E.C.R. Lorac: Murder in the Mill-Race

Author: E.C.R. Lorac
Title: Murder in the Mill-Race: A Devon Mystery
Series: Robert MacDonald #37

“Never make trouble in the village” is an unspoken law, but it’s a binding law. You may know about your neighbours’ sins and shortcomings, but you must never name them aloud. It’d make trouble, and small societies want to avoid trouble.’
When Dr Raymond Ferens moves to a practice at Milham in the Moor in North Devon, he and his wife are enchanted with the beautiful hilltop village lying so close to moor and sky. At first they see only its charm, but soon they begin to uncover its secrets – envy, hatred and malice. A few months after the Ferens’ arrival, the body of Sister Monica, warden of the local children’s home, is found floating in the mill-race. Chief Inspector Macdonald faces one of his most difficult cases in a village determined not to betray its dark secrets to a stranger.

I really enjoyed this…*mild exclamation of surprise*. After all, I hadn’t been overwhelmed by my previous experiences with Lorac and the first few chapters of the book didn’t make me think that this time would be different. We follow a young couple – Raymond and Anne – who has just moved to Devon because he’s a doctor and wants to take over the practice of the old village doctor who is about to retire. They meet the other inhabitants of the village, including Sister Monica who oversees the local children’s home and we’re immediately informed that they don’t like Sister Monica. They talk to each other about how little they like her. Anne meets Sister Monica again, they have a conversation and while they have this conversation we’re again told how little Anne likes her. After that she talks to her husband again about…you know. It got boring, especially because we only got to see Sister Monica being somewhat annoying but nothing that seemed to justify the level of hatred aimed at her.

Well, unsurprisingly Sister Monica gets killed and the focus shifts from other people talking about how horrible she was to Inspector MacDonald trying to figure out who killed her (and admittedly, discovering that enough people had reason to do so, so Anne’s initial assessment wasn’t exactly wrong). And the investigation is again good and solid crime novel fare, admittedly not terribly exciting but I enjoyed the backdrop of the small Devon village a lot. I have already mentioned that I think Lorac is very good at describing the settings and anchoring the crime story firmly in those and this is no exception. In many mysteries set in small villages, those places are described as really cozy and charming but this one really focusses on the claustrophobia that comes with the everyone knows everyone and everybody’s buisness which I definitely prefer. So, after a slow start, I really enjoyed this one.

ARC received from NetGalley

George Bellairs: The Body in the Dumb River

Author: George Bellairs
Title: The Body in the Dumb River. A Yorkshire Mystery
Series: Chief Inspector Littlejohn #35

A decent, hardworking chap, with not an enemy anywhere. People were surprised that anybody should want to kill Jim.’

But Jim has been found stabbed in the back near Ely, miles from his Yorkshire home. His body, clearly dumped in the usually silent (‘dumb’) river has been discovered before the killer intended – disturbed by a torrential flood in the night.

Roused from a comfortable night’s sleep Superintendent Littlejohn of Scotland Yard is soon at the scene. With any clues to the culprit’s identity swept away with the surging water, Bellairs’ veteran sleuth boards a train heading north to dredge up the truth about the real Jim Teasdale and to trace the mystery of this unassuming victim’s murder to its source.

The workpeople had returned to their factories and offices and the market was almost deserted now. All the bargains had gone. The man with the cheese and the chickens had sold up and was packing up his belongings and dismantling his stall. Fruit salesmen were altering their prices, chalked up on brown paper bags and stuck among the fruits on the end of a stick. Oranges at 4d. each in the morning were now four a shilling. A man who sold curtains was holding an auction sale. He was drunk already and now and then gave away a length of material for nothing.

Aren’t you fascinated by that paragraph? Isn’t it…thrilling? Especially considering nothing plot-relevant happens on this market. The investigator simply passes it at the end of his workday. And that’s one of the problems of this book; it gets clogged down with so much description of unnecessary details. It’s not enough to say that a character grabbed his coat and left. We’ll read how he got up, walked to his coat, put it on, walked to the door, opened it and went out. It’s extremely boring and there’s no good mystery to distract me from it. The murder victim is a man who turns out to have been leading a double life. He told his family that he was a travelling salesman but actually had a stall on a travelling carnival and lived there with another woman. The investigation quickly focusses on his first family and every single one is a flat caricature whose only aim is to appear as unlikeable as possible. His father-in-law is even described as having “an indescribable odour of evil and corruption around him”. Just so know he even smells evil…

Of course, these kinds of characters aren’t terribly rare in mysteries. Especially horrible family patriarch is a staple in mysteries. But the thing is that these characters usually get murdered in chapter two or three and so you don’t have too much time to think about just how flat this character really is. Sometimes there are books that have the setup “horrible person gets murdered but only halfway through the book” and honestly, I already have a hard time getting through those because I find it exhausting. Here, none of the horrible people get murdered, they just spent all their time being horrible about each other and about the victim. It’s not particularly enjoyable to read about and so the book left me feeling bored and annoyed in turn.

Erica Ruth Neubauer – Murder at the Mena House

Title: Murder at the Mena House
Author: Erica Ruth Neubauer
Series: Jane Wunderly Mysteries #1

Well-heeled travelers from around the world flock to the Mena House Hotel—an exotic gem in the heart of Cairo where cocktails flow, adventure dispels the aftershocks of World War I, and deadly dangers wait in the shadows . . .

Egypt, 1926. Fiercely independent American Jane Wunderly has made up her mind: she won’t be swept off her feet on a trip abroad. Despite her Aunt Millie’s best efforts at meddling with her love life, the young widow would rather gaze at the Great Pyramids of Giza than into the eyes of a dashing stranger. Yet Jane’s plans to remain cool and indifferent become ancient history in the company of Mr. Redvers, a roguish banker she can’t quite figure out . . .

While the Mena House has its share of charming guests, Anna Stainton isn’t one of them. The beautiful socialite makes it clear that she won’t share the spotlight with anyone—especially Jane. But Jane soon becomes the center of attention when she’s the one standing over her unintentional rival’s dead body.

Now, with her innocence at stake in a foreign country, Jane must determine who can be trusted, and who had motive to commit a brutal murder. Between Aunt Millie’s unusual new acquaintances, a smarmy playboy with an off-putting smile, and the enigmatic Mr. Redvers, someone has too many secrets. Can Jane excavate the horrible truth before her future falls to ruin in Cairo . . . and the body count rises like the desert heat?

Jane Wunderly is Not Like The Other Girls. Other girls dress up in ridiculously revealing dresses to impress men like whores. Jane has no interest in men.

Except for Mr. Redvers. I mean he doesn’t even tell her his first name, quite obviously lies to her or at least evades her questions but that doesn’t stop Jane from swooning about him while still insisting that she doesn’t need no men. Can we just stop with that? Either give me a character who says she has no interest in relationships and then sticks to it or one who says “Yeah. I want to marry (again) but I don’t want the first guy my overenthusiastic relatives who all think a woman without a man is worthless throw at me. I want to marry someone I actually care about.” In historicals that would still be unusual enough and would not give us the moral of “Actually, everyone wants a relationship and all those who say they don’t, just haven’t realized it, yet.”

So, no, I wasn’t a fan of the setup of the blossoming romance. Especially since, as mentioned, I saw no reason why she should even trust him…And if possible I was even less a fan of the mystery. I admit I’m already not the biggest fan of “Sleuth starts sleuthing because they/someone close to them is a suspect” but that wasn’t even a particularly well-done variety of that trope. It never feels like the inspector is really serious about his suspicions. He barely plays a part in the novel and the most threatening thing he does is ask her not to leave the hotel for a while. That leaves us with the “Sleuth starts sleuthing because they totally know better than the stupid police” trope, except that you could even argue that it’s not Jane doing the sleuthing but her mouth. Without her agreement. Yes, the phrase “And before I could stop myself I found myself saying X” gets overused in this book. Oh and what she finds herself saying is usually stuff she strictly speaking shouldn’t know and occasionally she does it while being alone with the suspect. Yes, Jane is one of the people you find pictured in the dictionary next to “Too Stupid Too Live”. But she still somehow survives…and solves everything thanks to a string of ridiculous coincidences. Because that what sleuths in bad cozy mysteries always do.

ARC received from NetGalley

KJ Charles: Slippery Creatures

Title: Slippery Creatures
Author: KJ Charles
Series: Will Darling #1

Will Darling came back from the Great War with a few scars, a lot of medals, and no idea what to do next. Inheriting his uncle’s chaotic second-hand bookshop is a blessing…until strange visitors start making threats. First a criminal gang, then the War Office, both telling Will to give them the information they want, or else.

Will has no idea what that information is, and nobody to turn to, until Kim Secretan—charming, cultured, oddly attractive—steps in to offer help. As Kim and Will try to find answers and outrun trouble, mutual desire grows along with the danger.

And then Will discovers the truth about Kim. His identity, his past, his real intentions. Enraged and betrayed, Will never wants to see him again.

But Will possesses knowledge that could cost thousands of lives. Enemies are closing in on him from all sides—and Kim is the only man who can help.

Is “I stayed up past midnight to finish is ” enough of a review? I feared as much. Well then let me start like this: Slippery Creatures is a romance but ends with a happily-for-now rather than a happily-ever-after. The characters are more or less happy where they are but there are still things unsaid and neither of them really thought about their future and if it includes the other one. And that’s a good thing. Because this way we get a really fun and engaging mystery and a good romance that develops in a sensible and normal time-frame. I mean I love me my romance mysteries but occasionally, when I read one and really enjoyed the mystery, the romance fell somewhat flat because the big obstacle to the relationship conveniently vanished into thin air ten pages before the end. here there’s no need to rush the romance because it’s not ending with Will and Kim getting a whatever is the Edwardian pulp equivalent to a white picket fence is. Just with them having agreed that they really enjoy the time they’re spending with each other.

So there’s is lots of space for the gloriously pulpy mystery and I loved every line of it. It had everything. Coded messages! Menacing gangs with creative nicknames! A very dangerous secret! Traitors! What more can you wish for?

Throughout the story we only get Will’s POV, a somewhat odd choice for romance but it works. Because despite that, Kim’s emotions aren’t kept from the reader. It’s not as easy as him saying what he feels (what do you expect? he’s a posh English guy), but I could still read enough about him between the lines to get to know him and care about him, which I often find hard when it comes to the non-POV character in a romance.

So when is the next book coming out?

John Dickson Carr: Castle Skull

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

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

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

ARC received from NetGalley

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes

Title: The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes

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

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

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

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

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

ARC provided by NetGalley

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.