Thursday, March 15, 2018

Shadow Play by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

First Sentence:  Where roads and railways cross old established ground, there are bound to be odd triangles left over, too small or too ill-favoured for development.
A well-dressed corpse with no identification turns up in the yard of an auto repair shop.  The owner can’t identify him, nor does the flash-drive the police find in the victim’s pocket although it suggests he was blackmailing an MP associated with an important government project.  The autopsy exposes a man whose injuries are at odds with his appearance.  Was he working for someone else?  It’s up to Inspector Bill Slider and his team to find the answers.
There is nothing better than a clean opening; no prologue, just straight into the story and, in this case, the crime.  An observations point for those who are Anglophiles is how nice it is to have a British mystery which hasn’t been Americanized either in spelling or in vocabulary—“Lots of tyre tracks,”—although do have a sweater, rather than a jumper.  Or do Brits use the term "sweater"?  Someone will tell me.
The author’s wry humor is always in evidence, as well as her use of dialect to establish a character’s geographic, education, and economic background—“Ooh, look who it is.  I ‘ope we’re no in dutch,’ Mrs. Sid said jocularly.  …’We ha’n’t got any tofu, darlin’.’—but never so that it is cumbersome to read.  Her descriptions of people are a treat—”in the entrance foyer was a very large bald bouncer.  His shoulders and chest were big enough to warrant their own postcode, and made the rest of this body appear unnaturally tapered.  He looked like what you’d get if you shaved a buffalo.” CH-E is very good at bringing all her characters to life.
One of the great appeals of Harrod-Eagles books is the characters and that she has created a true ensemble cast.  We come to know each member of Slider’s team, and appreciate how each has their individual role within the team, but that they work as a unit.  Yet the cast also extends to their personal relationships; their families.  The characters are truly well-developed, each with their own personalities, such as Porson, Slider’s boss, with the way in which he mangles clichés—“You ought to be seeing the light for the trees by now.’  But in the end, it is still Slider who leads the team and demonstrates the reason why he is in charge, such as his deduction of how to find what the killer sought. 
The balance between working the case and the teams’ personal lives, particularly Slider’s is nicely done.  Even though it plays a smaller role in this book than previous ones, it always adds a realism to brightness to the story.
CH-E’s insights are another of the many attractions to her writing—“Slider drifted a little, thinking about mankind’s propensity to turn any investigation to harmful purpose. … Oh, Mankind! Would you ever get your act together?”.  She thinks about the small things:  not only in the crime and it’s detection, but about society in general—“...the catch-up meeting was held over lunch in the CID room. …All human life is here, Slider thought.  "You could write a treatise about how the lunchtime sarnie is a window on the soul.”  A line toward the end really does say it all—“The absurdity of human ambition and human endeavor never failed to strike Slider.”
 “Shadow Play” is a very well-written, solid police procedural with excellent characters, humor, and things about which to think.

SHADOW PLAY (Police Proc-Bill Slider-England-Contemp) – VG
      Harrod-Eagles, Cynthia – 20th in series
      Severn House – Feb 2018

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Woman in the Water by Charles Finch

First Sentence:  For a little more than an hour on the May morning in 1850, the only sound in the flat in St. James’ Square was the rustling of newspapers, punctuated occasionally by the crisp shear of a pair of sharpened scissors through newsprint.
Twenty-three-year-old Charles Lenox, with the assistance of his valet Graham, is working to establish himself as a detective but is having little success until an anonymous writer’s letter appears in the newspaper.  The author claims to have committed the perfect murder, and that he will kill again.  After insinuating himself into the Yard’s investigation, and with locating a second victim, the killer threatens directly threatens Lenox and those he holds dear.
Establishing a sense of time from the start moves one from being a reader to feeling part of the story—“There were two men at the highly polished breakfast table by the window… Both were too intent upon their work to glance out…at the panoramic view of the soft spring day; the shy sunlight; the irregular outlines of the two nearby parks, lying serene within the smoke and stone of the city; the new leaves upon the trees, making their innocent green way into life, on branches still so skinny that they quivered like the legs of foal.”  

The introduction of Lenox and Graham defines their relationship and expands on the feeling of being a participant.  One is also introduced to Elizabeth, Lenox’ friend, and to Finch’s wonderful voice and wry humor.
It is nice getting to know the young Lenox and his family.  The banter with his mother and housekeeper allow for lightness against the darkness of the plot.  It is also nice to see how he developed as a detective.
The information on the distinction of the classes is worked in very cleverly through a tactful conversation with Graham—“We were smacked on the hand if we wrote crookedly, at Harrow, with the chalk.  In its chalk-holder, a great long wooden rod.”  “Sir?”  Lenox elaborated.  “Well, it’s only at the free schools that one is taught to write line upon line.”  Learning how the name of Scotland Yard came to be is an interesting bit of history.  Still, one has to be amused at Lenox’ irritation at the ungrammatical headline—“Nevertheless, the headline had managed an error in its scant seven words.  On the Thames River – doubtful, Lenox thought, that anyone had been murdered on the Thames River.”      
The case itself is intriguing, particularly with the second victim.  There is an interesting twist related to the killer and the victims.  The climax is exciting and very clever. 
The Woman in the Water” is a delightful look into how it all began.  Finch plays fair with the reader, but the clues are subtle and easy to miss, particularly with the emotional aspect of the story demanding our attention. 

THE WOMAN IN THE WATER (Hist Mys-Charles Lenox-London-1850) - VG
      Finch, Charles – Series Prequel
      Minotaur Books – Feb 2018

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart

First Sentence:  Our troubles began in the summer of 1914, the year I turned thirty-five.
Constance Kopp and her two sisters live on a farm in New Jersey.  While in town, their buggy is rammed by an automobile driven by Henry Kaufman head of the Kaufman Silk Dying Company.  The harder Constance tries to collect the money due them for damages, the more intense and violent become the threats and attacks on the sisters, causing Constance to seek help from the police and Sheriff Heath.  But refusing to pay damages is not only crime of which Kaufman and his gang are guilty.
It’s always a pleasure to come across a book based on real people and cases, and Constance Kopp someone one can’t help but like from the outset.  She is capable and doesn’t allow herself to be intimidated.  In fact, all the characters are intriguing.  How can one not enjoy Fleurette’s sass or Norm’s ingenuity? 
Stewart paints a painfully accurate picture of life for unmarried women of this time, and of life for workers in mill towns.  However, it is also important to remember that Constance’s experience is not atypical for women today as well.
The plot is very well done.  Constance’s past is very skillfully woven in revealing layers and details of her life as the story evolves.  The way in which Constance receives her training from everyone, at every step along the way is fascinating.  There is also a thought-provoking lesson on people’s sense of duty—“I couldn’t understand how anyone would take hold of a stranger and pout out their troubles.  But now I realized that people did it all the time.  They called for help.  And some people would answer, out of a sense of duty, and a sense of belonging to the world around them.”
The newspaper articles interspersed within the story are an excellent insight into journalism of the time.  The fact that they are real, as were the letters included, makes them even better.
 “Girl Waits with Gun” is a well-done and fascinating story.  It’s a perfect example of fact as a basis for fiction.

GIRL WAITS WITH GUN (Hist Mys-Constance Kopp-New Jersey-1914) - VG+
      Stewart, Amy – 1st of series
      Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – Sept 2015

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Gate Keeper by Charles Todd

First Sentence:  Ian Rutledge drove through the night, his mind only partly on the road unwinding before him.
After leaving his sister’s wedding, restlessness sends Inspector Ian Rutledge driving on deserted roads in the middle of the night.  He doesn’t expect to come across a stopped motorcar, a dead man, and a woman with blood on her hands who claims an unknown man suddenly appeared in front of their car and shot her companion, Stephen Wentworth.  Rutledge takes on the investigation for Scotland Yard and learns of a man liked by most but labeled a murderer by his own family.  And how does a second death tie in?
What an excellent beginning.  While the essentials of setting, situation, and characters are there, one also feels vulnerability and loneliness.  Those who have followed the series, there have been glimpses, but here we truly see the man behind the policemen, and the dead he carries in his mind as he comes upon someone who is truly dead.
Todd is very good at creating an environment—“The next morning was dismally wet.  It had warmed in the night enough to bring an early fog with it.  Nothing like the London fogs,… Still, this one was enough to keep anyone by his hearth who had no particularly pressing business elsewhere.” Part of what makes Rutledge such an interesting character is his introspection and insightfulness—“The bereaved often saw their dead a someone more than human, above reproach, possessor of all the virtues.”  We are also reminded of how cruel parents can be to their children, even without physical violence.
Although set after WWI, Todd uses the theme of the war to exemplify the idiocy of those “senior officers, who make plans” and the cost on human lives, both of those who were killed, and often of those who survive.  The issue of shell shock (PTSD) plays a significant role through the story and the series and in the makeup of Rutledge.
With mysteries, one tends to think of the classic motives; money, jealousy, revenge, etc.  Todd has added to that list with one we are very much in evidence today—“Anger. …A fury so deep he’s already lived with it long enough that it has burned cold.”
The Gatekeeper” is so well done.  Its multifaceted plot is equaled only by the excellent, multifaceted protagonist, and the quality of the writing.  This may well be the best book in the series to date.

THE GATE KEEPER (Hist Pol Proc-Insp. Ian Rutledge-England-1920s) - Ex
      Todd, Charles – 20th in series
      William Morrow – Feb 2018

Friday, March 2, 2018

The Island by M.J. Trow

First Sentence:  The quarter-moon did little to light Summer Street that night in Boston.

Investigators Matthew Grand and James Batchelor have travelled from England to Grand’s extensive family home on the coast of Maine for the wedding Grand’s sister, Martha.  Friends and family gather, including the surprise appearance of a cousin who hasn’t been seen for 14 years.  A greater surprise is the dead body found in an upstairs bedroom which leads to the question of what the tie is into the family.

An interesting beginning informs one as to where the story is going; or does it?  What it does, however, is provide introductions to the protagonists and their profession.  One thing which is a bit rare, but is refreshing, is to show the vulnerable side of one of the men.  The transition from Batchelor and Grand to their housekeeper, Mrs. Rackstraw, is nicely done.  She is such a delightful character.

Trow’s style is subtle and often humorous.  He slides in information, from location descriptions—“The docks at Southampton had not been conducive to chatting and Batchelor didn’t get a chance to share something the Grand until they were in their laughingly called stateroom, in which a cat would be totally safe from being swung.”—to family structures—“My mother comes from a family of eight girls, though I doubt they’ll all come to the wedding.  Four of them are dead anyway, and one is in Wisconsin, so as good as.  Auntie Mimi is as mad as a rattler and doesn’t travel.”  The inclusion of Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) as a character is a wonderful touch.

It’s also a nice touch that, despite having been introduced to a myriad of characters, the murder victim is unexpected.  Which also means the motive is as much a mystery as is the killer

The truest sign of an author with an exceptional voice is that one has a desire to quote nearly every page.  Trow is one of the few authors who can write parallel conversations—conversation held by two sets of characters at the same time in different places, without any confusion as to the speakers—and get away with it. He has a wonderful way of evoking the senses—“He had never known it before, not in London, but it really was possible, he realized to smell the spring.  There was a green smell in the air, the smell of sap on the rise, along side the sound of buds creaking with the effort of bursting.  He felt he could almost smell the warmth of the sun…”

The Island” is filled with humor, and excellent characters, plus there are murders; violent ones.  This is the rare instance when one can call a mystery a delightful read.

THE ISLAND (Hist Mys-Grand and Batchelor-Maine-1873) – VG
Trow, M.J. – 4th in series
        Crème de la Crime – Jan 2018

Friday, February 9, 2018

Death Below Stairs by Jennifer Ashley

First Sentence: I had not been long at my post in Mount Street, Mayfair, when my employer’s sister came to some calamity.

Cook Kat Holloway has a new position in the home of Lord Rankin. He’s not a man you’d trust with the young maids, but would he really have killed a young Irish kitchen maid? With the help of Daniel McAdam, who is far more than he appears to be, and his son James, a plot is uncovered that extends far beyond the household.

Ashley creates a very strong sense of place, down to things as basic as a description of –“London was always a town on the move. Mud flew as carriage wheels and horses churned it up, droplets becoming dark rain to meld with the fog.”—and the layout of the house. 

One cannot have a protagonist who is a cook without many mentions of food and tempting-sounding meals—“…the cream of carrot soup…, the fish pale in its butter sauce, the beef proudly browned and crackling with heat, its sauce of wine, demi-glace, and shallots poured around its base, the potatoes crisp…” These descriptions represent more than the food itself. The quality of the cook represented the wealth of the family, the prestige of the cook, and the work involved in buying for, and preparing such meals.

Kat is an excellent character. She knows her worth and doesn’t stand for any nonsense. She has a life outside the kitchen but keeps that life very much to herself. There is a strength and intelligence to her which would have been important for her role during the period. Kat exemplifies so many women, both then and today, who deal with life’s disappointments and tragedies yet take care of others and their own daily tasks. 

Using a first-person POV is cleverly done and demonstrates the quality of Ashley’s voice. Our protagonist is well aware that she is telling the story, but it again clarifies who she is—“I’d read nonsensical tales in popular magazines in which maids, when stumbling upon an inert member of mankind, dropped entire trays full of the household’s best porcelain. I’d always consider the maids in these stories to be fools—a dead body is no reason to destroy so much crockery.”
Ashley’s observations are fascinating and make one think. Her pragmatism makes her the type of person one should like to know.

Daniel is a character who adds just the right element to the plot. He has the connections, physical strength, and ability to move about the city in ways Kat does not. And a bit of romance never hurts, either.

Death Below Stairs” has a plot that is a bit convoluted and feels as though it takes a back seat to Kat's activities in the kitchen. Although it truly is the characters who are the book’s strength, as well as a look at life below stairs, there’s enough suspense to make this a very worthwhile read.

DEATH BELOW STAIRS (Hist Mys-Kat Holloway-London-1881/Victorian) - Good
Ashley, Jennifer – 2nd in series
Berkeley, Jan 2018

Monday, February 5, 2018

Gone Before Christmas by Charles Finch

First Sentence: The two brothers stood motionless upon the top step of a fine London townhouse, each with arms crossed, assessing a correspondingly motionless pair of trees propped against a railing. 

Lt. Ernest Austen of the Grenadier Guards has disappeared. Charles Lenox is trying to establish his detective agency, the first of its kind, but having little luck. Even Scotland Yard is so baffled, they’ve agreed to have Lenox consult. Solving this case would give him credibility and recognition. But can he solve it? 

One of the many things to love about Finch’s writing is his use of humor, whether it’s about life, death—“Death is the great spiritual adventure toward which all living things mush lean forward in hope and humility, in neither fear or anger.”--or Christmas trees--"Well," said Charles, signing, "I hope it may last the next three days, anyhow." "Until Christmas morning." "Yes, then it can slink off to some corner and die.".

It is always interesting learning about the customs of a period, and that they relate to Christmas makes them even more so. The tradition of Lenox; father, is quite progressive for the time. Yet one of the best things about a prequel is to learn more about the protagonists and their history. 

Finch creates wonderful analogies—“France and England were rather like an unhappy couple out to supper at friends’: not presently at war, except in the sense that they were continually at war.” His descriptions are evocative—“There was evidence all over it of wealth, and ancient lineage—tapestries on the walls, enormous hunting scenes in oils, tables of marble…”. His use of language is a treat—“…he discovered that the next train was in ninety minutes. He set out to see the wonders of Ipswich for himself. When that was finished, he had eighty-seven minutes left…” It is elements such as these, along with learning bits of information such as how the term “butler” came to be, that makes reading Finch such a pleasure.

Gone Before Christmas” is a lovely story for the holidays with just the right balance of seriousness and sentimentality. 

GONE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (Hist Mys-Charles and Edmund Lenox-London-1887) – VG+
Finch, Charles (eBook Novelette)
Minotaur Books – Dec 2017

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Bryant & May: Wild Chamber by Christopher Fowler

First Sentence: On a desolate rain-battered London midnight, the members of the Peculiar Crimes Unit went looking for a killer.

London has many private gardens, accessible only to the residents who live around them. The gardener also has a key but doesn’t expect to find the body of a woman who’d taken her dog for a walk. She has been strangled and neatly laid out on the path, her dog missing, and the garden locked before the gardener’s arrival. A second such body is found in a public park. At risk are more murders, the city’s parks being closed to the public, and the PUC disbanded. The clock is ticking.

An aerial chase, a traffic jam, a boy’s death and a man whose life implodes. This is an opening which captures one’s attention. 

That Fowler uses a memo to provide a cast of characters is both helpful and clever. That the list includes “Crippen, staff cat,” and the subsequent memo brings readers up to date on the situation at the aptly-named Peculiar Crimes Unit truly sets the tone for what follows. Fowler’s books are not one’s normal police procedural, as the characters, particularly those of Arthur Bryant and John May, are anything but what one would normally find. Fowler gives us something unique with present-day crimes overlain with an education into obscure historical facts and writing which increases one’s vocabulary. But never fear; this book is anything but dry or boring.

Fowler is skilled at juxtaposing historic London over that of the present day in a way that contributes to the plot. Part of that is an explanation as to how Bryant became a detective. Fowler creates evocative descriptions—“The wind was high in the trees, breathing secrets through the branches.—and observations—“Looking down on King’s Cross you’d have noticed an odd phenomenon: Every other roof was covered in white frost, forming a patchwork quilt, an indicator of which properties were owned by overseas investors and which had warm families inside.” But yes, unfortunately, there are also quite a few completely unnecessarily portents. 

It is hard to say which is more enjoyable; the cast of strange and fascinating characters of Bryant’s acquaintance, the vast abundance of arcane and historical information—who knew it was Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan, who wrote the music to “Onward Christian Soldiers--, the members of the PUC itself, or the plot which brings all these facets together into a perfect gem of a book with a well-done plot twist. We are even given a definition as to what is a murder mystery—“A murder mystery,’ she told Bryant…’is an intellectual exercise, a game between reader and writer in which a problem is precisely stated, elaborately described, and surprisingly solved.”—and Fowler does just that.

Bryant & May: Wild Chamber” is a murder mystery in the best sense. All the clues are provided if we but see them. The best part of the book is the very last line, but that one will have to read for themselves. 

BRYANT & MAY: WILD CHAMBER (Pol Proc-Bryant & May-London-Contemp) – VG+
Fowler, Christopher – 14th in series
Bantam – December 2017

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Voice Inside by Brian Freeman

First Sentence: Frost Easton felt a shiver in the house, which jolted him from a deep sleep. He assumed it was the beginning of an earthquake.

Rudy Cutter is serving a life sentence for the murders of several young women, including the sister of homicide detective Frost Easton. Now Easton learns his boss, and former lover, Jess, planted the evidence which got Cutter convicted. The original case is completely thrown out, Easton’s friend is fired, and Cutter back on the street to kill again. Frost is determined to stop Cutter and reporter-turned-writer Eden Shay wants to help. 

This is the way to start a book. No prologue. The story begins on the very first page. The scene is created, and one knows exactly where it’s set. There is a suggestion of threat which grows quickly until even as a reader, you nearly jump from the sense of danger being revealed, and the knowledge that it is only the beginning.

Freeman knows how to create a strong sense of place—“Painted murals adorned the massive columns of the freeway overpass.., Behind a metal fence, he saw the concrete ramps of a skateboard park…”. For those who live, or spent time, in the San Francisco/Bay Area, the local references--"He parked his police Suburban in the empty lot where buses normally unloaded tourists to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. ... For tourists, this was the symbol of San Francisco. For the locals, it was just a bridge."--are a wonderful touch, but they don’t overwhelm or slow down the pace of the story. 

Freeman also excels at the well-executed plot twist; the ones you feel you should have seen coming, but didn’t. He also creates excellent “what would you do” scenarios. 

The argument about--“the line." The line between going by the book and taking shortcut. It was a line that every cop faced sooner or later, when he had to decide if the end justified the means. Sometimes doing the right thing meant a criminal going free. Sometimes doing the wrong thing saved lives."--is a point which gives one something about which to seriously think. The title of the book is taken from the poem of the same name by Shel Silverstein.

The book’s plot is interesting in that there is no question as to the identity of the killer, and he is not a sympathetic character; no anti-hero here. But there is also more here than we expect.

Frost is a well-developed character; thought of as a “Boy Scout” by fellow cops. One thing that is rather questionable is the freedom he has. We never see him going into headquarters, rarely working with a team, or working more than one case. Frost is taken by his own good looks and ease of attracting women. Fortunately, at the end, we feel he may be maturing. His chef-brother, Duane, is a wonderful bit of lightness and his girl-friend Tabby, fits in the middle. We do so hope Freeman doesn’t take the stereotypical-relationship route with these characters, but it seems that may be avoided. Eden Shay, the writer, is a bit predictable but still steps outside that role. Comparing Easton’s former-lover Jess to a track of music is fascinating.

The Voice Inside” is a step ahead in this series with an intense plot a dramatic climax and follow-on, and a well-done conclusion.

THE VOICE INSIDE (Pol Proc-Frost Easton-San Francisco, CA-Contemp) – VG+
Freeman, Brian – 2nd in series
Thomas & Mercer – January 2017