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.
What I liked about the book:
- Winspear knows how to create a dramatic plot, and has researched the period really well. Here we have the little-known facts surrounding the anti-flammable paint used on military sites as well as the work of the WAAFE ambulance drivers. Some rather grim facts come to light.
- There’s the evacuation of Dunkirk too, and Maisie’s godson has run off with a mate to help the rescue effort in the mate’s family launch. Lots of drama as Maisie heads out to the coast with her best friend Pricilla (always a fun character with her martinis and cigarette holders), who is desperate to find her son. This creates another interesting story thread and rounds out the plot nicely.
- Another terrific character is Billie, Maisie’s Cockney assistant who adds some a touch of humour. Even when he’s worried desperately about his own son – also caught up in the Dunkirk evacuation – his lively turn of phrase and occasional rhyming slang is a welcome contrast to Maisie’s more earnest manner.
- Wartime London is evocatively described, but I also love Winspear’s sense of the countryside, as Maisie pops down to the estate which belongs to her late husband’s family, and the cottage she inherited from her former boss and mentor, Maurice Blanche.
- Maisie has lively interactions with Scotland Yard cop, Inspector Caldwell, who calls a spade a spade and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He and Maisie have had a few run-ins in the past but now have a grudging respect for each other, and Maisie knows Caldwell has her back.
- This series is easy-reading for sure, but also informative, with Winspear’s keen eye for interesting and little-known aspects of firstly World War One and its aftermath, and the new war which is just getting going. My only grouch is that Maisie would be a little more interesting if she had a few quirks of temperament and was a little less perfect. She always seems to have her work hat on and her super-intuitive skills make her almost super-human.
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”
Smoke and Mirrors is the second novel in Griffiths’ Stephens and Mephisto mystery series. I’ve read all her books in the Ruth Galloway / DI Nelson series and I enjoy them for their wit, great characterisation and intelligent plotting. But what I love about them is the archaeological background she brings into each story and the Norfolk history and prehistory that bubbles through.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by how much I enjoyed Smoke and Mirrors for once again, you’ve got the characterisation and an engaging plot to draw you in. Instead of Norfolk and archaeology, you’ve got 1950s Brighton, it’s just before Christmas and there’s a pantomime on at the Pavillion, when two small children go missing.
Leading the investigation is DI Edgar Stephens, only thirty-one and quickly promoted to this role because of the effects of the war on the police workforce. This causes some resentment from his boss, and means he has a lot to prove. He’s also smart, well-educated and reasonably cultured. Interesting, in other words. He’s got a team of two sergeants who couldn’t be more different, and who should be starring in Alladin at the Pavillion but his old mate Mephisto.
Why you should read it:
- Backstage goings-on are just as interesting as the performances with actors rewriting their lines to the despair of the playwright, theatrical rivalry and witty back-handers. Meanwhile there is a curious link between the current crime and the murder of a young pantomime actress thirty odd years ago.
- Elly Griffiths has a knack for pulling you into the story. There’s a lot going on with an assortment of suspects, red-herrings aplenty and the high emotional quotient you get with crimes against children.
- Young Annie, one of the victims, was writing a play based on a Grimms fairy-tale, and ramping up the grim quotient. This adds a sinister quality and keeps poor Edgar guessing – is there a clue to be found in Annie’s script?
- Snow. It’s coming up to Christmas and there’s a ton of the stuff, hampering the investigation and causing both the police and the reader to expect the worst.
- Tension builds in a satisfying way towards a dramatic ending – just as it should. Four out of five from me.
Anyone for Seconds? is a follow-up book to Laurie Graham’s first novel about TV chef, Lizzie Partridge. Perfect Meringues came out twenty years ago, so it’s been a long wait, but worth it as Lizzie is a heap of fun.
As the story begins, Lizzie is feeling like she’s on the scrap-heap. Her former boyfriend Tom, such a nice chap, seems to have made domestic arrangements elsewhere and she’s never resurrected her TV career since that on-air food-fight in Perfect Meringues. Now Global magazine has just axed her What’s Cooking? column. It’s the last straw. In a desperate bid to be missed, Lizzie heads for the train station and on a whim lands up at a hotel in Aberystwyth.
It’s November, so the seaside town doesn’t have a lot of sightseers. There is a furry conference on, though, and before her return a week later, Lizzie hooks up with a racoon with connections to her past. Back in Birmingham, it’s as if she never left: her elderly mother still ignores her, obviously preferring her younger brother Philip; she has to make appointments just to talk to her high-flying lawyer daughter, Ellie; there’s a mouse in the kitchen and the bills are piling up.
Some chance encounters and a few random events shake up Lizzie’s life so that by the end of the book there’s a promise of new beginnings. Along the way, there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. Anyone for Seconds? is such a fun read and it reminded me of what I liked so much about Graham’s contemporary fiction. Here’s why you should read it:
- Lizzie Partridge knows her grub, so there are plenty of interesting food references, if you like that kind of thing. I do.
- Lizzie is sixty-four. How many heroines do you know who are that age? But she’s terrific in so many ways, which is just as it should be – being sixty-four doesn’t stop her from having a go at romance and taking advantage of new opportunities. Not that this should be surprising. If you read Graham’s Dog Days and Glen Miller Nights you’ll know what I mean.
- There’s a real feel for the Midlands tone of voice. You can hear the characters speaking without any annoying dropped consonants or quaint expressions. It just seems to happen in your head.
- Graham is really good at dialogue, which makes the story bounce along. There are numerous phone calls, family dinners, and other verbal to-ings and fro-ings, including a pilot for a TV chat show.
- Like everything Graham writes, the prose is sparkling, sharp and witty – humour guaranteed.
Four out of five for me; oh, and I wouldn’t pass up a third helping, either.
I reviewed The Dark Lake by this author not so long ago but actually, it was this book – her second Gemma Woodstock crime novel – that I picked up first. It just looked so interesting with its brooding Melbourne in winter setting; a damaged detective (Woodstock is hopeless at relationships, has more baggage than you can shake a stick at, including a young son she has left behind in the small town where she grew up); and everything’s new – new flat, new job, new city, new partner.
But you just have to read book one first. Into the Night begins with the murder of a homeless man and Sergeant Gemma Woodstock feels the pressure to close the case quickly so that other Melbourne homeless feel safe and the news media think the police care about those who slip below the radar. Continue reading “Book Review: Into the Night by Sarah Bailey”
The Detective’s Daughter is the first in a series by Lesley Thomson featuring Stella Darnell, a solitary forty-something who runs a cleaning company called Clean Slate. Her father, Terry Darnell, a career policeman, had always wanted her to join the force, but a messy divorce and Stella’s resentment that he’d always put his job before his daughter meant that she preferred to do her own thing. She likes things tidy, obsessively so, and being her own boss; Clean Slate is perfect – until Stella’s father dies.
Cleaning out her dad’s house, Stella comes across a file that fascinates her: the case Terry was working on when suddenly struck down by a heart attack. Even though he was retired, Terry couldn’t forget the murder of Kate Rokesmith, strangled in broad daylight while walking with her four-year-old son near the river at Hammersmith Bridge. Her husband Hugh carried the stigma of suspicion for the rest of his life, while little Jonathan was sent to a boarding school to be brought up by strangers. Continue reading “Review: The Detective’s Daughter by Lesley Thomson”
I love it when I discover a new series at its very beginning and enjoy it so much I read each book that follows as soon as it comes out. So it is with Abir Mukherjee’s mysteries set in Calcutta in the early 1920s. Featuring ex-pat British policeman, Capt. Sam Wyndham, the author throws you right into Calcutta during the British Raj era. Wyndham is still recovering (or not!) from his time in the trenches of WW1, and the loss of his much-loved wife during the flu epidemic, self-medicating with opium. It’s just as well he’s so smart, energetic and won’t let the rules get in the way of his investigations or he’d never catch the perpetrators.
In Smoke and Ashes, Wyndam investigates a brutal killing which he discovers quite by chance when he has to make a hasty retreat from an evening visit to an opium den. Continue reading “Ripping Reads: Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee”
One of my all-time favourite authors (going back to my teenage years) is P G Wodehouse. It isn’t just the humour or the mad-cap plotlines, or the inevitability that Jeeves will get Bertie out of the soup at the last minute, rescue his chum and in doing so, win the reward of ousting from Bertie’s wardrobe a rather too loud jacket/hat/pair of plus-fours. Yes, of course, the story threads come together in a beautiful way and the scrapes Bertie, Lord Emsworth and Co. get into are hilariously inventive, even seventy plus years after they were first put down on the page. But what never fails to charm me is the wit in Wodehouse’s way of throwing words together.
Continue reading “The Wonderful Wit of Wodehouse”