The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis

I love historical mysteries but have never felt drawn to Lindsey Davis’ Falco series as the setting – Ancient Rome – is not one of my favourites. Recently, though, I have discovered a few books set in Rome that I’ve enjoyed and have been open to reading more, so I thought I would give the first book, The Silver Pigs, a try. When I noticed that my library had the first four in the series available to download as audiobooks, I decided that as I was stepping slightly out of my comfort zone anyway with the Roman setting, I may as well step out of it completely with a format I usually avoid.

Audiobooks tend not to work for me because I find that my attention wanders more easily when I’m listening to a book than it does when I’m reading it on paper, but I did my best to concentrate on this one and was mostly successful. It is read by the British actor Christian Rodska and although I wasn’t sure about his voice at first (he sounded too old for the thirty-year-old Falco) I changed my mind after a while and decided that his voice was well suited to the down to earth, humorous style of the writing.

The novel opens in the year 70 AD with an encounter between our narrator, ‘private informer’ Marcus Didius Falco, and a young woman who is being chased through the Forum. After helping her to escape from her pursuers, Falco learns that the girl’s name is Sosia Camillina and that she is the niece of a powerful senator. It seems that Sosia has become embroiled in a conspiracy involving a secret stockpile of silver ingots (known as ‘silver pigs’) – a conspiracy which could pose a threat to the rule of the Emperor Vespasian.

To find out who is behind the plot, Falco is sent to the silver mines of Britannia, something he is less than thrilled about because Britannia is a cold, miserable place in winter. During his time there he meets the senator’s daughter Helena Justina, Sosia’s cousin, an intelligent, opinionated young woman to whom Falco takes an instant dislike – and the feeling is mutual. Given the job of escorting her back to Rome, Falco is unsure which task will give him more trouble: solving the mystery of the silver pigs or dealing with Helena!

As I’ve said, Ancient Rome is not one of my usual subjects when it comes to reading historical fiction, so this was an educational read for me as well as an entertaining one. Knowing that Lindsey Davis seems to be highly regarded for her research and accuracy, I could trust that what I was learning was correct (apparently since the book was first published in 1989 new evidence emerged showing that the description she gives of the process used in the formation of silver pigs may not be accurate, but that’s just proof of how our knowledge of history is still changing and evolving).

I wasn’t sure what to think of Falco as a character; I found him a bit off-putting in the opening chapters where his first thought on seeing sixteen-year-old Sosia Camillina is that she’s ‘wearing far too many clothes’ and then, when she tells him she’s not married, he thinks ‘she looked like a person who soon should be’. As I read on, though, I found that he is maybe not quite the sophisticated womaniser he wants us to think he is, but a young man who is trying to get out from under the thumb of his domineering mother and the shadow of his late brother, the military hero Didius Festus, and who is a beloved uncle to his little niece Marcia.

The mystery itself didn’t really interest me, to the point where I started to lose track of what was happening towards the end, although that could have been partly because, as I’ve mentioned, I find it harder to concentrate on the spoken word than the written word. This is the first book in the series, though, so it’s possible that some of the later ones have stronger plots. I will try the second one, but probably in traditional book format rather than audiobook.

Since I finished The Silver Pigs, it has been announced that there are plans for a new adaptation of the Falco novels by ITV and Mammoth Screen, so it seems I have chosen a good time to start reading them!

Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie

This is one of the Christie novels I have been particularly looking forward to reading, as so many people list it amongst their favourites. I had hoped to read it last month as it was September’s selection for the 2019 Read Christie Challenge, but it ended up having to be an October read for me instead.

Published in 1942, Five Little Pigs is one of Christie’s Poirot mysteries, but it is slightly different from the others in that Poirot is trying to solve a crime which took place many years before the novel opens. Carla Lemarchant has received a letter from her mother, Caroline, who has died in prison while serving a life sentence for the murder of her husband, Amyas Crale, sixteen years ago. In the letter, Caroline assures her daughter of her innocence – and because Carla knows that her mother was always a woman who told the truth, she believes her. Hoping to find out what really happened, Carla approaches Hercule Poirot and asks him to investigate.

This is not Poirot’s usual sort of mystery – there is no active crime scene to visit and any evidence is likely to have been lost or destroyed long ago – but he agrees to Carla’s request. He begins by collecting statements from the five people who, other than Caroline, had been present on the day of the murder: the stockbroker Phillip Blake and his reclusive brother Meredith; Elsa Greer, with whom Amyas Crale was thought to be having an affair; the governess Cecelia Williams; and Caroline’s younger sister, Angela, who was just a teenager at the time. If Caroline was innocent, then one of these five must have been the murderer – but will it still be possible to identify the real culprit now that so much time has passed?

I can understand why Five Little Pigs is so highly regarded by Christie fans. The characterisation is excellent; the suspects are well drawn and have believable motives for wanting Amyas dead, and there is evidence of character development too, in the contrast between their present day selves and the people they had been sixteen years earlier. The structure is clever too – the statement each character writes is given in full and although I thought at first that I would find it repetitive reading about the same events five times in a row, that wasn’t really a problem. Each account of that fateful day is slightly different and each one makes us question what we were told in the previous one. It’s only once Poirot has all five accounts in front of him and has spoken to all five of the writers in person that he can piece everything together and solve the mystery.

I enjoyed this book but it hasn’t become a personal favourite and there are other Poirots I’ve liked more. The problem I had with this one was that, although I appreciated the structure and the characters, I didn’t find the mystery itself particularly imaginative or entertaining. I thought The ABC Murders and Dumb Witness both had better plots, to give two examples that I’ve read this year for the Read Christie challenge. Having just caught up with September’s book at the end of October, I am going to skip October’s book for the challenge (a new short story collection, The Last Séance) and will wait to see what November’s choice will be.

And if you’re wondering, the title of Five Little Pigs refers to the fact that the five suspects remind Poirot of the children’s rhyme, “This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed at home; This little piggy had roast beef, this little piggy had none; And this little piggy went ‘wee wee wee’ all the way home!”

This is book #6 read for this year’s R.I.P. event.

The Canary Keeper by Clare Carson

Clare Carson has previously written a trilogy of thrillers (the Sam Coyle trilogy) set in contemporary Orkney. I haven’t read those, but the title and cover of her new novel, The Canary Keeper, caught my attention and when I investigated I found that this one is a historical crime novel, still set in Orkney but during the Victorian period. I love a good Victorian mystery, so of course I had to give it a try.

The story begins in London in 1855, with the body of Tobias Skaill being found dumped in the Thames. Witnesses report seeing the body thrown from a canoe – surely the work of an Esquimaux! The suspect has disappeared without trace, but it seems he may have had an accomplice: Birdie Quinn, a young Irishwoman who was seen walking in the area at the time. We, the reader, know that Birdie is innocent; she had only met Tobias for the first time the day before when he had tried to give her a message. Her presence by the river that night was a coincidence and she has certainly never had any dealings with Esquimaux. But how can she prove her innocence?

Birdie knows that when the law catches up with her, she will hang, so she turns for help to Solomon, a policeman with whom she was recently in a relationship before they went their separate ways. Solomon advises her to get away from London for a while – and with evidence linking the dead man with the Orkney Islands off the north-east coast of Scotland, that is where Birdie decides to head. Can she uncover the truth surrounding Tobias Skaill’s death and identify his killer in time to clear her own name?

The Canary Keeper explores so many interesting ideas and topics. First, there is Orkney itself and the many traditions, myths and beliefs that are unique to those islands and their people. Then there is the famous Arctic expedition led by Captain John Franklin in search of the North-West Passage, ending in tragedy when both ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, are lost. The Franklin Expedition takes place just a few years before the events of The Canary Keeper and as Birdie begins to investigate she find several surprising links between the doomed expedition and the murder of Tobias Skaill. The fur trade also plays a part in the story and, in the London sections of the book, we learn about some of the trade guilds and livery companies of the period.

Clare Carson also creates some interesting characters, at least on the surface. I found Birdie quite a likeable heroine and I enjoyed her scenes with Solomon, hoping that they might decide to give each other a second chance. There’s also Morag, whose unconventional lifestyle leads to her being labelled a witch, and the widowed Margaret Skaill who is determined to keep her husband’s shipping business going despite her inability to read and write. And yet, none of these characters ever came fully to life for me; there was a disappointing flatness throughout the novel, which I blame on the fact that it is written in third person present tense, probably my least favourite way for a novel to be written. I often find that it puts a distance between the reader and the characters and makes it difficult to engage on an emotional level, although maybe that’s just me.

There’s also a paranormal aspect to the novel, with Birdie experiencing visions and flashbacks, but I didn’t feel that these scenes added anything to the story. This could have been a fascinating book – and at times it was – but it wasn’t really for me.

This is book 10/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

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

Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shimada

A remote, snow covered mansion; a group of people arriving for a Christmas house party; a seemingly impossible locked-room murder; a detective whose methods are unusual and unorthodox. These may sound like the ingredients of a classic British Golden Age mystery, but Murder in the Crooked House is actually a Japanese novel first published in 1982 which Pushkin Vertigo have now made available for the first time in an English translation by Louise Heal Kawai.

I was really looking forward to reading this book as it sounded like just my sort of thing, and it did get off to a great start. The descriptions of the Ice Floe Mansion in northern Japan are fascinating, with its sloping floors and drawbridge leading to a leaning tower (which gives the house its nickname, the Crooked House). Inside, the mansion resembles a fairground fun house with a maze of rooms, unusually positioned staircases, and a room containing a collection of Tengu masks and mechanical dolls, including a life-size Golem which is said to get up and walk around at night.

This weird and wonderful building is the home of retired businessman Kozaburo Hamamoto, who has invited his family and friends to spend the Christmas of 1983 with him. The guests include his daughter Eiko and her two suitors Togai and Sasaki, his great-nephew Yoshihiko, and a former business partner Eikichi Kikuoka, who brings several of his employees along with him. On their first night in the Crooked House, one of the guests is found dead inside a locked room, Kikuoka’s secretary is terrified by a face at her top-floor window, and Golem appears to have thrown himself into a snowdrift outside. The local police are baffled; there seems to be no explanation for any of these incidents and no obvious motive either. It is only after several more murders take place and the brilliant detective Kiyoshi Mitarai arrives on the scene that the truth is finally revealed.

Murder in the Crooked House is a very clever murder mystery. I found the culprit easy to guess – there was only one person it could have been, in my opinion – but what I didn’t know was how they carried out the murders. The solution is certainly very original and although Shimada states in a ‘Challenge to the Reader’ towards the end of the book that he has given us all the clues we need to solve it, I will be impressed if any reader has actually managed to work out the exact method used by the murderer! However, the cleverness of the novel was also one of the things I disliked about it.

The book contains a number of diagrams showing floor plans and layouts of rooms and sadly these weren’t included in the ebook I received for review, which obviously wasn’t the finished version. Although Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature came to my rescue and allowed me to at least see the plan of the house, I think even if I’d been able to study all of the diagrams I would still have found the plot overly complicated. As well as a lot of importance being placed on alibis and who was in which room at what time, there’s also a lot of discussion of distances of windows from floors, positions of ventilation holes in walls and which rooms can be reached from which staircase. I do like mysteries with puzzles to solve, but I felt that this one became too technical – too concerned with the details rather than with the characters and their motivations. As a result, the characters seemed to lack depth and didn’t feel like real people to me, which wasn’t helped by the dialogue which felt a bit stilted, although that could have been due to the translation.

Most of the novel is written in the third person, so I was surprised to find that, when Kiyoshi Mitarai arrives at the Crooked House well into the second half of the book, the perspective switches to the first person (from the point of view of Kazumi Ishioka, Mitarai’s friend who has accompanied him to the house). It seemed unusual to have such a change so far into the book, but I got used to it quickly enough. Although this is the first novel I’ve read by Shimada, I’ve learned that this is one of a series of mysteries featuring the partnership of Mitarai and Ishioka, as a sort of Holmes and Watson. I would possibly try another book in the series – the first one, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, is also now available in English and presumably some of the others will follow.

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

This is book 6/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

A Knife for Harry Dodd by George Bellairs

George Bellairs was a very prolific crime author, with over fifty books published between 1941 and 1980. This is the first one I’ve read and I enjoyed it, which means I have a lot to look forward to! Although Bellairs (a pseudonym of Harold Blundell) did write some standalone novels, most of his books were part of his Inspector Littlejohn series of which A Knife for Harry Dodd is the twenty-first. Fortunately, this is not a series which needs to be read in order!

As the title suggests, the novel begins with Harry Dodd being stabbed in the back as he begins to walk home from his local pub one night. Instead of calling the police or an ambulance, Harry summons his girlfriend Dorothy Nicholls and her mother, who immediately set off in the car – with great difficulty, as neither of them can actually drive. Eventually they manage to find Harry and help him into the car, but they are unaware of how badly wounded he is and by the time they get him home he is dead.

Inspector Littlejohn of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate the crime and, with the help of his assistant Sergeant Cromwell and the local police, he begins to unravel the secrets of Harry Dodd’s personal life in an effort to identify the murderer. At first, Dorothy and her mother are under suspicion, but the range of suspects soon widens to include another of Harry’s mistresses, his estranged wife and their sons and daughters, and his brother, an influential politician. As the story unfolds, we begin to understand what sort of man Harry Dodd was and the nature of his relationships with the various people in his life. It’s not an easy mystery for the reader to solve, as some of the information we need isn’t provided until later in the book, but I enjoyed following Littlejohn’s investigations and trying to guess who the culprit could be.

Although it’s disappointing that most of the women in the book are portrayed as either silly and helpless or loud and domineering, there’s some great characterisation too. I particularly liked Ishmael Lott, a timid little man who sells parrot seed and dreams of making his fortune on the stock market, and Mr Glass, a patient in an asylum that Littlejohn visits in his search for one of the suspects. In fact, Littlejohn himself is probably the least memorable of all the characters in the book! In a way, I liked the fact that he just gets on with solving the mystery unobtrusively, but it would still have been nice to have known a little bit more about him. Maybe his background is given in the earlier novels and Bellairs assumed he didn’t need to tell us again.

The next Inspector Littlejohn mystery I read will probably be Corpses in Enderby, which I received as a free ebook when signing up for updates from the George Bellairs website. I’m not sure if and when this offer will end, so hurry if you want a free George Bellairs book too!

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

The Mysterious Mr Quin by Agatha Christie

Have you met Mr Satterthwaite and his mysterious friend, Mr Harley Quin? I hadn’t, until I saw that the book selected for Read Christie 2019 this month was The Mysterious Mr Quin, a collection of short stories published in 1930 and featuring a very unusual sort of detective. In fact, he is not really a detective at all, but more of a catalyst who “has a power – an almost uncanny power – of showing you what you have seen with your own eyes, of making clear to you what you have heard with your own ears…”

There are twelve stories in the collection, all of which originally appeared separately in various magazines throughout the 1920s. They all stand alone as individual mysteries but reading them in the order they appear in the book is very effective as each one seems to build on the one before – and the twelfth story, Harlequin’s Lane, should definitely be read last.

The first story, The Coming of Mr Quin, sets the tone for the rest of the book. It begins with Mr Satterthwaite, an elderly English gentleman, attending a New Year’s Eve party at a country house when conversation turns to the suicide of Derek Capel, the former owner of the house. The suicide took place several years earlier, but is still unexplained. In the middle of this discussion, there is a knock at the door and Mr Satterthwaite’s friend Harley Quin appears, asking for shelter while his broken-down car is repaired. Mr Quin joins in the conversation and, by prompting Satterthwaite to ask relevant questions and to think carefully about the sequence of events, the truth behind Mr Capel’s death suddenly becomes obvious – and has important implications for some of the guests at the party that night.

Most of the other stories, with one or two exceptions, follow a similar format: Mr Satterthwaite is at a house party, an opera, on holiday, or attending some other sort of social gathering with his upper-class friends, when he becomes aware that one or more of his companions is hiding a secret – a criminal past, a thwarted love affair or an involvement in a murder. Mr Quin then makes a sudden appearance (sometimes in person and sometimes by leaving a message or cryptic clue) and steers Mr Satterthwaite in the right direction, enabling him to solve the mystery. Some of these mysteries have been unsolved for many years and Mr Quin claims that he is acting as an ‘advocate for the dead’, getting justice for long-ago victims of crimes, while also helping Mr Satterthwaite to influence people’s lives in the present.

Although Mr Satterthwaite is a rich man, with a comfortable, privileged lifestyle, I found him quite a sad and lonely character. He has never married and despite his busy social life his friendships seem to be mainly on a superficial level. He describes himself as a ‘looker-on at life’, someone who observes other people’s dramas without being involved in any himself. If it wasn’t for the fact that other characters in the book see and interact with Mr Quin, I could have believed that Mr Satterthwaite had invented him as an imaginary friend. There is certainly something surreal and otherworldly about Mr Quin, with his unexpected arrivals and departures, and the way his appearances are usually accompanied by a strange trick of the light – he is seen silhouetted against the setting sun, standing in front of a stained glass window, or illuminated by the sun shining through the trees.

This is the only collection of Mr Quin stories, although I think he and Mr Satterthwaite do make one or two appearances in other books or stories. I found this book quite different from anything else I’ve read by Christie and I’m loving the way taking part in this challenge is encouraging me to pick up titles I might otherwise have ignored in favour of the more popular Poirots and Marples.

Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie

Dumb Witness (also published in the US as Poirot Loses a Client) was May’s selection for the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge I’ve been taking part in this year. I missed last month’s because the chosen book – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – was one I’d read before and wasn’t ready to read again – but this one was new to me and sounded very appealing.

Published in 1937, Dumb Witness is one of several Christie novels which feature her famous detective Hercule Poirot and are narrated by his friend Captain Hastings. The novel opens with the family of old Emily Arundell gathering to celebrate the Easter weekend at her home, Littlegreen House, in the fictional village of Market Basing. Emily’s dog, Bob, is excited because there are more people to play his favourite game with him – bouncing his ball from the top of the stairs to the bottom. When Emily gets up during the night and falls down the stairs, however, it’s poor Bob who gets the blame. He must have left his ball there and his mistress didn’t see it in the dark; what other explanation could there be? And yet…

Surely — surely, she must be mistaken…One often had queer fancies after an event had happened. She tried — earnestly she tried — to recall the slippery roundness of Bob’s ball under her foot…
But she could recall nothing of the kind.
Instead —

Convinced that her fall was not an accident and not Bob’s fault, Emily writes to Hercule Poirot and hints that she would like him to investigate the ‘incident of the dog’s ball’, but by the time he receives the letter it’s too late. Emily Arundell is dead, presumably of natural causes. Studying the letter she sent him, Poirot is sure that it wasn’t a natural death at all so, with Hastings by his side, he sets off for Littlegreen House to prove that Miss Arundell has been murdered.

There is certainly no shortage of suspects. Her nieces and nephew and their partners are all in need of money for various reasons and could all have had an opportunity to carry out the murder, while the person who does actually benefit financially from her death – her companion, Miss Lawson – also has to be considered. Then there are the other servants at Littlegreen House, as well as two spiritualist women who claim to have seen a halo of light around Emily Arundell’s head. With her usual skill, Christie directs our suspicions first at one character, then at another, and although I kept thinking I had identified the culprit, I didn’t manage to guess the correct solution until just before it was revealed. However, I did still pick up on one or two important clues before Poirot did, so I don’t need to feel too ashamed!

I really enjoyed this particular Poirot novel; I usually do tend to enjoy the ones narrated by Hastings and I wish there had been a few more of them. The real star of this book, though, has to be Bob the dog! Although he is presumably the ‘dumb witness’ of the title, Christie gives him a personality of his own – and even some dialogue, of a sort. It’s little touches like this that made this book so entertaining. Now I’m wondering what the June choice for the challenge will be.