Mystery Series Catch-up

As any reader of this blog may have guessed, I’m a big fan of crime fiction and the genre is my happy place when I feel like a relaxing read. It all began years ago with Agatha Christie when I was at school, and since then I’ve discovered many terrific series, old and new. Here’s what I’ve been reading lately.

The Good Turn by Dervla McTiernan

This is only the third book in McTiernan’s Cormac Reilly series set in Galway, but already these books are on my ‘must-read’ list. There’s just so much to enjoy. Apart from the wonderful setting of an Irish city that has its own quirks and atmosphere, McTiernan excels at character and plotting. Reilly, a former high-flyer from Dublin, is a sergeant at a police station where he never fits in and can’t quite figure out why. He’s good at his job, intelligent and personable (probably quite dishy, actually) and in this book we find out what’s really going on at the station. The book hooks you in from page one with the report of a child abduction and Reilly’s investigation which all goes horribly wrong. The story diverts to a tiny coastal town where Reilly’s young constable, Peter Fisher, is sent in penance and the murder mystery he investigates, while Reilly does some soul-seaching about his work and relationship problems before uncovering some damning police corruption. Top notch.

The Blood Card by Elly Griffiths

The Blood Card is the third novel in the Stephens and Mephisto series, which Griffiths has on the go when she’s not writing her hugely popular Ruth Galloway books set in modern-day Norfolk. DI Edgar Stephens is a Brighton cop who gets to work some interesting cases often around the world of theatre with his best pal and stage magician, Max Mephisto. We’re back in the 1950s, with The Blood Card taking place in the lead-up to the Queen’s Coronation of 1953. The big event has had huge numbers of people buying television sets which has Max wondering if his days in variety are numbered. As it turns out, this could be the least of his worries when an army general demands help from Edgar and Max following the death of their commanding officer from the war. The two had been part of the Magic Men, a team who dabbled in camouflage and special effects to out-fox the enemy. Now they’re caught up in an anarchist plot to disrupt the coronation. The story builds to a brilliant climax and Griffiths uses her understanding of theatre to great effect. A great cast of characters in the police team and among the suspects adds to the enjoyment.

When Shadows Fall by Alex Gray

Somebody is murdering old coppers in Alex Gray’s most recent novel featuring DCI William Lorrimer and his forensic psychologist chum, Dr Solomon Brightman. The victims are all retired senior officers, taken out with the same gun, execution-style. It’s also the same shooter used on an excavated body killed over a decade before. The skeleton is discovered by Lorrimer’s gardener, a former street kid Lorrimer rescued, now making a good living for himself. The story slips between the investigation and scenes in a prison, where an ageing criminal is soon to be released – only he’s got one more job to do when he gets out: to take out Lorrimer. This novel keeps you hooked with the threat hanging over Lorrimer that he knows nothing about. Meanwhile the DCI struggles to find a pattern between the killings which take place in different parts of Scotland. Luckily Solomon Brightman lives up to his name and has a bright idea. I had only read a couple in this series before but I enjoyed this one so much, I shall definitely be returning to Glasgow for more.

The Cadaver Game by Ellis Peters

This novel is the sixteenth out of 24 in Ellis’s Wesley Peterson series and (can you believe it?) the first for me. Moving round the British Isles, we’re now in Tradmouth, a coastal town in Devon. Police detective Wesley Peterson is an amateur archaeologist who transferred from London in book one, hoping for a quieter life. There’s always a historical thread running through the stories, allowing Wesley’s great friend and archaeologist, Neil Watson, to take a share in the investigations. Here we have the discovery of a dead body – a woman murdered and with nothing to identify her – called in from an anonymous tip-off. Then there are the two teenagers who have been shot, their bodies hurled from a cliff – could their deaths be connected to the hunting game they played on the Internet? Meanwhile Neil is in charge of the excavation of a picnic from sixteen years before. It’s an art piece to be filmed and shown at the Tate Modern, but among the china and glassware, what should turn up but an old skeleton. Segments from a journal written in the early 1800s bring in a chilling story that has similarities to the deaths of the teenagers. It all adds up to a brilliant read combining police-work, archaeology, terrific characters and a look into the darker side of human nature.

The American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear

Wartime sleuth Maisie Dobbs has really grown on me over the years. She was a bit too good to be true to begin with, beautiful and intelligent with a knack for picking up people’s thoughts through their body language. And kind of serious. But you always got an interesting but little known aspect of WWI and its legacy on the fragile peace that followed. Now we’re back at war, Maisie’s been given some dangerous assignments, and having had fate hand her a few blows over the years, she’s toughened up and is game for anything. The American Agent is set in 1940, not long after the Battle of Britain, and the Brits would love a bit of help with the war effort from the US. Maisie and her bestie, Priscilla, are ambulance drivers when they meet a young American journalist who’s come along for the ride during a busy night in the Blitz. Impressed by the bravery and determination of ordinary women, Catherine Saxon plans to write their side of the story but not long afterwards, the journalist is strangled. Were her stories too controversial, or was there a secret that got her killed? Winspear keeps you guessing to the end.

Book Review: The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill

I’ve been meaning to try this series for ages, and here we are, fifteen books later, the series having quite gotten away from me. The Coroner’s Lunch is the first in the Siri Paiboum mysteries featuring an elderly Laotian coroner a year or two after Laos was taken over by the Communist Pathet Lao Party.

Following a career spent devoted to the party, Dr Siri may have felt it was time to enjoy retirement, but with many of the educated classes having decamped for Thailand, the medical profession is thin on the ground. Before you know it, he’s been hustled into the role of Chief Coroner. It’s obviously not a glamorous position – the morgue is rudimentary at best. Fortunately he’s got help: Dtui a fan-mag obsessed nurse with career aspirations and Geung the Downs Syndrome morgue attendant who never forgets the details that matter.

When Dr Siri receives his first murder case, there’s a lot of pressure to sign it off as an accident. A party official’s wife has died of poisoning at a banquet but there are no clues and pretty soon, no body either. More cases suddenly pile up including three dead Vietnamese soldiers who bear the marks of having been tortured before being dumped in a Laotian lake. Dr Siri’s going to have to tread a careful path with both if he wants to avoid ending up dead himself.

It’s a little difficult to say what mystery sub-genre the series is. There’s a touch of the cosy mystery here with a coroner learning things as he goes along, a bit like an amateur sleuth. And you’ve got the exotic setting and period time-frame. But there’s a wit and intelligence to the story in the way Cotterill captures not just Laos but what living in a new Communist regime might be like, and how it might clash with the old ways. This is rounded out with some great characters and lively dialogue.

Siri, in particular, is a terrific character with a dry sense of humour plus the wisdom of his years. Having trained at medical school in Paris he became a fan of Simenon’s Maigret novels, though all too soon he was able to figure out the crime well before the Sûreté. So, for such a logical thinker, why is he visited in his dreams by the newly dead – often with important messages to pass on? There is more than a touch of the supernatural creeping into the book, but all is explained in an entertaining way that ties in with some old Laotian belief systems.

I particularly enjoyed the audiobook reading by Gareth Armstrong who makes Dr Siri come alive and numerous cast of characters he interacts with. Not knowing anything much about Laos didn’t spoil my enjoyment, and I look forward to the next books in the series – I have after all got a lot of catching up to do. A four star read from me.

Book Review: A Shameful Murder by Cora Harrison

It seems I just can’t get enough of Irish fiction, with A Shameful Murder taking me this time to the city of Cork. In this series, Harrison whisks us back to 1923, a time of Civil War as the Republican Army upsets the peace with sporadic guerrilla assaults on government entities. Cork at this time is also under siege by the elements, it’s always raining, and built on islands in the River Lee, flooding is inevitable. It’s OK if you’re wealthy and live on higher ground, but the poor struggle terribly with the damp, poor sewerage, cramped dwellings and not enough to eat.

Enter Reverend Mother Aquinas, an elderly nun who works with the impoverished, educating their children in the hope they will find useful work and better themselves. When she finds the body of young woman dressed in a fine satin ballgown washed up on her doorstep, she calls for Police Sergeant Patrick Cashman. Patrick was once a pupil at her school, and the Reverend Mother is quietly proud of his systematic assessment of the crime scene, his tidy notes, his serious manner.

It turns out that Angelina Fitzsimon, the daughter of well-to-do Joseph Fitzsimon, had gone missing after the Founders Ball. When Joseph identifies his daughter at the morgue, more by the dress than by the bloated face of the corpse, suicide is suggested the likely cause. But neither Patrick nor the Reverend Mother are convinced. Along with the police advisor, Dr Scher, who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, the three make a wonderful team of sleuths, as they start to pick apart Angelina’s life.

One of the most worrying concerns is that Angelina’s mother has been mouldering in a mental asylum, allowing Joseph control of her money. Angelina’s own future seems to have been precarious because of an inheritance and, with a wastrel brother running up debts, her father had been eager to marry her off to a tea planter. Angelina meanwhile helped the poor and had dreams of university study. A thoroughly nice girl from a problematic family.

We’re all set for a brilliant cosy mystery. I love nosy old lady detectives and none is more determined or more conniving than the Reverend Mother and with her assorted contacts in high places, she gains access to witnesses and calls in favours. There are some wonderful minor characters: the RM’s charming sister, Lucy, with her own sad secret; Eileen, the ex-pupil turned journalist/freedom fighter who wears breeches and carries a revolver – to name but two.

The RM is like a spider in the middle of a web, directing the action as the plot works up to a thrilling ending. I hadn’t expected it all to be so much fun and like all good mystery novels, Harrison had me guessing ‘whodunit’ right until the end. I shall definitely be returning to Cork for more. Four out of five from me.

Lockdown Reading 1: A House of Ghosts by W C Ryan

We’re well into several weeks of lockdown and reading has been one way to escape when there’s really nowhere else to go. And you can’t get more escapist than this – a story concerning stolen plans for an aerial torpedo (this is WWI) set in an ancient abbey, complete with mediums and yes, inevitably, ghosts.

A House of Ghosts begins in the offices of Whitehall where a spymaster named C has a new mission for Captain Robert Donovan. It involves spending a weekend on a remote, storm-lashed island at the evocatively named Blackwater Abbey. The Abbey is home to Lord Highmount, a munitions manufacturer – hence the secret plans – which, because of its age and atmosphere, is haunted by multiple ghosts collected over the centuries.

So it’s also an ideal place for a séance. Highmount and his Austrian wife have lost two sons to the carnage of the trenches, and like many grieving families of the time, turn to spiritualism. Enter Count Olav and Madame Feda, two mediums who have become friendly with the Highmounts, as well as Kate Cartwright who is the character that bridges both worlds. Kate also works in Whitehall, but is an old family friend of the Highmounts, ideally placed to give Donovan a hand to keep an eye out for suspicious activity.

Kate is very intelligent, carries a pistol and has a talent that has got her into trouble in more genteel settings before – she can see ghosts. Donovan will act as valet to Capt. Rolleston Miller-White, invited as Kate’s fiancé. But along with the two mediums, suspicious because they have inveigled their way into the circle of the Highmounts, Rolleston, with his gambling debts, is also on the suspects list.

As the weather closes the island off from the mainland and the phone-lines are cut, the scene is set for a weekend of suspense, danger and mysterious goings-on. I was reminded of Agatha Christie and John Buchan, but the novel is witty and complex enough to suit a modern reading audience. The characters are quirky and interesting and I loved the way Kate and Donovan bounce off each other – Donovan, the stony-faced man of action; Kate with her matter-of-fact way of dealing with the supernatural.

A House of Ghosts was the perfect book for lockdown, reminding us that things could be a whole lot worse when you’re sequestered somewhere without choice. The plot is nicely paced and the writing intelligent and lively. I shall be looking out for more fiction by W C Ryan. Four out of five from me.

A Very British Mystery

It must be the cooler weather, or just wanting a bit of mid-year R & R, but lately I’ve been devouring cosy mysteries. All have one thing in common – English rural settings. For some reason, there is nothing more entertaining than visualising a charming English village, complete with manor houses, welcoming inns and period churches, and then throwing in a whole lot of murder and mayhem.

First off I went to Bridgestead in Yorkshire, a village which is also home to a woollen mill. In Dying in the Wool, private investigator, and general nosey parker, Kate Shackleton accepts her first commission from soon-to-be-married chum Tabitha. Tabs wants her father to walk her down the aisle, but no one has seen him since the war (WWI, that is) when he ran away from the nursing home where he was being treated for depression. Is he alive or is he dead? That’s the problem. Soon there’s murder, danger and a bunch of characters with plenty to lose, so it’s just as well Kate has a right-hand man: Jim Sykes, an ex-copper too smart for the force. They make a great team. Tootling about in her 1913 Jowett, Kate is independent, undaunted and a sparky narrator. The 1920s era makes a brilliant backdrop too and I learned a lot about the textile industry. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on the next in this cosy series by Frances Brody, A Medal for Murder.

The Kurland St Mary series by Catherine Lloyd makes you imagine what would happen if Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy decided to investigate murders together. Or maybe Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester. The Austen era is more accurate for the series, but the Bronte characters seem to fit better somehow. Sir Robert Kurland is a Napoleanic Wars veteran, with the big house up the hill. He gets grumpy because of his leg injury. Lucy is the rector’s daughter who knows how to handle his moods and has an independent streak at odds with what was expected of women of her station. In Death Comes to the Fair, the two are planning their wedding but murder gets in the way when the verger is found with his head bashed in by a gargoyle. You can’t get more period mystery than that. The book introduces all the people who surprisingly hated Ezekiel Thurrock, farming folk mostly, and a story that goes back to events in the 1600s with some interesting stuff about superstition and witchcraft.

I’ve also been catching up with the Superintendent Richard Jury series by American author, Martha Grimes. It’s terrific that ebook versions of the earlier novels are coming out and I picked up The Old Fox Deceiv’d, the second in the series, for a couple of dollars – a genuine bargain. You might think that with Jury investigating, the stories would be more police procedural than cosy. But you couldn’t get a less stereotypical policeman. His mate is Melrose Plant who, with his abandoned title and lovely manners, has entree into the world of people with power, privilege and mansions. Plant loves nothing better than helping his chum Jury on a case. The books are each named after an English pub – here The Old Fox Deceiv’d is in the coastal village of Rackmoor, a bleaker spot you’d have trouble to find, this being Yorkshire in winter. When a woman in mummer’s costume is stabbed, Scotland Yard are called in and Jury and Plant carry on their detecting together, helped by home-alone twelve-year-old Bertie Makepiece and his dog. All the hallmark ingredients of a Richard Jury novel are here: humour, quaint characters, money and position, buried secrets and haunting tragedies. Good food too. What’s not to love?

Christmas Reads 2: A Christmas Grace by Anne Perry

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”