Casanova and the Faceless Woman by Olivier Barde-Cabuçon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy.

The Return of Mr Campion by Margery Allingham

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

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

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

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

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

Death in Kenya by M.M. Kaye

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death of a Doll by Hilda Lawrence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Death Came Too by Richard Hull

Richard Hull’s The Murder of My Aunt was one of my favourite books read in 2018; I loved the humour, the narrative voice and the clever plot twists and couldn’t wait to read more of the author’s classic crime novels. The one I chose next was And Death Came Too, which has recently been reissued by Agora Books.

First published in 1939, the novel gets off to a very intriguing start, introducing us to four friends who are attending a series of charity balls at Trevenant Hall when they receive an invitation from a neighbour, Arthur Yeldham, who has recently moved into nearby Y Bryn House. The four – Martin Hands and his sister Patricia; Patricia’s fiancé Gerald Lansley; and a friend, Barbara Carmichael – don’t really want to go, but reluctantly accept and set off together for Y Bryn.

On their arrival, they are surprised to find that there is no sign of their host. Instead, there are two strangers sitting at the table: a man playing a game of solitaire who says his name is Mr Salter, and a mysterious woman whose name nobody knows. As you can imagine, the conversation is extremely awkward, especially when the unknown woman suddenly stands up and leaves with no explanation. Next, a police constable enters the room and helps himself to a drink before announcing that there has been a murder: Arthur Yeldham has been found dead in his study but no weapon has been found and the time of death is unclear. With at least six suspects to choose from – and a range of clues which could point the way to the truth or be complete red herrings – it’s not going to be an easy mystery to solve.

At this point I was anticipating another unusual and original novel like The Murder of My Aunt, but apart from the fascinating opening scenes this was a much more conventional detective story. I still enjoyed following the investigations and sorting through the clues, but in the second half of the novel it became quite obvious who the murderer was and I wasn’t at all surprised when the truth was revealed. The ending was very abrupt as well; the story just seemed to end in the middle of a conversation!

The main characters in the novel – the four friends and the two strangers they encounter at Yeldham’s house – have interesting backgrounds and motives, although none of the six are very likeable. We don’t see any of them getting very involved in amateur investigations – all of that is left to the police, and one element of the book which I did find slightly unusual is that we meet so many different policemen! There are several of them, some local and some from Scotland Yard, of different positions and ranks, all working on separate aspects of the crime. The competition and rivalry between them added another layer of interest to the novel, although on the other hand I think I prefer having just one or two detectives to follow and get to know.

This is a perfectly good, solid murder mystery novel, but I was slightly disappointed with it because, based on my previous experience of Richard Hull, I had hoped for something more imaginative. I will probably still try one or two more of his books. I like the sound of The Ghost It Was and Keep It Quiet, also from Agora Books. Has anyone read either of those – or any other Richard Hull novels?

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

Savage Magic by Lloyd Shepherd

Savage Magic, published in 2014, is Lloyd Shepherd’s third historical mystery to feature Charles Horton of the Thames River Police. The books all stand alone, so if you’ve never come across this series before you could easily read this one first without having read the previous two. Having said that, I found the other two – The English Monster and The Poisoned Island – much stronger and wouldn’t recommend starting here.

After a brief prologue, Savage Magic opens in London in 1814 with Abigail Horton entering Brooke House, a ‘private madhouse for the deranged’. She has made the decision to do this voluntarily as she has been suffering from visions of a wild, savage woman, haunting her dreams and pursuing her through her waking hours. Afraid she is losing her sanity, Abigail hopes she can receive the help she needs at Brooke House, but her husband, Constable Horton, is hurt when he discovers that she has done this without confiding in him first.

Meanwhile, Horton’s superior, the magistrate Aaron Graham, is also concerned about his own wife, who has left him to go and live with her new lover, taking their young daughter with her. Graham has heard some very disturbing rumours about Thorpe Lee House, where his wife and daughter are now living, and he sends Horton off to investigate. Horton has barely left London when a murder takes place, under the strangest of circumstances. A wealthy, aristocratic gentleman is found dead in his own bed, wearing a satyr’s mask on his face. This is only the first in a series of similar murders in which all of the victims are from the same social circle and all disguised by a mask. With Horton gone, Graham is left to investigate the killings himself.

At first, the separate strands of the story feel quite unconnected, with Graham trying to solve the London murders and Horton, miles away, becoming embroiled in accusations of witchcraft and hauntings at Thorpe Lee House. Eventually, everything begins to fall into place and we see how they are linked – and how the key to the entire mystery may lie in the events which occur behind the walls of Brooke House Asylum.

Reading back over what I’ve written above, I know this sounds like the sort of book I would usually enjoy…and yet I was disappointed. It’s possible that if I hadn’t loved Lloyd Shepherd’s first two novels so much, I might have liked this one more, but I’m not sure. The English Monster combined an investigation into the Ratcliffe Highway Murders with a pirate adventure in the Caribbean, while The Poisoned Island featured the story of a Tahitian prince. By comparison, I found this book less exotic, less exciting and lacking the originality of the previous two. It seemed like a much more conventional novel and, although I was pleased to see Abigail given a larger role to play, the asylum storyline is something I feel I’ve read several times before.

I do still like Lloyd Shepherd’s writing (despite the annoying use of present tense) and I love the way he creates atmosphere – the scenes which take place at the supposedly haunted Thorpe Lee House are particularly good and, knowing how Shepherd has used supernatural elements in his other books, I was kept wondering whether there really were witches at work or whether there was a more logical explanation. There was too much switching between one storyline and another, though; there were too many different threads to keep hold of and it took too long for them to start coming together.

The fourth book in the series, The Detective and the Devil, sounds more promising. I haven’t been put off reading it, but I’m not in any hurry either.

Blood & Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

This new historical mystery – Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s first novel – deals with one of the darkest subjects in our history. Set in 1781, it follows the investigations of former army officer Captain Harry Corsham into the disappearance of his friend, the lawyer and abolitionist Tad Archer. It seems that Tad had been about to uncover a secret that, once exposed, could damage the reputations of those involved in the British slave trade. Could someone have killed Tad to prevent him from telling what he knows?

Captain Corsham is determined to find out what has happened to his friend, but to do so he will need to continue Tad’s enquiries into a shocking incident which took place onboard a ship carrying slaves across the Atlantic. This brings him into conflict with some very powerful men who could destroy his hopes of a political career. But Harry Corsham is a man with principles and even when he, like Tad before him, begins to receive threatening letters and warnings, he refuses to walk away until he has discovered the truth.

There are many things I liked about Blood & Sugar. The setting and atmosphere are wonderful; with the action taking place partly in London, where Harry Corsham lives with his wife, Caro, and their young son, and partly in the nearby slaving port of Deptford, we see Harry move between both locations in search of answers to his questions. I loved the contrasting descriptions of Deptford, from the elegant homes of the wealthy slave merchants to the notorious dockside alleys with their brothels and opium dens.

We also meet a wide range of characters from very different backgrounds, including magistrates, politicians, mayors and surgeons, prostitutes, innkeepers, sailors and servants. Many of the latter group are black, which is interesting because I think we tend to forget (or are not aware of) how many black people there were living in eighteenth century Britain. It is estimated that there were more than twenty thousand in London alone, yet they rarely appear in fiction set during that period. As for the slavery aspect of the story, there are parts that are not easy to read, as you can probably imagine – particularly when we hear about what happened on the ship, something which is based on a real incident. But unpleasant as it is, we can’t ignore the fact that slavery did happen and I think it’s important that we remember and learn from it.

I was very impressed with this book at the beginning. I liked Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s writing, the mystery seemed intriguing and I was starting to draw comparisons with one of my favourite historical crime authors, Andrew Taylor. However, as the plot continued to develop, I thought it became far too complicated and I struggled to remember who had said what to whom and what the various motives of the characters were. Towards the end, there were so many threads to tie up that everything seemed to take forever to be resolved (and there were one or two revelations which added very little to the overall story and weren’t really necessary, in my opinion). I also felt that as there were so many characters to keep track of, they really needed to be better defined – instead, I thought they were thinly drawn and not very memorable.

I’m disappointed that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I thought I would at first, but I still think there were more positives than negatives and as this is the author’s first novel I would be happy to read more.

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