Richard Hull: The Murder of My Aunt

39884612Title: The Murder of My Aunt
Author: Richard Hull

Edward Powell lives with his Aunt Mildred in the Welsh town of Llwll. 
His aunt thinks Llwll an idyllic place to live, but Edward loathes the countryside – and thinks the company even worse. In fact, Edward has decided to murder his aunt. 

Rating: E

There are two types of crime-novels that are written from the POV of the murderer: In one he is an evil genius, a psychopath who comes up with ingenious (and often gory) ways to kill. The question is obviously not “Who did it?” but “How will he get caught?”, where’s the mistake that will trip him up?  I never cared about those (I want to be able to like the person in whose head I’m stuck while reading).

In the second, the killer is extremely likeable and the victim(s) aren’t. Often rapists, domestic abusers and other killers who were never caught. I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of those but there’s always a danger of exaggerating the evilness of the victims too much. They turn into moustache-twirling villains who kick puppies in their spare time and end up feeling not really human anymore (because that would mean the reader had to struggle with pesky morals).

The Murder Of My Aunt in a way is a bit of both. The aunt is horrible, but I also hated Edward – the narrator who plans the murder – after about two pages. He complains that he’s stuck in a small village (due to the in mystery-novels so popular inconvenient terms of a will that make him dependant on his aunt). It’s horrible and boring, it doesn’t even have a cinema (the horror) and worst of all: it’s in Wales and has a silly Welsh name. Because Welsh is a silly language, you see. No vowels and ridiculously many Ls. Isn’t that stupid? English is, of course, the superior language. It makes sense and the spelling is totally reasona…

Gif from Tatort: Wilhelmine Klemm laughing. Caption: HAHAHAHA

Yes, I get it. This was written in 1934. Back then such views were probably considered genuinely amusing…or at least only slightly obnoxious instead of a sign of an absolute jerk. But since it’s not the thirties anymore even though current politics…no let’s not go there, I do feel strongly about people mocking languages, and we are treated to Edward’s diatribe about Welsh at the very beginning of the book, I hated him immediately.

But at the same time, his aunt is also horrible. Not in the way patriarchs and matriarchs in mystery novels usually are: They are convinced that they are always right and that their children have to obey them. They might be aware that the child would be miserable but to them, it’s just an insignificant side-effect. The important thing is that everybody obeys them.

Edward’s aunt just wants to make him miserable. For example, she knows that Edward hates walking and so she decides to force him to walk to fetch a package from the post office. For that, she has to tell the postman that he should keep the package instead of delivering it (giving as reason that the label was torn), throw away the petrol of her own car so that Edward can’t use it, tell the owner of the local garage that he should refuse if Edward calls him and ask if he can deliver petrol and hide the phone-book so that he won’t find a different garage. That’s a lot of work for an idiotic prank. Because that’s all it is. She didn’t need him out of the house for any reason, she only wants him to walk because she knows he hates it.

At that point, I was willing to temporarily forget his comments on the Welsh and cheered for his plan to work because that would mean one less horrible character. And after all, his mistakes when setting up his murderous trap where so glaringly obvious that I was sure he would be arrested soon after the murder and my suffering would also soon be over. But alas, things don’t go as expected – for Edward and the poor, suffering reader – and in a different book I might have enjoyed the way things turned but here I just had to read more horrible people being horrible to each other and hated every page of it.

ARC provided by NetGalley

Richard Hull: Excellent Intentions

40409285Title: Excellent Intension
Author: Richard Hull

Great Barwick’s least popular man is murdered on a train. Twelve jurors sit in court. Four suspects are identified – but which of them is on trial? 

This novel has all the makings of a classic murder mystery, but with a twist: as Attorney-General Anstruther Blayton leads the court through prosecution and defence, Inspector Fenby carries out his investigation. All this occurs while the identity of the figure in the dock is kept tantalisingly out of reach. 

Rating: B-

“If you ask my quite unofficial opinion, plenty of people richly deserve to be murdered nowadays and far too few of them actually get bumped off.”

The book is advertised as a crime novel that’s not (quite) like the other crime novels and at first, it is very unlike others. The book starts with the trial and we learn a few things about the judge, the prosecutor and the lawyer. But nothing about the person who’s on trial. They’re only referred to as ‘the accused’ or ‘the defendant’. Then the trial opens, and the first witness gets called: the man who saw the victim taking some snuff and then collapsing. First, he is questioned by a prosecutor who likes long words and run-on sentences, then by the defence who desperately tries to confuse the witness enough to make him doubt his memory – because if the things didn’t happen the way he described it would be advantageous for the defendant.
But then the novel takes a turn. The rest of the investigation isn’t told through the trial. The story jumps back, and we see the investigation unfold in a quite traditional manner: The inspector questions the suspects and reconstructs they day of the murder to figure out when the poison could have been put in the snuff-box. This investigation takes up most of the book and doesn’t read much different than any other ‘typical’ crime novel. The only difference is that there’s no big reveal of the culprit in the library. Instead, it jumps back to the trial and that’s where we learn who was the only person who could have poisoned the snuff and how the inspector figured it out.

It’s not that I’m complaining about that. With the prosecutor and his love for wordiness (I got traumatic flashbacks to reading The Moonstone from just the few pages) the whole story would have been near-unreadable if it was all told via the trial. But the blurb (and Martin Edward’s introduction) advertised quite aggressively how different the story is told in this book when, in reality, it is told quite normally and mostly just plays around with the chronology.

Will I read more by the author? Definitely. The story itself has a fair share of wit and humour. I wouldn’t go so far as saying that it’s a parody, but it doesn’t take itself completely seriously. There’s the victim who was horrible and hated everyone so much that he even wanted his money to go to a place where it did ‘the least amount of good’ and therefore decides to leave it to the state. The remaining characters aren’t quite as exaggerated but there’s still a bumbling vicar, a hyper-competent assistant, an ominous butler and a stupid gardener.

ARC provided by NetGalley

Maggie Robinson: Nobody’s Sweetheart Now

39970739Title: Nobody’s Sweetheart Now
Author: Maggie Robinson
Series: Lady Adelaide Mysteries #1

Lady Adelaide Compton has recently (and satisfactorily) interred her husband, Major Rupert Charles Cressleigh Compton, hero of the Somme, in the family vault in the village churchyard.

Rupert died by smashing his Hispano-Suiza on a Cotswold country road while carrying a French mademoiselle in the passenger seat. With the house now Addie’s, needed improvements in hand, and a weekend house party underway, how inconvenient of Rupert to turn up! Not in the flesh, but in – actually, as a – spirit. Rupert has to perform a few good deeds before becoming welcomed to heaven – or, more likely, thinks Addie, to hell.

Before Addie can convince herself she’s not completely lost her mind, a murder disrupts her careful seating arrangement. Which of her twelve houseguests is a killer? Her mother, the formidable Dowager Marchioness of Broughton? Her sister Cecilia, the born-again vegetarian? Her childhood friend and potential lover, Lord Lucas Waring? Rupert has a solid alibi as a ghost and an urge to detect.

Enter Inspector Devenand Hunter from the Yard, an Anglo-Indian who is not going to let some barmy society beauty witnessed talking to herself derail his investigation. Something very peculiar is afoot at Compton Court and he’s going to get to the bottom of it – or go as mad as its mistress trying.

Rating: B

This was delightful. I loved every single character; they are quirky but don’t turn into annoying caricatures. This made me especially happy because many of the more light-hearted mysteries overdo the quirkiness. Especially the main character’s family members are often more exhausting than amusing. Here Addies’s mother (and to an extent also Devenand’s parents) are meddling – in the time-honoured tradition of parents in cozy mysteries – but it never goes so far that I wanted to yell at them for interfering so much.

Rupert’s ghost was a fun addition to the story in the sense that I enjoyed his interactions with Addie and how his past serial cheating was dealt with. He now regrets it and explains it with the fact that after fighting in the war he couldn’t cope with the quietness of a peaceful life and was looking for new excitement. The book treads a fine line between explaining his actions without completely excusing his behaviour. However, for most of the book, his presence had very little influence on the plot. He does help with finding one clue but it wouldn’t have taken them that long to find that out without him*. Then, at the end of the book, it seems as if the author remembered that she should perhaps do something more with that ghost and he finally gets to do something – after everybody acted quite idiotic so that a situation could be created in which he had to act heroically.

The victim is a woman who is also a serial cheater and while at first, it seems as if nobody liked her and that she was an unlikeable character all-around, she also gets more depth over the course of the investigation. Similarly to Rupert, her actions aren’t excused but we are shown that there were people who cared about her.

I am very curious about how this series will continue. Will Rupert return or will Addie meet a new ghost?

 

*Well and he helps Addie to hide her dildo. No, really. Did I mention that I enjoyed this book a lot?

Miraculous Mysteries

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Locked-room mysteries and other impossible crime stories have been relished by puzzle-lovers ever since the invention of detective fiction. Fiendishly intricate cases were particularly well suited to the cerebral type of detective story that became so popular during the ‘golden age of murder’ between the two world wars. But the tradition goes back to the days of Wilkie Collins, and impossible crime stories have been written by such luminaries as Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham. This anthology celebrates their work, alongside long-hidden gems by less familiar writers. Together these stories demonstrate the range and high accomplishment of the classic British impossible crime story over more than half a century.

Rating: C+

Of course, impossible crimes immediately makes one think of the typical locked room mystery: a room, locked from the inside, with a dead body. Most of the stories are exactly that but a few also feature miraculously disappearing weapons, bodies, trains or whole houses.

The Lost Special – Arthur Conan Doyle 😐

How can a whole train disappear without a trace? The case is once again solved by…nobody really.

This story had some similarities to the Conan Doyle story in Blood on the Tracks and not only because both stories feature a seemingly impossible crime involving a train. Just like The Man with the Watches, this story has no detective, just somebody involved in the crime who explains it all, once it won’t have any consequences for him anymore. That’s…cheap. And while I fully understand Doyle’s reluctance to make up a detective, even just for a single story, this simply isn’t what I expect from a ‘proper’ mystery.

The Thing Invisible – William Hope Hodgson ☹

An invisible thing held the dagger that stabbed the butler in the chapel. That’s what everybody who was there when it happens claims. So was there really a ghost or is there another explanation? Carnacki the Ghostfinder investigates.

Carnacki is yet another ‘rival’ of Sherlock Holmes and the stories are set up in a similar way, with the narrator being a friend of Carnacki. But the difference is that the two don’t actually work together. In The Thing Invisible Carnacki comes to visit the narrator after he solved the case and tells him all about it which rather defeats the purpose in my opinion. Especially because a sizeable part of the narration is spent on Carnacki explaining how scared he was in the chapel, with frequent interjections a la ‘You must really understand how terrified I was at that point’ which rather killed the atmosphere instead adding to it. Which is a shame, because if you strip away all that, a clever impossible crime remains. But I almost didn’t notice because I got so bored while reading.

The Case of the Tragedies in the Greek Room – Sax Rohmer 😃

Two people end up dead in a museum room. Both times a Greek harp has been removed from its case but not stolen. It’s still in the room.

After the – for Martin Edwards – very lukewarm introduction to this story I didn’t expect much but this story is fun. It’s clearly pulp fiction with its high drama, impossible science, beautiful women and ridiculous coincidences. But it’s also fun.

The Aluminium Dagger – R. Austin Freeman 😃

An unlikeable man is stabbed in a locked room by a left-handed person. But was he really?

Thorndyke is…reliable. I never came across a Thorndyke-story I didn’t enjoy but I can also see how Freeman’s obsession with scientific details isn’t for everybody. Still, a very realistic locked-room mystery is a nice change

The Miracle of Moon Crescent – G.K. Chesterton ☹

Three Atheists stand in a room. Behind them a locked door. A priest walks in and wants to speak to the man behind the locked door.  The man is missing.

I swear the Father Brown stories I’ve read before weren’t that…preachy. Or perhaps my memory is playing tricks on me since I watched much more adaptations (which in some cases are only very loosely based on the stories) than read Chesterton. This story felt like a religious treatise with some murder in the background and that was rather…exhausting. And dull.

The Invisible Weapon – Nicholas Oide 😃

The case seems clear-cut. A man is dead. Another man who had a motive to kill him stayed in the same house and he had the opportunity. But there’s a tiny detail: the murder weapon is nowhere to be found and the suspect wouldn’t have had the time to get rid of it. How can you batter someone to death with your bare hands?

Even though the question is not “Who killed the man behind closed doors?” but “Where did the weapon go?” this is one of the most typical locked room mysteries in this collection. The solution is brilliant but also plain and simple once explained (and relies on some very convenient coincidences)

The Diary of Death – Marten Cumberland 😐

A crazed serial killer has developed an obsession with a once-famous actress. She died impoverished but left a diary behind in which she accused her former friends of abandoning her. Somebody has gotten hold of that diary and is now out for revenge. One of the actress’s friends is convinced he is next so he takes precautions and locks himself up. But…

…you will be surprised by what happens next.

Gif: Shocked goofer

The focus of this story isn’t that much the impossible aspect (the solution to that is rather simple) but the story of the actress and who (and why) would be out to avenge her. As such it is…nice.

The Broadcast Murder – Grenville Robbins ☹

A radio announcer is murdered live on air. All the nation could listen to it. But when the police enter the radio-station there is no body to be found.

 The Music Room – Sapper ☹

The owner of a mansion entertains his guests with a story about a decades-old unsolved murder about an unknown man, found in a locked room, beaten to death. One day later there’s a very recent body in one of the rooms.

I’m putting these two together because I was bothered by very similar things in them. For me, a satisfying ending is important for a mystery.  That doesn’t mean that it has to turn out that the most unlikeable character has to turn out to be the killer and everybody else gets to live happily ever after. But some sort of feeling that in the end, people got what they deserved is nice. And that isn’t the case in either of those stories. In one case the guilty party even remains completely free (for reasons that make no sense at all), in the other, the author takes great pains to point out how unsatisfying and depressing the ending is.

Death at 8.30 – Christopher St. John Sprigg 😐

A blackmailer is on the loose. He demands money and threatens to kill when his demands aren’t met and he has done so already three times. When he finds another victim and promises death at 8.30 on a certain day, the police want to stop him and make sure the man is guarded well when that time comes.

Spoiler: it goes badly. But I called the ‘how’ very quickly, and the rest of the story was somewhat underwhelming.

Too Clever By Half – G.D.H. and Margaret Cole 😃

A man shots himself. His brother-in-law – who had reason to kill him – was downstairs with a group of people when the shot fired. So was it really suicide? Or is the brother-in-law perhaps…*drumroll*…to clever by half?

Another quite classical story told in a somewhat unusual manner but still fun.

Locked In – E. Charles Vivian 😐

Suicide seems to run in the family when a man shoots himself twenty-three years after his father. There seems to be no question that it was suicide since it happened behind closed doors. But is it really? (No it’s not)

Nothing special. And a solution that felt like cheating.

The Haunted Policeman – Dorothy L. Sayers ❤

While making his rounds a constable hears a blood-curdling scream. It comes from house number 13 and when he peeks through the letter-box he sees a dead body. But when he returns with a fellow officer there is no house number 13. And when they check all the houses on the street there is no body – and no interior that looks like the one the constable saw. Fortunately, the constable later bumps into Lord Peter (who needs fresh air after the stressful experience of watching his wife deliver their son) who can’t resist such a good mystery.

And it is a great one. It is again a very typical impossible mystery – with a solution that makes sense but is also quite insane – but Wimsey is a great character.
The final three stories The Sands of Thyme by Michael Innes, Beware of the Trains by Edmund Crispin and The Villa Marie Celeste by Margery Allingham are all fairly short and there is little to say about them. They’re all enjoyable but not particularly memorable.

All-in-all I did enjoy Miraculous Mysteries more than Blood on the Tracks but that has to do with the fact that I enjoy trying to figure the how of an impossible mystery more than reading about trains.

Anna Lee Huber: Treacherous Is the Night

Cover: Treacherous Is the NightTitle: Treacherous Is the Night
Author: Anna Lee Huber
Series: Verity Kent #2

It’s not that Verity Kent doesn’t sympathize with those eager to make contact with lost loved ones. After all, she once believed herself a war widow. But now that she’s discovered Sidney is very much alive, Verity is having enough trouble connecting with her estranged husband, never mind the dead. Still, at a friend’s behest, Verity attends a séance, where she encounters the man who still looms between her and Sidney—and a medium who channels a woman Verity once worked with in the Secret Service. Refusing to believe her former fellow spy is dead, Verity is determined to uncover the source of the spiritualist’s top secret revelation.

Then the medium is murdered—and Verity’s investigation is suddenly thwarted. Even Secret Service agents she once trusted turn their backs on her. Undaunted, Verity heads to war-torn Belgium, with Sidney by her side. But as they draw ever closer to the danger, Verity wonders if she’s about to learn the true meaning of till death do us part . . .

Rating: E

My thoughts while reading the book of this National Bestselling Author:

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Verity and her husband have a slightly awkward conversation. Immediately afterwards the narration spends to pages on explaining how her relationship has changed because of what they saw in the war and what happened after the war. That their relationship will never be the same as it was before. That they both still have to work through all those issues but that both have problems opening up to the other because they feel they don’t really know the other person anymore.

When Verity’s friend asks her to accompany her to the seance and that she hopes to contact her brother we are told in great detail how close that friend and her brother were, how hard it was for her when he fell and a detailed run-down of the friend’s other family members (and friends) and why it would be a bad idea when they accompanied her.

This happens again and again. And when we aren’t told what the characters feel, we get plain infodumps about the war, Verity’s work in the secret service, Belgian architecture and a lot of other things we don’t need to know in that much detail.

All this already made me almost quit the book a few chapters in because while I understand that sometimes an author just has to dump some stuff on the reader unceremoniously (especially in a case like this where they want the reader to be able to start reading a series at any point without getting confused by vague allusions to past events) this was just too much. But the mystery was quite intriguing so I read on.

That was a bad idea.

Because it quickly turned out that Verity’s husband is a horrible human being.

You see, Sidney wasn’t just missing presumed dead and turned up again. He deliberately faked his own death to draw out some traitors. Verity though he was dead for 15 months before he appeared again and demanded her help in his plot.

Verity now has some issues. They had a whirlwind romance anyway and quickly after they married he went to war so they didn’t really get to know each other. Then he died and she grieved for him (FOR 15 MONTHS) and then he just pops up again. And he is a different man now because war changes people. It has also changed Verity and now they are essentially a married couple that barely know each other. And that is somehow Verity’s fault as far as Sidney is concerned. When Verity is reluctant to share her own experiences he is all hurt. He shouts at his wife, who he let believe he was dead for 15 months because she can’t bring herself to share intimate details with him.

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After one of these confrontations she points out the whole You-made-me-think-you-were-dead thing and he yells “So this is all my fault?”

Yes, Sidney. It is. It might have been unavoidable to fake your own death. It might have even been unavoidable to not tell her in advance because the grief had to be genuine. But you could have considered telling her quicker than those 15 months. And if that wasn’t possible then you have to fucking deal with it. Deal with the fact that you can’t pick up exactly where you left off.

But of course, Verity doesn’t tell him that. She assures him that it isn’t his fault. (Which I guess means it is her fault. Stupid womenfolk).

That placates him until he finds out that she slept with another man. While she thought he was dead, grieved for him and was probably not exactly emotionally stable. But of course, Sidney is angry that after learning he was dead, his wife did not lock herself in, had no contact with anybody and just dealt with her grief just by sobbing uncontrollably.

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When they encounter Verity’s one-night-stand again Sidney punches him. Because that’s an emotionally mature reaction and doesn’t at all suggest that he will again react with violence when he doesn’t like something.

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But men getting violent because of something you did is so romantic, right?

But despite all that, they reconcile and have sex. And after that, he asks “I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t take precautions?” Because hey! It’s always better to ask for forgiveness than permission!

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In all that it felt like the mystery was just a backdrop to Verity’s and Sidney’s relationship issues (which I felt weren’t handled well…as you can probably tell). It wasn’t bad (yes there were some convenient coincidences but that’s the case in most mysteries) but it would have needed to be fleshed more out in some parts to work really well. But that space was needed to convince us what a great guy Sidney is…

ARC provided by NetGalley

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”