The Second Shot (1930) by Anthony Berkeley

This is my 6th Anthony Berkeley review this year, making him one of my most frequently blogged authors this year.

For those interested in how interwar authors perceived the genre they were writing in, this book will be of special interest, as it opens with a letter from Berkeley to A. D. Peters, addressing the question of the future of detective story. Given that it is only 1930 when Berkeley wrote this, it is quite amusing to see him wondering where things would go next. He suggests two options quoting from a detective fiction reviewer. I tried googling the quote but could not find the originator of the statement:

‘As to technique, it appears that there are two directions in which the intelligent novelist is at present trying to develop…: he may make experiments with the telling of his plot, tell it backwards, or sideways, or in bits; or he may try to develop character and atmosphere.’

He recognises how his previous work focused on the former, but that this story is his ‘attempt at the latter’ and he goes on to say that:

‘it is towards the latter that the best of the new detective writing energies are being directed […] I personally am convinced that the days of the old crime puzzle pure and simple, relying entirely upon plot and without any added attractions of character, style, or even humour, are, if not numbered, at any rate in the hands of the auditors…’

I think his warning is a little premature, as the 30s and 40s saw further great puzzle mysteries. He is correct though in emphasising the importance of characters and character psychology which he believes will become the new puzzle factor or element as opposed to ‘a puzzle of time, place, motive and opportunity.’ It was interesting to come back to these ideas/goals/descriptors once I read the book as I don’t think Berkeley entirely loses the classic puzzle element in this book which has maps, clues and time tables. Equally I still think he experiments with how he tells the story using a range of text types and an unreliable or slippery narrator. But whilst he still uses familiar tools in some respects, he definitely does a lot with his characters, creating a whole fishmonger’s shop out the red herrings he pulls out. Further thoughts on the mystery novel can also be found within the story itself, in the beginning of Cyril Pinkerton’s manuscript, where he points out all the places he thinks mystery writers are going wrong and later on he continues to criticise the genre with its tension between interesting and believability.

Synopsis

But before I discuss the book any further it would probably be a good idea if I gave you some idea of what the book is about. It begins with a newspaper report informing us of the death of Eric Scott-Davies during a house party at Minton Deeps Farm, hosted by mystery writer John Hillyard and his wife, Ethel. The party planned to stage a fake murder for Hillyard’s mystery writer friends to investigate, but unfortunately a real one transpires instead on the way back to the house when two shots are heard over a few minutes and one of the guests, Pinkerton – the fake murder’s murderer, finds the fake victim, very much a real one. This account is followed by a police report which shows that not everything is as it seems and that the police are far from sanguine by the version of events presented. The majority of the book comes from a manuscript written by Pinkerton looking at the events leading up to the crime and then what happened afterwards. Things soon get difficult for him though as the police favour him as their prime suspect. Circumstantial evidence fuels this, as well as a murder motive which has been produced by a chain of events. It doesn’t help that everyone else in the house party also thinks he did it. This is despite the fact that the victim’s ex-lover, his ex-lover’s husband, his short changed cousin and his new romantic/financial target are all in the same group. It is at this point that Pinkerton sends an urgent telegram to Roger Sheringham and it is from this point that Berkeley twists and turns his plot and characters until his readers are thoroughly foxed…

Overall Thoughts

If Berkeley’s name was expunged from the book and a reader had to guess who had written it, I think the author’s identity would still have been easy to guess, as this narrative has many of the hallmarks which characterise Berkeley’s work. Firstly there is his slippery use of narrators, as throughout Pinkerton’s manuscript you are unsure how far you can trust him. He is confident of his abilities but it is clear he lacks a certain amount of self-awareness. He says that ‘the average human being is wearisomely transparent,’ yet he misses quite a few obvious things about his fellow guests. Will this affect how he sees events? Is this short sightedness all a pretence? Equally the reader is wondering whether he could be killer? After all Pinkerton does say he is trying to write up the crime from the criminal’s point of view. But is this just a red herring? Or a double red herring? (N.B. I’m not going to tell you).

The second hallmark of a Berkeley novel is its ambiguous and complicated depiction of relationships between men and women. Initially the reader is subjected to an uncomfortable scene between Pinkerton, (acknowledged bachelor who has a cynical nature towards women) and his hostess Ethel. We have Ethel confirming that women love to be dominated by rogues and bad hats, given that they ‘appeal[…] directly to every primitive instinct we women have; and we’ve a good deal more, my dear Cyril, than men of your type ever realise.’ Pinkerton concludes it all by saying that ‘one of the many things that Ethel and I have in common is the profound scorn in which she holds her own sex.’ So yeah, fun reading. Thankfully though this scene is an isolated incidence and given the events which Pinkerton goes on to experience I think his views to an extent might shift (even if Berkeley’s haven’t). Pinkerton has hopes of transforming a certain lady’s ‘untamed wildness’ and have fun afternoons teaching her about stamp collecting and identifying rare types of moss, but from what the manuscript suggests these dreams are not wholly fulfilled, (one hopes for the lady’s sake more than anything else). The subduing and taming of women is perhaps one of the less pleasant hallmarks of Berkeley’s work (and Philip Macdonald’s for that matter), but thankfully is kept in check here. Incidentally a romance element in this book between Pinkerton and another is a close parallel to another romantic coupling in an earlier Berkeley novel: Mr Priestley’s Problem (1927). However whilst this latter novel is fun and light hearted, I think Berkeley takes a number of elements from this earlier story and reuses them in a much darker and cynical way in today’s read.

Given the emphasis Berkeley places on characters, I think it is fair to say that he does a really good job in that respect. Often a reviewer might say about a story that characters are not what they seem, but I think Berkeley takes this feature to a whole new level, especially with Pinkerton who is hard to pin down and have consistent feelings towards. At times you’ll feel sympathy for him for instance, whilst at other moments you’ll want to kick him, like Sheringham does. Surprisingly with Pinkerton’s presence, Sheringham comes across as a much more pleasant character. Sylvia, Eric’s ex-lover is also another highlight of the story and is a wonderfully Machiavellian figure for a time.

So lots to enjoy with this book. Great way of introducing the crime, (in effect by using three different lens, without boring the reader), great choice of characters in the main, great choice of narrator and of course like all strong Berkeley novels, this story has the most important Berkeley hallmark, that of pulling twist after twist, yet never losing the reader for a moment. The solution has the fourth Berkeley novel hallmark by being unorthodox. I thought I had guessed the ultimate culprit but alas mid patting my back I found I was completely wrong. I think one of the things which perhaps dragged my rating down of this book was the slow pacing in the second half of the book and there were spattering of dry patches of writing.

Rating: 4.25/5

JJ at The Invisible Event blog reviewed this one last year and didn’t seem to take to it as much as I did, as you can see here. So it’ll be interesting to see how he takes this review…

Advertisements
Posted in In the dock | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

The Weight of the Evidence (1944) by Michael Innes

‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,’ as Albert Einstein famously stated and today’s read is partially an instance of this. I am not a big Michael Innes fan. I would go so far as saying I am not even a small Michael Innes fan. But I was given this book by family, pleased they had found a vintage mystery whilst on holiday that I had not read (which in fairness is no mean feat these days). So I decided to give it a try. After all I recently had two reasonably good reads from Allingham, an author I am also lukewarm about.

The premise for this book by Innes seemed intriguing and not too barmy. A biochemist named Professor Pluckrose is murdered at Nestfield University, having met his end one morning after sitting in a deck chair beneath a tower, only for a meteorite to land on top of him. Yet this meteorite is not fresh from space and has been propelled by a human force. Inspector Appleby is there from the get go investigating with a local policeman called Inspector Hobhouse and they soon uncovers mild and intense animosities towards Pluckrose from staff on campus. Appleby also has the unenviable job of interviewing these staff members, who are not the most cooperative bunch, omitting important information and talking in cryptic allusions being only minor offences.

Overall Thoughts

On this general synopsis the mystery does not sound all that bad and with it being set within a university campus, Innes is on home turf and is able to add a great deal of verisimilitude to the setting. It ought to be a good novel. But it really really isn’t…

Firstly there is the issue of the pacing. It’s even more atrocious in that it is reflected in the structure of the story itself. Appleby meanders and potters about for 80% of the book before any useful information for solving the crime occurs, mostly found by Hobhouse. Equally it takes until very near the end of the book to realise it is a story set pre WW2. This is all a shame really as the plot line is relatively sane for Innes and he does give us an unusual manner of death. Yet it is a plot which is wasted as the story never properly comes to life. In the hands of someone like Sayers or Carr this story could have been something. Appleby’s lines of investigation are fairly random and he doesn’t even examine some parts of the crime scene until day 3 of the investigation. Alibi checks don’t really come in to it until 40 pages from the end of the story and Appleby’s deductions on the case do feel like they are plucked out of thin air. When the solution is finally reached it has lost impact by the boring run up and then in itself it is not that interesting a solution.

The second main problem is his writing style. It is frequently indecipherable when it comes to character dialogue. His attempts to capture academic wit fall flat as a consequence. Innes’ style is invariably long winded, his long descriptive sentences making me lose the will to live and generally make me lose concentration. Yet ironically despite all this description of place and character, there is very little sense of character personality. I don’t feel I ever get to know anyone in the book. His literary allusions are overdone. You begin to feel sympathetic towards poor Inspector Hobhouse and end up quite agreeing with him when he says to Appleby that ‘I sometimes think you’re bit off it.’ Additionally this might be a good or a bad thing but Innes equally also has a bizarre turn of phrase when it comes to describing animals. Some I grant you don’t seem too bad such as ‘narcoleptic doves’ and ‘guerrilla cats.’ But I think most readers will be scratching their heads as to why Innes felt the need to include this particular bovine detail: ‘But those cows, faintly steamy still beyond a hedge, were a picture of Arcadian innocence.’ Faintly steamy??

So on that final disturbing note I’ll leave you… Unsurprisingly this is not one I suggest everyone rush out and buy on Amazon Prime or something.

Rating: 2.5/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Book (on the back cover)

Posted in In the dock | Tagged , , , , | 13 Comments

Landscape with Corpse (1955) by Delano Ames

I’ve reviewed Ames’s work a lot this year, 6 times in fact and some of you may have been relieved when my progress was halted due to a dearth of reasonably priced copies for later books in the Jane and Dagobert Brown series. You may have thought no more Ames reviews this year at least and to be fair this was what I was thinking, though slightly more despondently. However fortunately for me I got a lucky break a few weeks ago and managed to procure sanely priced copies of: Landscape with Corpse (1955), Crime Out of Mind (1956) and For Old Crime’s Sake (1959). The only Brown novel I am now missing is She Wouldn’t Say Who (1957). Equally with Ames’s Juan Llorca series I am only missing one: The Man with Three Passports (1967). Ames did write a handful of non-series mysteries but they are very rare, occasionally appearing online for ridiculous prices. Whilst I am hopeful of completing the two series at some point, getting my hands on the non-series ones might be beyond me.

Enough of my day dreams back to Landscape with Corpse, which sees the Browns back abroad and in Spain once more, this time in a village named Paraiso de Mar. The return to this country is not surprising as Ames went to Spain to live there in the latter part of his life and is in keeping with how he then moved onto his second mystery series which is set entirely in Spain. The opening has a travelogue feel, though definitely one with its tongue in its cheek. In particular we are told about a festival for a saint named Santa Serafina, who died of spontaneous combustion. Norman Bloomfield, a newcomer to the village, with his wife and stepdaughter, is immediately taken with this sainted figure and goes to great lengths to contribute to the festivities. Yet Bloomfield’s new obsession does not end well as the closing lines of chapter 1 indicate:

‘Both had come from distant shores – she on the stone from the Holy Land, he on the S. S. Constitution from New York – to find Paraiso in sore need of their ministrations. Both had run into difficulties and caused riots; Serafina when she attempted to put a stop to the primitive Iberian practice of human sacrifice; Norman when he tried to introduce baseball as a substitute for bullfighting. And yet in the end each achieved miracles. Serafina in the matter of Christianity; Norman Bloomfield, more modestly, in the matter of modern plumbing. There was even to a certain modest parallel in the matter of their deaths…’

So yes Bloomfield meets his end during the parade, whilst hidden beneath the statue that is being carried through the streets in swathes of drapery and finery and which mysteriously begins smoking with fire shortly before Bloomfield dies (not due to the fire). Of course Jane and Dagobert are firm fixtures of the village, having gone there for Daobert’s latest translation work. Initially Bloomfield is said to have died of natural causes but this changes when the police arrive to interview Dagobert and it is a new experience for Dagobert to be viewed with suspicion by the police. But then the circumstantial evidence does begin to look bad. However there are many other potential suspects including Bloomfield’s wife. Bad luck she has an unbreakable alibi. Or does she? Other deaths soon follow and there are two other key strands to the narrative and the central crime, which come together in the final showdown and solution.

Overall Thoughts

Having read so many of the Ames novels now and in particular having read the Brown novels in order, I can see how Ames’ writing evolves over the series, as there is a definite transition between his zany metafictional style of his earlier novels, in comparison to his later novels in the Brown series and in the complete Llorca series, which are more subdued in their humour and are much more rooted in their settings. Today’s read is more overtly one of these transitional novels. Yet for all that I don’t think Jane and Dagobert change. They are still themselves thankfully, including Dagobert’s allergy to having a stable career:

‘But I was worried about Dagobert. There was in his eyes that indefinable “longing to get away from it all” which attacks him so recurrently. He is evasive when asked to define that “it all” consists of. Could it be the threat of employment?’

Nor has he lost his spontaneous nature:

‘But he has also bought a book called Teach Yourself Arabic in case, as he says, we go over to Tangier for the week-end. We once went for the week-end to Southend and stayed six months.’

Jane’s understated humour still comes through in the book and there is an amusing bit of metafictional humour in that Dagobert is teaching the local Lieutenant how to speak English using crime fiction novels such as those from Agatha Christie and Peter Cheyne. What made me smile is that this is not such a far flung idea as I know of ESOL projects which use Christie in their teachings.

Ames provides quite a complicated crime or crimes rather. The method of Bloomfield’s death is fairly unusual in what it involves and how and when it was administered. The case is not a straight forward one, with new surprises and turns of events around every corner and events which seem to have one interpretation, eventually have a completely different one. Whilst I don’t think the reader will have figured out the entire solution by themselves, I think like me, quite a few will have suspicions which turn out correct over who is guilty, despite the ample coverage of red herrings. There is something Christie-esque about Ames’s selection in this department. The solution used is quite a familiar one I imagine, as it had been used in a well-known book prior to this one – though not one of Christie’s. The ending to this story in keeping with the solution is fairly unorthodox in some ways.

So overall quite a good read. Ames is always ready to laugh at the foibles of the human condition, kindly of course, and it is enjoyable to see a writer who can update the time period of their novels as time progresses, without it looking painfully twee and awkward.

Rating: 4/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Door

Posted in In the dock | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

The Running Woman (1966) by Patricia Carlon

Today’s read is from an Australian suspense writer that I came across only recently in Christopher Fowler’s The Book of Forgotten Authors (2017). Our female protagonist, Gabriel, rapidly ends up in one heck of a pickle after a girl is found drowned in Larapinta Creek. It is said she fell from the bridge but was it accidental or something worse? A woman matching Gabriel’s description is seen leaving the scene by various witnesses and the police, as well as the community at large are wondering why this woman didn’t call for help and equally why she didn’t come forward afterwards. It doesn’t help that Gabriel was in the area, though her chaotic thought patterns, (she is 3 months a widow after a difficult yet short lived marriage), make her an unreliable character and the reader cannot be sure she is telling the whole truth. As rumours and gossip abound throughout the area Gabriel has to deal with the victim’s parents who are past masters in blackmail and turning the screws on people. Of course by giving into their demands initially to buy herself some time she makes her situation even worse and it is not long before the police are knocking on her door, as the circumstantial evidence piles up against her. Even her cousin Phil thinks she must have been the running woman. But can she somehow prove otherwise?

Overall Thoughts

Despite the intriguing premise I initially struggled with this book, mostly because of Gabriel. I appreciate that she might not be in the best place emotionally or mentally, given recent events in her personal life, but the naivety of her actions at the start of book, along with her prolonged inability to clearly state that she was or wasn’t the running woman irksome. I know why she is that way as a character, I really do, and I have read stories with similarly evasive or nincompoop characters, but for some reason it just got on my wick this time. Thankfully it wasn’t like this for all of the book and as events and people turn against her, besieging her house and lying to save their own skins, I started to warm to her. The central mystery also gets more interesting when it seems those closest to Gabriel are holding information back and that it looks like the drowned girl may have known something about a woman who died at the Creek a year earlier. It was also interesting to see the supposedly bereaved parents in such a hideous and appalling light and it was quite unusual to see them less as victims and more as aggressors and plotters. The final solution was good, though perhaps not the option with greatest wow factor. Additionally the ending was a bit abrupt but I suppose it is better than an ending which is overly long or emotionally flowery. So quite a mixed read this time round, but I think I would probably give Carlon another try at some point.

Rating: 4/5

Posted in In the dock | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Birthday Books

A couple of days ago it was my birthday, (I’m so glad there’s a social convention of not being allowed to ask a woman their age), which of course means some new additions to my TBR pile. So I thought I would share with you the mystery books I received…

 

 

and these two great bookmarks (all the way from Australia!)…
Also when I went to Barter Books on my birthday, (you know the usual wild and out of control birthday activity), I also picked up a copy of Conyth Little’s The Black Iris. Alas the picture below is not the copy I have)…

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

Police at the Funeral (1931) by Margery Allingham

Today’s read is the 2nd Allingham novel, which was bestowed upon me by a friend and since I actually enjoyed the other one much more than I thought I would, I decided to dive into this one and see how it went…

It seems almost like fate when Inspector Oates, the man trailing him, Campion and the client he is waiting for, a Miss Joyce Blount, fiancée to an old friend, all converge upon one place. Before we find out Blount’s dilemma we initially have the peculiar incident of Oates’ follower making a hurried exit, proceeding Blount’s near faint at the sight of him. Whilst we find out no more about that for the present we do hear about Blount’s problem, namely the disappearance of one of her uncles, Andrew Seeley, a highly unpleasant character and sponger. This soon turns into a case of murder when his body is found in the river, (bound hand and foot and shot in the head), near their home in Cambridge and it quickly becomes apparent that the killer is one of Blount’s fellow inmates. Blount lives with her great aunt, Caroline Faraday, as well as with her two aunts and her two uncles, all of whom are financially dependent upon Caroline despite being middle aged and older. Theirs is an odd household, its furnishing stuck in an earlier time period and it is described in the book as, ‘a hot-bed, a breeding ground of those dark offshoots of the civilised mind which the scientists tell us are the natural outcome of repressions and inhibitions. To them the old house was undergoing an upheaval, a volcano of long fermented trouble, and they were afraid of what they were about to find out.’ Further crime and death ensues leaving the household in dread of which among them has cracked and begun a spree of violence and more importantly which of them will be next!

Overall Thoughts

On the whole I think I got on well with this story. I particularly enjoyed the depiction of the household of suspects, though I’d definitely not want to live with them. The matriarch, Caroline, was especially enjoyable. She is a sharp and intelligent woman, being described in a similar manner to Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley, (albeit it in a minor way), here: ‘bird-like inquiring glance.’ The only black mark the book gives against her is her weakness for wearing hideous pieces of lace. Given the later plot developments, the opening, where Campion fools around with Holmes stereotypes and phrases, is very fitting. It was also interesting to see how Campion perceives his role. He doesn’t see himself as a private detective or even a sleuth, but instead refers to himself as a professional or deputy adventurer or as ‘the handy man about the trouble.’

The pacing was good initially but the final third definitely needed shortening, as for example there is a completely superfluous chapter about the inquest, which is not required at all. I did go into this story knowing the solution, (having watched the Peter Davidson series), so I was probably less wowed by it. However for those of you going in with no prior knowledge I think you’ll enjoy it a lot as it is quite fiendishly and madly clever. At this year’s Bodies from the Library conference, Tony Medawar (I think) mentioned this book as having a solution Christie did not do herself, though I think fans of the genre will know of an earlier predecessor. Returning to the issue of pacing the ending could have been tightened once the solution has been revealed. It is also marred to an extent by an unfortunate of the time’s attitude shall we say. This seems odd and a pity, considering that Allingham earlier on in the story pokes fun at and ridicules the ‘yellow peril’ phenomena by using the phrase in a joke about a yellow chair, which has not been sat on since Caroline’s husband has died, that is until of course Inspector Oates sits on it. A frosty interview ensues…

So overall I would say my two recent tries by Allingham have been a lot stronger than I was expecting, so I may well try some of her others at a later point.

Rating: 4/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Policeman

Posted in In the dock | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Locked Doors (1932) by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Short read and review from me today and another adventure featuring Nurse Hilda Adams. This time she is called into an unusual case by her police acquaintance Inspector Patton, taking over from another nurse who after 4 days of replacing a governess, leaves her employer’s home a nervous wreck. It seems the client family have somewhat peculiar habits. They are servant-less, their telephone does not work and their children are not allowed to leave their room and they are locked in at night, and as what happens during the night… The dynamic between Patton and Adams is entertaining, with will they? won’t they? sparks flying between them at times. This is a story to be read for its Gothic thrills, (including a moving bodiless head covered with a monk like cowl), rather than as a properly clued mystery. I doubt the reader will guess the perfectly macabre solution to this mystery, but it is spine chillingly dramatic finding out.

Rating: 3.75/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Nurse

Posted in In the dock | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

Somebody at the Door (1943) by Raymond Postgate

Source: Review Copy (British Library Crime Classics)

Postgate’s reputation as a writer strongly rests on another novel of his, The Verdict of Twelve (1940), a trial based mystery which I really enjoyed when I read it a few years ago. It was therefore pleasing when the British Library reprinted this book earlier this year, but it was even more exciting that they were going to reprint today’s read, Somebody at the Door (1943), which I had not read before.

This is Postgate’s second mystery novel, set in WW2, and after a train ride home the not particularly pleasant local councillor, Henry Grayling, dies a rather unpleasant death. The wages he was carrying have also gone missing. Suspicion quickly falls on the passengers who shared the same train compartment as him, many of whom knew the victim and had good reasons for wishing him dead, ranging from a German refugee and his wife’s lover to a fellow member of the local Home Guard platoon.

Overall Thoughts

The book is prefaced by an extract from Jules Romain’s work on Men of Good Wills, including the following quote discussing how the reader ‘will guess that very often the thread of the story will seem to break, and the interest be suspended or scattered – that at the moment when he begins to be familiar with a character, to enter into his cares and his little world, and to watch the future through the same window as he does, he will be suddenly requested to transport himself far away from there, and take up quite different disputes.’ This approach to writing can be seen in Postgate’s novel, (hence its inclusion I suppose), as like in his first novel, he focuses a lot on shifting from suspect to suspect going into detail with their pasts and backgrounds. In particular at the beginning of such chapters, (as these chapter tend to be separated out between chapters focused on the present day investigation), an infographic is included which shows where each suspect was sitting in the train and each time a hand points to a different suspect. However I think Postgate goes even further in this novel than his last on prioritising this aspect of the story. I would go as far as saying that the intensity and depth of these back stories, (with one backstory becoming a mystery within a mystery), almost detract from and take over the initial mystery, which is solved in a somewhat perfunctory way in the final chapter. The imbalance makes this story more of a character study than a mystery, though as a character study I would say it is first rate, with its darker and un-tinted depiction of wartime Britain, which does creep increasingly into the final solution of the book. Yet, Postgate does choose a very unusual murder method and I think it only a shame that he did not prioritise the mystery of the book a little more, over perhaps the individual mysteries, sorrows and losses of the suspects.

Rating: 4/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Train

Posted in In the dock | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Enter Murderers (1960) by Henry Slesar

Can’t remember how I came across this title, but its cynical and dark humour, combined with its unconventional plot intrigued me and the opening sentence delivers on both fronts: ‘Temperature: 89. Humidity: 86. Forecast: Continued hot, with possible thunderstorms, passions, and murders by evening.’ Initially we are introduced to Edward Brandshaft – a fat, sweaty, unappealing business man who is off to pick up an office employee, Delores Mason, for a holiday away. So yeah little character sympathy at this point. But Slesar creates an explosive and game changing first chapter. When Brandshaft meets Mason at her flat she is on edge and things get worse when her husband shows up, who quickly begins to attack her. Ultimately events end with her husband on the floor, dead from an accidental gunshot. The two survivors are promptly taken down town by the police. Over this fast scene your sympathies change and continue to do so when the corpse gets up from the floor and makes a phone call. Only then do we begin to see the beginning of a horrid and out of control prank which is being played out…

The narrative jumps back in time, deceiving you into thinking that you know what is going on, when in fact you really don’t, as the ending springs surprise after surprise, change after change. Unlike Anthony Berkeley’s Mr Priestley’s Problem (1927), this story is much darker in its motivations, plot surprises and prank consequences, providing a chilling and increasingly sinister atmosphere as the book rapidly draws to a close. It is hard to find a fault with this book, its pacing is excellent, its’ depiction of characters is well done, particularly with the conspirators who are beginning to turn on each other and the plot thoroughly surprises and is written in a skilful manner. In keeping with my 601st post this is another story which I think would work well on screen especially the fabrications and false realities that the conspirators create. Equally the fast pace and dialogue would make it ideal for adapting into a film script. I’m not sure what else Slesar has written or whether his other work is as strong as this one, but I am definitely keen to try more.

Rating: 5/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Written Document

Posted in In the dock | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

All the World’s a Stage (2017) by Boris Akunin

Source: Review Copy (Weidnfeld & Nicolson)

Regular readers of the blog will know that an author I often recommend to people is Boris Akunin. I came across his work a number of years ago, taking a chance on his first Erast Fandorin novel, The Winter Queen, which I found to be a heartbreakingly brilliant book and I was determined to read the others in the series. A lucky Oxfam find meant that this didn’t take me too long and even then I moved on to his equally excellent Sister Pelagia trilogy. Of course the downside to blasting through the 13 works of Akunin translated into English meant that I then had none left to read and it remained that way for quite a few years. So I was ecstatic when I saw last year that in 2017 All the World’s a Stage was going to be translated. Ecstatic, excited and actually a little bit anxious. After all this time would I still love his work?

For those new to the Erast Fandorin series a brief introduction: The series as a whole is set in the 19th and 20th century, mostly in Russia but also in other places such as England, Japan and Turkey. Fandorin initially begins in the Russian police force, but then soon becomes more of a freelance operative solving crimes and pitting himself against tremendous adversaries, though not without great cost to himself at times. A few books into the series he gains a lifelong friend in Masa. Today’s read is set in 1911 and is the 13th published work in the Fandorin series, (as two novellas earlier in the series have been published as one book). Technically there is a 12th publication, The Jaded Rosary, between today’s text and The Diamond Chariot, the last book to have been translated. This collection of short stories has not yet been translated though. I’ve also read that there is a spin off series, which has not been translated yet either, featuring Nicholas Fandorin, the grandson of Erast, who is a modern day historian. In addition there are two one off stories featuring the twins of Erast, which have time travelling plots. For a reader new to the Fandorin series, I’d definitely recommend if possible reading them all in order as you get more out of it that way, in terms of how the characters change, grow and develop. But if 11 books seems a bit too wieldy, then I’d suggest reading the first three or so and then jumping to book 10, The Diamond Chariot before reading today’s book.

So what’s today read about?

This is a series where Fandorin naturally ages, as in the first story he is a young 20 something. Now though in book 13 he has reached his mid-fifties and the book opens with Fandorin coming to terms with his ever increasing age, but also his plans to maintain physical and intellectual agility. Of course with all this build-up of Fandorin’s prowess you know he is going to fall at some point in this book…

Initially it seems as though Fandorin will be getting involved in solving a terrorist act, involving the murder of a Russian government minister, yet the plot takes a radical alternative direction when Fandorin answers the phone and as a favour to an old friend becomes in embroiled in the world of the theatre, in particular the troupe working in the Noah’s Ark theatre company. He is asked to look into what is terrifying an actress named Eliza Altairsky-Lointaine and due to the narrative switching points of the view, the reader soon has an insight in to this matter. Alas Fandorin does not, who is left trying to understand who is menacing Lointaine with snakes, vandalising theatre property with bizarre and increasingly sinister references to a ‘benefit performance’, oh and bumping off ardent suitors of Lointaine in ways which look like suicides. So you know just the usual everyday conundrums… Though it seems Fandorin’s biggest problem will be grappling with his own feelings, which seem to have come boldly alive again after so many years of schooling himself in operating in a rational and emotionless manner, bringing the series back full circle almost to the first book in the series.

Overall Thoughts

So from this brief synopsis you may think that the reader knows too much and has it all figured out before Fandorin, who is certainly portraying as a much more vulnerable and fallible version of himself. But beware! Not everything is what it seems and this reader was certainly fooled as to what was going on and who was orchestrating it all. Equally I know that romance elements in mysteries are not always appreciated, as in fairness they can often be added in an overly predictable and perfunctory way. Yet again I would say that is not the case here. Yes there are typical Jane Austen like misunderstandings, but the way this component is intertwined into the narrative is far more natural and organic in Akunin’s hands. I think this is because that Akunin is not wholly a mystery writer, as his bibliography attests to. Whilst with all genre fiction there are formulaic parts, I find with Akunin that he never lets his style go stale, stagnant or static. The only way I can think to describe it at the moment is that there is an evolutionary skill to his writing style and that he is comfortable writing across many genres, (as the appendix to today’s read shows – I’ll say no more…)

Although the Fandorin series is a historical one I find that Akunin’s work, like Hans Olav Lahlum’s K2 series, speaks to our current culture and political/social climate. In this book this is most strongly felt in the opening which considers terrorism as a political action and how it should be responded to, in particular examining ethical implications. Furthermore, corruption at the job is also a disease infecting the culture Fandorin is in. In the hands of some writers these themes would be overdone and belaboured over far too many pages, standing detached from the rest of the plot. Once more this is not the case with Akunin who weaves such ideas concisely but powerfully into his story. But then I have always felt that Akunin is great at depicting his settings, in terms of the historical time period, the changing cultures at that time, the technological advancements such as the rise of the cinema and its tensions with theatre, politics and location – yet without bogging the reader down in immensely descriptive paragraphs which send you to sleep.

Fans of the theatre and its milieu in fiction will be pleased to know that Akunin recreates such a setting deftly, especially the members of the theatrical troupe, with the tensions that so easily arise between them, as well as the way it becomes hard to separate the members off stage, from the character parts they act on stage. Like with so many of the Fandorin novels this story runs the fall gamut of emotions: sadness, laughter, joy etc., for the reader as well as the characters. For me it seems impossible to not become emotionally involved in the book, hence my suggestion of reading the books in order.

So unsurprisingly this book gets a big thumbs up from me and it was definitely worth the wait. I would like to make a point of also congratulating the translator of the work, Andrew Bromfield, who has translated this book so well. Not knowing Russian I can’t comment on the accuracy, but what I do know is that he makes every sentence a delight to read. I don’t often say this about a book, but the prose is beautiful, making you to want to read it slowly rather than race through it at 90 miles an hour. This is a mystery novel which gives you more than a mystery, yet avoids the pitfall of overwhelming a mystery plot with dull padding.

All there is left to say is that I am almost feeling bereft now that I have once more run out of English copies of Akunin’s work. So feel free to cheer me up by telling me more of the works are being translated soon?

Post Script: Managed to cheer myself up by some further googling and found that Black City the next novel in the Fandorin series will be appearing next November.

Rating: 5/5

Posted in In the dock | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments