Alan Melville: Weekend at Thrackley

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Jim Henderson is one of six guests summoned by the mysterious Edwin Carson, a collector of precious stones, to a weekend party at his country house, Thrackley. The house is gloomy and forbidding but the party is warm and hospitable – except for the presence of Jacobson, the sinister butler. The other guests are wealthy people draped in jewels; Jim cannot imagine why he belongs in such company.

After a weekend of adventure – with attempted robbery and a vanishing guest – secrets come to light and Jim unravels a mystery from his past.

Rating: D

“If it weren’t for the fact that we were just starting lunch, I should kill you quite cheerfully, Brampton.”
“Well, we are just starting lunch, so that’s quite out of the question,” said Lady Stone.

Weekend at Thrackley isn’t a whodunit; that is clear from very early on. And not just because the person in question gets described as sinister-looking and ugly as soon as he appears. We also know that he is the bad guy because there are chapters from his POV.

In the first of those he is standing in his evil lair.
That is filled with the jewels he has stolen.
And that has an elaborate hiding/locking mechanism that means only he himself or people he wants to enter can get in.
And from which he can listen to everything that is going on every room in the house because he had microphones installed there.

Dear Reader, this is a very silly book. But not in the charming over-the-top way Edgar Wallace movies are. Or Farjeon’s Seven Dead. Apart from a handful of genuinly witty pieces of dialogue it’s quite stupid and dull. The plot relies mostly on coincidences: the hero just happens to be at the right place at the right time to overhear the right thing/stumble over the right thing/find the hidden microphone in his room.

Meanwhile, the villain just happens to overhear the right things and the right time as well. Mind you his elaborate surveillance machinery doesn’t include recording devices so he just jumps from one room to the next, listening in and hears just the thing that stops the book from being over after 100 pages.

It’s just too much. The coincidences don’t just make things harder or easier for the characters. All major developments in the story just happen because of ridiculous coincidences.

Part of that can certainly be blamed on the fact that the story is meant to be somewhat humorous/a parody. There is the already mentioned witty banter and there are funny scenes: before the hero leaves, his landlady tells him to be careful because weekends in the countryside frequently end in murder. And I could deal with a mostly coincidence-driven plot in a full-blown parody but for that the rest isn’t funny enough. There is one character who is an over-the-top caricature but all others – including the hero – are just bland and forgettable. So it’s too dull for a parody and to ridiculous for a good mystery.

Blood on the tracks

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“Never had I been given a tougher problem to solve, and never had I been so utterly at my wits’ end for a solution.”

A signalman is found dead by a railway tunnel. A man identifies his wife as a victim of murder on the underground. Two passengers mysteriously disappear between stations, leaving behind a dead body.

Trains have been a favourite setting of many crime writers, providing the mobile equivalent of the “locked-room” scenario. Their enclosed carriages with a limited number of suspects lend themselves to seemingly impossible crimes. In an era of cancellations and delays, alibis reliant upon a timely train service no longer ring true, yet the railway detective has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in the twenty-first century.

Both train buffs and crime fans will delight in this selection of fifteen railway-themed mysteries, featuring some of the most popular authors of their day alongside less familiar names. This is a collection to beguile even the most wearisome commuter.

Rating: C+

I have to say I love the sentence “In an era of cancellations and delays, alibis reliant upon a timely train service no longer ring true”. Clearly, nobody has been hit harder by the decline of the railways than poor mystery writers who have lost such a great plot-device…

While one might think that ‘railway related mysteries’ limits the type of stories one can include in this book there is some variety. In many cases, they are simply a sub-set of locked-room mysteries: somebody (or something) disappeared from a moving train (but the how is different every time). Sometimes the train provides the murder-method (or the means of masking the murder) and sometimes the train is mere coincidence (The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face opens in a train but the actual crime had been committed somewhere else and was in no way connected to a train or the railway).

Of course, the stories also vary in quality. No matter how popular railway mysteries were, not every writer did his best work in (short) railway fiction. (Sayer’s story is nowhere near as brilliant as her long fiction). My personal preferences also play a role (I’m not a big fan of mysteries told from the POV of the killer. Or of occult detectives).

Continue reading “Blood on the tracks”

E.C.R. Lorac: Fire in the Thatch

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The Second World War is drawing to a close. Nicholas Vaughan, released from the army after an accident, takes refuge in Devon – renting a thatched cottage in the beautiful countryside at Mallory Fitzjohn. Vaughan sets to work farming the land, rearing geese and renovating the cottage. Hard work and rural peace seem to make this a happy bachelor life.

On a nearby farm lives the bored, flirtatious June St Cyres, an exile from London while her husband is a Japanese POW. June’s presence attracts fashionable visitors of dubious character and threatens to spoil Vaughan’s prized seclusion.

When Little Thatch is destroyed in a blaze, all Vaughan’s work goes up in smoke – and Inspector Macdonald is drafted in to uncover a motive for murder.

Rating: B-

It’s no part of my duty to get murdered. From the point of view of detection that’s merely making a mess of it.

In Bats in the Belfry, a lot of people repeat “Detective novels are different from real life” and how a real murder isn’t the fun puzzle mystery novels make it out to be. It comes over as very condescending and didn’t work for me at all. In Fire in the Thatch people also exclaim “this isn’t a detective novel” but they do so as a reaction to one character suggesting that the body that was burned beyond recognition in the fire might not have been the tenant of the thatch. That was in all likelihood also the thought most experienced mystery-readers had. Unrecognisable bodies are always suspicious. But now? Is this really a detective novel that’s not like the other detective novels? Or is it a bluff?

Inspector Macdonald has his own opinion on this question. And a few other ideas about what is and isn’t important in this investigation. Admittedly, he’s rather quick to make these decisions and dismisses some clues for no discernible reason but it is a rather short book (by a very prolific writer). Besides Macdonald’s character makes up for much of this. He’s no genius eccentric or laugh-out-loud funny guy but he has a dry humour that makes for very enjoyable reading.

The setting also adds some unusual elements: not many mysteries are set mid-World War II. And while the location – rural Devon – doesn’t suffer from bombings like London or other big cities, the war has many indirect effects on the people (and the plot), which makes a nice change to many of the murders committed country-houses that are frozen in time and have nearly no connection to the outside world.

ARC received from NetGalley

Bill Pronzini: Son of Gun in Cheek

Cover: Bill Pronzini: Son of Gun in Cheek
Author: Bill Pronzini
Title: Son of Gun in Cheek: An Affectionate Guide to More of the “Worst” in Mystery Fiction

A humorous and good-natured study of alternative crime fiction, the Edgar Award-nominated Gun in Cheek celebrated the neglected classics of substandard mystery writing. After years of additional research into comically awful literature, author Bill Pronzini returns with Son of Gun in Cheek, a compendium of even more twisted treasures for connoisseurs of hideous prose. Pronzini’s lively commentary offers background on each of the stories he cites, providing an informative survey of the genre and its writers, crowned with hilarious excerpts. His lighthearted look at the best of the worst in crime fiction will amuse not only mystery buffs but also anyone with a taste for ham-handed drama.

Rating: A-

I had read about one-third of this book when I went and bought Gun in Cheek, the author’s first book about the worst mystery fiction, as audiobook. That way I could listen to it during all those times when I needed my hands and/or eyes for something else and couldn’t read my copy of Son of Gun in Cheek. That already tells you how much I enjoyed this.  I already talked about my love of bad books and pulp fiction of any kind is obviously a treasure trove of this; after all many authors wrote dozens of books per year, that doesn’t leave much time for elaborate plotting (or much revision).

Still, not everybody who writes a lot writes truly bad. Many of them will just have plots that are somewhat ridiculous with some odd phrasing thrown in. Chances are that if you pick up any pulp fiction mystery to read it you will be bored most of the time and smile slightly in some places. Or at best find a few truly hilarious phrases in an otherwise meh book.

And this is where Bill Pronzini comes in. Because he has done all that work for us and now writes about all the mystery plots that aren’t just unrealistic but defy logic and common sense in every possible way (and often also break the scientist), villainous schemes that only work because the victim a) has an incredibly obscure habit and b) is extremely stupid and “heroes” who can’t interpret the obvious clue until it is (almost) too late to save the damsel in distress (who is of course required in all good bad mysteries). And if the stories aren’t as noteworthy but contain phrases like “she apostrophized”, “corpses were falling around us like pulpy persimmons from the tree” or describe a woman’s breast as having “nipples like split infinitives” he’ll write about that.

If you want to look for faults you could argue that this leads to a slight jumble: you get chapters that focus on specific authors, chapters that summarize the plot of a few novels in great detail, chapters that summarize the plot of several novels in a few paragraphs each, chapters that consist mostly of quotes, and chapters that have a bit of everything. But then it’s not possible to treat every book the same if different things stand out every time (and Pronzini says as much in the introduction and adds that the chaoticness should be considered an homage to the books he’s writing about since those were also very chaotic).

I don’t mind the lack of cohesion that much. Much more important is that Pronzini is never needlessly cruel or mean. Sure, he makes fun of the stories but he never suggests that a pulp fiction author should be held to the same standards as a writer who takes one or two years to finish one novel. He also calls out sexism, racism, and homophobia and does so quite harshly (which honestly surprised me, since this is a re-release of a book written in the 1980s and I had not expected that level of awareness at that time).

In case you are still not convinced: I am currently considering getting Six Gun in Cheek, which does the same for Western pulp fiction despite the fact that my knowledge of Western begins and ends with The Magnificent Seven. I’m sure that wouldn’t stop me from finding this just as hilarious.

ARC provided by NetGalley

Josh Lanyon: Murder takes the High Road

cover133096-mediumAuthor: Josh Lanyon
Title: Murder Takes the High Road

Librarian Carter Matheson is determined to enjoy himself on a Scottish bus tour for fans of mystery author Dame Vanessa Rayburn. Sure, his ex, Trevor, will also be on the trip with his new boyfriend, leaving Carter to share a room with a stranger, but he can’t pass up a chance to meet his favorite author.

Carter’s roommate turns out to be John Knight, a figure as mysterious as any character from Vanessa’s books. His strange nighttime wanderings make Carter suspicious. When a fellow traveler’s death sparks rumors of foul play, Carter is left wondering if there’s anyone on the tour he can trust.

Drawn into the intrigue, Carter searches for answers, trying to fend off his growing attraction toward John. But as unexplained tragedies continue, the whole tour must face the fact that there may be a murderer in their midst—but who?

Rating: B-

I hadn’t been overwhelmed by the last few Lanyon-books I picked up and so I wasn’t planning on reading this one. But the plot ‘holiday trip with mysterious events and then a sudden death’ just sounded too good to pass. And I was not disappointed. Lanyon gives this frequently used set-up an unexpected twist that fits the story perfectly. (Die-hard mystery traditionalists might complain about it but I enjoyed it a lot).

 

The romance was very low-key. Carter and John meet, are attracted to each other, have sex and agree to stay in touch and take things further but things are not overly emotional. Which is understandable considering the story takes place over the course of one or two weeks and things are quite busy. Still, it’s definitely more a happy-for-now than a happily-ever-after ending. In fact, it felt more like the beginning of a traditional cozy mystery series (where the designated couple meets in book one, there is an obvious attraction but it takes a few more books until they really get together), than of a typical romance series e.g. Lanyon’s Adrien English books or KJ Charles’ Magpie Lord (where the couple has already taken huge steps towards a proper relationship in book one). I don’t mind this since I enjoy both but if you pick this book up for the romance you will probably be disappointed.

What did bother me was the bitchy-ex trope that takes up quite a lot of space. Carter had originally planned to take the trip with his then-boyfriend but then the boyfriend left him for another guy so now all three of them are taking the tour. Both the ex and his new boyfriend spent a lot of time being horrible to Carter and it’s exhausting. Admittedly, it does help muddling the waters because it means Carter can’t be sure if some of the strange occurrences might be their fault. It’s also part of Carter’s character-growth that he realises how little he and Trevor fitted together and it’s much more than ‘well he couldn’t see how awesome I was, so obviously he was horrible’ but especially considering how little space the actual new relationship got, it’s disappointing to see how much time that sub-plot took.

I would still recommend this book but only to people who (also) enjoy classical mysteries and don’t mind having the typical tropes from those played with (and perhaps also lampshaded a bit), not to lovers of romantic suspense because there is not that much romance in it.

ARC provided by NetGalley

Mavis Doriel Hay: The Santa Klaus Murder

Mavis Doriel Hay: The Santa Klaus Murder

Globe and Mail Aunt Mildred declared that no good could come of the Melbury family Christmas gatherings at their country residence Flaxmere. So when Sir Osmond Melbury, the family patriarch, is discovered – by a guest dressed as Santa Klaus – with a bullet in his head on Christmas Day, the festivities are plunged into chaos. Nearly every member of the party stands to reap some sort of benefit from Sir Osmond’s death, but Santa Klaus, the one person who seems to have every opportunity to fire the shot, has no apparent motive. Various members of the family have their private suspicions about the identity of the murderer, and the Chief Constable of Haulmshire, who begins his investigations by saying that he knows the family too well and that is his difficulty, wishes before long that he understood them better. 

Rating: C

The house seemed full of lunatics who never gave away anything they knew until it was too late.

At first, I was worried I would be in for a similar reading experience as in The Moonstone, a story with multiple first-person narrators, most of which were annoying people, I couldn’t stand and hated having to spend time in their heads.  The Santa Klaus Murder five first-person narrators, telling the first five chapters and some of those are extremely unlikeable. But then the murder happens and the narration is taken over by Colonel Halstock who investigates the crime. Halfway through we learn that as part of his investigation he asked five of the people who were at the house to write down how they experienced the days leading up to the murder and the first five chapters are those stories. It sure is convenient, that their stories match so perfectly; each person begins his narration just at the point the other ended. And it’s even more convenient that the very first person gives a short rundown of the backstory of everybody involved in the story so that the reader knows who has what motive to murder Sir Osmond. It is however somewhat inconvenient that towards the end of the story there are some major occurrences that happen while Halstock is not around, so we get two more chapters told by somebody else but this time no flimsy excuse for where they come from.

If done well, stories with multiple narrators can be great but this one isn’t done well. I might have even accepted the weird switching around with most chapters told by Halstock and a few by others if the ridiculous explanation that it’s part of the investigation hadn’t been. Of course, mysteries usually don’t portray a realistic picture of police work but this went too far for me.

The story under all this is decent but relies a lot on every single person not telling everything, because they thought it wasn’t important because they don’t want to get in trouble or because they don’t want to get somebody else in trouble. This is a staple of mysteries but unhelpful witnesses usually aren’t the only thing that’s hindering the investigation. Besides, it has a paint-by-numbers feel to it. Halstock finds something out, questions a witness about it, the witness gives new information, he goes to the next witness with that new information, they tell him something new…

In between all that, there are characters that go beyond being black or white cardboard-cutouts and the solution to the mystery is not easy to guess without being unfair. Perhaps the book also suffers from having a plot (horrible family patriarch gets murdered over Christmas) that reminds me a lot of Portrait of a Murderer and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and in comparison with those it can only lose. I’m willing to give another book by the author a try but I’m not rushing to getting it.

E.C.R. Lorac: Bats in the Belfry

E.C.R. Lorac: Bats in the Belfry CoverTitle: Bats in the Belfry
Author: E.C.R. Lorac
Series: Inspector Macdonald #15

Bruce Attleton dazzled London s literary scene with his first two novels but his early promise did not bear fruit. His wife Sybilla is a glittering actress, unforgiving of Bruce s failure, and the couple lead separate lives in their house at Regent s Park. When Bruce is called away on a sudden trip to Paris, he vanishes completely until his suitcase and passport are found in a sinister artist’s studio, the Belfry, in a crumbling house in Notting Hill. Inspector Macdonald must uncover Bruce s secrets, and find out the identity of his mysterious blackmailer. 

RatingC-

I like detective stories myself, they make me laugh, whereas real crime isn’t funny.

An alternate title for this book could be PSA: Don’t solve your own crimes at home because it really drives that point home. Early in the book Greenville and Rockingham, two friends of the missing man, discover his suitcase with his passport. Rockingham immediately declares “I’m a law-abiding man, not one of those half-baked fools who think criminal investigation is the province of the amateur.” and demands that they call the police. After they do this and Inspector Macdonald is on the case he makes it clear that he wants “no Sherlocking around”. And while Greenville does at first do some Sherlocking, he soon discovers “that there wasn’t any glamour about a murder case in which you knew the parties involved.”

The author spends a lot of time patting herself on the shoulder and saying “Look how much more realistic my stories are than those of those other writers who let lords or old ladies with no police experience solve cases!” And yes, in real life amateurs shouldn’t try to solve cases on their own. The thing is, in real life, there are also far fewer murderers whose plan to get the inheritance quicker/rid of the unfaithful husband/rid of their lover’s inconvenient partner involves carefully planned quadruple-bluffs. But that’s exactly what the murderer in Bats in the Belfry does. And he does it well. The mystery is cleverly crafted and doesn’t require a ridiculous amount of coincidences to work. It’s a shame that this got overshadowed by the author’s condescending attitude.

Otherwise, Inspector Macdonald is a character that is interesting without sliding too much into the quirky-for-the-sake-of-quirkiness field. When he doesn’t complain about amateurs meddling in police-work he is quite funny and not some genius asshole who insults everyone who disagrees with him. But sadly, we don’t get to see too much of Macdonald in this book since a lot of the plot focusses on the people involved in the crime and they are at best bland and at worst annoying. It shows that Lorac was a very prolific writer who wrote several books per year. While the mystery is good and definitely not formulaic, the characters are rather one-dimensional.

ARC received from NetGalley