Category Archives: Crime Fiction

New-To-Me Books

I took a bagful of books back to Barter Books yesterday and came home with these books:

Christie encyclopedia 01 P1010423From top to bottom

  • Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie – this is one of the few of her books that I have yet to read. I’ve been looking out for this one, first published in 1940. It’s a Poirot mystery in which there are two victims murdered by poison.

As I hope to finish reading Agatha Christie’s books this year I’ve decided to attempt reading as many of Ruth Rendell’s books and those she has written as Barbara Vine:

  • End in Tears by Ruth Rendell – an Inspector Wexford murder mystery in which the victim’s father discovers her body near the family house.
  • The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy by Barbara Vine – in this case a daughter discovers that her perfect father was not all he appeared to be.

Then I browsed the shelves and found the next two books:

  • The Winter Garden by Jane Thynne is set in Berlin in 1937, where Clara Vine, an actress is an undercover agent for British Intelligence.  I thought the author’s name was familiar but couldn’t remember reading any of her books – until I got home and found that I already have Black Roses, the first Clara Vine book (set in 1933),  unread on the black hole that is my Kindle. I’d better read Black Roses first.

and finally:

The Murder Room by P D James

The Murder Room by P D James is one of the last of the Adam Dalgleish books, first published in 2003 . Although I’ve not read many of the books I’ve watched most (if not all) of the TV adaptations, but I don’t remember watching this one.

The Murder Room itself is in the Dupayne Museum, displaying the most notorious murder cases of the 1920s and 30s, with contemporary newspaper reports of the crimes and trials, photographs and actual exhibits from the scenes of the murders. These were actual crimes and not fictional cases made up by P D James.

The novel  begins, as Commander Adam Dalgleish visits the Dupayne in the company of his friend Conrad Ackroyd who is writing a series of articles on murder as a symbol of its age. A week later the first body is discovered at the Museum and Adam and his colleagues in Scotland Yard’s Special Investigation Squad are called in to investigate the killing, which appears to be a copycat murder of one of the 1930s’ crimes.

The Murder Room is not a quick read. It begins slowly with a detailed description of the main characters and it is only after 150 or so pages that the first murder occurs, so by that time I had a good idea of who might be killed but not of the culprit as many of the characters could all have had the motive and opportunity. There are two more killings before Dalgleish reveals the culprit.

More used to fast paced murder mysteries initially I was impatient with this slow start but soon settled into P D James’ approach and appreciated the depth of the intricate plot. The setting is fascinating and the characters are convincing, so much so that I was hoping the second victim wouldn’t be one of my favourite characters.

The lease on the Museum is up for renewal and not everyone wants it to continue – as one of the characters says:

It’s the past … it’s about dead people and dead years … we’re too obsessed with our past, with hoarding and collecting for the sake of it.

There is the Dupayne family – Marcus and Caroline both actively involved in running the Museum, and their brother Nigel, who is a psychiatrist, and his daughter Sarah; the Museum staff – Muriel Godby in charge of the Museum’s day to day running, Tally Clutton the housekeeper, James Calder-Hale, the curator who used to work for MI5; Marie Strickland, a volunteer calligraphist; and Ryan Archer, the handyman and gardener.

I liked the interaction between Dalgleish and D I Kate Miskin, and between Dalgleish and Emma Lavenham who is finding their relationship increasingly frustrating. I enjoyed the book and found it absorbing and testing of both my powers of deduction and vocabulary.

The Burning by Jane Casey

The Burning by Jane Casey is one of the books I selected for the TBR Pile Challenge 2015. It’s a book that I read about on other book blogs and thought I would like.  I was right – I really enjoyed it.

It’s the first the DC Maeve Kerrigan series. Maeve is on the murder task force investigating the case of the serial killer the media call The Burning Man. Four young women have been brutally murdered, beaten to death and their bodies burnt in secluded areas of London’s parks. When a fifth body is discovered that of Rebecca Haworth, it appears to be the work of The Burning Man – but is it, there are slight differences? The more that Maeve and her colleague Rob Langton check out the facts it appears it could be a copy-cat killing.

The pace of the book is quite slow at first as the characters are introduced and the story unfolds mainly through Maeve’s eyes  with some  chapters narrated by Rebecca’s friend Louise, and briefly by Rob. Because the pace is slow to begin with the main characters are fully rounded – Maeve in particular is a likeable character, intelligent and empathetic, working to impress her male colleagues and determined to catch the murderer. She’s new to the job, which both her boyfriend and her family criticises. Rebecca’s character is revealed through Louise’s eyes,  fleshed out as other friends give their versions of her past to Maeve and Rob. As the pace picks up, a complex  plot develops providing several suspects which kept me turning the pages right to the end.

I have the third Maeve Kerrigan book, The Last Girl, but I think I’ll postpone reading it until I’ve read the second book, The Reckoning. There are now six books in the series and Maeve has her own website!

As well as the TBR Pile Challenge The Burning completes one of the categories in the What’s In a Name challenge, that of a book title containg a word ending in ‘ing’, the My Kind of Mystery challenge and also the Mount TBR Reading Challenge (a book I’ve owned prior to 1 January 2015).

The Dead Secret by Wilkie Collins

I can imagine how intriguing Wilkie Collins’ novel The Dead Secret must have been when it was first serialised in weekly episodes in Household Words in 1857, every episode ending leaving the reader eager to know what happens next. It’s a sensation novel* (see my note below) , with many twists and turns, giving hints to the secret (which I did guess fairly early in the book) gradually and surely building up the suspense and with a final twist at the end (which I hadn’t forseen).  I’m reading Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography and this is what he had to say about his friend, Wilkie Collins:

 When I sit down to write a novel I do not all know, and I do not very much care, how it is to end. Wilkie Collins seems so to construct his that he not only, before writing, plans everything on, down to the minutest detail, from the beginning to the end; but then plots it all back again, to see that there is no piece of necessary dove-tailing, which does not dove-tail with absolutely accuracy. The construction is most minute and most wonderful.

And the plotting is like this in The Dead Secret – detailed and dove-tailed right from the powerful beginning at Porthgenna Tower in Cornwall in the 1820s, at the bedside of a dying woman, Mrs Treverton as she commands her maid, Sarah Leeson, to give her husband a letter confessing a great secret, to its end when all is revealed.

I think that to the modern reader the impact of this book is not the revelation of the secret but the manner of its style of delivery – the initial questions about the secret, what is in the letter, why has Sarah’s hair turned prematurely white, why she visits an an old grave set apart from others in the graveyard, why she talks to herself and why she disappears from Cornwall soon afterwards, having hidden the letter.

Fifteen years later, Rosamund, Mrs Treverton’s daughter returns to Porthgenna Tower to live in her old home. By an accident of circumstances, before Rosamund and her husband reach Cornwall, she gives birth a month earlier than expected and Sarah under an assumed name, is appointed to nurse Rosamund and the baby. Overcome by emotion Sarah cannot stop herself from warning Rosamund not to go into the Myrtle Room, which of course arouses Rosamund’s curiosity.

Trollope, however, says he ‘can never lose the taste of the construction’, feeling that Collins ‘books are ‘all plot’. I think this is a harsh judgement. In The Dead Secret, I think that on the whole the characters do come across as real people – I particularly like Rosamund and Sarah’s Uncle Joseph, both are sympathetically drawn – and there are other characters that add colour and interest. The settings and details of Victorian life are clearly described.  It also examines several social and moral issues of period, such as the role of women and respectability.

I don’t think The Dead Secret is in quite the same league as The Moonstone or The Woman in White, but it has all the elements of a good mystery story, drawing out the secret in tense anticipation of its revelation and making me as eager as Rosamund to know the secret and then almost as paranoid as Sarah that it should remain a secret!

*Sensation Novels*

I wrote about sensation novels,  in an earlier post and have reproduced the information here for ease of reference. It is a novel  with Gothic elements  – murder, mystery, horror and suspense – within a domestic setting. They have complicated plots, are set in modern times, and are reliant on coincidences, with plots hinging on murder, madness and bigamy. They exploited the fear that respectable Victorian families had of hidden, dark secrets and explored the woman’s role in the family. There is a pre-occupation with the law – wills, inheritance, divorce and women’s rights over property and child custody. They are emotional dramas about obsessive and disturbed mental states, with villains hiding behind respectable fronts, and bold assertive women, as well as passive, powerless and compliant women.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Challenge 2015, My Kind of Mystery Challenge, Victorian Bingo Challenge 2015 

A Question of Identity by Susan Hill

I began reading A Question of Identity, the 7th Simon Serrailler book by Susan Hill immediately after I’d finished reading the 6th book, The Betrayal of Trust (see my previous post), which had left some issues unresolved. I was hoping to find out more in this book and I wasn’t disappointed – which is one reason for reading these books in order. Another reason is to follow the continuing story of Simon and his family. And a third reason is that Susan Hill always focusses on one or more psychological/moral/ ethical issues.

Summary (back cover):

How do you catch a killer who doesn’t exist?

One snowy night in the cathedral city of Lafferton, an old woman is dragged from her bed and strangled with a length of flex.

DCS Simon Serrailler and his team search desperately for clues to her murderer. All they know is that the killer will strike again, and will once more leave the same tell-tale signature.

Then they track down a name: Alan Keyes. But Alan Keyes has no birth certificate, no address, no job, no family, no passport, no dental records. Nothing.

Their killer does not exist.

I much preferred this book to the previous one. It is more balanced between the crime and the continuing story of the main characters. I suspect it may be incorrect in describing police procedures – I don’t know and really it doesn’t bother me, this is fiction after all and I have no difficulty in believing in the world of Serrailler and Lafferton that Susan Hill has created.

The main theme in this book, as the title indicates is ‘identity’ and its importance, how it is concealed, whether a personality can be changed convincingly and completely, or whether eventually the façade will crack and the real character reassert itself.

Susan Hill is also very good at creating tension and suspense. You know there are going to be murders (just as in Casualty you know there’s going to be a terrible accident etc), but that just increases the suspense. She builds up the setting and the characters and I was hoping against hope that one of the characters would not be a victim – and of course she was. I suspected the identity of the killer quite early on and hoped I was wrong about that too – but I wasn’t.  I began to feel very uncomfortable about the fate of the elderly, living on their own, frail and vulnerable …

It’s the psychological/social elements of A Question of Identity that appealed to me more than the crime, although these elements are inevitably so closely connected.

The Betrayal of Trust by Susan Hill

So far this year I’ve been reading from my own bookshelves – books I’ve owned before 1 January. I’ve had The Betrayal of Trust by Susan Hill, the 6th in the Simon Serrailler series, for nearly a year now. Like the earlier books, this one is  character-driven, concentrating on the people involved in the crime and Simon’s family, and also covering several ethical/moral/medical issues.

The crime element concerns a cold case, that of a teenager missing for 16 years. After flooding causes a landslip on the Moor her body comes to the surface together with that of an unknown female found in a shallow grave near by.The cold case is not a priority as the police force is struggling with staff shortages and cuts – Simon has to solve the cases mainly on his own, with the occasional help from DS Ben Vanek.

But the police investigations are not the main subject of this book. It focuses on the problems of ageing, hospice care, Motor Neurone Disease, assisted suicide, Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease. A lot to cope with all at once and at times I found The Betrayal of Trust a deeply depressing book.

Having said that, as with Susan Hill’s other books, this is fluently written, looking at all sides of the issues, highlighting the dilemma facing those with terminal and debilitating illnesses, and those looking after dementia patients. The Serrailler family life has moved on from the last book, but Simon’s strained relationship with his father continues. He fails in love with a stunningly beautiful woman, which causes yet more complications – he just  doesn’t seem capable of having a happy relationship!

Although this is a quick read it’s also rather dark, with some dodgy and sinister characters and I was expecting it to be better than it is. It is a complex novel but the solution to the crime mystery soon becomes evident and is rather rushed at the end. There are several issues left unresolved and I hope they will be clarified in the next book in the series, A Question of Identity, which is next up for me to read.

Towards Zero by Agatha Christie

Towards Zero (Agatha Christie Collection) by…
my copy is a 1972 impression

Towards Zero, first published in 1944, is an intricately plotted murder mystery featuring Superintendent Battle, the last of the five novels he appears in. Agatha Christie dedicated this book to Robert Graves, author of I Claudius, who was her neighbour in Devon during the Second World War and the two had become friends. She wrote:

“Dear Robert, Since you are kind enough to say you like my stories, I venture to dedicate this book to you. All I ask is that you sternly restrain your critical faculties (doubtless sharpened by your recent excesses in that line!) when reading it. This is a story for your pleasure and not a candidate for Mr Graves’ literary pillory!”

It was received well at the time reviewed in the 6 August 1944 issue of The Observer:

 “The new Agatha Christie has a deliciously prolonged and elaborate build-up, urbane and cosy like a good cigar and red leather slippers. Poirot is absent physically, but his influence guides the sensitive inspector past the wiles of the carefully planted house party, and with its tortuous double bluff this might well have been a Poirot case. How gratifying to see Agatha Christie keeping the flag of the old classic who-dun-it so triumphantly flying!”

It begins with a prologue in which a group of lawyers discuss a recent case at the Old Bailey. Mr Treves, a retired lawyer puts forward the idea that murder is not the beginning of a detective story, but the end, that murder is the culmination of causes and events that bring together certain people, converging towards a certain place and time, towards the Zero Hour – ‘towards zero’. The idea presupposes that there is an inevitability – that once events have been set in motion then the outcome is determined.

And in line with this idea, an unnamed person is seen planning a murder:

The time, the place, the victim. … Yes everything planned – everyone’s reaction foretold and allowed for, the good and evil in everybody played upon and brought into harmony with one evil design.

But the story begins with Angus MacWhirter recovering in hospital after a failed attempt at suicide, assured by a nurse that the mere fact of his existence could be of great importance, perhaps even save someone’s life one day. It then moves on to Superintendent Battle whose daughter has confessed to pilfering at school, even though she hadn’t stolen anything. The relevance of this episode is made clear later in the book.

And it is only later in the book that the murder is carried out, giving plenty of time for all the characters to be introduced, defined and their thoughts and relationships explored – Nevile Strange, a sportsman, good looking, wealthy, married to his beautiful second wife, Kay, Audrey Strange, Nevile’s first wife, Thomas Royde, Audrey’s distant cousin returning from Malaya, who hopes to marry her, and Ted Latimer, Kay’s friend who all converge at Gull’s Point, a large country house on a cliff above the River Tern where Lady Tressilian and Mary Aldin, her cousin and companion live.

The murderer could be any of them and as solution after solution is proposed I was completely bamboozled. All the clues are there, but subtly hidden, buried in layer upon layer. As was Superintendent Battle for a while. I like Battle, described as

‘solid and durable, and in some way impressive. Superintendent Battle had never suggested brilliance; he was definitely not a brilliant man, but he had some other quality, difficult to define, that was nevertheless forceful.

And as he also knows Poirot, he is able to apply Poirot’s use of psychology to the case, keeping the suspect talking until the truth slips out.

Towards Zero has to be one of my favourite of Agatha Christie’s books despite a few reservations  – Angus MacWhirter’s role seems superfluous, other than introducing the idea of pre-destination, and Mr Treves’ story of a child killer wasn’t really explained. I was surprised by the ending – not the denouement of the murderer, but the unlikely romance between two of the characters in the very last chapter which seemed just too far removed from reality. But, disregarding these points I really enjoyed this book.

The Way Through The Woods by Colin Dexter: Mini Review

I really enjoyed reading Colin Dexter’s The Way Through The Woods, the tenth book in his Inspector Morse series. It’s nicely complicated and full of puzzles as Morse aided by Sergeant Lewis investigate the case of a beautiful young Swedish tourist who had disappeared on a hot summer’s day somewhere near Oxford twelve months earlier. After unsuccessfully searching the woods of the nearby Blenheim Estate the case was unsolved, and Karin Eriksson had been recorded as a missing person.

A year later Morse is on holiday at Lyme Regis when The Times published an article on the missing woman together with an anonymous poem that had been sent in that the police thought could help pinpoint the whereabouts of her body. This sets in motion more letters to The Times and ultimately to Morse being assigned to re-open the case.

I was completely engrossed in this book, trying to follow all the possible interpretations of the poem and the witness statements as Morse and Lewis go over the old evidence and turn up new information. This involves a trip to Wales for Morse and one to Sweden for Lewis, Wytham Woods is searched and a body is found – but whose is it? This book sees the first appearance of forensic pathologist, Dr Laura Hobson. But it’s not just the mystery, the crossword type clues, the characterisation and all the twist and turns that make this book so enjoyable, it’s the writing, the descriptions of the scenery and locations bringing them vividly to my mind.

This book has been sitting unread on my shelves for three years and is the last of my to-be-read books of 2014. An excellent book!

Cause of Death by Patricia Cornwell

Cause for Death is the seventh book in the Dr Kay Scarpetta murder mystery series. It’s a secondhand copy that had been on my TBR shelves for several years and I think I must have started to read it before as the opening chapter seemed very familiar.

It begins well enough when a reported is found dead in the Elizabeth River in Virginia on New Year’s Eve.

From the back cover:

New Year’s Eve and the final murder scene of Virginia’s bloodiest year takes Scarpetta thirty feet below the Elizabeth River’s icy surface. A diver, Ted Eddings, is dead, an investigative reporter who was a favourite at the Medical Examiner’s office. Was Eddings probing the frigid depths of the Inactive Shipyard for a story, or simply diving for sunken trinkets? And why did Scarpetta receive a phone call from someone reporting the death before the police were notified?

The case envelops Scarpetta, her niece Lucy, and police captain Pete Marino in a world where both cutting-edge technology and old-fashioned detective work are critical offensive weapons. Together they follow the trail of death to a well of violence as dark and forbidding as water that swirled over Ted Eddings.

However, although the murder investigation was interesting I wasn’t all interested in the terrorist/FBI/religious fanatics scenes that followed.  I don’t think I’ll bother reading any more of these books.

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding by Agatha Christie

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding: Christie, AgathaIt seemed the right time of year to read The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and a Selection of Entrées by Agatha Christie. It’s a collection of six short stories but only the first one, the title story, has any Christmas connection.

As Agatha Christie explained in her Foreword this story was an ‘indulgence‘, recalling the Christmases of her youth, spent at Abney Hall:

The Christmas fare was of gargantuan proportions. I was a skinny child, appearing delicate, but actually of robust health and perpetually hungry! The boys of the family and I used to vie with each other as to who could eat the most on Christmas Day. Oyster Soup and Turbot went down without undue zest, but then came Roast Turkey, Boiled Turkey and an enormous Sirloin of Beef. The boys and I had two helpings of all three! We then had Plum Pudding, Mince-Pies, Trifle and every kind of dessert. During the afternoon we ate chocolates solidly. We neither felt, nor were sick! How lovely to be eleven years old and greedy!

But I don’t think this story reflects her own Christmas experience apart from the setting, that is, for this is a collection of crime fiction! Poirot is invited to spend ‘a good old-fashioned Christmas in the English countryside’ in a 14th century English manor house, a prospect that fills him with apprehension, only agreeing to go when he hears there is oil-fired central heating in the house. There is of course a reason for inviting him – for a discreet investigation into the theft of a priceless ruby stolen from a Far Eastern prince. The Christmas Pudding in question is a ‘large football of a pudding, a piece of holly stuck in it and glorious flames of blue and red rising round it’. For a short story this is really complicated with several twists for Poirot to work through.

Four of the other stories feature Poirot, with the last one, Greenshaw’s Folly being a Miss Marple mystery, which I read last year in Miss Marple and Mystery.  Greenshaw’s Folly is a house, an architectural monstrosity, visited by Raymond West (Miss Marple’s nephew) and Horace Bindler, a literary critic. Later, Miss Greenshaw having drawn up a new will, is found murdered.

The remaining four stories concern the murder of a man found a Spanish chest (The Mystery of the Spanish Chest), a widow who is convinced her nephew had not killed her husband despite all the evidence against him (The Under Dog), a man who has inexplicable changed his eating habits is found dead (Four and Twenty Blackbirds), and a man who has the same dream night after night that he shoots himself is found dead (The Dream).

I enjoyed reading these stories. They are of varying length and are all cleverly done, if a little predictable.