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

Deep Waters: Murder on the Waves

Title: Deep Waters – Murder on the Waves

From picturesque canals to the swirling currents of the ocean, a world of secrets lies buried beneath the surface of the water. Dubious vessels crawl along riverbeds, while the murky depths conceal more than one gruesome murder.

The stories in this collection will dredge up delight in crime fiction fans, as watery graves claim unintended dwellers and disembodied whispers penetrate the sleeping quarters of a ship’s captain. How might a thief plot their escape from a floating crime scene? And what is to follow when murder victims, lost to the ocean floor, inevitably resurface?

This is the first BCLC-Anthology I read that featured a story by Doyle that’s an actual Holmes story: The Adventure of the ‘Gloria Scott’; a story I didn’t remember at all, even though I have read/listened to all Holmes stories at least once. The reason for my memory-loss is…well that it’s not a very good story. It’s a lot like the non-Holmes story that featured in some of the previous anthologies that had no sleuthing and just a considerate person turning up and explaining everything. Here Holmes makes a couple of deductions early in the story, but the actual mystery is again solved by a convenient letter.

One of Holmes’ rivals (and an old acquaintance for Crime Library readers) also turns up: Dr Thorndyke solves another ‘inverted mystery’ in The Echo of a Mutiny and while it is a nice story, every reader with some prior experience with mystery will easily spot the mistake that will be the killer’s downfall.

Two more familiar names for me were E. W. Hornung who sends Raffles and Bunny after The Gift of the Emperor and William Hope Hodgson has a sailor telling a story of strange events on a ship in Bullion! I only read a couple of stories by both authors and in the case of the Raffles story that’s clearly a disadvantage. There are several references to past events that meant nothing to me and then the story also leaves you hanging at the end. Meanwhile the Hodgson-story was more of a positive surprise. I hadn’t much liked what I read by him so far but Bullion! is very nice and creepy.

Talking about creepy: to my great delight Gwyn Evans’ The Pool of Secrets is again a very pulpy story featuring a deadly swimming pool, lots of dead bodies and an utterly absurd solution. I loved it.

My totally reasonable and valid reason to include this gif is that the collection also features a short story by C. S. Forester who is better known for his Horatio Hornblower books. I was aware that he’d written a crime novel but didn’t know about any short stories. The Turning of the Tide also has some pulp elements. A dark and stormy night and an unusual and gruesome punishment for the bad guy but the story took itself a bit too seriously for me to enjoy it.

A first is that I ended up skipping a story completely: The Swimming Pool by H. C. Bailey. As Martin Edwards informs us in the introduction, Bailey’s “idiosyncratic prose” fell out of fashion. Idiosyncratic apparently means “Why use one short word when five long ones will do?” I tried to read it but kept forgetting how one sentence had started by the time I had come to the end of it.

From the rest of the stories two more were memorable to me because they also didn’t take themselves too serious. In Man Overboard Edmund Crispin lets Gervase Fan meditate on the usefulness of (dead) blackmailers. And in Kem Bennett’s The Queer Fish a lot of things go wrong for several people and in the end the right ones triumph. The remaining handful of stories were mainly…OK. Nothing I hated but also nothing that made me want to check out more by the author.

Murder by Matchlight

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 two novels 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.

ARC received by NetGalley

Julian Symons: The Colour of Murder

Author: Julian Symons
Title: The Colour of Murder

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.

ARC provided by NetGalley

Anthony Wynne: Murder of a Lady

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.

Rating: Meh

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.

The Division Bell Mystery

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!

Almost.

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.

Mini Reviews January 2019

Charles Kingston – Murder in Piccadilly

This book is too full of unlikeable characters to enjoy it. There’s Bobby, who’s a weakling and only mopes about not having any money but is too lazy to do any actual work. There’s his mother who has spoilt him all his life and now refuses to see that he could do any wrong. His uncle who is so miserly that he won’t even give his brother’s widow enough money to live as semi-decent life. Bobby’s girlfriend Nancy who is a caricature of the greedy gold-digging woman. There’s also Nancy’s ex Billy and her boss Nosey Ruslin. The latter is supposed to be a clever and cold-blooded criminal but reacts like a deer in the headlight when questioned by the inspector and Billy even faints. It’s over the top but not in a humorous way, it’s just boring.

Much like David Mitchell, I cared zero about any of the characters in the book

John Bude – The Cheltenham Square Murder

Another painting-by-numbers mystery. A murder. A suspect. He has an alibi. A clue. Another suspect. Another alibi. Another clue. Rinse repeat. I still liked it more than The Lake District Murder because it was at least a traditional mystery without faceless crime-syndicates but it also gave me the impression that Bude didn’t have a high opinion of women because every single one that appears in this book is extremely stupid.

Gif from The Hour. Bel saying "You're so right. And those things called novels. Impossible! So many words."

Miles Burton – Death in the Tunnel

When I read The Secret of High Eldersham, another book by Burton, I had no idea why it was included in the Crime Classic series. It was simply idiotic and I found it hard to believe that anybody could enjoy it. Death in the Tunnel isn’t that bad. It even has quite a decent locked room mystery as a base. But then the author tried too hard and kept adding more mystery and more deception and more twists and it ended up being ridiculous more than anything.

And while you expect over the top ridiculousness at Eurovision, it doesn’t work well in a mystery that wants to be taken seriously