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

State of the Reading Challenges

Spoiler: It’s…not great

The main post of my 2018 challenges is here.

My personal challenge was to buy one new book for every five books from my tbr-pile I read. I read nine books and bought three so I have clearly a small math problem 🙄. In my defense: There was a limited offer from Amazon for two months Kindle Unlimited membership for 99 Cents. So I ended up reading lots of books that were on KU instead of on my tbr-pile. Additionally, I ended up requesting (and getting) some ARCs which I also read and which also didn’t count as tbr-pile. This challenge is much harder than expected. I also might have read so much fanfiction that put together would probably be as long as two or three books.

And talking of ARCs: I went from having twelve to having ten, which is, well, less but not quite near my goal of having less than five. But why are there always new British Crime Library Classics on NetGalley? I just can’t resist them.

Continue reading “State of the Reading Challenges”

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).

Gif of Cersei sighing
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.

Bad Books (and people who talk about them)

Sometimes I see a book and think this sounds like it’s going to be horrible. Occasionally that thought is immediately followed by I need to read this. Which is the only explanation I have for reading The Queen of the Tearling.

But while the occasional trip down the ‘so bad it’s hilarious’-lane is fun, on balance I prefer to spend more time reading good books than books involving royal guards that are worse at protecting monarchs than Jamie Lannister. Or books where the hero shows off the Iron Cross he got for saving Mussolini (The Zenda Vendetta if you really want to know…)

So I was very happy when I fell over this book some years ago:

Robin Ince's Bad Book Club

In his Bad Book Club, the author gives a very enjoyable insight into special treasures he picked up in charity shops. Treasures like an Elvis biography written in verse, a book about giant crabs attacking and eating people, gynecological Christian romances, a book about giant rats attacking and eating people, a collection of essays in which people discuss their sexual fantasies involving celebrities, a book about giant worms attacking and eating people, Z-list celebrity biographies, guides for psychic sex and…more books about giant crabs attacking and eating people because apparently, I missed a lot as person who is too cowardly for any kind of horror. It’s a great way to get the condensed horribleness of all these books, without having to read all of them yourself.

And now it turns out there aren’t just books about bad books, there are also podcasts. Like I Don’t Even Own a Television. Every episode the hosts discuss another bad book. They start off with a summary of the plot, do dramatic readings of the best/worst passages and – depending on the book – speculate on what a character might do in a certain situation, which celebrity might be a fan, cast the movie adaptation or just pick a random passage to read out loud.

But they do all that without being mean about books that don’t deserve it. Because some bad books are bad because they are a bit ridiculous (or more than a bit). Like books about giant mutated animals attacking and eating people or a group of heroes traveling through a fantasy-land where everything is a pun. Other books are bad because every chapter features another -ism and the obvious author self-insert protagonist thinks all his problems can be solved by shooting brown people. The podcast features both types of books but always makes it clear that there’s a difference between them. There have also been a few occasion where at least one of the hosts admitted that they enjoyed the book a lot more than expected and it never takes away from the fun of the episodes.

Recently IDEOATV did a crossover with Worst Bestsellers and even though I had told myself I wouldn’t start any more podcasts, I enjoyed the crossover so much I had to listen to some more Worst Bestsellers. I only listened to a few episodes so far but also really loved them.

They have a similar basic set-up but with different games (What would Wolverine do if he was in this book and is it cooler than what The Rock would do?) And while neither podcast focusses specifically on one genre, Worst Bestsellers is rather heavy on YA and romance. It also features more recent and well-known books, so I have heard of more books they discuss on the podcast. And in some cases, I have already heard a lot about the books they are discussing and I admit I have already heard/read/watched so much about Fifty Shades of Gray that I don’t need to listen to anymore. But that leaves still enough other episodes that I want to listen to (like the Flowers in the Attic episode). And it’s not like I haven’t skipped IDEOATV-episodes for various reasons (like: I unironically enjoyed the Dragonlance-books I’ve read).

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Take Place In Another Country

  1. Japan

Keikichi Osaka: The Ginza Ghost

Impossible crimes in Japan.

2. Austria

Tasha Alexander: A Fatal Waltz

In her third case, English Lady Emily hunts spies in Vienna and shows off her German skills…by which I mean the author’s ability to use Google Translate. Spoiler: Google Translate is not a reliable source. It will only lead to readers who know the language falling down laughing because the phrase ‘Hot chocolate with whipped cream’ got translated word for word.

3. Finland

sauna-1093235_1920

Sadly only two books from the very enjoyable series about Finnish Inspector Ariel Kafka got translated into German. But I just found out that there are more in English so I can continue the series without having to learn Finnish.

4. Italy

Kai Meyer: The Flowing Queen

Kai Meyer’s Flowing Queen trilogy is set in Venice. Well in an alternate Venice that has magic and mermaids but it’s still Venice.

5. France

Alexandre Dumas: The Three Musketeers

Into how many TTT posts can I put The Three Musketeers? Stay with this blog to find out.

6. Scotland

Carola Dunn: Murder on the Flying Scotsman

This time Daisy travels to Scotland. And falls over a body. What a surprise.

7. Iceland

Arnaldur Indridason: Todeshauch

Silence of the Grave is (together with Jar City) my favourite from Indriðason’s Erlendur mysteries and I can only recommend them. There’s no need to read the whole series/the series in order and I honestly found the rest much weaker.

8. Czech Republik-ish

Victoria Schlederer: Des Teufel's Maskerade

Well, it’s set in Prague pre-WWI so it’s not the Czech Republic, yet (or even Czechoslovakia) but today Prague is very much the Czech Republic so let’s say it counts.

9. England

Ben Aaronovich: Rivers of London

Yes it gets described as ‘If Harry Potter had grown up and joined the police force’ quite often (or also ‘if Harry Potter had actual diversity’ ehem). And it’s not completely wrong. But it definitely doesn’t need to hide behind HP (or any other series).

10. Northern Ireland

Robert McLiam Wilson: Eureka Street

I only remember that I really enjoyed this book when I read it ages ago. (And I had already made the graphic when I remembered Glenn Patterson’s The International, another book set in Northern Ireland, which is also very good and about which I actually remember something of the plot.) Perhaps it’s time for a re-read to see how it holds up.

 

I guess I should travel outside Europe a bit more often 😉

David Stuart Davies: Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair

David Stuart Davies: Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair

Author: David Stuart Davies
Title: Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair

Colonel Sapt of the Ruritanian Court journeys to England on a secret mission to save his country from anarchy. He is to engage the services of Rudolf Rassendyll once more to impersonate the King while the monarch recovers from a serious illness. But Rassendyll had mysteriously disappeared. In desperation, Sapt consults Sherlock Holmes who with Watson travels to the Kingdom of Ruritania in an effort to thwart the plans of the scheming Rupert of Hentzau in his bid for the throne.

Rating: D-

It was one of Holmes’s most annoying treats that he would keep vital information to himself until it suited him to reveal it, usually at a moment when he could create the most dramatic effect.

Davies does a good job imitating Doyle’s writing style. Die-hard Holmesians might be able to tell the difference but casuals enthusiast will have a hard time telling if a paragraph has been written by Doyle or Davies. Holmes’ manners and his relationship with Watson is also well described (especially the latter is something pastiche authors often fail to do).

However, this isn’t everything because the story as a whole feels everything but Holmesian. It’s more like a Victorian James Bond with a hero who rushes from one dangerous situation into the next and then has to shoot/punch his way out of it. And Davies’ Holmes has no qualms about this. I genuinely don’t know how many people get killed in this 120-page story but I think it’s somewhere around 10. And only one of those gets murdered by the bad guys, the rest are killed in fights with Holmes and his associates. But don’t worry. They are all –gasp– traitors and anarchists.

I don’t object to a bit more action in Holmes-stories. And after all The Prisoner of Zenda is quite a swashbuckling novel full of fights (and also with quite a high body count which only bothers the heroes tangentially) so you can’t fault the book for taking some inspiration from there. But the reason Holmes (and Watson) get in half of these fights is their incredible stupidity:

Just imagine: You are on a very dangerous case. You know your opponents don’t shy away from anything and have already tried to kill you twice. Now you meet someone new. You feel there is something fishy about him but you can’t quite put your finger on it, yet. He offers you a drink. Do you

a) Drink it
b) Wait a moment and try to figure out why you have such a bad feeling

If you answered b) congratulations! You are cleverer than Holmes is in this book!

Gif: Russian Watson is judging you

Then there’s the fact that this is also a sequel to The Prisoner of Zenda and…it’s not a good one. In the original Rupert Hentzau works for the Black Michael, the main villain but while they get Michael, Rupert gets away at the end. As a reader, you can’t help but feel happy about it because Rupert is such a fun villain. He’s definitely bad: he has no issues with killing unarmed men if they stand in his way, and he has no sad backstory as a reason for it (not that sad backstories excuse murder…but there are people who think that) and his ulterior motive is power and money. But he has glorious one-liners, is charming and dashing (even the narrator says so) and gets played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the movie.

I mean:

Once again he turned to wave his hand, and then the gloom of thickets swallowed him and he was lost from our sight. Thus he vanished–reckless and wary, graceful and graceless, handsome, debonair, vile, and unconquered.

Is an actual quote from the actual Prisoner of Zenda. Even Rudolf loves him. Sort of.

In other words: Rupert is a bit of a magnificent bastard.

In The Hentzau Affair, he’s a mustache-twirling villain who abducts children to blackmail their relatives into helping him and has the rhetoric talent of a playground bully.

And then there is the end. The Prisoner of Zenda does not have a very happy ending and it seems the author wants to ‘fix’ this with his book. Now that in itself isn’t wrong but in doing that he ignores all the reasons why there wasn’t a happy end in the original. He seems to think there was only one obstacle and by getting rid of that everything will be fine but there were more reasons.

What now follows are ramblings that spoil this book, The Prisoner of Zenda and its actual sequel Rupert of Hentzau so proceed at your own risk.

Continue reading “David Stuart Davies: Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair”