Verdict of Twelve by Raymond Postgate

A woman is on trial for murder and a jury is being sworn in to decide her fate. A jury of twelve men and women selected at random from all walks of life, each of whom has an interesting story of his or her own. Verdict of Twelve (1940), one of the British Library Crime Classics series, is as much about the jury as it is about the crime, which makes it an unusual and fascinating novel.

The book is divided into three main sections. In the first, we are introduced to each member of the jury as they step forward one by one to take their oaths. With an academic, a religious fanatic, a servant, a Greek restaurant owner and an encyclopedia salesman among them, many areas of society are represented and these twelve very different people must find a way to work together to reach what they believe to be the correct verdict.

The second part of the novel (which begins about a third of the way into the book) describes the crime itself. We are given some background information on the accused woman and then an account of the events which led up to the murder. I don’t think I can go into any detail without spoiling things, so I will just say that it is an intriguing mystery, very dark at times but with some humour at others. Although there are only a few suspects it is difficult to decide from the available evidence (which is largely circumstantial) exactly what happened and whether the jurors’ verdict should be guilty or not guilty.

Next, we watch the trial take place, listen to the witnesses and then join the jurors as they discuss the case and try to reach agreement. Finally a short epilogue lets us know whether we – and the jury – came to the right conclusion. It’s an interesting structure and one which I thought worked very well. Knowing the personal background of each juror before the trial begins helps us to see how their individual prejudices and experiences affects their reasoning when it comes to considering the evidence and making a decision. Some find that they have sympathy for the accused and some for the victim; as the reader, I felt that I was almost in the position of a thirteenth juror – and as I disliked one of the characters so much I found that I was also reacting emotionally rather than objectively.

My only slight criticism is that the first section of the book, in which the jury is introduced, is quite uneven. A few of the characters, particularly Victoria Atkins and Arthur Popesgrove, are fully fleshed out in what are almost self-contained short stories, while some of the others have only one or two pages devoted to them. As each juror has one twelfth of the input into the final decision, I’m not sure why we needed to know so much more about some of their backgrounds than others. Apart from this, I really enjoyed Verdict of Twelve – highly recommended for all lovers of classic crime!

Thanks to Poisoned Pen Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book #6 for the R.I.P XII challenge.

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Heartstone by CJ Sansom

As part of my Reading the Walter Scott Prize project, I knew that I would, at some point, need to read CJ Sansom’s Heartstone, which was shortlisted for the prize in 2011. Knowing that it was the fifth book in a series, though, and not having read any of the previous ones, I decided to start at the beginning with Dissolution and take my time working through them all. This was a good decision as I have thoroughly enjoyed the whole series – and now that I’ve finally read Heartstone, I won’t be stopping here but will be going on to read the sixth book, Lamentation, as well.

Like the earlier novels, this one is set in Tudor England and narrated by the hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake. It’s 1545 and with news of a huge French fleet about to cross the Channel, England is preparing for invasion. On Henry VIII’s orders, an army is being raised and warships including the Great Harry and the Mary Rose are getting ready for action in the harbour of Portsmouth. Meanwhile, Shardlake is also heading for the south coast on his latest mission for Catherine Parr, the Queen.

It has been claimed that “monstrous wrongs” have been committed against a young ward of court, Hugh Curteys, by his guardian Sir Nicholas Hobbey, and the Queen wants Shardlake to investigate. Accompanied, as always, by his assistant and clerk Jack Barak, Shardlake sets off on the journey from London to Hampshire, falling in with a company of soldiers on the way. On arriving at the Hobbey estate, it is obvious that there is something not quite right – but with Hugh insisting that he is not badly treated, how will Shardlake ever find out what is going on?

As if this wasn’t enough, Shardlake also has a second mystery to look into. In the previous novel, Revelation, he met Ellen Fettiplace, a woman who has been confined to the Bedlam for many years. With his work for the Queen taking him close to the village where Ellen grew up, he decides to do some investigating of his own in the hope of finding out what happened to her all those years ago and how she ended up in the asylum.

Poor Matthew; things just don’t run smoothly for him in this book and he is forced to acknowledge that he has been too “full of righteousness” – not a bad thing for a lawyer to be, you might think, but it does seem that he spends a lot of time trying to help people who really don’t want to be helped. Like Barak (who is desperate to get home in time to see the birth of his child), I found him quite frustrating with his refusal to leave things alone and take note of the warnings he is given, but of course that is what makes him feel so real and so human.

As I said, I’ve enjoyed all of the books in this series and this one is no exception. It isn’t my favourite, though, mainly because I felt that it was much longer than it really needed to be and that there was too much padding while Shardlake and Barak moved backwards and forwards between one location and another without anything happening to advance the plot. It didn’t help that I guessed the solution to one of the mysteries early in the book (probably because I have read a few other books recently with similar twists, and not because it was made particularly easy to guess) and had to wait a very long time for Shardlake to work it out for himself!

One thing I always love about the Shardlake novels is Sansom’s wonderful, vivid depiction of life in Tudor England. In this book, we are dropped right into a country making preparations for war (an unpopular and expensive war), and we learn a lot about the weapons and armour that are used, how men are recruited into the army and the training they undergo, as well as being treated to a long, dramatic description of the sinking of the Mary Rose at the Battle of the Solent. At the end of the novel, Sansom provides a detailed historical note in which he gives more information on the background to the story and separates fact from fiction.

Although I didn’t love Heartstone as much as some of the other books in the series, it was still a great read and I’m looking forward to joining Matthew Shardlake again soon in Lamentation.

This is book #5 for the R.I.P XII challenge.

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley

In this, the seventh book in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series, our twelve-year-old detective is sent away to boarding school in 1950s Canada, having been banished from her family home at the end of the previous novel. If you have never read a Flavia mystery before, this is probably not the best place to start; I would recommend reading at least a few of the earlier ones first, particularly the sixth, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, so that you will understand the reasons for her banishment and the choice of this particular Canadian school.

Anyway, back to As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. Almost as soon as Flavia arrives at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Toronto, she stumbles upon yet another dead body – or rather, this one stumbles upon Flavia when it falls down the chimney in her room, having been dislodged by another girl who has climbed up to hide from a teacher. Why is there a dead body up the chimney? Who is it? Could it be one of the three missing girls who have all disappeared from the Academy over the last year or two? Flavia doesn’t know, but she’s determined to find out!

This is the first book in the series not to be set at Buckshaw, the de Luce ancestral home in the English village of Bishop’s Lacey. I have always found the setting to be part of the charm of these books, so although it was nice to have a change, I did find myself missing Father, Feely, Daffy, Dogger and everyone else from Buckshaw. There are plenty of new characters in this book to take their places – including an enigmatic and intimidating headmistress and a chemistry teacher who has been on trial for murder – but none of them felt as well drawn as the characters in the previous novels.

Still, I always enjoy a school setting because it brings back memories of the school stories I loved as a child, such as Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and St Clare’s books. Maybe Alan Bradley liked that sort of story too and wanted an opportunity to write one of his own; otherwise I’m not sure I really see the point in moving Flavia out of her usual setting. I had expected the storyline involving the Nide, which was introduced in the last book, to be advanced in this one, but actually we learn very little more about it – and what we do learn just made me more confused!

I was pleased to find that this book had a much stronger mystery element than the previous one and although some parts of the mystery didn’t feel fully resolved at the end, it was nice to see Flavia back to making her lists of suspects and searching for clues. Finally, don’t Alan Bradley’s books have great titles? This one is taken from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline: “Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust”. The title of the next one, Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, is also Shakespeare-inspired. I’m looking forward to reading it – despite not liking the last two books as much as the earlier ones, I do still enjoy spending time with Flavia!

This is Book #2 for my R.I.P. XII challenge.

Hamlet, Revenge! by Michael Innes

My first experience of Michael Innes’ writing came earlier this year when I read one of his short stories in the British Library Crime Classics anthology, Miraculous Mysteries. I knew I wanted to read more of his work, so I was was delighted to have an opportunity to read Hamlet, Revenge! via NetGalley.

Published in 1937, this is the second in his series of detective novels featuring Inspector John Appleby. However, Appleby doesn’t appear until the second section of the novel – the first part is devoted to setting the scene and introducing the very large cast of characters. As with many Golden Age mysteries, the action takes place in an English country house – in this case, Scamnum Court, which has been home to the Dukes of Horton for centuries. The novel opens with friends and acquaintances of the family beginning to arrive at Scamnum to take part in an amateur production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. When one of the guests is murdered during the performance, Appleby is called in to investigate.

This is a wonderfully complex mystery, even more so because Appleby doesn’t know exactly what type of crime has been committed. The murdered man was an important statesman whose death could have serious implications for the government, giving rise to fears that spies are operating at Scamnum Court. On the other hand, a series of revenge-themed messages received by the victim and several other guests indicate that this could be a crime of a more personal nature.

Mild curiosity ran round the table.

‘Yes. I had a telegram at the House just before coming down here. Just two words.’

This time Lord Auldearn spoke: ‘Two words?’

‘Hamlet, revenge!’

With a long list of potential suspects – we are told that there are more than thirty people involved in the play in some way – Appleby is kept busy trying to establish alibis and uncover motives, while avoiding the red herrings that are thrown in his way.

After a slightly overwhelming start (due to the number of characters and the detailed background information on Scamnum Court), once Appleby arrives on the scene and begins his inquiries the pace picks up and the story becomes quite gripping. It’s the sort of mystery I love: one with plenty of clues and several possible solutions – although of course only one is correct, and we have to wait until the end of the novel before everything is revealed. It’s also a very erudite and literary mystery; as well as lots of discussion and analysis of Hamlet, there are also a number of other literary allusions and references. If you know your Shakespeare you will probably get more out of the novel, but if not, don’t worry as it isn’t completely essential.

Although this is described as an Appleby novel, much of the story is actually written from the perspective of one of the other characters, Giles Gott, an academic who also writes crime novels under a pseudonym. As Michael Innes himself is a pseudonym (he also wrote using his real name of J.I.M. Stewart), I wondered whether Gott was a way for Innes to project some of his own personality into the story. There seems to be a previous friendship between the characters of Appleby and Gott, whom I have found out also appears in the first book in the series which I haven’t read yet; I don’t know whether he is in any of the others.

I really enjoyed Hamlet, Revenge! and am looking forward to reading more by Michael Innes.

This is book #1 for the R.I.P XII challenge.

By Gaslight by Steven Price

Well, this was a long book! Not only does it have over 700 pages, it’s also the sort of book that requires a lot of concentration, which makes it a very slow read. I’ve been reading it for the whole of August, which is one of the reasons why I’m not going to complete my 20 Books of Summer challenge by the deadline now. Was it worth so much time and effort? I’m actually not sure; it wasn’t a complete success with me – there were times when I found myself really enjoying it and others when I couldn’t wait to be finished – but on the whole I think I’m glad I read it.

This is the second novel by Canadian author and poet Steven Price. Set in the 19th century, it follows the stories of two men – William Pinkerton and Adam Foole – who are bound together by tales of a shadowy figure known, appropriately, as Edward Shade. Pinkerton is a famous American detective who is in London assisting Scotland Yard with an investigation into the death of a woman, possibly Charlotte Reckitt, whose severed head has been found in the Thames. He believes Charlotte has links with Edward Shade, an elusive criminal whom his father had devoted twenty years of his life to hunting down, without success. But who is Shade? A real person…a ghost…or just an obsession?

Adam Foole, a thief and swindler, has also recently returned to England with his two accomplices – the giant Japheth Fludd, and Molly, a young pickpocket. Foole has received a letter from a woman he once knew asking for help, but on his arrival in London he is unable to find her. Soon his path will cross with William Pinkerton’s; it seems that both of their fates are linked with Charlotte Reckitt and the mysterious Edward Shade.

By Gaslight takes us on a tour of the darker side of London as Foole and Pinkerton (separately or together) visit Millbank Prison, an opium den, a séance and the underground sewer system. However, there are long interludes set in South Africa and in America during the Civil War and these are essential to understanding the backgrounds to our characters and therefore to understanding the mysteries at the heart of the novel. These sections have quite a different tone from the London parts and, to me, they didn’t really feel as though they belonged in the same book; had the whole novel been devoted to the Civil War or had it been purely a Victorian murder mystery I think I would probably have been happier. This is just my opinion, though, and I’m sure other readers will love the variety of settings and changes in atmosphere.

By Gaslight is the perfect title for this book – not only are gaslights mentioned frequently, the whole novel (or the London chapters, at least) feels misty and murky and everything seems to happen either at night or in the fog and rain. Although most of the action takes place in 1885 and any long flashbacks are usually given their own chapters, eventually the borders between past, present and future start to blur, all adding to the sense of mystery and of facts being hidden or obscured.

The author has also made the decision not to use correct punctuation – commas are used sporadically and quotation marks not at all. Again, whether or not you will feel comfortable with this is a matter of personal taste; you could see it as a clever way of trying to immerse the reader more fully in the fogs and mists of the story or, like me, you could just find it annoying and distracting. I should add, though, that at no point did I actually struggle with it; I could always tell how a sentence was intended to be read and who was speaking to whom.

On the whole, though, this is an atmospheric and unusual novel and, despite the length and my reservations about the writing style, I never thought about abandoning it. It’s unlike any other Victorian novel I’ve read and if anyone else has read it, I would be interested to hear what you thought of it.

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

This is book 14/20 of my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

One bright spring morning Diana Cowper walks into a funeral parlour to arrange her own funeral. Six hours later she is dead, strangled in her own home. It can’t be a coincidence…can it? Detective Inspector Daniel Hawthorne – who is technically no longer with the police but still assists with particularly challenging cases – is called in to investigate. This is to be an investigation with a difference, however, because Hawthorne has enlisted the services of author Anthony Horowitz to write a book about the case.

Horowitz has never written a true-crime book before and admits to being much more comfortable when writing fiction such as his Sherlock Holmes sequel The House of Silk or the Alex Rider young adult series. It is with some reservations, then, that he agrees to write Hawthorne’s story, but as he accompanies the detective while he interviews suspects and searches for clues, Horowitz is drawn into the investigation despite himself.

The two have very different visions for their book; Horowitz believes in using artistic licence to tell a story that people will want to read, but Hawthorne is adamant that he should report only the facts, leaving nothing out that could be of significance. The author also tries in vain to get to know the detective, to shape him into a character who will stand alongside Holmes and Poirot, but the other man remains frustratingly enigmatic:

“Well, if I was going to write about you, you’d have to tell me. I’d have to know where you live, whether you’re married or not, what you have for breakfast, what you do on your day off. That’s why people read murder stories.”

“Is that what you think?”

“Yes!”

He shook his head. “I don’t agree. The word is murder. That’s what matters.”

I started to read The Word is Murder with very high hopes, having loved Horowitz’s previous novel, Magpie Murders (one of my favourite books of last year). I wasn’t disappointed; this is another great book! In fact, like Magpie Murders – but in a different way – it is almost two books in one. We have the story of Horowitz and his relationship with Hawthorne and then we have the murder investigation itself. I’m aware that I’ve said very little so far about the latter – and I’m not going to say much more, other than that it is a very clever, tightly plotted mystery with plenty of clues, suspects and red herrings. Thanks to Hawthorne’s insistence on everything being written down, most of the clues are there from the beginning and the rest are at least revealed early enough for us to guess the solution before Horowitz does. I have to admit, though, that I was slow to put them together and didn’t come close to solving the mystery!

I should probably make it clear that Diana Cowper is a fictional character – she wasn’t really murdered six hours after arranging her own funeral and Hawthorne, who is also fictional, wasn’t really brought in to investigate. Anthony Horowitz, however, is obviously a real person and so The Word is Murder is a curious blend of fiction and non-fiction. He is not the first author to use themselves as a character in their own novel, but I’m not sure if anyone else has done it in quite the same way!

Although the passages in which Horowitz describes his various writing projects, his appearances at book festivals and his views on literary agents are a bit of a distraction from the central plot at times, his main role in the story is as a sort of Watson-style sidekick, and this aspect of the novel works very well. As for Hawthorne, he has quite an unpleasant personality, being humourless, secretive, pedantic, and – to Horowitz’s disgust – homophobic, but I found him a fascinating character, precisely because he is so unattractive. They are an unlikely pairing but there is plenty of potential here for more Hawthorne/Horowitz mysteries, I think – I would certainly be happy to read them, anyway!

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

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.