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

Ekaterina Sedia: The Secret History of Moscow

Ekaterina Sedia: The Secret History of MoscowEvery city contains secret places. Moscow in the tumultuous 1990s is no different, its citizens seeking safety in a world below the streets — a dark, cavernous world of magic, weeping trees, and albino jackdaws, where exiled pagan deities and fairy-tale creatures whisper strange tales to those who would listen. Galina is a young woman caught, like her contemporaries, in the seeming lawlessness of the new Russia.

In the midst of this chaos, her sister Maria turns into a jackdaw and flies away — prompting Galina to join Yakov, a policeman investigating a rash of recent disappearances. Their search will take them to the underground realm of hidden truths and archetypes, to find themselves caught between reality and myth, past and present, honor and betrayal … the secret history of Moscow. 

Rating: B-

The blurb makes it sound like a relatively ordinary fantasy novel: protagonist sets out to find a disappeared loved one and discovers a magical world. But it’s not quite. Usually, in these kinds of set-ups, the protagonists take a long time to accept that there is really something supernatural going on. Here, it takes Galina, Yakov, and Fyodor three chapters until they decide that all the disappeared people must have turned into birds and crossed through a portal that appeared in a puddle to a different world. Then they come to the obvious conclusion that they are too large to fit through the puddle-portal and that they need a larger one. Fortunately, Fyodor knows just the place and a few pages later they are in an underworld in which they don’t just meet old Russian Gods and spirits but also humans – from the time of the Golden Horde, the pogroms under Alexander III, the Decembrist revolt and the Stalinist Terror – who also passed through a portal and now live in this underworld. They don’t question any of those things. In fact, it doesn’t take them long to discuss which spirit would be the most likely to be helpful or trust solutions that appeared to them in a dream.

And because they didn’t question these things, I didn’t either. Often enough I do get frustrated when characters just know things or just accept something extraordinary without complaining but here I just rolled with it. More than once I was reminded of Peter S. Beagle’s The Innkeeper’s Song, another book that doesn’t bother much with complex worldbuilding (or going deep into the characters’ motivation) but I felt that it wasn’t necessary for the story.  And similarly, when Galina and the others go and question a celestial cow about the missing people’s whereabouts I just shrugged and went ‘Yeah. Seems a reasonable thing to do.’

What did bother me was that the book doesn’t make much difference between the main and the side characters. Once they appear for the first time, we get their backstory of how they ended up in the underworld but each gets the same amount of detail. It doesn’t matter if the person ends up being important for the plot or just appear this once. It feels like some of the backstories are just there to give the reader a small history lesson about a certain era. I would have preferred to get to know some of the other characters better, especially since there were loose ends in some of the storylines.

I saw that a lot of people didn’t enjoy the book at all and I can understand that. The ‘just roll with it’-attitude won’t work for everybody but for me it did and so I got a charming and magical story.

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

KJ Charles: A Fashionable Indulgence

KJ Charles: A Fashionable IndulgenceTitle: A Fashionable Indulgence
Author: KJ Charles
Series: Society of Gentlemen

When he learns that he could be the heir to an unexpected fortune, Harry Vane rejects his past as a Radical fighting for government reform and sets about wooing his lovely cousin. But his heart is captured instead by the most beautiful, chic man he’s ever met: the dandy tasked with instructing him in the manners and style of the ton. Harry’s new station demands conformity—and yet the one thing he desires is a taste of the wrong pair of lips.

After witnessing firsthand the horrors of Waterloo, Julius Norreys sought refuge behind the luxurious facade of the upper crust. Now he concerns himself exclusively with the cut of his coat and the quality of his boots. And yet his protégé is so unblemished by cynicism that he inspires the first flare of genuine desire Julius has felt in years. He cannot protect Harry from the worst excesses of society. But together they can withstand the high price of passion.

Rating: B-

I loved Harry’s story: at the start of the book he works in a bookstore and barely makes ends meet. He also has lived through times where things were even worse and he almost starved. Then he learns that he has a rich grandfather who needs an heir because his son (Harry’s uncle) and other grandson died in a fire.

But of course, this isn’t some fairy tale: Harry’s grandfather and father broke when his father married a Radical commoner and went on to fight for the rights of the working-classes with her, a cause he detests. And to get his inheritance Harry has to convince him that he agrees with him on this subject. Of course, he doesn’t: he knows that, contrary to what the upper classes believe, he wasn’t poor just because he didn’t work hard enough. But he has to sit through dinners with friends of his grandfather who believe exactly that and are very vocal about it.

As the reader, you want Harry to jump up and tell these assholes exactly where they can shove their opinions and there are enough books where something along those lines happens. But Harry does that only once, quite late in the book and quickly regrets it and tries to convince his grandfather that it was just a stupid drunken mistake. Because Harry knows exactly what will happen when he displeases his grandfather: he’ll be out on the streets again with no idea if he can afford his next meal and he does not want that again.

But this charade gets harder for him hold up, the longer it goes on. Because while Harry has some issues with the ways his parents fought for their ideals and with the life they dragged him into (a lot of it was spent on the run), he still shares their values and feels like he is betraying their memory by not standing up to his grandfather. And this struggle is so raw and real that it’s impossible not to feel for him.

Of course, there is also another issue Harry has: his grandfather wants him to marry his cousin, to make sure that his fortune stays with the right kind of people. Harry would prefer to lead a life as a confirmed bachelor. If you know what I mean.

Randolph Scott and Cary Grant over a seafood lunch
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Which brings us to the romance part of this story, which was…OK. Now don’t get me wrong: I liked Julius and there was nothing about the development of their relationship. that made me feel uncomfortable. Rather the opposite: I enjoyed that just like in other KJ Charles books there wasn’t one partner who was experienced in everything and one who needed to be taught everything. Their relationship was very balanced with each having some experiences and knowledge the other hadn’t.

In other words, I shouldn’t have any reason to complain and yet…I simply cared a lot about how Harry dealt with his conscience vs. his desire to not live in poverty again. That fact that he found a boyfriend while dealing with these issues was…nice but not the most important thing for me. And I can’t help feeling that in a romance I should care more about the romantic parts. On the other hand, I loved everything else about this book a lot so does it really matter?

KJ Charles: The Henchman of Zenda

Cover: The Henchman of ZendaAuthor: KJ Charles
Title: The Henchman of Zenda

Swordfights, lust, betrayal, murder: just another day for a henchman.

Jasper Detchard is a disgraced British officer, now selling his blade to the highest bidder. Currently, that’s Michael Elphberg, half-brother to the King of Ruritania. Michael wants the throne for himself, and Jasper is one of the scoundrels he hires to help him take it. But when Michael makes his move, things don’t go entirely to plan—and the penalty for treason is death.

Rupert of Hentzau is Michael’s newest addition to his sinister band of henchmen. Charming, lethal, and intolerably handsome, Rupert is out for his own ends—which seem to include getting Jasper into bed. But Jasper needs to work out what Rupert’s really up to amid a maelstrom of plots, swordfights, scheming, impersonation, desire, betrayal, and murder.

Nobody can be trusted. Everyone has a secret. And love is the worst mistake you can make.

RatingB+

I am quite sure my reader is, if possible, even less interested in my paternal grandmother than I am.

I recently read Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair and one of my main complaints about it was that the author tried to fix the not too happy ending of The Prisoner of Zenda in a way that didn’t work for me. The Henchman of Zenda also gives some people a happy ending that didn’t have one originally but goes about it very differently.

In The Hentzau Affair, we learn that everything happened exactly as written in the original and this results in people acting really out of character and a very unbelievable happy end. Meanwhile, Henchman starts off by explaining that Rudolf was full of shit and lied through his teeth to make himself look better and therefore the original can’t be trusted. But that doesn’t mean that it ignores the original canon completely. The major events still happen, only some of Rudolf’s actions are different from what he claimed. That has the great side-effect that even if you have read The Prisoner of Zenda you won’t know exactly what will happen. After all, Rudolf might have been lying. So even the retelling stays suspenseful.

That means it doesn’t really matter if you know the original or not: you get all the fun and excitement of a swashbuckling adventure novel with lots of intrigue and changing loyalties and heroes who can have awesome swordfights and snark at their opponents at the same time. But unlike many of these old-timey swashbucklers (like The Prisoner of Zenda), the female characters aren’t just part of the decoration/only there so the hero can save them heroically because he is the hero. The women in this book also play the game of thrones. (And are better at it than the guys).

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And unlike Cersei, they all manage that without sleeping with close relatives or being overall horrible.

Now I should mention that The Henchman of Zenda is a story about scheming, conspiracy, and murder. It just happens that while doing all that scheming Jasper and Rupert discover that they find each other hot and decide to spend their time together with something more fun than non-metaphorical sword-fights. And after a while, they start caring about each other. But they don’t show this with emotional declarations of love, rushing to the other’s side after hearing that he was injured or anything one might expect from a romance. And while I really enjoyed the adventure part and am perfectly happy with ‘genre + romantic elements’ I wouldn’t have minded if there had been a bit more time spent on their feelings. Their chemistry was so much fun I’d love to have seen more of it.

ARC received from the author.

Anthony Berkeley: The Poisoned Chocolates Case

31678146Title: The Poisoned Chocolates Case
Author: Anthony Berkeley
Series: Roger Sheringham Cases #5

Graham and Joan Bendix have apparently succeeded in making that eighth wonder of the modern world, a happy marriage. And into the middle of it there drops, like a clap of thunder, a box of chocolates. Joan Bendix is killed by a poisoned box of liqueur chocolates that cannot have been intended for her to eat. The police investigation rapidly reaches a dead end. Chief Inspector Moresby calls on Roger Sheringham and his Crimes Circle – six amateur but intrepid detectives – to consider the case. The evidence is laid before the Circle and the members take it in turn to offer a solution. Each is more convincing than the last, slowly filling in the pieces of the puzzle, until the dazzling conclusion. This new edition includes an alternative ending by the Golden Age writer Christianna Brand, as well as a brand new solution devised specially for the British Library by the crime novelist and Golden Age expert Martin Edwards.

RatingB-

You know how at the end of the book Hercule Poirot talks about the skeletons in everybody’s closet? Often enough he will also destroy the seemingly waterproof alibi of one person along with it and when they start protesting Poirot just shrugs and says “Oh, of course, you didn’t do it. You only needed that false alibi because you were visiting your mistress/brother in jail/divorce lawyer. But you deserve that shock for trying to fool me.” before he continues with the next person with skeletons and seemingly waterproof alibi.

Imagine that but for a whole book.

The Poisoned Chocolates Case opens when the murder has already been committed. The six amateur detectives decide to look at the case themselves and do some sleuthing – off-screen. Then the first three present their cases but at the end of each presentation somebody points out a fact that has escaped the speaker and makes his or her theory fall apart.

Then Roger Sheringham does some sleuthing – on-screen this time but also in a way that is typical for mysteries in that the reader doesn’t get much out of it: we see that Sheringham goes round showing certain people a photograph but don’t know whose photograph that is. He’s the next to present his case but it turns out he has also missed something. So it’s on to the next presenter…and then the next.

Now, the idea to write such a mystery is undoubtedly brilliant but the thing is: I don’t deny that the ‘library scene’ with all the suspects together and all the skeletons falling out belongs to a proper golden-age mystery and I’m not saying I dislike them but I really only need one per book. I already find it tedious if it gets dragged out for too long and a book that only consists of these scenes is also…well tedious.

The other thing is the way the wrong solutions are dealt with. The solutions in the first half are the kind of solutions bad mystery writers would come up with. And the characters in the book call them out as such and say that, for example, Sir Charles simply took a few coincidences and claimed that it was impossible that they weren’t connected to the murder without backing that claim up. That kind of lampshade-hanging is fun and I always appreciate it when writers don’t take the genre they write 100% serious all the time.

But the wrong solutions of the second half are actually good mystery solutions. In the introduction, Martin Edwards even mentions that there is a Sheringham short-story in which his solutions is the correct one, only in the novel he gets proven wrong. And the way the other characters react to the wrong solutions? A kind of condescending ‘Oh real life isn’t like mysteries’-attitude.

Newsflash: I know that neither mysteries nor more ‘serious’ police procedurals portray a 100% realistic picture of a murder investigation. If they did cops in books and movies would have to deal with a lot more domestic violence and quarrels between neighbours instead of cunning serial killers who are always three steps ahead of them or classically educated murderers who are inspired by Jacobean Revenge Tragedies. They also would have to do a lot more paperwork (and Agatha Christie would have been only allowed to write about 10 books because the actual murder-rate in small English villages wasn’t that high). Nobody wants to read truly 100% realistic crime novels…and if genre-books get too smug about being not like those other genre books I get annoyed. Especially when the true solution ends up involving just as many twists and turns as any other mystery.

There are also two alternate endings to the novel. One written not long after the original book, one by Martin Edwards especially for this new edition and they are…nice. They fit the tone of the book and I don’t think I would have noticed if either of them had followed the book without a note about the fact that it was done by a different author. They were fun but also not particularly impressive. (They don’t use the already known facts and twist them in a new way, they introduce new ones. Which is exactly what was done with all the ‘real’ solutions so I’m not saying they should have. But simply being able to imitate a style does not awe me so much that I’m convinced this was a necessary gimmick).


I am also reading this for Kill Your Darlings and use it to play the Ariadne Oliver-card (book is set in the UK)

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Foreign Bodies

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Title: Foreign Bodies
Editor: Martin Edwards

Today, translated crime fiction is in vogue – but this was not always the case. A century before Scandi noir, writers across Europe and beyond were publishing detective stories of high quality. Often these did not appear in English and they have been known only by a small number of experts. This is the first ever collection of classic crime in translation from the golden age of the genre in the 20th century. Many of these stories are exceptionally rare, and several have been translated for the first time to appear in this volume. Martin Edwards has selected gems of classic crime from Denmark to Japan and many points in between. Fascinating stories give an insight into the cosmopolitan cultures (and crime-writing traditions) of diverse places including Mexico, France, Russia, Germany and the Netherlands.

Rating: B-

Anton Chekhov: The Swedish Match

A murder has happened. The victim was far from popular so there’s no shortage of suspect. Enter the eager detective who finds important clues (likes the eponymous Swedish match), makes lots of deduction (much to the chagrin of his colleagues) and just won’t stop investigating. His final conclusion shocks everybody…but is he right?

It actually reads more like an author had gone ‘I’m bloody sick of this Holmes and how every little scrap he finds tells him volumes. I’ll write a character using his methods and have him end up in a really awkward situation because of it’, only that The Swedish Match is from 1883, which is a bit early for a Holmes-parody, considering A Study in Scarlet wasn’t published till 1887

It’s not great: there are lots of coincidences, and suspects appear at the drop of a hat without having been mentioned before. No matter how many crime-novels you’ve read before you will not guess the resolution. It still is an amusing story and (as somebody who had to read Lady with Dog for university and went to see a questionable version of Uncle Wanja neither of which could awaken my admiration for Chekhov), it did make me curious about some of his other works, since the introduction mentioned he wrote quite a few detective stories.

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