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.

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.