Richard Hull: Excellent Intentions

40409285Title: Excellent Intension
Author: Richard Hull

Great Barwick’s least popular man is murdered on a train. Twelve jurors sit in court. Four suspects are identified – but which of them is on trial? 

This novel has all the makings of a classic murder mystery, but with a twist: as Attorney-General Anstruther Blayton leads the court through prosecution and defence, Inspector Fenby carries out his investigation. All this occurs while the identity of the figure in the dock is kept tantalisingly out of reach. 

Rating: B-

“If you ask my quite unofficial opinion, plenty of people richly deserve to be murdered nowadays and far too few of them actually get bumped off.”

The book is advertised as a crime novel that’s not (quite) like the other crime novels and at first, it is very unlike others. The book starts with the trial and we learn a few things about the judge, the prosecutor and the lawyer. But nothing about the person who’s on trial. They’re only referred to as ‘the accused’ or ‘the defendant’. Then the trial opens, and the first witness gets called: the man who saw the victim taking some snuff and then collapsing. First, he is questioned by a prosecutor who likes long words and run-on sentences, then by the defence who desperately tries to confuse the witness enough to make him doubt his memory – because if the things didn’t happen the way he described it would be advantageous for the defendant.
But then the novel takes a turn. The rest of the investigation isn’t told through the trial. The story jumps back, and we see the investigation unfold in a quite traditional manner: The inspector questions the suspects and reconstructs they day of the murder to figure out when the poison could have been put in the snuff-box. This investigation takes up most of the book and doesn’t read much different than any other ‘typical’ crime novel. The only difference is that there’s no big reveal of the culprit in the library. Instead, it jumps back to the trial and that’s where we learn who was the only person who could have poisoned the snuff and how the inspector figured it out.

It’s not that I’m complaining about that. With the prosecutor and his love for wordiness (I got traumatic flashbacks to reading The Moonstone from just the few pages) the whole story would have been near-unreadable if it was all told via the trial. But the blurb (and Martin Edward’s introduction) advertised quite aggressively how different the story is told in this book when, in reality, it is told quite normally and mostly just plays around with the chronology.

Will I read more by the author? Definitely. The story itself has a fair share of wit and humour. I wouldn’t go so far as saying that it’s a parody, but it doesn’t take itself completely seriously. There’s the victim who was horrible and hated everyone so much that he even wanted his money to go to a place where it did ‘the least amount of good’ and therefore decides to leave it to the state. The remaining characters aren’t quite as exaggerated but there’s still a bumbling vicar, a hyper-competent assistant, an ominous butler and a stupid gardener.

ARC provided by NetGalley

Maggie Robinson: Nobody’s Sweetheart Now

39970739Title: Nobody’s Sweetheart Now
Author: Maggie Robinson
Series: Lady Adelaide Mysteries #1

Lady Adelaide Compton has recently (and satisfactorily) interred her husband, Major Rupert Charles Cressleigh Compton, hero of the Somme, in the family vault in the village churchyard.

Rupert died by smashing his Hispano-Suiza on a Cotswold country road while carrying a French mademoiselle in the passenger seat. With the house now Addie’s, needed improvements in hand, and a weekend house party underway, how inconvenient of Rupert to turn up! Not in the flesh, but in – actually, as a – spirit. Rupert has to perform a few good deeds before becoming welcomed to heaven – or, more likely, thinks Addie, to hell.

Before Addie can convince herself she’s not completely lost her mind, a murder disrupts her careful seating arrangement. Which of her twelve houseguests is a killer? Her mother, the formidable Dowager Marchioness of Broughton? Her sister Cecilia, the born-again vegetarian? Her childhood friend and potential lover, Lord Lucas Waring? Rupert has a solid alibi as a ghost and an urge to detect.

Enter Inspector Devenand Hunter from the Yard, an Anglo-Indian who is not going to let some barmy society beauty witnessed talking to herself derail his investigation. Something very peculiar is afoot at Compton Court and he’s going to get to the bottom of it – or go as mad as its mistress trying.

Rating: B

This was delightful. I loved every single character; they are quirky but don’t turn into annoying caricatures. This made me especially happy because many of the more light-hearted mysteries overdo the quirkiness. Especially the main character’s family members are often more exhausting than amusing. Here Addies’s mother (and to an extent also Devenand’s parents) are meddling – in the time-honoured tradition of parents in cozy mysteries – but it never goes so far that I wanted to yell at them for interfering so much.

Rupert’s ghost was a fun addition to the story in the sense that I enjoyed his interactions with Addie and how his past serial cheating was dealt with. He now regrets it and explains it with the fact that after fighting in the war he couldn’t cope with the quietness of a peaceful life and was looking for new excitement. The book treads a fine line between explaining his actions without completely excusing his behaviour. However, for most of the book, his presence had very little influence on the plot. He does help with finding one clue but it wouldn’t have taken them that long to find that out without him*. Then, at the end of the book, it seems as if the author remembered that she should perhaps do something more with that ghost and he finally gets to do something – after everybody acted quite idiotic so that a situation could be created in which he had to act heroically.

The victim is a woman who is also a serial cheater and while at first, it seems as if nobody liked her and that she was an unlikeable character all-around, she also gets more depth over the course of the investigation. Similarly to Rupert, her actions aren’t excused but we are shown that there were people who cared about her.

I am very curious about how this series will continue. Will Rupert return or will Addie meet a new ghost?

 

*Well and he helps Addie to hide her dildo. No, really. Did I mention that I enjoyed this book a lot?

Anna Lee Huber: Treacherous Is the Night

Cover: Treacherous Is the NightTitle: Treacherous Is the Night
Author: Anna Lee Huber
Series: Verity Kent #2

It’s not that Verity Kent doesn’t sympathize with those eager to make contact with lost loved ones. After all, she once believed herself a war widow. But now that she’s discovered Sidney is very much alive, Verity is having enough trouble connecting with her estranged husband, never mind the dead. Still, at a friend’s behest, Verity attends a séance, where she encounters the man who still looms between her and Sidney—and a medium who channels a woman Verity once worked with in the Secret Service. Refusing to believe her former fellow spy is dead, Verity is determined to uncover the source of the spiritualist’s top secret revelation.

Then the medium is murdered—and Verity’s investigation is suddenly thwarted. Even Secret Service agents she once trusted turn their backs on her. Undaunted, Verity heads to war-torn Belgium, with Sidney by her side. But as they draw ever closer to the danger, Verity wonders if she’s about to learn the true meaning of till death do us part . . .

Rating: E

My thoughts while reading the book of this National Bestselling Author:

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Verity and her husband have a slightly awkward conversation. Immediately afterwards the narration spends to pages on explaining how her relationship has changed because of what they saw in the war and what happened after the war. That their relationship will never be the same as it was before. That they both still have to work through all those issues but that both have problems opening up to the other because they feel they don’t really know the other person anymore.

When Verity’s friend asks her to accompany her to the seance and that she hopes to contact her brother we are told in great detail how close that friend and her brother were, how hard it was for her when he fell and a detailed run-down of the friend’s other family members (and friends) and why it would be a bad idea when they accompanied her.

This happens again and again. And when we aren’t told what the characters feel, we get plain infodumps about the war, Verity’s work in the secret service, Belgian architecture and a lot of other things we don’t need to know in that much detail.

All this already made me almost quit the book a few chapters in because while I understand that sometimes an author just has to dump some stuff on the reader unceremoniously (especially in a case like this where they want the reader to be able to start reading a series at any point without getting confused by vague allusions to past events) this was just too much. But the mystery was quite intriguing so I read on.

That was a bad idea.

Because it quickly turned out that Verity’s husband is a horrible human being.

You see, Sidney wasn’t just missing presumed dead and turned up again. He deliberately faked his own death to draw out some traitors. Verity though he was dead for 15 months before he appeared again and demanded her help in his plot.

Verity now has some issues. They had a whirlwind romance anyway and quickly after they married he went to war so they didn’t really get to know each other. Then he died and she grieved for him (FOR 15 MONTHS) and then he just pops up again. And he is a different man now because war changes people. It has also changed Verity and now they are essentially a married couple that barely know each other. And that is somehow Verity’s fault as far as Sidney is concerned. When Verity is reluctant to share her own experiences he is all hurt. He shouts at his wife, who he let believe he was dead for 15 months because she can’t bring herself to share intimate details with him.

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After one of these confrontations she points out the whole You-made-me-think-you-were-dead thing and he yells “So this is all my fault?”

Yes, Sidney. It is. It might have been unavoidable to fake your own death. It might have even been unavoidable to not tell her in advance because the grief had to be genuine. But you could have considered telling her quicker than those 15 months. And if that wasn’t possible then you have to fucking deal with it. Deal with the fact that you can’t pick up exactly where you left off.

But of course, Verity doesn’t tell him that. She assures him that it isn’t his fault. (Which I guess means it is her fault. Stupid womenfolk).

That placates him until he finds out that she slept with another man. While she thought he was dead, grieved for him and was probably not exactly emotionally stable. But of course, Sidney is angry that after learning he was dead, his wife did not lock herself in, had no contact with anybody and just dealt with her grief just by sobbing uncontrollably.

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When they encounter Verity’s one-night-stand again Sidney punches him. Because that’s an emotionally mature reaction and doesn’t at all suggest that he will again react with violence when he doesn’t like something.

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But men getting violent because of something you did is so romantic, right?

But despite all that, they reconcile and have sex. And after that, he asks “I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t take precautions?” Because hey! It’s always better to ask for forgiveness than permission!

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In all that it felt like the mystery was just a backdrop to Verity’s and Sidney’s relationship issues (which I felt weren’t handled well…as you can probably tell). It wasn’t bad (yes there were some convenient coincidences but that’s the case in most mysteries) but it would have needed to be fleshed more out in some parts to work really well. But that space was needed to convince us what a great guy Sidney is…

ARC provided by NetGalley

Bill Pronzini: Son of Gun in Cheek

Cover: Bill Pronzini: Son of Gun in Cheek
Author: Bill Pronzini
Title: Son of Gun in Cheek: An Affectionate Guide to More of the “Worst” in Mystery Fiction

A humorous and good-natured study of alternative crime fiction, the Edgar Award-nominated Gun in Cheek celebrated the neglected classics of substandard mystery writing. After years of additional research into comically awful literature, author Bill Pronzini returns with Son of Gun in Cheek, a compendium of even more twisted treasures for connoisseurs of hideous prose. Pronzini’s lively commentary offers background on each of the stories he cites, providing an informative survey of the genre and its writers, crowned with hilarious excerpts. His lighthearted look at the best of the worst in crime fiction will amuse not only mystery buffs but also anyone with a taste for ham-handed drama.

Rating: A-

I had read about one-third of this book when I went and bought Gun in Cheek, the author’s first book about the worst mystery fiction, as audiobook. That way I could listen to it during all those times when I needed my hands and/or eyes for something else and couldn’t read my copy of Son of Gun in Cheek. That already tells you how much I enjoyed this.  I already talked about my love of bad books and pulp fiction of any kind is obviously a treasure trove of this; after all many authors wrote dozens of books per year, that doesn’t leave much time for elaborate plotting (or much revision).

Still, not everybody who writes a lot writes truly bad. Many of them will just have plots that are somewhat ridiculous with some odd phrasing thrown in. Chances are that if you pick up any pulp fiction mystery to read it you will be bored most of the time and smile slightly in some places. Or at best find a few truly hilarious phrases in an otherwise meh book.

And this is where Bill Pronzini comes in. Because he has done all that work for us and now writes about all the mystery plots that aren’t just unrealistic but defy logic and common sense in every possible way (and often also break the scientist), villainous schemes that only work because the victim a) has an incredibly obscure habit and b) is extremely stupid and “heroes” who can’t interpret the obvious clue until it is (almost) too late to save the damsel in distress (who is of course required in all good bad mysteries). And if the stories aren’t as noteworthy but contain phrases like “she apostrophized”, “corpses were falling around us like pulpy persimmons from the tree” or describe a woman’s breast as having “nipples like split infinitives” he’ll write about that.

If you want to look for faults you could argue that this leads to a slight jumble: you get chapters that focus on specific authors, chapters that summarize the plot of a few novels in great detail, chapters that summarize the plot of several novels in a few paragraphs each, chapters that consist mostly of quotes, and chapters that have a bit of everything. But then it’s not possible to treat every book the same if different things stand out every time (and Pronzini says as much in the introduction and adds that the chaoticness should be considered an homage to the books he’s writing about since those were also very chaotic).

I don’t mind the lack of cohesion that much. Much more important is that Pronzini is never needlessly cruel or mean. Sure, he makes fun of the stories but he never suggests that a pulp fiction author should be held to the same standards as a writer who takes one or two years to finish one novel. He also calls out sexism, racism, and homophobia and does so quite harshly (which honestly surprised me, since this is a re-release of a book written in the 1980s and I had not expected that level of awareness at that time).

In case you are still not convinced: I am currently considering getting Six Gun in Cheek, which does the same for Western pulp fiction despite the fact that my knowledge of Western begins and ends with The Magnificent Seven. I’m sure that wouldn’t stop me from finding this just as hilarious.

ARC provided by NetGalley

Josh Lanyon: Murder takes the High Road

cover133096-mediumAuthor: Josh Lanyon
Title: Murder Takes the High Road

Librarian Carter Matheson is determined to enjoy himself on a Scottish bus tour for fans of mystery author Dame Vanessa Rayburn. Sure, his ex, Trevor, will also be on the trip with his new boyfriend, leaving Carter to share a room with a stranger, but he can’t pass up a chance to meet his favorite author.

Carter’s roommate turns out to be John Knight, a figure as mysterious as any character from Vanessa’s books. His strange nighttime wanderings make Carter suspicious. When a fellow traveler’s death sparks rumors of foul play, Carter is left wondering if there’s anyone on the tour he can trust.

Drawn into the intrigue, Carter searches for answers, trying to fend off his growing attraction toward John. But as unexplained tragedies continue, the whole tour must face the fact that there may be a murderer in their midst—but who?

Rating: B-

I hadn’t been overwhelmed by the last few Lanyon-books I picked up and so I wasn’t planning on reading this one. But the plot ‘holiday trip with mysterious events and then a sudden death’ just sounded too good to pass. And I was not disappointed. Lanyon gives this frequently used set-up an unexpected twist that fits the story perfectly. (Die-hard mystery traditionalists might complain about it but I enjoyed it a lot).

 

The romance was very low-key. Carter and John meet, are attracted to each other, have sex and agree to stay in touch and take things further but things are not overly emotional. Which is understandable considering the story takes place over the course of one or two weeks and things are quite busy. Still, it’s definitely more a happy-for-now than a happily-ever-after ending. In fact, it felt more like the beginning of a traditional cozy mystery series (where the designated couple meets in book one, there is an obvious attraction but it takes a few more books until they really get together), than of a typical romance series e.g. Lanyon’s Adrien English books or KJ Charles’ Magpie Lord (where the couple has already taken huge steps towards a proper relationship in book one). I don’t mind this since I enjoy both but if you pick this book up for the romance you will probably be disappointed.

What did bother me was the bitchy-ex trope that takes up quite a lot of space. Carter had originally planned to take the trip with his then-boyfriend but then the boyfriend left him for another guy so now all three of them are taking the tour. Both the ex and his new boyfriend spent a lot of time being horrible to Carter and it’s exhausting. Admittedly, it does help muddling the waters because it means Carter can’t be sure if some of the strange occurrences might be their fault. It’s also part of Carter’s character-growth that he realises how little he and Trevor fitted together and it’s much more than ‘well he couldn’t see how awesome I was, so obviously he was horrible’ but especially considering how little space the actual new relationship got, it’s disappointing to see how much time that sub-plot took.

I would still recommend this book but only to people who (also) enjoy classical mysteries and don’t mind having the typical tropes from those played with (and perhaps also lampshaded a bit), not to lovers of romantic suspense because there is not that much romance in it.

ARC provided by NetGalley