Mortmain Hall by Martin Edwards

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lost Boys of London by Mary Lawrence

This is the fifth book in a series of historical mysteries set in the Tudor period and featuring the character of alchemist’s daughter Bianca Goddard. I don’t think it’s essential to read all of the books in the series in order; I started with the fourth one, The Alchemist of Lost Souls, and had no problems in picking up the threads of the story and following the plot.

As The Lost Boys of London opens, Bianca’s husband John is away fighting in Scotland for Henry VIII, leaving Bianca in London, devoting her time to preparing herbal remedies in her ‘room of Medicinals and Physickes’. In the past, Bianca’s skills as a herbalist have led to her assisting Constable Patch with his investigations, and having played a part in solving several previous mysteries, her help is required again when a young boy is found hanging from the exterior wall of a church.

Finding a rosary wrapped around the boy’s neck marked with a set of initials, it seems there could be a religious motive for the murder, and this appears to be confirmed when a second boy is found under similar circumstances at another church. Bianca is determined to do whatever she can to find the murderer before he or she kills again – and she has a personal reason for wanting to do so as quickly as possible. Her own young friend, Fisk, who is about the same age as the other boys, has gone missing and Bianca is afraid that he could become the next victim.

I enjoyed this book more than The Alchemist of Lost Souls. I thought the mystery was stronger and more interesting, with its exploration of topics such as religious conflict, the rivalries between the clergy of various churches, and child poverty in Tudor London. Also, although the previous book included some magical realism elements, which didn’t entirely work for me, there didn’t seem to be anything like that in this one and I thought that was a good decision as the plot was strong enough without it. As well as following Bianca’s investigations in London, there are some chapters describing John’s adventures as a reluctant soldier in the Scottish borders during the war known as the ‘Rough Wooing’ and this added some variety to the novel, taking us away from London now and then to see what was going on elsewhere.

Sometimes the language used is not right for the setting (English houses don’t have ‘stoops’, for example) and I found that a bit distracting, but otherwise the atmosphere is convincing enough and it’s always interesting to read about the lives of ordinary, working-class people in the Tudor period as a change from all of the books dealing with the royal court. Oh, and I love Bianca’s cat, Hobs!

This is apparently the final book in the Bianca Goddard series. I received a copy for review via NetGalley.

Murder to Music by Margaret Newman

The latest addition to Agora Books’ Uncrowned Queens of Crime series is a book by an author I thought was new to me, but it turns out I’ve read a few of her books under another of her pseudonyms, Anne Melville. This one, Murder to Music, was her first novel and was originally published in 1959 under the name Margaret Newman. It’s an excellent murder mystery and could have been the start of a great series had the author not moved on to other genres (such as the Anne Melville family sagas).

Delia Jones is on the managing committee of the Metropolitan Choir, who are preparing to give a performance of a new mass composed by their conductor, Evan Tredegar. At the beginning of the novel, we meet the other members of the committee, whom we quickly discover are not the happiest group of people. Below the surface, there are tensions, secrets and resentments, some of which we won’t be aware of or fully understand until later in the story. The assistant conductor, Owen Burr, is particularly unpopular with the rest of the choir, so when he is shot dead just as the performance draws to a close there is no shortage of suspects.

Detective Superintendent Simon Hudson is watching from the audience and is able to begin an immediate investigation. However, things are going to be slightly difficult for Simon…because Delia Jones happens to be his girlfriend. Can she be ruled out as a suspect? Then, just as Simon thinks he has uncovered the motive and is about to identify the murderer, a second death takes place and he is forced to reassess everything he thinks he knows so far.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The characters are strong, with some of them given interesting back stories, and the reasons behind the complex relationships and long-standing feuds between the members of the choir feel believable. I also liked the setting, which made a change from the country house or small village settings which are so common in this type of detective novel. I’m not sure whether Margaret Newman had a musical background, but I felt that she seemed to really understand what was involved in the staging of a musical performance and what it was like to be part of a choir.

As a mystery, I thought the plot worked well and I was surprised by some of the developments in the second half of the book, having been led in the wrong direction for most of the first half! I kept changing my mind between one suspect and another, but in the end I was happy just to let Simon Hudson solve the mystery for me. It’s a shame this seems to be the only book featuring Simon and Delia, but I will be reading more by this author, under her various pseudonyms, and have the third book in her Hardie trilogy lined up to read soon.

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

The Hollow by Agatha Christie

March’s theme for the Read Christie 2020 Challenge was ‘a Christie story adapted for the stage’ and with several unread options to choose from, I settled on The Hollow, a Poirot novel first published in 1946. Christie herself said this book was “the one I ruined by the introduction of Poirot” and in fact, her famous detective doesn’t appear in the stage version at all.

The novel begins with the eccentric Lucy Angkatell preparing to welcome several friends and family members to her home, The Hollow, for the weekend. These include John Christow, a successful London doctor, and his timid, downtrodden wife, Gerda, who seems unable to do anything right. With Henrietta Savernake, a talented sculptor with whom John has been having an affair, also attending the house party, it’s clear that tensions will be running high – and to complicate things further, the beautiful actress Veronica Cray, a former girlfriend of John’s, just happens to be staying in a cottage nearby.

Christie takes her time setting the scene and introducing us to the people who are gathering at The Hollow, rounding out each character and exploring the complex relationships between them. As well as those I’ve already mentioned above, there’s also Sir Henry, Lucy Angkatell’s husband, and three younger cousins: Edward, who has hopes of marrying Henrietta; David, a sullen and humourless young student; and Midge, the ‘poor relation’ who works for a living. The characterisation is excellent and by the time another guest – Hercule Poirot – arrives for Sunday lunch, we have been given a good understanding of all the undercurrents and resentments simmering beneath the surface.

As Poirot reaches the house, he witnesses what appears to be an artificially staged murder: John Christow lies bleeding to death at the edge of a swimming pool, while his wife, Gerda, stands over him with a gun in her hand and several of the other characters approach from different directions. At first assuming this is a game designed to test his skills as a detective, Poirot quickly discovers that it is all too real and that John is dying. But surely there is more to the scene that meets the eye? Has Gerda really murdered her husband or could there be another culprit?

I always enjoy reading Christie, but this particular book hasn’t become a favourite. Not all of them can, I suppose. There was nothing that I actually disliked about it and as I’ve said, the characters are excellent, very strongly drawn with plenty of depth and complexity – I just felt that, as a mystery, it doesn’t have quite the ingenuity and originality of some of her others. Apparently Christie describes this book in her autobiography as “in some ways rather more of a novel than a detective story” and I understand what she means. And while I don’t agree that Poirot ruins the book, I don’t think he adds a lot to it either. He doesn’t make his first appearance until a third of the way through and most of the investigating is actually done by Inspector Grange anyway, so I think the story could have worked just as well without Poirot.

But Poirot, of course, is the one who finally brings the investigation to its conclusion and leads us to the murderer. I wish I could say that I had solved the mystery too, but I didn’t – there were at least four characters I suspected and I couldn’t make up my mind between them. Maybe I will have more success in solving the next Christie mystery I read: the April topic for the challenge is ‘a story Christie disguised’, which sounds intriguing, doesn’t it?

A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie

February’s book of the month for the Read Christie 2020 Challenge is A Murder is Announced, a Miss Marple novel from 1950. This month’s theme for the challenge is ‘a story Christie loved’ and apparently this is one that she mentioned in a 1972 letter to a fan as being a current favourite. Now that I’ve read it, I can see why she liked it so much.

A Murder is Announced is set in the quiet little village of Chipping Cleghorn where, as the novel opens, the residents are waking up to an unusual notice in their local newspaper:

A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.

The villagers are intrigued and, believing it must be an invitation to a party game of some sort, they all make their way to Little Paddocks, the home of Miss Letitia Blacklock, at the stated time. Miss Blacklock herself denies having anything to do with the announcement – as do the other members of her household – but she makes her neighbours welcome anyway. They are all gathered together inside when the clock strikes 6.30, the lights go out and shots are fired. When the lights are turned back on, a man is found dead on the floor. It seems it wasn’t a game after all…

Of all the Christie novels I’ve read, this has one of the best openings: first an introduction to each character in turn as we jump from house to house as newspapers are opened and the announcement is read; then the murder scene itself – a wonderful set piece with all of the suspects together in one place. We are given many of the clues we need in that scene and the rest in the chapters that follow, so that the reader has at least a chance of solving the mystery before the truth is revealed. I managed to work out parts of it, but not the whole thing and the eventual solution came as a surprise to me.

What really makes this book stand out, though, is the excellent characterisation, with characters drawn from a range of different social backgrounds. There’s Bunny – Miss Bunner – an old school friend of Miss Blacklock’s who has fallen on hard times and has been invited to stay at Little Paddocks; there are Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyd, two unmarried women who live together and whose relationship is portrayed with warmth and affection; Phillipa Haymes, a young mother left to raise her son alone in the aftermath of the Second World War; Colonel Easterbrook, who thinks he knows all there is to know about India; and the Reverend Julian Harmon and his cheerful, tactless wife ‘Bunch’, who happens to be the goddaughter of Jane Marple.

It is through her connection with Bunch that Miss Marple comes into the story (surprisingly late – the murder has been committed and an investigation by the police is well under way before she makes her first appearance). Miss Marple solves the mystery both through the usual methods of observing, deducting and asking questions, and through her knowledge of small villages like Chipping Cleghorn and how they have changed since the war. ‘Fifteen years ago, one knew who everybody was,’ she says, ‘but now the big houses have been sold, and the cottages have been converted and changed. And people just come – and all you know about them is what they say of themselves.’

The one aspect of this book that I didn’t like was the portrayal of Mitzi, the cook at Little Paddocks who is a refugee from an unspecified Central European country. We are told that Mitzi has had some traumatic experiences during the war, yet the other characters seem to treat her with an unusual level of unkindness and insensitivity, ridiculing her for her screaming and crying and fear of the police. That was the only thing that slightly spoiled my enjoyment of what was otherwise a perfect murder mystery.

This year’s Read Christie challenge is only two months old and already I’ve read two great books that I’ve loved – this one and Murder on the Orient Express. I’m looking forward to next month’s selection!

The Almanack by Martine Bailey

As someone who loves puzzles and word games of all kinds, I was captivated by Martine Bailey’s latest novel, The Almanack. Each chapter opens with a riddle, the answers to which are listed at the end of the book but are also carefully hidden somewhere within the relevant chapter. If, for example, the solution to a riddle is ‘cherry’, in the pages that follow you will see a character eating cherries. Sometimes the allusion is so brief you could easily miss it but in other cases it will form the theme for the whole chapter.

The story itself is a murder mystery set in Georgian England. It begins in 1752 with Tabitha Hart’s reluctant return from London to the village of Netherlea in Cheshire in answer to an urgent summons from her mother. Unfortunately she arrives too late; her mother has died under suspicious circumstances, the only clues to her fate being some cryptic notes scribbled in the margins of her almanack, in which she describes her terror of someone referred to only as ‘D’.

As Tabitha sets out to identify the mysterious D, she comes up against the hostility of the other villagers, who disapprove of the life she has been leading in London. However, she receives help in her search from an unlikely source: a troubled young writer called Nat Starling, a newcomer to Netherlea who may be hiding secrets of his own.

This is the first book I’ve read by Martine Bailey and I was very impressed by her recreation of 18th century village life. With her descriptions of ancient superstitions and beliefs, a community ruled by the seasons and the weather, and the conflict between the old ways of life and the new, I was often reminded of Thomas Hardy. The reluctance of the villagers to move forward and embrace change is illustrated particularly well when they discover that Britain is to switch from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian, jumping forward by eleven days in September. They are confused and angry about the ‘stolen days’, with some of them believing their lifespan has somehow been shortened.

Time and calendars are important themes in this novel. First, there is the almanack in the story, which Tabitha’s mother had been using to plan her days and which holds some of the keys to the mystery. Then there’s the way in which the book itself is structured like an almanack, with each chapter headed by the date, some astrological information and a prophecy relating to something that will happen that day. Riddles, prophecies and predictions are woven throughout the text of the novel too, with the unknown villain using them to taunt and tease Tabitha and Nat.

I really enjoyed this book and its many layers. There were times, though, when all of the extra little features started to distract me from the story; I became too caught up in looking for clues to the riddles and for prophecies coming true and found myself losing track of the central mystery. Still, this was an unusual and entertaining read and I will now have to try Martine Bailey’s other two books, An Appetite for Violets and The Penny Heart, both of which sound intriguing too.

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

Blood Upon the Snow by Hilda Lawrence

Having read Death of a Doll last year, my first novel by American crime writer Hilda Lawrence, I have been looking forward to more of her books being reissued so I would have the opportunity to read another one. Death of a Doll was the third of only three novels Lawrence wrote featuring the detective Mark East, so I was delighted to find that the first in the series, Blood Upon the Snow – originally published in 1944 – has now been made available again too.

The novel opens with Mark East’s arrival in the small town of Crestwood on a dark, snowy evening, having been hired by the elderly historian Joseph Stoneman who is staying with friends, the Moreys, in a remote country house in the mountains. After making his way up to the house to meet his new employer, Mark is surprised to find that Stoneman believes he is a private secretary, not a private detective. However, the old man’s shaking hands and uneasy manner tell Mark that Stoneman knows exactly who he is and what he does. Intrigued, Mark agrees to stay on in the role of secretary for a while, hoping that eventually Stoneman will tell him what is going on and why he has secretly summoned a detective.

As Mark gets to know the other people living and working in the house, he becomes even more convinced that something is not right. What – or who – are the servants so afraid of? What is wrong with the pale and nervous Laura Morey? And was Stoneman’s fall on the cellar stairs a few days before Mark’s arrival really an accident? Then a woman dies under suspicious circumstances and suddenly Mark’s skills as a detective are required after all.

I found this book quite different from Death of a Doll, but equally enjoyable. While Death of a Doll is set almost entirely within the walls of Hope House, a women’s refuge in New York, Blood Upon the Snow has a very different setting – one that I loved from the opening descriptions of a remote ‘one-lane town’, ‘lying at the foot of Big Bear Mountain and surrounded by a dark forest’.

The cold, snowy winter weather provides atmosphere and the portrayal of a small community where everyone knows everyone else’s business increases the sense of suspense and danger as the people of Crestwood become aware that the killer must be someone they all know. I didn’t guess the solution and, to be honest, I wasn’t completely convinced by it; it certainly wasn’t something the reader could be expected to work out from the clues we are given. Mark East tends to keep his thoughts to himself too and doesn’t give us a lot of hints as to how he is progressing with solving the mystery – although now and then he does confide in Beulah Pond and Bessy Petty, two spinsters he meets in the town shortly after his arrival in Crestwood.

I remembered Beulah and Bessy appearing halfway through Death of a Doll and being a bit confused as to who they were and how they knew Mark, so it was good to see the beginnings of that relationship and to have my questions answered! The two women are fans of crime fiction and Beulah in particular likes to do some amateur detective work, which adds a bit of light-heartedness to the story even if it doesn’t do much to move the actual plot forward.

Now that I’ve read the first book in this series and the last, I will be looking out for the middle one, A Time To Die. What a shame Hilda Lawrence only wrote three of them.

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