Review: The Penguin Pool Murder

penguin pool murderStuart Palmer, The Penguin Pool Murder

When schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers, a “spinster” of 39, takes her third-grade class to the New York Aquarium, she expects nothing more than an educational outing for her students. But first she thwarts a pickpocket by tripping him with her umbrella, and then she discovers a dead body in the penguin tank. Not the sort of person to miss a chance to investigate, Miss Withers quickly befriends Inspector Oscar Piper, the policeman in charge of the murder case. Through a combination of usefulness (she takes shorthand notes of the initial witness statements) and sheer stubbornness, she is allowed to accompany Piper throughout the investigation. Suspicion immediately falls on the dead man’s wife and her former lover, who were both at the aquarium on the fateful day; but Miss Withers isn’t convinced, and her intelligence and determination eventually enable her to solve the case.

I enjoyed this mystery, although it’s a fairly typical example of the Golden Age detective novel. There are a few creative touches — such as one of the penguins swallowing a key piece of evidence — and I enjoyed the repartee between Miss Withers and Inspector Piper, although I wish their relationship had been a bit more fleshed out. In fact, I wanted more character development all around, but that does tend to be a weakness of mysteries from this era, and I wouldn’t quibble so much if the plot had been more inventive. But instead everything unfolds pretty much as expected, from spurious confessions to various motive-related revelations to a second death. I also guessed the murderer’s identity fairly early on. The final chapter, in which the solution is explained, does contain one delightful surprise, which I won’t spoil. But all in all, this book isn’t particularly special — which doesn’t mean it’s not a good read! It just doesn’t deviate much from the traditional formula, so if you’re looking for something with a lot of surprises, this may not be the book for you.

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Mini-reviews: Duke, Christmas, Memorial

Duke in Shining ArmorLoretta Chase, A Duke in Shining Armor

This book is the first in a series starring a trio of dukes known as Their Dis-Graces. Ripley, Ashmont, and Blackwood have been friends since childhood, and together they’ve drunk, gambled, and whored their way through London society. Now Ashmont is getting married, but the bride — bookish, practical Olympia Hightower — is having second thoughts. When she runs away on the wedding day, it’s up to best man Ripley to track her down and return her to Ashmont. The trouble is, the more time Ripley spends with Olympia, the more he wants her for himself. I really enjoy Loretta Chase’s writing, especially her humor, but this book was not the right book for me. I really don’t like the “reformed rake” trope, and Ripley is such a stereotypical alpha-male hero. (That said, the humor makes him somewhat more bearable.) But I’ll still be reading more Loretta Chase, and perhaps even more in this series…Blackwood’s marital difficulties, a tiny side plot in this book, sound intriguing!

A Lot Like ChristmasConnie Willis, A Lot Like Christmas

This collection of Christmas-themed short stories with a speculative-fiction twist is a revised and expanded edition of Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. I still stand by my review of that book, but here are my comments on the new stories:

  • “All about Emily” — A sly take on the movie All about Eve featuring an aging Broadway actress and a robot who wants to be a Rockette. A fun one for fans of musicals and old movies.
  • “All Seated on the Ground” — The aliens have arrived, but no one can figure out what they want. The clue may reside in a Christmas carol, so protagonist Meg teams up with choir director Calvin to solve the mystery. A lovely and romantic meditation on “peace on earth.”
  • “deck.halls@boughs/holly” — I liked this funny rom-com about the effects of technology, especially the internet, on Christmas. It’s futuristic and over the top, of course, but the story does a great job of presenting different views on the issue — with a charming romance thrown in!
  • “Now Showing” — Lindsay really wants to see a particular movie, but she keeps being thwarted by circumstance. It seems like the universe is conspiring against her . . . and according to her ex-boyfriend Jack, that’s exactly what is happening. I really liked this playful homage to romantic-suspense-adventure movies such as How to Steal a Million, French Kiss, and Romancing the Stone.
  • “Just Like the Ones We Used to Know” — Thanks to climate change (or a “discontinuity,” or Armageddon, or . . . ?), places all over the world are having a white Christmas. Places like Los Angeles, and Honolulu, and Jerusalem. The story follows various characters as they deal with the unexpected snowstorm and try to figure out what’s causing it. I thought there were maybe a few too many characters in this one, and at least one storyline was never satisfactorily resolved.

All in all, I’m glad I purchased this one, even though I already own Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. But if you don’t have either book, definitely go with A Lot Like Christmas instead!

Memorial Hall MurderJane Langton, The Memorial Hall Murder

This is the third book in the Homer Kelly mystery series, but it can definitely be read as a stand-alone. The book begins with an explosion that destroys part of Memorial Hall on the campus of Harvard University. A headless body is found in the rubble, and it is soon identified as the corpse of Hamilton Dow, an extremely popular music professor. Homer Kelly, who used to work at the district attorney’s office, happens to be on the scene and decides to investigate. As a mystery, the book is nothing to write home about; the reader is given a lot of information early on, and the perpetrator’s identity isn’t hard to discover. I kept thinking there would be a plot twist to point the finger in a new direction, but it never came. However, the book is fun to read for its playful satire of university life and its prominent featuring of Handel’s Messiah. All in all, I’d consider reading more books in this series.

Mini-reviews: Miracle, Murder, Wired

Miracle on 5th AvenueSarah Morgan, Miracle on 5th Avenue

Eva Jordan, who owns an event-planning company with her two best friends, has been hired to decorate a swanky Manhattan apartment for Christmas. Little does she know that the owner — wildly successful (and handsome) mystery writer Lucas Blade — is still in residence. As luck would have it, a severe blizzard hits New York, trapping them in the apartment together. Sunny, optimistic Eva and grumpy, brooding Lucas clash right away, until of course they don’t. But will their very different personalities and priorities put a stop to their growing romance? I liked how honest Eva was about her needs and feelings, but otherwise I thought this book was just okay.

Murder for ChristmasFrancis Duncan, Murder for Christmas

A quintessential English country house mystery in which Father Christmas himself (as portrayed by one of the house party) is murdered. Naturally, all the characters seem to have a motive, and amateur detective Mordecai Tremaine just happens to be on the scene to solve the case. I really liked the atmosphere and writing style of this novel, although I’ll admit to being somewhat disappointed by the resolution of the mystery. It does make logical sense; it just didn’t turn out the way I would have preferred. Still, I’m definitely interested in trying more of the Mordecai Tremaine novels!

Wired LoveElla Cheever Thayer, Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes

A charmingly old-fashioned story about a young woman who falls in love with someone she “meets” on the telegraph wire, before ever seeing her correspondent in person. Naturally, complications ensue! I really enjoyed the fact that this is the same plot as You’ve Got Mail written more than 100 years earlier. I also liked the main romance, but I was extremely indignant at the fates of some of the secondary characters (poor Quimby and Jo!). So, not quite as satisfying as I’d have liked, but I still enjoyed this short book overall.

Mini-reviews: Winter, Wed, Spy

Winter in JuneKathryn Miller Haines, Winter in June

In this installment of the Rosie Winter series, Rosie and her best pal Jayne have joined the USO, and they’re headed for the South Pacific to entertain the troops. There, Rosie gets involved in various forms of trouble, from disagreements with the local WAAC corps to mysterious thefts of military supplies to an inevitable murder investigation. In the meantime, she’s also looking for her ex-boyfriend Jack, who was rumored to have resurfaced in the South Pacific. It’s been years since I read the first two books in this series, and I think I’ve just lost my taste for it. I couldn’t remember who one character was at all, although he was apparently a big part of the first book. And I didn’t find Rosie consistent as a character, although I did still find her voice fairly enjoyable. I’ll read the fourth and final book in this series, just to see how everything turns out, but this series is not a keeper for me.

Someone to WedMary Balogh, Someone to Wed

Wren Hayden longs for the companionship of marriage, but a “disfiguring” birthmark on her face has led her to become a recluse. Nevertheless, she thinks her large fortune might be enough to induce someone to marry her. Alexander Westcott has unexpectedly inherited an earldom, along with the debts and huge financial responsibilities that go with it. He knows he must marry a rich wife, but Wren’s forthright proposal shocks and troubles him. He agrees to test the waters, hoping that at least friendship and respect can grow between them. But can Wren overcome her insecurities and be open to the possibility of a real relationship? I really felt for Wren in this book, and I liked that she and Alex aren’t immediately attracted to one another. In fact, he has to overcome some revulsion — not so much from the birthmark, but from Wren’s cold demeanor toward him. Their relationship is not romanticized, if that makes sense; it felt plausible and real. Another winner from Balogh!

Spy Wore RedAline, Countess of Romanones, The Spy Wore Red

This is a fast-paced, entertaining memoir that reads more like a spy thriller. Aline Griffith was a young woman working as a model in New York, when a chance encounter with a US intelligence operative propelled her into the world of espionage. The book covers her training and her first assignment in Spain, where she must get close to various people suspected of being German spies. The narrative has everything an espionage lover could wish for: code names, double agents, assassination attempts, and even a bullfight or two! Highly recommended for people who like spy novels or who are interested in WW2-era intelligence work.

Mini-reviews: Sleep, Magpie, Bookshop

Big SleepRaymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

I haven’t read widely in the hardboiled mystery genre, but I don’t tend to love dark books, so I was a bit apprehensive about trying this one. But I actually really enjoyed the voice of this book — it’s funny and descriptive and uses startlingly apt metaphors. The plot is exciting and twisty, highlighting the governmental and societal corruption of 1930s Los Angeles in a grim yet matter-of-fact way. Philip Marlowe is a flawed protagonist, to say the least, and the book’s portrayal of women is ugly, albeit true to its time. But all in all, I’m interested to read more of Raymond Chandler in the future.

Magpie MurdersAnthony Horowitz, Magpie Murders

This book has gotten a lot of good buzz, including a lot of comparisons to Agatha Christie, so I was excited to read it. Ultimately, though, I have mixed feelings about it. There are two mysteries for the price of one. First, an editor is reading the manuscript of famous mystery writer Alan Conway’s latest novel, but the last chapters are missing. What happened to them, and where is Conway now? Second, of course, there’s the mystery within Conway’s novel, which involves two deaths that may or may not be related. I was much more interested in the second mystery than the first; I found the editor tiresome, Conway odious, and none of the other characters in that story memorable. But I did think the solution to the second mystery (within Conway’s novel) was pretty ingenious. Basically, I enjoyed the puzzle but could have done without all the meta stuff.

Bookshop on the CornerJenny Colgan, The Bookshop on the Corner

I’m now officially a fan of Jenny Colgan. This book is pure wish-fulfillment fantasy, but it’s also well-written and charming — the perfect read if you’re looking for something light and uplifting. When main character Nina gets laid off from her job, she decides to follow her dream of opening a mobile bookstore. I think a lot of us bookish folks can relate! Nina also, naturally, finds herself torn between two suitors…I wanted to roll my eyes at the saccharine predictability of it all, but the romance actually did work for me, so I won’t complain too much! A lovely comfort read, and I’ll continue to seek out more books by Jenny Colgan.

Review: This Side of Murder

This Side of MurderAnna Lee Huber, This Side of Murder

It’s 1919, and war widow Verity Kent is on her way to an engagement party. Her late husband, Sidney, had been close friends with the groom, and they had fought together in the war. Nevertheless, Verity isn’t particularly excited about this party, but she has a specific reason for going: she has received an anonymous note implying that Sidney was involved in treasonous activity during the war. Verity is outraged — she knows Sidney would never do such a thing — and she wants to identify and expose the letter-writer. But when Verity arrives at the party, she learns that all the male guests knew Sidney from the war; in fact, they all served in the same battalion. Then one of the men turns up dead, and Verity is convinced that the murder is connected to the battalion’s actions during the war. To solve the mystery, Verity must investigate her husband’s past, but what she discovers is more shocking than she ever imagined.

I’m always on the lookout for historical mysteries set in the period between the two world wars. Ever since my tween self’s obsession with Agatha Christie, I’ve enjoyed books set in this era, especially if they also involve murder and skulduggery. So I was predisposed to like this book, and I did find it fairly enjoyable. Verity Kent is a somewhat stereotypical heroine, in that she is beautiful, highly competent, and forward-thinking enough to be appealing to contemporary readers. She’s fine, but I wasn’t particularly engaged with her character. However, I do have to give the author credit for surprising me, both regarding the evildoer’s identity and regarding certain romantic plot elements. I’m not entirely on board with how the romance turned out, but I’m intrigued to see what might happen in future books! So while this book didn’t blow me away, I liked it enough that I plan to seek out the sequel, Treacherous Is the Night.

Review: Have His Carcase

Have His CarcaseDorothy L. Sayers, Have His Carcase

Harriet Vane, the famous detective novelist and infamous murder suspect (recently acquitted), is on a walking tour of British coastal villages. One afternoon she has a picnic on the beach and drops off to sleep. When she awakens, she is shocked to discover the body of a dead man farther along the beach. The man’s throat has been cut, but there is only one set of footprints (which must belong to the corpse), so suicide is a possibility. But Harriet can’t help thinking it might be murder. She photographs the body — which will be washed away when the tide comes in — and goes for help. But much to Harriet’s chagrin, help eventually arrives in the form of Lord Peter Wimsey, whose eagerness to solve the mystery is compounded by his desire to spend more time with Harriet. As the two join forces to solve the mystery, they also struggle to define the nature and boundaries of their relationship.

The more I read of Dorothy L. Sayers, the more I come to realize that she is emphatically not for everyone. This book is a Golden Age mystery, but it’s far from a typical one. Sayers is unquestionably familiar with the tropes of the genre — indeed, Peter and Harriet have some fun mocking them in this book — but she doesn’t seem particularly interested in following them herself. As with many of her other books, the “whodunit” is not the main concern; rather, she spends most of her time setting up a seemingly impossible crime, then explaining at length how it was possible after all. It’s clever, but I must confess that it didn’t hold my attention. A chapter near the end, where Peter and Harriet decode a letter and painstakingly explain how the code works, is especially dull.

However, I still really liked this book, and the reason is that I’m fascinated by the development of the relationship between Peter and Harriet. There’s one scene in particular, where they leave aside their usual polite banter and express their real emotions, that hit me right in the gut. Much as my romantic heart wants them to get together, I completely understand Harriet’s ambivalence and her struggle to maintain her independence in the face of Peter’s relentless pursuit. I’m extremely eager to read Gaudy Night now, but since I’m going in publication order, I have a couple books in between. I think that when I reread the series (as I undoubtedly will), I’ll group all the Peter-and-Harriet books together.

Review: City of Jasmine

city of jasmineDeanna Raybourn, City of Jasmine

Famed aviatrix Evangeline Starke is in the midst of a big publicity stunt, flying her plane over the seven seas of antiquity. This trip is motivated by her need for money, her thirst for adventure, and her subconscious desire to move past the death of her husband, Gabriel, which occurred five years before. But when Evie receives a mysterious — and apparently current — photo of Gabriel, she is determined to discover whether he is still alive, and if so, what really happened to him five years ago. Her search takes her to the ancient city of Damascus, where various European countries are carving up the region into strategically advantageous states, and into the heart of the desert itself. What she finds is a priceless relic, ethnic tensions, life-threatening dangers, and possibly a second chance at love.

Something has happened to me in the way I react to Deanna Raybourn’s books. When I first read Silent in the Grave, I remember really loving it and being eager to read the rest of the series. I loved the combination of 19th century historical detail, mystery, and romance, which, as I recall, was fairly unique in my experience at the time. I think the issue is that, as time has passed, I’ve read a lot more books; I’ve become a more sophisticated consumer and have read more widely in the various genres I like. As a result, Raybourn’s brand of historical fiction no longer seems particularly unique or special to me. She has good plots and some funny lines, but her characters are pretty typical for the genre, and I’m not fond of the rugged alpha males she tends to use as heroes. This particular novel is quite entertaining, and I really can’t point to anything wrong with it; it just didn’t really excite me, and I’ve already removed it from my shelves.

Review: Death in the Tunnel

Death in the TunnelMiles Burton, Death in the Tunnel

When prominent businessman Sir Wilfred Saxonby is found dead in a first-class train compartment, the local police assume that he must have committed suicide. After all, they found the murder weapon, monogrammed with Sir Wilfred’s initials, in the train compartment, and the train employees swear that no one entered or left the compartment except Sir Wilfred himself. But because of the man’s high social status—and the apparent lack of a motive—Scotland Yard is called in. Inspector Arnold is not quite satisfied with the suicide theory, so he in turn asks for the help of his friend Desmond Merrion, an amateur expert in criminology. Together, Arnold and Merrion consider the possibility that Sir Wilfred was murdered and try to discover how it could be done.

This is one of those Golden Age mystery novels that’s all plot and absolutely no character development. The two principal characters are Arnold and Merrion, and all we ever learn about them is that Merrion is more “imaginative” than Arnold, but both are good detectives. They have literally no other character traits — though I believe there are several other books featuring Merrion, so he may be better defined elsewhere. Sir Wilfred is only fleshed out enough to hint at a possible motive for murder, and the three or four suspects are only vaguely differentiated from each other. That said, the plot is actually very ingenious — one of the best mysteries I’ve read in a while from a pure “puzzle” standpoint! Merrion and Arnold piece together their solution in a very logical way, demonstrating how the seemingly impossible crime could have been accomplished. So in the end, the excellent plot made up for the lackluster characterization, for me; your mileage may vary.

Review: Unexpected Night

Unexpected NightElizabeth Daly, Unexpected Night

This first novel in the Henry Gamadge series centers around Amberley Cowden, a young man who stands to inherit millions of dollars on his 21st birthday—assuming he lives that long. He has a chronic heart condition, and it’s only a matter of time before he has a fatal attack. But when his body is found at the bottom of a cliff on the very day he turns 21, his death can’t help but raise suspicions. The local police mount an investigation that leads to a nearby theater troupe, another mysterious death, and the attempted murder of Alma, Amberley’s cousin and heiress. Henry Gamadge, who knows some of Amberley’s relatives, assists the police in their investigation, and his expertise in handwriting analysis proves valuable in solving the case.

Although it’s not particularly groundbreaking, I enjoyed this Golden Age mystery very much. The plot is a little bloated in places, but I found the ultimate solution ingenious. I also liked the character of Henry Gamadge, although he’s very involved with an investigation he really has no right to be involved with — a fact that several of the other characters point out! But I like that he cooperates so well with the local police, rather than trying to investigate on his own. Stylistically, I didn’t like the fact that dialogue tags are very infrequent; it’s often not immediately obvious who is speaking, although I could generally figure it out from context. Still, that quibble aside, I liked this book and am excited to read more in the Henry Gamadge series.