Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

Having finally caught up with the fourth book in Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series last year (Started Early, Took My Dog), I have now been able to move on to the new one, Big Sky. For those people who have been reading each book in the series as it was published, there has been a nine year wait between books four and five!

In Big Sky, private investigator Jackson is on the trail of a client’s cheating husband, while also trying, without much success, to keep his teenage son, Nathan, entertained. Nathan’s mother – Jackson’s ex-partner Julia – is busy filming the latest episodes of the TV police drama in which she has a starring role, so thirteen-year-old Nathan has been entrusted to Jackson for the summer, along with Julia’s ageing Labrador, Dido.

Meanwhile, we meet Vince, a man for whom everything seems to be going wrong all at once. First he lost his job, then he split up with his wife and had to move out of the family home, and to make matters worse, he feels that he no longer fits in with his group of friends – they are ‘golfing friends, not friend friends’. Depressed and desperate, Vince finds himself standing on the edge of a cliff and it is here that his path crosses with Jackson’s as both men are drawn into a case involving a ring of crime with its roots going back decades.

Beginning with Jackson and his son watching a recreation of a naval battle on the lake in Scarborough’s Peasholm Park and then moving on to Whitby and Bridlington, the story takes place in and around the seaside towns of the North Yorkshire coast, an area I know well from my own childhood summer holidays. The characters in this novel are not having an idyllic summer by any stretch of the imagination, however, as this is a particularly dark Brodie novel with themes including online paedophilia, human trafficking and sexual abuse. Sadly, it’s all very current and topical.

Like the other books in this series, the plot at first seems to consist of several random, unconnected threads. It takes a while for them to start coming together, but of course they do, linked in traditional Kate Atkinson fashion by a series of coincidences and unusual circumstances. Characters who, at the beginning of the book, appear to have no relation to each other, turn out to be connected in the most unexpected ways. Jackson is at the heart of the story and I always enjoy spending time inside his thoughts (I love his dry, cynical sense of humour), but we also see things from the perspectives of many other characters, all of whom are equally important to the plot.

I particularly liked Crystal, the wife of one of Vince’s golfing friends, who at first appears shallow and artificial, but gradually proves to be a brave and compassionate woman trying to overcome her difficult past and protect her little girl Candy and sixteen-year-old stepson Harry (who is another great character – ‘young for his age but also old for his age’). I also became quite fond of Bunny, the kind-hearted elderly drag queen at the theatre where Harry works, and it was good to be reacquainted with Reggie Chase, the teenage girl from When Will There Be Good News? who is now a police officer tasked with investigating historic allegations of sex abuse.

The Jackson Brodie novels are not my favourites of Kate Atkinson’s books, but I have enjoyed them all, including this one. I still have a few of her standalone books left to read and am hoping to get round to reading Transcription soon, as it has been on my TBR since shortly after it was published!

The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry

This is the second book in a new series of historical mysteries written by Ambrose Parry, a pseudonym used by husband and wife team Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman. The books are set in 19th century Edinburgh, where great advances are taking place in the world of medicine, and with Brookmyre being an experienced crime writer and Haetzman a consultant anaesthetist, they each bring different strengths to their collaborations.

The Art of Dying opens with a brief and dramatic section set in Berlin in 1849, before the action switches back to Edinburgh, where Will Raven has just returned from studying medicine in Europe to take up a position as assistant to the renowned obstetrician Dr James Simpson. Will had previously served as Simpson’s apprentice (as described in the previous novel, The Way of All Flesh), but he is now a qualified doctor himself and is eager to start building his own career and reputation.

Working with Simpson again brings Will back into contact with Sarah Fisher, Simpson’s former housemaid who is now assisting him at his clinic, having displayed a passion and aptitude for medicine. Sarah is deeply frustrated by the lack of equality for women, as she is sure she has the ability to become a doctor herself if only she could be given the same opportunities as men. This had been a source of conflict between Will and Sarah when we met them in the first book, but he has still been looking forward to seeing her again and is disappointed to find that during his absence she has married another man. When one of Dr Simpson’s patients dies under suspicious circumstances, however, and his rivals start to point the finger of blame, Will and Sarah must work together to try to clear Simpson’s name.

The crime element of the novel comes in the form of a number of unusual, unexplained deaths taking place around the city. At first Will is excited, thinking he has discovered a new disease to which he’ll be able to give his name, but Sarah is convinced that something more sinister is happening. My main criticism of The Way of All Flesh was the weakness of the murder mystery, but I found this one much stronger. It was easy enough to guess who or what was causing the deaths, because we are given plenty of hints right from the start, but what I didn’t know was why or exactly how it was being done and I enjoyed watching Will and Sarah (mainly Sarah at first) putting the clues together to find the culprit.

As with the first book, though, it was the medical aspect of the story that I found most interesting. In The Way of All Flesh, we learned that James Simpson had been carrying out experiments into the use of chloroform to ease the pain of childbirth. This book continues to explore the development of anaesthetics, showing not only the potential benefits for surgery and obstetrics, but also the dangers of administering too much of a substance which was still not fully understood.

I enjoyed this book more than the first one and I think it does work as a standalone, but I would still recommend starting with The Way of All Flesh so you will understand the background to Will and Sarah’s relationship. Both characters have changed and grown since the beginning of the series and I’m sure there’s lots of scope for more development ahead; I’m hoping we won’t have to wait too long to find out!

Left-Handed Death by Richard Hull

I loved Richard Hull’s The Murder of My Aunt – it was one of the best books I read last year – but when I tried another of his classic crime novels, And Death Came Too, I was disappointed to find that it was a much more conventional murder mystery without the humour and originality I had expected based on my first experience. Left-Handed Death is my third Hull novel and I’m pleased to report that it’s another good one – not in the same class as The Murder of My Aunt, but much better than And Death Came Too.

This book was published in 1946, but is set slightly earlier, just before the end of World War II. It begins with Guy Reeves, one of the two directors of the Shergold Engineering Company, returning to his office after lunch and making a shocking confession to his co-director, Arthur Shergold: he has just murdered Barry Foster, a civil servant who has been investigating the company’s finances. Foster may have been on the point of revealing corruption within the company, something which matters to the Ministry he works for because the Shergold Company have been supplying government contracts throughout the war.

Reeves describes his actions of the afternoon to his partner, finishing with a detailed account of how he carried out the murder, then he heads to Scotland Yard where he repeats his confession to the police. Inspector Hardwick doesn’t believe him – why would somebody voluntarily admit to murder? – but he sends his men to Foster’s home where they discover that Foster is indeed dead and that it’s entirely possible that the murder could have taken place exactly as Reeves has described it. There seems little reason to investigate further, but Hardwick still has his doubts and sets out to prove that Reeves is innocent.

All of this happens in the first chapter of the book and I was immediately intrigued. Why would Reeves confess to a murder that he hadn’t committed? On the other hand, why would he confess to a murder that he had committed? And if he didn’t kill Foster, then who did? As Inspector Hardwick himself points out:

“I like my murders to start at the beginning with the corpse and go on to the end with the conviction. But when you start in the middle with the confession – well, all I can say is that it’s all wrong!”

As I continued to read, I started to form my own theory about what was happening and I was able to predict the solution before it was revealed, but I still enjoyed watching Hardwick and his fellow detectives sorting through the clues, looking for alibis, speaking to witnesses and gathering medical evidence. I thought the ending did let the rest of the book down slightly, though – surely there was room for one or two more twists!

As well as being an entertaining murder mystery, I found this book interesting because of the time period in which it is set. The story takes place right at the end of the war and that has an impact on the lives of the characters and on just about everything that happens in the novel. Guy Reeves’ description of the lavish meal he and Foster ate on the day of the murder, for example, provokes disapproval at a time when rationing is in place; the war makes it difficult to get hold of a doctor to examine the murdered man; Cynthia Trent, who works as a secretary at the Shergold Company, takes a walk in the countryside past an Italian prisoner-of-war camp; and Reeves himself has suffered an injury while serving in the army which has implications for the way in which the murder is carried out.

I will continue to read Richard Hull’s books in the hope that the others will be at least as good as this one, if not as good as The Murder of My Aunt. I suspect I probably started with his best book, but that doesn’t mean the others aren’t worth reading!

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

Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

This is the fourth book in Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series. For some reason, after reading the first three in quick succession in 2015, I never moved on to this one and it was only with the publication of the fifth book, Big Sky, earlier this year that I remembered I still needed to read it. Fortunately, the Jackson Brodie novels all stand alone very well so I found that it didn’t matter at all that I had left such a long gap between books three and four.

The plot of Started Early, Took My Dog is actually quite difficult to describe, but I’ll do my best. A good place to start is probably with Tracy Waterhouse, a retired police superintendent now working as head of security at the Merrion Shopping Centre in Leeds. Tracy is lonely and bored – she has no family, no friends and no social life; she gets up in the morning, goes to work, then comes home to spend every evening alone eating chocolate in front of the television. Then, one day, as she patrols the Merrion Centre, she sees a little girl being mistreated by Kelly Cross, a prostitute and drug addict whom Tracy recognises from her police days. She makes the decision to intervene and suddenly life becomes much more eventful!

While Tracy is trying to help an abused child, in a parallel storyline the novel’s other main protagonist, private investigator Jackson Brodie, is carrying out a good deed of his own. With a series of failed relationships behind him, Jackson is almost as lonely as Tracy, and when he witnesses a dog being kicked by its owner, he steps in and rescues it. The dog then becomes his inseparable companion as he embarks on his latest case – trying to trace the biological parents of Hope McMaster, a woman who was adopted as a child and grew up in New Zealand. This proves to be more difficult than he expected, because as soon as he starts asking questions it becomes obvious that those who do know the truth about Hope’s parentage will do anything to cover it up.

Jackson’s story quickly begins to intertwine with Tracy’s when he discovers that the murder of a woman in 1975 – a murder scene at which Tracy, then a young police officer, had been present – may have had something to do with the mystery of Hope’s origins. The novel moves backwards and forwards between the 1970s and 2010, showing how the events of the past have had an impact on the events of the present. Some of Tracy’s actions and choices following her encounter with the little girl in the Merrion Centre, for example, seem implausible at first but make more sense once you gain a deeper understanding of her background and her earlier experiences.

As with the other Jackson Brodie books, I found that the crime element of this one took second place to the characters. I thought Tracy was a great character and I loved her relationship with little Courtney, and, similarly, I enjoyed watching Jackson bonding with his new canine companion. The other character who stood out for me was Tilly, an elderly actress who is in the early stages of dementia; the way Kate Atkinson portrays Tilly’s fear and confusion over what is happening felt, to me, very convincing and very moving.

While the characters I’ve mentioned above were excellent, however, there were too many others whom I struggled to distinguish from each other; in particular, the other police officers involved in the 1975 storyline all seemed to blend into one which made that part of the book difficult to follow. There were also some subplots that didn’t seem to go anywhere and some important questions that remained unanswered at the end. Compared with the first three books in the series, I thought this one was disappointing. I’m sure I will still read Big Sky, but there are also a few other Kate Atkinson books I haven’t read yet: Transcription, Emotionally Weird and Not the End of the World. Have you read any of those and is there one you would particularly recommend?

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.