John Dickson Carr: Castle Skull

‘That is the case. Alison has been murdered. His blazing body was seen running about the battlements of Castle Skull.’
And so a dark shadow looms over the Rhineland where Inspector Henri Bencolin and his accomplice Jeff Marle have arrived from Paris. Entreated by the Belgian financier D’Aunay to investigate the gruesome and grimly theatrical death of actor Myron Alison, the pair find themselves at the imposing hilltop fortress Schloss Schädel, in which a small group of suspects are still assembled.
As thunder rolls in the distance, Bencolin and Marle enter a world steeped in macabre legends of murder and magic to catch the killer still walking the maze-like passages and towers of the keep.

Before Castle Skull I’d only read a couple of John Dickson Carr short stories in anthologies and was not exactly overwhelmed. They were a bit too outlandish for me. Of course, Carr is “the master of the locked room mystery” and those are rarely down-to-earth and full of realism but there’s “this isn’t that realistic” and there’s the “apart from a 10-step cunning plan by the villain this also requires a riddiculous chain of coincidences to work” that happened in the Carr stories I came across.

This book…well it features a riddiculous mustache-twirling villain and a series of coincidences that should have made me roll my eyes. But it also fully commited to the riddiculousness. I mean, it’s called Castle Skull for God’s sake. And the eponymous castle isn’t called like that for some strange outlandish reason…it simply resembles a skull if you look at it from a certain distance. The murder victim was shot and then set on fire and “danced” and screamed before eventually dying. This book doesn’t pretend to be a normal run-of-the-mill mystery and then hit you over the head with a riddiculous solution (which happened to me with the other Carr stories). It goes: “Do you want to read something over-the top and insane? Sit down with me. I have just the right thing for you.” And I really can’t complain about that.

ARC received from NetGalley

E. Phillips Oppenheim – The Great Impersonation

Title: The Great Impersonation
Author: E. Phillips Oppenheim

East Africa, 1913. The disgraced English aristocrat Everard Dominey stumbles out of the bush, and comes face to face with his lookalike— the German Baron von Ragastein.

Months later, Dominey returns to London and resumes his glittering social life. But is it really Dominey who has come back, or a German secret agent seeking to infiltrate English high society? As international tension mounts and the great powers of Europe move closer to war, Dominey finds himself entangled in a story of suspicion and intrigue. He must try to evade his insane and murderous wife as well as escape the attentions of the passionate Princess Eiderstrom, and will eventually uncover the secret of the ghost that haunts his ancestral home.

There are two mysteries in this novel. though neither is a typical whodunit, it’s more general questions that the reader is supposed to wonder about. The first question is: who exactly is the main character of this book? Because in the first chapter we witness a meeting between Englishman Everard Dominey and German Baron von Ragastein who went to school together and who look so much alike that they could be twins. Then we learn that Ragastein is a German spy and he plans to kill Dominey, take his place and infiltrate British society. In the next chapter, we’re back in Britain and Dominey is welcomed there, though many people remark on how much he has changed. So which of the two has returned? Let’s put it this way: I had my suspicions where this question was concerned and at the end, I wasn’t terribly surprised (and I doubt that others will be).

The second question concerns the reasons Dominey left England in the first place: he quarrelled with a man, attacked him and seemingly killed him but his body was never found. Now the man’s ghost seems to haunt the woods where it all happened. More events are connected to this tragedy: after coming home covered in the man’s blood his wife – being a weak and feeble woman – went mad and now she’s taken care of by the dead man mother who hates Dominey with a passion. The question here is: what exactly happened that day, where’s the body and how does it all together? Here I also had my suspicions. Not about every detail but about some things and again I wasn’t terribly surprised at the reveal.

Which leaves a rather predictable story with characters that are…not exactly deep and complex. Since we’re not told if the main character is Dominey or von Ragastein, we don’t get too much of his inner thoughts and feelings which would give away whom he is fooling. But as a result I never felt much of a connection to him. The women meanwhile get two pick one or more of the following traits: hot, mad, evil and are all obsessed with Dominey/Ragastein in one way or the other and that’s also rather exhausting.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes

Title: The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes

Enthralled by the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Victorian readers around the world developed a fascination with eccentric detectives and bizarre crimes. Featuring an international array of authors and characters, this compilation of 16 short stories showcases the best of the mysteries inspired by the Baker Street sleuth. Holmesians and other lovers of old-time mysteries will thrill to these tales of dark deeds and their discovery.

Who are Holmes’ rivals? One could argue for different answers to this question: other investigators who are not part of the police force, other genius detectives or other detectives who have a faithful biographer who tells their stories. This collection went for: all of the above and also really all sorts of mystery stories written between the Victorian era and the 1910s (yes, the newest story is from 1914, definitely post-Victorian), including stories about people committing crimes and stories about useless policemen who need to have the solution stuffed in their face by someone else. There’s no recognisable order to the presentation of the stories. It’s not chronological or geographical (the foreword promises stories from all over the world which means UK, US and France) and not by any quirk of the sleuth, either.

There’s also only an introduction to the whole collection (that boils down to “ACD wasn’t the only writer of mysteries”) and nothing for the single stories that would put them in some context or give additional information about the author. Why is this Father Brown story in the collection and not a different one? Who is Headon Hill when he doesn’t write uncomfortably racist story about magical Indians? (Btw, a question to which Google only has a rather unsatisfactory answer). What is going on in that Max Carrados story? It would have been nice to have those questions answered in a few sentences but there is nothing. Though some more googling tells me that many of the stories are simply the first in the series with a particular sleuth which really just adds to the feeling that this was all put together rather sloppily. It’s not that those type of stories need to be read in order for full enjoyment.

Of course there’s still the stories themselves and they are the usual mixed bag. There are well-known names and I admit that I even enjoyed some of those that were by authors I’m usually less fond of. (The Ninescore Mystery might truly be the first Baroness Orczy I didn’t dislike). There are also a few authors in there I have never heard of and those mostly fell in the categories “I have no intention of searching for more” and “I wish I could go back to not knowing about them”.

In the end, I’m again wondering Who is this book aimed at? Because if you’ve dug into Victorian (and Edwardian) detective fiction before, you’ll have heard of most of the authors before (and because so many are first in the series, chances are that you even know this exact story). And if you’re new to this kind of fiction, the lack of organisation and additional information can easily be confusing and overwhelming.

ARC provided by NetGalley

A.K. Larkwood – The Unspoken Name (The Serpent Gates #1)

Author: A.K. Larkwood
Title: The Unspoken Name
Series: The Serpent Gates #1

What if you knew how and when you will die?

Csorwe does — she will climb the mountain, enter the Shrine of the Unspoken, and gain the most honored title: sacrifice.

But on the day of her foretold death, a powerful mage offers her a new fate. Leave with him, and live. Turn away from her destiny and her god to become a thief, a spy, an assassin—the wizard’s loyal sword. Topple an empire, and help him reclaim his seat of power.

But Csorwe will soon learn – gods remember, and if you live long enough, all debts come due.

Csorwe is an orc. You can tell that because it is occasionally mentioned she has tusks. There are also elves in this book. You can tell that because it is occasionally mentioned that they have pointy ears. Further differences between elves, orcs and humans? Ehem.

I wasn’t hoping for Tolkien-esque magical races (I honestly had enough of that), but giving us a non-human race and then basically turning them into humans who look a bit funny always feels like wasted potential to me.

Another thing that threw me off was…how quickly things happened. Look at the blurb: “a powerful mage offers her a new fate. Leave with him, and live. Turn away from her destiny and her god to become a thief, a spy, an assassin—the wizard’s loyal sword. Topple an empire, and help him reclaim his seat of power.” I had expected this to be the book but it isn’t. Most of her training is skipped over (thankfully), she then infiltrates the enemy camp but gets caught and tortured. But because teenagers who had only a crash course military training can withstand everything she doesn’t give anything away, manages to free herself and go back to the wizard who uses the information she collected to take back his seat of power. And that’s the end of part one.

What then follows is quest after quest but with very little time spent on the way to the conclusion of each quest, on the planning, on the finding the way to the place they need to go, on the travelling, on the despair about having no idea what to do…on all the things that lets you see the heroes in different situations. They don’t have to really search for anything. Time is skipped till a point where they already know where to find what they want. The characters are barely ever uncertain about things. Once they made a decision – to obey or disobey an order, to go somewhere, they just do it and then usually quickly land in a situation where they have to fight and almost get killed.

Just like I’m not saying that it should have been Tolkien elves and orcs, I’m not saying that book should have been 95% road travel and then one epic battle but by only seeing them in these high-strung situations made me feel as if I missed important parts of their characters. And as a result of that…I simply didn’t care much for them.

ARC received from NetGalley

The Measure of Malice: Scientific Detection Stories

Title: The Measure of Malice: Scientific Detection Stories

Forensic dentistry; precise examination of ballistics; an expertise in apiology to identify the exact bee which killed the victim?
The detective’s role may be simple; solve the case and catch the culprit, but when the crime is fiendishly well-executed the application of the scientific method may be the only answer.
The detectives in this collection are masters of scientific deduction, employing principles of chemistry, the latest technological innovations and an irresistible logical brilliance in their pursuit of justice. With stories by early masters in the field such as Arthur Conan Doyle and L. T. Meade alongside fine-tuned mysteries from the likes of Edmund Crispin and Dorothy L. Sayers, The Measure of Malice collects tales of rational thinking to prove the power of the brain over villainous deeds.

First of all: It’s much quicker to name the stories I disliked than the ones I liked. Ernest Dudley’s The Case of the Chemist in the Cupboard isn’t a bad mystery but the sleuth is a massive bully who treats his assistant horribly and Meade and Eustace’s The Man Who Disappeared features a bit too much period-typical racism for my taste and apart from that it is a rather odd mix of a serious crime story with extremely pulpy murder methods. But I enjoyed pretty much all other stories (though the science of some of them was…well not very scientific, like C. E. Bechhofer Roberts’ story The English Filter in which the case gets solved with Optography).

However, I can’t say that I really loved any of the stories. There was one by Dorothy L Sayers (In the Teeth of the Evidence), a in a collection with this theme basically inevitable Thorndyke (The Contents of a Mare’s Nest) and a Sherlock Holmes (Boscombe Valley Mystery) and they were all fun but they were by authors I already knew and liked anyway (though usually I prefer Sayer’s novels to her short stories and BCLC have a talent to put Conan Doyle stories I hate in their collections).

Most of the stories are “just” solid entertainment. Fairly straightforward stories about professional detectives and amateur sleuths solving crime (But With Science), which happens to be exactly what I like and I disliked other collections that included too many stories that did not adhere to that basic formula. (Admittedly, experimenting with, or throwing out that formula completely can lead to amazing results. Sometimes).

So in the end…I got what it said on the tin. I didn’t find any gems but I was entertained.

Capital Crimes: London Mysteries

Title: Capital Crimes – London Mysteries

With its fascinating mix of people – rich and poor, British and foreign, worthy and suspicious – London is a city where anything can happen. The possibilities for criminals and for the crime writer are endless. London has been home to many of fiction’s finest detectives, and the setting for mystery novels and short stories of the highest quality.

Capital Crimes is an eclectic collection of London-based crime stories, blending the familiar with the unexpected in a way that reflects the personality of the city. Alongside classics by Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkeley and Thomas Burke are excellent and unusual stories by authors who are far less well known. The stories give a flavour of how writers have tackled crime in London over the span of more than half a century. Their contributions range from an early serial-killer thriller set on the London Underground and horrific vignettes to cerebral whodunits. What they have in common is an atmospheric London setting, and enduring value as entertainment.

This collection wasn’t very capital if you excuse the very stupid joke. What choice do you have anyway? First of all, I didn’t feel that many of the stories “reflect the personality of the city” as promised. I understand that not every story can be one where London feels like it’s an additional main character, as it does in some Holmes stories (or as Oxford does in the Morse novels) but most feel like…they didn’t even try. For me only one story (Anthony Gilbert’s/Anne Meredith’s You Can’t Hang Twice) had a real London feel (admittedly mostly thanks to the old reliable London Fog but hey…it worked). A few more referenced enough places in London to also evoke some feeling of the place (Freeman’s The Magic Casket, Oxenham’s The Mystery of the Underground) and a couple were (partly) set in Gentlemen’s Clubs which I guess aren’t technically a purely London phenomenon but certainly feel like it if you’ve read enough mysteries (Berkeley’s The Avenging Chance and Allingham’s The Unseen Door). But the majority of the story have a sentence that informs you that this all happens in London but it never comes up again and you can’t help but think that this story could as well have taken place in Liverpool, Midsummer, Paris or Cleveland. I know it’s not the first time I’ve complained about the BCLC collections not quite living up to the title but e.g. Blood on the Tracks only had some stories that were set on a train but could easily have taken place somewhere else while Capital Crimes only has a few stories that could have only taken place in London.

The other reason it’s not very capital is…that most of the stories aren’t that great. I did enjoy You can’t Hang Twice a lot and not only because it was the only story that felt truly London. It was simply a good mystery with a criminal who in the end falls over his own attempts to construct an alibi.
J.S. Fletcher’s The Magician of Cannon Street is a story that’s more pulp than classic mystery (hypnotising villains that make even Moriarty look harmless) and I do enjoy some pulp but it wasn’t as completely bonkers as some other pulp stories and really: if you do pulp got all-out (the same goes for Edgar Wallace’s The Stealer of Marble: a very pulpy murder method but otherwise somewhat tame). Non-pulpy but still enjoyable is Berkeley’s The Avenging Chance, the basis for his later novel Poisoned Chocolate Case and yes, I do think the short story is better than the novel.

A mystery to me is what was done to The Mystery of the Underground no I wasn’t finished with bad jokes. It’s actually a novella that is printed in an abridged version and I don’t understand why it was abridged the way it was. We get a lot of (very dull) newspaper articles and then a paragraph that sums up how the sleuth figures out who did it, how the villain fled on a ship but was followed by the sleuth, how there was a confrontation on the high seas…and then the last page of the story. This didn’t exactly endear me to it even though it’s an early story that features a serial killer which I always find interesting. (Unless it’s The Hands of Mr. Ottermole by Thomas Burke, which is also in this collection and which according to the introduction was described as “The Best Crime Story” by Ellery Queen, a sentiment I can’t share. *sobs* Serial killers don’t work that way).

A few stories were…nice but nothing more. The Magic Casket is another Thorndyke story and even though I usually like him, this story lost itself too much in scientific details and explanations to be really enjoyable. The Holloway Flat Tragedy was at least a pleasant surprise because I’m usually not a fan of Ernest Bramah but this one had none of the things that bothered me about the other stories I know by him (namely extreme racism and Max Carrados making Daredevil’s talents look unimpressive) but this was just a neat (if slightly predictable) mystery (just like The Tea Leaf by Euston and Epson).

Finally, what bothered me that quite a lot of stories in this collection have the bad guy win. And it’s really in the sense of “the villain gets away with it” and not “we’re presented with a person who has completely understandable reasons for murder and doesn’t get caught”. I know that’s much more frequent in short stories than it is in full length crime novels but it’s not something I ever enjoyed.

All in all this made for a rather disappointing collection.

Anthony Gilbert (Anne Meredith): Death in a Fancy Dress

Author: Anthony Gilbert
Title: Death in a Fancy Dress

The British Secret Service, working to uncover a large-scale blackmail ring and catch its mysterious mastermind ‘The Spider’, find themselves at the country residence Feltham Abbey, where a fancy dress ball is in full swing.
In the tumult of the revelry, Sir Ralph Feltham is found dead. Not the atmosphere bewildered young lawyer Tony was expecting, he sets out to make sense of the night’s activities and the motives of the other guests. Among them is Hilary, an independently-minded socialite still in her costume of vivid silk pyjamas and accompanying teddy bear…
This classic country house mystery, first published in 1933, contrasts the splendours and frivolities of the English upper classes with the sombre over-hang of the First World War and the irresistible complications of deadly familial relationships – with just the right amount of international intrigue thrown in.
This edition also includes the rare Anthony Gilbert short stories ‘Horseshoes for Luck’ and ‘The Cockroach and the Tortoise’.

This story is narrated by Tony – a character with no depth and so little influence on the plot that it’s hard to remember that this book wasn’t written in a third-person POV. At the beginning of the story, he meets his old friend Jeremy. Would Jeremy live today he’d have founded several start-ups, tell every woman he meets all the details about it and – if they don’t return his calls – would complain that women never want nice guys like him. Jeremy has decided that he wants to marry Hillary – a young socialite who has not been consulted on this matter and is in fact engaged to someone else. That someone else is Arthur, a man who has slightly more depth than Tony but I didn’t feel the need to strangle him like Jeremy.

However, it seems that neither Jeremy nor Arthur will get what they want because Hillary now proclaims she wants to marry Ralph. Everybody knows that Ralph once committed a murder and got away with it but since the victim was a French prostitute his social standing isn’t completely ruined. Everybody is convinced that Ralph has some sort of hold over Hillary and he does but she doesn’t seem particularly bothered by it and it seems she would also marry him if he wasn’t blackmailing her because bad boys are cool or something. Hillary reads like a female character written by a man who really hates women which is quite an achievement since there’s actually a woman behind the Anthony Gilbert pen name. But then it’s not like Baroness Orczy liked women much.

And then I though for a while that this book goes in an interesting direction after all. Because more than halfway through the book Tony, Jeremy and Arthur sit together and talk about how someone really should murder Ralph. Since I read Portrait of a Murderer by the same author, a story where the reader knew who the killer was, I thought this would now also turn out to be a book where we witness the murder ‘live on-page’. But no, it continues like a typical murder mystery with our trio of definitely not loveable amateur detectives doing some sleuthing, find the killer and now I thankfully don’t have to read about any of them ever again because I hate them all.

tl;dr: I disliked all the characters too much to really care about the story.

Michael Gilbert: Death Has Deep Roots

Title: Death Has Deep Roots
Author: Michael Gilbert
Series: Inspector Hazlerigg #5

An eager London crowd awaits the trial of Victoria Lamartine: hotel worker, ex-French Resistance fighter, and the only logical suspect for the murder of her supposed lover, Major Eric Thoseby. Lamartine – who once escaped from the clutches of the Gestapo – is set to meet her end at the gallows.
One final opportunity remains: the defendant calls on solicitor Nap Rumbold to replace the defence counsel, and grants an eight-day reprieve from the proceedings. Without any time to spare, Rumbold boards a ferry across the Channel, tracing the roots of the brutal murder back into the war-torn past.

This book was so enjoyable, I almost forgot that this was half legal drama, which is something I usually don’t care much about. I just want to read about a detective figuring out the mystery and I only got this for half the book. But it was a quite brilliant half. As you can already guess from the tagline, this isn’t the typical murder at the manor (or murder in the sleepy village) mystery; but it’s also not a story set during the second world war, only one that’s very much about it. The motive can be found in events that happened back then and wouldn’t have taken place in peacetime. Now I enjoy the good old ‘offing the horrid family patriarch for the inheritance’ plotlines as much as the next mystery reader but since diving into the British Crime Library classics and coming across a few stories that were more anchored to a certain time, I found myself enjoying those immensely as well and Death Has Deep Roots is a great example of these types of stories.

Well, and the courtroom scenes were…bearable. As said, I just don’t care for legal thrillers that much but occasionally a crime novel will contain them and I must say that at least I found them less exhausting than e.g. in Excellent Intentions (I’m still haunted by the prosecutor’s run-on sentences) and thankfully it’s also not really a novel that’s half courtroom-scenes. The parts that featured the legal team also contained planning, discussions and bouncing theories back and forth. Almost like two detectives discussing a case 😉

Gilbert is definitely an author I will look out for and see what else he’s written.

ARC received from NetGalley

Alan Melville – Quick Curtain

Title: Quick Curtain
Author: Alan Melville

When Douglas B. Douglas—leading light of the London theatre—premieres his new musical extravaganza, Blue Music, he is sure the packed house will be dazzled by the performance. What he couldn’t predict is the death of his star, Brandon Baker, on stage in the middle of Act 2. Soon another member of the cast is found dead, and it seems to be a straightforward case of murder followed by suicide.

Inspector Wilson of Scotland Yard—who happens to be among the audience—soon discovers otherwise. Together with Derek, his journalist son, Wilson takes charge of proceedings in his own inimitable way.

The issues I had with this book were very similar to those I had with Weekend at Thrackley by the same author. It’s not funny enough to be a good parody – of either crime fiction or the theatre world – and doesn’t have a good enough plot to be an enjoyable crime novel. The ‘jokes’ about the theatre world all boil down to one thing: true talent – in writing, acting or singing – is meaningless, only talent-less hacks and horrible actors make ridiculous amounts of money because the audience is too stupid to tell one from the other. Even for a parody that’s a bit shallow. Non-theatre related jokes include hilarities like “No, you can’t go undercover. Everyone will be able to tell that you’re a policeman because of your large feet.” (Have you already died from laughter?) or an extremely infantile scene in which Wilson Jr. goes on a cycling tour despite having no experience and then his behind hurts.

Gif of Judd Hirsch saying “Hysterical”

Meanwhile, the crime story features a Scotland Yard detective who witnesses a murder on stage – the ever popular character is shoot in a scene but then the actor drops actually dead – but can’t be bothered to take a closer look at the prop gun to see if the deadly shoot really came from that gun and if perhaps there is some hint as to how the prop gun turned deadly. Later he meets a woman who introduces herself as the victim’s wife – Wilson wasn’t even aware that he was married – and doesn’t bother asking her a single question. Or her name. Or anything. There’s parody crime novels and then there’s this. Whatever this is. A book-like object as my favourite podcast would call it. But nothing I would recommend you should read.

KJ Charles: The Gilded Cage

Author: KJ Charles
Title: The Gilded Cage
Series: Lillywhite Boys #2

Once upon a time a boy from a noble family fell in love with a girl from the gutter. It went as badly as you’d expect.

Seventeen years later, Susan Lazarus is a renowned detective, and Templeton Lane is a jewel thief. She’s tried to arrest him, and she’s tried to shoot him. They’ve never tried to talk.

Then Templeton is accused of a vicious double murder. Now there’s a manhunt out for him, the ports are watched, and even his best friends have turned their backs. If he can’t clear his name, he’ll hang.

There’s only one person in England who might help Templeton now…assuming she doesn’t want to kill him herself.

One of the beautiful things about KJ Charles romances is that they feature fairly reasonable people. What stops them from being together isn’t a misunderstanding that could be cleared up with one conversation. Sometimes something beyond their control stops them from being together and sometimes it’s less, that something stops them from being together and more that there are angry murderers/demons after them who have no objection to them being a couple but to them being alive.

Where Susan and Templeton are concerned: there was a misunderstanding in their past but it happened due to understandable reasons. And once they are stuck together, they both decide to talk about it like adults and realise that neither was as bad as the other had been led to believe. But that doesn’t solve everything. Templeton has still made mistakes, Susan can’t quite forgive. Well and he’s the main suspect in a double murder and unless they can figure out who really did it, he’ll hang for it.

So now Susan and Templeton have to figure out if their relationship has a second chance and have to catch a killer. And there’s not enough space for both of these things in the book. I enjoyed the romance a lot. Both of them were likeable and reasonable people (well, Templeton needed some reminding of how much an idiot he’d been but he eventually came round to being fairly reasonable). Susan is the historic novel heroine every girl dreams of (hairpins as weapons are involved…and some punching and kicking in sensitive parts of the male anatomy). There’s a scene in which there is Only One Bed (gasp, you’ll never guess what happens next). All of it is great fun. But since it’s also the story of two fairly reasonable adults who have realised that talking with each other can be really useful, I wasn’t exactly on the edge of my seat thinking “Oh God! I wonder how they are going to get together!”

I was on the edge of my seat wondering how they would figure out who framed Templeton for murder and that’s where things fell flat for me. Because there’s not enough space for much on-screen investigation. Much of it is done off-screen or one of the characters has a light-bulb moment at the most convenient time. So that leaves nice people, having a fun time together while solving a mystery that wasn’t given enough space to be as engaging as it could have been. And that makes a book that’s fun but not great.

ARC received from the author