Soot by Andrew Martin

You know when you can tell as soon as you start reading that you’re going to enjoy a book? That’s how I felt about Soot, Andrew Martin’s new historical mystery set in 18th century York. The plot, the characters, the atmosphere, the writing style…I loved them all!

Let’s start with the plot, then. In August 1798, Matthew Harvey, a painter of silhouettes, is found dead – stabbed with his own scissors – in his house in Coney Street, York. Assuming that suicide can be ruled out, the only suspects are the six sitters who visited him during the previous week. The problem is, the page on which Harvey recorded their names has been torn out of his ledger, so that the only remaining clues are Harvey’s private duplicates of the silhouettes – or ‘shades’, as they are known.

Fletcher Rigge, a young gentleman who has found himself in financial difficulties, has spent three months in debtors’ prison in York Castle when he is approached by Captain Harvey, the silhouette-maker’s son. The Captain makes him an offer he can’t refuse: he will arrange Rigge’s release from prison, on the condition that Rigge can identify the people in the shades and help to track down the murderer. Rigge has previously used his detection skills to locate a missing book while working at Skelton’s Bookshop – this is what brought him to the Captain’s attention – but finding a killer could prove to be somewhat more difficult than finding a book…

As Rigge attempts to trace the people in the silhouettes, his search brings him into contact with a variety of colourful characters, including the clever and resourceful Maria Sampson, the temperamental young actor Jeremiah Smith – and my favourite, the London-based author Samuel Gowers, a proud, pompous man with an unfortunately large nose which lends itself to some comic scenes à la Cyrano de Bergerac. Rigge himself is another intriguing character, described at the beginning as having ‘a lowness of spirits, offset by a mordant wit and a prideful obstinacy’. Due to the structure of the book (more on that shortly) I was never quite sure exactly how reliable his narration was, but I did end up liking him and enjoyed accompanying him on his travels around York and beyond.

Georgian York provides a wonderfully atmospheric setting for the novel, particularly when covered in a blanket of snow (Rigge’s investigations take place in winter). From the slums of First Water Lane, home to Captain Harvey, to the Theatre Royal, the Black Swan coaching inn and the elegant townhouse belonging to one of the suspects, everything is vividly described. The language used in the book is appropriate for the 18th century too; I could tell the author had taken a lot of care to try to choose the right words and turns of phrase. This is particularly important because the book is presented as a collection of authentic documents gathered together by attorney-at-law Mr Erskine and sent to the Chief Magistrate of York.

Most of the novel is in the form of extracts taken from Fletcher Rigge’s own diary, but there are also diary entries written by Captain Harvey’s mistress Esther, newpaper reports, interviews with witnesses conducted by Erskine’s clerk, Mr Bright, and commentary from Erskine himself. Andrew Martin uses this structure very effectively to keep the reader guessing and wondering which accounts are reliable and which are not. The solution to the mystery is certainly not as black and white as Matthew Harvey’s shades!

Soot is a great book. At first Fletcher Rigge’s story reminded me of Thomas Hawkins’ in The Devil in the Marshalsea, but it quickly developed into something different and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it. Now I’m hoping for a sequel!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

Miraculous Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards

A train that disappears without trace. A haunted chapel containing a dagger with a mind of its own. An entire crime scene which vanishes overnight. A series of unexplained deaths in a museum. A house suddenly abandoned like the Mary Celeste. These are just a few of the puzzles to be solved in Miraculous Mysteries, the latest of the British Library Crime Classics anthologies edited by Martin Edwards.

There are sixteen stories in the collection and they each deal with a different locked room murder or ‘impossible crime’. These are often my favourite types of mysteries – crimes which at first appear to have no rational explanation but with solutions which are either completely ingenious or so simple the reader is left wondering how they could possibly have been fooled! For that reason, I’m not going to discuss the individual stories in any detail but will just give each one a brief mention.

Many of the authors whose stories are featured in Miraculous Mysteries were new to me (although some of them may already be familiar to those of you who have read other books from the Crime Classics series) and I appreciated the biographical information Martin Edwards provides before every story. I was particularly impressed by Christopher St John Sprigg’s Death at 8:30 in which the exact time of a man’s death is predicted, and Nicholas Olde’s The Invisible Weapon, a short but perfectly paced mystery which I felt that I should have been able to solve, but didn’t quite manage it!

Although many of the stories in the book feature a crime committed in an actual locked room (Too Clever by Half by husband and wife team G.D.H. and Margaret Cole, Locked In by E. Charles Vivian and The Aluminium Dagger by R. Austin Freeman are three examples), there are others which don’t. Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost Special is the disappearing train story I mentioned in my opening paragraph – it’s not a Sherlock Holmes mystery, but it does include a letter written by an anonymous person I would like to think might be Holmes! The Sands of Thyme by Michael Innes – the first time I’ve had the pleasure of reading Innes – is set outside in the open air but the principles are the same as in a locked room mystery, with the crime taking place in a seemingly impossible location.

The Music Room by Sapper (better known for his series of Bulldog Drummond crime thrillers) is another good one. By the time I came to this story I was halfway through the book and took a moment to reflect on how rarely, when it comes to stories like these, we are given access to the detective’s own thought processes. The authors included in this collection find a variety of different approaches to take – the detective entertaining a friend with an account of an old case; a passive narrator observing the actions of his detective companion; anything to make the mystery more difficult to solve and to keep ‘obvious’ clues obscured from the reader until the end of the story.

What else is there? Well, there’s The Thing Invisible, a gothic, ghostly mystery by William Hope Hodgson, The Diary of Death by Marten Cumberland, about a killer who appears to be using a diary for inspiration, and The Broadcast Murder by Grenville Robbins, which is set in a radio studio. We also meet detectives ranging from the obscure – such as Sax Rohmer’s Moris Klaw, who investigates The Case of the Tragedies in the Greek Room – to the better known, such as G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, who appears in The Miracle of Moon Crescent. And it was good to be reacquainted with Gervase Fen, Oxford Professor of English Language and Literature, in Beware of the Trains by Edmund Crispin. I was hoping for something more fun and quirky from Crispin (remembering The Moving Toyshop, which I read last year), but still, this was quite an enjoyable story about a missing train driver.

Two of my favourite stories, though, were The Haunted Policeman by Dorothy L. Sayers, a Lord Peter Wimsey story which offers an intriguing twist on the locked room mystery, and The Villa Marie Celeste by Margery Allingham, in which a family disappear from their home – but have they been murdered or is something else going on? This last story is an Albert Campion mystery and I think I actually enjoyed it more than the full-length Campion novel I read last year!

Although the quality varied from story to story, none of them disappointed me, and on the whole I thought this book was a great read. I’ll definitely consider reading more of Martin Edwards’ British Library Crime Classics anthologies.

I received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books seem to have been around forever, but I have never really felt tempted to try one. It didn’t help that whenever I noticed some on the library shelf, they tended to be the later books in the series and my personal preference is always to start at the beginning if possible…so when I had the chance, earlier this year, to read the first book in the series via NetGalley, I thought it would be a good opportunity to finally see what it was like.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is set in Botswana and features thirty-four-year-old Mma Precious Ramotswe. When her father dies, leaving his herd of cattle to Precious, she sells them and uses the money to buy herself a house and an office which becomes the headquarters of her very own detective agency. She hangs a sign above the door, employs a secretary, then sits back and waits for clients. They do come, eventually, and Mma Ramotswe finds herself with an intriguing selection of cases to investigate.

This is not a straightforward detective novel with one central mystery to be solved; instead, there are lots of separate little mysteries, with only a few pages devoted to some of them, although a few are longer. They are not particularly complex – I often managed to solve them myself, which is unusual for me – and deal mainly with cheating husbands, rebellious teenagers and cases of insurance fraud, for example, rather than more serious crimes. Mma Ramotswe takes a practical approach to her detective work, based around common sense and logic, and following the guidance of The Principles of Private Detection by Clovis Andersen. Sometimes she makes mistakes, but more often than not she is successful and proves that those who tell her women can’t be detectives are most definitely wrong!

As well as the mysteries, there are also chapters relating earlier episodes in Mma Ramotswe’s life, descriptions of Botswana – its scenery, its wildlife and its people – and some insights into African culture. The novel is disjointed and messy and, apart from one slightly more involved case to which we return several times throughout the book, there is no overarching plot. And yet, somehow, it does work! I really enjoyed getting to know Mma Ramotswe and picking up a little bit of knowledge of a country I previously knew nothing about.

I haven’t been left wanting to rush out and buy all the other books in the series, but I would be happy to try another one at some point. Maybe those of you who are familiar with Alexander McCall Smith’s work can tell me if it’s necessary to read this series in order or if you can just dip in and out. Are they all as episodic as this one? And are there any of his other books or series that you would recommend?

Duplicate Death by Georgette Heyer – #1951club

Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon of Stuck in a Book are hosting another of their book clubs this week. This time it’s the 1951 Club and the idea is that we all read and write about books published in the same year. 1951 seems to have been a particularly good year for publishing – I have linked to some of my previous reviews at the bottom of this post – but when choosing what to read this week it was the crime novels from that year which appealed to me the most. The first one I picked up was Georgette Heyer’s Duplicate Death. Heyer is better known for her Regency romances, but she also wrote mysteries and, having read two of them (Envious Casca and Footsteps in the Dark), I’ve been looking forward to reading more.

Duplicate Death brings back characters who first appeared in They Found Him Dead, which I haven’t read yet but will eventually. Although a few references are made to things which I assume happened in the earlier novel, I don’t feel that reading this one first was a problem. At the beginning of the novel, Jim Kane receives a letter from his mother telling him of her concerns about his half-brother, Timothy, who has just become engaged to Beulah Birtley, a secretary in the household of the wealthy Mrs Haddington. Jim’s mother is unhappy because she has been able to discover nothing at all about Beulah’s family or background – surely the girl must be an Adventuress! Reluctantly, Jim agrees to visit Timothy to see if he can shed any light on the matter.

Meanwhile, Mrs Haddington is hosting a bridge party at her home in London. When one of the guests is found strangled after leaving the room to answer the telephone, suspicion falls on several of the people present at the party, including the mysterious Beulah Birtley. Chief Inspector Hemingway of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate, but before he’s had time to solve one murder, another takes place. The second murder appears to be identical to the first – but is it? Have both crimes been committed by the same person? And what is Beulah’s secret?

I enjoyed this book, after a slow start, but not as much as the other Heyer mysteries I’ve read. I felt that the story took too long to really get started; I appreciate that some time needs to be spent on setting the scene, but the characters just didn’t interest me enough to hold my attention throughout the build-up. With the exception of Timothy, they’re an unpleasant bunch of people – and although there are still examples of the witty dialogue Heyer is so good at, I think she does it much better in the Regencies than the mysteries. Once the first murder was committed and Hemingway arrived on the scene, though, the story became a lot more compelling.

I said in my Envious Casca review that, as far as literary detectives go, Hemingway is not a very interesting one. This time I found that I liked him more than I did before. I liked his brisk, no-nonsense attitude and the fact that he doesn’t have any little quirks or eccentricities; instead of bringing too much of his own personality to the investigations, he just gets on with the job, which is actually quite refreshing. His relationship with his assistant, Inspector Grant, works well, although I’m not sure that having Grant returning from his trip home to Scotland speaking Gaelic was really as funny as it was obviously intended to be!

I’m now reading a second book from 1951 – They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie – and hope to post my thoughts on that one before the end of the club.

~

More 1951 books previously read and reviewed on this blog:

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
The Quiet Gentleman by Georgette Heyer
The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

The Fourteenth Letter by Claire Evans

With its eye-catching cover, Victorian setting and promise of “a labyrinth of unfolding secrets”, Claire Evans’ debut novel The Fourteenth Letter sounded like a book I really needed to read!

The novel opens in June 1881 with the murder of Phoebe Stanbury at a party to celebrate her engagement to Benjamin Raycraft, son of the wealthy Sir Jasper. The killer, a naked man covered in mud with a strange design tattooed on his chest, disappears after committing the crime and it seems that nobody is able to shed any light on his identity or why he may have wanted to kill an innocent young woman. Detective Harry Treadway is given the job of investigating the murder, but the deeper he delves into the mystery, the more bizarre and complex it becomes.

Meanwhile, William Lamb, an inexperienced, timid young lawyer, goes to visit an eccentric client in his partner’s absence – and ends up in possession of a casket of old papers written in Latin and a cryptic message which means nothing to him. His visit is witnessed by Savannah Shelton, an American woman who has been paid to watch the house, but who is employing her and what do they want? At another house in London, Mildred is applying for a position as governess, then changes her mind when the interview doesn’t go as planned. How are all of these events connected? There are no obvious links at first, but slowly the truth is revealed as the story begins to unfold.

When I first started to read The Fourteenth Letter, I was fascinated. There were so many intriguing characters and so many strange things happening all at once. However, the constant switching from one storyline to another made it difficult for me to settle into the story and after a few chapters I began to wish we could spend a little bit longer with one character before moving on to the next. As I’ve said, the various strands of the plot do start to come together eventually but I would have liked it to have happened more quickly.

Being set in the 1880s, the story takes place during an exciting time in history, a time of great advances in science and technology. Sir Jasper Raycraft’s house, Ridgeside, is described as a famous residence with all the latest scientific developments such as electric light. I immediately recognised this as a description of Cragside in Northumberland, a National Trust property I have visited several times, and I was pleased to have this confirmed when I reached the author’s note!

However, for a novel set in Victorian London, I thought there was very little sense of time and place. Although there are references to historical and political events of the period, I never felt fully immersed in the world Claire Evans had created and it didn’t help that I couldn’t quite manage to believe in Savannah Shelton as a convincing character. William Lamb, though, is a great character – not a typical hero at all – and it was interesting to watch him develop and grow as a person over the course of the story.

Although this is certainly a very unusual and imaginative novel, I didn’t like it as much as I’d hoped to. Maybe I was just not the right reader for this particular book; that happens sometimes and it doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t a good book. I’ve seen some very positive reviews so clearly other readers are finding a lot to enjoy in The Fourteenth Letter!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

Andrew Hughes: The Coroner’s Daughter

I found so much to love in The Coroner’s Daughter! A strong, resourceful heroine with a passion for science; an interesting historical setting – 19th century Dublin; and a twisting, turning mystery to keep me guessing. Just like Andrew Hughes’ first novel The Convictions of John Delahunt, which I read and loved a few years ago, this is another great book which manages to be both highly entertaining and darkly atmospheric.

The story takes place in 1816, known as the ‘Year Without a Summer’. The city of Dublin is shrouded in fog and when a frosty July is followed by snow in August, people are at a loss to explain what is going on. Eighteen-year-old Abigail Lawless, however, has conducted her own research into the phenomenon, linking the unseasonable weather to a volcanic eruption on the other side of the world. As the coroner’s daughter, Abigail has always possessed a natural curiosity for anything scientific – and is particularly interested in her father’s work, performing autopsies to establish the cause of death.

When a young servant in a neighbouring household is accused of murdering her newborn baby – and is found dead before the inquest can be held – Abigail is sure there is more going on than meets the eye. She easily discovers the identity of the maid’s lover, but this is only the beginning. The strict religious sect known as the Brethren has been increasing in size and power since their influential leader, Mr Darby, arrived in Dublin the previous year. As she continues to investigate, assisted by her father’s young Scottish apprentice, Ewan Weir, Abigail becomes convinced that the Brethren are connected with the death of the maid and her baby. But who else might be involved? And if Abigail becomes too deeply involved herself, could she be putting her own life in danger?

I really enjoyed The Coroner’s Daughter. I think I preferred John Delahunt as the plot seemed more original and unusual, but this book is excellent too. I loved following Abigail around the Dublin of 1816 which, thanks to the gloomy and oppressive weather, is a very atmospheric setting. Our heroine’s investigations take her to a variety of locations from the Lying-In Hospital at the Rotunda to the smart terraced houses of Fitzwilliam Square and a clockmaker’s workshop on Abbey Street – and all of these are vividly described. Although it’s quite a dark story, it’s written with a lot of humour, which was obvious from the very first sentence: For my eighteenth birthday, Father promised me the hand of a handsome young man, which he duly delivered mounted in a glass bell-jar. First sentences can be so important and that one captured my attention immediately!

I found the scientific aspect of the novel particularly interesting. The story takes place at a time when the fanatical religious views of groups such as the Brethren are coming into conflict with the work of scientists such as the astronomer Professor Reeves, a friend of Abigail’s father. As a woman, Abigail faces additional obstacles, as is seen when she is forced to submit one of her reports to a scientific journal under her father’s name in order to get published, and again when she is the only female member of the audience at an astronomy lecture given by Professor Reeves. Mr Lawless does try to encourage his daughter to be more ‘feminine’ but at the same time, not having any sons, there’s the sense that he is only too pleased to have someone to share his knowledge and passion with!

Now I’m hoping Andrew Hughes will write more books about Abigail Lawless. She’s a great character and the way the novel ended makes me think that she could easily be brought back for a sequel. If not, I will look forward to reading whatever he writes next.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review.

The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne

the-red-house-mysteryI don’t think I would have ever read The Red House Mystery if it hadn’t been for seeing other bloggers reading and reviewing it. I had always thought of A.A. Milne solely as the author of the Winnie the Pooh stories and it had never occurred to me to wonder what else he had written. It turns out that The Red House Mystery, originally published in 1922, was his first and only detective novel – which is a shame, because it’s excellent.

The novel opens on a beautiful summer’s day with Mark Ablett entertaining guests from London at his home, the Red House. Earlier that morning, Mark had announced to his friends that his brother, Robert, was on his way home from Australia, having been absent for fifteen years. The guests are surprised to hear this, as Mark had never mentioned a brother before, and unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately, given the descriptions of Robert’s character – they don’t get a chance to meet him, because almost as soon as Robert arrives at the Red House he is shot dead.

Antony Gillingham, a latecomer to the party at the Red House, is one of the first on the scene, along with Mr Cayley, the Abletts’ cousin. Seeing Robert’s dead body on the office floor and no sign of Mark, who appears to have run away, it seems quite obvious what has happened…but Antony is not so sure. Joining forces with his friend and fellow house guest, Bill Beverley, he begins to search for clues in an attempt to solve the mystery.

I loved this book; being such an early example of a detective novel, it contains many of the elements of a classic ‘locked room mystery’ which would still have felt fresh and new in the 1920s: a country house, secret passages, ghostly figures, midnight adventures, red herrings etc. I also think Milne is very fair to the reader, providing enough hints for us to at least guess at the solution, while not making it too easy to work out.

Antony and Bill make a great detecting team, falling perfectly into the roles of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson (they even refer to themselves as Holmes and Watson several times throughout the novel). They are both very likeable characters and I would have been happy to read a whole series of Gillingham/Beverley mysteries.

Most of all, though, I loved the writing style, which is light and lively, with plenty of humour and witty dialogue. Here, for example, is a conversation between two of the Red House servants:

“I was never the one to pretend to be what I wasn’t. If I’m fifty-five, I’m fifty-five – that’s what I say.”

“Fifty-eight, isn’t it, auntie?”

“I was just giving that as an example,” said Mrs. Stevens with great dignity.

And here we learn what Antony’s father thinks of his son:

Old Gillingham returned to his paper. Antony was a younger son, and, on the whole, not so interesting to his father as the cadets of certain other families; Champion Birket’s, for instance. But, then, Champion Birket was the best Hereford bull he had ever bred.

The Red House Mystery was great fun to read.  Having enjoyed it so much, I’m disappointed that there aren’t more mysteries to read by A.A. Milne, but if you think I might like any of his other books I would love to hear your recommendations.