Saturday, 21 November 2020

Several short reviews

Several books to catch up with today, all to do with murder mysteries, so my addiction to them obviously continues unabated.

I've finished Martin Edwards' The Golden Age of Murder at last. So informative and it's making my vintage crime reading a lot more interesting in that I now know who some of these authors are and what they were like. I didn't for instance know how shy Agatha Christie was and how much she hated public speaking. I didn't previously have a sense of what a huge, domineering sort of character Dorothy L. Sayers was... or G.K. Chesterton. It also made me try 'new to me' authors like Margery Allingham (although I had heard of her of course),  Anthony Berkeley and E.R. Punshon and it was nice not to be disappointed when I did. It made me go back to P.D. James too and her books will go with me into 2021 for a reread. This is a book to keep and refer back to. I loved it. 


So this is the book a lot of murder mystery fans have been reading and talking about. Richard Osman is a household name in the UK, famous for hosting the quiz shows, Pointless and The House of Games. He's smart, quick-witted and 'witty' and I've often wondered what he would come up with if he ever wrote a fictional book. And here's my answer, The Thursday Murder Club. It's based in a retirement village for the well off, attracting what you might call retired 'professionals'. Thus, there are many activities and clubs and four of the residents have formed a club looking into cold murder cases. Joyce is an ex-nurse, Ibrahim a psychiatrist, 'Red' Ron was a left-wing trade union leader and their leader, Elizabeth... well that becomes pretty obvious as the book goes along. The village was built by some pretty shady characters and as controvercial negotiations are going on about new builds in said village one of the them is killed. The Thursday Murder Club begins to investigate, dragging in a couple of reluctant police officers. I found this hugely enjoyable. Osman's very sharp sense of humour and of the ridiculous is really to the fore and I laughed at his gentle poking fun of our Britishness all the way through. There is sadness, this is an old people's village after all with the obvious results of extreme old age and Osman does not shy away from this. It means that this is not a straightforward whodunnit but I liked that - I found I really cared about everyone in it. If I have a tiny complaint it's that I got a bit confused towards the end about who was doing what to whom and why. You'll need your wits about you if read this so don't leave them snoring by the fire. Book two is out next year I gather and I look forward to it very much. 


Wicked Autumn by G.M. Malliet is part one of her 'Max Tudor' series. Max is an ex MI5 agent who has changed direction and become a vicar. He finds himself in Somerset ... at least I think that's where Nether Monkslip is, all hints point to the Quantocks or Mendip hills... but both beautiful areas. The village tyrant is Wanda Batton-Smythe and it's pretty clear from the start that she's for the chop although it's way into the book before it happens. Max finds the body and it's soon apparent that she died because of her allergy to peanuts. Given how careful she is about this it's immediately suspicious and murder is eventually proven. Because of his background the police rope Max in to help solve the murder. This wasn't bad but it was slightly lacking in something and I'm not sure what. Perhaps just a bit too cozy for my taste but I'm sure it would appeal to lots of people. I was a bit thrown to be told Max had got 'catsup' down himself though (or was trying to avoid doing so, I can't remember now). 'Catsup'? Then I remembered that tomato ketchup is called that in parts of the US but I still can't think why a British vicar would be thinking of it as 'catsup'. No matter, this is a series I probably won't be continuing with anyway but it was a pleasant enough distraction for a day or two.

Monday, 9 November 2020

More catching up

I'm so behind with reviews that this needs to be yet another quick catch-up post.

My first book for November was Jew(ish) by Matt Greene. 

This was a free book from Amazon Prime's 'first reader' thing that they do. I was in the mood for something like this so I read it as soon as I downloaded it. It's a very interesting report on what it's like to be Jewish. Although the author is what he refers to as 'lapsed', having a new baby made him consider what it is to be a Jew and whether he should bring the child up as such, the child's mother being non-Jewish. It's a series of essays really and it taught me a lot, especially in the way that Jewish people feel apart from the rest of us, somehow 'other'. There's quite a debate going on too about whether being Jewish means that you must automatically support Israel and its policies. Also included, naturally, are Holocaust testimonies and lessons about how many Nazis were actually caught and prosecuted after the war... just 15% if I recall correctly... thus, it was a good book to read at this 'Rememberance' time of year. Plus The Holocaust is a subject I've taken an interest in for years despite being told I'm ghoulish for doing so (I'm very good at ignoring that kind of judgement.) It lost something for me when it got overly political as regards British politics but  generally speaking a good book on the subject of being Jewish, about which I knew very little.

Next up, The Pull of the River by Matt Gaw. This is my book 23 for Bev's Mount TBR 2020.

A friend of the author, James, built a canoe to see if he actually could and he and the author, Matt Gaw, then set about exploring the waterways around their home in Cambridgeshire. Local rivers first, the Granta, the Waveney, the Cam, and then branching out further affield to explore rivers such as the Thames and the Severn. The inspiration came from the writings of two authors, Roger Deakin and Robert Louis Stevenson who canoed some of the rivers of Belgium and France and wrote about it in An Inland Voyage available for free on Amazon. I thoroughly enjoyed this recounting of the joys of messing about in boats. The author is very honest, it's not all wonderful, they have accidents, one very serious in which they could've died, it rains on them, finding camping spots is not easy and so on. But really it's quite clear that they absolutely 'love' having adventures on the river and thus the book is an absolute joy to read.


And now for something completely different, as they say. Information Received by E.R. Punchon is vintage crime story written in 1933, the first of the author's 'Bobby Owen' series.

Constable Bobby Owen has been with the police for 3 years. He's currently stationed in rather a quiet area of London and being quite ambitious is not too happy. Then city magnate, Sir Christopher Clarke, is found murdered and Owen is on the spot and a witness to the events surrounding the killing. It means he can be quite involved with the investigation, although he has to tread carefully around the CID officers assigned to the case. As is usual with these cases the dead man is not particularly nice. He has a daughter and a step daughter both of whom he's manipulating as regards who they can marry and why. The two men they want to marry are therefore suspects but who are the other strangers seen lurking around the house and why have they completely disappeared? This was a very well written crime yarn, quite complicated and yet I did have an idea who'd done the deed and was right. Nevertheless all the twists and turns were very entertaining and I liked the main protagonist, Bobby Owen, and his dogged determination to find out the truth. This is a long series, 35 books, whether I shall get to end of it I don't know but I've downloaded a few more to my Kindle as they're only 99p each and well worth a read in my opinion.

Tuesday, 3 November 2020

Books read in October

October was another decent reading month for me. Eight books read, which seems to be my norm these days, not sure what the increase is down to, possibly lockdown, possibly not.

Anyway, these are the books:

72. The Poisoned Chocolates Case - Anthony Berkeley

73. The French Adventure - Lucy Coleman

74. Capital Crimes - edited by Martin Edwards

75. The Murder Room - P.D James

76. In Strictest Confidence - Craig Revel Horwood

77. Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan

78. Menace of the Monster - edited by Mike Ashley 

79. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman - P.D. James (to be reviewed)

A bit of a mish-mash as regards genres, three crime yarns,  two short story anthologies, a bookish fantasy that wasn't really, some light fiction set in France and an autobiography. 

It wasn't a standout month as regards quality. They were all good but there were not, as in some months, several really brilliant books. My favourite is this I think:

The Murder Room was beautifully written and very absorbing, brilliant sense of place. I shall be reading more P.D. James in November and December. 

Current reads:




The Pull of the River by Matt Gaw, all about canoeing on rivers in England, Jew(ish) by Matt Greene who is a lapsed Jew, and writes about Jewishness, very interesting, and I'm about halfway through The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards. I'm not doing 'Non-fiction November', officially, but I seem to be anyway. 

So here we are in November. Another year almost gone... the craziest I've ever lived through and I'm 67 and seen a few things. I've taken comfort in books and am already thinking about reading plans for 2021. Anyone else that mad?

Friday, 30 October 2020

I have been reading...

I'm reading quicker that I can review at the moment so time for a catch-up post. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore was one of those random spots on Amazon, cheap to download and then added to the three million already on there. (At least this year I have been reading some of them...)

Clay Jannon has lost his job in computers and, wandering randomly around San Francisco, he spots a sign in a bookshop looking for help. He gets the job, working the night shift in a very strange shop that never closes. The store is an odd one. Bookshelves are so high they stretch over three stories and fetching books from the top is a test of nerves. People asking for these books seem excited, desperate to get hold of them but Clay has been told not to look inside said books. Eventually of course he can't resist, only to discover that they're all in code. Who are these people that come in the middle of the night to buy these strange books? And who or what is Mr. Penumbra? Clay gets a girlfriend who turns out to work for Google, she's a computer geek and together they set about breaking the codes. Which of course means their troubles are only just beginning... This was an entertaining book but I don't think it was really what I was expecting. Instead of being a very bookish book it was really more about how wonderful and brilliant and clever Google is and how amazing the people who work there are. I enjoyed it well enough for being different but won't go around recommending it to all and sundry. It's another case really of there being a decent book inside this struggling to get out. 

Menace of the Monster: Classic Tales of Creatures from Beyond - edited by Mike Ashley was a freebie in exchange for a review from the British Library. It's my 22nd. book for Bev's Mount TBR 2020.

Monsters have always been with us according to Mike Ashley in his 30 page introduction to this anthology, and they come in all shapes and sizes, not to mention varieties. I was a bit thrown by the first story in the volume which was The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells in the form of a short story. I couldn't think why on earth you would want to do that: read the whole book! It's worth it! The second story, The Cloud Men by Owen Oliver cheered me up though, aliens in the form of strange shaped clouds invade Earth, this was weird and imaginative and well written. After that the stories varied a  bit. There was a dragon-like bird terrorising London after being released from the Arctic ice (I kid you not), an invasion of giant ants coming from underground (much more likely), a tale that seemed to revolve around Scott and Amundsen in the Antarctic which had me completely baffled, one based on King Kong which I've never been a fan of and so on. Favourite stories included Dagon by H.P. Lovecraft which I've read before but always bears rereading and Discord in Scarlett by A.E. van Vogt about a spaceship that unwittingly picks up an alien passenger on its hull; very well written and full of suspense but it never fails to amuse me that these sci-fi writers from the 40s, 50s and 60s could imagine anything and everything in the universe except the concept of women going into space with the men. Also good, The Monster from Nowhere by Nelson S. Bond about a lost expedition to Peru coming home with a creature from another dimension (as you do), Resident Physician by James White about a hospital in space that caters for all alien life (this is a series apparently so I must investigate it) and The Witness by Eric Frank Russell, a thought provoking story that sees an alien put on trial for trying to claim asylum on Earth, I liked the ending to that one. This was quite a patchy anthology, some of the stories didn't appeal at all or worse, confused me. Others were terrific and for me that's what anthologies are all about, a way to discover new authors to explore by sampling a little of their work. Although this collection didn't completely work for me I am a fan of these British Library anthologies and love getting them through the mail.

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Catching up

Two short reviews today, The Murder Room by P.D. James and In Strictest Confidence by Craig Revel Horwood. 

First up, The Murder Room.

The Dupayne Museum is situated on Hampstead Heath, in London, and is dedicated to the two decades between the two world wars, 1920 and 1930. It was the brainchild of Max Dupayne, now deceased, and is now the responsibility of his three adult children, Marcus, Caroline and Neville. Commander Adam Dalgliesh visits with a friend and discovers that the place has an interesting room dedicated to several notorious murders that took place in the 20s and 30s. It's rather a nasty coincidence then when he's called back in his professional capacity as a police officer to investigate a very nasty killing. The youngest Dupayne, Neville, has died in a garage fire; at first suicide is suspected but very soon it's quite evident that he was murdered. The two remaining siblings come under suspicion, plus the museum staff. Every single one of them has secrets he or she would rather remain secret but who hated Neville Dupayne enough to murder him in this horrendous manner? Well it's many years since I read an Adam Dalgliesh novel (I have read a couple of volumes of P.D. James' short stories in recent years). Back when he was played by Roy Marsden (In the 1980s and 90s) I read the eight or so that were available then but I realised recently that there must be more I haven't read, so downloaded a couple to my Kindle. The Murder Room is one of those. It was a slow burner but then it was ever thus with the Dalgliesh novels, James always takes a lot of time to set the scene and describe her characters. For some this might get a bit tedious but I quite like this slow building of a setting and sorting out of who's who and what they're up to. The writing is sublime, quite literary in my opinion, a joy to immerse yourself in. I haven't been to Hampstead Heath but it was so beautifully described I feel like I actually have been there. What a shame there actually is no Dupayne museum! I have one other Dalgliesh on my Kindle and have just picked up, from the library, three non-Dalgliesh books by James, a standalone, an autobiographical work and the first of her two book 'Cordelia Gray' series, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, which I have not previously read. 


 Lastly, In Strictest Confidence by Craig Revel Horwood.

Craig Revel Horwood is a household name in the UK as he's one of four judges in probably the most popular programme on British TV, Strictly Come Dancing. (if you're in the the US it's your version of Dancing with the Stars.) He's known for being the 'nasty' judge but to be honest if you listen to what he's saying he's usually right. Naturally, he's not actually like that in real life. I knew this from seeing him on Strictly: It Takes Two, but his books underline the fact that he's actually an easy-going, cheerful chap. This is his third book, I haven't read the other two (my daughter assures me that they're both very good) but this one was loaned to me by a friend so this is the one that got read. I enjoyed it very much. It deals with his more recent forays into producing and directing stage musicals and also tells us about several years of Strictly (from 2015 onwards). If you want to know about his early life then I think the book to read is, All Balls and Glitter and I will now read that at some stage. Craig's writing style is chatty, you feel like you're sitting with him enjoying a chat and a cuppa, so the book is very readable and quite light. His honesty comes over very strongly and it's quite touching in many places. I enjoyed reading about his stint on Who Do You Think You Are? which I watched several years ago. I had no idea that the 'celeb' being featured on this programme is kept so much in the dark about what's going to happen from day to day. Interesting. A nice light read when you're not in the mood for 'intense'.

So I'm currently reading these three beauties:



Apologies, it seems there's longer an option for 'no' alignment which puts pics in a line rather than on top of each other. Or if there is I can't see it. *Sighs* Anyway, these are all fun reads which I shall talk about in due course. 

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Capital Crimes, edited by Martin Edwards

A sense of place is very important to me when I'm reading and the anthology, Capital Crimes: London Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards, has that in spades. I've had it on my tbr pile for three or four years and was inspired to read it at last because of Martin Edwards' Golden Age of Murder, which I'm about halfway through. Capital Crimes is my book 21 for Bev's Mount TBR 2020


There are 17 stories in all in this collection, many of them feature the particular author's regular detective. I'll do a brief rundown of each one:

1. The Case of Lady Sannox - Arthur Conan Doyle. A famous surgeon is having an affair with Lady Sannox. About to go to an assignation with her, he's called out by a Turkish man whose wife has cut her lip on a poisoned dagger and is about to expire. Nice twist.

2. A Mystery of the London Underground - John Oxenham. A serial killer is loose on the London Underground. It's necessary to suspend disbelief a bit here and I couldn't.

3. The Finchley Puzzle - Richard Marsh. The detective here is lip-reader, Judith Lee. Someone's trying to kill her because she's helping the police catch too many criminals. I found this one a trifle unlikely too.

4. The Magic Casket - R. Austin Freeman. His detective is Dr. John Thorndyke whom I've come across before. A story of a lost handbag and Japanese gang crime in London. Fun but slightly confusing.

5. The Holloway Flat Tragedy - Ernest Bramah. His detective is Max Carrados, who is blind. This one's a tale of adultery and murder, quite clever.

6. The Magician of Cannon Street - J.S. Fletcher. Paul Campenhaye is the amateur sleuth here. This one is all about catching a master criminal who has eluded his pursuers for years. 

7. The Stealer of Marble - Edgar Wallace. The moral of this one is beware anyone who's pinching your marble chippings!

8. The Tea Leaf - Robert Eustace & Edgar Jepsom. Did the man who had a row with another man in a Turkish bath actually kill him before he left? 

9. The Hands of Mr. Ottermole - Thomas Burke. For me, this was one of the standout stories in this anthology. Someone is knocking off innocent people in the dark alleyways of the East End of London. It's cleverly told by a narrator telling a story or 'suggesting' how a series of events might have gone. It's creepy, very atmospheric, I did guess the culprit but it didn't spoil it as I had no idea if I was right. Excellent writing, loved it. I gather this used to be a very well-known and respected crime story and I can see why.

10. The Little House - H.C. Bailey. Another standout story. The detective is amateur, Reggie Fortune. An old lady comes to see him about the loss of her grand-daughter's kitten. The police had not been interested when she told them it had wandered into nextdoor's garden and a ragged, small girl had come out and snatched it up. On enquiry the neighbours had said that there was no small girl living there and no kitten. It frightens Fortune and he has to investigate. Very well written, alarming, creepy story.

11. The Silver Mask - Hugh Walpole. The best story in the collection in my opinion. It made my blood run cold but then he is the author of my favourite supernatural story, Tarnhelm. A woman is stopped outside her house by someone down on his luck. She suffers, as the author describes it, from 'impulsive kindness'. She invites him in, gives him food and money and expects never to see him again. Only that's not what happens... Chilling. 

12. Wind in the East - Henry Wade. The detective here is Inspector John Poole. Two brothers run a business. One is top dog and acts like it. He dies of course but whodunnit? This is more of a howdunnit.

13. The Avenging Chance - Anthony Berkeley. Another alternative ending to The Poisoned Chocolate Case that I reviewed last week.

14. They Don't Wear Labels - E.M. Delafield.  The narrator of this story takes in paying guests, a lodging house I presume. A Mr. and Mrs. Peverelli arrive, he's popular among the other guests, she isn't. The husband says his wife doesn't keep the best of health, is fragile. She tells the owner of the establishment that he's trying to poison her. The owner accuses the wife of being hysterical and making things up. But is she? This was a decent story from the writer of The Diary of a Provincial Lady. I had no idea that she was a writer of crime fiction and a member of The Detection Club.

15. The Unseen Door - Margery Allingham. This a short but effective Albert Campion story about a man murdered at his club, but no one could have done it...

16. Cheese - Ethel Lina White. This involves a serial murderer who's getting away with it. A young woman is used as bait to catch him but it all goes wrong... Very good 'edge of your seat' type yarn.

17. You Can't Hang Twice - Anthony Gilbert. Very atmospheric story of London in one of those famous pea-soupers. Arthur Crook is the amateur detective. Someone calls him, terrified for his life. Crook tells him to cross London in the fog, hoping he won't be attacked on the way. Foggy London town is a very real character in this. 

This quote from The Magic Casket - by R. Austin Freeman pretty much sums up this anthology:

"London is an inexhaustable place," he mused. "Its variety is infinite. A minute ago we walked in a glare of light, jostled by a multitude. And now look at this little street. It is as dim as a tunnel, and we have got it absolutely to ourselves. Anything might happen in a place like this."

I think that sums up many of the tales in this collection and I feel that's what attracts a lot of people to books set in say Victorian or Edwardian London. It's a dense, secretive place with an infinite amount of history and stories to recount. We haven't been for years but used to go every couple of years and that feeling of centuries of history and secrets oozes out of every nook and cranny. As with every anthology the quality of the stories varies. A couple left me a bit cold, most of the others were good and a handful were superb. That said, the quality of the writing in every case is top-notch. Back then they expressed themselves intelligently and never dumbed down their writing, which does seem to happen quite a lot these days. This is definitely one of the better BLCC anthologies I've read, a keeper.

Sunday, 4 October 2020

Two vintage crime titles

So I'm currently reading Martin Edwards' book, The Golden Age of Murder, about vintage crime authors and the beginning's of the Detection Club. It's fascinating stuff and what a motley bunch crime authors were back then. Well they probably are now too but that was well before the age of politcal correctness and there were some very varied opinions and lifestyles which were hushed up back then but which no one would think twice about now. Well, not perhaps some of the opinions... One of the authors Martin Edwards mentions a lot is Anthony Berkeley who was one of the founding members of the Detection Club, along with the likes of Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie. He was definitely one of the 'characters' and, realising I'd not read anything by him, I got The Poisoned Chocolates Case off the shelf and read it.

A box of chocolates arrives at a London club, for one its members. He passes them on to another member for his wife. She eats said chocolates and promptly expires. The chocolates were clearly poisoned but by whom and who was the intended victim? Scotland Yard's inquiries grind to a halt so Chief Inspector Moresby, on a guest visit to a meeting of Roger Sheringham's Crime Circle, passes the case over to its six members to see if they can solve the mystery. When I started to read this one the style was novel and intriguing. Six crime experts - writers, playwrights, amateur detectives - all vying against each other to find the truth of this mysterious murder. It's beautifully written with humour and pulls no punches with character assassinations of each of the main characters. I think the author based one or two of them on people he actually knew in the Detection Club. The trouble with it was that I became a bit bored with constant denouements. It seems I like them at the end of a crime yarn, but not all the way through. Nevertheless, a very good read and I will read more by Anthony Berkeley when I come across them. Not sure how likely that is.

I discovered author, Michael Gilbert, when I read one of his short stories in one of the BLCC anthologies. Then I read Death in Captivity last year and thought it was superb. Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery did a post about one of his books recently, reminding me how much I enjoyed his writing so I ordered a couple of books and Close Quarters was one of them.

The Dean of Melchester has a problem. He thought if he ignored it it might go away but poisoned pen letters don't tend to conveniently do that. So he asks his nephew, Sergeant Robert Pollock, currently working at Scotland Yard, to come for a few days holiday to see if he can get to the bottom of the mystery. Pollock quickly realises that this is a Cathedral Close crime. The Close is peopled mainly with Reverands, Canons and other sundry people who work in the cathedral, none of whom seem likely to be the author of these nasty letters. Murder changes his mind somewhat and realising he's out of his depth his boss, Inspector Hazlerigg, arrives from London to help find the murderer. I do love a cathedral based whodunnit or ghost story, doubtless why I'm such a fan of M.R. James. This one reminded me of all the old cathedrals I've visited that have very old closes around them or  nearby, and always so beautiful and historically atmospheric. Very clever to use one as a base for a horrible murder, emphasising the point that the potential to murder someone is not confined to lay people. This is the first of the Inspector Hazlerigg books, of which I think there are six (he wrote several other series and quite a few standalones). Two have been reissued by the BLCC, Smallbone Deceased, which I read recently and Death Has Deep Roots which I've not yet read. The large cast of characters in Close Quarters did make it a challenge to remember who was who but it's so beautifully written, with wonderful humour, that it didn't matter and I happily gave it five stars on Goodreads. I shall be reading many more of Michael Gilbert's crime novels.