Bretherton by W. F. Morris

brethA gripping account of WWI with a tragic love story and a psychological mystery. 

When officer Captain Gurney stumbles into a ruined chateau, he is mystified why anyone would be playing a familiar British tune in the middle of the war. He discovers a German officer at the piano and a beautiful woman in white beside him. Both are dead.

But even more mystifying is that the German officer is actually G.B., his old friend and British officer Gerald Bretherton. How did G.B. come to this eerie chateau and how did he die? Is he British or German?

It is impossible to tell if G.B. is German or British until the very end. An equally good case could be made for either. The story is told from many views, including other men in G.B.’s unit and the diary of G.B. himself.

This story was written by a British Major who served in WWI and his treatment of the boys on the front is touching. He captures a sense of camaraderie, exhaustion, anger and bravery. It’s permeated with a sad, typically understated humour. After receiving a medal, G.B. says “Headquarters give decorations as lightly as they give up bits of the line that have cost lives to take.”

The premise is excellent but I found the mystery’s solution wasn’t entirely credible, like Agatha Christie’s more obscure short stories where the ending is a pseduo-psychological phenomenon. It also became obvious where the story was heading, so the last few chapters of the book fell a little flat.

A worthwhile read for the account of the war and G.B.’s tragic love story, even if the ending does not hold up on the suspense angle. It would also make an excellent movie.

30-day ebook loan courtesy of NetGalley.

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…

Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Naive young Archer Newland falls for a disgraced countess, the cousin of his fiancée.

This 1920’s novel starts with the innocent Archer Newland happily involved in his theories of marriage. He’s a well connected and well-to-do bachelor at the prime of his life in a New York that loves white men. Archer has everything.

The opera where Archer announces his engagement to the beautiful young May should have been his triumph. But although he’s only aware of a disquieting feeling, it foreshadows his misery.

Archer is exquisitely aware of all social customs and becomes the family’s advisor for helping the Countess, Ellen Olenska. Poor Ellen is a bit of a fallen woman – raised by eccentric parents who allow her to wear black at her coming out and to marry a foreign count.

After her escape from this abusive relationship, she returns to America as something damaged yet grown larger because of it. She is an enigmatic and seductive creature who no longer fits into the acceptable box for a woman. Equally pitied and blamed for her downfall, she ends up unwittingly destroying Archer’s happy ignorance.

Archer is obviously intelligent and cultured, but he holds society’s rules as a sort of happy religion. Without even trying, Ellen reveals every foible and hypocrisy. The things he held so dear he is forced to see clearly. He grows beyond their confines and falls in love with Ellen. She’s something passionate and genuine in a world of artifice.

But then there’s her cousin May, the young girl he is engaged to. He has always pictured May as a blank canvas he intended to paint. The irony is that May’s sweet nature may be indifferent to his attempts to form her.

Watching Archer struggle is like trying to remove superglue from your fingers. It is ultimately futile – you might get one finger free but then you’ll get it stuck to something else. I get the feeling that Edith Wharton was enjoying Archer’s innocence even as she used it to torture him.

The ending could be argued to be Archer’s peace with the world, his acceptance and maturity. Or is it merely showing us that Archer has been and always will be a coward?

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.

The Vanishing of Dr. Winter by L.B. Hathaway

vanishA feisty sleuth digs into a wartime disappearance for a woman she hated.

This is my 4th Posie Parker (a feisty private detective in the 1920’s). L.B. Hathaway has very readable books that are easy to get through in a few hours.

Posie is a consistently developed character. The premise is fantastic – this one about a doctor presumed dead in the war who is later spotted in Oxford. Having the person who hires Posie turn out to be someone she hated and who also hated her was an excellent twist.

I enjoyed the puzzle and the clues, although I was very surprised to hear for the first time that Posie has a brother who was never mentioned in the previous 3 books. The plot line of the missing doctor happened to help her connect with her dead brother.

The romantic angle is promising, I don’t know how it continues to grow despite the fact that we almost never see Posie and Alaric together. In the brief glimpses he maintains his allure – gorgeous, good-hearted and always somewhere else.

I was surprised by the addition of a real ghost but it fit into the motif of the book (ghosts of the war).

I greatly admire L.B. Hathaway and look forward to the next book!

The previous books are Murder Offstage, The Tomb of the Honeybee and Murder at Maypole Manor.

Murder at Maypole Manor by L.B. Hathaway

maypole.jpg

A cozy crime mingles with espionage in a classic isolated mansion.

I’ve been following Posie Parker (a feisty private detective in the 1920’s) along her adventures with pleasure, in Murder Offstage and The Tomb of the Honey Bee.

Posie continues to be a consistent, well-vocalized character who pines for her adventurous lover. But luckily for us that doesn’t stop her also looking for bad guys and generally being feisty.

This was one of my favourite settings, the classic mansion in a snow storm with exotic characters and at least one person who is lying in a way that cannot be verified while they’re cut off from everything. The characters were distinct enough to follow – film stars, artists, peers, agents and even a clairvoyant.

I enjoyed the puzzle and the various clues – there are a lot of elements for you to solve and consider in this book!

The storyline with Posie’s insane, obsessive and immensely rich criminal stalker was the least intriguing piece for me. As an arch-nemesis he provides a foil for Posie, but I’m not a huge fan of the one that wants to marry her and finds her so irresistible that he won’t let go.

This continues to be a very enjoyable series!