Lip Julian Symons describes a jewellery robbery that is well planned but still goes incredibly wrong and it’s great fun to read just how wrong it goes.

Crimson Snow

Crimson Snow brings together a dozen vintage crime stories set in winter. Welcome to a world of Father Christmases behaving oddly, a famous fictional detective in a Yuletide drama, mysterious tracks in the snow—-, and some very unpleasant carol singers. The mysterious events chronicled by a distinguished array of contributors in this volume frequently take place at Christmas. There’s no denying that the supposed season of goodwill is a time of year that lends itself to detective fiction. On a cold night, it’s tempting to curl up by the fireside with a good mystery. And more than that, claustrophobic house parties, when people may be cooped up with long-estranged relatives, can provide plenty of motives for murder. Including forgotten stories by great writers such as Margery Allingham, as well as classic tales by less familiar crime novelists, each story in this selection is introduced by the great expert on classic crime, Martin Edwards. The resulting volume is an entertaining and atmospheric compendium of wintry delights.

The opening story – Fergus Hume’s The Ghost’s Touch – features some well-known mystery setpieces: a Christmas party, two cousins – one of them inherited the family estate and the other the family fortune – and a haunted bedroom but doesn’t quite go where you expect. Sadly it’s a bit too short to make much of that fact. It’s over before you have time to be surprised. There was a similar problem with Julian Symons’ The Santa Claus Club. The setting is a Christmas charity dinner and one of the participants has been receiving threatening letters. The dinner happens. A murder happens. The murderer is caught. Symons only takes slightly longer than me to narrate these events.

Crimson Snow also gives us two stories some golden age connoisseurs will look down on because they’re -gasp– pulp. One of them, The Chopham Affair, is by one of the masters of pulp, Edgar Wallace. And no, he isn’t exactly known for writing deep psychological masterpieces that give insight into the human soul – or particularly clever ‘fair’ mysteries and this story about an unpleasant man who makes his money by seducing women and blackmailing them is neither. But it is great fun. The same is true for Victor Gunn’s Death in December. It again gives us the well-loved setting of a snowed-in Christmas party at a manor with a house ghost. It also features a villain whose plan is ridiculously complicated, even for the mystery world where people sometimes built elaborate contraptions to simulate the sound of a gunshot so that they have an alibi. The detective, meanwhile, solves this case because he has an exceptionally good sense of smell. Realism even in the broadest mystery sense? No. Fun? Hell yes.

Margery Allingham’s The Man With The Sack takes us back to the beloved setting of a Christmas party. The host’s daughter has a boyfriend her parents (especially her mother) disapprove of because he’s the son of a criminal. When some jewels go missing she has little doubt about who is responsible – unlike Campion. It’s not an extraordinary story – and the whodunit is not particularly surprising (the how is at least somewhat interesting) but it’s solid entertainment and that’s more than can be said about some of the other stories in this collection. There’s S. C. Roberts’ Holmes Pastiche Christmas Eve that features a criminal whose plan doesn’t make sense no matter which way I look at it and a Holmes that has been replaced by a very stupid doppelganger. Meanwhile, Christopher Bush’s Murder at Christmas tells us a lot about golf and possibly somewhere between all that also a bit about murder but I was too bored by all the golf talk to pay much attention.

Michael Gilbert’s Deep and Crisp and Even isn’t quite as bad. The main character showed some promise but the story didn’t. It’s hard to say much about it without spoiling the end so let’s just say this story is on the humorous side and involves a misunderstanding. And the author pokes some fun at the character misunderstanding things. Only, I could easily see why he would misunderstand things the way he did. Suggestings his actions were stupid – or at least very over-eager – felt weird.

While in most of the stories the setting over Christmas was at least in some way relevant to the story, in some the setting seems very coincidentally. Especially Off The Tiles by Ianthe Jerrold could have been set on any wet day. That doesn’t make it a bad story but it’s not one of the more overwhelming ones. In Macdonald Hastings’ Mr Cork’s Secret the feeling that it lacks the proper seasonal feeling can probably be attributed to the fact that the climax is set on a yacht somewhere on the French Riviera but it’s still an entertaining story with fun twists and turns.

Josephine Bell’s The Carol Singers which closes this collection is rather unusual for a golden age mystery in two ways. For one it’s quite dark and doesn’t act as if murder is just an intellectual challenge instead of a human tragedy. It also lacks the typical set-up with a victim and suspects which were all close to the victim. The death in this story is caused by a burglary gone wrong and as such the question, not just ‘whodunit’ but also ‘how do we find them in the first place?’ The whole story reminded me a bit of a police procedural episode: a cold opening that shows us the last moments of the victim and then some more or less realistic police investigation with questions that lead from one suspect to the next (and even some action and chase at the end). To come back to the hypothetical mystery connoisseurs who already really hated the stories by Wallace and Gunn: He will probably also dislike this one. For me, it was quite unexpected, and admittedly felt somewhat out of place in this collection where murder is otherwise treated less darkly but it was still a good story.

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.