Thursday, March 30, 2023

Killers of a Certain Age

 Killers of a Certain Age (2022) by Deanna Raybourn

Billie, Mary Alice, Helen, and Natalie were all recruited in the 1970s as part of the first-ever all female class of elite assassins. Known as the Sphinxes, the group work for an organization referred to only as the Museum. All activities are coded with museum references--the assassins work in Exhibitions. The Museum first opened after WWII with a mission to hunt down the Nazis who escaped justice. It later branched out to take on despots and dictators, human traffickers and drug cartels. The ladies got to be part of the last mission to take down a Nazi. Now, 40 years later, their methods are a bit old-fashioned and it's time to retire with a nice pension. But before they completely settle down, the Museum sends them on a fancy all-expense paid cruise.

They discover mid-voyage that the cruise has a price tag after all--a bounty placed on their heads by their own company. Why on earth would the Museum want to get rid of four sixty-year old women, all of whom were put on prize Exhibitions? Targets are named by the board--a three-man team--and all three must agree for a termination to be authorized. So, the ever-resourceful ladies decide to turn the tables and go after the men the who placed the target on their backs. Getting information on how things stand and where those men are involves making contact with the Museum, but who can they trust? The Sphinxes are about to find out whose loyalty can be bought if the bounty is high enough. But that's okay, they know they're the best female field agents the Museum ever had and they're about to show the board that they've still got what it takes to plan an extraordinary Exhibition.

Jumping off of my previous review (The Genesis Secret), this is how to do it if you want a high body count (though, again, it would have been nice if every corpse had been named...). These ladies are assassins--they kill people. When their fellow assassins start hunting them, people die. The book is littered with bodies and they all serve a purpose in moving the story forward. And it's not too grisly. Bonus points for that. Overall, this is just a fun book. It's a girl-power book. I'm not saying I'm in favor of killing people (whether they seem to need it or not), but in a world where this is a thing, then I'm all about don't mess with the girls. And don't think that age is going to make them an easy target. And don't think that just because you're a guy you can automatically outsmart, out-maneuver, and out-fight women who have been in the game for forty years. 

The book follows two timelines--we see the beginnings of the Sphinxes. The first few years when they are learning their trade. These scenes are alternated with the present day when the women have retired and find themselves fighting for their lives. The method works--and there are clues in the flashback scenes that can help the reader figure out who is after them and, more importantly, why. It would be fun to see this made into a movie with some feisty actresses of a certain age. ★★★★

First lines: Some of the dates are misleading; some of the names are lies. I'm not trying to protect the innocent. I'm trying to protect the guilty. You'll understand soon enough.

Last lines: People have died for less. I know; I was there.


Deaths = 9 (one natural; two shot; one suffocated; two stabbed; two beaten; one neck broken)

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

The Genesis Secret

 The Genesis Secret (2010) by Tom Knox

Rob Luttrell has just recently witnessed an ugly suicide bombing in Baghdad while reporting on the war in the Iraq. His newspaper had ordered him out for some recuperation time, but now he wants to move on. Either to a new assignment or let him go home so he can see his daughter--if his ex will cooperate with his schedule. His editor decides to send him to Turkey for a "soft" job--just report on some stones and bones that are being dug up at place called Gobekli Tepe. If he turns in an informative, intelligent piece, then he can come straight back to England. He's not too keen, but once he gets to the site, meets the archaeologists (and one by the name of Christine in particular), and learns that the team has discovered the oldest known temple in the history of humankind. The details of the dig are interesting enough...but then he also learns about sabotage on site and Franz Breitner dies horribly in what looks like an accident, but Rob and Christine are sure was murder.

Meanwhile, back in the UK a series of incredibly grisly ritualistic murders has begun and DCI Forrester and his team are looking for connections. The rituals used are from different ancient religions and in each case it looks like the murderer was hunting for something as well as getting his sadistic jollies. When a link is discovered between the murders back home and what is happening in Turkey, things suddenly get much more personal for Rob and Christine--because the murderer has spotted the link as well. And that link, the object of the murderer's search, just might change the world's views on man's origins if it isn't destroyed first.

So, the archaeological premise of this was very interesting. I enjoyed the way Knox wove all the threads together to create a plausible theory of humankind's origins based on archaeological discoveries and also weaving Biblical stories into that theory. All the points for this novel go for that and the primary characters--Rob, Christine, DCI Forrester, and Officer Kiribali (in Turkey). I wish we had seen more of Isobel Previn and Professor Hugo De Savary because they were also interesting and quite distinct characters even in their brief moments in the plot. 

Now on to my difficulties with the plot--first up, all the grisly details. I'm not a big fan of blood and gore all over the page. And I really need to feel like it's driving the story when it appears.* Here, I just felt like we were being drenched in blood for the sake of killing. Which, I suppose does work into the ritualistic theme and the psychotic nature of the killer, but it still seems far more gratuitous than necessary. Not to mention that if you're going to put characters through that sort of thing (as spectators--especially at the end), then once the killer is caught and those forced to watch the gruesome deeds released then you can't just make everything hunky-dory at the end. There's got to be some serious therapy in store for at least one (if not more) of these characters. But it's simply addressed in what is almost a throw-away conversation: "She's amazing. She seems to have, basically, forgotten it all. A little frightened of the dark. Think that was the hood." Right.

I won't say much about my take on Rob and his ex and her immediate friendship with his new girlfriend. Just that (as another reviewer on Goodreads says) only a man would think this was a natural outcome especially when Knox set the ex up as such a pain in the fanny about allowing Rob to see his daughter. And on top of it--that the ex would not go into a murderous rage when the girlfriend puts that daughter in danger. Sure, she gets mad at Rob for not instantly rescuing the girl--but doesn't even get a little upset at the new woman in his life? Again...Right.

I wanted to love this book. I like mysteries with an interesting historical or research twist. And the beginning chapters were very promising. It just didn't live up to that promising beginning. ★★ and 1/2

(*The books by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child are good examples--usually have high body counts, but I always feel like the deaths were necessary to move the plot along.)

First line: Alan Greening was drunk.

Last line: But his sense of loss was touched by something else, something much more surprising: the faint and fleeting shadow of happiness.


Deaths = 6 (one fell from height; three stabbed; one natural; one drowned)

[All I've got to say is if Knox was going to litter his book with so many deaths, the least he could have done is given every corpse a name so I could count them all towards the Medical Examiner Challenge.]

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Beyond (mini-review)

(1960) by Theodore Sturgeon

A collection of short stories from science fiction's Golden Age by a man whose name I first encountered as the writer of Star Trek episodes ("Amok Time" and "Shore Leave"). His science fiction often has a dark side and may veer more towards fantasy at times. A fairly interesting collection with two stories having mystery connections as well. I wasn't really taken by "Nighmare Island"--it needed to be more nightmarish or have a different title. My favorites are "Need" and "The Bones." ★★

"Need": A man named Gorwing can "hear" the needs of his fellow men all around him. He does his best to attend to those needs and enlists the help of others in his quest. But it becomes difficult when two persons' needs conflict with one another....

"Abreaction": A bulldozer operator accidentally crosses through a tear in the fabric of the universe. Can he get back to his own reality? And will he remember who he is when he gets there?

"Nightmare Island": An island of intelligent, telepathic worms make a god of an alcoholic shipwrecked sailor.

"Largo": A musician composes his masterpiece--a largo meant to seek revenge on the man who ruined the perfect woman and to ensure that he (the musician) got her back and never lost her again. [three crushed to death] Who knew that you could murder through music?

"The Bones": An inventor (who reminds me for some reason of Doc in Back to the Future) creates a machine that can allow someone wearing headphones to experience the life connected to any bone used in the invention. The Sheriff ask him to use the machine to help get justice for a woman who died in a car accident. But what if the wearer stays connected to the point of the bone's owner's death? [two deaths]

"Like Young": The last remaining humans decide to leave behind lasting records of the sum of humanity's knowledge--a gift to those that will rise to take mankind's place. The animals most like to do so? Otters. But the otters have other ideas about what is important. A parable about man's arrogant view of humanity's importance. 

First line (1st story): Some towns seem able to defy not only time, but change; when this happens in the hinterland, one hardly amazed.

Last line (last story): But me, I'm a joyful throwback...I'm one with my ancestors:--I'm going hunting.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Bony & the Kelly Gang

 Bony & the Kelly Gang (aka Valley of the Smugglers; 1960) by Arthur W. Upfield

Inspector Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte goes deep undercover in Cork Valley, New South Wales. He's looking for the murderer of a government excise officer who was killed while searching for illicit stills. The Superintendent is sure that inhabitants of Cork Valley have a lot of illicit activities going on, but none of the policemen or excise officers who have investigated could find a thing...and men who tried to go undercover before just disappeared. Bony is warned of the danger as well as the impossible nature of the assignment...but Bony has never failed at a case he's taken up and danger doesn't scare him.

So, he's given a false background full of horse thievin' and other small crimes, and appears in the Valley as a man anxious to leave his past and any snoopy policemen behind him. The Kellys and Conways are the principle families in the Valley--they control all trade and keep a close eyes on who comes and goes. And they don't suffer strangers easily. But they take a liking to "Nat Bonnay" and he gradually earns their trust and is treated as one of their own. He discovers the source of the illicit trade and...being Inspector Bonaparte...he also tracks down the killer. But his loyalties are put to the test because he grows very fond of the families who wander just the other side of the law.

I had a strong feeling that I had read this one before. But I have no record of having done so. I can only assume that it is because Bony follows his common practice of going undercover in order to solve the mystery. He's posed as fence mender, a horse breaker, and a ranch hand on sheep farms to name just a few. He seems to melt right into the roles he takes on and must be a pretty athletic/strong man because he takes on jobs heavy in manual labor. This time he starts out as a "spud digger" which sounds like back-breaking work as it is described in the book. 

Upfield manages to bring the Kellys and Conways to life and it's easy to see why Bony begins to have such affection for these people that he is investigating. He has to remind himself that he's there on a job and that there is a murderer somewhere in the Valley. Much as he may like the families, he cannot let a murderer go free. He might be tempted to look the other way on stills and smuggling (after all, that's not what he was asked to investigate), but he can't possibly forget his duty when it comes to murder.

While I enjoyed Upfield's descriptions of the Valley and its inhabitants and, like Bony, became fond of many of the Conways and Kellys, the mystery itself didn't interest me as much as previous installments have done. Perhaps it was because Bony's method has become pretty formulaic--go undercover, dig up secrets, solve the mystery. And, really, once Bony was on the spot the mystery didn't stay mysterious very long. It became pretty obvious who must have done away with the excise man. The real question was how Bony was going to bring that person to justice without causing a great deal of damage to the people he had come to like so well. ★★

First line: The secondary road was ruler-straight across the narrow coastal lowlands to the base of the Southern Mountains of New South Wales.

Last line: "To the divil with English," Bony said, producing a gum leaf. "I know the Gaelic for 'Danny Boy'."


Deaths = 8 (six shot; one neck broken; one natural)

Tuesday, March 21, 2023


 Sabriel (1995) by Garth Nix

Sabriel is the daughter of the Abhorsen, a powerful necromancer who binds the dead and keeps them in the grave. There are necromancers and black magicians who bring the dead back to life--to make servants of them or to release death and evil into the world. And the Abhorsen works to counteract the evil. Sabriel has been learning the ways of necromancy and Charter Magic (a way of using words and symbols to harness magic) when she is contacted by a messenger from her father. The messenger bears a pack that contains Abohorsen's sword and magic bells--a sign that he has entered the realm of death either for good or as a prisoner of the one who has sworn to escape death's realm and unleash evil on the world. Sabriel sets off on a quest to find her father and finds herself threatened on all sides. She teams up with Moggot, a cat who has served her father, and Touchstone, a young Charter Mage, and their journey brings them ever closer to a final battle that will bring Sabriel face-to-face with her father's enemy.

I really wanted to like this more than I did. The opening chapters had a bit of a pull and I thought for sure the world-building would suck me right in...but then it just...fell flat. I never fully engaged with the characters and I didn't feel like the world of magic and how it works in the Old Kingdom was ever explained properly. Sabriel could have been an incredible character, but she rarely expresses herself. There's a lot of description, but Nix never uses the character herself to show us what she's like and what she feels. I appreciate the fact that Nix was trying to give the fantasy world a strong female character--and he does a fairly decent job of it. The bones are there--Sabriel just needed to be fleshed out more.

Part of my disappointment comes because I thoroughly enjoyed his book The Left-Handed Booksellers of London and I hoped for another novel that would be just as strong. I loved the way he built the alternate 1980s London. He sold me on the magical booksellers and the forces they were up against in a way he just didn't with Sabriel and the world of necromancy and Charter Magic. ★★

First line: It was little more than three miles from the Wall into the Old Kingdom, but that was enough.

Last line: "Yes," said Sabriel with some surprise. "I am."

Monday, March 20, 2023

Blood on the Tracks

 Blood on the Tracks (2018) by Martin Edwards (ed)

Martin Edwards and the British Library Crime Classics series give train enthusiasts and classic crime enthusiasts fifteen stories that can satisfy both. Trains have been the scene of murder and mayhem quite often in classic crime novels--from Murder on the Orient Express by Christie to numerous novels by Freeman Wills Crofts. Here we are treated to short stories featuring the railway. We have a non-Holmes story by Conan Doyle and a Holmes pastiche by Ronald Knox. We have murders, thefts, and a few stories with a touch of the supernatural. My favorites are "The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway" and "The Knight's Cross Signal Problem," but all are worth a look. ★★ and 1/2

"The Man with the Watches" by Sir Artur Conan Doyle: Three people on a train disappear from two compartments while an unidentified dead man (with six expensive watches in his pockets) appears in one of the abandoned first-class sections. The police are baffled until a letter arrives from one of the missing men. (one shot)

"The Mystery of Felwyn Tunnel" by L. T. Meade & Robert Eustace: A signalman and a second man are both killed in the same spot at the mouth of the tunnel. The first death looks like it might have been the result of a deadly love triangle, but that theory falls apart with the second death. (one hit on head; one poisoned)

"How He Cut His Stick" by Matthias McDonnell Bodkin: Lady detective Dora Myrl solves the case of the theft of five thousand pounds in gold and notes from a locked, moving railway carriage. And saves the reputation of the young clerk charged with its transport.

"The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway" by Baroness Orczy: The Old Man in the Corner solves the mystery of the young woman who was poisoned on the underground train. (one poisoned)

"The Affair of the Corridor Express" by Victor L. Whitechurch: A multimillionaire's son who disappears from a moving train. Hazell retraces the journey to find the boy before it's too late.

"The Case of Oscar Brodski" by R. Austin Freeman: An inverted train mystery--the reader already knows who did what and gets to watch Dr. Thorndyke spot all the clues that will reveal the truth. (one strangled)

"The Eighth Lamp" by Roy Vickers: A signalman for the underground railroad has a spooky experience when extinguishing the eight lamps for his section of the track. Each night when the eighth lamp goes out, he hears a train coming at him--when no train should be coming down the line. (one heart failure)

"The Knight's Cross Signal Problem" by Ernest Bramah: When a train accident occurs, the signalman swears that the signal showed red for danger and the engineer swears it was green for proceed. They are both right and Carrados proves how this can be.

"The Unsolved Mystery of the Man with No Face" by Dorothy L. Sayers: An unidentified man, his features disfigured beyond recognition, is found dead on a deserted beach. Lord Peter solves the murder using clues provided in the discussion amongst his fellow train travelers. (one strangled; one suicide)

"The Railway Carriage" by F. Tennyson Jesse: Solange Fontaine, a female detective who can sense evil, enters a railway carriage with an elderly woman dressed in black and a man in a gray felt hat. She immediately feels uneasy...and then there is a train crash. But Solange's unease had nothing to do with the crash... (one stabbed; one hanged; one natural).

"Mystery of the Slip-Coach" by Sapper: A moneylender is found shot in his compartment with the door and window shut. The only clue...a broken raw egg. (one shot)

"The Level Crossing" by Freeman Wills Crofts: A man plans to do away with his blackmailer...using the nearby train crossing in his (he thinks) fool-proof plot. But fate takes a couple of unexpected turns... (one hit by train)

"The Adventure of the First-Class Carriage" by Ronald Knox: Knox tries his hand at a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. A servant consults Sherlock Holmes when she has cause to believe her master is planning to commit suicide. Holmes quickly spots that there is more going on than meets the eye.

"Murder on the 7.16" by Michael Innes: A film director is found murdered in the railway carriage on the set of his latest film. What was he doing in the train so late at night? And who was with him? (one hit on head)

"The Coulman Handicap" by Michael Gilbert: The police know that a woman is passing stolen goods and using the underground as part of her plot. But catching her red-handed proves more difficult than anticipated.

Friday, March 17, 2023

A Murder Is Announced

 A Murder Is Announced
(1950) by Agatha Christie

A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks, at 6:30 p.m. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.

It isn't often that a murderer announces their intentions--especially not so publicly as in the personals column of the local newspaper. Unless, of course, the announcement refers to one of those country house "Murder Game" parties. And that's what the village of Chipping Cleghorn thinks is going to happen at Miss Letitia Blacklock's house that evening...even if an ad in the personal column is an odd way to send your invitation. Everyone expects something fun and interesting to happen...even Miss Blacklock who is just as surprised as her neighbors when the advertisement is brought to her attention.

"I know one thing that will happen at 6:30," she said dryly. "We'll have half the village up here, agog with curiosity. I'd better make sure we've got some sherry in the house."

And, of course, she's right. The neighbors come along, all innocence, with stories about how they just thought they'd drop by for one reason or another. All but Diana "Bunch" Harmon, the vicar's wife, who exclaims as she enters the drawing room, "I'm not too late, am I? When does the murder begin?" 

When the lights suddenly go out, it looks like the murder game is about to begin. A man bursts through the door, tells them all to "Stick 'em up" and then there are three shots. As the lights come back on, Letitia is found with her ear bleeding--apparently grazed by one of the bullets--and the masked gunman is lying dead just outside the drawing room door. Is this just a murder game or practical joke gone wrong? Or was the gunman...or someone else...really trying to kill Letitia Blacklock. There is a large inheritance that will go to a mysterious pair of twins known only as Pip and Emma--if Miss Blacklock dies soon. Could one of the inmates of Little Paddocks (Patrick and Julia Simmons--distant relations that Miss Blacklock has never seen--or Phillipa Haymes, a boarder) be one or both of the twins? And could they have organized the attempted murder? Or are there other reasons for murder at Little Paddocks? Inspector Dermot Craddock is on the case and will receive help from Miss Marple (who just happens to be Bunch Harmon's aunt).

**********possible spoilers ahead!***********

Murderous fun and games in Chipping Cleghorn. This is one of my favorite Miss Marple stories--and one of my favorite Agatha Christie novels overall. I love how many people in this story are impersonating other people...or are just misrepresenting who they are. Are there a few improbable coincidences? Sure, but Christie writes such good plots that I really don't mind. The theme that you can't always trust what people tell you about themselves is really good, especially when you contrast it to how well-known everyone in a village would have been not too long before this story was written. As Miss Marple explains to Inspector Craddock

...nobody knows anymore who anyone is. You can have Benares brassware in your house and talk about tiffin and chota Hazi--and you can have pictures of Taormina and talk about the English church and the library--like Miss Hinchliff and Miss Murgatroyd. You can come from the South of France, or have spent your life in the East. People take you at your own valuation. They don't wait to call until they've had a letter from a friend saying that the So-andSo's are delightful people and she's known them all their lives.

It's a nice commentary on the way British village life had changed after the war. I also like so many of the characters from Bunch Harmon to fluffy, muddle-headed Dora Bunner to the Misses Hinchcliff and Murgatroyd. The character sketches in this novel seem particularly well done. I read this once long ago (about 40 years ago, in fact) and I remember being thoroughly stumped about the solution. If I hadn't seen the video versions (both with Joan Hickson as Miss Marple and that with Geraldine McEwan), Christie might have stumped me again. But it doesn't bother me when I remember the solutions to Christie mysteries, I just enjoy the world she presents and following along with Miss Marple (or Poirot or Tommy & Tuppence) to the finish. ★★★★

First line: Between 7:30 and 8:30 every morning except Sundays, Johnnie Butt made the round of the village of Chipping Cleghorn on his bicycle, whistling vociferously through his teeth and alighting at each house or cottage to shove through the lette box such morning papers as had been ordered by the occupants of the the house in question from Mr. Totman, stationer, of the High Street.

Last line: "How else would they know what's going on around here?"


Deaths = 9 (one shot; one poisoned; five natural; one hit by car; one strangled)

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Dead, Mr. Mozart

 Dead, Mr. Mozart (1994) by Bernard Bastable (Robert Barnard)

In Bastable's alternate-history mystery, we have Mozart surviving into his sixties and making his home in England. His musical fortunes haven't been all that for a while, but the anticipated coronation of King George IV is going to provide an ideal opportunity to dust off some of his best operas and to write a new one in honor of the coronation season. Just as he has everything set--with patronage from Lord Hertford to mount the opera season and one brilliant, experienced singer and one brilliant young singer (both beautiful women) to lead the company--an element of intrigue is introduced. Those who support the new King are eager to find a way to thoroughly discredit his estranged Queen and those who support Caroline of Brunswick are out to foil any such plans. Hertford is in the King's camp and has found a witness who could definitely make England too hot to handle for Caroline. If the witness lives to testify....

One of the most deadly dull mysteries I have ever read. I have thoroughly enjoyed nearly all of the mysteries Barnard wrote under his own name. All but one garnered three stars or more. But this....Mozart, one of the most interesting composers, is a flat character. I'm not sure why Bastable thought it an excellent idea to come up with an 1820 England where Mozart is still alive and churning out potboiler music as a living, but I think it would have been kinder to leave him in the grave. He (Mozart) is also a gossip for hire--Lady Hertford wants him to send reports on her husband's business in the opera house and for a small purse full of coins he's willing to do so. Casting him in the role of amateur detective also falls short of the mark. He's not very good at it and he's not even very interesting as a poor detective. The mystery plot itself is also not much--you think there's going to be all this political intrigue surrounding the new King George and his controversial Queen, but that just sortof fizzles. The murder is pointless. The detective work is pointless. And the extension of Mozart's life for this story...pointless. If you haven't tried Barnard's work before, I would suggest you try something written under his own name. 

First line: I had hardly turned out of my apartment home in Henrietta Street and begun in the direction of the Strand when I was struck by something unusual: almost all the people I passed were in their soberest dress, and had on their faces expressions of more than the usual dyspeptic English melancholy.

Last line: By the time I reached home I was infused with that lunatic optimism which, against all likelihood, against all experience, against all reason, buoys up those who are condemned to spend a life sentence working in the opera house.


Deaths = 2 (one natural; one stabbed)

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

The Picture of Dorian Gray

 The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde (read by Stephen Fry)

The story begins in the studio of Basil Hallward, an artist who paints his masterpiece using the young and beautifully handsome Doran Gray as his subject. The portrait shows a young man who is beautiful and still innocent. It also holds Hallward's secret...that Gray is the inspiration for all of his artwork now. When Gray sees the portrait, he expresses the wish that instead of the portrait showing him forever young and innocent, that he--himself--would remain forever young and continue to look innocent while the portait held the scars and signs of age and sin. Gray falls under the influence of Lord Henry Wotton, a man who speaks the most appalling nonsense. Most people declare that Wotton can't possibly believe everything he says, but Gray takes it all as gospel. And as he begins a life that follows the precepts Wotton claims to believe in, he notices an odd thing about the painting...

I've read this a couple of times before...once in 2010 when the blog was young. For a more detailed look at my thoughts on the novel, please see my review HERE and a comparison to Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (which I took part in at the time) HERE. For this review, I'm more focused on the audio novel version I listened to which was read by Stephen Fry. Fry is delightful to listen to--especially as a last half hour before bedtime treat. His performance of the story was pitch perfect and I enjoyed every minute. It was easy to recognize who was speaking in the book even when the text didn't immediately identify them. If Wilde's work didn't rate five stars (which it does), I would most certainly give this audio version five stars (and I have ★★★★). 

First line: The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, of the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.

Last line: It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Sidney Chambers & the Perils of the Night

 Sidney Chambers & the Perils of the Night (2013) by James Runcie

Another round of interconnected short stories featuring Canon Sidney Chambers and his friend Inspector Keating. This time it is 1955 and Chambers finds himself caught up in the world of spies. The first story features the death of one of the fellows of Cambridge--Valentine Lyall and two students were doing a spot of "night climbing," scaling the towers and buildings of the university. Something goes wrong and Lyall, an experienced climber, plunges to his death and one of the undergraduates disappears. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the first thought is that Lyall was a spy recruiter--though for whose side, we don't know--and the two students must have been recruits. The university Master wants everything hushed up as a straightforward accident and asks Sidney to keep a watching brief for the university with Inspector Keating. At the end of the day, it is decided (whether rightly or wrongly) to say that it was an accident.

Next up is a bit of arson at an old summerhouse being used as a photographer's studio in Grantchester and Chambers finds himself the subject of gossip when he purchases a girlie magazine in pursuit of his part of the investigation. At the end of the investigation, he receives a small, spy-type camera from the photographer. The third story finds Chambers investigating the death of a mathematics professor. It appears to be a heart attack, but his friend Hildegarde isn't so sure. In the fourth story, Grantchester's best spin bowler is poisoned during a cricket match. Is the motive racially based? The next story focuses on Chambers' friend Amanda who thinks she's ready to marry an astrophysicist. But Chambers has doubts about the man and has to investigate. The sixth and last story circles back to the spy theme. Chambers goes to visit Hildegarde in Germany and stumbles across the student who disappeared in the first story. The student hands him a top-secret film, gets shot before his eyes, Chambers almost goes to prison, and then there's this twist at the end. Exciting stuff--which is in total contrast to the laid-back atmosphere of Grantchester and the rest of the book (even the spy overtones of the beginning).

I'm not going to lie...Sidney Chambers just isn't doing if for me. I wasn't all that excited about his debut when I read it two years ago, but I wanted to give him another chance. The most endearing thing about the man is he brings up Lord Peter Wimsey in the cricket match story. But, overall, my view of these stories still stands--the characters just don't grab me and I don't buy Chambers as an amateur detective. His style is all just talk to people and somehow he magically just knows what happened and is (according to Grantchester lore) "never wrong." The conversations he has with people just don't make a great deal of sense to me. They seem to be full of non sequiturs that don't connect in any way to what Chambers is investigating. I realize that some people do throw non sequiturs into conversations...but not every single conversation and not every single person you meet. There are people who just think that way and having a character that is like that is one thing; having stories full of them is another.

According to Kirkus Reviews, "only a churl could resist Sidney...." I guess that makes me a churl, because I'm resisting and redonating the remaining volumes of the series (I have four more...) to the library bookstore. Perhaps someone less churlish than I will enjoy them. ★★

First line: As the afternoon light faded over the village of Grantchester, the parishioners lit fires, drew curtains, and bolted their doors against the dangers of darkness.

Last line: Life had certainly bowled him the odd googly, and doubtless there would be further tests, trials, and tribulations, but just for now, on this day, it was to be enjoyed in all its fullness and with all its wonders, the most wondrous gift of all being nothing less than the love of such a fine woman, his very onw, his beloved Hildegarde.


Deaths = 6 (one fell from height; one natural; one auto accident; one shot down in WWII; one drowned; one poisoned)

Friday, March 10, 2023

Tintin in America

 Tintin in America (1932) by HergĂ© (Georges Prosper Remi) 

Tintin, the intrepid boy reporter, sets off for America with Snowy by his side. His mission? To bring down Al Capone, clean up Chicago, and see to it that all the big crime bosses are rounded up and sent to jail. And it doesn't matter if he has to travel to the wild west, be tied to railroad tracks, be thrown into Lake Michigan with dumbbells chained to him, be shot at and thrown off cliffs, be kidnapped or have Snowy kidnapped, be gassed and hit over the head and dropped through trap doors--Tintin will get his men.

Of course, the depiction of Native Americans in this story is stereotypical and typical of the portrayal of this people at the time period. Looking back 90 years, it's easy to see what's wrong with the portrayal and to hope that we've come a long way in our viewpoint--unfortunately we haven't come as far as we need to...but that's a social soapbox and this is a review.

I remember reading these books with my son. He loved the Tintin books and I fell in love with them too. I was amazed that I had never heard of them when I was growing up. The adventures of the boy reporter would have been right up my alley when I was young. I loved the fact that the Tintin stories could make my reluctant reader want books and want to read (at least some) books once he was a more confident reader. Reading this again now, I'm a little disappointed to see how disjointed the story is--it's as if HergĂ©  was trying to shove as much of America into the story as possible--gangsters, cowboys and Indians, the rich mean with their transplanted European castles, the oil tycoons, big cities and the Wild West...all thrown together. Tintin sets out to clean up Chicago, but has to visit what looks like the Grand Canyon to do it. 

But the adventure was still fun and I enjoyed watching Tintin and Snowy work together. In these early stories, Snowy talks to Tintin and has a lot of the commentary that will later fall to Captain Haddock. Much as I like the spluttering Captain, I do enjoy the running comments from Snowy. A nice trip down memory lane. ★★ and 1/2

First line: Chicago, 1931, when gangster bosses ruled the city...

Last line: Pity!...I was almost beginning to get used to it.

The Woman in the Picture

 The Woman in the Picture (1944) by John August [Bernard de Voto]

When Senator Tom Fetterman suffers a stroke and lies at death's door, it looks like Tyler Damon will finally get a chance to jockey his puppet, Eugene Penfield, into Congress. The anti-Semitic, fascist-loving Damon and his followers would love to get some power at the national level. All that stands between him and the power he seeks is one frail old man, Scott Warner and a group of liberal patriots, and.....Marta Penfield. Marta Penfield disappeared after her husband's best friend was found shot. The death was ruled a suicide, but many (including Warner) believe that Penfield may have been responsible. It was rumored that Marta Penfield was died...and FBI searches could find no trace of her after she wandered away from a sanitarium into the desert. But Warner believes her to be alive and on the run from Damon's tough guys. If Warner is right, he wants to try to find Marta and convince her to tell what she knows about Dixon Gale's death in that lonely cabin. His colleagues believe it to be a vain hope...but then he spots a profile in a picture proof destined to be printed in a national magazine within a month's time. He has one month to find out if that really is Marta and get to her before Damon sees the next issue of Spectacle....

Not really a straight mystery. It has political intrigue with thriller undertones and a cross-country chase. This is a fun, straight-forward adventure--and, of course, the good guys win. A solid, quick read but not for those who want clues and an intricate plot to unravel. ★★

First line: In the good old days the newspaper photographer, though perhaps a family man and a good citizen, was not a person of importance.

Last line: "That's for tomorrow, of course...It's such a little way from house to house...I'm sound of limb, my dear, and in your custody."


Deaths = three shot; one natural

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Number One Is Walking: Mini-Review

 Number One Is Walking: My Life in the Movies & Other Diversions (2022) by Steve Martin (drawings by Harry Bliss)

A graphic novel memoir from Steve Martin recounting stories and incidents from his life in movies with a few detours along the way. He gives brief stories about his most memorable roles as well as bits and pieces about some of his co-stars--from Martin Short to Lily Tomlin and Bill Murray to Goldie Hawn. There are also stories about Gene Kelly, Paul McCartney, Carl Reiner and others. Illustrations and cartoons are provided by New Yorker cartoonist Harry Bliss.

This is a quick, fairly enjoyable read--though I must say I enjoyed Martin's autobiography Born Standing Up a lot more. Some of the stories here are interesting and some are funny, but fewer than anticipated. Some of the cartoons are funny...but not all. One of the best parts of the graphic novel is the dog Penny. I thoroughly enjoyed her running commentary throughout. The book made me smile--I had hoped for laugh out loud funny. ★★

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

The Black Cat Murders

 The Black Cat Murders (2019) by Karen Baugh Menuhin

Major Heathcliff (don't call him that) Lennox finds murder at the wedding of one of his childhood friends. Lady Caroline Bloxford is scheduled to marry the wealthy American Hiram Chisolm in a real bang-up shindig. That is, Hiram's blue-blood mother has decided that it must be fancy with cultural entertainment--so Lennox needs to prepare himself for a full dose of opera. Except the lead baritone is squashed flat by the soprano when a trap door breaks, so maybe there won't be an opera after all. Despite the death being declared an accident by Brigadier Bloxford, Lennox's friend Dr. Cyril Fletcher is convinced there's something fishy about the death. When more deaths follow, it looks like he was right. Lennox teams up with his nemesis from the first book--Inspector Jonathan Swift--to discover whether the murders have to do with opera or a gentleman's club called the Black Cat or with the risque paintings known as the Bloxford Beauties...or maybe all three.

When I finished Lennox's debut in Murder at Melrose Court, I had hoped that in the next installment we would have built on the glimmerings of character that I saw in that novel. I wasn't terribly impressed with Lennox as our amateur sleuth, but I thought there was potential and went into the second novel expecting to like Lennox better. For the first half of the book, I'm afraid that wasn't the case. If anything, I liked him less. If I hadn't committed to this for one of the challenges I do that doesn't allow substitutions, I probably wouldn't have finished it. I also kept reading because I was interested in the plot--I did want to know why the murders had occurred and who had done the evil deeds, but I didn't particularly care if he figured it out.  His character isn't exactly bad so much as it is blah. And he is no great shakes at detecting, though things did pick up a bit when he and Inspector Swift make peace and investigate together. I'm sure it doesn't help that I'm probably comparing him with Charles Lennox (a gentleman detective established in 2007 by author Charles Finch) and finding Heathcliff wanting. One point in his favor, when he realized that the pretty young woman that both he and Swift were interested in wasn't a good match for him (their interests are too different), he went out of his way to help Swift move his romance along.

I do love a country house murder, so the setting is perfect. I also enjoyed the characters of Richard Dicks (whose mania for order reminds me of a certain Belgian detective), head footman, and Miss Isabelle Busby (who serves as a kind of Watson to Lennox). I could definitely stand to see more of them--though it's unlikely since they're tied to the area near the Bloxford estate.The motive for the murder is a little unusual and I did enjoy trying to figure out who done it and why. The final wrap-up scene is a bit over-the-top and I find it hard to believe the wedding party just morphed right into a funeral party with such ease. Despite an interesting plot, I can't say that I'm too eager to try a third. However, there are plenty of folks on Goodreads who disagree with me, so your mileage may vary. ★★

First line: "Rather an unlikely murder weapon," I remarked. "A soprano."

Last line: "Very well, sir."


Deaths = 11 (one bled to death; three shot; five natural; one stabbed; one bombed in WWI)

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Towards Zero

 Towards Zero (1944) by Agatha Christie

Superintendent Battle is spending his holiday with his nephew Inspector James Leach near Gull's Point, the home of Lady Tressilian, a wealthy widow. It is September and the time of year when her husband's ward, Neville Strange, would come to visit. In previous years, he would have brought his lovely wife Audrey. But this year he's arranged for both his wives to be present...Audrey, his ex-wife, and the current Mrs. Strange, Kay. Lady Tressilian can't understand these modern ideals of let's "all be friends together" (and quite frankly prefers Audrey to Kay). But when Audrey tells her that she doesn't mind at all, Lady Tressilian decides to let the plan go forward.

That would be a terrible mistake. Neville and Kay arrive with Kay's friend Ted Latimer trailing along. It's obvious that Ted still loves Kay. Also in attendance is Thomas Royde, who has been in  love with Audrey since they were young. And then there's Mary Aldin, young companion to the elderly widow, who is attracted to Thomas. To say that there is all kinds of undercurrents would be an understatement. Then Mr. Treve, a solicitor and old friend of Lady Tressilian, arrives for dinner and tells a story of a murderous youngster who got away with killing someone with a bow and arrow years ago. It was deemed an accident and the child was given a new name and a new chance at life. He almost seems to force the story on the company and says that he doesn't know what happened to that young person, but that he'd know them anywhere if seen again because of a physical deformity of some sort. He does not elaborate.

The next day Mr. Treve is found dead in his bed--apparently his weak heart gave out when he was forced to climb stairs because an out of order notice was on the lift. Except...the hotel management says that there was nothing wrong with the lift. But both Thomas and Ted (who had walked the older gentleman back to his hotel) had seen the sign plain as day. Next on the murderer's agenda is Lady Tressilian herself. She is found beaten over the head with the proverbial blunt instrument. It's clear that it must have been someone from the house and Battle is called upon to assist his nephew in ferreting out the truth.

"I like a good detective story," [Mr. Treve] said. "But, you know, they begin in the wrong place! They begin with the murder. But the murder is the end. The story begins long before that--years before sometimes--with all the causes and events that bring certain people to a certain place at a certain time on a certain day....All converging towards a given spot....And then, when the time comes--over the top! Zero hour! Yes, all of them converging towards zero...."

Battle and Leach will have to figure out the story that came before zero hour in order to discover that truth.

Christie does a find job spreading the suspicion around. Just about everybody at that dinner party has something a bit odd about them physically. And even though I spotted the killer (based on other clues), she had done her job so well that I couldn't even remember that this person's physical attribute had been mentioned. The plot is a bit convoluted, but it still works. The one real quibble I have is the coincidence of Angus McWhirter having had attempted suicide near Gull Point (at the very beginning of the book) and then showing up just at the right moment at the end. Two coincidences (Mr. Treve also being on hand to tell his little story) seem almost too much, but Dame Agatha writes such a good story, I'm willing to go along with it. ★★ 

First line: The group round the fireplace was nearly all composed of lawyers or those who had an interest in the law.

Last line: "You'll never escape now..."


Deaths =  (two natural; one drowned; one auto accident; one hit on head)

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

 Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (2015) by Erik Larson

[I started with my audio edition, but had to switch to a hard copy from the library to finish.]

Synopsis (from the book cover): On May 1, 1915, with WWI entering its tenth month, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. The passengers were surprisingly at ease, even though Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone. For months, German U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic “Greyhounds”—the fastest liner then in service—and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack. 

Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game, and Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, was happy to oblige. Meanwhile, an ultra-secret British intelligence unit tracked Schwieger’s U-boat, but told no one. As U-20 and the Lusitania made their way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small—hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more—all converged to produce one of the great disasters of history.

It is a story that many of us think we know but don’t, and Erik Larson tells it thrillingly, switching between hunter and hunted while painting a larger portrait of America at the height of the Progressive Era. Full of glamour and suspense, Dead Wake brings to life a cast of evocative characters, from famed Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat to pioneering female architect Theodate Pope to President Woodrow Wilson, a man lost to grief, dreading the widening war but also captivated by the prospect of new love. 

Gripping and important, Dead Wake captures the sheer drama and emotional power of a disaster whose intimate details and true meaning have long been obscured by history.

My take: I'm swimming against the current on this one. The bulk of the reviews on Goodreads are 4 or 5 stars. But I just didn't find this either thrilling or gripping. It read more like straight history than a thrilling retelling of a history "full of glamour and suspense." It was certainly far less gripping than The Devil in the White City (which I highly recommend). I realize that this is nonfiction, but I hoped it would be less dry and matter-of-fact than it was. I wish I could remember the name of a fictionalized recounting of the Lusitania's tragedy that I ready a number of years ago (before my blogging days when my reviews were limited to star counts). I'd like to revisit it and see how much it got right factually. I definitely remember it as a far more absorbing story than what I've just read. The book is obviously well-researched and fully supported through notes and referenced sources. It just didn't fascinate me the way I thought it would. ★★ for the work and research, but ★★ for how much I enjoyed it--giving an average of ★★★.

First line: On the night of May 6, 1915, as his ship approached the coast of Ireland, Capt. William Thomas Turner left the bridge and made his way to the first-class lounge, where passengers were taking part in a concert and talent show, a customary feature of Cunard crossings.

Last line: Her companion, Edwin Friend, had indeed been lost but was reported by members of the reconstituted American Society for Psychical Research to have paid the group several visits.

Wild Seed

 Wild Seed (1980) by Octavia E. Butler

Synopsis (from the back of the book); In an "epic, game-changing, moving and brilliant" (Viola Davis) story of love and hate, two immortals chase each other across continents and centuries, binding their fates together--and changing the destiny of the human race. Doro knows no higher authority than himself. An ancient spirit with boundless powers, he possesses humans, killing without remorse as he jumps from body to body to sustain his own life. With a lonely eternity ahead of him, Doro breeds supernaturally gifted humans into empires that obey his every desire. He fears no one--until he meets Anyanwu. Anyanwu is an entitity like Doro and yet different. She can heal with a bite and transform her own body, mending injuries and reversing aging. She uses her powers to cure her neighbors and birth entire tribes, surrounding herself with kindred who both fear and respect her. No one poses a true threat to Anyanwu--until she meets Doro. The moment Doro meets Anyanwu, he covets her; and from the villages of 17th-century Nigeria to 19th-century United States, their courtship becomes a power struggle that echoes through generations, irrevocable changing what it means to be human.

First things first--it's amazing how blurb writers can make one little mistake and change the plot of a book. Doro and Anyanwu are not chasing each other across continents and centuries. Doro sees Anyanwu, wants to mold her like he's molded countless generations, blackmails her--using her children as collateral, and then stalks her when she dares to leave him after a couple of centuries. Anyanwu does nothing but try heal and help her people--and while she bides her time under Doro's control, his people as well. She never chases him anywhere. 

Doro, for all his talk about how he wants to create better humans, is for all intents and purposes a destroyer--a user and an abuser. He abuses the vast power he has and, when a particular instrument (read any of his people) is no longer useful to him he destroys it. He can't leave it alone and move on--he has to get rid of it. As Anyanwu tells him (despite his protests to the contrary), he doesn't just kill to survive, he doesn't just kill because it's the nature of what he is. He enjoys it too much and he kills those that he has no need to. 

Anyanwu is a healer. It's who she is and what she must do. And it takes three centuries for Doro to begin to understand her...and to understand how much he and his people really need her. Not just the power she has, not just her ability to bear children with that power or variations of that power--but her and what she is and what she represents. 

This is a terrific book that tackles difficult topics--everything from slavery and free-will to gender and gender roles, from "civilization" versus "savagery" to what makes us truly human. Good speculative fiction has always addressed heavy topics and gotten away with it because it's been dressed up as alien and happening to someone or something far removed from the current day. Great speculative fiction can do the same thing and make it absolutely clear that this could happen to you--right now, today. Or maybe it happened to your ancestors and today is a result. Butler writes great speculative fiction. It may seem weird and far removed on the surface, but the story speaks to right now, today. ★★★★

First line: Doro discovered the woman by accident when he went to see what was left of one of his seed villages.

Last line: She would not leave him.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

March 2023 Reading by the Numbers Reviews


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March Vintage Scavenger Hunt Reviews


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March Virtual Mount TBR Reviews


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The Moving Finger

 The Moving Finger (1942) by Agatha Christie

Jerry Burton heads to the quiet countryside for a bit of rest and relaxation after a flying accident. His doctor insists that it will do him good to "[t]ake an interest in local politics, get excited about village gossip, absorb all the local scandal. Small beer--that the prescription for you. Absolute rest and quiet." Jerry and his sister Joanna rent a house called Little Furze in the village of Lymstock. But local scandal winds up being anything but "small beer." A spate of vicious poison pen letters, which started before the Burtons arrived, attack them as well--suggesting that Joanna is really Jerry's fancy piece and not his sister at all. The nasty insinuations are bad enough, but when one letter leads to the apparent suicide of a prominent lawyer's wife it becomes more serious. 

And...more serious yet when a maid from the lawyer's house calls up Partridge, the housekeeper at Little Furze, asking to come and talk over something that's been bothering her. But she never arrives and later is found stuffed in a closet under the staircase at the lawyer's residence--stabbed to death. The murder investigation makes little headway until the vicar's wife calls in an old friend--Miss Jane Marple.

Even though Miss Marple doesn't put in an appearance until the last third (or so) of the book, this is a highly enjoyable read. I really like the characters of Jerry and Joanna Burton, Dr. Griffith, and Megan. Jerry has a way of picking up the important clues, even if he doesn't quite know what to do with them. But as soon as he shares them with Miss Marple--she does. The atmosphere of the village is perfect. Christie captures the small town tendency of knowing everyone elses's business so well and manages to instill a deep feeling of evil underneath the cozy countryside. An interesting study of character in the 1940s. ★★★★

First line: I have often recalled the morning when the first of the anonymous letters came.

Last line: "That," I said, "is Joanna's little joke."


Deaths = 6 (four natural; one drug overdose; one stabbed)