A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn

curiousAn elegant historical romance with a hint of mystery and a butterfly collecting heroine.

The novel opens at a funeral with the unusual heroine, Veronica Speedwell, unable to shed a tear for her lately departed guardian. Veronica is a thoroughly modern woman despite her Victorian surroundings – she’s a lepidopterist or butterfly collector with a scientific bent, an unknown past and an enjoyment of love affairs. Imagine a grown up Flavia de Luce meets romance heroine.

After the funeral she startles a would-be thief and manages to put up a good fight before being helped by a baron. The baron dumps her in the lap of Mr. Stoker, a scarred, handsome and muscular taxidermist whose greeting is little more than a growl of displeasure. The baron’s murder puts them both on the run, winding up at a traveling circus, and things only go downhill from there.

I don’t often read romance, not through any special dislike but because I have a long backlog of mystery books. This prose is elegant and enjoyable, although it took some time before we reached the murder and the circus. Veronica is strong-willed, even if that’s unlikely for her upbringing with two spinster aunts, but it helps to move the story along as she gives the world as good as she gets.

The story spends a lot of time on the fire between Stoker and Veronica, while making it clear that Veronica is her own woman and will choose Stoker on her own terms or not at all. There are similarities to this and Deanna Raybourn’s first book, Silent in the Grave, but Veronica is stronger and far more scientific than Lady Julia.

The ending brings the plot to an interesting close without banishing all of the miscreants, leaving plenty of opportunity (and future revelations) when Veronica and Stoker agree to an expedition together…

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The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

monogramA modern homage to Agatha Christie’s Poirot.

Writing under the Agatha Christie name, Sophie Hannah has crafted an immensely complicated murder. The premise is fantastic – a woman tells Poirot not to prevent her death at the same time that three people are murdered in an elegant London hotel, monogrammed cufflinks in their mouths.

Recounting this story is a detective named Edward Catchpool, modeled after many companions who do not understand Poirot. The main difference being Catchpool’s feelings are treated with equal weight to the murder plot. So we learn a lot about Catchpool’s fear of dead bodies, which made his chosen profession of homicide detective rather odd.

The three odd deaths are soon traced to a village tragedy, but Poirot and Catchpool struggle continuously against a parade of partial truths and side characters. During the final denouement, things twist around repeatedly and confusingly. Yet even when the entire story comes out, it remains slightly convoluted.

The main plot was genius. I would’ve loved a little more period detail, and a dash less moaning in Catchpool, to find it an utterly delightful Christie. The addition of the subplot felt unneeded and I was surprised by Catchpool feeling even a slight moral dilemma about the murderer.

A solid addition to Christie’s canon of works, I look forward to trying the next one.

The Winter Garden Mystery by Carola Dunn

DaisyWinterGardenA bold, vivacious sleuth takes on the 1920’s  with style.

Daisy Dalrymple is a modern woman with incredible energy and enthusiasm. She is the opposite of Poirot, she rushes from clue to clue, place to place, with a mixture of determination and persuasion. Even the Chief Inspector is in awe of her.

She comes from wealth but chooses to make her own way as a magazine writer and amateur photographer. When she arrives at Occles Hall to write about the garden, she’s caught up in the discovery of a buried body. It is poor Grace Moss, the parlourmaid who supposedly went off with a traveling salesman.

After an absolutely bumbling investigation by the local police, who are terrified of the dragonesque Lady Valeria, the case concludes with the arrest of Grace’s fiancé. As a Welshman, he’s a foreigner and makes for an easy target, despite his grief. Unable to let matters stand, Daisy summons her favourite policeman from Scotland Yard, Chief Inspector Fletcher.

Like many recently written 1920s mysteries, Daisy had a fiancé killed in the war and she has two possible rivals for her affections – eligible and kindly Philip Petrie, or sharp but kind Alec Fletcher. But Daisy does not spend all her time feeling lovelorn, she gets right on tackling the case – complicated by the possibility of suspects right in Occles Hall itself.

The culprit was not a big surprise but nor was it instantly obvious. I was most impressed with Carola Dunn’s take on the modern woman – Daisy ends up saving the inspector herself.

The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton

secretA simple murder turns into a twisted case of witchcraft, abduction and evil.

4 years after arriving to run a pub in the tiny and tight knit village of High Eldersham, Mr. Whiteman is inexplicably murdered. Constable Viney, a young’un who never dealt with worse than a drunkard, is suddenly confronted with a knifed man drenched in blood.

Poor Viney is hopelessly outclassed. While waiting for his superiors to arrive, he downs a pint and makes an effort to investigate. But luckily for him, Scotland Yard is called in and Inspector Young soon arrives.

I was a little sad not to have ‘met’ ex-policeman Mr. Whiteman other than the briefest mention at the beginning. The author captures character vignettes extremely well and Whiteman is the sort of jovial, good-natured person I’d get on with pretty well.

It soon becomes clear that High Eldersham is very odd and doesn’t care for outsiders. So why then did they tolerate Whiteman so long? And why kill him now?

The story takes a bit of a supernatural turn and Inspector Young soon calls in his “intuitive” friend Desmond Merrion. Mr. Merrion is a bit of an expert in the supernatural and agrees that something is up.

The book descends into an occult darkness that feels almost Sherlockian. It is difficult to tell how an entire village is involved from uneducated farmers to the wealthy Sir William and his pretty daughter Mavis, odd Mr. Hollesley in love with Mavis, and the cynical Dr. Padfield.

Whether truly supernatural, the plot is most certainly evil. Inspector Young and Mr. Merrion almost lose everything trying to uncover the devilish conspirator…

30-day ebook loan courtesy of NetGalley.

Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie

A classic locked room mystery featuring a bold, devious murder in mid air.

Somehow an old woman is murdered on a flight from Paris to London in plain view of several passengers. What might have passed as a death by wasp sting is foiled by the presence of Hercule Poirot.

Mr. Poirot is not just any detective. To most mystery readers, Agatha Christie is legend. Arguably her most treasured creation is Hercule Poirot, a short Belgian with a beautiful mustache and a penchant for truth and absolute symmetry. In this case, Poirot is one of the suspects (although not very seriously) when a murder is committed behind his back.

The murder by exotic blowpipe is so boldly, imaginatively executed that the Chief Inspector Japp is positively insulted. And yet, despite Japp’s insisting it to be mere luck, our favourite OCD detective Poirot says we must judge the end result. It is a successful murder.

This time Poirot is not accompanied by the sweet Hastings, who is a chivalrous bundle of passion and kindness, a Watson-like figure. Instead we have a French detective who believes in the psychological elements of a crime, unlike Japp, yet even he begins to doubt Poirot at times.

Despite Poirot’s frequent cry of ‘the grey cells’ and his disdain for rushing around, he does just that in this book. He follows and questions suspects, persuades them to do things for him, hunts for evidence, and generally gets so involved that it’s impossible to determine who he’s after. This one kept me guessing until the end.

Sometimes cozy murderers are sympathetic, especially when the victim turns out to be a blackmailer. But this murderer is pretty well heartless and ruthless, without even a shred of conscience…

Murder Fantastical by Patricia Moyes

A delightfully eccentric family’s refusal to sell their estate ends in murder.

What starts out as a deceptively simple murder in a tiny village proves to be a fantastically clever plot. The beloved Manciple family is eccentric to an almost unbelievable degree – even as you fall for them, you can’t help but wonder if they know far more than they let on?

All the aunts and uncles have returned to the ancestral home to vet a newcomer, the fiancé of beloved daughter Maud. But things go rather awry when the borgeouis neighbor (and successful bookie) who wouldn’t take no for answer is shot in the driveway.

Is it murder? Chief Inspector Tibbet is called in because the local policeman Sir John is too obviously a friend of the family. The head of the household, Major Manciple (who is a far cry from the stereotypical bluff major), helpfully compiles a list of suspects, motives and means for Tibbet.

But things are far from simple. Even though the plot of the victim to buy the house is fairly obvious, the story has far more depth than I expected. Vague characters like the ex-Bishop of Bugolaland and the ninety year old Aunt Dora are suspicious in their vagueness, while the Major’s darling wife Violet seems incapable of murder.

And the main characters provide so much fodder to unravel! An emotional gun-toting but pacifist ex-Major. A beautiful, vunerable and oddly remote daughter. A jealous, handsome and intelligent fiancee. A loud-mouthed boorish son who inherits his father’s business.

When a second death occurs, Tibbet is forced to work very hard and the plot plunges through so many twists that it is difficult to keep straight. When the denouement comes, in true Agatha Christie style everything clicks into place. You realize the meaning of many little oddities you had noticed without noticing. You curse yourself for a dunderhead and stand amazed at the author’s brilliant mind…

The only weakness in this highly enjoyable book is Tibbet’s wife. She’s not a bad character but she lacks Tibbert’s charm and she seems to play a very thin role. She comes in more at the end but seems to be a narrator for the plot while Tibbet’s away.

But don’t let this discourage you. This is a classic British mystery that pays homage to the greats, yet with a rare hint of something different. Even while you feel good has triumphed, it is not without a high cost, and the characters defy the typical endings you imagine for them.

One character seems to sum it up quite well – “You needn’t imagine I’m going to fit into your cozy little happy ending.”

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

A gorgeously written tale of loss, corruption and mercy in the English countryside.

This is a beautifully written book that manages to show so many distinct and complementary levels, like an English trifle. I immediately fell in love with the narrator and his summer-drenched memories. Charles Ryder is visiting Brideshead again — now as a commander in the second world war — and recollecting his intense association with the Flyte family who lived there.

A promising artist, Charles begins as an uncorrupted youth who might have followed dull but cheerful Wilkins’ into a reputable profession. Instead he is befriended by the wealthy teddy bear carrying Sebastian Flyte and his entire life is swept up into a sort of narrator for the Flyte family’s drama.

The main theme is the destructive relationship between Charles, Sebastian and Julia. The beauty of the book is in the vagueness. Charles obviously loves Sebastian, but is it more than as a friend? When he later loves Julia, is it only as a socially acceptable proxy who resembles Sebastian?

But so many other things come to light – the troubled relationship with family, the effect of wealth without responsibility, the role of religion, the impact of adoration – the list goes on and on. There are endless questions in this book, endless ways to interpret and explore the impact of even minor characters like the little sister Cordelia.

My sympathy was with Charles at first, but he willfully ignores both logic and his own conscience. I felt that he ought to have known better, although we could argue his basically absentee father and dead mother do not adequately prepare him for standing up to the Flytes.

The charming Sebastian is the true tragedy and somehow more of a symbol than a real person. We are always forced to guess at his feelings and motives. He has so much potential, all wasted (or is it?) He uses alcohol and travel as a means of escaping himself. He is tortured by his love of being a young, self-indulgent and charming upper class heir against an enormous Roman Catholic pressure to be a saint and possibly a guilt of not having earned any of it himself.

While no one has a happy ending, perhaps each of the characters ends up in the place their actions have been leading them?

Black Plumes by Margery Allingham

black2bplumes

An exquisitely constructed post-war mystery that keeps you guessing.

Another classic and delightful Allingham book. Instead of her usual detective it is narrated by the very charming young Frances. She’s desperately trying to tell her regal grandmother that the family gallery is going off the rails fast. The chapter culminates with a dramatic scene featuring a slashed painting and a seemingly simple argument that will descend into murder.

Why is Frances’ brother-in-law so furious when she turns down his friend, an unctuous and slimy little man? Why is her half-sister such a miserable, terrified wreck? When a murder occurs, they all know someone in the house is a killer. Despite the police presence no one feels safe, perhaps because the police are there as much to arrest as to protect.

There are a veritable feast of suspects and Frances is hard pressed to keep her cool. Could it be her own hysterical half-sister, the victim’s unhappy wife? Or perhaps Frances’ new fiancé, the artist whose painting was slashed and who wants to marry immediately so they can’t testify against each other? Even her beloved and regal grandmother, whose mind slides in and out of focus, could be using her age as a clever cover.

The book is seen through Frances’ uncertain and troubled eyes – Allingham uses this device brilliantly. We follow along with Frances, tortured by the conflict between her conscience and her sense of loyalty. The Scottish detective Birdie keeps his own counsel, so along with Frances we wait and listen to what clues drop, hoping to uncover the truth and protect the ones we love…

Traitor’s Purse by Margery Allingham

traitorA brilliant mystery – how does a man with amnesia unmask a national conspiracy?

I fell in love with Albert Campion on the TV series, but years ago I really disliked The Affair at Black Dudley (the first Campion). I don’t know if it was just bad book timing, but after reading Traitor’s Purse I feel I have been missing out!

This is one of her finest books according to many and I can see why. The book plunges straight into the plot – a man wakes up in a hospital, overhears that he’s killed a policeman and will hang for it. He makes a dash for it, physically and emotionally weak, all the while desperate to remember what conspiracy he was about to unmask. His only clue is the number 15.

And if that plot weren’t enough, the writing is beautiful. Campion struggles to fake his way through situations, wondering if each person he meets is the shadowy villain. We see his newly discovered love for a woman he’s already lost and his haunting terror that he will not be in time to prevent a national tragedy.

Swinging wildly between a creature of primitive emotions and an uppercrust man of intelligence and manners, we can’t help but wonder which is the real Campion? Will the two halves of his fractured mind meet in time to save England?

I was fortunate enough to get a version by The Folio Society, a London publisher who republishes old classics in utterly gorgeous bindings and with stunning illustrations. Anyone who loves books should own at least one folio edition.

Death Mask by Ellis Peters

mystery

Amazing classic British mystery, elegant and well-written, engrossing characters. 

I opened this book yesterday afternoon intending to read a chapter but it was well past my bedtime when I put it down. The first sentence was a tad long but by the second paragraph I was hooked – the protagonist Evelyn has just run into Dorothy, a woman he hasn’t seen for sixteen years. Their last meeting was when she refused his marriage proposal.

But this is not a romantic story. It is a deeply intriguing look into the dark corners of a not fully formed human mind. What is driving Dorothy’s estranged son Crispin to get kicked out of every school and refuse every tutor? Is it something to do with the death of his father on a dig in Greece?

How Evelyn tries to win Crispin’s trust and figure that puzzle out both emotionally and logically makes for fascinating reading. But even more fascinating is how Ellis Peters captured the juxtaposition of little kid and remorseless adult in Crispin, who is spiraling ever closer to a very deadly climax…

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