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”

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

Keikichi Osaka: The Ginza Ghost

Cover Keikichi Osaka: The Ginza GhostTitel: The Ginza Ghost
Author: Keikichi Osaka

Although the Japanese form of Golden Age detective fiction was re-launched in the early 1980s as shin honkaku by Soji Shimada and Yukito Ajatsuji, the original honkaku dates from the 1930s and one of its pioneers was Keikichi Osaka. The Ginza Ghost is a collection of twelve of his best stories, almost all impossible crimes. Although the solutions are strictly fair-play, there is an unreal, almost hallucinatory quality to them.

Rating: C+

There were a few stories that stood out for me in Foreign Bodies and Keikichi Osaka’s did it for being much darker than the rest. It wasn’t my absolute favourite but it turned out to be the only one where it was easy to find more by the author in translation.

The stories in this collection are also all darker than what readers of Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie might be used to. The author doesn’t shy away from detailed descriptions of how a body looks after a brutal murder. But it never feels like either goriness for the sake of it (as it often does in modern thrillers) or the slightly condescending Well, murder is brutal and gory and if you are reading about it for your entertainment you have to be able to deal with it-attitude that some crime novels have. It simply fits the overall tone of the story.

And while there still are stories where the motive is plain great or jealousy, there are also many where more complex emotions are behind the events of the story. Some of those make for an interesting change from the often puzzle-focussed (Western) detective fiction. Others veer more into the ridiculous melodrama territory. Part might be blamed on a geographical and temporal culture clash but some of the stories, especially the one the introduction promised to be an incredibly moving tragedy, had me feel nothing except the urge to roll my eyes.

The topic of this collection is impossible crimes so this isn’t a collection of all of Osaka’s stories featuring a certain character or from a certain period in his career. The common denominator of the stories is their apparent impossibility: a dead person commits a murder, someone disappears from an island from which there was no possible escape, a car disappears from a straight road that has no side-streets and other variations of locked room mysteries…

While I enjoy those kinds of mysteries, this collection doesn’t do itself any favours by limiting itself to this theme. There are twelve stories in total; three feature the same twist and three others very similar explanations for why something seemed very different from what it actually was.

Now he isn’t the first writer who recycles ideas (*cough* The Red-Headed League and The Stockbroker’s Clerk) and it is entirely possible that looking at his whole body of work there are only a couple of repetitions and the editor’s attempt to collect these ‘impossible crimes’ meant that he ended up with some similar twist. Since this is his only work that appeared in translation, I can’t tell.

But if I’m honest: even if there were more of his stories translated I wouldn’t rush to read them. Osaka has a rather exhausting writing-style. When e.g. in a Sherlock Holmes story somebody comes to Holmes and tells him about something that happened earlier, they will still sound like a narrator. In other words, Alice telling Holmes about her confrontation with Bob will read like this:

I rushed to his room and slammed the door behind me.
“You fiend!”, I cried, “You were behind it all along!”
He turned towards me and laughed, “Of course I was.”

Osaka lets people tell stories in a much more realistic fashion:

I rushed to his room and yelled at him that he had been behind it all along. He didn’t deny it and just laughed.

(With apologies to both Doyle and Osaka who are much better writers than I am but you should get the gist).

With three or four stories in The Ginza Ghost that have somebody tell the story long after it has happened, that’s a lot of recounting of events with indirect speech etc. And while that is the more realistic way to talk, it makes for more difficult reading. It’s hard to focus on long walls of text.

It was still an interesting experience to read these stories as someone whose idea of detective/mystery stories was formed by (Western)-European authors but I can’t quite sing the same praises for Osaka as the editor of this collection does in his introduction.


This was a read for the Kill you Darlings game: Suspect: Arthur Conan Doyle (Read a book that is a mystery or a collection of short stories)

Suspect: Arthur Conan Doyle

Serial Killers Unsolved

18946406Title: Serial Killers Unsolved: 10 Terrifying Serial Killers Who Have Never Been Caught

Author: Rober Keller

From famous cases like Jack the Ripper and the Zodiac to lesser known ones like the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run and the Frankford Slasher. Robert Keller presents ten serial killers that have never been caught.

Note: This book is available for free if you sign up for the newsletter on the author’s homepage.

Rating: C-

This book is exactly what it says on the tin: ten unsolved serial killer cases. And even I, as someone who spends too much of their free time listening to True Crime podcasts, had never heard of some of the cases or wasn’t aware of many details about them.

But when it comes to the cases I had heard of before, the book didn’t give me any new facts. And I’m not only talking about Jack the Ripper (about whom I have more books than is probably healthy). Even if all I knew about the killers came from a single podcast like Unsolved Murders, there were no new revelations. Now, if you’re newly into True Crime and unsolved (serial) murders seem especially interesting to you there are worse places to start. The book offers a nice overview and doesn’t dwell too much on the sensational and gory details.

Still, the lack of depth is glaringly obvious in those cases where the author doesn’t just give the plain facts but also weighs in on the theories (or presents his own as in the case of the Boston Strangler where he thinks DeSalvo is completely innocent). Each killer gets perhaps 20 or 30 pages and after presenting the facts, that leaves no more space than a few paragraphs to go into the theories (and the author’s opinion of them) and that’s not enough to provide convincing evidence of anything.


This is also part of 16 Tasks of the Festive Season:

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Book themes for Pancha Ganapati: Read a book whose cover has one of the 5 colors of the holiday: red, blue, green, orange, or yellow.

Blood Sisters

12338716Title: Blood Sisters
Author: Melanie Clegg

When the beautiful Comtesse de Saint-Valèry is dragged unwillingly from her Parisian home in the dead of night, her three young daughters are left to an uncertain fate at the hands of their father in a world that is teetering on the very edge of Revolution.

Cassandre, the eldest is a beautiful and heartless society beauty, trapped in an unhappy marriage and part of the dazzling court of Versailles. Lucrèce, her twin, is married to a man she adores but he pushes her away for another woman. Meanwhile, Adélaïde, the youngest, rebels against the destiny that her position in society appears to have doomed her to.

As the horror, turmoil and excitement of the French Revolution unfolds around them, the three very different sisters struggle to survive the bloodshed, find love and discover their true selves…

Rating: C+

Life is too short and too fleeting to be spent waiting for something to happen or to loose sight, even for a moment, of the people you love.

This book does a great job of portraying (more or less) ordinary people caught up in a major historical event and an at-best mediocre job at telling the story of everything else that happened to these people.

It follows three aristocratic sisters through major events of the French Revolution: the storming of the Bastille, the women’s March on Versaille, the imprisonment of King and Queen, their execution, Danton’s trial and finally Robespierre’s execution. At least one of them is always caught in the thick of it (Lucrèce is a lady-in-waiting to the queen and with her the day she is arrested, Adélaïde is married to a fierce Republican who is friends with Danton…) The description of these events is very vivid and drew me right into it (despite not caring about that period that much) and had me biting my nails in anticipation of what would happen next. Even when I knew what would happen, the way the sisters were hoping and praying for a happy ending made me want to join in and I almost hoped that perhaps I had misremembered my French history.

But not everything that happens is directly connected to the French Revolution. The sisters also fall in love, marry, fall out of love again, grow up, discover family secrets and change their opinions about important issues. And that’s where the format of the story is working against it. It tells of events happening between 1789 and 1794 but not as one continuing story. In the first part, we learn how the sisters experienced the storming of the Bastille, in the second the women’s March and so on. But their life didn’t stop between all these events, rather the opposite: often quite major events and revelations happened in between but we’re only told a short summary of what happened at the beginning of each chapter. By that time major decisions are already made, any emotional fallout of huge revelations has happened…a lot of character-development happens between the chapters.

As a result, I could connect with the emotions of the characters but not so much with the characters as a whole since I only ever saw snapshots of them at different stages in their life. I didn’t see them grow, I saw how they had grown.


This is also part of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season challenge:

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Book themes for Advent: Read a book featuring 4 siblings.

While the story only focusses on the three sisters, they also have a brother 😉

The Five Daughters of the Moon (The Waning Moon #1)

33099589 Title: The Five Daughters of the Moon
Author: Leena Likitalo
Series: The Waning Moon #1

The Crescent Empire teeters on the edge of a revolution, and the Five Daughters of the Moon are the ones to determine its future.

Alina, six, fears Gagargi Prataslav and his Great Thinking Machine. The gagargi claims that the machine can predict the future, but at a cost that no one seems to want to know.

Merile, eleven, cares only for her dogs, but she smells that something is afoul with the gagargi. By chance, she learns that the machine devours human souls for fuel, and yet no one believes her claim.

Sibilia, fifteen, has fallen in love for the first time in her life. She couldn’t care less about the unrests spreading through the countryside. Or the rumors about the gagargi and his machine.

Elise, sixteen, follows the captain of her heart to orphanages and workhouses. But soon she realizes that the unhappiness amongst her people runs much deeper that anyone could have ever predicted.

And Celestia, twenty-two, who will be the empress one day. Lately, she’s been drawn to the gagargi. But which one of them was the first to mention the idea of a coup?

Rating: C

I rarely say this, especially about fantasy novels but: This book would have been better if it had been longer. Especially the chapters featuring the oldest sister, Elise and Celestia, just throw important information at us at lightning speed. By the time of their first POV-chapters, many important parts of their story have already happened and all we get are flashbacks to those events. In addition to the things that are currently happening of course. In Celestia’s first chapter I almost laughed because it was so crammed with dramatic reveals, surprising twists and shocking events at a speed that made it hard to take it seriously (other authors would get a whole book out of what happened there, if not a trilogy).

It’s not quite as extreme in Elise’s case. Partly because not quite as much happens directly in the chapters and partly because we met Elise before her POV-chapter through her sisters (either directly or via her sisters thinking about her) while Celestia is barely mentioned by her sisters as being an actual person. (She’s only ever the future Empress). But there is still so much that happened to Elise before the book started that her chapters also feel like missing half the story.

And there is so much else that is done rather half-heartedly: One of the sisters cares deeply about another person but that person falls under a spell so that they don’t even remember that they once knew her. What the reader sees is one chapter where the two are still together, then in the sister’s next chapter, she has already figured out that the person is under a spell so there is no emotional fallout from the situation. It felt more like reading an early draft that needed more depths.

The world building also leaves some questions: The Crescent Empire can only ever have an empress. She doesn’t even marry (not a human man at least, symbolically she marries the moon…it’s complicated), just takes lovers to conceive children. Yet, for the ordinary people, life is still sexist: the men alone go to war and without a man to earn money, families will starve. (And also for the empress and her family there are various rules about when they are allowed to lose their virginity).

I already bought the second book anyway. Because the story is still good even though it could have used a lot more polishing. But also because the book stopped mid-scene. Of course, the first book in a series is supposed to set everything up but I also expect a closure of something. The heroes solving one problem, only to discover that they caused another/now see the much bigger problem that was hiding behind the smaller one. At the very least I expect them to have a plan about how to solve the big problem. But The Five Daughters of the Moon just…stopped. Nothing is resolved. Nobody has any idea what to do. Things just got a lot worse and then it was over.


This is also part of the Reading for 16 Tasks of the Festive Season:

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Book themes for Calan Gaeaf: Read any of your planned Halloween Bingo books that you didn’t end up reading after all, involving witches, hags, or various types of witchcraft.

A ‘proper’ witch appears at one point in the book to help the sisters (or perhaps not…) and some of the sisters have supernatural powers (though mostly passive ones)