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

Five Red Herrings

By Dorothy L. Sayers

Rating: 2 stars

Lord Peter Wimsey is spending some time hanging around artists in the Scottish Borders when one of them is murdered. It turns out that any of about half a dozen people could have done it and he ends up helping the police with their enquiries.

I must confess that I found this one a bit difficult to wrap my head around. Keeping track of all the suspects, their motives, stories and alibis got quite tricky, and the fact that travel was important made it difficult as well, as the train timetable became central. Not to mention little things that would have been so common as to be barely worth mentioning in Sayers’ day but because train travel has changed so much in the last eighty or so years, it’s confusing when she talks about bicycles being ticketed separately to the person and held in a different compartment, and rather than taking it in, you’re left going, ‘eh’? Oh, and the idea of trains mostly running to timetable as well seems less than credible!

Lord Peter is a fun protagonist, ever cheerful and bimbling about in an inoffensive way that ferrets out information without people even noticing, and yet with an edge that lets him push if he has to. Neither he, nor the rest of the cast, get much in the way of character development – I suppose with six suspects, hangers on and a number of police officials, there just wasn’t room for it. I certainly struggled to keep things clear in my head, even with the handy list near the start and the police recap near the end.

I wasn’t sure about writing the Scottish characters in dialect to start with, but it did grow on me and I was enjoying it by the end. I also laughed out loud at Sayers’ little wink to camera in a section near the start where Wimsey is frantically searching for something to do with the murder and when the policeman asks what it is, the author puts in an insert to the effect that Wimsey tells him, but leaves it hidden from the reader, in a very post-modern way.

So enjoyable enough and it wouldn’t put me off reading more Wimsey stories, but it’s definitely one that needs attention and to be read in reasonable chunks.

Book details

ISBN: 9780450038457
Publisher: New English Library
Year of publication: 1931

Unnatural Death (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries, #3)

By Dorothy L. Sayers

Rating: 4 stars

A chance conversation leads Lord Peter Wimsey to investigate a case that the doctor is convinced is murder, but all the evidence points to a natural death. But as he investigates further and the bodies start to rack up, it’s a race to find the murderer before he becomes one of the victims.

Although I’m a bit of a fan of Agatha Christie and like that style of whodunnit, I’ve never read anything by Dorothy L. Sayers, but a mystery-loving friend of mine has talked about her in the past and I found this in a second hand bookshop. Peter Wimsey is an interesting character, more self-doubting than, say, Hercule Poirot but putting on a whimsical face. He’s got his sidekick in the form of his butler Bunter, and the the police inspector Charles Parker as well as Miss Climpson, an elderly spinster who is employed to make the sort of discrete enquiries that only an elderly lady of a certain variety can.

While some casual racism exists in the book, I thought it was interesting to see how Sayers portrayed it as the lower classes who engaged most in it, while the aristocrat Lord Peter and middle class Inspector Parker treat Hallelujah Dawson most sympathetically. It’s difficult to know where the author fell along this axis, but I’m tempted to say that she sided with her protagonist on this. The language, of course, is shocking to modern ears, with the ‘N’ word thrown around quite casually, but of course, it’s a product of its time, and like I say, I think it’s handled well, and in service of the plot, by the author.

I enjoyed the story, the mystery and the writing here and I’ll certainly look out for more of Lord Peter’s[*] adventures

[*] although in my head the ‘Lord’ honorific normally goes along with a title or surname, it seems that Lord Peter isn’t the heir to the family title (the Duchy of Denver), so as second son, the honorific goes with the first name

Book details

Publisher: Four Square Books
Year of publication: 1927

Storm Front (The Dresden Files, #1)

By Jim Butcher

Rating: 3 stars

Harry Dresden is a wizard who lives in Chicago. Unlike all the other wizards, he’s in the Phone Book, under ‘Wizard’. Yes, this gets him crank calls, but also enough real ones, not to mention a retainer with the Chicago PD’s ‘weird crimes’ unit, to (barely) make a living. Now he has to find a missing husband and solve a murder committed with magic while avoiding the wrath of his professional body and the intricacies of the Chicago mob.

This book was slow to grow on me. I nearly gave up a few times within the first few chapters. I wasn’t liking our protagonist, and his cases weren’t grabbing me either. I’m glad I persevered though, as once I got into it, I did enjoy it. Dresden grew on me, as his combination of wannabe tough exterior and compassionate heart got him into scrape after scrape. Mind you, it was obvious that his cases were going to be linked from almost the start, and the identity of the killer wasn’t a huge leap either, but seeing how Dresden put the clues together was fun.

There’s obviously back story there, and it’s sort of nice to see how magic works in this world. Seeds have also been sown for the future, and enemies made who will obviously make Harry’s life miserable in future books. However, although I enjoyed this one, I don’t know when or if I’ll go back to his world.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356500270
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2000

Jack Glass

By Adam Roberts

Rating: 5 stars

This very clever, twisty, turny book tells the story, or rather, three, related, stories of the notorious murderer Jack Glass. We know that Jack is the murderer, we’re told right at the start, but the important questions are how and why. And where do the three little letters FTL fit in, and why are they so dangerous?

Other than his Doctor Who parody, Doctor Whom (which I didn’t like), I’ve not read anything by Adam Roberts, but I’d heard good things about this book and had heard that he was good at things that weren’t parody. I’m very glad I gave it a chance as I very much enjoyed this book. The language is gorgeous, going for the lyrical, poetical prose that I’m so fond of. The mystery is intriguing and I was true to form in failing to spot the root cause of the mystery (and went one better in the final story, by not remembering the Jack was the murderer and failing to figure out who it was (although can regain some credibility by figuring what what the murder weapon was).

The characters are interesting, especially the relationship between Diana (the young heiress and amateur detective in the second and third segments) and Iago, her tutor. The worldbuilding is also excellent. The idea of a solar system in turmoil is brought across very well, with the minimum of exposition and there are shades of Orwell in the idea of the trillions of ‘Sumpolloi’ barely surviving in the shanty bubbles of the solar system and trying to ferment revolution in the proletariat to overthrow the mysterious Ulanov clan, who rule the system with an iron fist.

I’ll certainly be looking out for more of Roberts’ work.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575127647
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2012

Altered Carbon (Takeshi Kovacs, #1)

By Richard K. Morgan

Rating: 4 stars

Takeshi Kovacs is a former Envoy, an elite military unit set up to maintain an interstellar empire run from Earth. At the beginning of the novel, Kovacs is killed on his homeworld, but this doesn’t stop many people in a world where everyone has a cortical stack implanted from birth which records their personality and memories. Kovacs wakes up to find himself in an unfamiliar body (sleeve) in the employ of one of the ultra-rich on Earth to solve the mystery of the “suicide” of his employer (who was re-sleeved immediately, but missing some of his most recent memories).

The world that Richard Morgan paints is pretty disturbing. Most people can’t afford to be resleeved during their lifetimes, but have insurance to resleeve them after they die. However, the experience of growing old, dying and then being reborn eventually puts people off, and only the ultra-rich can afford to be resleeved as they go along, accentuating the differences between the rich and poor.

The everyday folk resent the “Methuselahs” and so the police force takes only a cursory interest in the death of Kovacs’ employer, Bancroft. And we see evidence of corruption throughout the force, as well as the techniques that the Envoys used to enforce the rule of the Protectorate of Earth throughout the colony worlds.

There are some quite graphic scenes in the book as well, both of sex and of torture. The latter is particularly nasty because the same technology that allows human “souls” to be transferred between sleeves, can be used to download them into a virtual environment and torture them until they die. And then bring them back and do it all over again. That whole section left a nasty taste in my mouth, as it seemed to be there to just show how nasty and corrupt that the society was, and not for any plot reasons.

The mystery at the core of the book was interesting and kept me reading, along with Takeshi Kovacs himself. He proved to be a very interesting anti-hero, struggling with what he has done in the past and what he continues to do in order to get by in the world.

However, despite the relatively interesting plot, it was the backstory of the world and the few hints we got of Kovacs’ homeworld that were the most interesting, and something that I hope gets expanded in the sequels.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575081246
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2002

Sherlock Holmes: The complete illustrated novels

By Arthur Conan Doyle

Rating: 4 stars

This omnibus volume contains all four Sherlock Holmes novels by Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s a companion volume to Sherlock Holmes The Complete Illustrated Short Stories and is as beautifully illustrated as the other with the illustrations from the original serial publication in Punch and the other magazines of the day.

The four novels contained within are all well known, possibly excepting the last one. Holmes’ first appearance is in A Study in Scarlet, which sees Holmes and Watson take up residence at 221B Baker St; The Sign of Four isn’t really all that memorable a story of betrayal and revenge; The Hound of the Baskervilles is probably his most famous story; and The Valley of Fear is the only story, other than The Adventure of the Final Problem to mention Professor Moriarty (it was set before the latter, although written after).

The Valley of Fear resurrects the successful formula from A Study in Scarlet by having the mystery solved about half way through the book, and then a historical narrative to show how we got there in the first place.

The last one is the only one of the novels that I hadn’t read before, but you can’t really go that far wrong with a Holmes novel and I’ve enjoyed dipping back into Conan Doyle’s world to watch the master at work.

Book details

ISBN: 9781851520589
Publisher: Chancellor Press
Year of publication: 1966

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