Death on a Quiet Day by Michael Innes

So far most of the books I’ve read in Michael Innes’ Inspector Appleby series have been very different from each other. Some, like Hamlet Revenge! and There Came Both Mist and Snow, are fairly conventional murder mysteries; the brilliant Lament for a Maker has the feel of a Victorian sensation novel; and The Daffodil Affair and Appleby’s End are so strange and surreal as to defy classification (and are my least favourites of his books). This one, originally published in 1956 as Appleby Plays Chicken, is best described as a thriller with a chase element, making it similar to The Secret Vanguard in that respect.

The novel opens with student David Henchman and a small group of friends from university attending a reading party in the Dartmoor countryside:

A group of young men facing their final examinations within a year; a tutor, ambitious for his charges or merely amiable, prepared to spend part of his vacation in their company; comfortable quarters in some quiet country place, with hills that can be climbed or antiquities that can be inspected in the course of a long afternoon.

Early one morning, David decides to get away from the others for a while and go for a walk in the spring sunshine. Daydreaming as he walks, David fails to pay attention to his map and finds himself approaching the great hill known as Knack Tor. Seeing a column of smoke rising from the top of the hill, he begins climbing up to investigate, but is unprepared for what he finds there – the body of a dead man with a hole in his forehead and a revolver in his hand. As David wonders what to do next, he becomes aware that he is not alone…someone else is up on that hill with him and that someone will stop at nothing to ensure David keeps quiet about what he has seen.

The first half of the book is devoted to one long episode in which David is chased through the countryside on foot, by car and by horse as his pursuers seem to multiply and appear out of nowhere. It’s fun to read and reminded me of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps – but unlike the chase scene in The Thirty-Nine Steps, this one comes to an end before it has time to become tedious. Inspector Appleby then appears on the scene and the whole tone of the novel changes. As Appleby begins to investigate the murder, the other students and their tutor are brought into the story, and with the viewpoint moving away from David Henchman we can begin to piece together what is going on.

The murder mystery aspect of the novel is nothing special, to be honest. There are only a few suspects and the solution is not particularly clever or surprising. This is definitely a book that, if you read it, you will remember not for the mystery but for that long, desperate race across the moors.

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

This is book #1 read for this year’s R.I.P. XIV event.

Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie

I have completely fallen behind with the monthly reads for the 2019 Read Christie challenge. I started to read this one in July, when we were challenged to read a Tommy and Tuppence book, but with one thing and another I didn’t get very far with it and ended up reading most of it last weekend. I’ll have to catch up with the August and September books at a later date.

Anyway, having already read Christie’s first Tommy and Tuppence book, The Secret Adversary, a few years ago, I decided to continue to work through the series in order and read Partners in Crime next. First published in 1929, this book is set about six years after the previous one and Tommy and Tuppence are now a happily married couple. Not too happily, though…Tuppence is getting bored and longing for adventure. As luck would have it, at this point their old friend Mr Carter, who works in government intelligence, arrives with a proposition that will provide all the adventure anyone could wish for.

Mr Theodore Blunt of Blunt’s International Detective Agency is under arrest for spying and Mr Carter wants Tommy and Tuppence to take over the running of the agency, with Tommy posing as Mr Blunt. This will allow them to intercept any more enemy messages and letters that are sent to the office – especially those written on blue paper and bearing a Russian stamp – and in the meantime, they can take on cases and investigate crimes. Joined by their young assistant, Albert, whom we met in The Secret Adversary, they rename themselves ‘Blunt’s Brilliant Detectives’ and then sit back and wait for their first case to begin…

What follows is a series of short stories, each dealing with a separate investigation, loosely linked by the spying storyline in the background. With cases of missing women, stolen jewels, suspected forgeries, poisoned chocolates and buried treasure to solve – and, of course, several murderers to identify – Tommy and Tuppence have more than enough to keep themselves busy, but to entertain themselves further they decide to investigate each crime in the style of one of their favourite fictional detectives. This is where my own knowledge of early 20th century crime fiction let me down as with the exceptions of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Baroness Orczy’s Old Man in the Corner, I was unfamiliar with most of the detectives being parodied. It didn’t really matter – the stories can still be enjoyed and understood anyway, but I did feel as though I was missing something at times.

Some of the plots are stronger than others; there was one story in particular (The Unbreakable Alibi) where I guessed the solution immediately and was surprised that it took Tommy and Tuppence so long to work it out! All of the stories are fun to read, though, which is partly due to the characters of Tommy and Tuppence themselves; there’s certainly never a dull moment when they are around! My only disappointment is that there are only another three books in this series to read. I am looking forward to the next one, N or M?, but first I’m hoping I might be able to squeeze in this month’s Read Christie selection, Five Little Pigs, before the end of September.

The Historical Nights’ Entertainment by Rafael Sabatini

Having read and loved several of Rafael Sabatini’s books in the past (I particularly recommend Scaramouche, The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood), I decided to try this one next, mainly because I was intrigued by the title, The Historical Nights’ Entertainment. First published in 1917, this is a collection of thirteen stories each giving an account of a dramatic historical event. The stories are difficult to classify as they are not exactly fiction but not quite non-fiction either. This is how Sabatini himself describes the book in his preface:

In approaching “The Historical Nights’ Entertainment” I set myself the task of reconstructing, in the fullest possible detail and with all the colour available from surviving records, a group of more or less famous events. I would select for my purpose those which were in themselves bizarre and resulting from the interplay of human passions, and whilst relating each of these events in the form of a story, I would compel that story scrupulously to follow the actual, recorded facts without owing anything to fiction, and I would draw upon my imagination, if at all, merely as one might employ colour to fill in the outlines which history leaves grey, taking care that my colour should be as true to nature as possible.

It seems that some of these stories involve a lot more ‘filling in’ than others so, although the ones that I was already familiar with do seem to stick quite closely to the facts, I wouldn’t assume that the others are completely historically accurate. Each story is probably best approached as just a basic introduction to a fascinating episode from history and used as a starting point to explore the topic in more depth later.

So what are the stories about? I’ve mentioned that a few were already familiar to me, so I will talk about those first. Two of them – The Night of Holyrood and The Night of Kirk O’Field – are set in 16th century Scotland and deal with the murders of David Rizzio and Lord Darnley (Mary, Queen of Scots’ private secretary and alleged lover and her husband, respectively). Another, The Night of Betrayal, tells the story of Antonio Perez, Philip II of Spain and Ana, Princess of Eboli – a story of particular interest to me as I read Kate O’Brien’s That Lady, on the same subject, last year. This version is narrated by Perez, rather than concentrating on Ana’s side of the story as O’Brien’s book did, so gave me a different perspective on the same events.

The Night of Witchcraft and The Night of Gems cover, respectively, the 17th century French scandal known as The Affair of the Poisons and the fate of a diamond necklace thought to be one of the factors that discredited the French monarchy and led to the French Revolution. I have read about both of these before but, this time, these stories didn’t add much to my existing knowledge.

What else is there? Well, there’s a dramatic account of Casanova’s escape from the Piombi prison in Venice, a tale set during the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and several more stories based on historical murder cases, including the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden at a masked ball and the death of the Duke of Gandia (also known as Giovanni Borgia). But my favourite was probably The Night of Nuptials, in which Sapphira Danvelt tries to obtain justice from Charles the Bold of Burgundy following the wrongful hanging of her husband. I loved the twist at the end of that one! Sabatini must have liked this story as well because he apparently returns to it in his 1929 novel The Romantic Prince, a book I haven’t yet read.

There are two more volumes in the Historical Nights’ Entertainment series but I’m not sure whether I’ll be reading them. Although most of the stories in this collection were interesting, there were only two or three that I really enjoyed; I will continue to read Sabatini’s longer novels, but the format of this particular book didn’t appeal to me as much.

The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

Robert Harris has become a favourite author of mine in recent years; I loved An Officer and a Spy, the Cicero trilogy and Conclave, and so far only Archangel has disappointed me. When I received a copy of his new novel, The Second Sleep, a few weeks ago, I was so excited about reading it that I dropped several other books I was in the middle of so I could start it immediately. But would it live up to my high expectations?

The first thing to say is that, if I had started to read this book without knowing the author’s name, I would probably never have guessed it was by Robert Harris as it’s so different from all of the others I’ve read! Whether or not you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing will depend on whether you prefer to know what to expect from an author or whether you like a lot of diversity. Personally I found this a bit too different and it took me quite a long time to settle into the story. Once I did, I started to enjoy it, but I can’t say that this has become a favourite by Harris.

At first The Second Sleep appears to be a conventional historical mystery. We are told that the year is 1468 and we are introduced to a young priest, Christopher Fairfax, who has just arrived in a small, remote village in the south-west of England to conduct the funeral of parish priest Father Lacy. Fairfax expects to return to Exeter Cathedral within a day or two, but when he discovers that there may have been suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of Father Lacy, he ends up staying in the village for much longer than planned. It seems that the old priest had been putting together a collection of forbidden books and artefacts and it was this which may have led to his death.

And that’s really all I can tell you about the plot. After a few chapters it becomes obvious that there is nothing conventional at all about this story, so I would hate to give too much away and spoil things for other readers. All I will say is that the central idea on which the novel is based is both fascinating and frightening, as well as having a lot of relevance to today’s society.

The Second Sleep is a very atmospheric novel and Harris carefully builds a sense of time and place, describing the landscape, the lives of the villagers and the sense of isolation that comes with living in such a remote location. Up in the hills, an unusual construction known as the Devil’s Chair – where Father Lacy fell to his supposedly accidental death – becomes the focus of the strange occurrences taking place in and around the village. It’s a bleak and eerie setting which perfectly suits this unusual and unsettling story.

Although this book never quite reached page-turner status for me, the pace did pick up after a while and the ideas the novel explored were intriguing enough to keep me interested. The story seemed to be building towards something dramatic and I expected more twists and revelations at the end. When the ending came, however, I was left thinking, ‘is that it?’ I wondered if I had missed something, so I read the final chapter again but found it no more satisfying the second time. Looking at other early reviews of this novel (the book is published today here in the UK), most people have loved it, so although I did find a lot to enjoy I’m sorry that I couldn’t quite manage to love it too. I do have both Munich and Pompeii on my shelf, though, and am still looking forward to reading both of those sooner rather than later.

Thanks to the publisher Hutchinson for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Never having read anything by John Buchan before, the logical place to start seemed to be with his most famous novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps. I wasn’t at all sure that it would be my sort of book, which is why I’ve put off reading it for so long, but I knew there must be a reason why it is so well-loved and has been adapted for film and television so many times.

Published in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps is set during the May and June of the previous year, just before the outbreak of war in Europe. The novel is narrated in the first person by Richard Hannay, who has recently arrived in London having spent most of his life living in Africa. As the story begins, Hannay has been in England for three months and is feeling bored, homesick and disillusioned:

The crowd surged past me on the pavements, busy and chattering, and I envied the people for having something to do. These shop-girls and clerks and dandies and policemen had some interest in life that kept them going. I gave half-a-crown to a beggar because I saw him yawn; he was a fellow-sufferer. At Oxford Circus I looked up into the spring sky and I made a vow. I would give the Old Country another day to fit me into something; if nothing happened, I would take the next boat for the Cape.

That evening, as luck would have it, something does happen. He is approached by a stranger who introduces himself as Franklin P. Scudder, an American secret agent, and who claims to have uncovered a plot to destabilise Europe by assassinating Constantine Karolides, an important Greek politician. Scudder believes his life is in danger and asks Hannay to shelter him for the night, but when the agent is murdered inside his home, Hannay fears that the killers will come for him next. Desperate to get away, he flees to Scotland with the intention of hiding there for a while until he can think of a way to continue Scudder’s work and prevent the assassination of Karolides. It seems he is about to have all the excitement he could have wished for – and more.

All of this happens in the first two chapters. The remainder of the novel follows Hannay’s adventures while on the run, most of which involve being chased around the Scottish countryside and having encounters with various eccentric characters, who could be friends but are equally likely to be enemies. Each chapter feels almost like a separate short story, which is maybe explained by the fact that the novel was originally published as a serial in Blackwood’s Magazine so needed to be written in an easily digestible format. I found it very entertaining at first, but somewhere in the middle I thought it became a bit tedious and repetitive. There were far too many coincidences and too many last-minute escapes; fun in small doses, but a whole book like that was too much for me. It also lacks depth, both in terms of characters and plot, but if you accept it for what it is – an early example of the adventure/spy novel, it’s quite enjoyable.

I can’t say that I loved The Thirty-Nine Steps, but I would be happy to try more of John Buchan’s books. Can anyone recommend one that I might like?

The Canary Keeper by Clare Carson

Clare Carson has previously written a trilogy of thrillers (the Sam Coyle trilogy) set in contemporary Orkney. I haven’t read those, but the title and cover of her new novel, The Canary Keeper, caught my attention and when I investigated I found that this one is a historical crime novel, still set in Orkney but during the Victorian period. I love a good Victorian mystery, so of course I had to give it a try.

The story begins in London in 1855, with the body of Tobias Skaill being found dumped in the Thames. Witnesses report seeing the body thrown from a canoe – surely the work of an Esquimaux! The suspect has disappeared without trace, but it seems he may have had an accomplice: Birdie Quinn, a young Irishwoman who was seen walking in the area at the time. We, the reader, know that Birdie is innocent; she had only met Tobias for the first time the day before when he had tried to give her a message. Her presence by the river that night was a coincidence and she has certainly never had any dealings with Esquimaux. But how can she prove her innocence?

Birdie knows that when the law catches up with her, she will hang, so she turns for help to Solomon, a policeman with whom she was recently in a relationship before they went their separate ways. Solomon advises her to get away from London for a while – and with evidence linking the dead man with the Orkney Islands off the north-east coast of Scotland, that is where Birdie decides to head. Can she uncover the truth surrounding Tobias Skaill’s death and identify his killer in time to clear her own name?

The Canary Keeper explores so many interesting ideas and topics. First, there is Orkney itself and the many traditions, myths and beliefs that are unique to those islands and their people. Then there is the famous Arctic expedition led by Captain John Franklin in search of the North-West Passage, ending in tragedy when both ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, are lost. The Franklin Expedition takes place just a few years before the events of The Canary Keeper and as Birdie begins to investigate she find several surprising links between the doomed expedition and the murder of Tobias Skaill. The fur trade also plays a part in the story and, in the London sections of the book, we learn about some of the trade guilds and livery companies of the period.

Clare Carson also creates some interesting characters, at least on the surface. I found Birdie quite a likeable heroine and I enjoyed her scenes with Solomon, hoping that they might decide to give each other a second chance. There’s also Morag, whose unconventional lifestyle leads to her being labelled a witch, and the widowed Margaret Skaill who is determined to keep her husband’s shipping business going despite her inability to read and write. And yet, none of these characters ever came fully to life for me; there was a disappointing flatness throughout the novel, which I blame on the fact that it is written in third person present tense, probably my least favourite way for a novel to be written. I often find that it puts a distance between the reader and the characters and makes it difficult to engage on an emotional level, although maybe that’s just me.

There’s also a paranormal aspect to the novel, with Birdie experiencing visions and flashbacks, but I didn’t feel that these scenes added anything to the story. This could have been a fascinating book – and at times it was – but it wasn’t really for me.

This is book 10/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

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

Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor

I’ve been curious about The Chronicles of St Mary’s for a while; I enjoy anything to do with time travel, so I thought there was a good chance that I would like these books, but you can never be sure. That’s why, when the publisher made several of the books in the series available through NetGalley a few months ago, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to try the first one and see what it was like.

Just One Damned Thing After Another (the title is taken from a quote by Arnold Toynbee) introduces us to Madeleine Maxwell who, as the novel opens, is encouraged by her old schoolteacher and mentor, Mrs de Winter, to apply for the position of historian at St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research. Max, as she is known, is instantly intrigued; she has had a passion for history since discovering a book about Henry V and the Battle of Agincourt as a child. She applies for the job and is invited for an interview, but as she is shown around her future place of work, she quickly becomes aware that this is no ordinary academic institute…and that the historians of St Mary’s are no ordinary historians.

The Institute has developed a form of time travel which allows the historians to travel back in time inside fully equipped ‘pods’ in order to investigate some of history’s many mysteries – large and small – at first-hand. From “being able to say with authority, ‘Yes, the Princes in the Tower were alive at the end of Richard III’s reign, I know because I saw them with my own eyes’” to understanding the secret of Greek Fire and how to handle a Roman chariot, the possibilities are endless. But so are the dangers: pods that malfunction with terrifying results, hostile groups of rival time travellers, as well as all the other hazards you would expect to find on a journey into a less enlightened time. Max and her friends are constantly getting into trouble – particularly Max, who seems to attract disaster like a magnet – but they see it as a risk worth taking in return for being able to see and experience so many wonderful things.

We don’t learn a huge amount about any of the historical periods to which Max travels (only the Cretaceous period has a significant amount of time devoted to it), but that’s not really the point of the book. The enjoyment is in following the adventures Max and the other St Mary’s historians have as they travel through time – and in sympathising with Max’s various accidents and mishaps, some of which are her own fault, but certainly not all! The story is narrated in Max’s own strong and humorous voice, which adds to the sense of fun.

Apart from Max herself, though, I didn’t feel that I got to know any of the other characters very well, but maybe they will be developed further in future books. Although I don’t feel the compulsion to continue with this series immediately (I did enjoy meeting Max, but I think I would find it a bit overwhelming to spend too long in her company), I do still plan to read the second book and am looking forward to finding out where the historians will travel to next. And of course, now I’m wondering where I would choose to go if I had one of the St Mary’s pods at my disposal…

This is book 9/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

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