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

The Angel of the Crows

By Katherine Addison

Rating: 5 stars

This Holmes-inspired story wears its influences very clearly on its sleeve, even siting its angelic detective at 221 (not 221b!) Baker Street. In a world where angels are tied to individual buildings, or have Fallen, and wreck devastation on whole countries, Crow is unusual (unique?) in that he is free to wander the city of London and offers his services as a private consulting detective as the Angel of London as a whole. Into his world comes Dr Watson Doyle, wounded by an attack of a Fallen angel in Afghanistan, and Doyle soon ends up helping Crow in his investigations.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book! As I say, it wears its influences clear on its sleeve, and most of Crow and Doyle’s adventures are clearly based on the first three Sherlock Holmes novels, with a few based on the short stories. Into the mix is also added Jack the Ripper, as Crow searches, increasingly desperately, for the famous killer.

There’s a pretty wide fantasy element to the world that Addison has created here. In addition to angels, most other creatures of folklore and fantasy are present as well, from werewolves and vampires to hell-hounds and fetches. I love how all of these have integrated into society and are just part of everyday life. We don’t get a huge amount of detail – although vampires make a fairly robust appearance – but they’re just there, as part of the world.

Crow is a much more sympathetic and, indeed, empathetic character than other versions of Sherlock Holmes – especially the Benedict Cumberbatch incarnation, where he explicitly calls himself a sociopath. This iteration has an irrepressible curiosity about humanity (Crow regularly watches Doyle eat, as an activity that he can’t partake in) and while eccentric, is a pleasure to spend time with.

Dr Doyle is also an interesting creation, coming back from Afghanistan with multiple secrets. At least one of those took me entirely by surprise. At some point, I’m going to have to reread the book to see if there’s any clues left for the observant reader that I had missed.

Some people might complain about just how close the mysteries are to the Conan Doyle canon, with added supernatural elements, but I actually really enjoyed that. My memories of the Holmes stories aren’t that strong, so it’s nice seeing how Addison works in the additional elements to them and the end is also usually a surprise. There’s a lot of Easter eggs for the Holmes fan to find here.

Another of Addison’s supernatural elements that I really liked was the idea of how the angels are tied to their habitations and how their names reflect that, and that to lose that involves returning to the realm of the Nameless – angels without distinct personalities that Crow implies have a sort of hive mind, without any distinct self-awareness. It’s a fascinating idea, and while Addison doesn’t really do much with it, other than describe it, if there are more Crow and Doyle books to come (which I fervently hope there are), that’s certainly somewhere that she could go.

So while the stories that Addison tells may be familiar, her detective is wonderful, and the world she’s created is intriguing and I loved every minute I spent in it.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781089101
Publisher: Solaris
Year of publication: 2021

Far from the Light of Heaven

By Tade Thompson

Rating: 3 stars

Michelle “Shell” Campion is first mate to the AI captain of the colony ship Ragtime. When Shell wakes up from suspended animation at the end of the journey, she finds the AI incapacitated and several passengers not just dead, but mutilated and dismembered. Investigator Rasheed Fin is sent by the colony world to solve the crime,

I love a good locked room mystery, so it’s just a shame that this otherwise intriguing book isn’t really one. I sort of feel that in a good mystery/whodunnit, the reader needs clues and to be able to play along with the detective, and I fear we didn’t get that here, where the solution to the locked room mystery is dropped into our laps with the introduction of a brand new character about three quarters the way through the book. The book also changes from locked room mystery to space survival horror part way through, which isn’t really my cup of tea.

There’s a lot of good worldbuilding, with an Afrofuturist vibe to it and some interestingly weird aliens. The Lagos system is trying to do things differently from Earth, working in conjunction with nature rather than wantonly tearing it apart. That sits somewhat uncomfortably with themes about what you’ll do to protect your own and what that means for the future.

I think the characters are really interesting – Campion is a model astronaut, uber-competent and stuffs her own panic down deep while there’s a job that needs doing (sort of reminds me of Granny Weatherwax not having time to bleed). Rasheed is a little bit of an Investigator-With-A-Hidden-Past, and Lawrence, the former test-pilot and somewhat washed-up governor of the system is probably my favourite. He knows his work and is happy to take orders to try and get everyone out safely.

Ultimately, while I think there’s a lot packed in here, it’s not the book I was expecting, and that disappointment tinges my view of the book, as well as the fact that it went into tropes that I don’t particularly like. A book with strong characters and well-written, but it didn’t entirely satisfy me.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356514321
Publisher: Orbit UK
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

The Murder on the Links (Hercule Poirot, #2)

By Agatha Christie

Rating: 3 stars

The second Poirot novel starts with Hastings on his way back to England to meet up with his friend when he runs into a young lady on the train. In what will become a theme throughout the book, he’s arrogant and chauvinistic towards her before she escapes at Paris. The main plot involves Poirot being asked to come to a village in France to help protect a client, but by the time he arrives, the client is already dead.

Much of the fun of an Agatha Christie for me is in following along with the clues and seeing if I could figure it out myself (narrator: he never can), but with this one, I’m not sure that we were given enough clues to figure it out. That takes a bit of the fun away, but it’s always great seeing Hercule Poirot at work, disdaining the Holmesian method of physical investigation, here propounded by the police inspector Giraud. Poirot relies on psychology and using his famous Little Grey Cells and, of course, they don’t let him down.

So the mystery part of it was fun and I enjoyed it, but Hastings was pretty unbearable in this one. Maybe I’m too used to Hugh Fraser’s loveable bumbling sidekick in the TV series, but between chasing anything in a skirt and the chauvinism, I wanted to shake some sense into him.

So a good murder mystery, but beware the creepy sidekick.

Book details

ISBN: 9780061749940
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
Year of publication: 2004

The Witness for the Dead (The Goblin Emperor, #2)

By Katherine Addison

Rating: 4 stars

I loved The Goblin Emperor but wasn’t sure where was left for the story to go. Thankfully, for the sequel, Addison has chosen to leave the emperor’s court behind and, instead, follow a minor character from the first book – Thara Celehar, the Witness for the Dead who solved the murder of the former emperor. He’s now living in the city of Amalo and practising his calling, when he’s called to witness for a young woman found drowned in the canal. He’s got to solve the mystery of her murder while avoiding getting bogged down in clerical politics and offending too many important people.

After the courtly intrigue of the first book, having a whodunnit as the follow-up is just the right change of pace to keep it fresh. Calehar is a sympathetic protagonist, still ridden with guilt over his dead lover, but content in his own way. The world feels established in that of The Goblin Emperor and it’s not as difficult to keep track of people and locations (although a glossary would still have been welcome). There are only the most tenuous links to the first book, so someone could easily read this without having read the first, although you would miss out on some of Celehar’s character, as his background isn’t (re-)explained here. This book also deepens the world, and adds a larger pinch of fantasy than the first one had, with Celehar’s communication with the dead, and his having to deal with risen ghouls.

The world-building is unobtrusive and well done. Of the new characters who populate this book, my favourite was IƤna Pel-Thenhior, the composer and director of the local opera, who almost becomes a Watson to Celehar’s Holmes. I love the easy working relationship that they develop together, with tentative hopes (on both sides?) that it could be more.

I’m not sure that this counts as a proper “whodunnit”, in that the reader (like Celehar) doesn’t have enough information to solve the mystery until right at the end. I don’t think there’s clues spread throughout the book to point you in the right direction. I look forward to a re-read at some point to see if that is the case.

It’s a great book, with good characterisation and world-building and a lot of heart. When it comes down to it, Celehar is a kind person, and that’s uncommon enough to be worth something, both in fiction and the real world.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781089514
Publisher: Solaris
Year of publication: 2021

Asimov’s Mysteries

By Isaac Asimov

Rating: 4 stars

This book is science fiction of the old school: where characters are there purely to drive the plot, but the plot hinges on some extrapolation of actual science. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy this sort of thing. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve really started to appreciate more sociological and character-driven SF, but this is the stuff I grew up on, with all its strengths and flaws.

Asimov presents thirteen of his science fiction short stories, all with a mystery theme to them. Several of them feature Wendell Urth, an “extraterrologist” with extreme agoraphobia, who has never travelled further than he can walk. And yet, he has a detailed knowledge of the worlds outside of Earth and uses this to help the police solve crimes from around the solar system. Some of the stories are funny (a two page shaggy dog story that was there purely to set up a pun had me cackling), some are serious. There’s a spy story that seems like it’s inspired by James Bond, except that the author says he wrote it before he’d heard of Bond. And the final story in the collection: The Billiard Ball is the only whodunnit I’ve read in which the key to the mystery involves general relativity!

As ever, Asimov’s own words on his stories are part of the fun. He provides fore- and/or afterwords on each story, with a bit of history or context, and his authorial voice is charming. I do wish I could have met the man.

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection, but, as ever with SF of this era, YMMV. There are almost no women to speak of and there’s not much in the way of depth of characterisation. But if you want a set of solid whodunnits, in an SF context, you can’t go far wrong with this.

Book details

ISBN: 9780586029299
Publisher: Panther
Year of publication: 1969

Peril at End House (Hercule Poirot #8)

By Agatha Christie

Rating: 3 stars

A retired Hercule Poirot is on holiday with his faithful friend Captain Hastings when he makes the acquaintance of a young lady whose accidents around the town seem to be more than just accidents.

It seems to me that Christie was having some fun at the expense of M. Poirot in this novel. She pokes sly fun at his vanity and arrogance, but with a fondness that I found quite endearing. Despite his high opinion of himself, he’s often confused and stumped, and more than once is set on the right track by his faithful Hastings.

It was an interesting choice at the end to have Poirot guess that Nick intends to kill herself but to make no move to stop it. He plays fast and loose like this in other books too and it’s a reminder that he’s definitely not the police but a private individual with his own moral code. I sort of hope that the young Mr Vyse who leaves in a hurry at the end is off to go and stop her.

I always gamely try to figure out whodunnit and I rarely get it. This time was no exception. Right up to the end, I had no clue, although once it’s revealed, the clues were all there. There’s a lot of clever misdirection going on that totally threw me.

Book details

ISBN: 9780006138938
Publisher: Fontana
Year of publication: 1932

The Mystery of the Yellow Room

By Gaston Leroux

Rating: 4 stars

I’m a fan of the whodunit and a sucker for a good locked room mystery, so this early and clever example sucked me in from the start. I must confess to being unfamiliar with Joseph Rouletabille before reading this, but Leroux uses the template that Conan Doyle laid down and adds his own flourishes. Rather than an established detective, we have a junior reporter for a newspaper, and instead of bumbling police, we have a clever and sharp detective against whom Rouletabille wishes to prove his own wits. But other tropes – the sidekick to whom the detective can explain his cleverness, the Clues (Sam Vimes would have no truck with those), and even the pipe are all present and correct.

The mystery is an intriguing one – a young lady is assaulted in a locked room with no exits other than one door which her rescuers have to break down to get in. And when they do, they find the room empty of assailants. I must confess that since the young lady was a scientist (unusual in a work of this period) working with her father on the ‘disassociation of matter’, I did wonder a few times if a science fictional resolution would be forthcoming, as I couldn’t see any other solution, But the answer was stubbornly natural and, IMO, very clever.

I like the young Rouletabille and found his first adventure a clever and fun read. I also liked the sprinklings throughout the text of mention of a mysterious “lady in black” whose perfume evokes reminisces in Rouletabille and are obvious hooks for the sequel (even before I discovered that the sequel is, indeed, called The Perfume of the Lady in Black). I shall look forward to reading more of the Boy Reporter’s intrepid adventures.

Book details

ISBN: 9781840226478
Publisher: Wordsworth Editors
Year of publication: 1907

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