Death in Zanzibar by M M Kaye

I love M.M. Kaye’s Death In… novels, but I’ve been taking my time with the series as there are only six books and I didn’t want to finish them all too quickly. The books all stand alone as entirely separate mystery novels, but are all set in one of several fascinating locations around the world in which Kaye lived with her husband, who was in the British Army. So far, my favourite is still the first, Death in Kashmir, but this one – the fifth in the series – ties with Death in Cyprus for second place.

Death in Zanzibar was originally published in 1959 as The House of Shade. The novel begins with Dany Ashton on her way to Zanzibar to stay with her mother Lorraine and stepfather, Tyson Frost, at Tyson’s home Kivulimi, known as the ‘House of Shade’. Before leaving London, she visits Tyson’s solicitor, Mr Honeywood, to collect a document her stepfather has asked her to bring out to Zanzibar for him. The next day, she reads in the newspaper that Mr Honeywood was murdered just after she left his office and the police have found a handkerchief at the murder scene with her initials on it. Determined that nothing will stop her from visiting Zanzibar, Dany decides to say nothing and continue with her journey – until she discovers that someone has broken into her hotel room and stolen her passport.

Staying in the same hotel is Lashmer Holden, an American publisher whose father is a close friend of Tyson’s. Lash is also on his way to Kivulimi on business and when he hears Dany’s story, he comes up with a plan to get her to Zanzibar and to throw the police off her trail. The only problem is, Lash is drunk (his fiancée has just broken off their engagement) and when he sobers up, halfway across Africa, he is horrified to learn what he and Dany have done.

I won’t go into the plot in any more detail, but there are more murders, a mysterious old mansion, family secrets, disguises and forged letters – all the elements of an entertaining and atmospheric read. I have seen a lot of comparisons of Kaye’s crime novels with Agatha Christie’s and I do agree, to a certain extent – this one did remind me at times of books like Murder in Mesopotamia or They Came to Baghdad – but I think, with their blend of suspense, romance, beautiful young heroines and evocative settings, a better comparison would be with Mary Stewart’s novels. Kaye’s books are darker than Stewart’s, though; they always seem to involve several scenes with the heroine hearing noises in the night and coming across intruders in the dark which are genuinely quite creepy and sinister!

I think this is probably the first book I’ve ever read set in Zanzibar, so I enjoyed the parts describing the island: the colours, smells and sounds, the politics and the people – and lots of interesting little facts, such as a mention of spikes on old wooden doors which had been put there to repel elephant attacks. However, about half of the book actually takes place during the journey, on planes, in airports, and in hotels; Zanzibar is less important to the story than the settings of some of the other books. The mystery itself is an excellent one with lots of suspects, several of whom I suspected at various points in the novel – but not the right one! I liked the romantic aspect of the story too and although I would have preferred Dany to have been slightly less naive and innocent, I had to remind myself that she had just left school the year before and had led a sheltered life.

I still need to read Death in the Andamans, but I’m particularly looking forward to reading Kaye’s historical novel Trade Wind, which is also set in Zanzibar during the time of one of Tyson Frost’s ancestors.

This is book 5/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021.

Nemesis by Agatha Christie

This month, for Read Christie 2021, the theme is ‘a story featuring a garden’ and the suggested title is Nemesis, a late Miss Marple mystery published in 1971.

Nemesis is an unusual Marple novel because for the first half of the book it’s not really clear what the mystery is that she’s trying to solve. All we do know is that Mr Rafiel, a rich man whom Miss Marple met previously in A Caribbean Mystery (which I haven’t read), has died, leaving her a large sum of money in his will on the condition that she must agree to investigate a crime for him. The only problem is, he doesn’t tell her what sort of crime it is or what she will need to do – only that he remembers her flair for justice and her nickname ‘Nemesis’.

Intrigued by Mr Rafiel’s request and tempted by the money, Miss Marple decides to accept the mission – and promptly receives an invitation to join a tour of Britain’s historic houses and gardens. During the tour she gradually uncovers the details of a crime committed several years earlier and discovers at last what Mr Rafiel wants her to do.

I don’t really want to say much more about the plot of this particular Christie novel because I think part of the fun is in wondering what the mystery is going to be and which of the people Miss Marple meets on the tour are going to be involved in it. Once the crime is revealed and she is able to start her investigations, it becomes more of a conventional mystery novel and I don’t think it’s as strong as some of the other Marples. Several of the clues seemed very obvious and I was able to solve some of it (although not all of it).

I was pleased to find that Miss Marple is present in the story from the beginning all the way through to the end; I’ve often complained that she appears too briefly, so it was nice to spend an entire novel with her this time. I loved the way she uses her apparent absent-mindedness, frailty and ‘twittering’ to fool the people around her into thinking she is a harmless, silly old woman, while all the time her brain is working away, storing information, making observations and staying one step ahead of everyone else. I should warn you, though, that she does express some disturbing views on the subject of rape – views that, unfortunately, a lot of people still hold today. Apart from that, this is an entertaining, if not particularly outstanding, Marple novel and it looks as though I’ll be reading another one soon as July’s selection is Murder at the Vicarage.

Mystery and intrigue in the seventeenth century

Looking at the historical fiction I have read so far this year, it seems that the 17th century is displacing the Tudor, Victorian and early 20th century periods as the most common historical setting for my reading. Here are my thoughts on two more 17th century novels I’ve read recently, both of them historical mysteries.

The Wrecking Storm is the second book in Michael Ward’s Thomas Tallant series, following the adventures of a London spice merchant’s son in pre-civil war England. You could read this book without having read the first one, Rags of Time, but if you do read them in order you’ll have a better understanding of the background of the characters, their relationships and the political situation in England at that time.

The novel opens in 1641 with the murder of two Jesuit priests, one of whom was known to have been in hiding in a building close to the Tallant warehouse on the banks of the River Thames. Thomas Tallant’s friends, Member of Parliament Sir Barty Hopkins and Robert Petty of the Merchant Adventurers, ask for Tom’s help in catching the culprit, but before investigations have progressed very far, Tom finds that his own family has become the next target. Joining forces again with another friend, Elizabeth Seymour, Tom must find out who is responsible before the family business is ruined or one of the Tallants is killed.

I enjoyed the mystery element of the book and was surprised when the truth was revealed as I’d had no idea who was behind the attacks on the Tallant family! It was nice to see Elizabeth play such a big part in the investigations; her intelligence, puzzle-solving skills and interest in science and mathematics make her a better detective than Tom himself and her observations and suggestions prove invaluable to the solving of the mystery. I was particularly intrigued by her encounters with Lucy, Countess of Carlisle, a real historical figure who was also involved in political conspiracies during the civil war (and who I’ve discovered may have been the inspiration for Milady in The Three Musketeers).

As with the first book, the historical context was as interesting as the mystery. The story unfolds during the sitting of the Long Parliament, the execution of the Earl of Strafford and Charles I’s attempt to arrest five Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. The conflict between King and Parliament is mirrored by the turmoil on the streets of London where opposing political and religious groups and unruly mobs of apprentices are creating a dangerous and unsettling atmosphere.

The Wrecking Storm is a short, fast-paced read; I think I slightly preferred the longer Rags of Time, but both books are entertaining and I hope to meet Tom and Elizabeth again soon.

The Protector by SJ Deas is a sequel to The Royalist, which I read several years ago and enjoyed. This second book was published in 2015 and there have been no more in the series since, which is disappointing but it seems the author has moved on to other things.

Anyway, The Protector continues the story of William Falkland, a former Royalist soldier who has reluctantly found himself in the service of Oliver Cromwell. It’s 1646, the First Civil War is over (the Second will begin within two years), and Henry Warbeck, Cromwell’s man, has again approached Falkland to ask for his assistance with another investigation. Anne Agar, sister of John Milton, the epic poet and writer of political pamphlets, has disappeared and Cromwell believes she has been abducted by Royalists in an attempt to convert the pro-Parliamentarian Milton to their cause.

Falkland is less than enthusiastic about taking on this mission; after four years of war he no longer feels any strong allegiance to either side and just wants to go home to his wife and children. However, that’s easier said than done, as he returns to find his house abandoned and his family missing, with no idea where they have gone or why they have left. Hoping that Cromwell will help him to locate his own family in return for tracking down Anne, Falkland sets out on her trail – but the biggest obstacle in his way turns out to be Milton himself, who takes an instant dislike to Falkland and is unwilling to cooperate.

As well as being an interesting and compelling mystery novel, The Protector is also quite a sad and poignant portrayal of the human cost of war, with families left divided, destroyed and separated once the fighting ends. William Falkland is a sympathetic and tragic hero as, lost and lonely, he begins the hunt for Anne Agar while despairing of ever finding his own beloved Caro. I was pleased to see him team up again with Kate Cain (whom we first met in The Royalist), but at the same time I was glad that Deas doesn’t push them into a romance, leaving us in no doubt that William is still devoted to Caro and the children and will continue his search unless and until there is no hope left. I enjoyed this book nearly as much as the first one and would love to know what the future holds for William Falkland, but sadly it looks as though we’re not going to find out.

~

Have you read either of these books – or any other good historical mysteries set in the 17th century?

Books 29 and 30/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie

The May prompt for the Read Christie 2021 Challenge is ‘a story featuring tea’.  I would have had no idea which Christie novels fit that theme, but as ever the challenge hosts provided a list of suggestions and this one, A Pocket Full of Rye, turned out to be perfect.   

First published in 1953, the novel opens with London businessman Rex Fortescue being served his morning tea in his office by his secretary.  When Fortescue dies in hospital shortly afterwards and the cause of death is said to be taxine, a poison found in yew trees, the tea is naturally blamed.  However, the autopsy suggests that the poisoning must have actually taken place earlier that morning, while Fortescue was eating breakfast at his home, Yew Tree Lodge.  This widens the circle of potential suspects to include his wife, his three children and their spouses, and an assortment of servants.  Inspector Neele is brought in to lead the investigation, but his only real clue is a handful of rye found in Fortescue’s pocket.

Neele believes he is close to identifying the culprit, but a second murder forces him to think again.  It is only when Miss Marple arrives at Yew Tree Lodge, having read about the murders in the newspaper, that a connection is spotted with the popular children’s rhyme, “Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye”.  Inspector Neele may be a clever man with a sharp mind, but it will take Miss Marple’s knowledge of Mother Goose, blackbirds and human nature to solve this particular mystery.

I usually seem to prefer Christie’s Poirot novels to her Miss Marple ones, but I really enjoyed this book; it’s one of my favourite Marples so far, along with A Murder is Announced. I loved the nursery rhyme element – although it’s maybe not all that relevant to the overall solving of the mystery, it does add some fun to the plot. I can’t say that I loved the characters, but as Neele himself describes them as “all very unpleasant people”, we’re obviously not supposed to – and the fact that they are so unpleasant means that there are plenty of suspects. For once, I did correctly identify who was behind the murders, but I think it was really just a lucky guess; I certainly didn’t work everything out and I needed Miss Marple to explain all the details for me. Sadly, though, we don’t spend a lot of time with her in this book. She doesn’t appear until almost halfway through and then we don’t see very much of her actually investigating the mystery…which makes it all the more impressive that she manages to solve it ahead of Inspector Neele!

I’m enjoying taking part in Read Christie this year. I’ve read five great books in the first five months and am looking forward to another one in June!

The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji

This Japanese murder mystery was originally published in 1987 and is now available from Pushkin Vertigo in an English translation by Ho-Ling Wong. Having recently read two other reissued Japanese classic mysteries, The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo and Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shimada, I jumped at the chance to read this one, especially when I saw comparisons with one of my favourite Agatha Christie novels, And Then There Were None.

After a brief prologue, the book begins with seven students, all members of their university Mystery Club, arriving on the lonely island of Tsunojima, where they are planning to spend the week. It’s the perfect location for a group of crime lovers because a series of unsolved murders took place there the year before, so the students are looking forward to exploring the island and using their skills as amateur detectives to investigate the mystery. Soon after their arrival, however, they discover that someone is planning to murder them one by one – but is the killer one of the seven or is someone else hiding on the island?

This is an interesting novel and a quick one to read; although it takes a while to get started, the pace rapidly picks up once the first murder takes place. The action switches between the island and the mainland, where Kawaminami, an ex-member of the Mystery Club, is carrying out some investigations of his own, having received a letter which leads him to question what really happened on Tsunojima Island the year before. The alternating narratives add some tension to the story as we wait to see whether Kawaminami will solve the mystery before everyone on the island is dead.

The similarities with And Then There Were None were obvious as soon as I started to read, but sadly this book doesn’t come close to the brilliance of the Christie novel – and the eventual solution and motive are quite different anyway. However, it’s clear that Yukito Ayatsuji must have been an admirer of Golden Age crime novels and he pays homage to them in various ways all the way through the book. The seven members of the Mystery Club have all taken the names of classic crime writers and are known as Ellery, Agatha, Leroux, Carr, Van Dine, Poe and Orczy, while Kawaminami’s nickname is Conan – or sometimes Doyle!

The characters themselves, though, never really come to life at all and feel interchangeable, with very little to differentiate one from another. This leads to a lack of emotional involvement and I found that I didn’t really care who was murdered or who the culprit was. I felt completely detached from what was happening and although I could appreciate the cleverness of the plot, it wasn’t a story that I could become fully absorbed in. To be fair, this seems to be typical of Japanese mystery novels in general, particularly the subgenre known as honkaku, of which this book is said to be a classic example. Honkaku books have been described as traditional plot-driven ‘puzzle mysteries’ with complex solutions and appear to be less concerned with character development.

Still, I found things to enjoy in this novel. The revelations at the end took me completely by surprise and, if I hadn’t had so many other books waiting to be read, I would have been tempted to go back and re-read at least the first few chapters to see how I could have missed the clues. And I loved the descriptions of the Decagon House, the building in which the students stay during their time on the island – a decagonal building with decagonal rooms, decagonal tables and even decagonal cups!

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

Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie – #1936Club

This is the second book I’ve read for the 1936 Club (hosted by Karen and Simon) and an obvious one for me as I’m also taking part in Read Christie 2021 this year. The monthly prompt for Read Christie is ‘a story set before WWII’, which makes Murder in Mesopotamia, published in 1936, the perfect choice!

Murder in Mesopotamia is a Poirot mystery and one of several to feature a first person narrator – usually Captain Hastings, but in this case Nurse Amy Leatheran. At the beginning of the novel she agrees to travel to the site of an archaeological dig near Hassanieh in Iraq to nurse the wife of the expedition leader, Dr Leidner. Louise Leidner is being blamed by some of the other archaeologists for causing tension on this year’s dig, but when Nurse Leatheran arrives at the site what she finds is a nervous, frightened woman who claims to be receiving threatening letters from a former husband. A few days later, Louise is found dead in her bedroom, having been hit on the head by a blunt object. It seems impossible that a stranger could have entered the site without being seen, therefore the murderer must be someone on the dig…but who?

When I first began to read, I couldn’t help making comparisons with They Came to Baghdad, one of my favourite Christie novels, which features lots of colourful descriptions of Iraq. The sense of place in this one isn’t quite as strong – and in fact, we see very little of Iraq beyond the confines of the dig site – but there’s still plenty of atmosphere. The descriptions we do get of the dig and the various roles of the members of the expedition are fascinating and feel authentic, which is to be expected as Christie herself was married to an archaeologist, Max Mallowan, and often accompanied him on digs. Not only could she draw on her own personal knowledge and experience in the writing of this novel, she also apparently based some of the characters on people she knew.

Nurse Leatheran is a very opinionated narrator who doesn’t hold back on her views of ‘Foreigners’ (including Poirot), but apart from that I quite enjoyed her narration. We get to know the other participants in the dig through her eyes and, because she is an outsider, meeting all of these people for the first time, we can never be completely sure whether or not she is giving us an accurate impression of them. Poirot himself appears halfway through the novel, conveniently passing through Hassanieh after working on a case in Syria – and we are told that a week later, after solving this mystery, he will go on to investigate the Murder on the Orient Express.

As usual, I didn’t manage to solve the mystery myself. I came up with a few theories, but none of them were correct, which isn’t surprising as the final solution is so far-fetched I don’t think I would ever have thought of it! The method by which the murder is carried out seems unlikely, if not impossible, but the motive relies on us accepting something which I found impossible to believe. Still, this was an entertaining read and another great 1936 book.

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