Black Drop by Leonora Nattrass

The final decade of the 18th century is a time of revolution and political upheaval; in 1794, the year in which Black Drop is set, Britain is both at war with France – a country still in the grip of the Reign of Terror – and trying to negotiate a treaty with the recently independent America. Our narrator, Laurence Jago, is a London clerk working in the Foreign Office and facing the difficult task of trying to advance in his career while also hiding a secret that, if discovered, would lead to accusations of treason.

When details of Britain’s military plans are leaked to the press, suspicion falls at first on Jago – but then the blame shifts to another clerk, Will Bates, who is found to have hanged himself in his room. Was Will really the traitor or is he being used as a convenient scapegoat? Jago is sure he was innocent and that his death was actually murder rather than suicide so, with the help of his friend, the journalist William Philpott, he sets out to discover the truth.

I enjoyed this book, although it was more political thriller than murder mystery and I occasionally felt that the plot was becoming more complicated than it really needed to be; I struggled to keep track of all the characters, their roles within the government and which of them may or may not be a spy. Overall, though, it was a fascinating period to read about, with so much going on in the world at that time – not only the French Revolutionary Wars and American treaty mentioned above, but also the fight for political reform led by the British shoemaker Thomas Hardy (not to be confused with the author of the same name!) and the growing debate over slavery and abolition.

Laurence Jago is a great character and the sort of flawed hero I love. The ‘Black Drop’ of the title refers to the laudanum Jago depends upon to get through the day and to ease the fear of his secrets being discovered. As his addiction worsens, it begins to affect the way he judges people and situations and leads the reader to question whether or not everything he is telling us is completely reliable. Despite this, I liked him very much and connected with his narrative style immediately. Jago is one of several fictional characters in the novel whom we see interacting with real historical figures such as Thomas Hardy, Lord Grenville, the Foreign Secretary, and John Jay, the American envoy. I knew nothing about any of these people before reading this book; it’s always good to learn something new!

Black Drop is Leonora Nattrass’ first novel. The way this one ended made me think there could be a sequel, but if not I will be happy to read whatever she writes next.

Thanks to Viper for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 46/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Book 7 for R.I.P. XVI

Castle Barebane by Joan Aiken – #1976Club

Since reading some of Jane Aiken Hodge’s books, I’ve been interested in trying something by her sister and fellow author, Joan Aiken. Maybe it would have been more sensible to start with the classic children’s novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, for which she’s most famous, but her adult novels appealed to me more and when I saw that Castle Barebane was published in 1976, I decided to read it for this week’s 1976 Club hosted by Karen and Simon. I loved it, so it turned out to be a perfect choice!

The novel is set towards the end of the 19th century and opens with Val Montgomery, a New York journalist, at a party to celebrate her engagement to Benet Allerton. The party is not an enjoyable experience for Val – she feels awkward and out of place around Benet’s wealthy, fashionable relatives and can sense their disapproval of her clothes, her family and the fact that she works for a living. When she discovers that she will be expected to give up her career once she becomes Benet’s wife, she begins to have second thoughts about the marriage.

As luck would have it, Val returns home from the party later that night to find that her half-brother Nils has just arrived from England and when she tells him that she is having doubts about Benet, he persuades her to come and stay with him in London for a while to give herself time to think. However, the next day Nils disappears, leaving a note saying he has been called back to England urgently. Val follows on another ship a few days later, but by the time she reaches London, she discovers that her brother’s house has been abandoned, there’s no sign of Nils or his Scottish wife Kirstie, and their two young children are staying with a cruel and negligent servant. Desperate to know what has happened – and wanting to find someone more suitable to care for little Pieter and Jannie before she goes home to America – Val takes the children and boards a train for Scotland and Kirstie’s old family estate.

The rest of the novel is set at Ardnacarrig, nicknamed Castle Barebane because of its derelict, neglected state. This is where the gothic elements of the story emerge, with descriptions of underground passages, dangerous rocks and treacherous quicksand and tales of at least two resident ghosts who haunt the upper floors of the house at night. Val, who is too practical to believe in ghosts, suspects that if the house is haunted at all, it is haunted by the misery and unhappiness of the people who have lived there. As we – and Val – wait for the truth behind Nils’ and Kirstie’s disappearances to be revealed, the poignant stories of other characters unfold: the elderly housekeeper Elspie and her lost lover Mungo; local doctor David Ramsay and his dying mother; and six-year-old Pieter and his little sister Jannie, who is not like other children.

It took me a while to get into this book; it was very slow at the beginning and I felt that more time was spent on Benet and his family than was necessary, considering that they don’t really feature in the story after the first few chapters. Once Val arrived in London to find her brother missing, though, it became much more compelling. Val is a great character; although I didn’t find her particularly likeable at first – and I don’t think she was intended to be – I admired her dedication to her work and desire for independence when it would have been easier to just marry Benet and conform to society’s expectations. After she breaks free from Benet it’s fascinating to watch her grow and flourish as a character while doing all she can to help the people around her, even when it seems that they don’t really want to be helped. There’s also a new romance for Val, which I liked, but we didn’t see enough of her love interest for me to feel fully invested in their relationship.

Most of the action in the book is packed into the final few chapters; there’s definitely a problem with the pacing and also a bit of needless violence which I wasn’t expecting and felt that the story would have worked just as well without. But despite the novel’s many flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it – both the domestic parts and the gothic adventure parts. The atmosphere is wonderful, there’s a suitably sinister villain and I loved the remote setting (and was impressed by the Scottish dialect which seemed quite accurate, although I’m not an expert). I’m certainly planning to read more of Joan Aiken’s books and am hoping they’re all as good as this one!

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I’m also counting this book towards the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and the R.I.P. XVI event!

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1976 books previously read and reviewed on my blog:

Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie
Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart
Dark Quartet by Lynne Reid Banks
Some Touch of Pity by Rhoda Edwards
The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor

Death of a Tin God by George Bellairs

This is the fourth book I’ve read from George Bellairs’ Inspector Littlejohn series and although I haven’t been reading them in order, it doesn’t seem to matter at all. Each novel works as a standalone mystery and there’s very little focus on Littlejohn’s personal life so you can easily jump around from an early book to a later one and back again without feeling that you’ve missed anything important.

Death of a Tin God was first published in 1961 and begins with Thomas Littlejohn (now a Superintendent rather than an Inspector) flying from Dublin to the Isle of Man to visit his friend, Caesar Kinrade, the Archdeacon of Man. Littlejohn is looking forward to a quiet break, but his arrival coincides with the death of Hal Vale, a Hollywood star who has been filming on the island. Hal is found electrocuted in the bath in his hotel room and the circumstances suggest that it was not an accident. Littlejohn finds himself assisting the local police with their investigations and as the mystery deepens, he travels to the South of France to look for the answers.

I enjoyed this book but found the solution a bit predictable as the murderer turned out to be the person I had suspected from the beginning. There were some clever twists and red herrings along the way that did put some doubt into my mind, but I still wasn’t at all surprised when the truth was revealed. However, I very rarely manage to solve a mystery before the detective does, so I don’t mind too much when it occasionally happens! And I do like spending time with Littlejohn and watching him carry out his investigations; he’s not the most memorable of fictional detectives, but that means the focus stays firmly on the plot without his own personality getting in the way. His usual sidekick Sergeant Cromwell is absent for most of the book, but instead he teams up with Inspector Knell of the Manx police and Inspector Dorange in Nice who I believe are also recurring characters in the series and have good working relationships with Littlejohn.

One of the things I’ve loved about the other Bellairs novels I’ve read is the way he creates such a strong cast of supporting characters and suspects. In Dead March for Penelope Blow and A Knife for Harry Dodd in particular, there are some very colourful, larger than life characters who could almost have jumped straight out of the pages of a Dickens novel. In this book, I found the characterisation more bland and less interesting, but maybe that was a reflection of the shallow, vapid celebrity world Bellairs has chosen as the setting for this particular novel. Littlejohn is described several times as feeling slightly out of his depth amongst this assortment of glamorous film stars, ruthless publicity agents and millionaire bankers with yachts, so perhaps the reader is intended to feel the same.

I liked the idea of the book being set on the Isle of Man, as it’s not a common setting for mystery novels (or fiction in general), but it turned out that half of the story actually took place in Aix-en-Provence in France – and neither setting was described as vividly as I would have liked. I know Bellairs set some of the other Littlejohn books on the Isle of Man too, so maybe some of those have more local colour than this one. Although this is not one of my favourite books in the series so far, I’m still looking forward to reading more of them.

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 5 for R.I.P. XVI

The Grey King by Susan Cooper

This is the fourth book in Susan Cooper’s five-volume sequence, The Dark is Rising, and I feel as though things are starting to fall nicely into place ahead of the fifth and final book, Silver on the Tree. I’m beginning to form a better understanding of the opposing forces of the Light and the Dark and how the various characters and elements of the series have their roots in Arthurian legend and British folklore. However, this book also raises new questions and explores issues and topics not yet touched upon in the earlier novels, so there’s still a long way to go before the end!

The Grey King begins with Will Stanton, the eleven-year-old boy – and ‘Old One’ – we met in The Dark is Rising and Greenwitch, going to stay with an aunt and uncle in Wales while recuperating from hepatitis. His parents hope it will be a nice, relaxing break for him, but it turns out to be just the opposite! During Will’s illness, he has forgotten the details of the quest begun in the previous novels, but as his memories slowly return he remembers that his next task is to find the golden harp that will awaken six sleepers who will join the final battle between Dark and Light.

The three Drew children, who played such important roles in Over Sea, Under Stone and Greenwitch, don’t appear in this book, but Will receives help this time from a new friend, Bran, a boy he meets in the Welsh hills. With his white hair and pale skin, as well as a mystery surrounding the disappearance of his mother, Bran has never fitted in with other children and leads a lonely, solitary life with only his beloved dog, Cafall, for company. When Will learns that Bran is ready to help him with the next stage of the quest, a bond forms between the two and they set out together to find the harp and wake the sleepers.

The villain this time is the Brenin Llwyd, or the ‘Grey King’, an ancient and powerful Lord of the Dark who lives high in the mountains, his breath forming a ragged grey mist that can be seen for miles around. Although Will and Bran have little direct contact with the Grey King for most of the book, they are aware of his presence all around them and of the work of his agents, the bitter and spiteful farmer, Caradog Prichard, and the powerful grey foxes known as the Milgwn. Like the other books in the series, this one is wonderfully eerie and atmospheric, and while the Dark continues to feel evil and malevolent, we are again made to question how ‘good’ the Light really is:

Those men who know anything at all about the Light also know that there is a fierceness to its power, like the bare sword of the law, or the white burning of the sun…Other things, like humanity, and mercy, and charity, that most good men hold more precious than all else, they do not come first for the Light…At the centre of the Light there is a cold white flame, just as at the centre of the Dark there is a great black pit bottomless as the Universe.

As with The Dark is Rising, I felt that the mission was completed much too easily (I was particularly disappointed with a game of riddles, as very little effort went into solving them). The tasks that have faced the Drew children seem to be more difficult and dangerous somehow, maybe because they are ‘ordinary’ children and don’t have the powers that Will has. However, the quest is only one aspect of the novel and there are other elements that interested me as much or more. I particularly loved the Welsh setting – and was grateful for the lesson in Welsh pronunciation Will receives early in the novel! I also enjoyed getting to know Bran and discovering how he fits into the overall story.

I’m looking forward to reading Silver on the Tree and finding out how it all ends!

Book 4 for R.I.P. XVI

A Marriage of Lions by Elizabeth Chadwick

When I read Carol McGrath’s The Silken Rose last year I remarked on the lack of books about Henry III and Eleanor of Provence, so I was pleased to find that they are also major characters in Elizabeth Chadwick’s new novel, A Marriage of Lions. The main focus of the story, however, is Henry’s younger half-brother, William de Valence, and his wife, Joanna de Munchensy of Swanscombe. Those of you who are avid readers of Chadwick’s novels will know that she has a particular interest in William Marshal, hero of The Greatest Knight, and that many of her recent books have featured various members of the Marshal family. This is another, as Joanna de Munchensy is one of William Marshal’s grandchildren.

The novel opens in 1238 with the eight-year-old Joanna serving as a chamber lady at the court of Henry III and Eleanor of Provence (or Alienor as Chadwick spells the name). With several older male relatives, Joanna is seen as an insignificant member of the Marshal family until a sudden change in circumstances leaves her a very wealthy young woman with lands and titles of her own. In 1247, the King’s half-brothers – the sons of his mother Isabella of Angoulême’s second marriage to Hugh of Lusignan – arrive from France to take up positions at Henry’s court. The King becomes particularly fond of his youngest half-brother, William de Valence, and rewards him with marriage to Joanna, now one of the richest heiresses in England.

Although it’s an arranged marriage, it turns out to be a very happy one – but there are many at court who are not at all pleased with the favour being shown to William and his brothers. The powerful Simon de Montfort and his wife, the King’s sister, believe that part of the Marshal inheritance belongs to them and they set out to make life as difficult for William and Joanna as they possibly can. Meanwhile Queen Eleanor becomes resentful of the influence William and the other Lusignans wield over her young son, Prince Edward, and her previously good relationship with Joanna grows tense and strained. As the atmosphere becomes more and more hostile and the King’s power begins to weaken, Simon de Montfort and his barons see their chance to seize control of the throne and suddenly William and Joanna find themselves driven away from court as the country heads towards civil war.

I always enjoy Elizabeth Chadwick’s novels and this is another great one. Although I found it a bit slow to start with – the first half of the book is devoted mainly to the early days of Joanna’s marriage to William and the domestic details of their lives together – once the tension starts to build between the different factions surrounding the throne and the events leading to the Second Barons’ War get underway, it quickly became difficult to put down. I have read about this war before but only from the points of view of de Montfort and the King and Queen, so it was interesting to see things from the Lusignan/Marshal perspective. Simon de Montfort is very much the villain here (the lack of nuance in his characterisation was one of the few things that disappointed me about this book) and there’s a sense that the Lusignans are unfairly targeted because they are ‘foreign newcomers’ and because of the preferential treatment they are believed to receive from Henry. The King himself is caught in the middle and it’s quite sad to see how weak and ineffective he eventually becomes.

I loved Joanna and William and the way their marriage is depicted. Their relationship is a close and affectionate one, based on trust and love, but the sensible, practical Joanna often finds herself frustrated by her husband’s more impulsive nature which leads him to make mistakes and damage both of their reputations at court. There’s not much information available on the real historical figures, particularly Joanna, but Chadwick’s portrayal feels convincing and believable and I enjoyed getting to know them both.

Among the secondary characters in this book, my favourite was Leonora (Eleanor) of Castile, the young wife of the future Edward I. She’s such a strong and vivid character, I wondered whether Elizabeth Chadwick might have her in mind as the subject of a future novel – and it seems that I was right, so that’s something to look forward to!

Thanks to Sphere for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 44/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Crooked House by Agatha Christie

September’s topic for the Read Christie 2021 challenge is ‘a story featuring a school’. I’ve already read the obvious choice, Cat Among the Pigeons, so I was grateful to the challenge hosts for providing a list of alternative suggestions. Crooked House doesn’t involve an actual school, but it does fit the general theme as it features two children who are being home-schooled.

First published in 1949, this was apparently one of Christie’s own favourites; in the foreword, she says that ‘practically everybody has liked Crooked House, so I am justified in my own belief that it is one of my best’. Now that I’ve read it, I can say that although it’s not one of my absolute favourites, it would definitely be in my top ten so far. It’s one of her standalones – with no Poirot, Marple or other famous detective – and, like several of her other novels, has a title inspired by a children’s nursery rhyme:

There was a crooked man, and he went a crooked mile,
He found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile;
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

The ‘crooked house’ of the title is a mansion in the quiet London suburb of Swinley Dean and the people who ‘all live together’ there are ten members of the Leonides family. When the family patriarch, old Aristide Leonides, a Greek businessman, is found poisoned by his own eye medicine, suspicion immediately falls on his second wife, the much younger Brenda. It would certainly be more convenient for the rest of the family if Brenda could be proved to be the murderer – none of them like her and believe her to have married Aristide for his money – but so far there is no real evidence against her. Aristide’s eldest granddaughter, Sophia, is desperate to know the truth as she feels it won’t be fair to marry her fiancé, Charles Hayward, while a scandal is hanging over her family. As it happens, Charles is the son of the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard so, joining forces with Chief Inspector Taverner, the detective assigned to the crime, he sets out to solve the mystery so that he and Sophia will be free to marry.

One of the things I loved about this book was that the murderer really could have been anybody. Brenda is initially the main suspect as there are hints that she has been having an affair with Laurence Brown, tutor to Sophia’s younger siblings Eustace and Josephine, and would therefore need Aristide out of the way. However, Aristide’s eldest son Roger also appears to have a clear motive involving money and the company business, while his younger son Philip could have committed the murder out of jealousy. Then there are the brothers’ two wives, Clemency and Magda, and a spinster aunt, Edith de Haviland. Any of these people could have had reasons for wanting the old man dead, as well as the knowledge and opportunity to carry out the crime. At no point does Christie become too concerned with the technical details of the murder or get bogged down with discussions of alibis and timings, concentrating instead on motives, personalities and relationships – my favourite kind of mystery novel!

I didn’t guess who did it, of course. The correct solution did cross my mind once or twice, but I dismissed it as unlikely because I was so convinced that it was somebody else. I’m annoyed with myself for not working it out as I can see now that the clues were all there in plain sight!

Next month’s Read Christie theme, if anyone wants to join in, is ‘a story set on a mode of transport’. I’m probably going to read Death on the Nile, but there are plenty of others you could choose, including Murder on the Orient Express, Death in the Clouds or The Mystery of the Blue Train.

Book 3 read for R.I.P. XVI

The Mummy Case by Elizabeth Peters

It’s been years since I last read an Amelia Peabody mystery and when I picked up The Mummy Case, the third in the series, I was concerned that I had left too big a gap between books. Luckily, this seems to be a series you can easily return to after a long absence as each book, at least so far, has worked as a standalone mystery.

The Mummy Case is set in 1894 and opens with married Egyptologists Amelia Peabody and Radcliffe Emerson at home in England planning their next trip to Egypt. Amelia dreams of exploring the pyramids of Dahshoor on this visit, but her hopes are shattered with the discovery that her husband has left it too late to submit their application and permission has already been granted to another archaeologist. Amelia and Emerson are offered Mazghunah instead – a barren and uninspiring site believed to be of little historical significance – and they reluctantly accept.

Despite their lack of enthusiasm, the expedition proves to be much more exciting than either of them had expected. Before they even reach their destination, they become caught up in the murder of an antiquities dealer in Cairo who is found dead in his own shop – and when they eventually arrive at Mazghunah, Amelia becomes convinced that somebody connected with the murder has followed them there. When a scrap of papyrus is stolen from their camp and an entire mummy case belonging to a visiting tourist also disappears, even Emerson has to agree that they have stumbled onto the trail of a clever and ruthless Master Criminal!

Unlike their first two mysteries (described in Crocodile on the Sandbank and The Curse of the Pharaohs), Amelia and Emerson have help in solving this one. For the first time, their young son Ramses has accompanied them on a dig and while he often proves to be more of a hindrance, getting into trouble at every opportunity, he also manages to appear at several crucial moments to save the day. Described as ‘catastrophically precocious’ by Amelia, he sounds more like a seventy-year-old professor with a speech impediment than a seven-year-old child and although I’ve been told that he improves as a character later in the series, in this book I found him extremely irritating. However, he’s clearly not meant to be taken too seriously – and to be fair, Amelia finds him irritating too:

The old woman’s cacodemonic laughter broke out again…”The wisdom of the Prophet is yours, great lady. Accept an old woman’s blessing. May you have many sons – many, many sons…”

The idea was so appalling I think I turned pale.

I enjoyed this book, despite Ramses, but I don’t think it was as strong as the previous two in the series. The plot seemed to meander all over the place and it was easy to lose sight of what the central mystery was that the characters were trying to solve. I do still love Amelia and Emerson, though – their good-natured bickering is always entertaining! It was also interesting to learn a little bit about Mazghunah and its disappointingly incomplete ‘pyramids’ and to meet the real-life archaeologist Jacques de Morgan – although seeing him only through Amelia’s eyes gives us a slightly biased impression as he is their rival and the man who is excavating the much more attractive site of Dahshoor!

I am looking forward to continuing with the fourth book in the series, Lion in the Valley.

Book 43/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Book 2 read for R.I.P. XVI