Dark Queen Rising by Paul Doherty

Paul Doherty is a very prolific author of historical mysteries; he has been writing since the 1980s and has written many series under several pseudonyms, set in a variety of periods including medieval England, Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt. So far, my only experience of his work has been his standalone novel, Roseblood, which I really enjoyed, so when I came across Dark Queen Rising, the first in a new series set during my favourite period – the Wars of the Roses – I immediately wanted to read it.

The novel opens in 1471, just after the Battle of Tewkesbury, a battle which has ended in victory for the House of York and defeat for their rivals, the House of Lancaster. With the deposed Lancastrian king, Henry VI, held prisoner in the Tower of London, the victorious Yorkist army sets about destroying the other prominent noblemen who fought for Lancaster, including Henry’s heir, the young Prince of Wales. The Yorkist king, Edward IV, now sits securely on the throne of England – or does he? Margaret Beaufort, mother of one of the few remaining Lancastrian claimants, Henry Tudor, is making plans on behalf of her son, while Edward IV’s own brother – George, Duke of Clarence – is also gathering information that could bring about the king’s downfall.

Dark Queen Rising is described as the first in a series of ‘Margaret Beaufort mysteries’, which I think is slightly misleading – and looking at other reviews, it does seem that a lot of readers were expecting a different sort of book. There is a mystery, which develops when four men in the service of the Duke of Clarence are found dead in a tavern, but this doesn’t happen until the middle of the book and is never really the main focus of the novel. It’s more of a thriller, delving into the politics of the time and exploring some of the intrigue, plotting and controversy that makes this such a fascinating period of history.

Bearing in mind that Margaret Beaufort is one of the main characters in this book, I was surprised when, early in the novel, I saw a reference to her husband, ‘Sir Humphrey Stafford’. Margaret’s husband, of course, was Henry Stafford. Henry did have a brother called Humphrey who, coincidentally, was also married to another Margaret Beaufort, so I can see where the confusion has come from, but there’s really no excuse for not knowing which Margaret your novel is about. I was even more disappointed when, later in the book, references were made to Margaret’s future husband, William Stanley. This should have been Thomas Stanley, William’s brother. As the names of not just one but two of Margaret’s husbands were wrong, this made me question the accuracy of everything else in the novel, which is a shame as I do love this period and really wanted to enjoy this book.

George, Duke of Clarence has clearly been cast as the villain in this series, which is fair enough as history certainly tells us that he wasn’t the most honourable or trustworthy of people, but the way he is depicted in this book made him feel more like a caricature than a real person. When I think of the much more nuanced portrayals in books like Sharon Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour and Patrick Carleton’s Under the Hog, it’s disappointing. The character who did intrigue me in this book was Christopher Urswicke, who appears to be in Margaret’s employ but whose motives and true loyalties are not always very clear. I found the parts of the story written from Urswicke’s perspective much more interesting.

The second book in the series – Dark Queen Waiting – is out now, but because of the inaccuracies in this one, I’m not planning to read it, although I could possibly still be tempted by a sequel to Roseblood if one is ever written. Meanwhile, I’m now reading Thomas Penn’s new non-fiction book on the Wars of the Roses, The Brothers York, so I should be posting my thoughts on that one soon.

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

The Long Farewell by Michael Innes

“Farewell, a long farewell!” This line from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII is written on a piece of paper found next to the body of Lewis Packford, shot dead in his own library. The words are in Packford’s handwriting, but is this really suicide or is it a cleverly disguised murder? There’s certainly no shortage of suspects; the dead man had been hosting a house party and his home, a small country estate called Urchins, was full of guests at the time of the shooting. Sir John Appleby of Scotland Yard is sent to investigate, but Sir John also has a personal involvement in the case – he had visited Packford earlier in the year at his Italian villa and got the impression even then that something wasn’t quite right…

I have read several of Michael Innes’ Inspector Appleby novels over the last few years and I’ve found them to be of very mixed quality. I’ve loved a few of them, but some have had such bizarre plots I haven’t enjoyed them much at all. I’m pleased to say that I think The Long Farewell is one of the better ones. In comparison to some of the others, it’s quite a conventional murder mystery with plenty of suspects, clues and red herrings. It’s also the type of mystery I prefer, concerned mainly with the motives of the characters and the relationships between them, rather than getting too caught up with alibis, times on clocks and layouts of rooms.

After a brief opening section in which Appleby visits Packford in Italy and they have a discussion about fraud, forgery and Shakespeare, we get straight to the murder and the investigation, so there’s no long build-up. It’s a short book, but I thought it was just the right length for the story that is being told. Although Packford’s home in England, the strangely named Urchins, is full of his fellow eccentric academics who have stayed on after his death to assist with the inquiries, with the exception of the opening chapter I’ve just mentioned there are very few of the scholarly, erudite conversations you often find in novels by Innes. No knowledge of Shakespeare is needed to be able to understand and enjoy the mystery either!

The Long Farewell was originally published in 1958 and I found the portrayal of the female characters in the book particularly interesting. There are two women amongst the guests at Urchins – Ruth and Alice – who come from very different walks of life and who both had different reasons for wanting to marry Lewis Packford. Without going into too much detail here and spoiling things, it occurred to me that had the book been written in the modern day, this part of the plot wouldn’t have worked at all.

Overall, this is an entertaining Appleby mystery (I loved the farcical scene which unfolds in the library late at night) and although it falls somewhere in the middle of the series I think it could be a good one to start with if you’re new to Michael Innes.

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

The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie

Last year I took part in the Read Christie 2019 challenge hosted by the Agatha Christie website. The idea was to read twelve Christie books – one per month – corresponding to twelve different categories. I didn’t manage to join in with all twelve, but I read eight of them and enjoyed them all, particularly The ABC Murders, Dumb Witness, and the book for December, The Pale Horse. There’s a new BBC adaptation of The Pale Horse coming soon (not sure of the exact dates, but sometime in 2020) so I’m pleased to have had a chance to read it first.

The Pale Horse is one of Christie’s standalones and doesn’t feature either of her famous detectives, Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, although there are a few appearances from another recurring character, Ariadne Oliver. The story is narrated by Mark Easterbrook, not a detective but a writer and historian who is researching a book on Mughal architecture. At the beginning of the novel, Mark witnesses two young women fighting in a London coffee shop. A few days later, he is surprised to hear that one of the girls, Tommy Tuckerton, has died of what appear to be natural causes, unconnected with the fight. Presumably this is just a coincidence, but soon afterwards Mark learns of a list of names found in the shoe of a murdered priest – and one of those names is Tuckerton. When Mark recognises another of the names, that of his godmother Lady Hesketh-Dubois, who has also recently died, he becomes convinced that something sinister is happening.

With the help of his crime writer friend Ariadne Oliver and a young woman called Ginger Corrigan, Mark begins to investigate and finds a series of clues leading him to a former inn, The Pale Horse, which is now home to three witches. Not real witches, of course…or are they? Mark isn’t sure what to think, but it certainly seems that The Pale Horse is well known within the community as the place to go if you want to put a curse on somebody.

Christie’s novels are always entertaining, but this is one I particularly enjoyed. The plot intrigued me from the beginning; it seemed such an unusual set of circumstances and while I didn’t really believe that the three women of The Pale Horse were able to kill people through supernatural means, I couldn’t work out how else the murders were being committed. It was all quite unsettling, with a real sense that something evil was taking place. I had to avoid reading this book late at night!

It was good to see Ariadne Oliver again, who plays a small but important part in the solution of the mystery and in her role of crime novelist gives Christie an opportunity to put a little bit of herself into the story. There are plenty of other memorable characters too, though, from the three witches to Ginger Corrigan to Mr Osborne, a pharmacist who witnesses one of the murders and insists that he knows who the culprit is, despite all evidence to the contrary!

The Read Christie Challenge is happening again in 2020, with a new set of monthly categories. January’s theme is ‘a book that changed Christie’s life’ and we have been given a few suggestions to choose from. I have opted for Murder on the Orient Express!

Death in Room Five by George Bellairs

George Bellairs, author of over fifty crime novels, many of them featuring the character of Inspector Littlejohn, seems to be enjoying a resurgence in popularity recently due to various publishers bringing a selection of his titles back into print. This one, Death in Room Five, is the second I’ve read and like my first, A Knife for Harry Dodd, it has been reissued by Agora Books.

In Death in Room Five, first published in 1955, Inspector Littlejohn is looking forward to taking a break from detective work and enjoying the sun, sea and sand of the French Riviera. His holiday has hardly begun, however, when a party of British tourists arrive, one of them is stabbed to death in the street, and Littlejohn finds himself drawn into a murder investigation. The dead man – the Alderman Dawson, from the fictional English town of Bolchester – appears at first to have been a respectable, honourable pillar of the community, but Littlejohn soon discovers that there is no shortage of people who had reasons to dislike Dawson or to benefit from his death.

This is an interesting and well-constructed murder mystery with plenty of suspects all with a possible motive for wanting Dawson dead. In order to understand the background of each suspect’s relationship with the Alderman, Littlejohn has to make a brief journey back to England to interview the residents of Bolchester (leaving the long-suffering Mrs Littlejohn to continue their holiday alone) but most of the action takes place in the south of France. I loved the beautiful descriptions of the Riviera, and the French setting also allows Bellairs to explore an intriguing motive for the murder – Dawson’s involvement with the French Resistance during the war.

It’s quite a complex mystery and although I didn’t find the solution particularly convincing, I appreciated the way Bellairs misleads us with red herrings and keeps us guessing to the end. However, I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as A Knife for Harry Dodd because I thought the characters in that one were more interesting to read about. Apart from the formidable Mrs Beaumont, I found the characters in this book less memorable and so the novel as a whole was not as entertaining. I did love the setting, though, and was pleased to discover that there are several other Littlejohn mysteries set in France, as well as on the Isle of Man, which is where Bellairs lived after his retirement. I’m looking forward to trying some of them.

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

The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis

I love historical mysteries but have never felt drawn to Lindsey Davis’ Falco series as the setting – Ancient Rome – is not one of my favourites. Recently, though, I have discovered a few books set in Rome that I’ve enjoyed and have been open to reading more, so I thought I would give the first book, The Silver Pigs, a try. When I noticed that my library had the first four in the series available to download as audiobooks, I decided that as I was stepping slightly out of my comfort zone anyway with the Roman setting, I may as well step out of it completely with a format I usually avoid.

Audiobooks tend not to work for me because I find that my attention wanders more easily when I’m listening to a book than it does when I’m reading it on paper, but I did my best to concentrate on this one and was mostly successful. It is read by the British actor Christian Rodska and although I wasn’t sure about his voice at first (he sounded too old for the thirty-year-old Falco) I changed my mind after a while and decided that his voice was well suited to the down to earth, humorous style of the writing.

The novel opens in the year 70 AD with an encounter between our narrator, ‘private informer’ Marcus Didius Falco, and a young woman who is being chased through the Forum. After helping her to escape from her pursuers, Falco learns that the girl’s name is Sosia Camillina and that she is the niece of a powerful senator. It seems that Sosia has become embroiled in a conspiracy involving a secret stockpile of silver ingots (known as ‘silver pigs’) – a conspiracy which could pose a threat to the rule of the Emperor Vespasian.

To find out who is behind the plot, Falco is sent to the silver mines of Britannia, something he is less than thrilled about because Britannia is a cold, miserable place in winter. During his time there he meets the senator’s daughter Helena Justina, Sosia’s cousin, an intelligent, opinionated young woman to whom Falco takes an instant dislike – and the feeling is mutual. Given the job of escorting her back to Rome, Falco is unsure which task will give him more trouble: solving the mystery of the silver pigs or dealing with Helena!

As I’ve said, Ancient Rome is not one of my usual subjects when it comes to reading historical fiction, so this was an educational read for me as well as an entertaining one. Knowing that Lindsey Davis seems to be highly regarded for her research and accuracy, I could trust that what I was learning was correct (apparently since the book was first published in 1989 new evidence emerged showing that the description she gives of the process used in the formation of silver pigs may not be accurate, but that’s just proof of how our knowledge of history is still changing and evolving).

I wasn’t sure what to think of Falco as a character; I found him a bit off-putting in the opening chapters where his first thought on seeing sixteen-year-old Sosia Camillina is that she’s ‘wearing far too many clothes’ and then, when she tells him she’s not married, he thinks ‘she looked like a person who soon should be’. As I read on, though, I found that he is maybe not quite the sophisticated womaniser he wants us to think he is, but a young man who is trying to get out from under the thumb of his domineering mother and the shadow of his late brother, the military hero Didius Festus, and who is a beloved uncle to his little niece Marcia.

The mystery itself didn’t really interest me, to the point where I started to lose track of what was happening towards the end, although that could have been partly because, as I’ve mentioned, I find it harder to concentrate on the spoken word than the written word. This is the first book in the series, though, so it’s possible that some of the later ones have stronger plots. I will try the second one, but probably in traditional book format rather than audiobook.

Since I finished The Silver Pigs, it has been announced that there are plans for a new adaptation of the Falco novels by ITV and Mammoth Screen, so it seems I have chosen a good time to start reading them!

Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie

This is one of the Christie novels I have been particularly looking forward to reading, as so many people list it amongst their favourites. I had hoped to read it last month as it was September’s selection for the 2019 Read Christie Challenge, but it ended up having to be an October read for me instead.

Published in 1942, Five Little Pigs is one of Christie’s Poirot mysteries, but it is slightly different from the others in that Poirot is trying to solve a crime which took place many years before the novel opens. Carla Lemarchant has received a letter from her mother, Caroline, who has died in prison while serving a life sentence for the murder of her husband, Amyas Crale, sixteen years ago. In the letter, Caroline assures her daughter of her innocence – and because Carla knows that her mother was always a woman who told the truth, she believes her. Hoping to find out what really happened, Carla approaches Hercule Poirot and asks him to investigate.

This is not Poirot’s usual sort of mystery – there is no active crime scene to visit and any evidence is likely to have been lost or destroyed long ago – but he agrees to Carla’s request. He begins by collecting statements from the five people who, other than Caroline, had been present on the day of the murder: the stockbroker Phillip Blake and his reclusive brother Meredith; Elsa Greer, with whom Amyas Crale was thought to be having an affair; the governess Cecelia Williams; and Caroline’s younger sister, Angela, who was just a teenager at the time. If Caroline was innocent, then one of these five must have been the murderer – but will it still be possible to identify the real culprit now that so much time has passed?

I can understand why Five Little Pigs is so highly regarded by Christie fans. The characterisation is excellent; the suspects are well drawn and have believable motives for wanting Amyas dead, and there is evidence of character development too, in the contrast between their present day selves and the people they had been sixteen years earlier. The structure is clever too – the statement each character writes is given in full and although I thought at first that I would find it repetitive reading about the same events five times in a row, that wasn’t really a problem. Each account of that fateful day is slightly different and each one makes us question what we were told in the previous one. It’s only once Poirot has all five accounts in front of him and has spoken to all five of the writers in person that he can piece everything together and solve the mystery.

I enjoyed this book but it hasn’t become a personal favourite and there are other Poirots I’ve liked more. The problem I had with this one was that, although I appreciated the structure and the characters, I didn’t find the mystery itself particularly imaginative or entertaining. I thought The ABC Murders and Dumb Witness both had better plots, to give two examples that I’ve read this year for the Read Christie challenge. Having just caught up with September’s book at the end of October, I am going to skip October’s book for the challenge (a new short story collection, The Last Séance) and will wait to see what November’s choice will be.

And if you’re wondering, the title of Five Little Pigs refers to the fact that the five suspects remind Poirot of the children’s rhyme, “This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed at home; This little piggy had roast beef, this little piggy had none; And this little piggy went ‘wee wee wee’ all the way home!”

This is book #6 read for this year’s R.I.P. event.

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.