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

Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie

August’s theme for the Read Christie 2021 challenge is ‘a story set by the seaside’, which seemed the perfect opportunity to pick up an unread Poirot novel, Evil Under the Sun. It’s set on an island off the coast of Devon, where Hercule Poirot is on holiday at the exclusive Jolly Roger Hotel.

Christie begins by introducing us to all of the people staying at the hotel, including Arlena Stuart, a beautiful former actress. Arlena is described by one of the other characters as ‘the personification of evil’ – and she certainly seems to be causing plenty of trouble. Fellow guest Patrick Redfern can’t take his eyes off her and Arlena appears to be encouraging his attentions, regardless of how hurtful this is to Patrick’s young wife, Christine. Arlena’s own husband, Captain Marshall, claims he hasn’t noticed her behaviour, but is he telling the truth? Meanwhile, Marshall’s teenage daughter from a previous marriage hates her stepmother and resents the way she has come into the family home, bringing scandal and unhappiness with her.

When Arlena’s dead body is found at Pixy Cove, a secluded part of the island, almost everyone becomes a suspect. It’s fortunate that Poirot is already on the scene and can begin investigating immediately! In fact, as he later tells his friend, Captain Hastings, he had begun even before the murder took place…

Hastings said, staring: “But the murder hadn’t happened, then.”

Hercule Poirot sighed. He said: “But already, mon cher, it was very clearly indicated.”

“Then why didn’t you stop it?”

And Hercule Poirot, with a sigh, said as he had said once before in Egypt, that if a person is determined to commit murder it is not easy to prevent them. He does not blame himself for what happened. It was, according to him, inevitable.

Having just read three Miss Marple novels in a row for Read Christie, it made a nice change to get back to Poirot for this month’s read. I usually prefer the Poirots to the Marples and Evil Under the Sun – first published in 1941 – is another good one. Setting the story on a private island, for the use of the hotel guests only, is not just an atmospheric setting but also a clever one as it immediately limits the suspects to those already on the island at the beginning of the book. With his understanding of the kind of person Arlena was, Poirot is quickly able to pick out one suspect as the most likely culprit, but due to timings and alibis it seems impossible that this person could have committed the crime. As the novel progresses, more clues emerge, along with the usual red herrings and misdirections Christie likes to throw in our way!

I didn’t manage to solve the mystery, but once the solution was revealed I could see how perfectly all of the clues fitted together – like a jigsaw puzzle, as Poirot describes it. It did seem that the way in which the crime was carried out depended on a lot of good luck and on people behaving in a certain manner, but I still think Christie was fair with the reader and I have no complaints. I’m now looking forward to September’s book, which will be Crooked House.

A Corruption of Blood by Ambrose Parry

This is the third book in Ambrose Parry’s historical mystery series featuring Dr Will Raven and Sarah Fisher. The first two are The Way of All Flesh and The Art of Dying, but if you haven’t read either of those it shouldn’t be a problem – although I would still recommend reading them in order if possible so that you can understand the background of the relationship between Will and Sarah.

Ambrose Parry is a pseudonym used by husband and wife team Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman; Brookmyre is an experienced crime novelist while Haetzman is an anaesthetist and medical historian, which explains why the 19th century world of murder and medicine portrayed in the books feels so real and convincing.

At the beginning of A Corruption of Blood, Sarah travels to Paris and Gräfenberg hoping for a meeting with Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to obtain a medical degree in America and become a doctor. Sarah has an interest in medicine herself and is sure that she could achieve the same as Dr Blackwell if given the chance, but things don’t go as planned and Sarah goes back to Edinburgh feeling disillusioned and frustrated. On returning home, she receives more bad news when she learns that Dr Will Raven has just become engaged to another woman, Eugenie Todd. Sarah has always resented Will for being able to take advantage of the opportunities that have been denied to her because of her gender, but recently they have been on friendlier terms and she is disappointed to hear of his engagement.

Meanwhile, Will is having problems of his own. Through his work with the famous Scottish obstetrician Dr James Simpson, he has become used to witnessing the trauma of childbirth and, sadly, the deaths of children – however, even he is not prepared for the sight of a dead baby wrapped in a parcel being fished out of the river. Soon after this, Will’s new fiancée asks for his help; her friend Gideon has been accused of murdering his father, Sir Ainsley Douglas, and she wants to prove that he is innocent. Will knows and dislikes Gideon from his student days, but agrees to investigate. Could both deaths somehow be connected?

This is such an interesting series, not so much because of the murder mystery aspect (which I don’t think is particularly strong) but because of the Victorian Edinburgh setting and all of the information we are given on the medical science of the period, as well as the challenges faced by women like Sarah and Dr Blackwell who wanted to make a career for themselves in a field dominated by men. This particular novel also includes a storyline involving the unpleasant, distressing but sadly quite common practice of baby farming, where unwanted or illegitimate children were sold to a ‘baby farmer’, who in theory would look after the child in return for a payment, although it was often more profitable for the baby farmer if the child conveniently died while in her care.

It took me a while to get into this book; the pace is very slow at the beginning and it takes a while for the plot to take shape and the different threads of the story to start coming together. Things improve in the second half, though, and there are a few surprises and plot twists that I hadn’t really expected. The relationship between Sarah and Will continues to develop, with the way each of them feels about Eugenie adding some extra interest, and I will look forward to seeing how this progresses in the next book. I hope there is going to be a next book and I hope we don’t have to wait too long for it!

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

Book 11/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

Book 39/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude

I am now halfway through my 20 Books of Summer list and obviously not going to finish all of the remaining books by the end of the month, but I’m pleased that I’ve managed to read this one, The Sussex Downs Murder, as I’ve had it on my shelf for a few years now and could never seem to find the right time to read it. It turns out that summer was the perfect time, as the story takes place in July…

The novel opens on a Saturday evening with John Rother saying goodbye to his brother and sister-in-law and leaving their Sussex farm, Chalklands, to drive to Harlech in Wales for a holiday. He doesn’t get very far, however, and his car is found abandoned the next morning just a few miles away from the farm. John has disappeared, but there are bloodstains inside the car and signs of a violent struggle. Has he been killed? Kidnapped? Superintendent William Meredith is called in and when human bones are found in a delivery of lime from the Chalklands lime-kilns a few days later, it seems that he is dealing with a murder case.

In his careful, methodical way Meredith begins to investigate, examining every clue and interviewing every possible witness. He forms a theory almost immediately, but when a second crime occurs and proves him wrong, he is forced to think again, and slowly – too slowly for his Chief Constable who threatens to bring in Scotland Yard – starts to piece together what has happened.

John Bude, whose real name was Ernest Elmore, is a popular author within the British Library Crime Classics series, but this is the first of his books that I’ve read. Originally published in 1936, it’s the second Superintendent Meredith novel and I enjoyed it enough to want to read more of them. I liked Meredith, although we don’t get to know very much about his background or personal life – apart from some great scenes with his son, Tony – and I appreciated the way his thoughts are shared with the reader, so that we can follow each step of his investigations and see in which direction the clues are leading him. I also liked the Sussex setting; it’s not an area that I know, but there’s a map at the beginning and all of the towns and villages, chalk hills and rings of trees – are real places and geographical features.

My only problem with this book was that the solution to the mystery was far too easy to guess; I had my suspicions from very early in the story and was proved right. I don’t usually manage to solve the crime before the detective does, so I wonder if other readers found this one particularly obvious too.

This is book 10/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021

The Pact by Sharon Bolton

A new book from Sharon Bolton is always something to look forward to and she very rarely disappoints. Her latest one, The Pact, is a real pageturner; although I wouldn’t rank it amongst my favourite Bolton novels, it does have a typically gripping plot with lots of twists and turns and I read most of it in one day.

The novel begins with six teenagers – Felix, Daniel, Talitha, Amber, Xavier and Megan – awaiting their exam results. As six of the top students at the prestigious All Souls School, they are all expected to get the perfect As they need to go to Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Despite having such bright futures ahead of them, the six of them have spent the summer drinking, taking drugs and playing a dangerous, reckless game of dares that, if it went wrong, could leave those bright futures in ruins. And that is exactly what happens the night before they are due to receive their results: there’s an accident and innocent people are killed. Eighteen-year-old Megan volunteers to take the blame, leaving her friends free to get on with their lives – but in return, each of them will owe her a favour when she gets out of prison.

Twenty years later, we catch up with Dan, Felix, Tal, Xav and Amber, now all adults with successful careers, some married and some with children. Although the events of that fateful night have left their scars, the five friends have moved on and Megan has been almost forgotten. Megan, however, has not forgotten about them – and now that she has been released, she is coming back to remind them of their pact…

As I’ve said, The Pact kept me gripped from beginning to end, which is an impressive feat as I didn’t like or care about a single character! Five of the group are spoiled and privileged and admit themselves that they are not nice people, and even the sixth, Megan, a scholarship student from a much poorer background, is not much easier to like than the others. I felt that I should at least feel some sympathy for Megan because of her twenty years in prison – and I usually did find myself siding with her against the other characters – but I struggled to believe that anyone would really have made such a sacrifice in the first place! In fact, the whole plot seemed unlikely and implausible, although that didn’t stop me from enjoying it and hoping each of the characters would get what they deserved in the end.

As the end approaches, there are some of those typical Sharon Bolton twists and turns I mentioned earlier, but I found them too easy to predict which was disappointing when I think of how genuinely shocked I was by the surprises and revelations in most of her earlier books. In this case, I think I would also have preferred fewer twists, as the original direction in which the story was heading was excellent and I felt that it fizzled out slightly towards the end. Despite these reservations, though, this was an exciting, fast-paced read and kept me entertained for a day or two. I don’t read a lot of contemporary crime fiction so it’s always good to pick up one of Sharon Bolton’s books and immerse myself in something different for a while!

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

Daughters of Night by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

It’s 1782 and Caroline Corsham – known to her friends as Caro – is waiting for her husband, Captain Harry Corsham, to return to London from France where he has been sent on diplomatic work. Visiting the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens one evening, Caro is horrified when she comes across the body of her friend, Lady Lucia, an Italian noblewoman, who has been stabbed and left to die. The London authorities seem to have no intention of investigating the murder, which confuses Caro until she discovers that her friend was not who she claimed to be: she was actually a prostitute known as Lucy Loveless. As the police are no longer interested, Caro knows that she will have to avenge Lucy’s death herself – so with the help of thief taker Peregrine Child, she sets out to begin an investigation of her own.

Daughters of Night is a sequel to Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s previous novel, Blood & Sugar, but both books work as self-contained mysteries and I don’t think it will matter if you read them out of order. Those of you who have read Blood & Sugar will remember that it follows Harry Corsham as he investigates the death of an abolitionist friend and uncovers the horrors of the slave trade. Caro was only a minor character in that book, but now, with Harry absent in France, this is Caro’s turn to take centre stage with her own mystery to solve – and again, there is a very dark topic at the heart of the story, in this case prostitution and the treatment of women in 18th century society.

I mentioned in my review of the first book that I found the characters too thinly drawn and not memorable enough, but that was not a problem at all with this second novel. Daughters of Night is written partly from Caro’s perspective and partly from Peregrine Child’s; I liked them both and thought they complemented each other very well. Child’s previous experience as a magistrate means he knows what sort of questions to ask and what clues to look out for, and while he has some personal problems of his own he is a decent and honourable man. Caro is new to crime solving but there are things she understands that Child does not and together they make a perfect team. I certainly had no idea who the murderer was; there were several suspects who all seemed equally likely to me, so I enjoyed following the twists and turns of the plot until the truth is revealed.

Although the Georgian world that has been created here is not always very pleasant, it’s always fascinating to read about and feels thoroughly researched, ranging from larger themes such as the roles of art and classical mythology to the tiniest pieces of arcane knowledge that add colour and intrigue to the story. Laura Shepherd-Robinson has said that her next book will be a standalone but that she might return to this world again for a future novel – and I hope she does, as I would love to find out what else life has in store for Caro and Harry!

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

Book 8/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Good by Stealth by Henrietta Clandon – #ReadIndies

I had so many reading plans for February, yet the month is slipping away and I’ve hardly read any of the books I’d hoped to read. However, I really wanted to read something for the Read Indies Month hosted by Karen and Lizzy and I’m pleased that I’ve managed to fit in Good by Stealth by Henrietta Clandon, published by Dean Street Press.

This wonderful Golden Age crime novel from 1936 was written by John Haslette Vahey; Henrietta Clandon was one of his many pseudonyms – he seems to have been very prolific and used different names for his work with different publishers or in different genres. I found this one so much fun to read, I will certainly be reading more of his books! It reminded me very strongly of The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull, but also a little bit of Miss Buncle’s Book by DE Stevenson and Queen Lucia by EF Benson.

Good by Stealth is what is known as an ‘inverted mystery’. We know from the beginning that our narrator, Miss Edna Alice, has been found guilty of sending anonymous letters – letters which have caused suicides, broken engagements and ruined relationships – but what we don’t know is why. In Miss Alice’s own words, we watch the sequence of events unfold which lead to the writing of the letters and we hear her reasons for doing so. There’s no real suspense because we know that eventually she will be caught, tried and sent to prison, but by the end of the book we have enough information to decide for ourselves whether there is any justification for Miss Alice’s actions.

Miss Alice begins her story by describing her arrival in the small English village of Lush Mellish, where she settles into her new cottage with her dog and sets out to make friends with the other residents, but succeeds only in turning them all against her. Her attempts to join the art circle, the literary society and the tennis club all end in disaster – and of course, it is never Miss Alice’s fault.

I paid my subscription and joined the tennis club. It was sometime later that I heard how my comments – which were quite harmlessly witty – had been repeated and exaggerated, causing great offence. It was no good trying to prove that, and in the end I decided that the truth still remains the truth, even if embroidered. But people hate to recognise themselves in what they take to be a faulty mirror.

Although Miss Alice is undoubtedly an unpleasant, self-righteous woman, it’s impossible not to have sympathy for her when, first of all, not just one but several of her pet dogs die in ways which seem not to have been accidental, and then the other inhabitants of Lush Mellish appear to engage in a series of campaigns designed to humiliate her and drive her out of the village. The cruelty of these people, particularly the elderly woman who lives next door, is so excessive and spiteful that you can’t help but feel sorry for our poor narrator, despite her own nastiness.

But these things did me no harm, the more so as cook knew a great deal about the slanderers and backbiters, and as good as told me that some of them were determined to drive me out of the town. Can you imagine people so lost to any sense of decency? In the end they had their wicked will, and so contrived it that I appeared technically to be at fault. But was it my fault if I had not their cunning and lack of principle?

In Miss Alice’s version of events, she has the best of motives for beginning to send anonymous letters to the people of Lush Mellish containing helpful pieces of advice aimed at improving their morals and correcting their behaviour. But of course the recipients of the letters don’t see things that way and as we are only given one side of the story we have to make up our own minds as to whether Miss Alice was really as well-meaning as she claims to have been.

The book is hugely entertaining and often very funny (I particularly loved Miss Alice’s descriptions of the ‘wicked old woman’ next door) and although some parts of the story don’t seem at first to have much to do with the overall plot, everything falls into place by the end and the significance of even the smallest detail becomes clear. This is not a conventional crime novel or mystery in any way, but there is still an element of detection towards the end, when the police begin to investigate Miss Alice’s alleged crimes. Again, because we are seeing things from the suspect’s point of view rather than the detective’s, my sympathies were with Miss Alice and even though I knew from the opening chapter what the outcome would be, I was still hoping she wouldn’t be caught!

If anyone has read any of Henrietta Clandon’s other books – or anything published under one of Vahey’s other names – please let me know which one I should try next!