The Drowned City by KJ Maitland

I had already been drawn to The Drowned City, the first in a new series of historical mysteries set in the 17th century, before it dawned on me that KJ Maitland was Karen Maitland, an author whose books I’ve enjoyed in the past. All the more reason to want to read it, then!

In January 1606, exactly a year after the execution of the conspirators who tried to blow up Parliament in the failed Gunpowder Plot, a towering wave sweeps up the Bristol Channel, leaving a scene of devastation. Whole families are drowned, buildings are swept away and farmland is destroyed. As the survivors try to come to terms with what has happened, rumours begin to arise. Some say the wave was summoned by witches, others that it was God’s way of taking revenge for the executions. The King’s most trusted adviser, Charles FitzAlan, fears that it’s all part of another Catholic conspiracy and decides to send someone to Bristol to investigate. Luckily, he knows just the man for the job…

That man is Daniel Pursglove, currently languishing in Newgate Prison awaiting what seems to be certain death. Daniel’s particular background and skills have brought him to FitzAlan’s attention and when he is offered his freedom in return for carrying out some investigations in Bristol, he jumps at the chance. Arriving in the city, Daniel begins his search for the missing Catholic conspirator known as Spero Pettingar, but almost immediately finds himself caught up in another mystery – a series of murders. Are they all part of the same plot or is something else going on in the flooded city?

Like Maitland’s earlier novels, this is a dark and atmospheric story with an interesting historical setting. I’ve never read anything about the Bristol Channel Floods of 1607 (or 1606; Maitland uses the old Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian), so that was something completely new for me. The descriptions of the devastated city in the aftermath of the wave are vivid and even quite eerie and almost otherworldly. It’s always refreshing to read historical novels with a setting other than London, and the flooded Bristol, in a superstitious age when natural disasters were often attributed to witchcraft or messages from heaven, was the perfect choice for this particular story.

Although there a few real historical characters in the book, notably Robert Cecil, most are fictional. Daniel Pursglove, the central character in this and presumably the rest of the series, intrigued me as we know so little about him at first. What is his background? How did he come to be a prisoner? What are the special talents that make him so suitable for this task? As the story unfolds, so does our understanding of Daniel and gradually some of our questions are answered. I’m sure we’ll be learning more about him in future books.

Where this book was less successful, in my opinion, was with the mystery element; once Daniel arrives in Bristol the plot takes off in so many different directions I kept forgetting what his original purpose was in going there. Had it been shorter and more tightly focused, I think I would have enjoyed it much more; instead, I found myself struggling to keep track of what was happening at times. Still, this is a promising start to a new series and I’m definitely interested in reading the second book.

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

Book 16/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

The Deadly Truth by Helen McCloy

First published in 1941, this is the third book in Helen McCloy’s Dr Basil Willing mystery series. Although I’ve been reading the books in order so far, it’s really not necessary and you could start anywhere. I think the first one, Dance of Death, is still my favourite but this one comes close.

The Deadly Truth begins with biochemist Roger Slater being visited in his laboratory by the glamorous Claudia Bethune and telling her about a new drug he is developing: a ‘truth serum’ based on scopolamine. After Claudia departs, Roger discovers that one of the tubes containing the drug has disappeared; aware of Claudia’s love of practical jokes and of the drug’s dangerous properties, he sets off in pursuit but, by the time he catches up with her, it’s too late. Guests are arriving at Claudia’s house for a dinner party – and are about to be served a very special cocktail.

Later that night, Dr Basil Willing, who is renting a beach hut on Claudia’s land, thinks he can see flames through the window of the Bethunes’ house and decides to investigate. It turns out there is no fire, but what he does find inside the house is just as shocking – Claudia, slumped at the table, strangled by her own emerald necklace. As the details of the dinner party begin to emerge, Basil learns that, having had their drinks spiked with the truth serum, each guest had revealed truths about themselves that they would have preferred to keep secret. Now that the effects of the drug have worn off, can Basil separate the truth from the lies and identify the murderer?

Helen McCloy’s novels all have such unusual and intriguing plots! They may seem far-fetched and unlikely at first, but really the murder in each one is just a starting point for McCloy to introduce some fascinating psychological and scientific themes and ideas; in this book, as well as the discussions of truth and lies, there’s also an interesting exploration of sound and deafness. As a New York psychiatrist, Basil Willing solves the crimes through his understanding of the human mind, looking at personalities and motives rather than spending too much time on technicalities such as alibis, and this is the kind of mystery novel I prefer. Basil does have some specialist knowledge which plays an important part in the solution of this particular mystery, but even without this knowledge the clues are there for an observant reader to pick up on. Unfortunately, I was not observant enough and allowed the red herrings McCloy drops into the story to lead me away from the correct suspect!

I think Helen McCloy is one of the best of the ‘forgotten’ crime authors I’ve discovered recently. She also seems to have been quite prolific; there are ten other Basil Willing novels and lots of standalones, so I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

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

Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie

The March theme for the Read Christie 2021 challenge is ‘a story featuring a society figure’. I had narrowed my choices down to the Poirot novel Lord Edgware Dies and the Colonel Race mystery Sparkling Cyanide. As I had just read a Poirot in February and have another one lined up for April, I decided to go with this one, Sparkling Cyanide. First published in 1945, the novel is an extended version of one of Christie’s short stories, Yellow Iris, which I haven’t read – but apparently the culprit is someone different in that story, so both are worth reading.

The novel begins one year after the death of Rosemary Barton, a beautiful heiress who had been celebrating her birthday at the Luxembourg restaurant with friends and family. The cause of death was believed to be cyanide in Rosemary’s champagne and it was assumed that she had committed suicide due to depression following an illness. Her husband George accepted the verdict at the time but has now received some anonymous letters stating that Rosemary was actually murdered. Sure that the murderer must have been one of the other people at the table, George decides to recreate the dinner party by inviting the same guests to the same restaurant in the hope that he will be able to identify the culprit. However, things don’t go according to plan and the evening ends with a second death…

The characterisation in this book is very strong and Christie begins by giving us one chapter from the perspective of each of the six dinner party guests, so that the nature of their relationship with Rosemary and their thoughts and feelings about her are clear from the start. It is quickly established that each of them had a possible motive for wanting Rosemary dead, but it doesn’t seem at first that any of them actually had the opportunity to carry out the murder. With the second death, things become even more complicated as this murder appears to be an almost impossible crime. I very rarely manage to solve an Agatha Christie mystery, but this is one that I found particularly difficult, despite paying close attention to the descriptions of the seating plans in the restaurant and even sketching a few diagrams! The eventual explanation, when it comes, seems quite unlikely and relies on a certain sequence of events that could easily have happened in a different way with a different result. However, I didn’t feel cheated as I don’t think any clues were withheld from us – I just didn’t put them together correctly!

The detective in this novel is Colonel Race rather than one of Christie’s more famous detectives such as Poirot or Marple – not that he really seems to do a lot of detecting. In fact, one of the suspects makes a bigger contribution to the solving of the mystery than he does. Still, Race is a straightforward, unobtrusive character who just quietly gets on with his investigations, makes mistakes now and then and isn’t afraid to admit that he has got things wrong. This is the first book I’ve read in which he appears; I think there are only three others, but as I’m hoping to read or re-read all of Christie’s novels eventually I’ll be meeting him again at some point.

Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie

The February prompt for Read Christie 2021 was ‘a story featuring love’; as usual there were several books I could have chosen to fit this theme, but I decided on Sad Cypress, a Poirot title from 1940.

The novel begins with Elinor Carlisle on trial for the murder of Mary Gerrard. All the evidence points to her being guilty – not only was Mary her rival in love, Elinor was also in the right place at the right time to have carried out the murder. Only the village doctor, Peter Lord, believes Elinor didn’t do it and he calls in Hercule Poirot to find proof of her innocence. As Poirot begins to investigate, he discovers that almost everyone connected with the case is telling lies – but Poirot knows that where crimes are concerned, a detective can learn as much from a lie as he can from the truth.

Sad Cypress has not become a favourite Christie novel, but it’s still one that I enjoyed and one that stands out to me as feeling slightly different from most of the other Poirots I’ve read. In fact, Poirot himself doesn’t appear until almost halfway through the book and although he plays his usual vital role in solving the crime, I think the story could have been just as strong without him (apparently this was Christie’s own view as well, when she reflected on the novel after it was published). A large part of the story is written from Elinor’s perspective which gives it an emotional, intimate feel; I particularly liked the sections at the beginning and end of the book which become almost dreamlike as Elinor stands in court ‘as though imprisoned in a thick mist’, waiting to hear the decision of the jury.

As for the mystery itself, I think the plot is perhaps simpler than a lot of Christie’s others, but cleverly constructed and tightly focused. There are really only two or three likely suspects and for once I did correctly guess how the murder had been carried out and therefore who must have been responsible, but I wasn’t completely sure and had to wait for Poirot to provide the evidence. I didn’t manage to solve the mystery entirely, though – there were still lots of things that confused me, including the motive, and the twists towards the end of the book took me by surprise! Finally, in case you’re wondering, the unusual title comes from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “Come away, come away, death, And in sad cypress let me be laid.”

The Read Christie theme for March is ‘a story featuring a society figure’. I’m torn between Lord Edgware Dies and Sparkling Cyanide; if you’ve read either of them, maybe you can help me decide!

Rags of Time by Michael Ward

I love a good historical mystery, so I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to read Rags of Time, the first in a new series set in the 17th century during the final years of the reign of Charles I. Based on how much I enjoyed this book, I will certainly be looking out for the next one.

The story begins in 1639 with Tom Tallant, a young spice merchant, returning to London from India only to find that he has become implicated in a murder investigation. Wool merchant Sir Joseph Venell has been found dead in a meadow near his home in Kensington and it seems that Tom is the main suspect. Then another murder takes place, this time in the Tallant household, casting further suspicion on Tom. In order to clear his name, Tom must try to identify the real murderer – and for that he will need the help of Elizabeth Seymour, an intelligent and unusual young woman with an interest in astronomy and an addiction to gambling.

“The murder was just the beginning of the affair”, it says on the front cover of the book, and that is quite true because although Rags of Time at first appears to be a straightforward murder mystery, it soon becomes apparent that the murder is only one aspect of the story and for a while takes second place to an equally fascinating subplot involving a printing press and the distribution of seditious pamphlets. Remember that this is all taking place during an eventful and turbulent period of history, a time of tension between King and Parliament and unrest on the streets:

‘Each day and week we suffer treasonable talk on the street, attacks on our churches, seditious street-preachers, scandalous pamphlets on every corner and finally this…mutinous gangs of Apprentice Boys!’

I loved the recreation of 17th century London; there’s such a strong sense of time and place (without becoming overly descriptive) and with so much going on it’s the perfect backdrop for Tom’s adventures. Yet one of my favourite parts of the story relates to something taking place overseas – the ‘tulip mania’ sweeping Amsterdam in the 1630s and the notion of windhandel, or ‘trading in promises’.

As for the mystery itself, once everything starts to come together towards the end of the book, there are plenty of twists and turns and when the solution was revealed I was completely taken by surprise! I think there were probably a few clues but I didn’t pick up on them and didn’t guess either the culprit or how and why the murders were carried out. Although most of the focus of the novel is on Tom, I was pleased to see that Elizabeth also contributes to the solving of the mystery; I wasn’t sure I would like her at first and it took me a little while to warm to her, but I think she’s a character with a lot of potential, as is Tom himself. I hope to meet them both again soon!

Thanks to the author for providing a copy of this book for review.

Book 4/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

I’m taking part in Read Christie 2021 this year and the prompt for January is ‘a story set in a grand house’. Christie wrote lots of those and I’ve already read some of them, including The Hollow, which is the one the challenge hosts have chosen as the book of the month. Fortunately, they provided a list of alternative suggestions and I decided on the 1942 Miss Marple mystery, The Body in the Library, as my January book for the challenge.

The ‘grand house’ in this novel is Gossington Hall in St Mary Mead, home to Dolly Bantry and her husband, Colonel Arthur Bantry. When the Bantrys are woken by the maid early one morning to be told that a dead body has been found on their library floor – the body of a blonde young woman in a white satin evening dress and silver shoes – suspicion immediately falls on the Colonel. But the Colonel insists that he has never seen the woman before and there is no evidence to connect him with the murder, so attention then turns to other suspects.

Could the culprit be Basil Blake, a newcomer to the village who is involved in the film industry and whose lifestyle has made him the centre of village gossip? What about George Bartlett, a guest at the nearby Majestic Hotel where the murdered woman, Ruby Keene, had worked as a dancer? Or maybe it’s Conway Jefferson, who had been planning to adopt Ruby as his daughter after losing his wife and children in a plane crash several years earlier. As the police begin to investigate, Dolly Bantry enlists the help of her friend Miss Marple because she’s ‘very good at murders’. And Miss Marple once again proves just how good she is at murders by using her usual blend of observation and knowledge of human nature to piece together the clues and solve the crime.

The Body in the Library is a short, quick read and like most of Christie’s novels it is cleverly constructed so that most of the information you need to be able to solve the mystery is there from the beginning, but very easy to overlook. As Miss Marple says once or twice, most people are too trusting and too ready to believe everything they are told; even bearing that in mind, I still didn’t suspect the right person and the murderer had me completely fooled! The murderer also had the police fooled – although we don’t actually see very much of Miss Marple in this novel and the focus is more on the police investigation, she is the one who provides the necessary insights that lead to the identification of the killer.

In the foreword to the novel, Christie states that the ‘body in the library’ story is a cliché of detective fiction and that she wrote this book as a variation on that cliché: ‘The library in question must be a highly orthodox and conventional library. The body, on the other hand, must be a wildly improbable and highly sensational body.’ Well, the library at Gossington Hall certainly sounds conventional and the body caused plenty of sensation in St Mary Mead, so I think Christie achieved what she set out to do! This has not become a favourite Marple novel but I did enjoy it and am looking forward to reading February’s book for the challenge.

The Man in the Moonlight by Helen McCloy

I loved Dance of Death, the first book in Helen McCloy’s Dr Basil Willing mystery series which I read last month, so I was pleased to see that Agora Books have now reissued the second in the series, The Man in the Moonlight. I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as the first, but it was still a good read and it was nice to meet Dr Willing and Assistant Chief Inspector Foyle again.

Helen McCloy (a pseudonym of Helen Clarkson) was an American crime author whose career spanned five decades and included several standalone books as well as the Basil Willing series. The Man in the Moonlight, first published in 1940, is set during World War II and the war has a part to play in the plot.

Inspector Foyle is visiting Yorkville University, where he is planning to send his son, when he finds a discarded piece of paper with the message: ‘I take pleasure in informing you that you have been chosen as murderer for Group No 1. Please follow these instructions with as great exactness as possible.’ At first Foyle doesn’t take this too seriously – he assumes it’s part of a game of some sort and doesn’t believe that real killers refer to each other as ‘murderers’ anyway – but he is forced to change his mind when Professor Konradi, an Austrian biochemist who escaped from a concentration camp, is found dead in his laboratory.

Konradi’s death appears to be suicide but Foyle isn’t convinced and enlists the help of Dr Basil Willing, psychiatric consultant to the New York District Attorney’s office. As Foyle and Willing begin to investigate, they uncover some intriguing and unexpected aspects of the case, ranging from a psychological experiment being carried out by another of the university professors to the potential involvement of a group of Nazi spies. As in Dance of Death, it’s Willing’s understanding of how the human mind works that leads to the eventual solution.

This is quite a complex mystery novel and incorporates lots of interesting psychological and scientific ideas. The sort of methods Basil Willing uses to obtain the information he needs include lie detector tests and word association tests and I found it fascinating to see him explain his analysis of these tests to the other characters. The focus on the personalities of the suspects, their possible motives and their reasons for behaving the way they do, is much more appealing to me than reading long discussions of alibis and timelines which often dominate other mystery novels and this is one of the reasons why I’m enjoying Helen McCloy’s novels so much. Most of her books are still currently out of print but I’m hoping more of them will be made available by Agora Books soon.