Title: Murder by Matchlight Author: E. C. R. Lorac
London, 1945. The capital is shrouded in the darkness of the blackout, and mystery abounds in the parks after dusk.
During a stroll through Regent’s Park, Bruce Mallaig witnesses two men acting suspiciously around a footbridge. In a matter of moments, one of them has been murdered; Mallaig’s view of the assailant is but a brief glimpse of a ghastly face in the glow of a struck match.
The murderer’s noiseless approach and escape seems to defy all logic, and even the victim’s identity is quickly thrown into uncertainty. Lorac’s shrewd yet personable C.I.D. man Macdonald must set to work once again to unravel this near-impossible mystery.
Rating: a perfectly suitable match that lights things
Before I already read twonovels by Lorac and I doubt picking up any more will change my opinion much: She was a fairly competent writer but also very clearly a prolific one. Which in her case means three or more books a year. There’s not much depth to her characters and no big surprises in the story line. It’s a mystery that takes you from point A – a murder – to point B – the person whodunit – without any detours.
If you don’t demand more than that, you could still do much worse than Murder by Matchlight. Because, while it doesn’t re-invent the mystery genre, it still does something somewhat unusual and sets it in London during the 2nd World War, completely with blackouts and air raids. And the rare setting isn’t just used as window dressing ; the whole plot – from motive to method – only works because of it.
So, is it a masterpiece? No. But so far it is the Lorac book, I’m most likely to recommend.
John Wilkins meets a beautiful, irresistible girl, and his world is turned upside down. Looking at his wife, and thinking of the girl, everything turns red before his eyes – the colour of murder.
But did he really commit the heinous crime he was accused of? Told innovatively in two parts: the psychiatric assessment of Wilkins and the trial for suspected murder on the Brighton seafront, Symons’ award-winning mystery tantalizes the reader with glimpses of the elusive truth and makes a daring exploration of the nature of justice itself.
Rating: Nice…if you like that sort of thing
The thing about this book is that it isn’t a murder mystery. It’s a story that involves a murder (as well as a trial and a private investigator hunting for clues) and even answers the question Whodunit at the end (in a way) but these set-pieces aren’t really treated in a way you expect from a murder mystery. Now that doesn’t mean that the book bad. Quite the contrary. Even though the first half is the first person narration of a very unpleasant person (poor poor man whose wife isn’t just a silent obedient servant but has wishes of her own) it never turned so over the top that I loathed every second I spend in his head. And the second half gives us some unexpected twists and turns and – to use some Big Words – pose some quite interesting questions about justice.
But…I wanted a murder mystery. *stomps foot like a toddler throwing a tantrum*. So now I have this inner conflict where I can’t deny that this book had some good stuff but it was also packaged as something it was not.
So you should definitely know that if you expect something that would be considered a satisfying conclusion: you will be disappointed. But if the above description sounded appealing to you and you know what you’re getting yourself into – this book could be well worth your time.
Title: Murder of a Lady Author: Anthony Wynne Series: Dr. Hailey #12
Duchlan Castle is a gloomy, forbidding place in the Scottish Highlands. Late one night the body of Mary Gregor, sister of the laird of Duchlan, is found in the castle. She has been stabbed to death in her bedroom – but the room is locked from within and the windows are barred. The only tiny clue to the culprit is a silver fish’s scale, left on the floor next to Mary’s body. Inspector Dundas is dispatched to Duchlan to investigate the case. The Gregor family and their servants are quick – perhaps too quick – to explain that Mary was a kind and charitable woman. Dundas uncovers a more complex truth, and the cruel character of the dead woman continues to pervade the house after her death. Soon further deaths, equally impossible, occur, and the atmosphere grows ever darker. Superstitious locals believe that fish creatures from the nearby waters are responsible; but luckily for Inspector Dundas, the gifted amateur sleuth Eustace Hailey is on the scene, and unravels a more logical solution to this most fiendish of plots.
Many of the Crime Library Classics books I recently read were in some way unusual mysteries – written from the POV of the murderer, there was no real crime at all, or they were just a series of red herrings. Murder of a Lady, meanwhile, is as traditional a mystery as you can get: a horrible person gets murdered in a locked room, the incompetent police try to solve it and then the brilliant amateur sleuth steps in to solve it. There might or might not be more murders in locked rooms before that (spoiler: there are definitely more). The only slightly unusual thing is that we never meet Mary Gregor – the first victim – on the page. The book opens with her murder. And at first everybody is very keen to explain what a great person she was but as the book goes on, we hear more and more stories that paint her in a less than favourable light. Like…really a lot of stories. Once you’re about 40% into the book you will have no doubts that Mary Gregor was a horrible person who stopped at nothing to get her will. And the book doesn’t stop either…because there are still a lot of stories coming that tell you exactly the same thing.
The only pause from “Mary was horrible” stories comes with “the police is incompetent” stories which are almost as numerous. The inspector is convinced that Mary found out that her nephew’s wife Oonagh was having an affair with a doctor and so she (or she and the doctor) killed her. It doesn’t matter that the wife and the doctor deny having an affair and her husband says that he’s convinced that his wife was faithful to him. The inspector has made up his mind and keeps bullying the poor woman, insisting that she should finally confess. He does most of his bullying while our supposedly likeable amateur sleuth is in the same room but apart from some half-hearted “but it could have been different” Hailey makes no attempts to protect her.
And this is an issue I occasionally have with older mysteries. They’re first and foremost puzzles. Psychology sometimes comes into play where the motive is concerned but nowhere else. And I admit that when I’m reading a mystery I don’t care much about the psychological impact finding a murdered body has. I’m not here for the gritty realism of trauma and PTSD – there’s enough other books and shows for that. But I can only handwave so much reality away. And here we have Oonagh – who has been emotionally abused by her husband’s aunt pretty much from the moment she moved into Duchlan Castle. Whose husband and father-in-law were both too weak-willed to stand up for her and whose life was absolutely miserable as a result of it. And now the abuser is dead but there’s a policeman insisting that she had to be the killer and again nobody stands up for her. The otherwise well done mystery couldn’t distract me from the fact how angry this made me, no matter how many times I told myself that it’s unfair to judge these parts by modern standards.
So overall: this book won’t end up on my re-read list but I’m curious about other books by the author since the mystery itself was good and I guess the repetitions would have bothered me less if they hadn’t been repetitions of a woman getting emotionally abused over and over again.
Title: The Last Tsar’s Dragon Authors: Jane Yolen & Adam Stemple
It is the waning days of the Russian monarchy. A reckless man rules the land and his dragons rule the sky. Though the Tsar aims his dragons at his enemies—Jews and Bolsheviks—his entire country is catching fire. Conspiracies suffuse the royal court: bureaucrats jostle one another for power, the mad monk Rasputin schemes for the Tsar’s ear, and the desperate queen takes drastic measures to protect her family.
Revolution is in the air—and the Red Army is hatching its own weapons.
Rating: Burned to a crisp
I do have to point out, that I expected something very different from what I got. Sure, the blurb talks about revolution, Bolsheviks and Rasputin, all things we are familiar with, but I still expected a different Russia. After all, this world has dragons. One would think, that the existence of dragons would change the world in some way but the Russia in The Last Tsar’s Dragons is exactly the one you know from the history textbooks. Only that Tsar Nicholas has dragons.
Well, that’s not 100% true. While the real Nicholas had five children – Tatiana, Olga, Maria, Anastasia and Alexei – who all died with him Yekaterinburg, the Nicholas from the book has a son called Alexei, a daughter called Anastasia and two unnamed daughters who are still alive, and a daughter called Sonia who died of an illness before the book started. But considering none of that is in any way relevant to the plot and the afterword just tells us that the Romanovs were among the characters in the book that were real, without any caveat about how they didn’t actually have a daughter named Sonia, my guess is that the authors couldn’t be bothered to look up basic facts. This makes sense, since they also didn’t consider it necessary to run their German by an actual German speaker. And so the Tsarina says “Ein Fluch auf ihrem schmutzigen Drachens!” at one point.
Fun fact: I spent a lot of time yelling about Google Translate not being a reliable source but in this case it actually gives you the correct translation of “A curse on their dirty dragons” which would be Ein Fluch auf ihre schmutzigen Drachen. Bing Translate does worse with Fluch an ihren schmutzigen Drachen, but even they know that Drachensisn’t a German word, so I really have no clue how they managed to get it that wrong. Perhaps one of them once did learn German, just like they once learned Russian history and then were so convinced of themselves that they saw no need to check their vague memories.
Anyway, after this short diversion, back to the actual book. Which, as mentioned is The Russian Revolution with dragons. That means, that while the Tsar is busy being stupid and evil and antisemitic, his wife being German, stupid, evil and antisemitic, Alexei being sick, spoilt and evil and Rasputin being evil, creepy and antisemitic, somewhere else Lev Bronstein, a Jewish peasant, has found some dragon eggs and is trying to hatch them himself – a dangerous feat, since only the Tsar is allowed to own dragons. Bronstein is supported in this endeavour by his old friend Wladimir Ulyanov who has also brought a questionable Georgian character called Koba along who acts as a bodyguard for the eggs – and later the hatched dragons.
You probably know all those gentlemen under different names. Bronstein is more well known as Leon Trotsky, Ulyanov changed his name to Lenin and Koba is an early nickname of Joseph Stalin.
Yeah. I definitely did not expect that. And granted, I knew I was reading a fantasy book based on the Russian Revolution, an event that was very bloody and violent and which lead to decades of more death and violence. It’s not that this is the only book that ever did this. The Waning Moon books are set in a pseudo-Russia on the eve of a Revolution (including a character that seems to have been inspired by Rasputin and Stalin). The Poppy War is the Sino-Japanese war with magic. There are certainly many other examples and I think you can take a horrible atrocity, add dragons, mermaids or whatever and be tasteful about it. I don’t think it works when you make the actual architect of some of these atrocities – not even some thinly disguised version, not some conglomerate of several people – in a character in the book. Admittedly, while Trotsky is a POV-character in the book, Lenin plays a much smaller role and Stalin says only two or three sentences. But still: There’s a Wikipedia page Excess Mortality under Josef Stalin. In this book he plays bodyguard for some dragon eggs. I am uncomfortable with this.
But, YMMV and all that and neither Stalin nor Lenin are portrayed as likeable characters, so perhaps some people are OK with that. If you are: I’m not judging you (I do read a lot of other judgeworthy stuff myself after all). But I will inform you that it’s still a very boring book. Because, when I say “this is the Russian Revolution with dragons”, I’m speaking very literally. Do you have the most basic knowledge of the Russian Revolution (as in “the Bolsheviks took over, the Tsar and his family are imprisoned and later executed”)? Do you know the Boney M song Rasputin? Great! Then you know what happens in this book*. I mean it’s the Bolsheviks take over with the help of dragons, but since that happens off-screen, you won’t get much out of reading it. No, I’m not kidding. With the exception of Rasputin’s murder, all the action happens off-page and is then summed up in a few sentences. That is…not great. Of course, it’s a novella, and in the afterword the authors explain that they originally planned a full novel but couldn’t find a publisher, only one who would take a novella. But then you can’t just take the novel and leave enough stuff out to make it fit the novella length. Especially if the stuff is essentially the climax and you’re left with what’s more or less a retelling of historical facts.
*though not even the Rasputin here is the lover of the Russian Queen, but apart from that the lyrics are fairly accurate
Title: The Division Bell Mystery Author: Ellen Wilkinson
A financier is found shot in the House of Commons. Suspecting foul play, Robert West, a parliamentary private secretary, takes on the role of amateur sleuth. Used to turning a blind eye to covert dealings, West must now uncover the shocking secret behind the man’s demise, amid distractions from the press and the dead man’s enigmatic daughter.
Originally published in 1932, this was the only mystery novel to be written by Ellen Wilkinson, one of the first women to be elected to Parliament. Wilkinson offers a unique insider’s perspective of political scandal, replete with sharp satire.
“But, sir, I’ve often wondered why more people don’t get murdered in this place when you think of the opportunities.”
Rating: 4/5 of John Bercow’s fabulous ties
The mystery itself is quite average. A murder in a locked room (really, those are dangerous places, it seems to be much safer to be out in open spaces, possibly surrounded by your enemies…), an amateur sleuth who semi-reluctantly gets involved in the whole affair (after the victim’s very beautiful daughter asks him very nicely) and police who are only semi-bothered by said amateur meddling in their investigation.
The uniqueness of the story comes from the fact that the locked room isn’t situated in a country house but in the House of Commons. And that the book was written by an MP (and minister) who had an actual insight into the going-ons there, so the setting isn’t just some nice window-dressing, it’s an important part of the story and it feels real. And more than that: Wilkinson also had actual insights into politics itself…and a sharp tongue (feather? typewriter?) so we are treated to paragraphs like that:
[h]e was always assuring himself that some time or other he would settle down and find out how the country ought to be run, and why politicians made such a mess of running it. But as a popular young bachelor he found life too interesting at any particular moment to acquire sufficient of that knowledge to be awkward to his party whips.
Additionally, Wilkinson also had actual insights into being a woman in politics (and some idea of what men thought them):
“And why should I help you?” Robert was positively shocked. Why should she help him! What did she think women were in politics for if not to be helpful? He came from an old political family. Had one of the women of his family ever asked why she should help?
Poor Robert…you almost feel sorry for him.
“Oh Damn these modern women,” he thought desperately. If only they would be either modern or just women, but the combination of the two was really unfair on a fellow who had to deal with them!
And all of this was brilliant. But it also made it somewhat hard to read. I am going to assume that you haven’t been living under a rock and that you know what’s currently going on in (British) politics so paragraphs like this:
I’ve often wondered, West, what it is that happens to most men – not all, of course – when they get into a Government […] I remember when a previous Government was within three days of dissolution and a smashing defeat talking to a Cabinet Minister who was calmly making plans for the following years.
will make you laugh first and then depress you because this book was written in 1932 and things really haven’t changed much, have they? And that’s probably the reason it took me so long to read it. Because even a hilariously witty look at politics is still…well a look at politics and who wants to do that in their free time right now?
But really, this isn’t me saying that you shouldn’t read this book. Just…be prepared for what you’re getting yourself into? Because I picked it up in the middle of the major Brexit chaos and after watching MPs shout at each other for hours, the thought of picking up a book where MPs solve murders (and also shout occasionally) really wasn’t that appealing.
Yeah. I’m still alive. Only busy due to surprise!new job and the cross country move that goes with it. (Well, not quite cross country but far enough to be stressful). So things will be quiet here for a while but I do have a vague hope that the next post won’t be the mini reviews for May.
Enough talk: now for the reviews. This time all novellas by one author: Jess Faraday, who writes about gays and lesbians solving crime with and without magic and that should be so my thing that not being overwhelmed by any of them was slightly depressing.
Jess Faraday – The Affair of the Porcelain Dog
That was nice, nothing more and nothing less. I’m all there for crime novels that just happens to feature a gay character without being a romance but this simply didn’t captivate me. Ira wasn’t particularly likeable, the plot average and a bit too much “Lone wolf character hasn’t slept in ages and got beaten up repeatedly is still running around, gets into fights and solves everything alone”. As a first novel, it was decent and if you’re into lone wolf stories you will probably enjoy this more than I did.
Jess Faraday – The Left Hand of Justice
Well…this was The Affair of the Porcelain Dog but lesbian, with steampunk, in France and with an inexplicable Inspector Javert as side character. Which sounds like it would be very different but the bare bones are the same: lone wolf against the whole world and all odds. This time our lone wolf even gets a trophy girlfriend at the end, without any real development of their relationship during the book. They meet. She’s hot. She gets abducted. MC saves her. Happy end for everybody.
I know there are people who are into that sort of thing, and I don’t deny that it made for some nice airport-reading (or train-reading in my case) but it was only interesting enough that I preferred finishing it to going through my e-reader library to search for something else.
Jess Faraday – The Strange Case of the Big Sur Benefactor
Unlike the two other two, this isn’t a lone wolf story. The heroine – Rosetta Stein, a translator, yes you can groan now – teams up with her brother Franklin (Frank for short, so he’s Frank Stein, yes you can groan now) and his boyfriend to solve a case. They also get some help from their butler that’s described as ‘as faithful as a hound’ and called Baskerville (yes you can groan now) and after some reluctance also from a Dr Hyde who has some aggression problems (yes you can groan now).
I should be so there for that except…it’s also not really a story. It’s scenes of people interacting and then some background plot thrown in but that gets mostly glossed over/summed up. That’s just not enough. As charming as the characters are, I need an actual plot and not some “oh and by the way then this happened”
Title: The Catherine Howard Conspiracy Author: Alexandra Walsh Series: The Marquess House #1 Publication Date: March 28th 2019
Whitehall Palace, England, 1539
When Catherine Howard arrives at the court of King Henry VIII to be a maid of honour in the household of the new queen, Anne of Cleves, she has no idea of the fate that awaits her.
Catching the king’s fancy, she finds herself caught up in her uncle’s ambition to get a Howard heir to the throne. Terrified by the ageing king after the fate that befell her cousin, Anne Boleyn, Catherine begins to fear for her life…
Pembrokeshire, Wales, 2018
Dr Perdita Rivers receives news of the death of her estranged grandmother, renowned Tudor historian Mary Fitzroy. Mary inexplicably cut all contact with Perdita and her twin sister, Piper, but she has left them Marquess House, her vast estate in Pembrokeshire.
Perdita sets out to unravel their grandmother’s motives for abandoning them, and is drawn into the mystery of an ancient document in the archives of Marquess House, a collection of letters and diaries claiming the records of Catherine Howard’s execution were falsified…
What truths are hiding in Marquess House? What really happened to Catherine Howard? And how was Perdita’s grandmother connected to it all?
Rating: No reason to behead anyone…(just for a lot of eye-rolling)
There’s two things I need to say about this book:
I started it Sunday morning and was then glued to the pages for most of the day, until I finished shortly after midnight
While being glued to the pages, I also rolled my eyes a lot.
Because this book is essentially The Da Vinci Code with the Tudors. Admittedly, with less awkward prose and without Browns weird well-meaning but utterly condescending sexism. But it’s still a book about an awesome academic who discovers that the story we’ve been told about a historic figure is wrong and then she is hunted by a shady organisation who wants to stop her from making that knowledge public. Only it’s not about Jesus but Catherine Howard.
And that’s where things fall apart somewhat because while an organisation of Vatican assassins who hunt people that found out that Jesus was actually married and had children is stupid, it also has some internal logic. Jesus is pretty important for a lot of people. And so is the image of him as an unmarried man. If we are in parallel conspiracy universe, I can buy that people would kill to keep that a secret.
The Catherine Howard Conspiracy posits that the fact that she wasn’t executed has to be kept a secret because…people would get upset if the Divorced, Beheaded and Died. Divorced, Beheaded, Survived-rhyme didn’t work anymore? The argument they make is that history is important to people and (national) identity and finding out that history isn’t what everybody thought it is would cause an uproar. And the example they give is Richard III and how everybody thought he was an evil hunchback but then they found his bones, discovered his spine wasn’t deformed and then everybody also went back on the evil bit and accepted that Richard was actually one of the good guys. Which is not what happened. As this clip from a kids TV-show that was broadcast about a year before they found Richard’s bones, shows:
Arguments about how many of the bad stories about Richard are true and how many are made up by people who were paid by the Tudors has been discussed by historians for a long time. Granted, finding the bones has probably brought that to the attention of a lot of people whose entire knowledge about him had come from the Shakespeare play but I seriously doubt that these people were so upset by that revelation that they then voted for Brexit. Or whatever it was the book was trying to convince me off.
There are so many historic figures and events that historians argue about. Because there is no such thing as an unbiased source. We get descriptions from people who have their own reasons for making someone look good or bad, from people who couldn’t believe that women might have an agency of their own or that gay people existed. Or perhaps they even tried to be neutral but wrote about someone who deliberately tried to appear different from how they actually were. And the further back you go, the harder it gets to find a person where historians agree on all aspects of his or her life. Of course, some of these controversies are more well known than others but building a whole book on History is a fixed thing and must never be changed is so ridiculous that I cannot buy at all, not even if it’s just the premise for a light entertainment read.
And that’s a shame because, I really enjoyed the book at first, since I did not look very closely at the cover and it wasn’t immediately obvious that this was a “gripping conspiracy thriller”. There was just Catherine’s story – starting with her time at Henry’s court – and Perdita’s story – who inherits Marquess house and finds papers there that make her doubt the official story. Admittedly, Catherine’s story was a bit too much. Too much making sure the reader really likes her. She’s not the semi-illiterate woman who’s stupid enough to screw around while being married to a guy who already beheaded one wife for infidelity. Instead, she’s incredibly clever, sends complex coded messages, makes sure that she’s not even alone with her own brother once it becomes clear that Henry intends to marry her and is so incredibly kind-hearted that she’s even trying to help the people who’ve been plotting against her. And to make sure we really like her and feel sorry for her, there are several quite graphic scenes where Henry rapes her…have I mentioned that she’s 15/16 at the time of the story?
Now I would like to throw a controversial opinion out there: it doesn’t matter if Catherine was stupid, couldn’t write her own name and screwed the entire court. She was also a teenager who had no choice but to marry Henry. She did not deserve to be murdered. There’s no need to portray her as an angelic creature who saves puppies in her free time to convince me of that.
On the other hand, life is depressing and especially female characters are rarely allowed to be sympathetic and unlikeable and who am I to judge the author for telling a story with more mass appeal?
So, if this had just been a story of angelic Catherine and Perdita who goes on a treasure hunt to discover the truth and the conflict and tension had come from something that wasn’t her being hunted by secret government agencies, I’d have enjoyed this book. (Though I would have still side-eyed all the on-page rape of a 15 year old very hard). But then the story turned into…well The Tudor Code and I could not buy that, not in the way it was presented.