Day: January 3, 2017

Death of an Old Girl

death-of-an-old-girlI enjoy vintage mystery novels quite a bit. I finally got around to picking up Elizabeth Lemarchand’s Death of an Old Girl at the end of 2016.  It was first published in 1967 – so I do not know how “vintage” that really is – but it is the first in her relatively famous “Pollard and Toye” series. Tom Pollard and Gregory Toye are two Scotland Yard detectives.  The series runs, at least, seventeen novels. It is the first Lemarchand (1906 – 2000) I have read.

The two novels that I read prior to this one were horrible disappointments. One and two stars were earned respectively. From the first page of this novel, I foresaw a good reading experience.  There was something immediately vintage and British about this novel and I could easily see the writing was a higher caliber than my previous reads.

The setting gave me some pause – I was concerned that a vintage girl’s private school in England could be a terribly boring setting. However, I also assumed that for her first mystery, Lemarchand was writing about something with which she had a good deal of familiarity. Let me reassure readers that although this is not the most exciting of settings, it is handled very nicely and does not become boring.

It is the end of semester and the school, Meldon, is having their annual get-together wherein the “old girls” are invited for supper and a meeting and, more or less, to gossip and reminisce. Most of the “old girls” enjoyed their time at Meldon and continue to look upon the school fondly.  Unfortunately, not all of the “old girls” are as welcoming to change and the future.  There is one in particular, Beatrice Baynes, who takes a keen interest in snooping around and keeping herself insinuated in every decision at the school. She even lives in her large mansion just on the road outside of the school’s gates.

Baynes is tolerated because the school is respectful and mannered, but also because Baynes is a heavy monetary contributor. Unfortunately, her financial contributions cannot be accepted without accepting her staunch suggestions and opinions about the running and maintenance of the school.  She also is the murder victim.

The cleaning lady finds Baynes’ body stuffed behind the puppet theatre stand in the art studio.Very undignified and also a strange location for Baynes to be found generally.

The Scotland Yard detectives get involved and the story really begins to focus on their investigation.  Now, there have been many police procedurals written in the mystery genre.  I have to believe, though, that this is one of the more thorough and detailed ones. Lemarchand literally takes every step with us. We make suspect lists and timelines together. We interview suspects and witnesses with nearly excruciating detail.  Yes, the story does get a bit boring – unless you are a big fan of investigations and deductions.  Now, if you are a fan of mysteries that are actually thrillers – this is not going to interest you at all and you will be angry reading it.

There are also a number of subplots that run alongside the main storyline.  Some of these help to develop our red herrings and suspicious persons.  The subplots involve boisterous wealthy people, romantic interests, whimsical young teachers, caretakers and groundsmen, and even family connections.  When the book blurb on the back cover shares that there are a lot of people who disliked Baynes and wanted her dead – that is not even the half of it.

Some of the supporting characters are likeable, some are detestable. All of them are realistic and convincing.  I think this is what really helps keep everyone guessing at who the criminal is right until the very end.  There is no character who stands out as more suspicious or obvious than the rest. Also, there are some supporting characters who are surprisingly introduced in such a subtle way that when they begin to take an active role in the investigation, it hardly seems remarkable that they were not there all along.

The two detectives from the Yard are fine. I do think they are the most diligent and detail-oriented detectives that I have ever read about.  I do not feel, though, that I have much else to say about that. I hope that in further novels in the series their personalities will develop and I can have more remarks about them.

There is a bit of wit and banter – all good-natured and fun-loving – between the policemen. It isn’t heavy-handed sarcasm and it brought little bits of lightness to an exceedingly detailed investigation. Made the whole thing not so droll and tedious.

You can’t commit murder without taking risks,” replied Inspector Beakbane. “It often holds me back.” pg. 135

Now because the book is such a detailed examination, it makes it seem longer than it is. And that means slower reading. And that means people with short-attention spans who seek thrills and chills will dislike it. I felt this was a nice comfy, intellectual mystery. I also appreciated the motive of the criminal and felt that the crime was tidied up nicely. If Lemarchand was still alive I would gladly tell her that I truly can see the effort that she used writing this novel and that I appreciate her attention to detail.

I will definitely read the next in the series and I am glad that I read this one. I am giving it a four-star rating especially for “apparent author effort.”

4 stars

Just One Damned Thing After Another

just-one-damned-thing-after-anotherJust One Damned Thing After Another is the first in Jodi Taylor’s “The Chronicles of St. Mary’s” series.  This novel was first published in 2013; as of this review there are eight novels.  This is one of the novels that was hanging around my household and was another effort to read something other than vintage mystery or science fiction. Honestly, I am not sure what genre this novel fits in, anyway.

So, I felt that this novel had a lot of potential.  And I really like what the author wanted to do, her overall concept. But I really disliked the way she did it. This was a disappointing read for me because I wanted something better.

The main character is Madeleine Maxwell.  She is presented to the reader straightaway as a little out of the norm. She is a difficult personality and yet also very bright.  Overall, the author writes the character with a lot of wit and that makes her rather likeable.  I do not always need character-driven stories. I mean, I rarely feel it enhances the story to “connect” in some way with the characters. Many times I approach characters as “elements” of a novel and I just need them to be functional and realistic. Shame on me, I know. It is always a good thing when I do not avidly actively dislike the main character.

So there is a grand idea here. The main character is hired by an independent research facility that operates alongside of, but not entirely in concert with, a university. And perhaps with some governmental funding. Its all rather shady and there is a bit of secrecy here. St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research hires and trains researchers: scientists and historians.

For time travel.

I know, I know. Everyone just grimaced and groaned. Because when has there ever been a successful novel about time travel? I get it – I see that the concept is just a sinkhole for authors. Hear me out, though….

This rendition of time travel does not involve any science. What I mean is:  there is no explanation of how the time travel works – it even reads quite a bit like a big box that gets powered up and goes Zap! into the past. Is this bad writing? No, because if you do not even try to get into how the thing works, it is a way to avoid making nonsense up about the whole thing!

And that is one of the problems I had with this book. The writing seems very flighty and all over the place. The plot is very busy and feels quite haphazard. It seemed like the author had a bunch of cool ideas she wanted her main character to experience, but that the author did not know how to weave them into a completed, homogeneous work.

The plot is really choppy and disjointed. And for such a wide open concept, all of the scenes and threads needed to be a lot smoother before this got published. Well, at least in my opinion. Since the series is on eight novels – and has a somewhat sincere following of readers, I suppose I am in the minority.  Anyway, when I say “choppy,” I mean that scenes are very quick and things happen and then there are other plot points that are mentioned and then we are given hints and a trajectory only to be whisked away from that path onto another unrelated one.

The author jams a lot of stuff in this book – but its all superficial stuff. At a Historical Research center I would truly really expect a little more depth and research on the author’s part.  I can overlook the superficial treatment of how the time travel works because its better than silly talk. But everything else cannot be that superficial, too. Maybe instead of trying to jam so much into one book, the author should have picked one general trajectory for the storyline, blended just two genres, and then written a more researched novel. Instead, this whole thing is a mess.

And there are two explicit sex scenes in this one – and neither scene is palatable. Both are near-rape scenes and obnoxious and stupid. These are the main reason I cannot recommend the book to anyone.

Finally, its painfully obvious that with all the creativity that the author has – and playing on such a large canvas – she should have been able to write a much more compelling story. It needed to be just plain old more interesting.  Now, sure, the main character is likeable; she is witty and snarky. But if readers can only appreciate the novel because of its snarky character, I think that demonstrates that it is not a completed work. It is not enough to merely write sarcasm.

2 stars

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La Comtesse

la-comtesseHere is the first “romance” novel that I have read. La Comtesse – Joan Smith (1978).  Well, to be honest, genres are kind of a messy topic anyway. I think I have read general fiction and science fiction novels with more “romance” in them – if, of course, we are speaking of the traditional definition of the word.  But I am certainly not going to define “romance,” either. So, this will be a difficult review to write and read if we cannot isolate what is being talked about.

Let me share a brief idea about why I read this novel. I don’t (in my mind) refer to this as a “romance” novel. I refer to it as a “non-machine-gun-pulp” novel.  This distinguishes it from “machine-gun-pulp.”  None of these terms are meant to be outright derogatory. I am very lazily looking at these two types of published fiction. One, theoretically marketed to appeal to a very feminine audience, the other to a very masculine audience. Both types very, very focused on the vague entertainment value other than any other sort of agenda or value. In the process of this exceedingly lazy evaluation of mine, I also have been toying with the influence of the French Revolution in every novel. Barring that, revolution in general. (Because when academics have nothing to do, we all talk about Vive La Republique etc….)

Please do not mistake anything I have said to be a serious inquiry. Really, its a boredom killer. I have dozens of these.

So, to the actual novel.  I read this thing and it took a lot longer than I would have expected. My expectations were that I would fly through this simple-minded drivel quickly and it would be as entertaining and with as much depth as a 1980s Saturday cartoon. To my sorrow, it was a slog. Pages and pages of boring. Muddy, sluggish boredom. Nothing happens. And even when the nothing that is expected happens, it is even more boring than it should be.

The main character is a fellow is a member of the aristocracy. He is vaguely “employed” to help The State find out who this audacious woman, La Comtesse, is.  This woman has been prancing around all the best places with all the best people and she is on the tip of everyone’s tongue and on the forefront of everyone’s mind. She is allegedly beautiful and charming and even a bit exotic.  However, the fellow who employs the main character thinks that she is a sly, spying hussy.

This is the biggest surprise of the whole book:  the absolute vehemence and wrath that this minor character displays toward La Comtesse.

In the end, La Comtesse is not really La Comtesse. And there is family drama. And she is not an evil hussy. And happily ever after, I guess.

Napoleon is referred to. A lot.

Its a clean novel -no sex or violence or cussing. But it also lacks in the very things that one would demand of any novel:  good dialogue, intriguing plot, red herrings/misdirections, adventure, etc.  So, if La Comtesse is to be this fascinating star and instead all of her conversations make her seem snippy and fickle, it basically tears the plot apart since the reader is entirely unconvinced of this supposed star of the Season. She is entirely undelightful.

I am not surprised that this was a tedious read or that it didn’t really interest me. I will not condemn it because it is a genre I dislike or that the plot is unappealing. I will, however, complain that it is unconvincing – and that, really, is probably one of the strongest criticisms of any novel. I am mad that it was not (and none of the characters were)… charming.

1 star

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