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DANGEROUS DECEITS . . . Between the covers

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dd covrYou might guess that a crime novel featuring an amateur detective called Gawaine St Clair is not going to take you down many mean streets; furthermore, were one to Frenchify its chromatic tint, then it would probably be nearer beige than noir. This being said, if you are a Golden Age fan, like dry humour, enjoy a clue-laden whodunnit and are never happier than when luxuriating in the follies and foibles of the English middle classes, then Cherith Baldry’s Dangerous Deceits will be a joy.

Gawaine St Clair seems to be a man of independent means, not unlike his aristocratic predecessor Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, and his affluence enables him to take up criminal investigations without having to make excuses to an employer for his absence from the workplace. In this case he is called upon by his aunt Christobel to solve the mysterious death of a vicar. Father Tom Coates disappeared into his vestry moments before the beginning of a service, and was not seen again until he was found some time later, all life extinct due to a fatal blow to his head with the time-honoured blunt object.

It needs to be said at this point that the novel is very, very ‘churchy’. I use the term to describe a way of life centred around the Anglican church, with attendant church wardens, vergers, flower ladies, Parochial Church Councils, the occasional Bishop, and heated disputes over liturgical practices. Anthony Trollope de nos jours? Possibly, but as an Anglican, albeit rather lapsed, I share Cherith Baldry’s obvious love of the sonorous prose of The Book of Common Prayer – the proper 1662 version, not some squeaky clean modern adaptation designed to appeal to ‘the younger generation’. She uses suitably resonant quotes as her chapter headings, none more appropriately than:

“Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live.”

St Clair is faced with a whole repertory company of likely suspects, all – or none – of whom may have had their reasons to bash Father Tom’s head in. In no particular order, we have a choleric prep school Headmaster straight out of Decline and Fall, a woman denied communion because of her marital woes, a glib local solicitor, the dead man’s brother and sister, with whom he owned valuable shares in a family business, and a dowdy local GP with a beautiful and sophisticated wife.

cbGawaine may be too arch and precious for some tastes but he fits perfectly into the Home Counties landscape with its manicured village greens and faux Tudor dwellings. I thoroughly enjoyed Dangerous Deceits and Father Tom’s killer is unmasked not amid the dusty shelves of a country house library, but in the altogether more fractious atmosphere of an extraordinary (in the procedural sense) meeting of the Ellingwood PCC. The solution, as in many a whodunnit, rests with everyone – including Gawaine, the local coppers and, in this particular case, me – making a seemingly obvious assumption early in the piece.

Cherith Baldry (right) is an acclaimed writer of children’s fiction and fantasy novels. The first in her Gawaine St Clair series was Brutal Terminations, which came out in February 2018. Dangerous Deceits is available now and is published by Matador.

THE HOUSE ON DOWNSHIRE HILL . . . Between the covers

Compartmentalising crime novels is something we all do, especially reviewers who need to put tags in their posts, but it really isn’t too helpful, especially when a writer may seem to be firmly rooted in one genre, but in fact is offering something much more subtle. Guy Fraser-Sampson (left) is one such chap with his Hampstead Murders series. Obviously, nothing very dark can happen in the airy tree-lined streets of London’s most expensive and exclusive suburb – or can it? The House On Downshire Hill is the fifth in the series and existing admirers will welcome the return of the Fraser-Sampson repertory company, which comprises the urbane and unflappable Superintendent Simon Collison, and the earnest DI Bob Metcalfe and his former girlfriend DS Kate Willis. The impossibly glamorous Willis once had an improbable ménage à trois with Metcalfe and an eccentric psychoanalyist called Peter Collins, but Metcalfe now has a new girlfriend. Collins is less prominent in this novel and his place centre stage is taken by the enthusiastic (but slightly unworldly) DC Priya Desai.

Is this just a cosy read, and an amiable pastiche of Golden Age crime fiction? I would say not. Fraser- Sampson is unapologetic in his admiration for ‘the way we were’ and astute folk will recognise that he has produced a series of follow-ons to EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books. The House On Downshire Hill however, is not just an affectionate tribute. The writing is elegant and assured, and the characters – particularly the coppers – all have their dark moments. True, there are no scenes of butchery which will make you want to go to sleep with the bedroom light on, but this an entertaining and beautifully written crime novel. It is published by Urbane Publications and is out now.

Follow these links to read reviews of previous books in the series.

Miss Christie Regrets

A Whiff Of Cyanide

A Death In The Night

THE SENTENCE IS DEATH . . . Between the covers


TSID coverFor those of you who are unfamiliar with the first book in this series
, The Word Is Murder (and you can read my review here) you need to know that Anthony Horowitz has created a quite delightful literary conceit, and it is this: the story is narrated by Anthony Horowitz, as himself, and along the way we get to meet other real people in his life, such as his wife, his literary agent, and even some of the actors in his Foyle’s War series. The principal fictional character is an ex Met Police officer called Daniel Hawthorne, who was drummed out of the service for misconduct, but now operates as a private investigator, paid by the day by his former employers to work on difficult cases. Hawthorne has persuaded Horowitz to be Boswell to his Johnson and to write up the investigations as crime fiction.

Hawthorne is an intriguing character. He is probably somewhere on the autistic spectrum, lives alone, and has few social graces, His powers of deduction and observation are, however, remarkably sound. He immediately sees through the statement one witness has just given:

“The MG was right in front of us. Hawthorn pointed with the hand holding the cigarette.

‘There’s no way that’s just driven down from Essex of Suffolk, or anywhere near the coast.’
‘How do you know?’
‘The house he showed us in that photograph didn’t have a garage and there’s no way this car has been sitting by the seaside for three days. There’s no seagull shit. And there’s no dead insects on the windscreen either. Your telling me he’s driven a hundred miles down the A12 and he hasn’t hit a single midge or fly?’”

The case which has forced the police to seek Hawthorne’s help concerns a rich divorce lawyer who has been found battered to death in his luxurious house on the edge of London’s Hampstead Heath. For a decade or more Richard Pryce has been the go-to man for wealthy people who have had enough of their wives or husbands and want a divorce, but more particularly a divorce which will leave Pryce’s clients with as much of the family loot as possible. So, it is inevitable that while Pryce is adored by some, he is bitterly hated by others, and thus there are one or two obvious initial suspects. First among these is a rather aloof literary author whose determination to conflate America’s 1940s nuclear strategy with gender politics has won her many admirers of a certain sort. Her expensively produced collection of pretentiously profound haikus (is there any other kind?) has also made her much in demand at soirées in upmarket bookshops.

Then there is Pryce’s art dealer husband who, Hawthorne soon discovers, has been ‘playing away’ with the svelte young Iranian man who is front-of-house in his so, so discreet gallery. Has his affair been rumbled? Was Pryce about to cut him out of his will? The most unlikely connection, however, relates to Pryce’s younger self when he and two university buddies were enthusiastic cavers. Did a tragedy years earlier, 80 metres beneath the Yorkshire Dales, set in train a slow but remorseless search for revenge?

AHThe abundance of questions will give away the fact that this is a tremendous whodunnit. Horowitz (right) tugs his forelock in the direction of the great masters of the genre and, while we don’t quite have the denouement in the library, we have a bewildering trail of red herrings before the dazzling final exposition. But there is more. Much, much more. Horowitz’s portrayal of himself is beautifully done. I have only once brushed shoulders with the gentleman at a publisher’s bash, so I don’t know if the self-effacing tone is accurate, but it is warm and convincing. More than once he finds himself the earnest but dull Watson to Hawthorne’s ridiculously clever Holmes.

Horowitz is, I suspect, too polite to be cruel to fellow writers, but he cannot resist a dig at earnest feminist authors who treat every moment of history as if it were a glaring example of man’s inhumanity to women. Trash fiction does not escape, either, and when his fictional self reads a page from the latest sub-Game of Thrones swords and sorcery shocker, it is horribly accurate. Above all, though, this is a classic 24 hour novel. You start reading, you dart off to do something like pick up the kids, or turn on the oven. Back you come to the book, and before you know it, you are 200 pages in. Time flies by, and then bang! It’s finished. You know who the killer is, but you just wish you could start the book all over again. It really is that good. Published by Century, The Sentence Is Death is out on 1st November.

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AN OXFORD SCANDAL … Between the covers

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AOSOxford, 1895. The spires may well be dreaming, but for Anthony Jardine, Fellow of St Gabriel’s College, the nightmare is just beginning. His drug addicted wife is found stabbed to death, slumped in the corner of a horse tram carriage. His mourning is shattered when his mistress is also found dead – murdered in the house she shares with her elderly eccentric husband. With a background story of an archaeological discovery threatening to shake the English religious establishment to its very roots, Inspector James Antrobus must avoid the temptation to make Jardine a swift and easy culprit. Helped by the uncanny perception of Sophia Jex-Blake, a pioneering woman doctor, Antrobus finds the answer to the killings lies in London, just forty miles away on the railway.

norman-russellNorman Russell (right) is a writer and academic, who has had fifteen novels published. He is an acknowledged authority on Victorian finance and its reflections in the literature of the period, and his book on the subject, The Novelist and Mammon, was published by Oxford University Press in 1986. He is a graduate of Oxford and London Universities. After military service in the West Indies, he became a teacher of English in a large Liverpool comprehensive school, where he stayed for twenty-six years, retiring early to take up writing as a second career.

Russell skilfully avoids the trap into which some well-intentioned historical fiction writers fall – that comprising copious and elaborate period detail which chokes the plot itself. Yes, all the Victoriana boxes are ticked; we have horse-drawn trams, the ‘upstairs-downstairs’ ambience of prosperous homes, extravagant dinner menus – and even the doomed but heroic consumptive so beloved of period painters and dramatists. Despite all these familiar tropes, the search for the killer is a genuine whodunnit, and the narrative rattles along nicely.

Not the least of the pleasures of An Oxford Scandal for me was to be reminded of the prickly – not to say downright malevolent – relationships between various versions of the Christian church. Russell enjoys a joke at the expense of the Roman Catholics, the ‘High’ Anglicans, and their humourless cousins in the ‘Low’ Church of England. The joke will probably be shared by just the few of us but I do remember, back in the day when I thought such things were important, that St Ebbe’s church in Oxford was a place to be studiously avoided by those of us who liked a whiff of incense with our worship.

Although Inspector Antrobus ends the novel frail, housebound, and trying to avoid the sight of his bloodstained handkerchief, it looks as though he may survive to undertake another adventure as a consultant detective. I do hope so. The earlier books in the series were An Oxford Anomaly and An Oxford Tragedy. An Oxford Scandal is published by Matador, and is available here.

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THE WORD IS MURDER … Between the covers

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Diana Cowper crosses the Fulham Road, and walks into a funeral parlour. We are told that she is:

“… a short, very business-like woman: there was a sense of determination in her eyes, her sharply cut hair, the very way she walked. She was in her sixties, with a pleasant, round face. There were plenty of women like her in the streets of Fulham and South Kensington. She might have been on her way to lunch or to an art gallery.”

TWIM058Many people in their sixties – particularly those who are comfortably off – plan ahead for their own funerals. Daytime television programmes are interspersed with advertisements featuring either be-cardiganed senior citizens smugly telling us that they have taken insurance with Coffins ‘R’ Us, or rueful widows plaintively wishing that they had been better prepared for the demise of poor Jack, Barry or Derek. However, it would be unusual to hear that the be-cardiganed senior citizen had died only hours after planning and paying for their own send-off from the world of the living.

But that is precisely what happens to Diana Cowper. She is found murdered in her smart Chelsea terraced house. It is at this point that we are introduced to the two main characters in the story. One is Daniel Hawthorne, a former police detective sacked for unprofessional conduct, but with such an uncanny ability to solve murders that he is retained as a consultant by his former employers. The other is also involved in murder, but of a fictitious kind. He is a successful author and screenwriter with a string of hit TV shows and book bestsellers to his credit. His name? None other than Anthony Horowitz.

Plot-wise, the semi-fictional Horowitz is approached by Hawthorne, who wants him to write a crime story detailing his skill as a solver of murder mysteries. Where better to start than with the mysterious death of Diana Cowper? The back-story to her murder includes her complicity in the death of a young boy in a road accident ten years earlier, her son – now one of the best known young actors between the West End and Hollywood – the shattered family of the dead boy, and the judge who let Diana Cowper walk away a free woman from her trial for causing the boy’s death.

AHDuring the story, Horowitz (right) drops plenty of names but, to be fair, the real AH has plenty of names to drop. His CV as a writer is, to say the least, impressive. But just when you might be thinking that he is banging his own drum or blowing his own trumpet – select your favourite musical metaphor – he plays a tremendous practical joke on himself. He is summoned to Soho for a vital pre-production meeting with Steven and Peter (that will be Mr Spielberg and Mr Jackson to you and me), but his star gazing is rudely interrupted by none other than the totally unembarrassable person of Daniel Hawthorne, who barges his way into the meeting to collect Horowitz so that the pair can attend the funeral of Diana Cowper.
To write a novel with yourself as one of the main characters takes a certain amount of chutzpah and a great deal of narrative skill. Does Horowitz get away with it? Yes, yes, yes – and yes again. This is a gloriously complex whodunnit and a sly dig at the bizarre intensity of the worlds of both film-making and publishing. It is one of those books where the pages are turned all too quickly. The best books draw you into their world, make you part of it, make you care about what happens to the characters and force a sigh of regret when you reach the end papers. The Word Is Murder is one such book. It is full of intrigue, enjoyment, dark humour and superb characterisation.

I genuinely hope that this is not the last of Daniel Hawthorn. Horowitz has created an intriguing anti-hero who is, at times, almost autistic, but also capable of a chameleon-like transformation into an empathetic and sensitive listener. Hawthorne can switch between figuratively holding someone’s hand but then, in the blink of an eye, stabbing them with a bodkin. We learn just enough about Hawthorne to answer a few basic questions, but Horwowitz leaves us so much more to discover. Let us hope that he delivers. The Word Is Murder will be published by Century on 24th August, and is available for pre-order here.

CLOSE YOUR EYES … Between the covers

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A BRUTAL DOUBLE MURDER in a remote Somerset cottage has baffled the police, and inflamed local opinion over what they see as the ineptitude of the investigating officers. In charge of the case is DCS Ronnie Cray – and yes, she has changed the first letter of her surname – and almost in desperation she enlists the help of forensic psychologist Dr Joseph O’Loughlin.

O’Loughlin is reluctantly drawn into the efforts to track down the killer who butchered Elizabeth Crowe beneath the satanist pentangle daubed on her wall, and efficiently suffocated her teenage daughter, Harper, in her bed upstairs. To say the very least, O’Laughlin has enough problems of his own. He is trying to live a normal life while battling the early symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease, and his delight at being invited to return to the cottage occupied by his daughters Charlie and Emma, and his estranged wife, is tempered when he learns that Julianne has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Robotham introduces us to  a possible culprit in the opening pages of the book. This man describes his assaults on various women, while describing his awful childhood. His once-brutal father is now in a care home, and has advanced dementia, but our narrator recalls with hatred the beatings – both physical and psychological – he suffered at his father’s hands. Even more telling is the lasting legacy of his mother’s death. She was, perhaps understandably, given her husband’s predilection for violence,’playing away’, but was killed in a bizarre road traffic accident.

Elizabeth Crowe was, to use the old cliché, “no better than she should have been”. After an acrimonious divorce, she has used her new-found freedom to explore the dubious delights of dogging, and it is the participants of that strangely British open-air activity who are the obvious suspects in the investigation. There is no shortage of other suspects, however. How about the dim-witted Tommy Garrett who lives with his grandmother in the neighbouring property? Or maybe Elizabeth’s former husband, Dominic? Not only did Elizabeth cheat on him with her body, but she also ruined him financially.

Robotham leads O’Loughlin – and you, the reader – a merry dance. There are red herrings a-plenty, as O’Loughlin tries to establish the connection between the contrasting deaths of Elizabeth and Harper Crowe, and a seemingly random series of attacks on people which leaves some of them dead, but all with a crude letter ‘A’ cut into their foreheads. But of course, in detective novels, nothing is ever really random, or no fictional crime would ever be solved. Robotham is a clever enough writer to allow O’Loughlin to make the mother of all mistakes before a terrifying climax is played out on a storm blasted cliff top above the raging seas of the Bristol Channel.

Remember the famous scene in Jaws, where we are watching the Richard Dreyfuss character probing the hole in the half-sunken boat? Just as we are expecting the shark to come charging in, Spielberg gives us an even greater shock when the severed head rolls in to view. Robotham does something rather similar at the end of Close Your Eyes as he blind-sides us with a killer blow that we never see coming. This novel, which came out in hardback and digital versions last year, and is now out as a Sphere paperback, will further cement Robotham’s reputation as one of the cleverest and most effective writers of modern crime thrillers.

Click the link to check out buying option for Close Your Eyes

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Robotham
was born in Casino, New South Wales in 1960, and after serving an apprenticeship on a Sydney newspaper, moved to London, where he eventually became deputy features editor for The Daily Mail. In 1993 he began his literary career, first as a ghostwriter for several notable personalities who were writing their autobiographies. His first hit crime novel was The Suspect in 2004, and he has since won many awards for his books.  He has returned to Australia, and Close Your Eyes is the eighth novel in the Joseph O’Loughlin series.

Michael Robotham, international crime writer visiting London 26.07.2010 picture: Stefan Erhard

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