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

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

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.

Allie Therin: Spellbound

Title: Spellbound
Author: Allie Therin
Series: Magic in Manhattan #1

To save Manhattan, they’ll have to save each other first…

1925

New York

Arthur Kenzie’s life’s work is protecting the world from the supernatural relics that could destroy it. When an amulet with the power to control the tides is shipped to New York, he must intercept it before it can be used to devastating effects. This time, in order to succeed, he needs a powerful psychometric…and the only one available has sworn off his abilities altogether.

Rory Brodigan’s gift comes with great risk. To protect himself, he’s become a recluse, redirecting his magic to find counterfeit antiques. But with the city’s fate hanging in the balance, he can’t force himself to say no.

Being with Arthur is dangerous, but Rory’s ever-growing attraction to him begins to make him brave. And as Arthur coaxes him out of seclusion, a magical and emotional bond begins to form. One that proves impossible to break—even when Arthur sacrifices himself to keep Rory safe and Rory must risk everything to save him.

Rating: *sings* you could have had it aaaaaall

This book seemed to have everything I wanted: fantasy, history and romance. It even had history from a peroid I haven’t read much about, so I was really looking forward to it. Unfortunately, I then ended up disappointed.

The most jarring thing was actually the language. Admittedly that’s not an easy thing in historical novels. Having characters use period-authentic speech can sound ridiculous at best and incomprehensible at worst. Which is why I’m usually content with characters that use mostly neutral and possibly to our ears a bit more formal language and avoid saying “That’s so cool” when the novel is set in the middle ages. Really, that’s all that I need to be happy. But in the book, the characters sound modern almost all the time and there’s just the occasional prohibition-era slang-word thrown in, like “doll” for woman. That didn’t work for me at all and every time I came across it, it threw me out of the scene because it didn’t fit together at all. Well, and since characters tend to talk a lot in books, it became really grating.

The romance itself is also not exactly overwhelming. Neither character acts much like their age (early and late twenties respectively) but more like teenagers. There is lot of telling how much they feel for each other but we only really see how Arthur almost gets a hard-on every time Rory uses one of the three Italian words he the author knows. Please. If I never have to read another story in which the mere uttering of a few words in a foreign language leads to near orgasms it’ll still be too soon. I have been on Fanfiktion.de. I have seen things.

I might be a bit more generous if the fantasy part had been better and admittedly it did hook me at first. But then the great climactic battle included some so stupid decisions by our oh-so-clever heroes that it retroactively marred the pretty cool concept and the good ideas that went into the worldbuilding.

ARC received from NetGalley

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

Jane Yolen & Adam Stemple – The Last Tsar’s Dragons

Title: The Last Tsar’s Dragon
Authors: Jane Yolen & Adam Stemple

It is the waning days of the Russian monarchy. A reckless man rules the land and his dragons rule the sky. Though the Tsar aims his dragons at his enemies—Jews and Bolsheviks—his entire country is catching fire. Conspiracies suffuse the royal court: bureaucrats jostle one another for power, the mad monk Rasputin schemes for the Tsar’s ear, and the desperate queen takes drastic measures to protect her family.

Revolution is in the air—and the Red Army is hatching its own weapons.

Rating: Burned to a crisp

I do have to point out, that I expected something very different from what I got. Sure, the blurb talks about revolution, Bolsheviks and Rasputin, all things we are familiar with, but I still expected a different Russia. After all, this world has dragons. One would think, that the existence of dragons would change the world in some way but the Russia in The Last Tsar’s Dragons is exactly the one you know from the history textbooks. Only that Tsar Nicholas has dragons.

Well, that’s not 100% true. While the real Nicholas had five children – Tatiana, Olga, Maria, Anastasia and Alexei – who all died with him Yekaterinburg, the Nicholas from the book has a son called Alexei, a daughter called Anastasia and two unnamed daughters who are still alive, and a daughter called Sonia who died of an illness before the book started. But considering none of that is in any way relevant to the plot and the afterword just tells us that the Romanovs were among the characters in the book that were real, without any caveat about how they didn’t actually have a daughter named Sonia, my guess is that the authors couldn’t be bothered to look up basic facts. This makes sense, since they also didn’t consider it necessary to run their German by an actual German speaker. And so the Tsarina says “Ein Fluch auf ihrem schmutzigen Drachens!” at one point.

Fun fact: I spent a lot of time yelling about Google Translate not being a reliable source but in this case it actually gives you the correct translation of “A curse on their dirty dragons” which would be Ein Fluch auf ihre schmutzigen Drachen. Bing Translate does worse with Fluch an ihren schmutzigen Drachen, but even they know that Drachens isn’t a German word, so I really have no clue how they managed to get it that wrong. Perhaps one of them once did learn German, just like they once learned Russian history and then were so convinced of themselves that they saw no need to check their vague memories.

Anyway, after this short diversion, back to the actual book. Which, as mentioned is The Russian Revolution with dragons. That means, that while the Tsar is busy being stupid and evil and antisemitic, his wife being German, stupid, evil and antisemitic, Alexei being sick, spoilt and evil and Rasputin being evil, creepy and antisemitic, somewhere else Lev Bronstein, a Jewish peasant, has found some dragon eggs and is trying to hatch them himself – a dangerous feat, since only the Tsar is allowed to own dragons. Bronstein is supported in this endeavour by his old friend Wladimir Ulyanov who has also brought a questionable Georgian character called Koba along who acts as a bodyguard for the eggs – and later the hatched dragons.

You probably know all those gentlemen under different names. Bronstein is more well known as Leon Trotsky, Ulyanov changed his name to Lenin and Koba is an early nickname of Joseph Stalin.

Yeah. I definitely did not expect that. And granted, I knew I was reading a fantasy book based on the Russian Revolution, an event that was very bloody and violent and which lead to decades of more death and violence. It’s not that this is the only book that ever did this. The Waning Moon books are set in a pseudo-Russia on the eve of a Revolution (including a character that seems to have been inspired by Rasputin and Stalin). The Poppy War is the Sino-Japanese war with magic. There are certainly many other examples and I think you can take a horrible atrocity, add dragons, mermaids or whatever and be tasteful about it. I don’t think it works when you make the actual architect of some of these atrocities – not even some thinly disguised version, not some conglomerate of several people – in a character in the book. Admittedly, while Trotsky is a POV-character in the book, Lenin plays a much smaller role and Stalin says only two or three sentences. But still: There’s a Wikipedia page Excess Mortality under Josef Stalin. In this book he plays bodyguard for some dragon eggs. I am uncomfortable with this.

But, YMMV and all that and neither Stalin nor Lenin are portrayed as likeable characters, so perhaps some people are OK with that. If you are: I’m not judging you (I do read a lot of other judgeworthy stuff myself after all). But I will inform you that it’s still a very boring book. Because, when I say “this is the Russian Revolution with dragons”, I’m speaking very literally. Do you have the most basic knowledge of the Russian Revolution (as in “the Bolsheviks took over, the Tsar and his family are imprisoned and later executed”)? Do you know the Boney M song Rasputin? Great! Then you know what happens in this book*. I mean it’s the Bolsheviks take over with the help of dragons, but since that happens off-screen, you won’t get much out of reading it. No, I’m not kidding. With the exception of Rasputin’s murder, all the action happens off-page and is then summed up in a few sentences. That is…not great. Of course, it’s a novella, and in the afterword the authors explain that they originally planned a full novel but couldn’t find a publisher, only one who would take a novella. But then you can’t just take the novel and leave enough stuff out to make it fit the novella length. Especially if the stuff is essentially the climax and you’re left with what’s more or less a retelling of historical facts.

*though not even the Rasputin here is the lover of the Russian Queen, but apart from that the lyrics are fairly accurate

ARC provided by NetGalley