Review: The Second Man

Second ManEdward Grierson, The Second Man

Set in 1950s England, this novel focuses on a small-town law practice that has just hired a female barrister. Marion Kerrison is a young woman in an almost overwhelmingly male profession, and she must fight to be taken seriously both in the practice and in court. But she has some allies, including junior lawyer Michael Irvine, who narrates the book. Marion soon proves her worth by winning several cases, and because of her gender she receives some attention from the press. As a result, the practice assigns Marion a much more important case: the defense of John Maudsley, who is accused of murdering his aunt to obtain an inheritance. Everyone except Marion thinks he’s guilty, but she insists that the key witness is lying and that someone else committed the crime. With Michael’s help, she reviews the evidence, questions key witnesses, and tries to come up with an alternate theory of the murder.

Most mystery novels end with the discovery of the guilty party and the implication that he or she will be brought to justice. But this novel explores what happens next: the investigators may have discovered the truth, but can they prove it in a court of law? What happens if witnesses are unreliable, evidence is inadmissible, or one side simply has a better lawyer than the other? This book explores these fascinating questions by focusing almost entirely on the murder trial, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I also thought the portrayal of Marion was very interesting. I expected it to be more sexist, frankly, given the author’s gender and the era in which the book was written. But while the novel does make some irritating assumptions about Marion’s “intuition,” it is also surprisingly sensitive to the difficulties she faces as a woman in her profession. My one complaint is that the book ends rather abruptly, and the solution to the mystery isn’t explained in much depth. I missed that final chapter where the detective explains how s/he solved the crime. But overall, I would definitely recommend this book if the premise interests you.

Review: The Cornish Coast Murder

Cornish Coast MurderJohn Bude, The Cornish Coast Murder

Old friends Reverend Dodd and Dr. Pendrill enjoy their weekly custom of eating dinner together and discussing mystery novels. Both are avid fans of the genre but recognize that in their small Cornish town, it’s extremely unlikely that a real mystery will come their way. So when the local major landowner, Julius Tregarthan, is shot dead in his living room, Dodd and Pendrill are naturally eager to assist the police with their investigation. The case quickly becomes more complicated for Dodd, however, when he learns that Tregarthan’s niece, Ruth, was seen behaving suspiciously on the night of the murder. Suspicion also falls on Ruth’s suitor, Ronald Hardy, who had argued with Tregarthan shortly before his death. Reverend Dodd can’t believe that either Ruth or Ronald is guilty, so he exercises his detective skills to find the real murderer.

This is my first John Bude mystery novel, but it won’t be my last! It’s not exactly groundbreaking — I’d consider it a fairly traditional vintage mystery — but it’s a great example of the genre. There’s the unpleasant victim who leaves an inheritance behind him, a pair of young lovers who may or may not be conspiring, an enthusiastic amateur sleuth who assists the police, and a tightly plotted mystery whose solution unfolds logically and systematically. I’m not quite sure it’s “fair,” though — I don’t recall learning enough to guess the motive until the culprit confesses at the end of the book. Also, I wish there had been a few more suspects, and that Ruth and Ronald had been more fleshed out. But I really liked that the book spends a lot of time on both the amateur and professional investigations. Many books of this era don’t care about the routine details of police work, but this one acknowledges them without getting too tediously descriptive. Overall, I enjoyed this book and look forward to reading more by the author.

Review: The Heretic’s Apprentice

Heretic's ApprenticeEllis Peters, The Heretic’s Apprentice

In the summer of 1143, the Benedictine abbey of Saints Peter and Paul in Shrewsbury is preparing for its annual festival in honor of St. Winifred. But the celebrations are somewhat dampened when a young man called Elave arrives with the body of his master, Sir William Lythwood, who died returning from a seven-year pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Elave requests that Sir William be buried at the abbey, but questions from a visiting cleric reveal that the dead man had discussed and possibly even espoused heretical views. Elave hotly defends his master and is accused of being a heretic himself. When his accuser is later found stabbed to death, Elave falls under suspicion for murder as well. Luckily, Brother Cadfael is once again on the case, both to solve the mystery and to help clear Elave’s name of the heresy charge.

It’s always a pleasure to spend some time with Brother Cadfael, and this installment of the series is no different. All the quintessential elements of the formula are there: Cadfael gets involved through his knowledge of herbs and healing, he solves the mystery with the help of Hugh Beringar, and he helps two young lovers get together. I particularly enjoyed the heresy plot of this book; not only was it interesting (at least for me) to think about the theological topics at issue, but I liked the fact that no one was a complete villain. The book clearly intends us to side with Elave, and the cleric who interrogates him is portrayed as being too rigid, yet we later catch a glimpse of his humanity as well. The mystery is well plotted, although I was able to guess the culprit in advance. Overall, this is a series I continue to love, and I’m sorry I only have four books left!

Review: Duplicate Death

Duplicate DeathGeorgette Heyer, Duplicate Death

Young barrister and future baronet Timothy Harte is in love with Beulah Birtley, but his family fears she’s an unsuitable match. She works as a secretary for Mrs. Haddington, a widow with shady origins who has somehow found a way into London society. When a man is murdered at Mrs. Haddington’s bridge party, suspicion falls on Beulah, and Timothy is determined to prove her innocence. But Beulah is clearly hiding something, and she had both motive and opportunity to commit the murder. Luckily, the policeman in charge of the case is Chief Inspector Hemingway, who remembers Timothy from an earlier encounter (detailed in They Found Him Dead). As Hemingway and his assistant investigate the case, they discover not only Beulah’s secret but a host of others. They develop what seems to be a convincing theory of the crime — until a second murder throws all their conclusions into doubt.

Once again, Heyer delivers a mystery in which the plot is a lot less interesting than the characters. But her sparkling dialogue and incisive social commentary make up for any weaknesses in the mystery itself. I enjoyed Timothy’s interactions with Beulah, which strongly reminded me of Heyer’s romances. I also liked the fact that, for the first time in a Heyer mystery, the policemen are actual characters! Hemingway gets a lot more time on page than he has done in previous mysteries, and his exchanges with the Scottish Inspector Grant are some of the funniest in the book. But as I mentioned earlier, the mystery plot isn’t particularly strong, particularly when it comes to the second murder. The book also describes a homosexual character in very derogatory terms by today’s standards. Overall, I did enjoy this book and would recommend it to people who like Heyer and/or vintage mysteries, but it’s not a keeper for me.

Review: Verdict of Twelve

Verdict of TwelveRaymond Postgate, Verdict of Twelve

This Golden Age mystery (originally published in 1940) uses a unique method to tell its story. The book opens with the information that someone is on trial for murder, and it focuses on the swearing-in of the jury. It gives a short sketch of each juror’s life, the various obstacles they’ve faced, their political opinions, how the world perceives them, and how they view the task they’re about to undertake. One juror, for example, is distracted by problems at his job and only wants to finish the business as quickly as possible. Another is a grieving widow whose husband was killed in an anti-Semitic attack, and his murderer was never brought to justice. Only after giving these psychological portraits of the jurors does the novel describe the actual case, which centers around a woman who is accused of murdering her nephew and ward. By focusing on the jurors’ backgrounds and biases, the book provides a nuanced, cynical view of law and justice.

I was very interested in the premise of this novel and found it a fascinating read. Many Golden Age mysteries tend to focus on plot, and the characters are often flat and two-dimensional. But this book is just the opposite; the characters are extremely well defined, while the mystery plot is quite simple and is given comparatively little attention. I thought the psychological studies of the jurors were very well done and convincing, though for me, the descriptions of the accused woman and her nephew were even more interesting. The final scene in the jury room is almost anticlimactic after all the intense buildup. It’s interesting to see who originally votes “guilty” and “not guilty,” but there is no real drama in reaching the verdict. The novel’s ending is fantastic: it reveals what really happened but also ends on an ambiguous, somewhat chilling note. Overall, I’d definitely recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the premise!

Review: Enter a Murderer

Enter a MurdererNgaio Marsh, Enter a Murderer

This second installment of the Inspector Alleyn series is set in the London theater world. Arthur Surbonadier, a supporting actor in a new play, has managed to alienate nearly everyone in the cast and crew. He has threatened his uncle, who owns the theater company, in order to be cast in a better role. He has made unwelcome advances to the leading lady, which upsets both her and her new lover, the leading man. So it’s not entirely surprising that Arthur ends up murdered — shot onstage with a prop gun that was supposed to be loaded with dummy cartridges. Luckily, Inspector Alleyn and his journalist friend, Nigel Bathgate, are in the audience. Their investigation uncovers many sordid details about the victim’s past, including blackmail, drug dealing, and the seduction of one of the stagehands. But they are nevertheless unprepared for another murder, which leads to the shocking discovery of the killer’s identity.

I’ve been reading up a little bit about Ngaio Marsh, and one of the most frequent complaints about her novels is that they have a good setup but get very boring once the murder takes place. I can see some validity in that complaint: the first few chapters of this book are very compelling, as they introduce the characters and ratchet up the pre-murder tension, but the rest of the novel follows the relatively mundane police activity of interviewing suspects. Nevertheless, I wasn’t bored by this book — it’s very short, and I didn’t mind the suspect interviews, especially when they allowed Alleyn and Bathgate to bounce off of each other. I still don’t really have a sense of Alleyn as a character, except that he can occasionally be playful and enjoys keeping his friends (i.e., Nigel) in the dark. But perhaps he’ll be fleshed out more in later books. I did enjoy the solution to the mystery, which I didn’t guess ahead of time, and I’m looking forward to reading more in this series.

Review: The Golden Tresses of the Dead

Golden Tresses of the DeadAlan Bradley, The Golden Tresses of the Dead

***Warning: SPOILERS for previous books in the series***

Flavia de Luce is at it again in this 10th book of the series. Her older sister Feely is finally getting married, and Flavia is surprised to find that she has mixed emotions about Feely’s leaving Buckshaw. But her inner turmoil soon becomes the least of Flavia’s concerns when, at the reception, she discovers a human finger in the wedding cake. Of course, Arthur W. Dogger and Associates are on the case — and of course, a second mystery presents itself soon afterward, involving a famous homeopathic doctor and two female missionaries who have recently returned from West Africa. As Flavia investigates, with the help of faithful Dogger and annoying cousin Undine, she realizes that the two cases may be connected.

Is it just me, or did the mystery plot of this book make even less sense than usual? One character dies in the novel, but I don’t think we ever find out for sure who the murderer was or how the killing took place. Another dies off-page, and it’s not actually clear what the cause of death was — murder, natural causes, something else? Maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention, but I felt like there were a lot of loose ends with this plot. Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed the book for Flavia’s voice and her relationships with the other characters, particularly Dogger. I also like the fact that she’s slowly gaining more self-awareness as she grows up, and I hope to see that trend continue in subsequent books. So I actually did like this novel overall, but it’s not a book (or series, really) to read for the mystery.

Review: Death of Anton

death of antonAlan Melville, Death of Anton

Joseph Carey’s World-Famous Circus and Menagerie has just arrived in town, complete with clowns, trapeze artists, an intelligent sea lion, and seven Bengal tigers. Detective-Inspector Minto has also just arrived in town for his sister’s wedding, and he becomes friendly with several members of the circus during his stay. After one performance, he’s invited to a party that ends in tragedy: Anton, the man who does the tiger act, has been found apparently mauled to death. Luckily, Minto is on the case, and he soon realizes that Anton was murdered. But who did it — the circus owner, who seems to be hiding something? The jealous trapeze artist, whose wife was allegedly having an affair with Anton? The clown whose costume was ripped as though by a tiger’s claws? Minto’s investigation eventually encompasses not just the murder but a larger mystery surrounding the circus as a whole.

This is a fairly typical Golden Age mystery, albeit with an interesting setting and a fun, breezy writing style. The shady goings-on at the circus aren’t hard to uncover, and while I didn’t actually guess the murderer, there are no big surprises in the denouement of the mystery. But this is a clever book with a lot of interesting little details. My favorite scene is when one character is almost killed because a trapeze has been shortened by just a few inches — what a creative way to murder someone! My big quibble with the book is that the detective’s brother is a Catholic priest to whom someone confesses the crime, and he reveals way too much about that conversation to the detective! I think the author didn’t understand how confession works…but as a Catholic myself, I’m probably more sensitive to that than many other readers. Overall, I like Melville’s writing — I also enjoyed Quick Curtain — and I look forward to reading the rest of his novels.

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.