It Walks by Night by John Dickson Carr – #1930Club

This week Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings are hosting another of their club events, where bloggers read and write about books published in a chosen year. This time it’s 1930 and I found two books on my TBR from that year, one from each of my two favourite genres, classic crime and historical fiction.

I decided to start with It Walks by Night, a detective novel by American author John Dickson Carr which has just been reissued as a British Library Crime Classic. My previous experience of Dickson’s work has been limited to the short story Persons or Things Unknown, which appeared in a Christmas anthology I read a few years ago, but I liked it and knew I wanted to read more. It Walks by Night was his first detective novel and also the first in a series featuring the character of Henri Bencolin, a juge d’Instruction (examining magistrate) of the Parisian police.

The novel is set in 1927 and opens with the newly married Duc de Saligny attending a gambling house in Paris. The Duc has been accompanied by a police escort who are providing protection after he received a death threat from Alexandre Laurent, the violent ex-husband of his new wife, Louise. Laurent recently escaped from the asylum where he had been committed after attacking Louise with a razor and has vowed to kill both Saligny and Louise if they go through with the marriage.

Late in the evening, the Duc walks into an empty card room with police guarding both doors. Soon afterwards a bell rings from inside the room and a waiter arrives to answer the summons, expecting to be given a drinks order. Instead, he finds the Duc dead, his head severed from his body, and a blood-covered sword hanging on the wall. There is nobody else in the room and as both entrances were being closely watched, nobody could have gone in or out without being seen. The murderer must be Laurent – but how did he manage it? Henri Bencolin, who claims to have never taken more than twenty-four hours to solve a case, sets out to discover the truth.

It Walks by Night is narrated by Jeff Marle, an American friend of Bencolin’s who plays a similar role to Watson in the Sherlock Holmes novels or Hastings in the Poirot novels. His main function is to provide a sort of bridge between the reader and the detective so that the solution is not revealed as early as it would have been if the story had been told from Bencolin’s perspective. Bencolin himself is not the most appealing or memorable of detectives, in my opinion, and I never warmed to him at all – but I haven’t met any of Carr’s other detectives yet, so maybe his characterisation improves in later books.

As a classic locked room mystery, it’s quite a clever one and certainly kept me wondering how the murder could possibly have been carried out, in a room with no secret entrances, no hiding places and a window forty feet above the ground. To make things even more confusing, we are told in the first chapter that Laurent is known to have visited a plastic surgeon and may have altered his appearance so successfully that he could be almost any of the characters we meet throughout the novel. I didn’t much like this idea as it seemed too far-fetched to me, but it did give me something else to think about.

So did I guess the solution? Of course not; I almost never do! There were clues – there’s a map at the beginning of the book and some allusions to a story by Edgar Allan Poe which I have read more than once, but I still didn’t work out the significance of any of this. I don’t feel too bad about my poor detective work, though, as it meant I was surprised by the twists at the end of the story! I will read more by John Dickson Carr, but as I didn’t like Bencolin I would prefer to try a book from a different series next.

~

I’m not sure whether I’ll have time to finish my second 1930 book by the end of the week, but for now here are some other books from that year previously reviewed on my blog:

The Mysterious Mr Quin by Agatha Christie
Giant’s Bread by Mary Westmacott (Agatha Christie)
The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton
The Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield
Mystery Mile by Margery Allingham

The Anarchists’ Club by Alex Reeve

One of the first books I read this year was Alex Reeve’s The House on Half Moon Street, the first in a new mystery series set in Victorian London. I enjoyed it and couldn’t wait to meet its hero, Leo Stanhope, again. Now that I’ve read the second book, The Anarchists’ Club, I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed this one just as much as the first. If you’re wondering whether it’s necessary to read the series in order, I don’t think it’s essential…you will have a better understanding of Leo and his background if you do, but otherwise both books work well as standalone mysteries.

Catching up with Leo again at the beginning of The Anarchists’ Club, it seems that not much has changed in his life. He is still renting a room above a pharmacy, still working as a hospital porter, still meeting his only friend Jacob for an occasional game of chess. One day he is helping out in the pharmacy when a woman comes in to buy some bromide. Lacking the money to pay, she asks for credit, but Leo refuses, telling her she will have to speak to the owner. It’s only a brief interaction but one which Leo will remember forever, because a few days later he receives a visit from the police. The woman, Dora Hannigan, has been murdered and a scrap of paper with Leo’s name and address on it has been found on her body.

Among the suspects is John Thackery, a man Leo knew many years ago – when he was quite literally a different person. If John makes his former identity known, the whole new life Leo has built for himself could be destroyed, so he agrees to give John an alibi in return for his silence. Has Leo done the right thing or is he allowing a murderer to walk free? The only way to be sure is to investigate the murder himself…

Leo’s investigations lead him to, as the title of the book suggests, a club of ‘anarchists and socialists’ with whom the dead woman had become involved. I was slightly disappointed that we don’t find out as much about these people and their work as I’d expected; although the division between the rich and poor in society is one of the book’s main themes, the mystery itself doesn’t really have much to do with any of that. As with the first novel, the most interesting aspect of the story is the character of Leo himself. Although he is known as Leo Stanhope now, he grew up as Lottie Pritchard before deciding as a teenager that he could no longer continue living as a woman and denying who he really was. Being transgender in the 19th century is not easy and a few words from someone who knows the truth – someone like John Thackery – could ruin everything for him. For Leo, though, being true to himself is worth the risk and the danger. As I am not transgender myself and, as far as I know, Alex Reeve isn’t either, I can’t really say whether the portrayal of Leo and his thoughts and feelings is accurate or not, but it does feel believable to me.

The books are narrated by Leo in the first person and I find him a very likeable character. For obvious reasons, he tries not to attract too much attention to himself and has a quiet, unassuming nature. In this second novel, I loved his relationship with Aiden and Ciara, Dora Hannigan’s children, whom he befriends and tries to look after once it becomes obvious that nobody else is going to. This is particularly touching because there are so few people in Leo’s life whom he still cares about or who care about him, having become estranged from his parents and sister after making the decision to leave his life as Lottie behind.

I was also pleased to meet Rosie Flowers, the pie maker, again; I said earlier that Jacob is Leo’s only friend, but that’s not quite true because although Rosie and Leo exasperate each other at times, they formed a close bond during their investigation of the previous mystery and work together to try to solve this one as well. I’m hoping to see them both again in future books; I haven’t seen any news of a third Leo Stanhope mystery yet, but I will certainly be looking out for it.

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

This is book #3 read for this year’s R.I.P. event.

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

After reading Ruth Ware’s The Turn of the Key last month, I knew I wanted to read more of her books but wasn’t sure which one to try next. Some of you recommended The Death of Mrs Westaway, which does sound good, but as my library had The Woman in Cabin 10 available first, that is the one I’ve ended up reading. I had seen some very mixed opinions of the book and it doesn’t seem to be a favourite of Ruth Ware fans, but I enjoyed it and thought it was a perfect choice for the R.I.P. XIV challenge.

Laura Blacklock, known as Lo, is a journalist working for a London-based magazine, Velocity. With her editor in hospital, Lo has been given the job of reporting on the maiden voyage of a new luxury cruise liner, the Aurora Borealis. She knows it’s a wonderful opportunity – a free cruise around the Norwegian fjords in search of the Northern Lights and the chance to make new and influential contacts – but when her home is broken into a few days before the trip and she almost comes face to face with the burglar, she is left feeling nervous, violated and unable to relax. She doesn’t really feel like going on the cruise at all but hopes she will at least be able to have a good night’s sleep on the ship…

Unfortunately, there is more trauma ahead for Lo. On the first evening of the cruise, she knocks on the door of the cabin next to her own – Cabin 10 – and borrows a mascara from the young woman who answers the door. Later that night, after going to bed, she hears a scream from Cabin 10 and then a loud splash. Convinced that someone has been thrown overboard, Lo calls security – but when the door is opened, the room is completely empty; there are no signs that anyone had ever been staying there at all. What has happened to the woman in Cabin 10? Has Lo been imagining things or is one of her fellow passengers trying to cover up a murder?

I loved the mystery element of this book. A cruise liner makes a perfect ‘locked room’ setting; as it’s not likely that anyone will arrive or leave once at sea, that means the suspects are limited to those on board at the beginning. These include the wealthy businessman who owns the ship, his invalid wife, a renowned photographer, a travel journalist, a food writer, an ‘extreme adventure’ expert, and even Lo’s own ex-boyfriend. The Aurora Borealis is not a huge ship, but a very small one with only ten cabins – described as a ‘boutique cruise liner’ – and this increases the feeling of danger and claustrophobia as Lo becomes aware that if one of the other guests is trying to do her harm she really has nowhere to hide.

When the truth was revealed I was annoyed with myself because I felt that it was something I should have guessed or been able to work out – but didn’t. Still, it meant that I was taken by surprise because I hadn’t been expecting it at all! After this revelation, though, I felt that the rest of the book was too drawn out; although there was still a lot of drama, there wasn’t much more suspense and it seemed to take a long time to get to the final chapter. Some of the developments towards the end were hard to believe and I finished the book feeling a bit less enthusiastic about it than I did at the beginning. I did find it entertaining though and am looking forward to my next Ruth Ware book.

This is book #2 read for this year’s R.I.P. event.

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.