Friday, 20 June 2014

Review of Heirs of the Body, Carola Dunn

Cosy detective series set in the 1920s, with journalist and amateur detective the Hon Daisy Fletcher (daughter of the late Duke of ) assisting her police-detective husband in his cases. In this novel, Daisy and her husband must identify the next heir to the Dukedom before all the rival claimants are murdered.

Chosen because: I'm a sucker for detective stories set in the 1920s, and the village library has a large collection  

Sometimes you just want to curl up with a cosy read and enjoy yourself with a nice murder, and that's just what the Daisy Dalrymple series does. Which is no doubt why the Cambridgeshire library system seems to keep them on permanent circulation around all the village libraries.

The Hon Daisy Fletcher (nee Dalrymple) and her husband, Scotland Yard detective Alec Fletcher, are at a more than usually tense house party at Daisy's cousin Lord Dalrymple's country pile. With the current Duke childless, the heir to the Dukedom is in doubt. So, in the way of detective stories, the Duke decides to invite all the possible rival heirs to stay while the mystery is unravelled. They're a mixed lot, including a French hotel-keeper, a South-African diamond merchant, a Jamaican sailor and a schoolboy from Trinidad. Who is the rightful heir? And who is trying to bump off his rivals, via a series of failed attempts on their lives?

I'm not entirely sure there was much of a mystery to be solved in this particular novel, and certainly very little chance for the astute reader to spot the clues and uncover the solution before our heroine. In fact, the best way to identify the murderer was by eliminating everyone who seemed like a nice chap, and seeing who was left. But then when you want a cosy read, that's a perfectly satisfactory conclusion.

To be honest, in the hotly contested 'detective novels set in the 1920s and featuring at least one aristocratic amateur detective' stakes, I don't think they're anywhere near as well-written or have as good a sense of time and place as the Dandy Gilver series (to be reviewed shortly). But on the other hand, there are a heck of a lot more of them and they don't have the overwhelming irritation factor of David Roberts' 'Lord Edward Brown' series (which I find so irritating that I might not review them at all).

So if you're in the mood for something cosy, then settle down into Daisy Dalrymple and have fun.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Review of The Machine's Child - Kage Baker

The mysteries of the Cambridge Library's book ordering decisions have reached a new high this week, with The Machine's Child. This excellent book is - I discovered on page 12 or so - seventh in a series of at least ten closely inter-woven novels. Cambridge Library has none of the others, although it does have a book of short stories by the same author. Not much help.

The result was rather like reading some of the middle chapters of a book, without ever reading how the characters got to their present predicament, or how they're going to get out of the even worse predicament that they eventually reach (trapped in a virtual Victorian library filled with improving reading). So it's a real tribute to the excellence of Kage Baker as a novelist that she effortlessly scooped up the naive reader, set out the plot so far without allowing the pace to sag, and got on with the next chapter of the adventure.

Any attempt of mine to sum up the plot is going to struggle. However, in a nutshell, an all-powerful time-travelling corporation is up to no good, and Alec and his Artificial Intelligence companion are out to stop them. In a previous novel, Alec's lover, Mendoza the botanist, was kidnapped by the Company, and Alec must try to rescue her. This is only slightly hampered by Alec being a construction of the Company for their own sinister ends, and by his body being alternately possessed by an Elizabethan martyr and a Victorian colonialist. And did I mention that they're all on a time-travelling pirate ship that runs into Robert Louis Stevenson?

I'm not sure that I could actually recommend starting at this point in the saga - not least, because the plot has got pretty far fetched by this point and I would have liked to have been led up through the improbabilities gradually. On the other hand, great plotting and great writing by Kage Baker mean that I'll definitely look out for more. I might even suggest that Cambridge Library buys the first book in the series...

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Review of The Ghost and Mrs Jeffries by Emily Brightwell

A Victorian housekeeper and her merry band of servants set out to help their hapless master, an Inspector of Police, solve yet another baffling crime.

Chosen because: found in a charity bookshop

Apparently there are no less than 31 books now in the 'Mrs Jeffries' detective series, so I'm astounded that I haven't come across them before. Cosy and unchallenging, they seem like a natural fit for our village library. On the other hand, this one was dull enough that perhaps some quality control has kicked in to the crime shelves... 

The premise is quite fun - Inspector Witherspoon of Scotland Yard is a lovely man, but an utterly incompetent detective. Luckily, he has his housekeeper Mrs Jeffries and the rest of the servants to uncover the mysteries for him, all the time without letting him know that they are doing the work.

I can imagine that in Book 1 of the series, that premise was enough to keep the plot and characters running along nicely. This one is Book 3 in the series, and to me at least, while the premise is still amusing, the novel itself sagged terribly.

The detective plot is weak, and relies on a bizarre coincidence that no-one could have foreseen.  On the other hand, since I'd lost interest in the plot by that point, I hardly cared that the reader hadn't had a chance to unravel the mystery. Anyway, the unsympathetic characters had done the murder, and the sympathetic ones were innocent, so that was all all right.

A pet hate of mine is unconvincing historical novels, and lets just say that this is a very unconvincing set of people for 1887. There's very little effort to make any of the characters anything other than a 21st century person in a frilly Victorian outfit - the wealthy American woman constantly hobnobbing with her butler, and toting him round as if he were a handbag, is particularly odd. Yes, it can be difficult to make people from another century appealing to the reader, with their totally different set of values and judgements, but it would have been nice to see the author try.

However, given that there are another 28 books in the series all finding eager readers, I'm obviously in a minority on this one. My copy is going back to the charity shop.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Review of the Kinsey Millhone 'Alphabet' series, by Sue Grafton

When the police can't help, California private eye Kinsey Millhone tackles her clients' problems with wry honesty and a touch of humour. Well written, well plotted and with engaging characters you want to spend time with.

Chosen because: I've been reading this series so long I can't remember

Starting at 'A is for Alibi', and working via 'E is for Evidence' and 'J is for Judgement' through to 'V is for Vendetta', it's almost obligatory to describe Sue Grafton's 'alphabet' series in a series of alphabetical jokes. But I'll skip all the guff about 'S for Suspense' and 'W for Wit', and get straight onto the review.

'A is for Alibi' first introduced Kinsey Millhone, a private detective in the small Californian town of Santa Theresa. Santa Theresa and the Californian landscape is almost a character in itself, described lovingly and in detail as Kinsey makes her way from clue to clue. We see the growing down-town shopping area, the wealthy homes of Horton's Ravine, the windswept beach, and the run down suburbs with their dusty mom and pop stores. If anything, some of the books seem a chance for Sue Grafton to introduce new landscapes - California's deserts and their trailer communities feature in one, while 'N is for Noose' involves no nooses, but a fascinating portrait of a remote town in the mountains.

One of the great things about the series, and which isn't always the case in crime fiction, is that there is almost always a genuine mystery to be unravelled. We are presented with a series of clues, and Kinsey doggedly follows them up, until the whole plot shakes itself out and into place. Kinsey herself is a woman I enjoy spending time with - honest and determined, unshakingly loyal to her friends, and with a compulsion to lie in the interests of uncovering the truth. Set in the 1980s, when the first was written, the lack of mobile phones and the Internet give Kinsey a more challenging and isolated role than the same private detective might have today. The novels themselves balance pace and thoughtfulness - the sadness of crime and failed human relationships is clear, at the same time as Kinsey revels in the thrill of uncovering cheats and scammers.

So far, we're all the way through to 'V is for Vendetta',  and Sue Grafton is apparently planning to take the series through to Z and then stop. The more recent novels have alternated between the first person narrative and a third person narrative describing events that Kinsey herself hasn't witnessed. Personally, I enjoy this rather less, largely because Kinsey herself, and Kinsey's voice, are what I really enjoy. However, the mysteries are still good, and Grafton has been able to stretch herself into some intriguing new topics, including false memories and the mob.

The only remaining mystery is surely what will 'Z' be for? 'Z is for Zebra'? 'Zoo'? 'Zanzibar'? All Sue Grafton's fans will be waiting with interest.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Review of Bubbles Unbound, by Sarah Strohmeyer (2002)

A screwball detective comedy about a middle-aged hairdresser whose plans to improve her life go awry. Featuring mysterious handsome strangers, poisoned mascara and Slim-Fast, a dead cheerleader and an all-powerful local employer.

Chosen because:  Found on a shelf in a hotel in Thailand

One minute it's a dead secret hidden in a crumbling Victorian manor-house, the next it's a middle-aged New Jersey hairdresser with ambitions for self-improvement. You can't say that the world of detective fiction is limited in scope.

Bubbles Yablonsky is the said New Jersey hairdresser, and more than conscious that she needs to provide her teenage daughter with a role model. So she returns to education, struggling through course after course at the local community college, until she finds her niche as a freelance journalist for the local paper. What starts as reporting on the minutiae of local life rapidly turns into a murder investigation that could help her hit the big time.

Bubbles is a heroine very much in the mode of Stephanie Plum, Janet Evanowitz's kooky and unquashable bail-bondsman. There's the same fast-paced action, the quirky elderly relatives, the troubles and opportunities of small town New Jersey life. In fact, Sarah Strohmeyer mentions in the acknowledgements that Bubbles was dreamt up at Evanowitz's kitchen table. But while Stephanie Plum is light-hearted comedy from start to finish, Stohmeyer's book is a slightly more uneasy blend of the serious and the screwball. Bubbles has real dilemmas that Stephanie never sees - a hamster doesn't need it's owner to set it a good example. And so she goes back to education, keeps up her job in the salon where she has responsibilities and commitments, and thinks carefully about sleeping with the handsome love-god who appears on her doorstep. I like the idea - frankly, Stephanie Plum's endless faffing between the two impossibly good-looking men in her life is starting to annoy me - but in practice, I felt that the serious and the comic sides of the plot didn't quite fit together. The local steelwork's irresponsible business practices was particularly awkward in this respect, ranging between being matter for gross-out jokes and for the tragic death of Bubbles' father. Frankly, I think that Strohmeyer might have been more at home writing a more openly political crime thriller, in the style of Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski novels.

Having said all that, if you like Stephanie Plum (and I do), it's well worth trying out Bubbles Yablonsky.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Review of The Dead Secret, Wilkie Collins

A decaying manor-house holds a secret that will ruin its new owners lives. Or not. Only plodding through to the novel's end will reveal the truth. 

Chosen because: I'm a big fan of his other (better) work

It's a bit difficult to review The Dead Secret, just because it is so dull. I'm a big fan of Wilkie Collins, or at least his best known novels The Moonstone and The Woman in White (see my previous review), but The Dead Secret had me yawning and flipping over the pages to reach the inevitable, tedious, ending.

For those of you who haven't come across Collins before, he is a Victorian writer and close friend of Charles Dickens, and one of the founding fathers of the detective story genre. The Moonstone is, in many ways, one of the first and the tricksiest of crime novels - with a twist in the tale long before anyone else had even thought that the genre might become overly predictable.

The Dead Secret is the predecessor to The Woman in White, and the most striking thing about it is how much Collins' writing improves from one novel to the next.

The story is set in a desolate Cornish manor house, and begins with a death-bed and the concealing of a sinister secret. Cut to twenty or so years later, and the secret is uncovered, mainly due to the efforts to conceal it.

The characters spend a great deal of time discussing exactly how they ought to go about finding the secret, which while no doubt realistic, is dull. There's only so much time you can spend reading about two people writing to another person to ask whether he has any ideas about finding out which room in a house is which.

Reviewers at the time criticised Collins' deliberate decision to reveal the secret to the reader at an early point, but I doubt whether concealing from us would have increased the suspense, mainly because it is such a damp squib when it is revealed to the characters. We're told that the secret could destroy a happy marriage, but the characters seem to shrug it off with an 'oh well, these things happen'. We're then told that, even more dramatically, it could lead to the wealthy couple having to curtail their expenditure for a while, and then they don't need to bother. Contrast this with the genuinely villainous plots of The Woman in White, and it's clear that at some point Collins realised that a suspense novel needs... well, a bit more suspense.
Having said that, it does have some good set piece moments, which look forward to Collins' later work - particularly the scenes in and around the mysterious 'Myrtle Room' which hides the secret.

Plus the characters are extremely dull. Sarah Leeson, a clear fore-runner to poor Anne Catherick in The Woman in White and Rosanna Spearman in The Moonstone, is tediously rather than intriguingly disturbed. The supposedly charmingly sparky yet tender heroine is, in my opinion at least, irritating (but then so is Rachel in The Moonstone). And the noble blind husband is wet.

Of interest to literary scholars only. Or to people who want to reassure themselves that writing one duff novel does not mean that the next few won't be fantastic.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Review of The Library Paradox by Catherine Shaw (2006)

A Victorian female detective sets out to investigate the impossible murder of a Professor in a locked room. Set at the height of the Dreyfus affair, the novel takes us into the heart of the Jewish community in 19th century London, tackling anti-semitism and xenophobia.

Chosen because: a Christmas present from my mystery-loving aunt
Well, once again (following Colin Cotterrill's The Woman who Wouldn't Die) I'm thrown into the middle of a series, with a set of characters who (presumably) all know each other and each others' little foibles, while I'm left trying to work out who's who, and, more importantly, try to work up the empathy for them.
This last couple of weeks, I've been reading four different crime novels (The Woman who Wouldn't Die, The Cadaver Game, A Lesson in Secrets, and The Library Paradox), all part of a series, all with a historical twist, and its been an incentive to consider the role of character in the readers' enjoyment of the novel. With two of the novels, The Cadaver Game and A Lesson in Secrets, I'd already read several other books in the series. With the other two, I was coming fresh into the story half-way through. How much of my enjoyment of The Cadaver Game was the result of meeting again characters who I'm familiar with? How much of my difficulty with The Library Paradox was the result of being thrown into the fourth or fifth novel in the series?
I was left thinking of Donald Maas's thoughts (in his excellent book Writing the Breakout Novel) on the crucial importance of the reader's empathy with a central character, and his discussions of what makes us identify a character. My problem with Vanessa Weatherburn, the heroine of this novel, was that I never particularly got to like her. For no good reason. She seemed a nice enough person, but there was never that moment in the opening chapter when she grabbed at me and made me think, 'yes, this one, I'm rooting for this one'. I certainly never got as far as liking (or even being able to quite remember who was who) her three young student companions, Amy, Emily and Jonathan, which meant that when one of them fell into mortal danger towards the novel's climax, I was fairly unmoved.
Vanessa Weatherburn meets all the criteria for a heroine I should empathise with - an intelligent, educated Victorian woman, who is willing to throw off the shackles of convention to take up an alternative career as a detective. She even lives in Cambridge, my own home town, in a house which I can picture exactly. And yet... I was left ungripped.
So what does an author have to do to make me want to cheer for their heroes, right or wrong, from the beginning to the end of the novel? What makes us put a small part of our soul into someone else's imagination? It's something that I, as a would-be writer myself, need to keep thinking about. But one of my writing buddies, reading over an early draft of my novel, suggested that it was the small incidents that can touch - and the small words. My heroine left her cold, while her side-kick, she said, had her from the very first moment that he gently smoothed the straps over a dead boy's shoulder.  
I was repeatedly left thinking that I should be enjoying the novel more. For me, without a deeper empathy with the characters, I felt rather as though I was listening to a BBC Radio 4 documentary about attitudes towards Jews in England and France in the late 19th century - and if I'd wanted to read about that, I would have gone back to the source and re-read Amy Levy's Reuben Sachs, or Zola's J'Accuse.
Having said that, I really did enjoy the elements of the novel set deep in the immigrant Jewish community in London's East End. Shaw brought the atmosphere, the sights and smells and people, to life in a way that I was longing for in the rest of the novel's settings. But in many ways, for me, the most memorable part of the whle novel was a re-telling of a short story by Yiddish writer Isaac Peretz.