The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

After reading Ruth Ware’s The Turn of the Key last month, I knew I wanted to read more of her books but wasn’t sure which one to try next. Some of you recommended The Death of Mrs Westaway, which does sound good, but as my library had The Woman in Cabin 10 available first, that is the one I’ve ended up reading. I had seen some very mixed opinions of the book and it doesn’t seem to be a favourite of Ruth Ware fans, but I enjoyed it and thought it was a perfect choice for the R.I.P. XIV challenge.

Laura Blacklock, known as Lo, is a journalist working for a London-based magazine, Velocity. With her editor in hospital, Lo has been given the job of reporting on the maiden voyage of a new luxury cruise liner, the Aurora Borealis. She knows it’s a wonderful opportunity – a free cruise around the Norwegian fjords in search of the Northern Lights and the chance to make new and influential contacts – but when her home is broken into a few days before the trip and she almost comes face to face with the burglar, she is left feeling nervous, violated and unable to relax. She doesn’t really feel like going on the cruise at all but hopes she will at least be able to have a good night’s sleep on the ship…

Unfortunately, there is more trauma ahead for Lo. On the first evening of the cruise, she knocks on the door of the cabin next to her own – Cabin 10 – and borrows a mascara from the young woman who answers the door. Later that night, after going to bed, she hears a scream from Cabin 10 and then a loud splash. Convinced that someone has been thrown overboard, Lo calls security – but when the door is opened, the room is completely empty; there are no signs that anyone had ever been staying there at all. What has happened to the woman in Cabin 10? Has Lo been imagining things or is one of her fellow passengers trying to cover up a murder?

I loved the mystery element of this book. A cruise liner makes a perfect ‘locked room’ setting; as it’s not likely that anyone will arrive or leave once at sea, that means the suspects are limited to those on board at the beginning. These include the wealthy businessman who owns the ship, his invalid wife, a renowned photographer, a travel journalist, a food writer, an ‘extreme adventure’ expert, and even Lo’s own ex-boyfriend. The Aurora Borealis is not a huge ship, but a very small one with only ten cabins – described as a ‘boutique cruise liner’ – and this increases the feeling of danger and claustrophobia as Lo becomes aware that if one of the other guests is trying to do her harm she really has nowhere to hide.

When the truth was revealed I was annoyed with myself because I felt that it was something I should have guessed or been able to work out – but didn’t. Still, it meant that I was taken by surprise because I hadn’t been expecting it at all! After this revelation, though, I felt that the rest of the book was too drawn out; although there was still a lot of drama, there wasn’t much more suspense and it seemed to take a long time to get to the final chapter. Some of the developments towards the end were hard to believe and I finished the book feeling a bit less enthusiastic about it than I did at the beginning. I did find it entertaining though and am looking forward to my next Ruth Ware book.

This is book #2 read for this year’s R.I.P. event.

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Never having read anything by John Buchan before, the logical place to start seemed to be with his most famous novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps. I wasn’t at all sure that it would be my sort of book, which is why I’ve put off reading it for so long, but I knew there must be a reason why it is so well-loved and has been adapted for film and television so many times.

Published in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps is set during the May and June of the previous year, just before the outbreak of war in Europe. The novel is narrated in the first person by Richard Hannay, who has recently arrived in London having spent most of his life living in Africa. As the story begins, Hannay has been in England for three months and is feeling bored, homesick and disillusioned:

The crowd surged past me on the pavements, busy and chattering, and I envied the people for having something to do. These shop-girls and clerks and dandies and policemen had some interest in life that kept them going. I gave half-a-crown to a beggar because I saw him yawn; he was a fellow-sufferer. At Oxford Circus I looked up into the spring sky and I made a vow. I would give the Old Country another day to fit me into something; if nothing happened, I would take the next boat for the Cape.

That evening, as luck would have it, something does happen. He is approached by a stranger who introduces himself as Franklin P. Scudder, an American secret agent, and who claims to have uncovered a plot to destabilise Europe by assassinating Constantine Karolides, an important Greek politician. Scudder believes his life is in danger and asks Hannay to shelter him for the night, but when the agent is murdered inside his home, Hannay fears that the killers will come for him next. Desperate to get away, he flees to Scotland with the intention of hiding there for a while until he can think of a way to continue Scudder’s work and prevent the assassination of Karolides. It seems he is about to have all the excitement he could have wished for – and more.

All of this happens in the first two chapters. The remainder of the novel follows Hannay’s adventures while on the run, most of which involve being chased around the Scottish countryside and having encounters with various eccentric characters, who could be friends but are equally likely to be enemies. Each chapter feels almost like a separate short story, which is maybe explained by the fact that the novel was originally published as a serial in Blackwood’s Magazine so needed to be written in an easily digestible format. I found it very entertaining at first, but somewhere in the middle I thought it became a bit tedious and repetitive. There were far too many coincidences and too many last-minute escapes; fun in small doses, but a whole book like that was too much for me. It also lacks depth, both in terms of characters and plot, but if you accept it for what it is – an early example of the adventure/spy novel, it’s quite enjoyable.

I can’t say that I loved The Thirty-Nine Steps, but I would be happy to try more of John Buchan’s books. Can anyone recommend one that I might like?

The Great Impersonation by E. Phillips Oppenheim

I don’t usually pay much attention to the recommendations that pop up on sites like Goodreads and Amazon (“as you liked that book, you might like this one”) but there have been one or two occasions where a particular recommendation has caught my attention, I’ve tried the book and enjoyed it – and that was what happened with The Great Impersonation! This novel by E. Phillips Oppenheim was apparently hugely successful on its publication in 1920, has been adapted for film three times and was included on The Guardian’s list of 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read, yet until now I had never come across the book and didn’t know anything about the author. It seems Oppenheim wrote a very impressive number of books – over 100, mostly thrillers, between 1887 and 1943. I’m not sure whether I’ll look for more of them, but I’m glad I read this one.

The Great Impersonation opens in East Africa in 1913, just before the start of the First World War, and begins with an unexpected encounter between two men who once attended school and university together. One of them is thirty-six-year-old Everard Dominey, who fled England several years earlier following a scandal which arose when he was believed to have killed a man in a fight over his (Everard’s) wife, Rosamund. Since then, Everard has become a dissolute, disreputable drunk, wandering aimlessly from country to country with no direction or purpose in life. The other is Leopold von Ragastein, a German nobleman who has also been banished for duelling with and killing the husband of his lover, the Princess Eiderstrom.

Everard and Leopold have always looked remarkably alike and still do, although the resemblance is not as strong as it used to be because of the very different lifestyles they have been leading. After a night spent drinking and confiding in each other the secrets of their pasts, we see Leopold hatching a plot to dispose of Everard in the desert so that he can steal his identity and undertake a spying mission for the German government.

A few months later, Everard Dominey returns to England, much to the surprise of his friends and family. Rosamund, who has still not recovered from the tragic circumstances of his departure, is shocked by the change in her husband, insisting that he is not the Everard she remembers. Obviously, thinks the reader, that’s because he’s really Leopold von Ragastein! But is he? We didn’t actually witness Everard’s death, after all…

The Great Impersonation is very cleverly written so that, however much we may think we know the truth, we can never be quite certain. Everard/Leopold is always referred to as Everard, even in scenes where he is discussing his spying activities with his German contacts, who have no doubt that he is Leopold. The two men’s lovers, Rosamund and Princess Eiderstrom, cause even more confusion with Rosamund accusing Everard of not being Everard and the Princess claiming that he is Leopold, before changing her mind again! If they cannot identify the man they love, what chance does the reader have? Of course, I am not going to tell you what is revealed in the end, except that I guessed correctly (I had a 50% chance of that, I suppose).

Bearing in mind that the book was published in 1920, I should mention that there is some racist language in the opening chapters set in Africa, but there is much less of this once the action moves back to Europe. I can also tell you that although this is described as a spy novel, there’s not a huge amount of spying in it, so if you’re not very interested in that sort of thing, there’s still some romance, the mistaken/stolen identity storyline, and also some gothic elements (mainly involving a possible ghost or demon that haunts the Black Wood near the Dominey estate).

If anyone else has read this book, please let me know what you thought of it – and whether you can recommend any more of Oppenheim’s many novels.

Margery Allingham writing as Maxwell March: Rogues’ Holiday and The Devil and Her Son

A while ago I read an early novel by Margery Allingham published under the pseudonym Maxwell March. It was called The Man of Dangerous Secrets and, although it was undoubtedly silly and over the top, I enjoyed it so much I knew I would be reading her other two Maxwell March books as soon as the time was right. Well, the time was right this month and I have now read both Rogues’ Holiday (1935) and The Devil and Her Son (1936).

Rogues’ Holiday begins with the death of a young man found dead in a locked room at his London club. Suicide is assumed, but Inspector David Blest of Scotland Yard is not convinced. Having learned that the dead man had been seen arguing with Sir Leo Thyn, an older and highly respected member of the club, shortly before his death, David wonders whether there is a connection. He shares his suspicions with his superior officer, who tells him to keep his opinions to himself and sends him off on his scheduled two-week holiday as planned.

But David has no intention of taking a holiday. Instead, he heads for the Arcadian Hotel in the seaside resort of Westbourne – the same hotel where Sir Leo Thyn is now staying with a friend, a man whom David immediately recognises as a notorious criminal known as The Major. Another guest has also just arrived at the hotel: this is Judy Wellington, a young heiress who claims to be a permanent invalid, but David suspects that she is not in such poor health as she pretends. When another murder takes place, he discovers that he has walked into a whole nest of rogues – but how is Judy mixed up in it all and could she be in danger?

As I’d already read The Man of Dangerous Secrets, I had a good idea of what to expect from this book. I knew it would be more thriller than detective novel, I knew there would be wicked villains, far-fetched plot twists, last-minute escapes and coincidences galore, and I knew there would be a beautiful girl with whom our hero would fall in love at first sight. And yes, Rogues’ Holiday has all of those things. You probably wouldn’t describe it as a fantastic piece of literature and I’m sure it doesn’t represent Margery Allingham at her very best, but accept it for what it is and it’s a lot of fun to read.

I thought The Devil and Her Son (originally published as The Shadow in the House) would be similar and in some ways it is. The ridiculous plot, the coincidences, the villains and the unbelievable plot twists are all here again – but this is a much darker novel than the other two and, I thought, a better written one.

The novel opens with Mary Coleridge feeling very sorry for herself. She has lost her job as a governess, her love interest has left town with no explanation after their first date, and she has no family or friends to turn to. So, when Marie-Elizabeth Mason, another lodger in the boarding house where Mary lives, makes an outlandish suggestion, Mary feels she has nothing to lose. Miss Mason has recently arrived in England from Australia and an elderly aunt whom she has never seen is expecting her to go and visit. Preferring to stay in London to pursue an acting career, Miss Mason’s idea is that she and Mary switch identities and Mary goes to stay with the aunt instead.

This is clearly a ludicrous plan, but somehow it works (and Mary’s lack of Australian accent is not even remarked on). However, she gets more than she’d bargained for when Aunt Eva persuades her to marry her dying son to prevent the house from being lost to the family. Feeling sorry for the old woman, Mary agrees, despite her guilt at marrying under a false name and deceiving everyone. But soon she discovers that she herself is the victim of an even bigger deception and that Eva and her family are not what they appear to be. Can Mary escape from the terrifying situation in which she has placed herself?

Once you’ve accepted the premise of the story, this is a very enjoyable novel. Eva de Liane is a truly chilling and sinister woman and I was genuinely afraid for poor Mary – although I also wanted to scream at Mary for walking blindly into danger over and over again! This is a novel where nobody at all can be trusted, where even a stranger in the street or on a train could be somehow wrapped up in the de Lianes’ nefarious schemes. There’s also a romance which wasn’t quite as obvious as the one in Rogues’ Holiday and rather than being love at first sight, is much more satisfying because it takes longer to develop.

Maxwell March has been a great discovery for me and I’m sorry Margery Allingham only wrote three books under that name!

Margery Allingham writing as Maxwell March: The Man of Dangerous Secrets

Margery Allingham is probably one of the best known of the Golden Age crime authors but I’d had no idea that she had also written several thrillers under the name of Maxwell March until I came across this one, recently reissued along with two others by Ipso Books. I didn’t know what to expect from it, but I’m pleased to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it – and I’m sure Margery Allingham must have enjoyed writing it too!

Originally published in 1933 as Other Man’s Danger, the novel opens by introducing us to Robin Grey, the ‘man of dangerous secrets’, a detective who holds an unofficial position with the government. On a secret mission for the Foreign Office at Waterloo Station late one night, he witnesses a young man being pushed onto the tracks and manages to save him. The next day, he is visited by Jennifer Fern, the victim’s girlfriend, who begs him to look into the murder attempt as her previous two fiancés had died under suspicious circumstances and she’s sure it can’t possibly be a coincidence. Jennifer suggests that she and Robin pretend to be engaged and then wait for the unseen enemy to make the next move, but will Robin agree to this – and if so, what will happen?

The story then becomes more and more exciting and convoluted, so I’m not going to say anything else about the plot…except that it includes all of the following: murder, blackmail, kidnappings and car chases; hidden documents, clever disguises and secret conspiracies; a beautiful heiress, a sinister doctor and an escaped prisoner. I suppose you couldn’t describe it as great literature, but it’s certainly great fun to read, with a similar feel to Agatha Christie’s thriller They Came to Baghdad. It’s a real page-turner and I wished I hadn’t started reading it during a busy working week, as I think it would have been better read in one or two large chunks.

There’s not much in the way of character development, but I think that’s often the case with this sort of book. Robin is potentially an interesting character, but I couldn’t help thinking he was a bit careless for a man in a position of such responsibility. He’s too trusting, too quick to confide in people, gets himself into some dangerous situations which I felt could have been avoided and allows his judgement to be clouded by his feelings for a certain young woman…as his colleague Inspector Whybrow says, “I’ve never known a detective yet who could do his work when he was in love”.

As for the mystery itself, we are given enough hints to guess at least part of the solution, although the identity of the criminal mastermind is not as easy to work out. The final revelations are not very plausible and I couldn’t believe that the criminal could really have done what he/she is described as doing (sorry for being vague) but considering the tone of the rest of the novel I hadn’t really expected a realistic ending anyway!

This was a quick, entertaining and highly enjoyable read. The Albert Campion mysteries must have been the books Allingham really wanted to write, but I’m still sorry that she only wrote three as Maxwell March. I will definitely be reading the other two, Rogues’ Holiday and The Devil and Her Son.

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

This is book #4 for the R.I.P XII challenge.

Archangel by Robert Harris

After reading Conclave recently and reminding myself of how much I love Robert Harris, I was pleased to find a copy of Archangel at the library. Although this was not one that sounded particularly appealing to me and I suspected it wasn’t going to be a favourite, I still wanted to read it – the other Harris novels I’ve read have been his newer ones and I was curious to see what his earlier books were like (Archangel was published in 1998).

The story is set in Russia in the 1990s, during the Boris Yeltsin years just after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. British historian Christopher Kelso – better known as ‘Fluke’, for reasons which are explained within the novel – is attending a conference in Moscow at which the recent opening of the Soviet archives will be discussed. During the conference, Fluke is approached by Papu Rapava, an elderly man who claims that he was present at the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 and that he witnessed the theft of a black notebook which belonged to Stalin and was believed to be his secret diary.

This diary, if it really exists, could be the academic breakthrough Fluke needs to revive his career, but it will also be dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands. Choosing to believe that Rapava is telling the truth, Fluke begins a search for the notebook – but what he finds is not quite what he had expected. Following a trail of clues leading north to the remote city of Archangel, he makes a discovery that could affect not only his own future but Russia’s future as well.

The first thing to say is that this book, being more of a conventional thriller, is quite different from the other five Robert Harris books I’ve read. It’s also my least favourite so far, but I’d had a feeling that would be the case, so at least my expectations weren’t too high! I did find things to enjoy and at times I was completely gripped, but there were too many other aspects of the book that were a problem for me.

First of all, the characters: because of the nature of the story, most of the characters are very unlikeable – a mixture of ambitious politicians, unscrupulous journalists and people with dangerous ideas. As for Fluke Kelso, our hero, I found him bland and uninteresting, especially when compared with the protagonists of other Harris novels; he certainly lacked the depth and complexity of Cardinal Lomeli in my most recent Harris read, Conclave. The character who was potentially most engaging, Rapava’s daughter Zinaida, had an important role but we didn’t see as much of her as I would have liked.

In terms of plot, the novel gets off to a promising start, with Fluke learning about the night of Stalin’s death and then following clues which he hopes will lead him to the mysterious black notebook. However, the big revelation, when it comes, is something so far-fetched I just couldn’t believe in it, and the scenes which follow feel over the top and implausible too, which was a shame after so much care had been put into building the tension and creating a sense of mystery.

The descriptions of 1990s Moscow and snowbound Archangel are very well done and, as I’ve said, the book is quite a pageturner at times, so I still think it’s worth reading – particularly if you are more interested in Soviet history than I am. Apparently there was a BBC adaptation in 2005 starring Daniel Craig. Has anyone seen it?

Conclave by Robert Harris

Robert Harris has become one of my favourite authors over the last few years – his three Cicero novels and An Officer and a Spy are all excellent – so I had every intention of picking up his latest book, Conclave, as soon as it was published in 2016. The time never seemed quite right, though, which is why it wasn’t until last week that I finally settled down to read it.

Unlike the other Harris novels I’ve read, which were set in the past, Conclave is set in the modern day; the actual date is never stated, but there are enough clues to indicate that it’s in the very near future. As the title suggests, it is a fictional account of a papal conclave – the meeting at which cardinals gather to elect a new pope. Although there have been two conclaves in recent years (resulting in the election of Pope Francis in 2013 and Benedict XVI in 2005), I have to confess that I didn’t pay a lot of attention to either – I remember the television cameras waiting for the first glimpse of white smoke emerging from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, the crowds assembling in St Peter’s Square and the announcements of the papal name each new pope had chosen, but not much else. Rest assured, though, that you need have absolutely no familiarity with the conclave process or with the politics of the Catholic Church in order to enjoy this book!

Following the death of an unnamed pope, the reader is guided through the entire conclave by Jacopo Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals, the man responsible for overseeing the election. With over one hundred cardinals from all over the world arriving at the Vatican to participate, there are plenty of contenders for the papal throne and voting takes place as a series of ballots which continue until a clear winner is found. At first, the sheer number of characters in the novel is overwhelming; we are introduced to cardinal after cardinal and I knew I would never be able to keep them all straight in my mind – but as it turned out, I didn’t really need to. It quickly emerges that there are only a few who have a real chance of becoming pope and Harris does a great job of helping us get to know each of the candidates and to form an opinion of whether they would or would not make a good Holy Father. Ambitious or humble, honest or unscrupulous, each has his own strengths and weaknesses and, as Harris is a writer of thrillers, you can also expect lots of secrets to be revealed, some of which have the potential to influence the outcome of the conclave.

Cardinal Lomeli is a wonderful character. In his position as Dean, he is usually the first to discover the secrets I’ve just mentioned, and must decide how to deal with them. Time after time, he is forced to examine his conscience: is he really just doing his duty or is he in danger of interfering too much? Does he simply believe that the truth must be told or could he be accused of trying to manipulate the result of the election? It’s all very exciting and as the voting pattern changed with each fresh ballot, I became more and more anxious to find out who was going to be the new pope! I knew who I wanted to be chosen and who I suspected would be chosen, but Harris kept me waiting until the very end of the book to find out for sure.

And, unfortunately, it was the ending which struck the only wrong note for me. I had been able to sense that some sort of twist was coming up, and when it did, I felt slightly cheated. It was something that had actually passed through my mind earlier in the novel, only to be dismissed because I had also thought of several other, more convincing ways in which the story could end. I’m sorry I can’t be more specific and explain what I mean, but it would definitely be a spoiler! Still, apart from the ending (which I’m sure some readers will like more than I did), I did thoroughly enjoy this book. It was tense, gripping and – with my complete lack of knowledge of what a conclave involves – absolutely fascinating!

I spotted an earlier Robert Harris novel, Archangel, at the library yesterday so that will be the next of his books that I’ll be reading. It’s not one that had sounded particularly appealing to me, but I’m more than happy to give it a try.