The Perfume of the Lady in Black

By Gaston Leroux

Rating: 2 stars

The shadow of the villain of The Mystery of the Yellow Room looms large over this book. The fear of Larsan causes terror and almost hysteria in almost every major character, to quite a wearying degree. It felt really overdone to me, to the point where I mostly just stopped caring. Our detective, Rouletabille, is a shadow of his previous self here, as he quakes in terror of Larsan, and some personal stuff relating to the eponymous Lady in Black, quite removing his ability to drive the plot in any meaningful way until right at the end of the book.

While I’d enjoyed The Mystery of the Yellow Room, the overwrought writing style here feels very different. The narrator is attempt to install a sense of dread in the reader. To this reader, at least, it backfired badly.

On top of that, the physical book that I had didn’t do the story any favours. It looks like a badly OCR-ed print-on-demand edition with so many typos that really distract from the story. It’s also printed on a page size larger than a standard paperback, making the lines just slightly too long to read comfortably, and is missing at least one illustration – the plan of the castle where most of it takes place, which would have been very useful in visualising what was going on (although there is a large gap in the text to indicate where it should be).

The book is in the public domain, but doesn’t seem to be on Gutenberg yet (if anyone wants to undertake that, there’s a scanned copy of the book at Hathitrust).

I’d say this may be of historical interest, but I didn’t find the plot engaging, or the characters particularly interesting.

Book details

ISBN: 9781533186461

Wages of Sin

By Kaite Welsh

Rating: 2 stars

Sarah Gilchrist is a female medical student in 1892 Edinburgh, living with relatives after being exiled by her family after a scandal, and struggling to manage her studies and the disdain of both faculty and fellow students. She also spends evenings working in a poor hospital, and when she finds one of the patients on her dissection table the next day, she can’t let it go.

Firstly, I wonder if “Sarah” Gilchrist is a reference to Marion Gilchrist, who was getting her medical doctorate (the first woman to get such a qualification in Scotland), on the other side of the country, in Glasgow, at around the same time as this book is set.

Anyway, aside from possible coincidences of nomenclature, I struggled a bit with this book, although I whizzed through it. It’s not huge, and I got through it in an afternoon off work. Sarah is incredibly impulsive, not hesitating to trail men into the worst parts of the city. And, as we learn, she should really know better. She’s also very mistrustful of men, being quick to see any action in the worst light, and being ready to believe the worst of them. We find out why this is, and what has happened to her is truly awful, but it’s still frustrating to see her making poor decision after poor decision.

And you might expect solidarity from her fellow female students, but they’re under the thumb of class mean girl Julia and keep their distance, at best. I assume that Welsh is isolating Sarah on purpose, to make us empathise more with her, but it’s also exhausting to read.

She doesn’t even really solve the mystery. The mystery solves her, more or less, and it comes completely out of the blue. I know I’m not good at figuring out whodunnit, but I don’t know that there were any clues here at all. And I also don’t really get the murderer’s actions towards the end of the book. The attempt on Sarah’s life seems entirely unnecessary, given how clueless the girl was. There was another person who it would have made more sense to silence, but maybe it was deliberate – the author showing the murderer’s judgement slipping and them making mistakes?

I’m not that familiar with Edinburgh, but enough of the ancient city has survived intact to the modern era that I was able to follow the famous streets and landmarks that Sarah lives amongst (unlike poor Glasgow which had a shovel taken to its heart after WW2). Still, it’s nice to see something set in Scotland, rather than London, which always seems to be where murderers and detectives set up shop.

So, I sympathised a lot with Sarah’s predicament – I can’t imagine the strength of will necessary to recover from what happened to her, and then deal with the scorn of trying to do a medical degree in that period as well. But I found many of her actions bizarre and unreasonable, and I never really saw why she got so obsessed with this murder over any of the others that must be happening in the city at any given time. I’ll not be searching out any more of her adventures, I don’t think.

Book details

ISBN: 9781472239822
Year of publication: 2018

Station Eternity (The Midsolar Murders, #1)

By Mur Lafferty

Rating: 4 stars

Mallory Viridian is tired of being a murder magnet – wherever she goes people are killed, and she can’t help but solve them. Trying to get away from it all, following first contact, the sentient space station Eternity agrees to take her in, and she becomes one of only three humans allowed on the station. Until the day that Eternity decides to allow more humans to visit. And then the murders start.

This was a mystery that was a lot of fun, with some great world-building. Humans (i.e. the military), newly introduced to galactic society, are, as usual, terrified and want weapons that will “protect them” from the aliens. The aliens are really interesting, and this is a universe where most races can form symbiotic bonds with other sentients, something that humans don’t seem to be able to do. That symbiosis is important throughout the novel in different ways. The different species are all interesting in their own way, from the rock-like Gneiss, to the insect-like hivemind of the Sundry.

As well as Mallory, our secondary PoV character is Xan, a former soldier who’s been granted sanctuary on Eternity. How his story intersects with Mallory’s is an important facet of the story. And then we have the aliens. They’ve got translator bugs, like the Babel Fish, but more painful (for humans) to have implanted which seem to translate their names to innocuous human names, which is a lovely little touch. And then there’s the point that a universal translator would only translate spoken words – our humans still really struggle on Eternity because they can’t read any of the signs. In all my years of reading science fiction, this is something that I’ve never even considered, but is a really neat touch.

I enjoyed spending time with Mallory and would definitely want to watch her solve another case (although, maybe from afar!).

Book details

ISBN: 9780593098110
Publisher: Ace
Year of publication: 2022

The Spare Man

By Mary Robinette Kowal

Rating: 4 stars

Firstly, and most importantly, NOTHING HAPPENS TO THE DOG. I was ready to throw the book across the room if Kowal had let ill happen to the adorable Gimlet. Thankfully, despite some mild peril, she was fine. So other than dog-diddling shennigans, this book sees newlyweds Tesla and Shal taking an interplanetary cruise for their honeymoon, something that is rudely interrupted when there’s a murder on the ship, and, worse, her spouse is arrested for it. Not content with leaving things to her lawyer, Tesla can’t help but start to investigate the crime.

This was a lot of fun. Our protagonist, Tesla Crane, is an heiress and billionaire. I think it’s difficult to make such a character relatable and sympathetic. It’s touch and go, but I think Kowal pulls it off here, although there are times when Tesla pulls a “Most Excellent Superbat” (i.e. throwing money at a problem until it goes away). I liked the role reversal of having Tesla’s spouse be a detective, but unable to detect because he was under suspicion of the crime, leaving her flailing a bit.

It was interesting to see a protagonist written with PTSD, who uses a service dog to help her cope, as well as chronic pain from an accident (that caused the PTSD). Gimlet, is, as I’ve said, adorable, but she seemed to function less as a service dog here, and more as a convenient distraction or bribe to get information. And Tesla was pushing her pain suppression device well beyond its safeties on a regular basis with no major repercussions (aside: why does it even allow the safeties to be bypassed? Was it designed by the same person who designed the Holodeck?).

There’s some fun stuff with pronouns, with gender-neutral being the norm and it being polite to include your pronouns when you introduce yourself. A(nother) indication that the security chief is a dinosaur (and a dick) is because he insists on using gendered titles. I loved when Tesla’s lawyer, Fantine, had to interact with him, and the increasingly invective, and inventive, terms of abuse she used (never missing a beat of her crocheting).

The author has made it clear that the book is based on The Thin Man and its sequels (specifically the films, not the books). I’m not familiar with either but I’m intrigued enough to look them out. The book was fun (notwithstanding the ostentatious displays and use of wealth) and I’d definitely look out for future adventures of Tesla and Shal (and Gimlet).

Book details

ISBN: 9781786188335
Publisher: Solaris
Year of publication: 2022

Spotlight (Miss Silver, #12)

By Patricia Wentworth

Rating: 4 stars

I was recommended Patricia Wentworth after reading an Ngaio Marsh book a few months ago. Having had various issues with that one, I thoroughly enjoyed this introduction to Wentworth.

Gregory Porlock is a blackmailer, who invites the various people he’s got stuff on to his home for a dinner party. He obviously goads someone too far, and he is murdered during the course of the evening. Miss Silver gets involved through a set of unlikely events and, in between bouts of knitting, soon sets things to rights.

I enjoyed this an awful lot. Wentworth sets the stage carefully, introducing us to Porlock and each of his guests and making us dislike the man intensely. The murder doesn’t happen until over a hundred pages in, and then the police investigation is the focus for quite some time. It’s not until well over half way through the book that Miss Silver makes her main entrance (although she’d had a cameo earlier).

I loved the interplay between her and police sergeant Frank Abbott. By this point in the series, Miss Silver is a known feature at Scotland Yard and the young Frank has taken a great shine to her, calling her his “revered preceptress”. His boss, chief inspector Lamb is less affectionate, but still respects her abilities a lot.

It was a great story, with good characterisation, and I’m impressed with how deftly Wentworth handled a large cast. I wasn’t wild about the very paternalistic relationship between Dorinda Brown and her cousin, Justin Leigh, but it’s very much of the period. Anyway, I shall definitely be looking out for more of Miss Silver’s handiwork.

Book details

ISBN: 9780340178331

In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns (Sub-Inspector Ferron Mysteries #1)

By Elizabeth Bear

Rating: 4 stars

This novella introduces us to Sub-Inspector Ferron, a detective whose latest case involves a person who has been literally turned inside out. And the only witness is a genetically engineered cat who’s been wiped (and ends up re-imprinting on Ferron). Set in a future India, we get brief, tantalising glimpses of a fractured world as Ferron and her lieutenant, constable Indrapramit, try to find out who could have killed the victim, and what their motive could have been. At the same time, she has to deal with her overbearing mother, and there are rumours of unusual activity in the region of the Andromeda galaxy.

There’ a lot packed into this novella. The world-building of the future that it’s set in is impeccable and very deftly handled. Throwing in parrot-cats, breakdown of nation states, immersive virtual reality and much more, while keeping us grounded with Ferron and Indrapramit. In amongst all this, the actual murder actually gets a little lost. I wasn’t surprised that I didn’t figure out who did it (I never do), but I still don’t really think I understand the why of it and what actually happened. But then, does it really matter, with such a wonderful world, and the intrigue of a signal from the stars?

Book details

Enter A Murderer

By Ngaio Marsh

Rating: 3 stars

Until recently I was completely unfamiliar with Ngaio Marsh but having heard the name, I checked with a mystery-loving friend who waxed enthusiastic and recommended this as a good place to start. We have Chief Detective Inspector Alleyn whose friend, the journalist Nigel Bathgate, invites him to a play, but unfortunately the fake murder on the stage becomes all too real.

I’m a fan of whodunnits of this period, but this one felt a little flat to me. I understand that this was only her second novel, so she was still learning the craft, I guess. I never entirely warmed to Alleyn. He seemed a bit smug all round to me, in a bit of a mean way, unlike someone like Hercule Poirot or Peter Wimsey, who are charming enough that you don’t mind them being smug.

The relationship between the detective and the journalist was weird too (who also happened to know one of the suspects). You’d never expect a journalist to be allowed so close to the investigation these days, certainly not enough to be able to act in the ‘Watson’ role. And you’d never expect them to be so okay with handing over their story for censorship.

So an interesting piece of work from an author I was unfamiliar with. As usual, I never guessed who the murderer was (not that that means much). I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’ve done Christie or Sayers, but enough that I’d look out for and pick up other work by Marsh.

Book details

ISBN: 9780006156505

Murder in Mesopotamia

By Agatha Christie

Rating: 4 stars

Amy Leatheran is brought in as a nurse to the wife of an eminent archaeologist who is on a dig in Iraq. Nurse Leatheran senses that all is not well on the dig, but is still shocked when there’s a murder. Thankfully, Hercule Poirot is in the vicinity and is called in to assist on the case.

I really enjoyed this mystery, with its evocative setting and intriguing characters. As Poirot says, the key to the murder is the psychology of the situation – especially that of the victim, and how her personality affected those around her.

The book is narrated in the first person by nurse Leatheran, who is a fun character to have in that role. She’s very prim and proper, and has the appropriate amount of British distrust of foreigners, although she does fall into playing the Hastings/Watson role with remarkable ease.

Something that I thought was quite odd was how unsympathetically that the female characters in the book spoke about other women. There are several women involved, starting with nurse Leatheran, and all of them often speak badly about both specific other women, and the female sex generally. I wouldn’t have been surprised by this if the book had been written by a man, but it wasn’t. Both Mrs Leidner, the woman that nurse Leatheran is here to look after, and Mrs Mercado, the wife of another member of the dig team, are described in particularly, one might say, catty, terms.

But leaving that aside, the mystery was intriguing, I enjoyed the characters a lot and, as usual, I completely failed to figure out whodunnit.

Book details

Publisher: Pan Books in association with Collins
Year of publication: 1981

The Nine Tailors:Changes Rung On An Old Theme in Two Short Touches and Two Full Peals

By Dorothy L. Sayers

Rating: 4 stars

I do enjoy a good classic whodunnit, and this was a lot of fun. It’s very evocative of place, with lush descriptions of the fens of England. And of time as well, although that may be more accidental, given that when it was published, it would have been pretty contemporary. But reading it now, it’s a wonderful window into society of the 1930s, where deference to wealth and titles were still prevalent, and the idea of not duffing up witnesses/suspects to get the answers you wanted was a pretty new concept, that the police were only grudgingly coming around to.

The mystery kept me interested all the way through and I learned more about the art and science of campanology than I ever needed or wanted to! Assuming that Sayers isn’t lying to me and that nine hour peals did (do?) happen, I’m very glad I don’t live near to a church with a rector keen on the subject!

Peter Wimsey is a protagonist I enjoy reading. Between him and Bunter, there’s a bit of Jeeves and Wooster to the pair, although Peter is much more competent than poor old Bertie! A fun story, with a clever solution and great descriptions.

Book details

Publisher: Victor Gollancz, London
Year of publication: 1954

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

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress