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 Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

Ruth Ware doesn’t write the sort of books I usually choose to read these days, but something drew me to her latest one, The Turn of the Key, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it courtesy of The Pigeonhole (a website/app which makes new novels available in daily instalments). I’m sure I will be looking for more of Ruth Ware’s books; they would be perfect to put on my list for this year’s RIP Challenge, which I’m hoping will be announced soon.

The novel opens with our narrator, Rowan Caine, in prison awaiting trial for murder. We don’t know exactly what happened, except that a child died while in her care and that suspicion fell on Rowan as the killer. With no one else to turn to for help, Rowan begins to write a letter to her lawyer, Mr Wrexham, in an attempt to explain the sequence of events that led to her imprisonment.

It all starts with a job offer which seems too good to be true: the position of live-in nanny for a rich family based in the Scottish Highlands, caring for four children in return for an unbelievably huge salary. However, it’s not just the money that attracts Rowan…although she doesn’t tell us, or Mr Wrexham, her other reason for applying for the job until much later in the book. In fact, it quickly becomes obvious that Rowan is telling lies about a lot of things; if you enjoy books with unreliable narrators this is definitely the book for you!

Rowan is not the only one with secrets, though, and when she arrives at her new place of work, Heatherbrae House, she becomes aware of some of the mysteries lurking behind its luxurious exterior. Why have the Elincourt children had so many nannies in such a short period of time, some of them lasting no more than a day? What are the eerie sounds Rowan hears during the night? Is Heatherbrae House haunted?

The Turn of the Key, as the title would suggest, draws inspiration from the classic Henry James novel, The Turn of the Screw (which I have to confess I still haven’t read, although I know what it’s about) but Ruth Ware updates the story into a very modern setting. Life at Heatherbrae House is controlled almost entirely by smart technology with cameras in nearly every room and apps to operate lights, heating, showers and music. The sense that Rowan is under constant surveillance with no idea who could be watching her every move creates a sinister and claustrophobic atmosphere which combines with the more traditional gothic elements such as the unexplained noises and other ghostly happenings to make this quite a spooky read.

There were just one or two things that bothered me. First, I thought there were several plot points that felt unconvincing and too convenient; for example, I found it a bit unbelievable that the Elincourts would leave for a week-long conference the day after Rowan’s arrival, leaving the children, including a baby, with someone they had only just met. Also, I felt that in the age of the internet and Google some of the novel’s mysteries could have been solved by the characters much more quickly and needn’t really have been mysteries at all. And then, some of the revelations that came in the final chapters of the book had seemed quite obvious to me and I had already guessed the truth well in advance. Not the ending, though – I hadn’t seen that coming!

I’m looking forward to my next Ruth Ware novel, whichever that turns out to be. I like the sound of The Death of Mrs Westaway and The Woman in Cabin 10, so I think it will probably be one of those.

Casanova and the Faceless Woman by Olivier Barde-Cabuçon

Casanova and the Faceless Woman is the first in a series of historical mysteries by French author Olivier Barde-Cabuçon, set in pre-Revolutionary France. There are currently seven books in the series but this one, translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie, is the first to appear in English. When I was offered a copy for review by Pushkin Vertigo I was immediately intrigued because although I read a lot of historical mysteries I don’t think I’ve read any set in this particular period.

It’s 1759 and Louis XV is on the throne of France. He is not a popular king – unrest is growing amongst those who feel they have been oppressed under his reign and his rumoured liaisons with innocent young girls have not helped his reputation either – and there are several different factions plotting to overthrow or discredit him. Not long before our story begins, Louis had been the target of an assassination attempt and narrowly avoided being stabbed to death thanks to the quick actions of the Chevalier de Volnay. As a reward for his bravery, Volnay has been given the title of Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths, responsible for investigating particularly unusual crimes on the king’s behalf.

One such crime occurs when a young woman is found dead in a dark Paris courtyard with the skin torn away from her face. On arriving at the scene, Volnay removes a sealed letter from the corpse intending to examine it later, but it seems that someone – perhaps several people – have seen him do it. Over the days that follow, as Volnay sets about trying to identify the woman and hunt down her killer, he himself is hunted by those who want to retrieve the letter and will stop at nothing to get it back.

Volnay interested me from the beginning because he is such a mysterious character. We are told very little about him at first, with the secrets of his tragic and eventful past being revealed very gradually as the story progresses. He seems very alone in the world, his only companions being a monk (with whom he forms a fascinating crime-solving partnership) and a tame magpie. There is a sense that he is not somebody who finds it easy to love or to trust others, and so, when he enters into a relationship with the beautiful Chiara D’Ancilla, we worry that he is going to get hurt – especially as his rival in love is the legendary Casanova.

Giacomo Casanova is one of several real historical figures who have important roles to play in the novel; others include Madame de Pompadour, the king’s mistress, and the Comte de Saint-Germain, the alchemist, sorcerer and musician who has fascinated me since I first met him in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. I don’t think Casanova has appeared in any other novels I’ve read, although his career as writer, adventurer, gambler and, most famously, seducer of women, makes him an ideal subject for historical fiction. His character is well developed and convincing here and Barde-Cabuçon explores events from his past in order to explain his present behaviour, but I could never quite warm to him because my sympathies were with Volnay from the start. While Casanova seems to treat his romance with Chiara – and his involvement with the stolen letter and all the intrigue surrounding it – as a game, for Volnay these things are literally a matter of life and death.

I’m not sure whether Louis was really as disgusting and depraved as he is depicted in the novel but his reign certainly wasn’t seen as very successful and I think the author does a good job of conveying the mood in France in the years leading up to the Revolution and the discontent of the people with the king and the aristocracy. However, as a mystery novel, I thought the plot felt a bit more complicated than it really needed to be and the action moved between one set of characters and another too quickly, so that there were times when I struggled to hold on to all the different threads of the story. I also found the ending unnecessarily dramatic with one twist too many – although I had been intrigued by some of the revelations near the end, which left me wanting to read the next book in the series. I hope it’s going to be available in English soon too as I would love to see more of the Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths.

Thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy.

The Return of Mr Campion by Margery Allingham

This collection of thirteen short stories by Margery Allingham was originally published in 1989 and has been reissued by Agora Books this month. The title is maybe slightly misleading as Allingham’s famous detective Albert Campion only appears in half of the stories, but I actually found that some of the non-Campion stories were amongst my favourites from the collection.

Of the stories featuring Campion, I thought the best were The Black Tent, in which Albert catches a girl stealing a package from a desk during a party and The Case is Altered, where he stumbles upon a case of espionage while spending Christmas with friends. I was less impressed with the other Campion stories in the book, but I thought these two were just the right length, were well plotted and had satisfying conclusions. There’s also an essay, My Friend Mr Campion, where Allingham describes how she created the character of Albert Campion (or rather, how he created himself) and later in the book, in What to Do with an Ageing Detective, she imagines herself coming face to face with an elderly Campion and his servant Magersfontein Lugg. I found the first of these pieces interesting, but I think the second is really just for true Campion fans – which I can’t say that I am yet, having so far only read one full-length novel (Mystery Mile) and a few short stories.

The rest of the stories – the ones which don’t involve Campion and are not necessarily mysteries either – cover a mixture of subjects and genres. I loved Sweet and Low, in which two women who have nothing in common apart from a love of horse riding compete for the attentions of the same man. The horse called ‘Sweet and Low’ has a personality of his own and is the real star of the show in this one! The Wind Glass, about a young girl who rejects a marriage proposal from a Japanese man and receives a rather sinister gift in return, is another one that stood out due to the genuinely eerie atmosphere Allingham creates, although it was difficult to ignore the overt racism which did unfortunately spoil that particular story for me. On a more light-hearted note, I think The Kernel of Truth also deserves a mention. A man prepares a recipe for punch and adds one very special ingredient – but his wife won’t be very pleased if she finds out what it is. This is an entertaining little story that you won’t fully appreciate until you read the final paragraph!

Considering that I’m not usually a lover of the short story format, I enjoyed almost all of the tales in this collection, with only one or two exceptions. I’ll have to try more of the full-length Albert Campion mysteries soon!

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

Death in Kenya by M.M. Kaye

This is the fourth in M.M. Kaye’s Death In… mystery series, although the books can be read in any order as they each stand entirely on their own. Like the other novels in the series, this one, Death in Kenya (originally published in 1958 as Later Than You Think), is set in one of the many locations in which Kaye herself lived for a while with her husband, an officer in the British army. In the 1950s, Kenya was still a British colony but the Mau Mau Uprising had been causing unrest across the country throughout the decade and this forms the backdrop for Kaye’s story.

The mystery takes place in and around Flamingo, an estate in Kenya’s Rift Valley which belongs to Lady Emily DeBrett, an eccentric elderly woman who has lived there for many years. When some mysterious, inexplicable events begin to occur at Flamingo – and rumours of a ghost begin to circulate – Lady Em acknowledges that she needs help and sends for her niece in England, Victoria Caryll, to come and join her as companion and secretary. Victoria is tempted by the invitation: Kenya is where she grew up and she longs to return to the country she loves so much, but she knows that Em’s grandson, Eden DeBrett also lives at Flamingo with his wife, Alice – and Eden is the man Victoria was once engaged to, before he ended their relationship with no explanation and broke her heart.

Torn between going and staying, the pull of the Rift Valley eventually wins and Victoria finds herself boarding a plane for Kenya. But when she arrives, she discovers that she has much more than an old lover and a jealous wife to worry about. A murder has been committed and the estate is in turmoil. Will the murderer be found before he or she kills again? Do the people of Flamingo face danger from the Mau Mau leader known as General Africa? And what is the significance of the haunting piece of music called the Rift Valley Concerto?

The mystery aspect of the book is quite enjoyable. I didn’t guess who the murderer was so I was surprised when the truth was revealed, although looking back I feel as though I should have guessed – we were given enough clues to be able to work it out, I think. The descriptions of Kenya are wonderful too, of course; it helps that Kaye lived there herself so could draw on her own experiences and memories when writing the book. I’ve read about the Mau Mau Uprising before, in Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh, so I already had some basic background knowledge, but that is a recent historical novel whereas Death in Kenya was a contemporary one, so the authors are looking at the same events from different perspectives and from different points in time. Kaye’s sympathies here seem to be more with the white European settlers, which is interesting because that’s not always the case in her novels – as anyone who has read The Far Pavilions or Shadow of the Moon will know, she usually takes a much more balanced view when writing about colonialism. However, she does state in her author’s note that “the opinions voiced by my characters were taken from life and at first hand.”

Although Death in Kenya has the same elements as the previous three books – an interesting, atmospheric setting, a courageous young heroine, a murder mystery to solve and a touch of romance – I found this one slightly different. While the others followed a similar formula (with the heroine actually being on the scene at the time of the murder and falling under suspicion herself), in this book Victoria Caryll doesn’t enter the story until some of the key events have already been played out. This makes Victoria feel somewhat like an outsider and no more or less important to the story than any of the other characters. That lack of one strong, central character to really focus on and connect with probably explains why I felt less engaged with this novel than I did with some of the others, particularly Death in Kashmir and Death in Cyprus.

I still have the last two books in the series – Death in Zanzibar and Death in the Andamans to read – and as they are set in two places I know nothing at all about, I’m looking forward to reading them and learning more!

Death of a Doll by Hilda Lawrence

Hilda Lawrence was an American crime author best known for her series of novels featuring the private investigator Mark East, published during the 1940s. This one from 1947, Death of a Doll, is the third in the series and has been reissued this month by Agora Books. Lawrence is one of several ‘forgotten’ or lesser known crime writers to be brought back into print by various publishers recently; sometimes it’s easy to see why an author’s books have been allowed to fade into obscurity, but I was very pleasantly surprised by this one and am hoping the rest of the Mark East series will be made available again too.

The story is set in and around Hope House, a home for young women in New York City run by Monica Brady and her assistant Angelina Small. The home provides seventy girls with a safe refuge where, for a small fee, they can have a bed, hot water, two meals a day and the opportunity to make new friends. At the beginning of the novel we meet Ruth Miller, a woman in her twenties who works in Blackmans department store and who is excitedly telling her regular customer, Roberta Sutton, that she has been offered a place at Hope House. We don’t know why Ruth has found herself with nowhere else to go and nobody to turn to, but she gives the reader a hint that there has been some sort of trouble in her past. Later that day, we see her arriving at her new home, suitcase in hand, full of optimism for the future.

Two days later, Ruth is dead, having fallen from a window on the seventh floor of Hope House during a party at which all of the girls were dressed in rag doll costumes. Suicide is assumed, but Roberta is not convinced. Why would Ruth have killed herself just as her life was beginning to improve? What the reader knows, but the characters don’t – although some of them suspect – is that during those few days at Hope House, Ruth came face to face with someone from the past…but who was it and how could this have led to her death?

Roberta calls in her private investigator friend, Mark East, who arrives in New York accompanied by two more amateur detectives, the elderly spinsters Miss Beulah and Miss Bessy. It’s going to be difficult to know where to start – there’s so little known about Ruth and her background, and the fact that all of the girls were dressed in identical doll costumes on the night of her death doesn’t help – but surely between the three of them they can solve the mystery?

I really enjoyed this book. Although the story is slow to unfold – a lot of time is spent on exploring the relationships between the various girls and employees at Hope House – I still found it difficult to put down. I didn’t guess the culprit correctly, but felt as though I probably should have done! I did suspect almost all of the ‘dolls’ at one point or another, constantly changing my mind as more information was revealed. The setting is wonderful too; I could vividly picture the interior of Hope House, with Kitty answering the phones on the switchboard, Jewel operating the elevator, and Miss Brady and Miss Small seeing that everything ran smoothly, while making ambitious plans for the future.

My only problem with the book was that I felt there were too many characters and that we saw things from too many different viewpoints. I’m not sure whether we really needed three detectives either. I think Beulah and Bessy were probably included to lighten the mood and provide some comedy, but they didn’t add much to the story in my opinion and I would have preferred to have spent more time following Mark’s investigations instead. Otherwise, this was a great first introduction to Hilda Lawrence’s work and an unusual combination of the cosy and the dark and suspenseful.

I received a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.