A Fatal Crossing by Tom Hindle

I was drawn to A Fatal Crossing first by the cover, then when I saw that it was a Golden Age-style mystery novel set at sea in the 1920s, I was even more interested. I read the book in October and loved it, but have waited to post my review until publication day, which is today (here in the UK).

The whole story takes place over a four day period in November 1924 as the cruise liner Endeavour approaches New York from Southampton with two thousand passengers and crew on board. When an elderly man is found dead at the bottom of a staircase, the ship’s captain assumes – and hopes – that it’s an accident. However, James Temple, a Scotland Yard inspector, happens to be one of the passengers on the voyage and, after examining the body, he is convinced that the old man has been murdered. The captain gives Temple permission to investigate the crime, but only if he agrees to be accompanied by one of the ship’s officers, Timothy Birch.

Birch has no experience as a detective but follows Temple around the ship as he looks for clues, speaks to suspects and establishes alibis. They quickly discover a link between the dead man and a priceless painting stolen from another passenger, but the mystery deepens when more deaths occur and Temple and Birch find themselves racing against time to uncover the truth before the ship reaches its destination.

This is a complex and engaging mystery novel, with plenty of suspects, lots of red herrings and a strong sense of time and place. Although I felt that there were times when the plot was starting to become quite convoluted and I was struggling to keep track of who was who and who did what, I kept going and was rewarded by some spectacular plot twists near the end which I thought I had worked out in advance, but most definitely hadn’t!

Temple and Birch make an interesting partnership, particularly as it’s a very reluctant one! As an intelligent, competent and experienced detective, Temple is not at all happy about having an inept and bumbling ship’s officer shadowing his every move, saying the wrong things and interfering with the investigation. Birch is our narrator, and as we only see things from his point of view, Temple comes across as bad-tempered, rude and hostile, but there are hints that there’s more to each character than meets the eye. While Temple’s past and his reasons for boarding the Endeavour are shrouded in mystery, we learn that Birch is haunted by the disappearance of his young daughter Amelia and the breakdown of his marriage.

As well as the unusual detecting duo and that unexpected ending, I also loved the setting and the atmosphere. A ship on a long sea voyage is the ideal location for a murder mystery, as all of the suspects are confined in one place with nobody able to arrive or depart until the destination is reached. There’s some wonderful attention to detail as the action moves around the ship from the elegant first class decks to the less luxurious third class areas and the officer’s quarters.

A Fatal Crossing is Tom Hindle’s first novel; having enjoyed it so much, I’m already looking forward to his next one!

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

The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett

Stolen gold, Chinese jewels, nuclear weaponry, oil, Nazi treasure, a secret portal to a parallel utopian society, an underground bunker full of priceless artworks, an airtight library of valuable books, evidence of alien visitation, a cure for cancer, a time machine, a device to contact the spirit world, a map of the human genome from fifty years before modern science discovered it. You name it, someone, somewhere, at some time, has suspected Edith Twyford hid clues to it in her books.

It’s always a nice feeling when you start to read a book and can tell after just a few pages that it’s going to be one of your books of the year. It’s a particularly nice feeling when that happens in January! The Twyford Code is one of those books; I loved it and before I’d even finished I was adding Janice Hallett’s previous novel The Appeal to my TBR.

The Twyford Code is such an unusual book it’s been difficult for me to decide how much I can say about it without spoiling the fun for other readers. I’m probably not going to do it justice here, but this is the best I can do!

In 1983, Steven Smith finds a book by children’s author Edith Twyford on a bus in London. Unable to read the book himself, he takes it to school and gives it to his Remedial English teacher, Miss Isles, completely unaware of what he is setting in motion – because Miss Isles believes that this book, and the rest of Twyford’s Super Six series, contains a secret code that will lead to a hidden treasure. Then, on a school trip to Bournemouth, Miss Isles disappears without trace, an incident which will haunt Steve for the rest of his life.

In 2019, Steve has just been released from prison after serving an eleven-year sentence. He now has no memory of what happened to Miss Isles on that long-ago day, but he is convinced that her disappearance had something to do with the Twyford Code. Now that he is free, Steve decides that the time has come to uncover the truth about Miss Isles, Edith Twyford and the code.

Using an old iPhone given to him by his estranged son, Steve records the details of his investigations in audio form and most of the novel is presented as a series of transcripts of these audio files. The voice recognition software used to transcribe the recordings often ‘mishears’ words or spells them phonetically, which makes for a challenging but entertaining reading experience! It’s probably something you’ll either love or hate, but my advice is to try to stick with it as it does become less distracting after a while and the format really is an important part of the story.

This was the perfect book for me in many ways. I have always enjoyed puzzles and word games and there are plenty of those incorporated into The Twyford Code in various forms. I also read a lot of Enid Blyton as a child and Edith Twyford is clearly supposed to be a fictional version of Blyton (her Super Six books are obviously the equivalent of Blyton’s Famous Five and we are told that, like Blyton, Twyford’s books are now seen as outdated, racist and sexist, and have been edited to make them suitable for a modern audience). But I think what I actually enjoyed most about this novel was Steven Smith’s personal story – the details of his troubled, impoverished childhood in the 1980s, how he drifted into a life of crime, and how he sets out to solve the code and find out what happened to Miss Isles.

I loved this book and on reaching the end, I wanted to go back to the beginning and read it all again to look for all the clues I’d missed the first time. I didn’t do that, because I have so many other books waiting to be read, but it was very tempting and I’m sure I’ll be picking up The Appeal before much longer!

Diary of a Pilgrimage by Jerome K. Jerome

I ought, of course, to sit down in front of this diary at eleven o’clock at night, and write down all that has occurred to me during the day. But at eleven o’clock at night, I am in the middle of a long railway journey, or have just got up, or am just going to bed for a couple of hours. We go to bed at odd moments, when we happen to come across a bed, and have a few minutes to spare. We have been to bed this afternoon, and are now having another breakfast; and I am not quite sure whether it is yesterday or to-morrow, or what day it is.

Jerome K. Jerome’s hilarious Three Men in a Boat is one of my favourite novels from the late Victorian period. I have since tried several of his other books – Three Men on the Bummel, The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow and now this one, Diary of a Pilgrimage – hoping to find another one as good, and although I’ve found them slightly disappointing in comparison, they are still amusing and entertaining. His books also tend to be much shorter than the average Victorian classic and are perfect if you need something light and uplifting between longer, more challenging reads.

Diary of a Pilgrimage, first published in 1891, is very similar to the Three Men books in structure and style. Our narrator, J, is off on his travels again, this time on a ‘pilgrimage’ to Germany to see the famous Passion Play at Oberammergau, a performance which has been regularly taking place there since the 17th century. Accompanied by his friend, known only as B, J travels first from London to Dover, then across the English Channel to Ostend and on to their destination by train. Along the way they stay in several hotels, visit some places of interest including Cologne Cathedral and, of course, find themselves in plenty of ridiculous and embarrassing situations.

Only a short section of the book is devoted to the Passion Play itself because, as J tells us, it has already been written about many times before. He spends much more time describing the places they pass through on the journey, the funny things that happen to them and the people they meet – such as the very boring man who never stops talking:

After the dog story, we thought we were going to have a little quiet. But we were mistaken; for, with the same breath with which he finished the dog rigmarole, our talkative companion added:

“But I can tell you a funnier thing than that -”

We all felt we could believe that assertion. If he had boasted that he could tell a duller, more uninteresting story, we should have doubted him; but the possibility of his being able to relate something funnier, we could readily grasp.

But it was not a bit funnier, after all. It was only longer and more involved. It was the history of a man who grew his own celery; and then, later on, it turned out that his wife was the niece, by the mother’s side, of a man who had made an ottoman out of an old packing-case.

A lot of J’s anecdotes involve his struggles to make himself understood in various foreign languages (he finds it particularly difficult to order an omelette) and the cultural differences he notices between Germany and England. The train journey also poses lots of problems, such as buying the right tickets, finding that other passengers have taken the best seats, and trying to interpret confusing timetables:

“Drat this 1.45! It doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Munich depart 1.45, and that’s all. It must go somewhere!”

Apparently, however, it does not. It seems to be a train that starts out from Munich at 1.45 and goes off on the loose. Possibly, it is a young, romantic train, fond of mystery. It won’t say where it’s going to. It probably does not even know itself. It goes off in search of adventure.

“I shall start off,” it says to itself, “at 1.45 punctually, and just go on anyhow, without thinking about it, and see where I get to.”

Diary of a Pilgrimage is not what I would describe as a ‘must-read classic’ but it’s a bit of light-hearted fun, which I think we all need now and then!

The Key in the Lock by Beth Underdown

The Key in the Lock is Beth Underdown’s second novel. Her first, The Witchfinder’s Sister, was a fascinating historical novel set during the Manningtree witch trials of 1645; this new book sounded very different, but I still wanted to give it a try.

The novel opens in 1918, with Ivy Boscawen trying to come to terms with the death of her son, Tim, shot dead in the trenches of the Western Front. Ivy is desperate to know exactly what happened to Tim, but after speaking to some of his fellow soldiers what she discovers about her son’s death makes her feel even more distressed. Worse still, the loss of Tim triggers memories of another boy, William Tremain, who died thirty years earlier in a fire at the Great House in Polneath, Cornwall. Ivy, whose father was the Polneath doctor at the time, has been haunted by William’s tragic death ever since and has never been able to shake off her feelings of guilt about her actions in the aftermath of the fire.

With Ivy as the narrator, the novel moves back and forth in time between 1918 and 1888, gradually shedding light on the mysteries surrounding both deaths. Family secrets are uncovered, wills are read, inquests are held, clandestine meetings take place and identities are revealed – yet this is not really the exciting, suspenseful Gothic novel I had been hoping for. It moves along at a very slow pace and although I was enjoying it enough to want to read on to the end, I never felt fully engaged with either the plot or the characters.

There is an advantage to the slow pace, however, which is that it gives the reader a chance to try to solve some of the mysteries and guess some of the secrets before Ivy does. It’s a complex story, with lots of pieces that only begin to fall into place towards the end and there were points where I felt confused, particularly as the two timelines often seem to merge together. A chapter heading may indicate that we are in 1918, but after a few paragraphs Ivy starts to remember the events of 1888 again and it’s not always clear which period we are reading about. Also, the ‘key in the lock’ of the title turns out to be several keys to several locks in several doors and I struggled to keep track of the significance of them all.

I did like the atmosphere Beth Underdown creates and the attention to period detail; I never felt that the language or attitudes were too modern. She also writes very convincingly about Ivy’s grief for her lost son, her sense of guilt over what happened at the Great House, and the terrible misunderstandings and assumptions that have persisted for thirty years. It’s a very sad story, where lives are taken too early, acts of kindness go unappreciated until it’s almost too late and wicked deeds go unpunished for too long. An interesting read, but with a tighter focus I think it could have been a much better book.

Thanks to Pigeonhole for the opportunity to read this book.

This is book 1/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper

Silver on the Tree is the fifth and final book in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence and although I’m sorry to have come to the end of the series, I enjoyed every minute of it. This particular novel is the perfect finale, bringing together all the characters and storylines from the first four books as we head towards the great, decisive battle between the forces of the Dark and the Light. If you are new to the series, I would recommend starting with the first book, Over Sea, Under Stone; don’t start with this one, or I think you’ll be very confused!

Silver on the Tree, like the previous book The Grey King, is set mostly in Wales, where Will Stanton and his friend Bran Davies are searching for the mysterious Lady who holds the knowledge that will set the final part of their quest in motion.

‘Until the Lady comes,’ Merriman said. ‘And she will help you to the finding of the sword of the Pendragon, the crystal sword by which the final magic of the light shall be achieved, and the Dark put at last to flight. And there will be five to help you, for from the beginning it was known that six altogether, and six only, must accomplish this long matter. Six creatures more and less of the earth, aided by the six Signs’.

Will and Bran, together with their wise, elderly mentor Merriman Lyon, make up three of the six who are needed to complete the quest. The other three are Simon, Jane and Barney, the Drew children who appeared in some of the earlier novels and who happen to be visiting Wales with their parents. The six are soon united and each has a part to play in the adventures to come.

The Arthurian elements which were introduced in the previous books are stronger here – we finally meet King Arthur himself; there’s a glimpse of the Battle of Badon, the conflict between the Britons and Anglo-Saxons in which he was said to be involved; and there are appearances by other characters who sometimes appear in Arthurian legend, such as Gwion (or Taliesin) the bard. Welsh folklore also plays a part and the children have some chilling encounters with creatures such as the afanc, a Welsh lake monster, and a terrifying horse known as the Mari Lwyd! These are both used as agents of the Dark, along with the more commonplace but equally sinister (in this context) black mink and polecat.

The fantasy sequences in the novel are very well done, particularly an episode where Will and Bran travel through the Lost Lands in search of the crystal sword and meet the legendary king, Gwyddno Garanhir. Meanwhile, the Drew children find themselves transported through time, to a 19th century shipyard and then to the Welsh stronghold of Owain Glyndwr. Back in the ‘real world’, we are reacquainted with the other members of the Stanton family, mainly Will’s brothers, Stephen and James, who have an unpleasant encounter with a racist bully. This part of the story felt out of place at first, but I think it was intended to show how the Dark can find its way into the world through those who are susceptible to evil. Will reflects later that maybe ‘the Dark can only reach people at extremes – blinded by their own shining ideas, or locked up in the darkness of their own heads’.

I still have the same complaint I had after reading some of the previous books – that the tasks are solved too easily and the correct solutions just ‘come’ to Will and the others without them having to put too much effort into it. However, I know this series is intended for younger readers, so maybe I was expecting too much. Apart from that, I loved Silver on the Tree and the whole of The Dark is Rising and just wish I could have discovered these books as a child!

Miss Austen by Gill Hornby

The final book I read in 2021 was one that I very much enjoyed: Gill Hornby’s Miss Austen. The title character is not, as you might expect, the famous novelist Jane Austen, but her elder sister Cassandra. Cassandra, who outlived Jane by nearly thirty years, is known to have burned many of her sister’s letters, although we don’t know exactly why she did this. In this fictional version of Cassandra Austen’s story, Hornby explores a possible reason for the destruction of the letters, while also giving us a glimpse into the lives of Cassandra, Jane and the rest of the Austen family.

The novel opens in 1840 with Cassandra, now an elderly woman, arriving at Kintbury, home of the Fowles, the family of her long-dead fiancé. Following the death of the Reverend Fowle, his daughter Isabella has been left to pack up her parents’ belongings so that a new reverend can move in. Cassandra believes that the letters she and Jane wrote to their friend Eliza Fowle (Isabella’s mother) must still be in the house somewhere and she is determined to find them and remove them before they can be made public.

The story unfolds through the letters Cassandra discovers at Kintbury (not the real letters, of course, as they were destroyed) and through Cassandra’s memories of her younger days. The narrative moves back and forth in time as she remembers the loss of Tom Fowle, the man she should have married, her relationship with Jane and the lives they both led as single women. In the 1840s storyline, we also get to know Isabella, another spinster, and this provides some further insights into what it means to be an unmarried woman in the early 19th century: the lack of security; the pressures created by failing to conform to society’s expectations; and the feeling of being a burden to other family members.

This is a quiet, domestic novel, but I was never bored. There is an authentic period feel and although Hornby doesn’t try to imitate Jane Austen’s writing exactly, the language used generally feels suitable for the time. I enjoyed the occasional references to Jane’s novels, some of which we see her working on and others which the characters read to each other for entertainment. There’s an interesting suggestion that Jane based Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice on her sister-in-law, Mary Austen. Most of all, I enjoyed learning a little bit about Cassandra and the world in which she lived.

I had never come across Gill Hornby before, but it seems that not only is she the sister of the writer Nick Hornby, she is also married to one of my favourite authors, Robert Harris! Her earlier novels sound very different and don’t really appeal to me, but I’ve discovered that she has a new book out later this year – Godmersham Park, about a governess in the Austen household. I will be looking out for that one.

The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie

The final monthly theme for the Read Christie 2021 challenge is ‘a story set during bad weather’. I have chosen to read The Sittaford Mystery, a standalone novel first published in 1931 – and what a great choice it was both as a Christmas read and as the book to bring this year’s challenge to an end! The bad weather is there from the very first page when Major Burnaby opens the door of his cottage in the village of Sittaford and looks out:

The scene that met his eyes was typical of the English countryside as depicted on Xmas cards and in old-fashioned melodramas. Everywhere was snow, deep drifts of it – no mere powdering an inch or two thick. Snow had fallen all over England for the last four days, and up here on the fringe of Dartmoor it had attained a depth of several feet.

On this snowy day, with the village cut off from the outside world, Major Burnaby and the other residents of Sittaford decide to entertain themselves by holding a séance. It seems like harmless fun, until a spirit suddenly announces that Burnaby’s friend, Captain Trevelyan, has just been murdered. Despite the heavy snow, Burnaby insists on walking the six miles to Exhampton, where Trevelyan lives – and on arriving there more than two hours later, he discovers his friend’s dead body on the floor of his study.

With several family members named in Trevelyan’s will, there are plenty of suspects, but when it emerges that one of them, the dead man’s nephew James Pearson, was in Exhampton that day, he is arrested on suspicion of murder. Pearson’s fiancée, Emily Trefusis, is determined to clear his name and travels to Sittaford to look for clues. She is assisted by Charles Enderby, a journalist from the Daily Wire, who happened to arrive in Exhampton the day after the murder and is staying on the scene in the hope of getting an exclusive story for his newspaper. But will Emily and Charles manage to solve the mystery before Inspector Narracott, the police detective carrying out the official investigations?

Of all the Christie novels I’ve read for Read Christie this year, The Sittaford Mystery is one that I’ve particularly enjoyed. Much as I like Poirot, Miss Marple and Tommy and Tuppence, I do often find that I prefer her standalone mysteries. In this one, I loved the partnership of Emily Trefusis and Charles Enderby; Emily is a wonderful character – intelligent, courageous and with a knack of knowing how to manipulate people in order to get exactly what she wants (and yet, despite this last character trait she’s very likeable). There’s also a strong supporting cast of characters, including the sharp tongued Miss Percehouse and her nephew Ronnie; Mrs and Miss Willett, the new tenants of Sittaford House who have just arrived from South Africa; and the mysterious Mr Duke, of whom nobody in the village seems to know anything at all.

The plot is up to Christie’s usual high standards, with lots of red herrings and misdirections, so that the reader ends up suspecting almost everybody! I didn’t come close to guessing the culprit – in fact, the murderer was someone I had considered and then dismissed very early in the book – but although there is an important clue concealed from us until near the end, I think it would probably still be possible to work out the solution if you were paying enough attention. My favourite thing about this book, though, was the setting; many of Christie’s mysteries are set in small villages, but the wintry weather gave this one a special atmosphere. I loved it and am glad the Read Christie challenge prompted me to pick it up this December!