The Alchemist of Lost Souls by Mary Lawrence

The Alchemist of Lost Souls is the fourth book in a series of historical mysteries set in Tudor England and featuring the character of Bianca Goddard, an alchemist’s daughter. Not having read any of the previous novels, I wondered whether I would be at a disadvantage in starting with this one, but that wasn’t really a problem. Although it would have been nice to have been more familiar with the backgrounds of the characters and to have followed them from the beginning, this novel works as a standalone mystery and it was easy enough to understand what was happening without any prior knowledge.

The story takes place in London in the spring of 1544 and opens with Bianca’s father, the alchemist Albern Goddard, discovering a new element – a stone which gives off a brilliant light and which has properties that are both powerful and dangerous. Before he has time to explore the potential of this new substance, it is stolen from him and the suspected thief is found dead in a street near the Dim Dragon Inn with a glowing green vapour rising from her mouth. Albern asks for his daughter’s help and soon Bianca is investigating both the theft and the murder, as well as looking for any trace that may remain of her father’s precious element.

This is an entertaining mystery and a more complex one than it appeared to be at first, with a range of suspects including alchemists, apothecaries, chandlers – and even Bianca’s mother, Malva Goddard. I didn’t manage to guess the solution correctly, but I was happy just to watch Bianca try to unravel it all. Bianca is a very likeable character; she is intelligent and independent, but her behaviour is usually believable enough in the context of being a sixteenth century woman. Like her father, she is interested in science, but her gender means she cannot be an alchemist so instead she works as a herbalist, making remedies for common ailments in her ‘room of Medicinals and Physickes’.

Bianca’s relationship with her husband, John, is one area where I felt I may have missed out by not reading the previous books in the series. In this book he, like the other men from Southwark, has been called up to fight in Henry VIII’s army (as a pikeman after failing to impress with his archery skills) and faces being sent away from home to deal with the threats from Scotland and France. With Bianca pregnant with their first child, a separation at this time is obviously going to be particularly difficult for them both, but I think I would have found their storyline more emotional if I had known both characters better and had seen how their relationship developed.

Apart from Henry VIII’s military endeavours, which are kept mainly in the background of the novel, the story concentrates very much on fictional characters and fictional events, but I could see that Mary Lawrence was making an effort to capture the atmosphere of Tudor England and the details of how people may have lived and worked at that time. The focus is on ordinary, working class Londoners rather than the royalty and nobility, which gives the story a gritty feel and a sense of reality, despite the more fantastical elements of the plot (not just the alchemy but also the mysterious character of the Rat Man, whose role I’m not sure I fully understood). I also appreciated the author’s attempts to use vocabulary appropriate to the period and although some of the slang didn’t feel quite right to me, it did add colour to the writing and there is a glossary at the back of the book if you need to look up any unfamiliar words.

It was nice to meet Bianca Goddard and now I’m wondering if there will be more books in the series.

Thanks to Mary Lawrence and Kensington Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey

When The Western Wind was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in March, I decided to read my copy of the book before the shortlist was announced so that I could see whether I agreed with its inclusion or omission. Now that I’ve read it, although I can’t really say that I particularly enjoyed it, I wasn’t surprised to see this morning that it has been shortlisted as I found it a complex, multi-layered novel with an unusual structure and some interesting ideas to explore. The sort of book judges usually like, I think!

The Western Wind is, on the surface, a murder mystery set in a small English village in 1491. Oakham in Somerset is an isolated place, cut off from the rest of the world by a river without a bridge. The wealthy Thomas Newman, who understands the importance of trade, has plans to rebuild the bridge, but before work can begin he disappears, presumed to have been swept away by the river and drowned. But was it an accident or was it murder? Lord Townshend, who has been losing some of his lands to Newman, would seem to have the most obvious motive, but he is not the only suspect…

Under pressure from his dean to discover what really happened, village priest John Reve listens to the confessions of his parishioners and is surprised by how many of them are willing to confess to having some involvement in Newman’s death. It is up to Reve to use his judgement and his knowledge of his friends and neighbours to decide who is telling the truth. The story, however, is told in reverse, beginning on day four and then moving back in time to a point just before Newman’s disappearance – and by the time we reach the end of the novel, it has become clear that Reve himself knows much more than he seemed to at first.

Despite the mystery at the heart of this novel, I didn’t feel that it was the main focus of the book. The fate of Tom Newman acts as a starting point from which we – through the eyes of John Reve – explore the daily lives of the people of Oakham, their personalities and relationships, the way their community is structured, and the superstitions and traditions that rule their lives. Social and economic change is another theme; even Newman’s name is symbolic, as he is a relevant newcomer to the village, bringing with him new ideas and new ways of looking at the world.

Although we are told that the book is set in February 1491 (at the beginning of Lent) I would otherwise have found it hard to say exactly when the story is taking place. There are very few references to anything happening in the wider world that give us any clues to the precise time period, but maybe that is the point – news from outside would be slow to reach the isolated, insular Oakham after all. I’m not sure how much importance the author places on historical accuracy in any case; she has acknowledged that the confession box which plays such a big part in the story wouldn’t have arrived in English churches until the following century, but she decided to keep John Reve’s box in her novel anyway. I have to admit, I’ve never given any thought to when confession boxes first came into use – but I am fairly sure that fifteenth century men didn’t wear trousers with waistbands as Herry Carter does in the opening chapter of the book. This is the sort of thing that will either bother you or it won’t, I suppose.

I did like Samantha Harvey’s writing but, as well as the points I’ve made above, there was something about the story that left me feeling slightly dissatisfied. I think part of that was due to the fact that, with the exception of John Reve as our narrator, I struggled to connect with any of the characters. This was probably because the way the novel is structured makes it difficult to tell whether we can trust or rely on anything they say or do, especially as we only witness their words and actions from Reve’s perspective. I’m sure that if I’d taken the time to go back and read the whole book again from the beginning, it would have been a very different experience the second time. I didn’t enjoy the book enough to want to do that, but I think it would have helped me to fully understand and appreciate it.

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

The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side by Agatha Christie

This month’s book for the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge is one of her later Miss Marple mysteries, The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, published in 1962. I tend to prefer the Poirots to the Marples, so I was curious to see what I would think of this one.

The novel opens with the elderly Jane Marple recovering from a recent illness and deciding to take a walk around ‘the Development’, a new housing estate near her home in St Mary Mead. She falls and is helped to her feet by Heather Badcock, one of the new residents, who rushes out of her house to assist. Later, Mrs Badcock is poisoned during a party at nearby Gossington Hall hosted by its new owner, the famous American actress Marina Gregg. It seems unlikely, however, that Mrs Badcock had been the intended victim…it was only through an unfortunate set of circumstances that she came to drink the poison instead of Marina.

Detective-Inspector Dermot Craddock begins to investigate, interviewing all those who were present at Gossington Hall at the time of Heather Badcock’s death and delving into Marina Gregg’s past, uncovering stories of adopted children, jealous rivals and a series of failed marriages. Miss Marple, however, is conducting some very different investigations of her own, based around what she knows of human nature. She is sure that the key to the mystery lies in discovering what caused the strange expression on Marina Gregg’s face just before Mrs Badcock dropped dead – an expression which other guests at the party described as reminding them of Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott (“Out flew the web and floated wide – The mirror crack’d from side to side; ‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried The Lady of Shalott).

This hasn’t become a favourite Christie novel and I didn’t find it quite as clever as some of her others, but I did still enjoy reading it. It seems that she got the idea for the plot from the tragic true story of a real American actress, although I won’t tell you her name because if you look it up it will completely spoil the surprises contained in the solution to the mystery. I correctly guessed who the murderer was very early in the story, but I had no idea what the motive could have been and had to wait for Miss Marple to explain it all for me at the end of the book!

As well as being a murder mystery, this book is also an interesting study of some of the social changes taking place in 1960s Britain with a lot of time devoted to describing the houses on the ‘Development’ and the type of people who live there – with Miss Marple coming to the conclusion that, whatever the time and place, people are still people with the same hopes and ambitions, fears and uncertainties. It is through observations like this that she is able to move towards solving the mystery, drawing parallels between the suspects and other people she has known in the past. Miss Marple is also having personal problems of her own in this book, with her companion/housekeeper Mrs Knight, who treats her like a child and is generally overbearing and domineering. It’s clear that, however much Miss Marple’s age might be catching up with her physically, there is nothing wrong with her mind and she resents Mrs Knight’s condescending attitude. Again, I don’t want to spoil things, but there is a happy ending to this part of the story too!

I can’t say that I loved this one, but I am looking forward to working through the rest of the Marple novels that I haven’t read yet.

Death of a Doll by Hilda Lawrence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Killed Dick Whittington? by E and MA Radford

Dean Street Press have recently brought an intriguing selection of Golden Age crime novels back into print, including several by husband and wife writing team E and MA (Edwin and Mona Augusta) Radford. This book – and the other two Radford titles which have just been reissued, Murder Jigsaw and Murder Isn’t Cricket – all feature Harry Manson, a detective and forensic scientist who works at Scotland Yard’s Crime Research Laboratory.

Who Killed Dick Whittington?, published in 1947, has a theatrical setting and takes place during the Christmas season. The Henri de Benyat theatre company are performing Dick Whittington at the Pavilion in Burlington-on-Sea and, in the tradition of all good British pantomimes, the hero is played by a woman. Her name is Norma de Grey and to say she is not popular with the rest of the cast would be an understatement. When she is killed with a lethal dose of prussic acid one night while on stage in the role of Dick, suspicion falls on the actor playing her Cat – but when the Cat is also found poisoned, it seems that someone else must have been responsible.

Doctor Manson is called in to investigate, but as well as the Dick Whittington poisonings he is also busy with another case, this one involving a series of suspicious fires which have possibly been caused deliberately as part of an insurance fraud. At first the two cases seem entirely separate, but eventually links begin to emerge between the two. Manson uses a range of scientific methods to carry out his investigations and I thought this aspect of the book was fascinating. As it was written in the 1940s, there were obviously fewer, less sophisticated techniques available to Manson than there would be to modern day scientists, but I was still impressed by how much he was able to discover by, for example, weighing the ash found at the fire scenes or analysing the hairs inside the Cat costume.

I also found the details of theatrical life interesting. Apparently Mona Radford had been an actress herself and this does come through in the novel, which shows a deep understanding of everything involved in rehearsing and staging a pantomime, including the things that go on behind the scenes! When a book is written by a pair or team of writers, I am always curious to know how they broke down the writing duties amongst themselves. Well, according to the introduction to this new edition:

The plot was usually developed by Mona and added to by Edwin during the writing. According to Edwin, the formula was: “She kills them off, and I find out how she done it.”

Another thing I liked about this book was the way the authors make it clear that they have tried to give the reader all the clues needed to be able to identify the culprit. There are several ‘Interludes’ at certain points in the novel which are addressed directly to the reader, asking us to put together what we have learned so far and solve various aspects of the mystery. I obviously wouldn’t make a good detective as I still wasn’t able to work any of it out despite the hints, but I was happy to wait until Doctor Manson revealed the truth at the end of the book.

I thought this was a very entertaining mystery by two authors I had never come across before. I’m interested in reading more books by E and MA Radford now.

Thanks to Dean Street Press for providing a copy of this book for review.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

I can’t remember when I first read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose; it was possibly in the early 2000s – long enough ago to have forgotten most of the story, but recently enough that certain scenes have stayed quite clearly in my mind. I knew I hadn’t understood everything the first time, so when I saw that Annabel of Annabookbel was hosting a readalong in January I thought it would be interesting to read it again. Unfortunately, it was a busier month than I expected and I fell too far behind to be able to participate in the readalong, but I have been re-reading the book anyway and finished a few days ago.

The Name of the Rose is set in 1327 and is narrated by Adso of Melk, a Benedictine novice from Austria. I think the best way I can describe the book is to quote directly from the back cover of my old Picador edition: “Whether you’re into Sherlock Holmes, Montaillou, Borges, the nouvelle critique, the Rule of St. Benedict, metaphysics, library design, or The Thing from the Crypt, you’ll love it. Who can that miss out?” It probably misses out quite a lot of people, actually, but at least that gives you a good idea of the range and number of different topics and influences found in the novel.

The story begins with Adso accompanying a Franciscan friar, William of Baskerville, to a remote Benedictine monastery in the Italian mountains. In a few days’ time, this monastery will host a meeting between an embassy from Pope John XXII and a group of Minorites, but preparations are not going according to plan…Adelmo, a young illustrator known for his beautiful illuminated manuscripts, has been found dead, having supposedly fallen from a window of the Aedificium, the large building which houses the abbey’s renowned library. Was it suicide or was it murder? William, who has already impressed the abbot by successfully locating a lost horse, is asked to investigate.

There’s a reason why Eco has given William the name ‘Baskerville’ – as he moves around the abbey asking questions and uncovering the circumstances behind Adelmo’s death, he uses his powers of deduction just like Sherlock Holmes. Adso, of course, fills the position of Dr Watson, needing William to explain things to him as he goes along (which benefits the reader as well). But when a second death occurs, this one more gruesome than the first, William knows that if he is to have any chance of solving the mystery, he will need to gain access to the library – the secret, forbidden library which only the librarian and his assistant are allowed to enter.

As a murder mystery, The Name of the Rose is quite a good one. Reading it for the second time, I remembered the solution and the culprit, but not every detail of the plot, so I enjoyed watching it all unfold again. There are clues – physical and spoken – there are secrets to uncover, complex relationships to untangle and red herrings which point us in the wrong direction for a while. There are also some wonderful descriptions of the library, a genuinely eerie and sinister place; the scenes in which William and Adso explore its labyrinthine passages and chambers are some of the highlights of the book.

But The Name of the Rose is much more than just a medieval mystery novel. It is also a very detailed and erudite study of the religious history of Europe in the early 14th century, which I think is why some people love the book while others struggle with it. At the time of our story, the papacy has moved from its usual home in Rome to Avignon during a period of conflict between the church and the kings of France. From the very beginning of the novel, we are given page after page of information on the divisions within the church and the various orders and sects, such as the controversial movement led by Fra Dolcino, as well as lots of theological discussions on subjects ranging from poverty to whether Jesus ever laughed. The first time I read the book I found myself skimming over most of this to get to the murder mystery parts; this time, I tried to concentrate and understand the religious detail, but Eco’s style does not make it easy to absorb the facts and I admit there was still a lot that went over my head.

I enjoyed my re-read of this book, although I’m not sure whether I really got much more out of it than I did on my first read. I did love revisiting the library scenes, the descriptions of monastery life, and the characters of William and Adso. I have never tried reading any of Umberto Eco’s other books, but maybe I should. Does anyone have a recommendation?

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie

When I read about the Read Christie 2019 Challenge hosted at www.agathachristie.com – the idea being to tick off twelve books from twelve different categories over the course of the year – I was immediately tempted to join in. I didn’t want to think of it as a challenge as such, or make a definite commitment, but I thought I could use the monthly prompts to get through some of the many Christies I still haven’t read. This month’s category is “a recent TV adaptation” and the suggested book is The ABC Murders. I had started to watch the new BBC adaptation of The ABC Murders which was shown at Christmas, but struggled to get into it, so I thought I would try the book instead. And what a great book it is!

The murder of Alice Ascher in her small tobacconist shop in the town of Andover seems as though it should be an easy one to solve. There is an obvious culprit – the woman’s drunken husband – and he would certainly have been the prime suspect, if not for a mysterious coincidence which happened just days before the murder. Hercule Poirot had received a typewritten letter signed simply A.B.C. and warning of a crime to be committed in Andover on that particular date – and beside the body of the dead woman was a copy of the ABC Railway Guide.

But this will not be the only murder to take place:

‘I admit,’ I said, ‘that a second murder in a book often cheers things up. If the murder happens in the first chapter, and you have to follow up everybody’s alibi until the last page but one – well, it does get a bit tedious.’

When a similar letter arrives soon afterwards giving advance warning of a second murder which will happen in Bexhill, it doesn’t come as a surprise to Poirot when the second victim has a name beginning with B and when another ABC Guide is found next to the body. Convinced now that the killer is following an alphabetical pattern, Poirot must uncover his or her identity before they get all the way to Z.

This is one of several Poirot novels narrated by Captain Hastings (although there are a few chapters written from the perspective of other characters). I always seem to enjoy the ones with Hastings, partly because he, like the reader, is often in the dark and needs Poirot to explain things to him, but also because I think Poirot having a friend to discuss things with gives these books a different dynamic to the ones where he is working entirely on his own amongst strangers. Sometimes Hastings can make an observation or suggestion which proves to be useful later on, as he does once or twice in this book. Inspector Crome is investigating too, and a ‘legion’ of the victims’ families and friends is also formed to see whether they can shed any light on the situation.

What makes this book so intriguing is that each of the murders which takes place seems unrelated to the others, apart from the ABC theme and the letters sent to Poirot. They each have a separate set of suspects, all with their own motives, but what Poirot needs to do is find something which links them all to one man or woman – the mysterious A.B.C. I found this a particularly clever Christie novel and didn’t come close to solving it. I allowed myself to be sent in completely the wrong direction by the red herrings and took everything at face value; in fact, for a long time I thought I was reading a different sort of mystery entirely.

I loved this one and I think I did the right thing in reading it before trying to watch the adaptation again. I’m planning to read another Christie novel in February, although I don’t know what it will be yet – I’m waiting to see what the chosen category will be for the next stage of the challenge.