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.

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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.

Review: Child 44

Child 44Tom Rob Smith, Child 44

In the USSR of the 1950s, no crimes are acknowledged except crimes against the state. After all, by removing distinctions of class and property ownership, the communist regime has theoretically abolished every reason for individuals to commit crimes like murder or theft. Leo Demidov, an officer of the state security force, believes this unquestioningly — until a coworker’s son is murdered, his stomach removed, and his mouth stuffed with dirt. Leo is ordered to report the boy’s death as an accident, but then he discovers that a dead girl’s body was found in the same condition, in a town hundreds of miles away. As Leo investigates these seemingly related deaths, he himself comes under the state’s suspicion and must ultimately question his commitment to the regime.

This is a book with a lot of different things going on, and ultimately I enjoyed some elements more than others. First, it’s a depiction of life in 1950s Russia that I found very compelling. Some Amazon reviewers have noted inaccuracies in the details, and the overall portrayal does lack nuance — no question who the bad guys are here! — but I definitely thought a lot about what it must be like to live in such a constant state of fear. Less successful, for me, was the hunt for the serial killer. The storyline lacks momentum, and without spoilers, I’ll just say that the overall resolution seemed to rely on one twist too many. Finally, the development of Leo’s relationship with his wife Raisa was a bit sketchy and rushed; I would have liked the book to spend a lot more time exploring their complicated feelings toward each other. Overall, I did enjoy the book and would consider reading the sequels, but I wasn’t wowed by it.

Review: Faithful Place

Faithful PlaceTana French, Faithful Place

Frank Mackey, last seen as Cassie’s irascible handler in The Likeness, is an experienced undercover cop. He’s tough as nails and an expert in detachment: getting emotionally involved in an operation is the surest way to screw it up. But Frank’s detachment is really rooted in his childhood, growing up in a poor neighborhood in 1980s Dublin. When he was 19 years old, he was madly in love with Rosie Daly, the girl next door. Despite their families’ disapproval, they were planning to run away to England together. But Rosie never showed up, and Frank always assumed that she changed her mind and left the neighborhood on her own. Now, however, one of Frank’s sisters reaches out to him with disturbing news: no one has heard from Rosie since she supposedly left town, and her suitcase has just been found. To find out what really happened all those years ago, Frank must return to his estranged family and face the ghosts of his past; but the truth may be even more horrible than living with the uncertainty.

The word I keep using to describe this book is intense, but that doesn’t seem to encompass the emotional wringer I went through while reading this book. Something about Tana French’s writing pulls me in and grabs me, and I think this novel might be my favorite of hers so far. Frank is not a particularly likable character—he’s manipulative, callous, and occasionally violent—but I never doubted the truth of his thoughts, feelings, and actions. His interactions with his family also felt real to me; French excels in her depiction of dysfunctional families, and the Mackeys are a quintessential example. The plot isn’t particularly complex as far as mysteries go; Rosie’s fate is never really in doubt, and the villain of the piece isn’t that hard to spot either. But the point of this type of mystery isn’t solving the puzzle of whodunnit or why; the point is what happens, or what ought to happen, once the puzzle is solved. And the consequences of Frank’s discovering the truth provide the gut punch of this novel. Bottom line, I can’t wait to continue with the Dublin Murder Squad series!

N.B. This is technically book 3 of the Dublin Murder Squad series, but you absolutely won’t be missing anything if you haven’t read books 1 and 2.

Review: The Incredible Crime

Incredible CrimeLois Austen-Leigh, The Incredible Crime

Prudence Pinsent enjoys her position as the daughter of the Master of Prince College, Cambridge. She socializes with the various professors, Fellows, and their wives, and she loves a good rugby match. One day she travels into the countryside to visit her cousin, Lord Wellende, and to enjoy a few days’ hunting on his estate. En route, she encounters an old acquaintance who happens to be a coast guard inspector. He reveals that a nasty new drug is being smuggled into England, and the central distributor is operating out of Cambridge. Moreover, he suspects that Lord Wellende, whose estate is on the coast, may also be involved. He asks Prudence to keep her eyes and ears open while she visits her cousin, but she insists that Wellende couldn’t possibly be involved in drug smuggling. However, the longer she stays at Wellende’s estate, the more she is forced to admit that something fishy is going on. Meanwhile, she finds romance in an unlikely place.

I enjoyed this book for its bright, lively voice, but I must say that the plot is very scattered! Cambridge actually isn’t a huge part of the story, but the scenes set there feel more like a satire of academia than anything else. The drug smuggling is the main plot, but it’s not a traditional mystery in the sense of fair cluing, multiple suspects, alibis, and the like. There is a suspicious death in the book, but it happens almost at the end of the novel and is resolved fairly quickly. Then there’s the romantic element, which I (somewhat surprisingly) was not a fan of and which felt very tacked on. My overall impression is that the book isn’t sure what it’s trying to be. I think it’s best to approach the novel as a period piece — the style is enjoyable, there are some lovely descriptions of the countryside, and some of the minor characters are great fun. But it’s not particularly satisfying as a mystery, and I’m not sure whether I’ll end up keeping my copy.

Review: The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place

Grave's a Fine and Private PlaceAlan Bradley, The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place

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

In this latest installment of the Flavia de Luce series, Buckshaw is in mourning after the death of Haviland. To cheer up Flavia and her sisters, Dogger suggests a holiday to the nearby village of Volesthorpe. But what should be a peaceful boating excursion inevitably turns into another mystery when Flavia dangles her hand in the water and inadvertently catches a corpse. The dead man is Orlando Whitbread, the son of Canon Whitbread, who was convicted of murdering three of his parishioners by poisoning the communion chalice. Naturally, Flavia is on the case, and she soon discovers that the people of Volesthorpe are hiding many secrets, including what really happened in the case of the poisoned chalice.

After reading Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, I honestly wasn’t sure whether I wanted to continue with this series. Flavia’s continuing lack of friends, her adversarial relationship wth her sisters, and of course Haviland’s death made me feel very sad for Flavia, and I was more depressed than entertained. But I’m happy to say that this book was a lot more fun; it feels like the old irrepressible Flavia is back! I loved her interactions with Dogger in this novel, and it was interesting to learn a little more about his backstory. I was also pleased to see her getting along with her sisters a bit better, especially Daffy, whose love of poetry ends up giving Flavia a key clue. There’s even a hint of a suspicion that Flavia might be growing up, although I’m kind of torn on whether or not I want that to happen…. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to the next book now, and I’m happy that the series seems to be back on track!

Review: Snowblind

SnowblindRagnar Jónasson, Snowblind (trans. Quentin Bates)

This first book in the Dark Iceland series introduces Ari Thór, a brand-new policeman who’s just gotten his first job in Siglufjördur, a tiny town on the north coast of Iceland. Moving to Siglufjördur from Reykjavik proves challenging for Ari; not only does he leave the city and a serious girlfriend behind him, but now he finds himself an outsider in a tight-knit community. He also has to adjust to the weather, which in December consists of constant snowfall and almost 24-hour darkness. But the seemingly sleepy town takes on a more menacing aspect when a woman is stabbed and an old man falls to his death — or was he pushed? As Ari works on both cases, he uncovers multiple secrets that certain locals would rather keep buried.

Although I love a good mystery, I tend to shy away from Nordic crime novels because they all sound relentlessly depressing. But I quite liked this book, despite the slightly claustrophobic setting. It’s a little slow to get going, and I wasn’t a fan of the multiple narratives at the outset — the book bounces to different perspectives and time periods, and it was a bit confusing at first. I don’t like that device in general because it doesn’t allow you to really get into any one story; just when you start getting interested, the narrative jumps to something else. But I did like Ari Thór (although he clearly has some growing up to do) and would enjoy reading more books about him, as well as the other residents of Siglufjördur. I also liked the resolutions to both mysteries. So overall, I’d recommend this book to mystery lovers.

Review: A Man Lay Dead

Man Lay DeadNgaio Marsh, A Man Lay Dead

This first book in the Inspector Alleyn series is pretty much the quintessential English country house murder. A group of acquaintances is invited to Frantock, the stately home of Sir Hubert Handesley, who is famous for his house parties. Everything seems to be going swimmingly, although first-time guest Nigel Bathgate notices some tension in the air. Sir Hubert suggests a game of Murders, in which one guest is secretly designated the “murderer” and must “kill” another member of the party without being caught. Of course, the game becomes all too serious when one of the houseguests is really killed. Inspector Alleyn is on the case, and he soon uncovers several motives for murder — but it seems as though none of the suspects would have been able to complete the dastardly deed in time.

I’m almost positive that I’ve read this book before, but it’s been so long that I hardly remembered anything about it. Maybe I didn’t like it the first time, because I don’t remember reading any other books by Ngaio Marsh; but I definitely enjoyed it this time around! I liked the writing style, the book has good pacing, and the clues are well planted and spread around. The solution to the mystery is bizarre but satisfying, and there’s even a nice little romance on the sidelines. The characterization is rather flat, even for Alleyn; Nigel Bathgate is the only one with a bit of depth. And a fair bit of the plot is spent on a Russian secret society that (spoiler alert) has nothing to do with the murder and is just there to create trouble. (I mean, that’s not even really a spoiler, because it is literally never the Russians.) Still, I’m definitely interested in continuing with this series, and I’m sure the characterization — at least of Alleyn himself — will improve in later books!

Review: Homicide for the Holidays

Homicide for the HolidaysCheryl Honigford, Homicide for the Holidays

Vivian Witchell’s star is on the rise. She has a steady job playing Lorna Lafferty on the Chicago radio show “The Darkness Knows,” and her romance with costar Graham Yarborough has only added to her popularity, even if it’s all faked for publicity. But the chance discovery of a hidden key in her late father’s study sends Viv into a spiral of confusion and horror. Apparently her beloved father, who always seemed like such an upstanding member of society, was involved with some very unsavory people — infamous members of the Chicago mob who would stop at nothing to get their way. Despite her inner turmoil, Viv enlists the help of her once and future lover, Detective Charlie Haverman, to investigate her father’s past. But she’s not entirely sure she wants to learn the truth, especially when it seems that her own life may be in danger.

Looking back at my review of The Darkness Knows, it appears that I liked the first book in the series much better than this installment! Viv annoyed me a lot more this time around; she spends most of the book in a lather of indecision, sometimes changing her mind several times in the course of one interior monologue. Should she pursue the investigation of her father’s shady dealings, or should she let the past stay buried? Should she disclose X piece of information to someone, or should she keep it to herself? Should she tell Charlie that her relationship with Graham isn’t real, or should she protect the secret to serve her career? The constant dithering got on my nerves. Also, it’s worth noting that neither Viv nor Charlie actually solves the mystery; Viv stumbles upon the truth by pure chance. I did like the period detail and the unique backdrop of a 1930s radio show, but I’m pretty ambivalent about continuing with the series at this point.

Mini-reviews: Three, Congress, Twisted, Piccadilly

Case for Three DetectivesCongress of Secrets

Leo Bruce, Case for Three Detectives — This parody of Golden Age detective fiction is an absolute must-read for fans of the real thing! It has all the traditional elements: an ill-fated house party, an impossible murder, a brilliant amateur detective (or three), and a bumbling local policeman. In this case, the three detectives — who bear striking resemblances to Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, and Father Brown, respectively — use their unique methods to arrive at three different solutions to the crime, while Sergeant Beef reiterates in the background, “But I know who done it!” The humor in this book is quite specific: if you’re unfamiliar with any of the three detectives being parodied, you’re missing out on some of the fun, but Leo Bruce really does get the voices of these three fictional detectives exactly right! Also, I was impressed by the fact that he had to come up with four different plausible solutions to the mystery. I’ll definitely read more by this author, and I wholeheartedly recommend this book to fans of Lord Peter, Poirot, and Father Brown!

Stephanie Burgis, Congress of Secrets — This book checks off so many of my personal boxes, it’s ridiculous: The book is set in the 19th century, specifically at the Congress of Vienna that concluded the Napoleonic wars. Magic exists in the world but is being used by powerful men for very dark purposes. And one of the main characters is a con man! And there’s a romance! So, obviously I was predisposed to like this book, and it did not disappoint. I’ve already acquired more books by Burgis, and I’m excited to have discovered a new-to-me author!

Twisted Sword, ThePiccadilly Jim

Winston Graham, The Twisted Sword — Oof, lots of changes for the Poldarks and Warleggans in this book, and most of them are tragic. I won’t go into specifics for fear of spoilers, but in my opinion this is probably the saddest book in the series. It’s still a very absorbing and enjoyable read, though — after 11 books, I’ve really grown invested in the Poldarks, the Warleggans, and all their friends and neighbors in Cornwall and beyond. What I love is that Graham paints such a complete picture of life at the time, weaving the wider political, social, and economic landscape into his tale of these country families.

P.G. Wodehouse, Piccadilly Jim — I loved this book, which is pure farce of the silliest, most delightful kind! Wodehouse actually spent some time in America writing screenplays and musicals (!), and I could definitely see this book as an old-fashioned screwball comedy! It contains so many tropes of that era — mistaken identities, love aboard a transatlantic vessel, a boxer with a heart of gold — not to mention classic Wodehousian touches like a pair of disapproving aunts and a ludicrous kidnapping scheme. Highly recommended!