A Time to Die by Hilda Lawrence

This is the second of Hilda Lawrence’s three mystery novels featuring the private detective Mark East, but the last one I have read. Having previously enjoyed the first book, Blood Upon the Snow, and the third, Death of a Doll, I was hoping that this one would be just as good. It was originally published in 1945 and has been reissued by Agora Books as part of their Uncrowned Queens of Crime series.

Like Blood Upon the Snow, A Time to Die is set in the small town of Crestwood, near Bear River. Mark East, having solved a crime there the winter before, has returned in the summer to spend a few weeks with the friends he made during his previous visit. He’s looking forward to a nice relaxing break this time, but on the evening of his arrival he is invited to a charity supper at the church where two fellow guests – a child and an old woman – are struck by arrows during an archery contest. When, later that night, the Beacham family’s governess goes missing, it seems that the two incidents could be related. Aware that his peaceful holiday is quickly becoming much more eventful than he’d anticipated, Mark is reluctant to take on the case, but changes his mind when a body is discovered…

Of the three books in the Mark East series, I think this one is the weakest, but I did still find it entertaining. The plot is quite complex, or at least it seems to be at the beginning when I felt I was wading through a jumble of confusing and unconnected events and struggling to follow what was happening, but once things begin to fall into place and we learn a little bit more about the background of the missing governess, the story becomes much more compelling. The novel has a huge cast of characters (more than necessary really; a lot of them could probably have been left out without having any impact on the story), which means there are plenty of suspects and I didn’t guess who the murderer was before the solution was revealed.

If you haven’t read any of Hilda Lawrence’s novels yet, I would recommend reading Blood Upon the Snow before this one if you can. Many of the characters we meet in this book were introduced in the previous one and it’s also interesting to revisit the same community in two different seasons and see how life in the town has changed now that the cold, snowy winter weather has been exchanged for blazing summer heat. One thing that disappointed me, though, was that Beulah and Bessy, the two elderly spinsters who play important roles in solving the mysteries in the other two books, hardly appear at all in this one – I think we only see Bessy once or twice. It’s a shame because seeing them carrying out their own amateur detective work in parallel with Mark had been one of the highlights of this series.

Not my favourite by Hilda Lawrence, then, but I’m glad I discovered this series and I just wish she had written more than three of these books!

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

This is book 2/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

The Split by Sharon Bolton

Sharon Bolton is an author whose books I always enjoy, even though I don’t read a lot of contemporary crime fiction these days. I had expected her next book to be the promised sequel to 2018’s The Craftsman, but I was quite happy to find that The Split was a standalone thriller as her earlier standalones such as Sacrifice, Awakening and Little Black Lies have been some of my favourites.

The Split takes us to South Georgia, a remote and inhospitable island in the southern Atlantic Ocean where twenty-eight-year-old Felicity Lloyd is working as a glaciologist for the British Antarctic Survey. It’s fascinating work and Felicity knows she has been given a wonderful opportunity, but she also has another reason for accepting the job – a chance to put as much distance as possible between herself and Freddie, a man from her past of whom she is still afraid. However, it seems that even here, on the other side of the world, she has been unable to escape. Freddie is coming for her, on the last tourist boat of the summer, and has sent her a letter that fills her with fear:

My dearest Felicity,
Finally, I’ve found you. South Georgia? Wow! Know, my darling, that there is nowhere you can go that I won’t follow –

Who exactly is Freddie and what does he want with Felicity? We find out later in the book, but first we have to go back nine months in time to Cambridge where a series of murders has been committed. Felicity’s connection, if any, with these murders is unclear; all we do know is that she is still haunted by some previous traumatic experiences and has been attending sessions with a therapist. Eventually everything will be revealed, but before we get to that point there are plenty of the twists and turns that are to be expected from a Sharon Bolton novel.

When I first started to read this book it was the South Georgia setting that initially appealed to me, but although we are given some beautiful descriptions of the landscape and the cold, harsh environment, I found I wasn’t being drawn into the story as much as I would have liked. The details of whaling operations and Felicity’s research into glaciers didn’t really interest me – and being thrown straight into the middle of the story with no idea of who anybody was or what was happening didn’t help, even though I understood the reasons for that structure. It wasn’t until the action switched to Cambridge and the backgrounds of Felicity and the other characters began to be explored that I was able to settle into the novel and enjoy it.

I can’t really tell you much about the Cambridge section of the book as it would be too difficult to avoid spoilers, but it quickly becomes clear that we can’t rely on everything Felicity tells us because she has been left so badly scarred by her past experiences. Joe, her therapist, who is one of the other main characters whose perspective we see, has suffered his own recent traumas and it’s obvious that there is also more going on in his life than we are aware of at first. The truth about these two characters – and others, including Bamber, a wild and angry young woman who is very protective of Felicity, and Sean, a mysterious figure who stalks the streets of Cambridge at night – unfolds slowly, with everything coming together when we return to South Georgia in the dramatic final third of the novel. However, I found most of the twists quite easy to guess, which is unusual for a Sharon Bolton book and a bit disappointing.

This hasn’t become one of my favourites, then, but I did enjoy it after a slow start. I must find time to read Blood Harvest, the only one of her previous books I still haven’t read!

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

Mortmain Hall by Martin Edwards

Until recently I had only known Martin Edwards as the editor of the British Library Crime Classics anthologies, but he has also written a large number of crime novels of his own. This one, Mortmain Hall, is the second in a new series set in the 1930s and featuring Rachel Savernake, an amateur detective and daughter of a notorious judge. I hadn’t read the first book, Gallows Court, but I hoped that wouldn’t matter too much.

Beginning with an epilogue (not a prologue), and then a first chapter with the opening line “The ghost climbed out of a hackney carriage”, the novel was off to an intriguing start. As Rachel follows the ‘ghost’ into a station and onboard a train, a story begins to unfold of an author – Gilbert Payne – who faked his own death and escaped to Tangiers.

Just as I was becoming interested in Gilbert’s story, however, we leave him behind and join journalist Jacob Flint, who is in court watching a trial – a case of a possible miscarriage of justice. Also watching in court that day is Leonora Dobell, Britain’s leading criminologist who has an obsession with murder to equal Rachel’s own. Mrs Dobell has a particular interest in injustices, last minute acquittals and people who have narrowly escaped hanging. Descriptions of some of these trials follow, but we won’t find out how they are connected until the second half of the book, where Mrs Dobell invites a group of guests – including Rachel – to a house party at Mortmain Hall, her remote Gothic estate on the North Yorkshire court. But before the truth is revealed, another murder will take place…

Mortmain Hall is a fascinating murder mystery, but I do think it was a mistake to read it without having read Gallows Court first; I felt as though there must have been a lot of backstory for Rachel and the other characters that I didn’t understand. Add this to the number of different storylines introduced in the first few chapters of the book and the descriptions of various criminal trials, each with their own set of murderers, victims and witnesses, and I quickly found myself becoming confused. Eventually, though, all the threads of the novel began to come together and I could appreciate the cleverness and complexity of the plot.

The book ends with a ‘Cluefinder’ (a tradition in Golden Age detective novels), in which all of the clues that appeared throughout the story are listed and explained. I have to confess, I missed most of them, but I’m sure other readers will have been much more observant than I was!

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

Answer in the Negative by Henrietta Hamilton

It’s good to see so many forgotten authors of crime fiction being brought back into print by various publishers recently. Henrietta Hamilton is another one I had never heard of until I came across Answer in the Negative, originally published in 1959 and now available as part of Agora Books’ Uncrowned Queens of Crime series.

Set in the world of 1950s journalism, the novel follows husband and wife detective team Johnny and Sally Heldar, who are called in by their friend, Toby Lorn, to investigate a case of poison pen letters and practical jokes. Toby runs a newspaper cuttings agency in London’s Fleet Street, providing archived photographs to writers and publishers, and it is one of his assistants, Frank Morningside, who is the target of the nasty letters. Johnny and Sally quickly discover that there is no shortage of suspects as Morningside is disliked by so many of the other archive workers, but before they have time to identify the culprit, Morningside is found dead in the doorway of his office, having been hit on the head by a box of heavy glass negatives. Suddenly the Heldars find themselves investigating a murder case, but can they stop the murderer before he or she kills again?

Answer in the Negative is a short book and kept me entertained for a day or two, but it’s not one of the better ‘forgotten crime novels’ I’ve been reading lately. It got off to a promising start, but quickly became bogged down with repetitive discussions of alibis and lists of who was where at what time. I know other readers enjoy that sort of mystery more than I do, so it’s really just a matter of personal taste. The characterisation didn’t seem very strong either, which is a problem in a book where so many characters are introduced in a short space of time. Johnny and Sally themselves are likeable enough but they are no Tommy and Tuppence and I found the dialogue between them quite wooden. Their partnership is not a very equal one and it’s quite clear that Johnny is regarded as the detective and Sally as just his helper, but I was pleased to see that she does occasionally go off and have adventures of her own – even if Johnny isn’t very happy about it!

I did find the setting interesting and enjoyed the little insights we are given into 1950s life; it was particularly fascinating to see what was involved in archiving and the use of photographs in books and newspapers in an era before computers and digital images made everything available at our fingertips. For some reason, though, the constant references to ‘pix’ and ‘negs’ really irritated me! I know it’s realistic that the characters would have used that terminology for pictures and negatives, but it was so grating. Again, not something that will bother everyone, of course.

I don’t think Henrietta Hamilton is an author I would want to read again, but other reviews of this book are more positive than mine so I hope Agora will continue to publish her other titles for those who are enjoying them.

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

The January theme for the Read Christie 2020 challenge is ‘a book that changed Christie’s life’. The challenge is hosted by agathachristie.com and their selection for this month was Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, but that would be a re-read for me so I chose a different title from their list of alternative suggestions: Murder on the Orient Express!

Murder on the Orient Express is one of Christie’s best known books and has been adapted several times for television, film and stage, but this is precisely why I’ve been putting off reading it for so long – I already knew the solution to the mystery and thought that might affect my enjoyment of the book. Of course, no adaptation is going to be exactly the same as the written version, and once I started reading I could see that some parts of the story were familiar but not all of it.

At the beginning of the novel, Hercule Poirot is in Turkey when he receives a telegram requesting him to return to London. He attempts to book a first-class berth on the Orient Express which is leaving Istanbul that night, but is told that the train is unusually full. It is only with the assistance of Monsieur Bouc, the director of the railway company, who happens to be an old friend of Poirot’s, that he manages to obtain a space in a second-class compartment. Once on board the train, Poirot observes that his fellow passengers are a very diverse group of people of different nationalities, backgrounds and classes. Among them are an American businessman and his secretary, a Russian princess and her German maid, a British Colonel, a Hungarian Count and Countess and several others.

It is the American businessman, Mr Ratchett, who is found stabbed to death in his compartment just after the train comes to a stop in heavy snow near Vinkovci (in what was then part of Yugoslavia). It seems clear that the murderer must be one of the other passengers on the train, but which one? As Poirot begins to investigate, he uncovers clues that, rather than revealing the truth, seem to complicate things further – and the statements he takes from the passengers appear to contradict each other, making the situation even more confusing. Armed with only his ‘little grey cells’, can Poirot solve the mystery?

Yes, of course he can…and for once, so could I, thanks to already knowing the basic outline of the story before I began. It would certainly have been a better – or at least a different – experience to have read the book with no idea of who was responsible for the murder, but as that wasn’t possible, I still enjoyed watching Poirot sort through the evidence and put the pieces of the puzzle together. I think Christie does give us all the information we need, but it’s difficult to say whether I would have been able to guess the solution anyway. Probably not, as I usually don’t.

As well as the mystery, I loved the atmosphere of the book and the claustrophobic feel Christie creates with the simple idea of a train stuck in snow and a murderer onboard. The characterisation is interesting too, although some of the assumptions made about the actions and behaviour of the various suspects based on their nationality feel very dated – for example, M. Bouc’s theory that the murderer must be Italian because the knife is an Italian weapon and Poirot’s reply that he disagrees because the careful, long-term planning requires an ‘Anglo-Saxon brain’. It seems that every passenger on the train has formed a stereotypical view of each of the others and this gives us some insights into attitudes of the time (the book was published in 1934).

Going back to the theme of this month’s Read Christie 2020, I wondered how this book in particular was one that had ‘changed Christie’s life’. Well, it seems that the Orient Express itself did, as she travelled on the train in 1928 to attend an archaeological dig in Syria and it was during this trip that she met the man who would become her second husband. That can certainly be considered a life-changing experience! Anyway, I really enjoyed this book and am looking forward to February’s selection.

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B Hughes

This weekend Jessie of Dwell in Possibility has been hosting another Mini Persephone Readathon and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to read The Expendable Man, one of the thrillers published by Persephone and a book that I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. It turned out to be a great choice.

Published in 1963, the novel opens with a young doctor, Hugh Densmore, driving from Los Angeles to a family wedding in Phoenix. On the way, he spots a teenage girl standing alone at the side of the road. Hugh doesn’t usually stop for hitchhikers but this time he finds himself slowing down…

He simply could not in conscience go on, leaving her abandoned, with twilight fallen and night quick to come. He had sisters as young as this. It chilled him to think what might happen if one of them were abandoned on the lonesome highway, the type of man with whom, in desperation, she might accept a lift. The car was stopped. He shifted to reverse and began backing up.

Hugh quickly begins to regret this impulsive act of kindness. The girl is rude, ungrateful and, when he questions her about who she is and where she is going, it is clear that she is telling lies. When they arrive in Phoenix, Hugh leaves his hitchhiker at a bus station and doesn’t expect to see her again, but that night the girl tracks him down at his hotel, setting in motion a series of events that could ruin the life and career he has built up so carefully for himself.

There’s really not much more I can say about the plot or the characters. If you think you might want to read this book, it’s best that you know as little as possible before you begin. And I do highly recommend reading it! I was completely gripped from beginning to end; when I first picked it up on Friday and started reading, I didn’t expect to actually finish it before the Readathon was over, but as it happened that wasn’t a problem at all. I couldn’t bear to put the book down until I knew what was going to happen to Hugh.

There’s an element of mystery-solving to the novel, but The Expendable Man is much more than a straightforward crime story. A few chapters into the book, there’s a twist – or maybe revelation is a better word to use – that changed the way I felt about what I had read so far and showed me that I had made an unfair assumption without even being aware that I had made it. It was so cleverly done and provided answers to some of the things I’d been wondering about as I read those earlier chapters.

I also loved the author’s beautifully written descriptions of the landscape, particularly near the beginning when Hugh is driving into Arizona. This is the first book I’ve read by Dorothy B Hughes and I was very impressed with every aspect of it! I would like to read more of her books, so if there’s one you would recommend please let me know.

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!