The Red House Mystery

By A.A. Milne

Rating: 4 stars

I had been completely unaware of A. A. Milne’s work beyond Winnie the Pooh until a chance reference to this on, of all places, File 770. I was intrigued and when I found out it was out of copyright and available on Project Gutenberg, I grabbed it, and I’m glad I did.

It’s a locked room mystery, with our amateur detective, Anthony Gillingham, wandering on to the scene by coincidence, just after the death of the brother of Mark Ablett, the owner of the titular Red House. We follow Anthony as he gets to grips with the people and the events, with his friend Bill as the Watson to his Holmes.

The book had actually kicked off from the point of view of the housemaid, and I’d wondered if we were going to going to get something more understanding of the household staff, but after that first chapter, they are left far behind. Although incidentally, I do think there’s an interesting story to be told from that angle – after all, in this period, who notices the servants? I had high hopes of the film Gosford Park for this, but it was more interested in the upstairs/downstairs social shenanigans than the mystery angle.

But putting that to one side and taking it as it was, I enjoyed this a lot. There was enough information revealed to the reader at the same time as the protagonist that I could keep coming up with the same sort of theories that Anthony was and although it was fairly clear who the murderer was fairly early on, the how and the why were left to the final chapter, as in any good whodunnit.

I enjoyed Anthony as a protagonist. He was a fun character and I sort of wish that Milne had written more stories with him. The idea of someone getting an inheritance and then using it to take on all sorts of careers, keeping them up for as long as he wanted, tobacconist and waiter being but two of his former professions, and having the security to move on when it stopped being fun. I think many people would envy that. It also helps that he’s a really nice chap too.

So an enjoyable whodunnit, well told and set in the heart of the Edwardian period (or the modern day, as it would have been at the time). He’s not written an awful lot of other novels, but off the back of this, I’d definitely be interested in seeking some of his others out.

Book details

Publisher: Project Gutenberg
Year of publication: 1999

The Thursday Murder Club (Thursday Murder Club #1)

By Richard Osman

Rating: 3 stars

I nearly gave up on this book under a quarter of the way through. I just wasn’t enjoying it very much. I found the main characters pretty cardboard, the villain of the piece was completely pantomime and the writing was so-so. I thought to myself that if it didn’t improve by the 100 page mark, I’d give up. I pushed on even past the quarter way limit I’d set and eventually it settled down a bit and I started to enjoy it.

Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron and Ibrahim are residents of a well to do retirement village in the picturesque English countryside, whose hobby is to look over old police files trying to spot clues that were missed in the original investigation. Then there’s a murder right on their doorstep and they’ve got a hot case to deal with, rather than their usual cold ones.

The book is structured with lots of very short chapters (possibly designed for people who don’t usually read books and who bought it purely on the back of the author’s fame. Cynical? Moi?). Some are first person as Joyce’s diary, while the rest are third person, usually following one or two of the cast as they go about detecting. It’s never made clear why we get these “diary extracts” but it does help you sympathise with Joyce. I’m going to skip past Elizabeth’s very convenient past as some sort of superspy which gives her many favours that she can call in and lots of spycraft and contacts because, well, at that point you’ve just got to accept the conceit and move on.

One thing the book does well, especially later on, is show you the realities of old age. Of the ever-present fear that this spring could be the last you’ll see. That your partner of so long is starting to lose their facilities, that you shouldn’t really get a young dog, now should you? There’s a lot of melancholy, but also the warmth of a long and fulfilled life. That picture into ageing is, for me, really the USP on this book, since, as a mystery, it leaves something to be desired. I really don’t think you could have solved the case on your own, since to do so requires information that the reader isn’t given, until it’s revealed in appropriately dramatic fashion.

So the characterisation of the heroes improves, and it becomes a light, entertaining read. The villain does remain pretty pantomime throughout though. I enjoyed it well enough, but have no desire to pick up any future books in the series.

Book details

ISBN: 9780241988268
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 2021

Tales from the Folly: A Rivers of London Short Story Collection

By Ben Aaronovitch

Rating: 4 stars

This collection brings together a number of stories about Peter Grant and others with knowledge of magic in his world. These have mostly be reprinted elsewhere and I’ve read most of them before, although it’s still nice to have them all in one place.

The book is ordered by putting the Grant stories together at the front and the others at the back. I preferred to mix them up, so I tend to alternative a Peter story with a non-Peter story. Of the Peter stories, King of the Rats was a bit disappointing, as it stopped just as it was getting interesting. I’ve got a vague feeling that more of that story might have been covered in one of the novels, but after eight books and counting, I’m finding it hard to keep track. Much better was A Rare Book of Cunning Device, seeing Peter chasing something deep in the stacks of the British Library, and introducing the rather marvellous Elsie ‘Hatbox’ Winstanley. Aaronovitch teased a future short featuring her and resident Folly library Harold Postmartin, which I think would be an awful lot of fun.

Of the non-Peter stories, Three Rivers, Two Husbands and a Baby was probably my favourite, dealing with the aftermath of Peter and Beverly’s, er, excursion in the river Lugg. It was one of the few stories that I hadn’t read before as well. There were three flash pieces amongst the non-Grant stories as well, which Aaronovitch calls ‘Moments’. I’ve recently discovered that these tend to be available online and you can find links to all of them on the Follypedia.

Not an essential volume, by any means, especially if you tend to get the Waterstones editions of the books, which usually have a short story at the end (most of the ones in this collection started off life as Wasterstones exclusives), but spending time in Peter Grant’s world is always fun and the stories do help round out the characters.

Book details

ISBN: 9781625675095
Publisher: JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc.
Year of publication: 2020

Monday, Monday

By Ben Aaronovitch

Rating: 4 stars

It took a while to figure out what this clever little graphic novel was doing, and once I did realise, I had to go back and re-read it as soon as I’d finished it. Each of its four chapters (issues) tells the story of the same day in the life of the Metropolitan Police, from four different points of view. First we see series regular DI Stephanopoulos’ day, as she takes over an active operation from an injured colleague, finding it not working as smoothly as it should, and worrying about corruption.

The second chapter is interesting because it not only has Nightingale’s perspective in the present, as he leads a short course for officers on detecting vestigia and when to call in the Folly, but we get flashbacks to his youth, both in his school days, and his service in the second world war. Which reminds me – we know that Nightingale fought in WW2, but this flashback suggests that his true youth was in the early part of the twentieth century and he may have had a hand in the Great War too, despite the best intentions of his headmaster. There’s also a lovely sequence to contrast this, as Nightingale looks after Peter’s new children during a childcare crisis – a side to him that we’ve not seen before.

The third chapter starts with Peter dealing with new parenthood (twins, no less!) and then shows how he fits into Stephanopoulos’ investigation. There’s a lovely little section near the start with Peter at home with the twins where he gets out a measuring tape and tries to analyse at what point they start to cry when separated from each other. It’s as pure Peter Grant as you can get and a lovely little aside that had me grinning to myself. The military foxes also make a return, as they are now providing protection for the twins from, amongst others, unauthorised personnel, ne’er do wells, intruders and, of course, cats.

The final chapter ties it all together, as it follows Abigail and Foxglove in their own little adventure, and discover how it intersects with what the others have been doing. While much of whole graphic novel is wordless, it’s much more evident in this last one, as it leans heavily on the art to tell the story, quite successfully, too.

It’s a nice storytelling idea and rewards re-reads. Random little asides and what had seemed to be artistic non sequiturs that make sense in context of what we find out later on as we integrate them into a fuller picture. And, of course, I’m always keen to find out more about Nightingale’s past.

The artist has changed again for this volume, bringing it more closely in style to the earlier work, which I enjoyed more, so this felt more familiar and comfortable to me than the last few volumes.

A fun story here, and one that ties into the wider mythos of Aaronovitch’s world. The comics are good, but, as always, I look forward to the next novel in the series.

Book details

ISBN: 9781787736269
Publisher: Titan Comics
Year of publication: 2021

The Man in the Brown Suit (Colonel Race #1)

By Agatha Christie

Rating: 4 stars

Anne Beddingfeld is a newly orphaned, but adventurous young Englishwoman, who witnesses a man falling to his death in the London underground. This leads to somewhat more adventure than Anne bargained for and a trail that leads to South Africa and maybe even true love.

I hadn’t realised that this book didn’t star one of Christie’s famous detectives, but Anne was an awful lot of fun. The story is told in the first person as her memoir of the affair, with some chapters being “extracted” from the diary of an MP that Anne happens to encounter.

Anne’s fellow travellers on the ship that takes her to Africa are a varied bunch, each well drawn and with their own characterisation, letting the reader put them into their own mental map of the plot. I especially liked Mrs Suzanne Blair, the society lady that Anne takes into her confidence; and Guy Pagett, the rather prim secretary of MP Sir Eustace Pedlar – he reminds me of that wonderful PG Wodehouse creation, The Efficient Baxter.

The identity of the mastermind behind the whole thing caught me entirely by surprise, the whole thing was deftly put together, with all the clues and red herrings that you’d expect from the Queen of Crime. While I was a bit disappointed not have Hercule Poirot solving the mystery, Anne is a delightful character and I couldn’t stay mad at her for long.

Book details

ISBN: 9780007151660
Publisher: HarperCollinspublishers
Year of publication: 2002

Dark Fire (Shardlake Series)

By C.J. Sansom

Rating: 3 stars

It’s 1540 and Matthew Shardlake finds himself defending a teenage girl accused of the murder of her young cousin. This act brings him back to the attention of Thomas Cromwell, who commissions Shardlake to find two missing men, who claim to have the secret of Greek Fire (an ancient incendiary weapon used by the Byzantines; something like napalm), before a promised demonstration before the king in a fortnight. As Shardlake delves into the matter, he finds himself getting tangled deeper into a conspiracy that leads to the highest levels of society.

When we first met Matthew Shardlake, in Dissolution, he was fervent reformer (sorry, Reformer), with the zeal of breaking away from the Catholic church running through him. The events of that book got shot of that and while he doesn’t wish for a return to Rome, he sees the terrible things that Cromwell has done in the name of Reform and finds it wanting.

I was hoping that the theological arguments would have been left behind in the first book, but they weren’t. For all that the theology is conjoined with politics (when is it not?), I find it a fundamentally uninteresting discussion – the more so when it so deeply affects people. Shardlake’s friend and fellow barrister loses his job because he disagrees with the currently ascendant Duke of Norfolk on the matter, and he got off lightly: others are burned at the stake.

I kept wondering why I didn’t find this as annoying when I read the Baroque Cycle a few months ago, and although the faith of the monarch was pivotal to events there, it didn’t drive the rest of the plot. Also, at that point, state killing over theology was mostly done. It was pure politics and machinations, whereas in this period, a hundred years before the Enlightenment, a difference of theology leads directly to barbaric deaths. I just find that distasteful, and not something I want to read about, even indirectly.

The plot regarding Greek Fire is quite interesting although since we know that Europeans didn’t have it, we know it’s somehow going to not be a thing. The solution to that is pretty neat and works well. The other plot, with the accused girl, is also pretty interesting. Once again, we’re reminded about how bad prison conditions were, and how badly people with mental health problems were treated in the period.

After being abandoned by his assistant in the last book, this time Shardlake is saddled with one – Cromwell has Jack Barak work on the case with Shardlake. And Barak is not an easy character to like. He’s rude, opinionated and often ill-informed. But the author goes to lengths to soften those edges, pointing out that his bluster is often to hide his feelings. Maybe, but he’s still very often, as he likes to call almost everyone he meets, an arsehole.

So an overall good mystery, and I did learn something I hadn’t known before about the Duke of Norfolk and his manipulation of the king into marrying Catherine Howard. Since I was finding myself checking how much more book I still had to go, I still don’t think I’ll read any more of the series though.

Book details

ISBN: 9781743030875

Snuff (Discworld, #39)

By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 4 stars

At the insistence of his wife, Commander Vimes reluctantly agrees to take a holiday with his family to the country. Of course, as everyone knows, a policeman can’t get his suitcase unpacked before there’s a crime that demands to be solved. And the crimes here are so big that the law can’t keep up.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. I’ve not been hugely fond of the later Discworld books, but this one was remarkably fun. Vimes might be getting on a bit, but he’s still practically vibrating with righteous anger. He’s very different from the Vimes we met way back in Guards! Guards!, and now struggles to find somewhere to point his class angst, given that he’s joined the very class that he once railed against. He has, to some degree, come to terms with the fact that he now moves in vaulted circles and his word causes tremors in the money markets as much as to the criminal classes.

It’s fun watching Vimes be Vimes, running around being cleverer than his enemies think he is, but his utter confidence, and, I suppose, that of the author, in the police and the law, is… well, a bit less self-evident than once it was. And he spends a lot of time bullying and steamrollering people around him, leveraging his position and his wealth to do so. And yet, when the crime is as awful as what goes on here, you’re cheering Vimes on all the way.

The goblins are interesting as well. Even in a city as diverse as Ankh-Morpork, they’re vilified, and as for the country, where They Do Things Differently, well, let’s just say that Vimes is justified in getting angry. In the city, when Angua and Carrot find a goblin to talk to, they find an eager second generation immigrant, wanting nothing more than to put his own heritage behind him in the name of fitting in and making his way in the world as it is. That’s sad, but also something that I can sympathise with, and relate to.

It’s nice to read a book where the police are the good guys, always standing up for justice, without being beholden to power or money. I guess that’s one of the points of fiction – to show us a better world. Maybe one day, our real-world police forces, whether that’s in London, Minneapolis or Glasgow will be equal to the Ankh-Morpork City Watch.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552166751
Publisher: Corgi
Year of publication: 2012

Dissolution (Matthew Shardlake, #1)

By C.J. Sansom

Rating: 3 stars

It’s a time of turmoil in England, as Henry VIII has declared himself absolute head of the Church, and his minister Thomas Cromwell wields much power. One of his commissioners, sent to a monastery, is murdered and Cromwell sends the lawyer Matthew Shardlake to investigate.

The author has impeccable historical credentials, and the world that he creates is very believable. The people live in fear as Reform is in full swing and they are afraid of saying the wrong thing in sight of the wrong person. Matthew is an idealist, and a bit of a zealot, believing full well in the new ways. His investigations, however, reveal more than he would like, and his journey is very much the core of the book. The murder mystery is interesting; in many ways a classic format, as the monastery is isolated, and it’s midwinter, meaning that it must have been someone from the inside that carried it out, and Shardlake has to investigate the histories of all the senior monks, many of whom have their own secrets to hide. Shardlake’s assistant, the young Mark Poer, is as idealistic as his master, but in a different way. He sees the corruption at the heart of the regime, and despises it, leading to conflict between the two men.

The weakest part of the book for me were the religious aspects. As someone who isn’t a believer, and who never grew up in the Christian tradition, the question around the English Reformation has always seemed to me to be more about Henry’s desire to chase some flesh than anything substantial in doctrine. I found the arguments between Shardlake and the monks tedious, and the former mostly seemed to use his position as Cromwell’s commissioner to bully and harass the monks with, not that I had much sympathy for many of them – the corruption of the monasteries was no myth.

The most sympathetic of the inhabitants of the monastery are the outsiders: Brother Guy, the Spanish Moor who is their physician; his assistant Alice, a young women among men whose vow of chastity isn’t as always strong as it should be; and Brother Gabriel, a gay man who finds his passions hard to control. I was also surprised by how accepting the others were about that last. Don’t get me wrong, they thought it was awful, but also that it was something that just happened, sometimes.

So overall, a well-written, and well-researched historical crime story. The resolution to the mystery did depend on knowledge that was hidden from the reader, I’m not sure if we could have guessed it before the reveal, or if that’s just my inability to spot a twist coming. I wasn’t a fan of the religious aspects, but I liked both the history and the crime aspects of it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780330450799
Publisher: Pan Books
Year of publication: 2007

False Value (Rivers of London #8)

By Ben Aaronovitch

Rating: 4 stars

Following the dramatic events at the end of the last book, Peter is nominally still suspended, but with fatherhood impending, he needs a job, so he joins security for the Serious Cybernetics Corporation, a new startup by one of the less-flashy silicon valley tech bros. Peter settles down fairly quickly, but soon realises that there’s something strange, and possibly magical, going on up on the top floor of the building.

It’s odd seeing Peter outwith the support network of the Met, but he’s still got his informal network to rely on, and he’s now moved in with Beverley. The police are still very much involved, and Nightingale, Guleed et al make their appearances.

And, of course, it only lasts long enough to tell us that Peter’s currently working under cover.

As others have noted, there’s an awful lot of Hitchhikers’ references in this book, but while others found it irritating, it seems to me that it’s appropriately over the top for a silicon valley tech startup that’s wanting to appear to be “hip” and “cool” (for nerdy values of “hip” and “cool”).

This book finds Peter more aware of Beverley’s status as a goddess, and getting a bit worried by things that happen around her, and the actions that she feels she needs to take. Maksim, for example, until now, has mostly been played for humour, but Peter’s now worrying about free will and whether it’s ethical for Bev to put her influence over him, and others she comes into contact with. It’s not easy dating a deity, and it’ll be interesting to see where this goes in future volumes.

No Lesley May in this one, but the magical world has been expanded again, this time with more details of American magic, and especially the Librarians (no, not those Librarians). There’s also been some seeds planted for the future, and possibly a new nemesis coming up.

All in all, a worthy entry to the canon. But you can’t just drop in the suggestion that the London Underground possible has its own genius loci and then walk away like that. I’m outraged. Outraged, I tell you!

Book details

ISBN: 9781473229761

Grandville Force Majeure (Grandville, #5)

By Bryan Talbot

Rating: 4 stars

The fifth, and final, instalment in DI LeBrock’s adventures is a bit of a corker. Framed for murder and on the run from his colleagues, he’s got to solve the murder, deal with the gangster Tiberius Koenig, who wants to bring London into his criminal empire, and save his family, all while being pursued by his own mentor, the Holmesian retired DCI Stamford Hawksmoor.

The story trots along at a good pace, and although the last quarter or so is wrapped in plastic, as an anti-spoiler mechanism, I figured out most of the big twists in advance (and on that, in my considered opinion, the idea of Roderick Ratzi selling out LeBrock is the most unbelievable thing in the whole series. And this is a series with steampunk Zeppelins, crazy red dinosaurs, and sexy anthropomorphic prostitute badgers) but it was still fun taking the journey. There are some great one-liners and mad mob-boss Koenig steals every scene he’s in.

The art is, once again, amazing. Talbot goes into the process a little in his piece at the end of the book, and part of the explanation as to why this is will be the last Grandville book is that each page would take 3-4 days to complete, which just isn’t long term commercially viable. The usual warning regarding the art applies though. Although it’s quite cartoony looking, and there are talking animals, this is a violent book, with adult themes that is very definitely not suitable for children.

At some point now, I think I need to go back and re-read the whole series in quick succession, to get a clearer feel for the characters and the overall plot, but this was a highly enjoyable conclusion to a highly enjoyable series.

Book details

ISBN: 9781910702246
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Year of publication: 2017

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