The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels by Janice Hallett

Imagine you find a box of documents that make up the research material for a true crime book. After reading them, you see that the book will shed new light on the eighteen-year-old case of the Alperton Angels – but what will you do next? Destroy the documents? Or hand them over to the police? This is the premise of Janice Hallett’s new novel, The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels. It’s fascinating, but Hallett has a style all of her own which can take a while to get used to. I knew what to expect as I loved her previous novel, The Twyford Code – one of my favourite books of 2022 – and I think I enjoyed this one even more.

The case of the Alperton Angels involved a cult led by a man who called himself the Angel Gabriel, two vulnerable teenagers and a baby they believed to be the Antichrist. When true crime writer Amanda Bailey is commissioned to write a book for a new series re-assessing historic crimes, she decides to write about the Alperton Angels from the perspective of the baby, who is now about to turn eighteen. The only problem is, she has no idea where the baby is – or even who they are. Even worse, she discovers that one of her rivals, Oliver Menzies, is working on the same book from the same angle. Who will find the baby first and uncover the truth behind the Alperton Angels?

The whole novel is presented as Amanda’s collection of research material: emails, letters, WhatsApp messages, and even excerpts from books and film scripts. Where she has met and interviewed people involved in the case, these conversations are transcribed by her assistant Ellie, who adds her own amusing observations and asides. This modern, multimedia style of storytelling is not something that would usually sound appealing to me, but in Janice Hallett’s hands I love it. And actually, when I think about it, it’s really just an updated form of the classic epistolary novels I’ve always enjoyed, so there’s no reason why I shouldn’t like it!

Despite the fragmentary style, I could still get a feel for the personalities of the main characters – Amanda persistent and tenacious, Oliver gullible and easily led, and Ellie witty and down to earth – but there’s also a sense that there’s a lot we’re not being told. How much can you trust what someone says in an email or in an interview where they know they’re being recorded? Similarly, the facts behind the case of the Alperton Angels are unravelled very slowly, one little piece of information at a time, and with many of the suspects and witnesses following their own agenda, we don’t even know if what we are reading is true or will be proved false later in the book. Things do eventually start to come together and make sense – and if you continue to the end, you’ll be rewarded with some great twists!

I found The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels completely gripping and difficult to put down, particularly as there are no traditional chapter breaks so no logical places to stop. Now I’m looking forward to reading Janice Hallett’s first novel, The Appeal.

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

Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie

A new year means the start of a new Agatha Christie challenge! Read Christie 2023 is hosted by the official Agatha Christie site and this year the focus is on methods and motives. The theme for January is jealousy and the chosen book is Sad Cypress. However, I read that one quite recently so I’ve gone with one of the alternative suggestions for this month, Cards on the Table.

Published in 1936, this is a Poirot novel, but it also features three of Christie’s other recurring characters, all of whom work together to solve the mystery. They are Superintendent Battle, the Scotland Yard detective; former Army officer and intelligence agent, Colonel Race; and Ariadne Oliver, the famous crime author. All three, along with Poirot, are invited to a dinner party hosted by Mr Shaitana, a wealthy man known as a collector of rare objects. He tells Poirot that he will also be inviting a collection of criminals – four people he believes have committed murder but never been caught.

During the party, the eight guests divide into two groups and sit down to play bridge. Several hours later, Mr Shaitana, who wasn’t participating, is found dead in his chair by the fire – stabbed with a small dagger by one of his guests while the others were engrossed in their game. The four sleuths can obviously be ruled out, but any one of the other four could be the murderer. To get to the truth, Poirot and his friends must investigate the background of each suspect to see whether Shaitana was correct and each of them had already killed before.

Cards on the Table begins with a foreword in which Christie explains that unlike most crime novels where the least likely suspect is usually the culprit, this book has four suspects who are all equally likely. They have all (allegedly) committed murder in the past, so all have a motive – fear that Shaitana will expose their previous crimes to the other guests. There’s Dr Roberts, who may or may not have been responsible for the death of at least one of his patients; Major Despard, whose expedition to the Amazon is shrouded in mystery; young Anne Meredith, who tries to cover up her reasons for leaving a previous job; and Mrs Lorrimer, an expert bridge player whose secrets prove particularly difficult to unearth. I suspected all of them at various points, but every time I thought I’d worked it out, Christie threw another twist into the story and I had to think again!

I loved the idea of having four different detectives working together in the same novel (it’s a shame Miss Marple and Tommy and Tuppence hadn’t been invited to the party too!) and each of them has a chance to contribute to the solving of the mystery. Colonel Race has a disappointingly small part, but we see a lot of Battle and Mrs Oliver – who is often described as a self-parody of Christie herself and provides an opportunity to comment on the writing of detective novels. Of course, it’s Poirot who correctly identifies the murderer in the end!

I enjoyed this book, but I think I would have enjoyed it even more if I’d had more knowledge of bridge, which is a game I don’t play and don’t really understand. Part of Poirot’s investigation revolves around the score cards and an analysis of each suspect’s playing style, so this meant very little to me. Luckily, though, it’s not completely essential to be able to follow all of this and there are other clues to piece together as well.

February’s Read Christie theme is ‘a blunt object’ and the group read will be Partners in Crime, which again is a book I’ve already read. I’ll wait until they reveal the alternative choices for the month and see if any appeal to me.

The Mysterious Mr Badman by W.F. Harvey

The British Library are doing a great job of bringing the work of obscure or long-forgotten authors back into print with their Crime Classics series and William Fryer Harvey is another. Better known for his horror stories such as The Beast with Five Fingers and August Heat, he also wrote a crime novel, The Mysterious Mr Badman, which was originally published in 1934. I was immediately drawn to this book not just by the title, but also the subtitle, A Yorkshire Bibliomystery!

As Martin Edwards points out in the introduction, this must be the only crime novel with a blanket manufacturer as the protagonist. His name is Athelstan Digby and as the novel opens he is visiting his nephew in the Yorkshire village of Keldstone. One day he offers to take charge of the village bookshop so the bookseller and his wife can go to a funeral. Digby is expecting a quiet, uneventful afternoon so he is amazed when three men separately enter the shop within the space of a few hours, all asking for a copy of the same book: Bunyan’s Life and Death of Mr Badman. Digby is unable to find this book on the shelves, but when a boy arrives at the shop later that day with a pile of old books to sell – including Mr Badman – he becomes even more suspicious. What is going on – and why is that particular book so important?

This is a short novel, so I won’t go into the plot in much more detail…except to say that it’s great fun. There are murders, incriminating letters, political conspiracies, a touch of romance and a lot of humour! With character names like Athelstan Digby, Euphemia Upstart, Olaf Wake and Kitchener Lilywhite, you can see that it’s not a book to be taken entirely seriously, but at the same time it’s a clever, interesting and well written novel and one of the most enjoyable I’ve read from the British Library Crime Classics series for a while. Just be aware that it’s more of a thriller than a conventional detective novel; the mystery is actually solved quite early in the book and the significance of Mr Badman and the identity of the villain are revealed much sooner than you would expect. The fun is in watching Digby team up with his nephew Jim Pickering and Jim’s love interest Diana Conyers to try to decide what they should do with the information they’ve obtained.

As always when I read mysteries written in this period, I was struck by not only how much more difficult some aspects of crime-solving were in those days (no internet, no DNA testing) but also how much easier other aspects were. It was far simpler to trace a particular car when there were so few of them on the roads and everyone would notice an unfamiliar one driving through their village. I really enjoyed watching Digby, Jim and Diana investigate the mystery using the methods available to them in the 1930s, even if they occasionally walk straight into traps that are quite obvious to anyone who reads a lot of Golden Age crime fiction! I also loved the Yorkshire setting, although not all of the novel is set there.

Although, as I’ve said, Harvey is better known as a horror writer, it seems that the character of Digby previously appeared in a book of short stories, The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby. I hope that one will become available as a BLCC book soon too.

The Buried by Sharon Bolton

Two new Sharon Bolton books in one year! I loved The Dark, the latest in Bolton’s Lacey Flint series, which was published in the spring – and now, with The Buried, she returns to her Florence Lovelady series. I’ve been waiting for this sequel since I read The Craftsman in 2018 and had almost given up hope of it ever appearing, but here it is at last. It was definitely worth the wait!

The Buried begins in the summer of 1999, with Florence Lovelady visiting Larry Glassbrook in prison. Florence, now a senior police officer with the London Met, was responsible for Larry’s conviction thirty years earlier for the murder of three teenagers in Sabden, Lancashire. Now the remains of four more children have been discovered and Florence is confused. Are these more of Larry’s victims or are the remains more recent, meaning that the real killer is still on the loose? Also, the bodies were found in the grounds of Black Moss Manor Children’s Home, which Florence had helped to close down in 1969 after finding evidence of neglect and cruelty. What does this mean and how can she discover the identity of the children?

Soon after Florence’s visit, Larry Glassbrook dies of cancer and preparations are made for his funeral. His daughter Cassie returns to Sabden after a long absence and immediately sets her sights on John Donnelly, whom she loved as a teenager and who is now a married man with children. Cassie herself has become a successful songwriter, but she has never quite managed to put the past behind her and still has questions about some of the things that happened in Sabden thirty years ago.

The first section of the book alternates between Florence and Cassie during the build up to Larry’s funeral and I have to admit, I felt very confused. I found that I’d forgotten most of The Craftsman and I kept coming across references to people and events I couldn’t remember at all. Who was Marigold? What was Florence’s involvement with Black Moss Manor? I had no memories of those things at all, but they were obviously important. Then I discovered that I wasn’t supposed to remember them as they didn’t actually form part of the plot of The Craftsman. I just needed to be patient because the second section of the novel takes us back to 1969 and my questions about Marigold and Black Moss Manor were answered. The shifting timelines with various parts of this book set both before and after the events of The Craftsman means it works as both a sequel and, in a way, a prequel.

The 1969 storyline (which forms the main part of the novel) is excellent – Sharon Bolton at her best. I was completely gripped by Florence’s investigations into the allegations of abuse at the children’s home and the obstacles she faces in trying to get anybody to take her concerns seriously. The 1960s setting allows Bolton to explore the sexism and misogyny Florence faces as she tries to do her work; the other police officers are exclusively male – local men from Sabden who resent Florence’s university education, southern accent and the fact that she is a woman doing what they consider a man’s job. Meanwhile, we get to know Sally Glassbrook, Cassie’s mother, who is struggling to cope after Larry’s arrest and imprisonment. As the family of a convicted murderer, Sally and her daughters are in a vulnerable position and find themselves having to fend off the unwanted attentions of Roy Greenwood, Larry’s former business partner.

Finally, I need to mention the supernatural elements! The way The Craftsman ended made me think these were going to be a major part of the second book, but things didn’t go quite as far in that direction as I’d expected and the crimes committed are all very human ones. We do see more of the coven of witches who are operating in Sabden (Pendle Hill, site of the famous 17th century witch trials, casts its shadow over the town), the influence of the mysterious and sinister group known as the Craftsmen, and Florence’s own seeming ability to communicate with the dead, but I didn’t think these elements dominated the story too much. However, they are there and won’t appeal to everyone. I would say these books are closer in tone to Bolton’s early standalones such as Sacrifice and Awakening than they are to the Lacey Flint novels or her other recent thrillers.

I loved this book once I managed to get back into the story, but I would definitely recommend reading The Craftsman first – or re-reading it if, like me, you read it several years ago and can’t remember the details.

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

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.