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

John Bude: The Lake District Murder

30082530Title: The Lake District Murder
Author: John Bude
Series: Inspector Meredith #1

When a body is found in an isolated garage, Inspector Meredith is drawn into a complex investigation where every clue leads to another puzzle: was this a suicide, or something more sinister? Why was the dead man planning to flee the country? And how is this connected to the shady business dealings of the garage?

RatingD

This book comes with a new introduction that proudly proclaims “This book may be a product of the Golden Age of detective fiction, but it is a world away from the unreality of bodies in the library and cunningly contrived killings in trans-continental trains.” And it’s true. Meredith is no Poirot who invites all the suspects in one room at the end and lays open the sins of every single one before explaining who really committed the murder. Neither is he a detective in the vein of the pre-golden age geniuses,  who takes one look at the body and exclaims that this can’t have been a suicide because of the way the victim’s fingernails look. The case itself has also no big stakes. No innocent person will hang if the real killer isn’t caught. The fate of the world (or worse: the British Empire) isn’t in danger, either.

In fact, the whole case isn’t what you would expect from a typical Golden Age mystery. There’s no group of suspects and an inspector who has to figure out motive and opportunity. Quite early on Meredith discovers that the victim had more money than he could have made by legal means and he suspects that this lead to his death. So the whole investigation focusses on figuring out in what exactly he was involved. This involves coordinating which sergeant observes which location, in-depth discussion of various theories as to what illegal activities it could have been and a fair number of other things that are, quite frankly, boring. (One chapter is called The Inspector of Weights and Measures. Seriously).

Now, not every crime-novel needs a plot like Murder on the Orient-Express, a sleuth with Poirot’s flair for the dramatic, or Lord Peter Wimsey frantically investigating to save his brother from the gallows. In fact, I have read many mysteries that featured perfectly ordinary characters in perfectly ordinary plots. But The Lake District Murder isn’t just ordinary; it’s bland.

Meredith is an inspector. He’s married and his wife isn’t happy about her husband working for the police and really doesn’t want their teenage-son to also end up as a cop. That doesn’t stop Meredith from sending said son on errands connected to his investigation. That’s as far as his characterisation goes. There’s also a superintendent that gets involved in the case and a sergeant that Meredith usually works with. I couldn’t tell you anything about either of them.
The victim’s fiancee genuinely grieves about him but since she is only around for a few pages I couldn’t feel for her or the murder-victim. And while I do appreciate that the bad guys weren’t cartoonishly evil (as sometimes happens in mysteries), it also meant that I didn’t have that feeling of Finally they get what they deserve once they were caught.

Another thing the writer of the introduction tells us is that the title isn’t just a cheap advertising-ploy. This book is really set in the Lake District. Only it didn’t feel like that to me. Apart from a few mentions of ‘Coastal Towns’  it could as well be set in Midsomer County. No comparison to Inspector Morse’s Oxford that’s always so present it’s almost its own character and that made me want to go to see it for myself. If I ever visit the Lake District it will be because of the charming descriptions of it in one of my mysteries with a body in the library and a detective that invites all the suspects in the salon in the last chapter, not because of Inspector Meredith.

Lynn Brittney: Murder In Belgravia

37481550Title: Murder In Belgravia: A secret group of detectives solving crime in the seedy underbelly of World War 1 London
Author: Lynn Brittney
Series: Mayfair 100 #1

Set against the backdrop of WW1, Mayfair 100 is the telephone number for a small specially-formed crimebusting team based in a house in Mayfair. London, 1915. Just 10 months into the First World War, the City is flooded with women taking over the work vacated by men in the Armed Services. Chief Inspector Peter Beech, a young man invalided out of the war in one of the first battles, is faced with investigating the murder of an aristocrat and the man’s wife, a key witness and suspect, will only speak to a woman about the unpleasant details of the case. After persuading the Chief Commissioner to allow him to set up a clandestine team to deal with such situations, Beech puts together a small motley crew of well-educated women and professional policemen. As Beech, Victoria, Caroline, Rigsby, and Tollman investigate the murder, they delve into the seedier parts of WWI London, taking them from criminal gangs to brothels and underground drug rings supplying heroin to the upper classes. Will the Mayfair 100 team solve the murder? And if they do, will they be allowed to continue working as a team?

RatingE

Grimdark cozy-mysteries are apparently a thing now. Often cozies are rather clean: the victim wasn’t a good person anyway. The only bad things that ever happened were because of the victim (and possibly the killer). Once the murderer is caught everything is fine again. Or at the very least the (well-adjusted) sleuth has figured out the perfect way to help the person who is still suffering. (To be clear: I don’t mind that. We all need a bit of escapism now and then and many people, myself included, find that in cozies.)

There are cozies that try to break that mold. They use a set-up that is more a cozy than ‘serious’ crime novel but don’t shy away from the fact that there are issues like addiction or racism, you can’t solve in 300 pages. Some are rather subtle about it and/or don’t want to go too deep into it (and while I frequently proclaim my love for the Lady Daisy mysteries, I do wish in a 20+ book series there’d been more than one gay couple and 3 or 4 POC-characters. Though the way she deals with the fallout and consequences of WWI is done very well).

This book has no such qualms. The set-up, with an unofficial team with one-half cops one-half amateurs, is something you’d expect in a cozy. But two of the protagonists are veterans who were seriously injured in the war. The story itself involves sexual assault, PTSD, addiction, pedophilia, and prostitution. Oh and the whole book is set during World War One, and halfway through the story, London is bombed. I had almost forgotten about that, which tells you all about the impact it had on me. But sentences like “Billy explained all about the damage, the dead bodies, the smoke, fire, explosions and general horror he had experienced.” don’t evoke many emotions in me. But throughout the book, the prose is like this: bland, unemotional and no character has a distinct voice.
And even if that wasn’t an issue: the book crams all these horrors into it and features some characters that suffered terribly but they find the perfect solution for all of them. And they all lived happily ever after. I just can’t buy this after tons of misery were piled on them.

And because all this isn’t enough, the book reads like it was written by an author who thinks her readers are really stupid. There is no other reason why the most obvious facts are explained at length and why information is repeated over and over again. Like when one character discovers something and then instead of a simple ‘And then he told X what he discovered that morning’ we get half a page of ‘And then he told X about event A, discovery B, and event C’. Despite the fact that we just read about A, B and C in the previous chapter.
On another occasion, two characters visit a lawyer because they wish to see a document. The lawyer, being a lawyer is reluctant at first but can be convinced that this would be in his client’s interest. Still, he is aware that he shouldn’t really be doing this so he asks one of the characters to leave the room with him to look at a painting. Anybody who has ever consumed any form of fiction now knows what is happening there. The book feels the need to explain to us that “she was being asked to leave the room with Sir Arnold on a pretext so that Beech could look at the documents on the desk.”

Something else? Oh, right the premise of this book is an unofficial police team with women (before they were allowed in the police-force) that deals with cases where e.g. a witness doesn’t want to talk with a man. For that, the men in it were often pretty sexist. And of course, those were different times and having heroes with suspiciously modern views is not the best solution. But neither is not doing anything. The men are happy because women have their “curves in all the right places” or because “being a bodyguard and making arrests appealed to his strong sense of masculinity” and have questionable views on women’s rights, votes for women etc. and all this goes unchallenged. At no point had the characters a serious discussion about this. At no point did I have the impression that the author weighed in on it. She just wrote down what the men said and thought.

ARC received from NetGalley

Elizabeth Peters: Crocodile on the Sandbank

41t1ENkbSLL._SL300_Title: Crocodile on the Sandbank
Author: Elizabeth Peters
Series: Amelia Peabody #1

Amelia Peabody, that indomitable product of the Victorian age, embarks on her first Egyptian adventure armed with unshakable self-confidence, a journal to record her thoughts, and, of course, a sturdy umbrella.
On her way, Amelia rescues young Evelyn Barton-Forbes, who has been “ruined” and abandoned on the streets of Rome by her rascally lover. With a typical disregard for convention, Amelia promptly hires her fellow countrywoman as a companion and takes her to Cairo.

Eluding Alberto, Evelyn’s former lover, who wants her back, and Evelyn’s cousin, Lord Ellesmere, who wishes to marry her, the two women sail up the Nile. They disembark at an archaeological site run by the Emerson brothers – the irascible, but dashing, Radcliffe, and the amiable Walter. Soon their little party is increased by one – one mummy, that is, and a singularly lively example of the species. Strange visitations, suspicious accidents, and a botched kidnapping convince Amelia that there is a plot afoot to harm Evelyn.

Rating: D

Lucas, for pity’s sake, seize it! Don’t stand there deriding its linguistic inadequacies!

Do you care for a mystery where the heroine explains at every step that men suck and are useless (in the appropriate Victorian terminology) but nevertheless the men in the story do most of the mystery-solving? And who then ends up married and pregnant at the end?

I’m being a bit unfair here but not too much. Amelia isn’t that type of heroine who constantly talks about how strong she is but still faints at every occasion. She has a strong will but often it feels she is only right because the author says so. She wants to travel along the Nile but insists on the ship traveling the way she wants it. Objections by the captain that a different route would be better due to the wind get ignored. She is right because she is a woman and the captain just a stupid man! OK, they end up hitting a sandbank twice but Amelia isn’t bothered by that. She got her own way and that is important! She never stops to consider that under certain circumstances she should trust the experienced people. Like a captain where sea-travel is concerned.

Which makes it somewhat ironic that when it comes to the mystery-solving she’s just there to fill in the blanks at the end after a man has already done most of the work. And yes, if she’d had all the information she would have figured it out earlier. And the reason for her not having all the information even makes sense. It still is somewhat unfortunate if your feminist heroine’s first case is one where she doesn’t solve much on her own.

And then there was the romance. And yes, it is a cozy-mystery. And the heroes and heroines of those usually end up with someone sooner or later. And I don’t object to a strong and independent female character ending up with a man. But for most of the book, Amelia doesn’t just say that a woman of her age is unlikely to find a husband and that she isn’t too desperate about that. She goes on and on about absolutely not needing one because men are inferior creatures and so on. Which is again unfortunate. Especially because I didn’t feel much chemistry between the two. There were some sparks but I couldn’t buy it going that fast. The romance would have really profited if it had been stretched out over a few books.

Now for the last unfortunate thing: this is a book about white people in Egypt at a time where most of them were very racist. It’s also about archeologists at a time where a lot of people saw archeology as ‘digging stuff up, put the pretty things on my shelf and throw the rest away’. And Amelia does start off with some not very complimentary attitudes towards the Egyptians. She also doesn’t say a word when a museum-director gifts her a necklace he dug up. Then Emmerson turns up and yells that racism is bad and that not cataloging artifacts is also bad and that’s the topic done with. Amelia more or less shrugs and goes ‘yeah, guess you have a point’ and then it’s never brought up again.

Of course, I’m not expecting a cozy to devote several chapters on the chapters discussing the evils of colonialism but I couldn’t help thinking of Think of England. Another book that was more on the fluffy and humorous side with a main character who held some racists views. These views get challenged over the course of the book and then he actually admits that he was wrong before. Meanwhile, Amelia is never wrong. Ever. And that is very tiring.

 


This is also part of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season

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Book themes for Boxing Day/St. Stephen’s Day: Read anything where the main character has servants (paid servants count, NOT unpaid) or is working as a servant him-/ herself.

Mystery in White

23350057Title: Mystery in White
Author: J. Jefferson Farjeon

On Christmas Eve, heavy snowfall brings a train to a halt near the village of Hemmersby. Several passengers take shelter in a deserted country house, where the fire has been lit and the table laid for tea – but no one is at home.

Trapped together for Christmas, the passengers are seeking to unravel the secrets of the empty house when a murderer strikes in their midst.

Rating: B-

“Sergeant,” said the inspector solemnly, “if you’re not very careful, you will become intelligent, like me!”

This book is absurd in a way only a proper Golden Age mystery can be.  The premise makes even And Then There Were None or Murder on the Orient Express seem quite harmless. And the following coincidences that need to happen for our main cast of characters to get involved and eventually solve the mystery go beyond anything I’ve ever read. Or perhaps I should rather say ‘beyond anything I’ve read and still worked’ because I’ve read lots of books with plots that only worked thanks to outlandish circumstances. And I could never forget those. Meanwhile, I read Mystery in White and was vaguely aware that there are a surprisingly high number of people out in a snowstorm who then coincidentally end up in the same place but I never cared that much.

Here, it worked, because under all this ridiculousness there is a very engaging mystery that is populated by characters that go beyond the typical stock characters. I’m not saying that they have great depth (there isn’t too much space for depth with so many characters in a book of that length) but it’s not one of those cases where you read one chapter and can already tell who is going to be the murder victim and who will fall in love with whom.

Sadly one of the characters is also the weak point of this novel. The guy who did most of the sleuthing in this book was thoroughly unlikeable. He reminded me of the way Holmes is written in bad pastiches or on Sherlock. He misses nothing and makes brilliant deductions but is also constantly rude (unlike the real Holmes who just doesn’t bother too much with social conventions when he deems them unnecessary) and doesn’t care if he upsets the people around him.

But, since this book was just a one-off and the author’s other books have different detectives/sleuths I will definitely check out more by him.


is also part of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season

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Book themes for Saint Lucia’s Day: Read a book where ice and snow are an important feature.

An Unseen Attraction (Sins of the Cities #1)

30517107Title: An Unseen Attraction
Author: KJ Charles
Series: Sins of the Cities #1

Lodging-house keeper Clem Talleyfer prefers a quiet life. He’s happy with his hobbies, his work—and especially with his lodger Rowley Green, who becomes a friend over their long fireside evenings together. If only neat, precise, irresistible Mr. Green were interested in more than friendship…

Rowley just wants to be left alone—at least until he meets Clem, with his odd, charming ways and his glorious eyes. Two quiet men, lodging in the same house, coming to an understanding… it could be perfect. Then the brutally murdered corpse of another lodger is dumped on their doorstep and their peaceful life is shattered.

Now Clem and Rowley find themselves caught up in a mystery, threatened on all sides by violent men, with a deadly London fog closing in on them. If they’re to see their way through, the pair must learn to share their secrets—and their hearts.

RatingC+

Greater Love hath no man than he share the last ginger biscuit.

After The Magpie Lord and The Spectred Isle this is my first non-fantasy novel by KJ Charles and it’s…well different. Beyond the obvious lack of malicious spirits trying to kill the main characters. (Although…it depends on your definition of malicious spirit I guess). Both books felt like fantasy novels with strong romance elements to me. I’m not trying to slag off romance novels (and I gushed over the relationship in The Spectred Isle a lot). I’m just saying that the main plot was about the characters trying to defeat an evil supernatural being. They happened to fall in love along the way but the main threat wasn’t their relationship not working out but getting killed by aforementioned supernatural evil.

An Unseen Atraction is more a romance with a murder mystery in the background…and it occasionally tries to be a murder mystery with a strong romance plot and the end result left me somewhat unsatisfied. There was more focus on the building relationship and the troubles they face along the way than in the average ‘sleuth falls in love with a witness during the investigation’-mystery. Clem and Rowley argue. They have things they don’t want to share with each other. There are misunderstandings and their different backgrounds sometimes cause tension. All of these conflicts are well-written, realistic and not just arguments for the sake of filling pages. But the resolution sometimes falls short when suddenly the mystery pushes the romance in the back seat again.

And then the mystery plot goes beyond ‘romance where the heroes conveniently fall over some clues’ but also is never a ‘proper’ mystery because the actual sleuthing that they do is rather limited. So despite loving historical romances and historical mysteries, the book couldn’t quite win me over. I still enjoyed it and am curious enough to give the second book a try (even if there hadn’t been the sequel hook at the end) because even this romance that I wish had been more time to develop is more convincing than many of the ‘they meet, they find each other hot, they fuck, there is a ridiculous misunderstanding, it is resolved, happy end’-variety. *glances at some past reading choices*. (But yes, there’s also the sequel hook. Damn you *hmpf*)


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This is also part of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season challenge:

Winter Solstice/Yaldā Night: Read a book where the cover is a night-time scene.

A Conspiracy in Belgravia (Lady Sherlock Holmes #2)

33835806
Title: A Conspiracy in Belgravia
Author: Sherry Thomas
Series:  Lady Sherlock Holmes #2

Being shunned by Society gives Charlotte Holmes the time and freedom to put her extraordinary powers of deducti.on to good use. As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, she’s had great success helping with all manner of inquiries, but she’s not prepared for the new client who arrives at her Upper Baker Street office.

Lady Ingram, wife of Charlotte’s dear friend and benefactor, wants Sherlock Holmes to find her first love, who failed to show up at their annual rendezvous. Matters of loyalty and discretion aside, the case becomes even more personal for Charlotte as the missing man is none other than Myron Finch, her illegitimate half brother.

In the meanwhile, Charlotte wrestles with a surprising proposal of marriage, a mysterious stranger woos her sister Livia, and an unidentified body that surfaces where least expected. Charlotte’s investigative prowess is challenged as never before: Can she find her brother in time—or will he, too, end up as a nameless corpse somewhere in the belly of London?

RatingF

First: if you plan to read this series start with the first book A Study in Scarlet Woman. This is not a series that can be read out of order. I was puzzled during the first chapters because I took all the mysterious hints for allusions to the events that were to come in that book but at least some of them were allusions to things that happened in the previous books.
Second: The even more sensible choice would be to not read this series at all and instead re-read A Scandal in Bohemia. Or The Adventure of Solitary Cyclist. Or one of Lyndsay Faye’s pastiches. Anything that is actually good instead of this mess. The book tries to be a crime novel that is also a Holmes-pastiche/meta and an examination of Victorian morals/hypocrisy/the role of women/the treatment of anybody who doesn’t fit in but fails spectacularly on every count.

Charlotte was involved in a scandal and is therefore not welcome in polite society (or her family) anymore. That’s not a problem for her though. She has benefactors who make sure that she has a place to live and enough money to buy French pastries. She even still gets a marriage proposal. Not for love, more as a marriage of convenience that would also make it possible to help her sisters (who are still stuck with their hypocritical parents). That gives Charlotte ample reason to explain that love-marriages are a stupid idea anyway because love is a fickle thing…and postpone her answer to the proposal over and over again…
The possibility that her parents could abduct her and lock her up somewhere to lessen the ‘shame’ she has brought over her family is brought up but thanks to her oh so superior intellect that means she can foresee anything she is never in any danger of that.

The people who are suffering because of Charlotte’s actions are her sisters who are still stuck with her parents. Livia, who is also clever but less confident and who misses Charlotte but can only exchange occasional letters with her. And Bernadette who has an unspecified mental disability and who after having lost Charlotte as attachment figure has gotten worse. (The danger that their Dickens-caricature-horrible parents would lock her up in an asylum is conveniently non-existent). But we see Charlotte barely bothered by any of this. Emotions are for other people.

As Holmes pastiche, it also doesn’t work. I need a proper ‘Watson’ as narrator for that but A Conspiracy in Belgravia jumps from one 3rd person narrator to another. Including an inspector that ends up doing nothing to solve the case. But even if you’re less pedantic about that: the few deductions Charlotte makes are ridiculously far-fetched. (And yes, I’m aware that this is also an issue in the original stories, but they still look tame compared to what Charlotte figures out). The case gets solved through a series of the most convenient coincidences.

Which brings me to my final complaint: the mystery is also shit. You can play any of the following drinking games and always end up completely wasted before the book is over:

  • convenient coincidence that helps bring the investigation along
  • a chapter ends with an ominous cliffhanger that later gets resolved in two lines
  • weird time-jumps for no reason
  • current POV narrator keeping information about things happening in front of them from the reader

I would not advice combining two or more of these unless you want to end up with alcohol poisoning. But then I would not advise reading this book at all.

 

ARC recieved from NetGalley