The Hatter’s Ghosts by Georges Simenon (tr. Howard Curtis)

This standalone novel by Belgian author Georges Simenon was originally published in 1949 as Les Fantômes du chapelier and is now available from Penguin Classics in an English translation by Howard Curtis. Although Simenon is better known for his series of Maigret detective novels, he also wrote many books like this one – short psychological thrillers, some of which he referred to as romans durs, or ‘hard novels’. I have read a few of them and my favourite so far has been The Venice Train; this one has some similar plot elements, but is a much darker story.

The novel is set in La Rochelle during a wet and miserable December. It has been raining for twenty days, ever since an old lady was found murdered near the canal. Since then, more bodies have been discovered, all of them elderly women and all of them strangled with a cello string. The newspapers are full of speculation over who the murderer might be, but the reader knows from the opening pages exactly who is responsible – and so does the tailor Kachoudas, who has seen something that has convinced him of the killer’s identity. As the rest of the story unfolds, we are kept wondering whether Kachoudas will go to the police or whether he’ll be the murderer’s next victim.

Although we know from the beginning who the culprit is, there’s still a sense of mystery because we have no idea why he has set out to kill so many women and how he has chosen his victims. The truth is eventually revealed and we discover exactly what is going on behind closed doors, but as this is just a short novel (as many of Simenon’s seem to be), I can’t really go into the plot in any more detail without spoiling it. Anyway, the mystery is only one aspect of the story; the real interest is in following the thought processes of the murderer as he tries to justify his actions to himself and deal with his conflicted thoughts and emotions. I was reminded very much of In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes, another novel where we know the killer’s identity from the beginning and spend the rest of the book inside his mind, wondering whether he will give himself away.

The Hatter’s Ghosts is an atmospheric, unsettling novel and I loved the descriptions of the dark, rainy streets of La Rochelle. The Howard Curtis translation is clear and accessible and feels quite modern, while also preserving the tone of the 1940s. If you’re new to Simenon, or have only read his Maigret books, I can definitely recommend any or all of the romans durs I’ve read so far – as well as this one and The Venice Train, I have read The Man from London and The Strangers in the House and am looking forward to investigating some of his others.

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

Book #2 read for R.I.P. XVII

The Twist of a Knife by Anthony Horowitz

This series, of which The Twist of a Knife is the fourth book, takes as its premise the idea that the author Anthony Horowitz himself is one of the main characters, enlisted by the fictional detective Daniel Hawthorne to write books about the cases he investigates. It’s a concept that some people love and others hate, but if you have followed this series through to its fourth outing you probably, like me, fall into the first category. If you’re yet to read any of these books, you could start with this one if you want to as it does stand alone, but I would recommend beginning with the first, The Word is Murder, if you can. Either way, try one and see what you think!

The Twist of a Knife begins with Hawthorne trying to persuade Horowitz to write another book about him, but Anthony has other plans. He had only agreed to a three-book deal and that is now complete; now he’s working on a different novel – Moonflower Murders – and preparing for the London opening of his play, Mindgame. However, as Anthony himself then admits, the fact that we, the reader, are holding a fourth Hawthorne novel in our hands proves that somehow Hawthorne must get what he wants!

The story then moves on to the first night of Mindgame at London’s Vaudeville Theatre. The play has been very well received on tour and Horowitz is hoping that London audiences will like it just as much. Everything goes smoothly on that first night, but as Anthony and the cast get together in the green room after the play, the first review comes in – and it’s a bad one. In fact, it couldn’t be much worse. Written by the critic Harriet Throsby for the Sunday Times, the review is rude, scathing and insulting, placing most of the blame on Horowitz’s writing. When Harriet is found stabbed to death the next morning, suspicion immediately falls on Horowitz and he is arrested for murder. His only hope is that Hawthorne can find the real culprit and clear his name – but what will Hawthorne expect in return?

I think this could be my favourite of the four books in this series. I loved the theatrical setting and I found the mystery a particularly interesting one. Just about everyone involved with the play Mindgame has both the motive and the opportunity to have killed Harriet and I enjoyed learning more about each of the suspects – I did pick up on some of the clues, but certainly not all of them and I didn’t guess who the murderer was until the truth was revealed in an Agatha Christie-style denouement at the end of the book. Mindgame is a real play written by Horowitz which was first performed in 1999, although in this book it’s presented as a new work and the actors, director and events of the opening night are fictional. It sounds like a fascinating play and I’m tempted to read it, although it sounds like one that would have to be seen on stage to fully appreciate.

Daniel Hawthorne remains a private, secretive person, as he has from the beginning of the series, but with each book a few more facts about him are uncovered. In this book, Horowitz has the chance to spend some time in Hawthorne’s home and makes one or two intriguing discoveries which I’m sure will be explored further in the next book. I’m assuming there will be a next book – in fact, there were hints at the end of this one that we could have several more to look forward to. I hope so, although I would still prefer another book about Susan Ryeland and Atticus Pünd to follow Magpie Murders and Moonflower Murders!

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

Book #1 read for R.I.P. XVII

Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie

August’s theme for the Read Christie 2022 challenge is ‘a story set in a hot climate’, so the recommended title, Destination Unknown, which is set in North Africa, was the perfect choice. I was a bit apprehensive about reading this one because it doesn’t seem to get very good reviews and it’s certainly not one of Christie’s better known novels (in fact it’s one of only four of her books never to have been adapted for TV or film), but I found it entertaining enough.

We first meet our heroine, Hilary Craven, in a Casablanca hotel room, preparing to commit suicide. Her daughter has died, her marriage has broken down and she feels she has nothing to live for. Before she can go through with her plans, however, she is interrupted by Jessop, a British secret agent. Jessop has noticed a resemblance between Hilary and another woman, Olive Betterton, who has been fatally injured in a plane crash, and he has an interesting suggestion to make…

It is believed that Olive was on her way to Morocco to join her husband, Thomas Betterton, a renowned nuclear physicist who recently went missing in Paris. Betterton is one of several scientists from around the world who have all disappeared without trace. Jessop wants Hilary Craven to impersonate the dying woman in the hope that she will be able to locate Betterton and the other missing scientists. With nothing to lose, Hilary agrees.

As you can probably tell from my synopsis of the plot, this is not a murder mystery like most of Christie’s other books and it does not feature any of her famous characters such as Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple or Tommy and Tuppence. It’s much more of a thriller, with elements of spy/espionage fiction. I really enjoyed the first half of the novel – although the plot is undoubtedly a bit far-fetched and unlikely, I do like a good impersonation story and was interested to see how Hilary would cope with her task and where following Betterton’s trail would lead her to. I also loved the descriptions of Morocco and wished we could have spent more time in Casablanca and Fez before Hilary’s adventures took her off into the High Atlas mountains:

All about her were the walls of old Fez. Narrow winding streets, high walls, and occasionally, through a doorway, a glimpse of an interior or a courtyard, and moving all around her were laden donkeys, men with their burdens, boys, women veiled and unveiled, the whole busy secret life of this Moorish city. Wandering through the narrow streets she forgot everything else, her mission, the past tragedy of herself, even her life.

As is typical of Christie, the plot takes lots of twists and turns, there are some surprises and we are never sure which of the many characters Hilary meets can and cannot be trusted. However, later in the book, when we discover what has happened to the missing scientists, it all becomes quite bizarre and I felt that the motive behind the disappearances was quite weak and implausible. Remembering that the book was published in 1954, though, the world war which ended less than ten years earlier must have been on Christie’s mind, as well as post-war politics and the Cold War; there are references to creating a ‘new world order’ and a mysterious figure whose charisma and power of oration makes Hilary think of Hitler.

Hilary herself is less engaging than the heroines of some of Christie’s other thrillers, such as Anne Beddingfield in The Man in the Brown Suit and Victoria Jones in They Came to Baghdad, and the book overall is not as much fun as those two. I find the thrillers a nice change from the mysteries, though, and I did enjoy this one despite finding the first half much stronger than the second. I’m not sure whether I’ll take part in Read Christie in September – the theme is ‘a story with a female adventurer’ and the group read is They Came to Baghdad which, as I’ve just mentioned, I’ve already read (and loved, but don’t want to read again just yet). I might see if there’s an alternative title I could read to fit that theme instead, or maybe I’ll wait and join in again in October.

This is book 13/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

Death in the Andamans by M. M. Kaye

This is the sixth and final book in M.M. Kaye’s Death In… series. I’ve now read all of them and although this one, Death in the Andamans, is not my favourite it’s another that I’ve enjoyed. If you’re new to these books, don’t worry about reading them in order – they are all completely separate, standalone novels, the only connection between them being that they’re all murder mysteries featuring a young female protagonist and set in countries the author had personally visited.

Copper Randall is working as a typist in a London office when she receives an unexpected inheritance from an uncle and decides to spend some of the money on a visit to the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean. Her friend, Valerie Masson, is the stepdaughter of the Chief Commissioner there and has invited Copper to stay with them at Government House on Ross Island, the administrative capital of the Andamans (at this time, the Andamans, like the rest of India, are still under British control). Copper arrives just in time for Christmas and, on Christmas Eve, attends a picnic with the other British people on the island – a community which includes Valerie’s fiancé Charles and his friend Nick, who has become Copper’s own love interest.

As the picnic breaks up and the group begin to return home, some by road and some by boat, they are caught in a sudden, violent storm. One of the party is swept overboard and presumed drowned, but as the others reach the safety of Government House and take shelter there, they start to wonder whether it really was an accidental death. Cut off from the rest of the islands by the weather, Copper and her friends must try to identify the murderer before they have a chance to kill again.

There are plenty of suspects, the most obvious being the dead man’s cousin, who stands to inherit his coconut plantation if no will is found. But of course, there are other people who also had the opportunity, although their motives are less clear. There are lots of clues, lots of red herrings and lots of creeping around in the middle of the night listening to footsteps and creaking floorboards (this sort of scene seems to be a speciality of Kaye’s, appearing several times in almost every book in the series!). I didn’t solve the mystery, although the culprit was one of several people I had suspected throughout the novel. Once the villain was revealed, though, I felt that the conclusion was too drawn-out with various characters taking turns to give explanations and tie up loose ends.

Like most of the other Death In… books, this one provides a snapshot of the British Empire in its final days, although she doesn’t really explore the local politics or the effects of colonialism here the way she does in Death in Kashmir or Death in Kenya. You do have to put up with some of the attitudes of the time – the sense of entitlement, the dismissal of the local people as superstitious and uneducated, as well as some sexism with Copper and Valerie’s two boyfriends, Nick and Charles, determined to keep the women out of danger. Charles also has an irritating habit of speaking like someone from a PG Wodehouse novel (deliberately – we are told that he’s been modelling his conversation on the books he’s found in the library, ‘an institution that would appear to have been last stocked during the frivolous twenties by a fervent admirer of such characters as Bertie Wooster’.).

However, the descriptions of the Andaman Islands are beautiful: the breeze ‘whispering through the mango trees’, the ‘tall, feathery clusters of bamboo’, the beach with its ‘clear, glassy water that shivered to a lace of foam about the dark shelves of rock’. Kaye really excels at creating a strong sense of place – I think only Daphne du Maurier and Mary Stewart are as good! The way she describes the approach of the storm, with its torrential rain and hurricane-force winds is particularly dramatic.

In her author’s note, Kaye describes how she came to write this novel; it was inspired by a visit to the Andamans in the 1930s, when her friend’s father was posted there as Chief Commissioner (the character of Valerie is clearly based on the friend). However, due to the outbreak of World War II, the book didn’t get published until 1960 – originally under the title of Night on the Island and then again in 1985 as Death in the Andamans. This explains why the novel feels much older than the publication date would suggest.

Not the best book in the series, then, but still an entertaining read.

This is book 3/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

The Dark by Sharon Bolton

She’s back! After an eight year absence – during which time Sharon Bolton has written several excellent standalone crime novels – Lacey Flint has returned in possibly her darkest and most dangerous case yet. It’s the fifth book in the series and after such a long wait, I’m pleased to report that I think it’s as good, maybe even better, than the previous four.

In The Dark, Lacey is still working as a police constable for the Metropolitan Police Marine Unit, not yet ready to consider going back to her old role as a detective. When a baby is snatched from its parents and thrown into the River Thames, Lacey is there to prevent a tragedy, but the incident leaves the police and the public shocked and confused. Who would want to harm an innocent baby? They don’t have to wait long for an answer; it soon emerges that the attack was carried out by a newly formed terrorist group calling themselves MenMatter. The group believe that men’s rights are being pushed aside and that women’s freedoms need to be restricted so that ‘natural order’ can be restored. The abduction of the baby was just the first of several terrorist attacks aimed at gaining publicity for their cause.

As DCI Mark Joesbury and his team at the London Met race against time to discover who is behind MenMatter, on the streets of London tensions between men and women begin to grow. It seems the terrorists are succeeding at creating fear and division; nobody is safe, but with her heroics on the river Lacey appears to have made herself a particular target. As she and Joesburys’ team try to identify the leaders of the group, Lacey discovers that her own secrets are at risk of being exposed. Can she help bring the criminals to justice while also ensuring that Joesbury never learns the truth about her past?

The Dark has a very topical plot; I’m sure it must have been inspired by the debate surrounding the murder of Sarah Everard in the UK last year, when questions were raised over the safety of women on the streets, as well as other 21st century policing problems such as the use of the dark web to plan and launch terrorist attacks and the growing online community of ‘incels’ (involuntary celibates). The scenarios Bolton describes seem almost dystopian but also frighteningly believable and possible. However, she doesn’t try to paint all men as misogynistic or violent and fans of the series will be pleased to know that Mark Joesbury is as wonderful as ever!

As well as some heart-stopping dramatic sequences which really made me fear for some of the characters’ lives, the novel also has a mystery element, with the police trying to uncover the identity of the incel leader behind the attacks. I had my suspicions and was proved to be correct, but that didn’t take away any of the tension as I waited to see when Lacey and the others would come to the same conclusion! It was particularly fascinating to watch Georgie, one of Joesbury’s team, use her knowledge of psychology and language patterns to form theories about online identities.

Of course, one of the highlights of the Lacey Flint series is Lacey Flint herself! In this book, Lacey’s secretive nature makes her particularly vulnerable and leads her to make some decisions that at first seem stupid and reckless but are actually the result of her desperation to conceal the truth about her troubled past. I wonder if this really is the last book in the series this time; it has quite a satisfying ending but there are still plenty of loose ends that haven’t been tied up and I would love to read more. On the other hand, I also love Sharon Bolton’s standalones so will be very happy to read whatever she writes next!

If you’re new to this series, you might like to start with the first book – Now You See Me.

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

In Place of Fear by Catriona McPherson

Catriona McPherson is an author I’ve wanted to try for a while; I keep seeing her books on other blogs I follow and they always sound interesting. Her latest novel, In Place of Fear, turned out to be a good one for me to start with; it’s a fascinating historical mystery set in Edinburgh just after World War II.

It’s 1948 and Helen Crowther is about to start a new job as medical almoner for the newly formed National Health Service. Working alongside two doctors, Dr Deuchar and Dr Strasser, Helen will be making home visits to patients, giving them advice and ensuring that they get the help they need – a role similar to a modern-day social worker. She’s looking forward to the new job, but at the same time she knows there are going to be difficulties: first of all, she will have to convince the disbelieving public that healthcare under the new NHS really is free and they no longer need to worry about paying for their treatment; she also has to contend with the disapproval of her mother, who wishes she would get a job in a factory like other working class women. It comes as a relief when Dr Strasser offers Helen the upstairs flat in an empty building he owns, so that she and her husband, Sandy, can move out of her parents’ overcrowded house at last.

Helen’s marriage has not been a particularly happy one so far; Sandy has spent several years in a POW camp and since returning to Scotland has been struggling to cope with married life. Helen hopes the situation will improve now that they can be alone together, but just as she and Sandy are beginning to settle into their new home, she discovers the body of a young woman in the air raid shelter in the garden! The doctor is summoned and after examining the body he decides that it was suicide, but Helen is not convinced. Who is this young woman and how did she die? Helen is determined to find out, even though everyone else seems equally determined to cover up what has happened.

The mystery aspect of this novel takes a while to get started and never really becomes the main focus of the book until near the end when Helen begins to uncover some secrets that have remained hidden for several years. However, I thought it was a very intriguing mystery and although I had my suspicions as to who the culprit might be, I was unable to guess the other parts of the solution. Looking at other reviews of the book, it seems that a lot of readers were disappointed that the crime element wasn’t stronger but this didn’t really bother me as I was finding it so interesting to read about life in 1940s Edinburgh and the beginnings of the NHS. There’s also a heavy use of Scottish dialect which I suppose people will either like or they won’t, but I thought it added to the strong sense of time and place and I found it easy enough to follow what was being said.

A lot of time is spent on Helen’s visits to people in the community, particularly young mothers and those who are hoping to become mothers, so that she can advise them on diet and hygiene and make sure they are receiving the medical care they’re entitled to. I wasn’t familiar with the role of medical almoners before reading this book, so I found it fascinating to learn about what the job involved. Before 1948, the almoner would assess patients to decide how much they could afford to pay, but with the birth of a health service that was ‘free at the point of use’ this became unnecessary and the almoner could devote more time to actually helping the patients with their medical and welfare needs. However, Helen sometimes goes above and beyond what is required and sometimes she makes mistakes or is seen as interfering in things that are none of her business. It was watching her going about her daily work and trying to decide how to handle each difficult situation that I found particularly enjoyable, so it didn’t matter to me that the mystery was so slow to develop.

I would like to try more of Catriona McPherson’s books. If you’ve read any of them, please let me know which one I should read next!

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 24/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

This is the book that was chosen for me to read in the recent Classics Club Spin – a result I was very pleased with, having loved two other novels by Dorothy B. Hughes, The Expendable Man and Ride the Pink Horse (two of my books of the year in 2020 and 2021 respectively).

Originally published in 1947, In a Lonely Place is set in Los Angeles just after World War II. Dix Steele, who had served as a fighter pilot in the Air Force, is staying in an apartment belonging to an old acquaintance, Mel Terriss, who has gone to Rio for a while. Like many young men who have returned from the war, Dix has been left damaged by his experiences and is taking advantage of the peace and quiet to finish writing his new crime novel. At least, that’s what he tells people. It is quickly made obvious to the reader that the writing is a cover for something else and that Dix is actually spending his time doing something very different.

Deciding to contact a wartime friend, Brub Nicolai, who also lives in LA, Dix is surprised to learn that Brub is now working as a police detective. Brub is delighted to renew their friendship, introducing Dix to his wife, Sylvia, and telling him about the case he is investigating – a series of stranglings that have been taking place across the city. Dix is envious of Brub’s close relationship with Sylvia, which serves as a constant reminder of his own sense of loneliness and isolation. When he meets Laurel Gray, a beautiful young actress who lives in his apartment building, it seems that he has a chance to form a new relationship of his own…if Laurel can avoid becoming the strangler’s next victim.

I had high hopes for this novel and it certainly didn’t disappoint! I’ve actually found it quite a difficult book to write about because I’m not sure what would be considered a spoiler and what wouldn’t. Having said that, there’s not really a lot of mystery involved; we know from very early in the book who the murderer is – the suspense is in waiting to find out how, if and when they will get caught. However, there are still a few surprises and some revelations that don’t come until later in the story. All three of the books I’ve read by Hughes have been so much than just straightforward crime novels; she takes us right inside the minds of her characters and although they may be damaged, unhappy and not the most pleasant of people, she makes them feel believable and real, if not exactly sympathetic!

This book is wonderfully atmospheric – dark and tense and with the reader, like Dix, wondering who can be trusted and who knows more than they’re admitting to. It’s another great read and I’ll look forward to reading more by Dorothy B. Hughes.

This is book 28/50 read from my second Classics Club list