Gosh, how do you begin to try and describe a book like this one? The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is like a cross between an Agatha Christie country-house murder mystery – say The Mysterious Affair at Styles or The Hollow – and a story from Dr Who. Or maybe one of those old computer games where you have to find your way out of a labyrinth, but keep losing your life and have to start again.
The book opens with the main character running through the woods by night, desperate to save Anna, whoever she may be, while there’s a killer on the loose. He’s lost, but worst of all, he doesn’t know who he is either. He looks down at his hands and they are the hands of a stranger. He eventually finds safety in a crumbling stately home called Blackheath, and learns his name is Dr Sebastian Bell.
The next time he wakes up he’s someone else again – a pattern that repeats itself over the following days. All of the people he becomes are among the guest party who have congregated at Blackheath on the anniversary of the death of a young boy, Thomas Hardcastle, murdered nineteen years before. It isn’t until his first meeting with a man dressed as a mediaeval Plague Doctor (black cloak and a white beak-shaped mask) that he learns that he must discover who is going to murder Evelyn Hardcastle that night if he wants to escape Blackheath. He has eight days to complete the task, and in that time will inhabit eight different people, each of whom will offer different slants on the mystery. If he fails, he will lose his memory and have to start again from scratch.
Here’s what I liked about it:
- Aiden Bishop, our lost and confused protagonist, is an everyman kind of character. He knows no more than the reader does, so everything he learns the reader learns at the same time.
- The different people Aiden inhabits each have different quirks and skills. Lord Ravencourt is hugely fat, and has a hard time getting around the staircases and corridors of Blackheath, but he has a fine mind and sets in place the semblance of a plan. Rashton has the nous and physical fitness of a smart, young policeman, Dance has status and connections.
- Lots of odd things happen, things that are hard to fathom, but it all makes sense in the end. You can’t help admire the author’s talent for managing lots of balls in the air.
- Aiden never knows who he can trust. Just as you think he has an ally in one character or another, it seems they are not to be trusted after all. It doesn’t help when you’re somebody else all the time. This ups the stakes and keeps you hooked.
- Towards the end, when you think you’ve figured it out, the rug is whipped out from under you and there’s yet more mystery to uncover on different levels. Definitely an A-grade surprise ending.
Reading Seven Deaths is, however, hard work. You have to keep your wits about you and you can’t put it down for a few days and expect to remember everything when you pick the book up again. It’s just so complex. And that’s just the plot. I was also confused by the cast of characters – too many had names beginning with D – so I had to flip back and forth constantly to remind myself who was who.
Is it all worth it? Emphatically, yes! It is worth it because it turns the mystery novel on its head and rewrites the genre in an entirely new form. Gone are the traditional plot-points and mystery must-haves. And while there is so much to admire, it is oddly enjoyable too. Maybe at five hundred pages, it is a little long, but you’ll steam through the final chapters, pleased to have made the journey. Four and a half out of five from me.
It’s Sea Week – yes, we do this every year – and it made me think about some of the books I’ve enjoyed that are set on or near the sea. Here’s a small sampling:
C S Forester’s Hornblower books
When you start with Mr Midshipman Hornblower, the first book in the series, it’s hard to stop until you’ve read a good half-dozen of the novels. Maybe it’s because some of my ancestors were in the Navy at a similar time, (that is, the Napoleonic Wars and decades following), but I find Foresters’ accounts of sea battles and his main character’s tactical ingenuity really exciting. Forester also develops Hornblower’s character as a man, a husband, lover and father, revealing the difficulties of being away at sea for years at a time. Apparently the real-life figure of Thomas Cochrane (later Lord Dundonald) inspired the Hornblower character. Continue reading “I Must Go Down to the Sea Again…”
You never know where a novel by Kate Atkinson is going to take you. Transcription begins when Juliet Armstrong is hit by a car. Hanging between life and death, Juliet reviews her past over two time zones. The first is in 1940 Juliet is an eighteen-year-old-typist at MI5 when she is required by Perrigrine Gibbons for some secret war work.
Was she to be an agent then? (A spy!) No, it seemed she was to remain shackled to a typewriter.
‘We cannot choose our weapons in a time of war, Miss Armstrong,’ he said.
Perry is suavely handsome, and Juliet has flights of fancy about him, but she is soon set to work in a Finchley flat, where secret recordings are made of the conversations next door. Through the wall, a secret service operative, Godfrey Toby, has clandestine meetings with Nazi sympathisers who pass on interesting tit-bits of information. Juliet has the job of typing up the transcripts, hence the title. Continue reading “Book Review: Transcription by Kate Atkinson”
I know we’ve got Indesign and Photoshop so book covers these days can look really glam and polished and shiny and flash. But you know I just can’t tear myself away from those cover designs reminiscent of linocuts and print-making generally. I love the thoughtfully contrasting colours and the way the pictures seem to be built up in layers, the skilful use of simple lines and contours. You know there’s a true artist at work.
This is a style that’s been around since well, forever – probably Albrecht Durer, or even earlier. Happily, I’ve seen quite a few covers like this lately, and I’m no artist so I can’t tell you exactly how they were created, or even if there was a slab of lino in sight. Maybe they were done on a computer, after all. But don’t they look interesting?
William Boyd is one of those rare writers you can trust to turn in a taut and thrilling plot while paying attention to the fine craft of writing. His sentences are thoughtful and elegant and his characters multi-faceted. So it is with Restless, first published in 2006, and later dramatised by the BBC.
The story spans two eras, the most recent taking place during the heatwave of 1976 as Ruth visits her mother, Sal, in the Cotswolds and finds cause for alarm. Sal is showing paranoid behaviour to the point of pretending she needs a wheelchair. She hands her daughter a packet with the start of her memoir, detailing events going back to 1939 and her recruitment into Britain’s secret service.
I can see what the BBC saw in Restless. It’s got a lot going for it and not just pleasant locations which would look attractive on the small screen: Oxford in the heatwave of 1976; Scotland (where Eva has secret agent training and changes her name); London during the blitz; New York in winter; and New Mexico and even Paris get a look-in too. Continue reading “Book Review: Restless by William Boyd”
Who wouldn’t want to live in an English rural backwater where there’s a little branch railway-line long since mothballed just asking to be restored? You could join a small society of passionate enthusiasts and dedicate all your spare time to finding engines and carriages, refurbishing and reupholstering and essentially going back in time.
In The Last of the Greenwoods, Zohra Dasgupta is a young postal worker, whose best friend Crispin has roped her into a group of railway restoration buffs. She’s only 25 and lives with her parents over their corner shop so seems an unlikely candidate for a pastime you’d imagine to be enjoyed largely by male retirees. The railway runs through Crispin’s father’s land, what there is left of it, formerly an estate of some standing. Crispin lives here with his father in a crumbling ruin of a once splendid mansion, camping out in a still liveable corner. Continue reading “Book Review: The Last of the Greenwoods by Clare Morrall”
I confess to a love-hate relationship with Maisie Dobbs. To Die But Once is her fourteenth and latest outing in Winspear’s post World War One mystery series which sees Maisie investigate the disappearance of a young apprentice painter. We are now into the early stages of World War Two, and young men have gone off to fight yet another war to end all wars, their loved ones biting their nails at home and fearing the worst. As Maisie makes her way to her office for the start of another day, she spots the local publican in the street and instantly recognises a troubled soul.
Maisie is an investigating psychologist, who helps the police from time to time, as well as the secret service, but her private work is her bread and butter. She pops into the pub for a chat and soon learns that Phil Coombes’s younger son has disappeared. His job painting air-craft hangars for the RAF should see him safely through the war, but he hasn’t been in touch for over a week and before that was complaining about headaches from paint fumes. Continue reading “Series Round-up 2: To Die But Once by Jacqueline Winspear”
Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury mysteries seem to have been going forever, and I recently caught up with the latest title, The Knowledge. I wanted to see if Grimes still had the knack with plotting and character that I’ve always enjoyed so much.
The Knowledge gets off to a cracking start – Grimes could probably write a how-to book on first pages that grab the reader. A London taxi-driver drops a beautiful young couple at a select casino, whereupon they are both shot dead. The killer jumps into the cab and tells the cabbie to drive. There’s some exciting stuff with other cabbies and secret signals before the shooter disappears into a train station.
Soon Jury is involved, along with a bunch of street kids who often help the cabbies (chasing down unpaid fares etc.) and one of them follows the shooter to Nairobi. There’s a touch of the Famous Five here. Children are often key witnesses in the Jury novels and Grimes has a knack for making them engaging and quirky. So of course, Jury’s friend and part-time sleuth, Melrose Plant, has to abandon his stately pile and the village of Long Piddleton to head off to Nairobi too. Plant’s job is to find little Patty and bring her back to London. This gives the author the opportunity to weave in a touch of the exotic as well as some background on gemstone mining in Africa. Continue reading “Series Round-up 1: The Knowledge by Martha Grimes”
I was going to see the movie but wasn’t quite quick enough. Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci plus London – I always like London stories – seemed a winning combination. Then there was that nagging feeling I always get: You can’t watch the movie until you’ve read the book. And by the time I’d got hold of the book, the movie had moved on from our local cinema and that was that. But at least I still had the book.
And what a powerful read it is. Not that this was surprising – I’d read McEwan before (Atonement, Amsterdam, Sweet Tooth) and he’s a master craftsman. In a nutshell, The Children Act follows Fiona Maye, a judge who presides over family cases, many of them with complex moral issues at heart, and this causes problems with her marriage.
One case in particular, where she had to rule in favour of the separation of baby Siamese twins, leading to the death of one, but safeguarding the survival of the other, caused Fiona to draw away from her husband Jack. So at the start of the book, he is telling her he plans to have an affair unless they can somehow patch things up.ˇ
But Fiona is unable to talk to Jack, she has so much on her place, and his planned infidelity enrages her – surely he must have someone lined up already and this is infidelity in itself. When he packs a bag, it is easier for her to change the locks on the flat and then focus on her current case. Continue reading “Review: The Children Act by Ian McEwan”
It rained here on Christmas Day. A lot. So no stroll around the village to work up an appetite or burn some calories or clear the head, depending on time of day. But I did have my Christmas book, picked up at the library on Christmas Eve.
There’s nothing like a Victorian story at Christmas. All those Christmas cards with Victorian looking Santas, sleighs pulled by horses and apple-cheeked children singing carols tell us this is so. Anne Perry has nailed Victorian England so it’s not surprising she’s written a few Christmas novellas which hit the spot at this time of the year.
A Christmas Grace features Inspector Pitt’s sister-in-law, Emily Radley. She’s Charlotte’s sister, in case you’ve forgotten, and as Christmas nears she’s looking forward to a round of social engagements where she can wear her new ballgown. Then she receives a letter. Her Aunt Susannah is very ill, probably dying, and she’s all alone. Charlotte has bronchitis so it’s left to Emily to abandon the invitations on the mantelpiece and trek to her aunt’s cottage in a remote town near Galway, Ireland. Continue reading “Christmas Reads 2: A Christmas Grace by Anne Perry”