Mystery

Peril at End House

perilPeril at End House is my latest read Agatha Christie novel. I read The Mystery of the Blue Train earlier this year, but I did not write a review. That is the sort of novel that does not really need to be looked into any further. Christie’s personal troubles during that novel do seem to have spilled over into her writing of it – it is not a very good novel. There really is not much I can add to what has already been said about it dozens and dozens of times. However, Peril at End House was very good and seems to represent Christie back to form.

Peril at End House was published in 1932 and it is the sixth novel featuring Hercule Poirot. The story takes place in Cornwall, which is a place I have never been, but suspect would be nice to visit. In other words, I am immediately more kind to a novel that is set in a location I am interested in. Hastings is in this novel, too. He was sort of written out of the novels for awhile, so the fact that he is in this one makes me a happy reader.

There is an involved and heavily-populated storyline here. Lots of characters, it seems, which means a lot of suspects.  But I think a strong argument can be made that a large part of the novel depicts the relationship between Poirot and Hastings. I hesitate to say that in 2017. Makes it sound untoward. Poirot is very insufferable in this novel – to those that find him annoying. No matter how obnoxious or arrogant he is, Poirot never seems to get on my nerves. However, I can see how he vexes others, including Hastings. The interactions between Poirot and Hastings are often the best parts of the novel. I do feel bad for Hastings – whenever he gets the upper hand on Poirot, Poirot quickly redirects their attention to something else instead of conceding defeat.

Hastings is so naive and harmless, sometimes I wonder how readers are not more annoyed by him than Poirot?

“You would say that! It would appeal, I know, to your romantic but slightly mediocre mind. Buried treasure – yes, you would enjoy that idea.”

Poirot is tough on him, but only because Christie is trying to be tough on the reader. Hastings sometimes represents that reader that wants their stories to be as fantastic and outrageous as possible. On one hand a reader seeking for wild entertainment and romantic elements – on the other, Poirot seeking methodological deductions. Describing Hastings to another character (in front of Hastings), Poirot says:

“He is, to begin with, reluctant to see evil anywhere, and when he does see it his righteous indignation is so great that he is incapable of dissembling.  Altogether a rare and beautiful nature. No, mon ami, I will not permit you to contradict me. It is as I say.”

That does describe Hastings perfectly and succinctly and it is significant to note that Poirot calls this both “rare” and “beautiful.”  Its also aggravating and appalling. But Poirot seems to enjoy having this personality around him, even though it frustrates him. Just as, we know very well, Hastings is sometimes thoroughly frustrated with Poirot.

The situation in the resort town St Loo is that it seems someone is trying to kill “Nick” Buckley. Buckley is a rather rambunctious young lady who has ownership of End House, a dilapidated old home around which the resort area has developed. Buckley is called “Nick” as reference to her grandfather, who owned End House, and their close relationship.

Nick has a number of guests, friends and acquaintances, that seem to revolve around her home. The lives of these folk has a rather bohemian feel to it, they are all in this little town drawn there because of some connection to Nick, but yet, it does not seem that they are really there because of her, either.  There is a feeling of lazy, youthful socialites.  This is the most difficult part of the novel for me:  why are all these people here? It feels like some weird parasitical group-up with these people.

Christie pulls off something like what she did in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but not exactly. It works, though, because it does suit the character’s temperament, making it seem genuine and obvious. In reality, Christie is really skilled at making the reader fall for whatever she wants them to. The reader will follow Christie like a lemming and then be surprised whenever Christie pulls the curtain aside.

Overall, the storyline is interesting, the characters are really well written and distinct, and Poirot is totally obnoxious. It is not the greatest mystery ever written, but it is a charming read.

4 stars

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The Carter of La Providence

The Carter of La ProvidenceThe Carter of La Providence (also known as The Crime at Lock 14 and Le Charretier de la Providence) by Georges Simenon is one of the Inspector Maigret novels. I believe it was the second one.  It definitely is the second one I have read and I have mixed feelings about it. It was first published in 1931 in Belgium.

Having grown up on an island and amidst rivers and lakes, having wiled away many an afternoon watching boats come through locks, I did appreciate the setting of this story. But I like the setting much more than the story itself. Simenon also made the weather lousy.  So, not only is the story set on the Marne Canal in Northern France, it is raining, muddy, and generally dismal. A perfect location for the bulky, sulking main character:  Inspector Maigret.

There were two or three patches of sky where the sunlight still lingered, but the rain was coming down more and more heavily. -pg 49

Maigret is as expected – rock-solid.  He ponders a lot and does not share one bit of what he is thinking.  He seems demanding and grumpy.  Maigret interrupts people when they talk, stomps around in the mud, and thinks heavy thoughts. So, if murder was not grim enough, when Maigret is added to the storyline, things get heavy.  Why do I like Maigret? Well, probably because unlike Poirot or Lord Wimsey, Maigret is the noir figure. Unlike Whimsey’s hyperactivity and Poirot’s “little gray cells,” Maigret seems to use brute force to conquer mysteries.  But not physically.  It is as if Maigret confronts mental challenges with a bull-like resistance and then overpowers them. From Maigret, I can see derivatives in Stuart Kaminsky’s Inspector Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov and Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther characters.

Unfortunately, Maigret kept a little too much to himself this time around. I feel that because the reader was not privy to most of Maigret’s deductions, it made Maigret’s movements seem very random.  Further, the actual resolution seemed a bit too convoluted. Or something. Its just not a resolution that I found reasonable.

Also, the basic ingredients of the story did not appeal to me. Old weird people on a “pleasure boat” seemingly idle, drunken, and pointless sicken me. Bohemian leeches, hang-ons, bored socialites… none of these people are ones that I want to have anything to do with. Still, I admit that they add to the heaviness of the setting; the novel feels full of sluggish muddy elements. A character is describing one of the yacht-riders to Maigret:

“A dead weight.  A beautiful woman who is incapable of existing except on a couch, smoking cigarettes and drinking sweet liqueurs.  She started the day she first came on board and has been doing it ever since. . . . Oh sorry:  she also plays cards. I think it’s the only thing that really interests her.” – pg. 56

This is good writing. From this description I can really picture this creature. I was not around in the 1920s/1930s, but it seems like this sort of character was everywhere.  I imagine such a person to be something like a flapper-chick who has gone rotten and just oozes over chaise-lounges and smokes endlessly.

The resolution seemed a little less resolving – and maybe that is Simenon’s fault.  He set up some wonderful red herring-suspects and he gave us a truly weird character swirled in the middle of the muddy locks to wonder about. But the solution seemed almost unrelated or cobbled together.  I just didn’t like it. Came too quickly, from out of nowhere, and did not go in a more expected direction, I guess.

Overall, it’s not really a good read. However the unique setting and the brooding Maigret manage to make the story worthwhile. I want to read more Maigret, but this one is unnecessary. Its a shame because…. locks….

2 stars

The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag

weed-that-strings

2010, Alan Bradley (Bantam Books)

The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag by Alan Bradley is the second novel in the Flavia de Luce series. I read the first one and knew that I would read the second.  The first was published in 2009 and this novel was released in 2010. I gave the first novel four stars and I will do the same with this one.

I have found that these novels either appeal to readers or readers cannot tolerate them. I confess that I am under Flavia’s spell. I think she is splendid and I enjoy following her detective exploits around the countryside. Now, I do not think the negative comments regarding the novel are all invalid, but I very uncharacteristically find the novels so charming that it outweighs any flaws. Such an unbalanced view of novels is rare and I admit that usually I am preaching about the completeness and fullness of works.

Bishop’s Lacey and Environs is actually very key in providing much of the charm of the novel. It is possible that Flavia would be equally captivating in other settings, but I really enjoy the pastoral country setting in which she pursues her mischief. The historical aspects of the war hang around and the astute reader should be able to pick up some of this darkness lurking just outside of the view of the novel. Were it not for Flavia’s brightness, a definite heaviness would overtake the story.

Some readers are turned off by the fact that Flavia is as “smart” as she is. They find it difficult to get beyond the fact that this eleven-year old girl is probably stronger in chemistry than they are. I think they may forget that without a TV, computers, and ridiculous distractions, a child can actually be very smart and learn a great deal from books and experiment. Flavia is “lucky” in that she lives in an old country manor which provides her resources many children her age would not have. She has a private laboratory and hundreds of books/journals/magazines to pour over and experiment from. In fact, this is how she spends her free time.

Because at the end of the day, it is not Flavia’s intelligence that is remarkable. It is actually her initiative, curiosity, and independence that makes her so great. She is never, really, a bored child and she entertains herself by motivating herself. That is something that is uncommon and it is entirely refreshing to read about.  That’s the main thing that I love about reading these novels. I love how Flavia does not just sit on her duff all day, but has dozens of projects she is continuously working on.  And often these projects are just for the sake of doing/making – not for profit or under duress.

Flavia also has a keen wit regarding adults and their interactions with children. She seems to be just old enough to be able to wheedle and wriggle whatever she wants from adults. Some might call her a bit deceitful, but it seems typical of her age group.  Having independence, yet still requiring so much from adults. She often treats them as if they are her equal, but yet putting on a variety of faces depending on what she wants or what the adult thinks she might be.  Flavia is the ultimate actress and because we see everything through her viewpoint, she thinks she has adults wrapped around her finger.  In reality, if the viewpoint were switched, it is clear that many adults find her difficult, annoying, but also unique and intelligent.

Overall, though, the plots of the two novels in the series leave me rather unimpressed. Oh, I suppose the mysteries are tied up effectively and the number of red herrings and clues is commensurate with the crimes.  Flavia does solve the mystery – to the consternation of the local police.

“You’re right, of course, Sergeant.  We don’t have the same entreé to the homes and hearths of Bishop’s Lacey, do we? Its an area in which we could do better.” – Inspector Hewitt pg. 340.

If Flavia doesn’t play entirely fairly with the adults in Bishop’s Lacey – she also does not with the reader. We follow her around and enjoy her conversations, however, most of her deductions she keeps to herself.  This is probably why the last few chapters, as Flavia explains things to the adults she remains so fascinating and marvelous.

The crime in this novel is actually related to a previous event that took place in Bishop’s Lacey. In a sense, Flavia solves two crimes in this novel.  However, the pieces that connect the two events are really pushing the limits into the outlandish. I mean, it does seem a bit convoluted. It is all possible and understandable, but I am not certain how plausible it is. It would be easy to be skeptical of these things.

Chapter Four contains Flavia at her wittiest. There is a chunk where she thinks about Beethoven, and this has nothing to do with the mystery, but it is laugh aloud worthy. Enjoy it! I do not think I can think of Beethoven again without Flavia’s thoughts on the matter. Well done, Bradley! So, I definitely enjoyed this novel. I think it is more or less suitable for most readers, although, certain events in this one are a little disturbing. Because, truly, murder is fundamentally disturbing.

4 stars

Death at Crane’s Court

death-at-cranes-courtDeath at Crane’s Court by Ellis Dillon (1920 – 1994) was first published in 1953.  I read the Perennial Mystery Library edition of 1988 with cover by Bradley Clark. This is the first novel I have read by Dillon – not too surprising a fact since Dillon is only known for very few mystery novels. I would definitely read more of her works, though.  She was born in Galway, Ireland and several of her novels take place there.

In this particular novel, however, the setting did not play a major rôle whatsoever.  I actually would have preferred if it had more significance. I was hoping for a more culturally-flavored story, I think

Crane’s Court is a “hotel” (older meaning of the term) near Galway. The hotel has a new owner and he arrives via train with one of the new residents of the hotel. The new owner is found murdered not much more than a month after his arrival and the suspects are multiple since the majority of the residents are: hunters/sportsmen, senile and crazed, invalids/infirm.

Everyone, it seems has motive, opportunity, and is in agreement regarding their negative feelings toward the new owner:  John Burden.  The story begins following the travels of George Arrow to his new home at Crane’s Court. And as plain and easy-going as George is as a character, the novel is really stolen completely by the enigmatic and vociferous Professor Daly.

Issues that face the detective, Inspector Mike Kenny, are the facts that the residents of the hotel are members of a past-age wherein many would have been upper class and therefore not subservient to lawmen and the public justice. They all still dress for dinner. The location of teatime in the facility is a major item of contention. In other cases, the senile and/or crazed residents are treated with just as much privilege as their peers. But, rather than living in a familial and warm community, there is a great deal of competition, distrust, pettiness within Crane’s Court. Some of this is due to eccentricities of old age, some of this is due to social status.

I wanted to like this novel a whole lot more than I did. There are a number of red herrings, but the clues are slim. All of the characters are recklessly unique and some of them are charming. But throughout, I felt any one of them could turn and reveal their hidden maniacal side. I was never sure when each character really was cleared of suspicion.

And it is not a fair-play novel. For the most part the reader follows Inspector Kenny around as he questions the residents and suspects, but the reader is not privy to any of his conclusions or argumentation. Toward the end of the book, the real surprise is almost how much work Kenny has done “off-stage.”  In fact, a lot seems to happen off stage and maybe filling in some of these gaps would have made a more rounded novel.

At the end, if I am being bluntly honest, I am not sure I think the guilty character is perfectly convincing – although it is all explained sufficiently. And I don’t think I really like any of the characters. I mean, they would be fine to read a short novel about, but I do not think I would turn my back on any of them.

This novel would not disappoint any vintage readers or mystery readers. I think it actually falls closer to a four-star rating, but I always rate low when books are in the middle unless there is just some overwhelming reason to do otherwise. The Professor could have been one of those reasons – he is definitely the most engaging of the group. I found him, sometimes, to be a little creepy and weird (the glib are disconcerting).

3 stars

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

The Inspector and Mrs. Jeffries

Inspector and JeffriesNeeding a light, quick, easy read to balance some of my other activities – Kwando training, Iron Palm training, Jurgen Habermas efforts…. I grabbed this first book in Emily Brightwell’s (Cheryl Lanham) long Mrs. Jeffries series. Currently, there are thirty-four novels in the series. The Inspector and Mrs. Jeffries was released in 1993.

This is not a deep read fit for the Vienna Circle. It is a little entertaining novel set in Victorian England.  “The Inspector” is tasked with solving a murder in which a neighborhood doctor is found poisoned. The Inspector’s household, led by his head housekeeper, all get into solving the crime behind the scenes.

The whole novelty of the series is that the Inspector is a bit of a daft dolt and his widowed housekeeper, Mrs. Jeffries, is actually the true detective.  She prefers to stay in the background and work the cases unbeknownst to the Inspector.  Jeffries uses a little deceit and encouragement to get the Inspector to share his thoughts on his cases and to get him to follow up on her investigations.

At the end of the day, the truth is, Mrs. Jeffries is bossy and a bit grating – even if her intentions are good.  The Inspector is unbelievably idiotic and for that, quite frustrating.  However, these characters are also just endearing enough to make reading them entertaining and worthwhile.

The case in this novel was a murder-by-poison. Blackmail and other deceits were part of the story. A number of characters were set up as possibly having motive and opportunity. But, overall, since the deceased was very much disliked, it was hard to care about the case. It is far more interesting watching Jeffries engage the rest of the household in her investigative capers.

It is a basic easy reader. Nothing more, nothing less.

2 stars

Why Shoot a Butler?

Why Shoot a ButlerThis year I have mainly read vintage science fiction novels. While that remains my preferred genre, I do like to read just about everything else as well. However, I admit, the other genres usually do not entertain me or engage me as successfully as the science fiction. So, giving space and aliens and the future of humanity a break, I spent some time in the household library digging out non-science fiction novels. Georgette Heyer’s (1902 – 1974) Why Shoot a Butler? was one of those. I believe it was first published in 1933. I believe it is Heyer’s second true-detective story, however she did write several other novels prior to this one.

Anyway, I enjoyed this novel as expected. It took me a moment to get used to the writing style and the diction of the characters. For one thing, the characters are all very sarcastic and until you get used to their remarks, it can be odd. The main character is introduced to the reader as he is en route to a country manor house, surly because he will arrive late for supper.  Heyer is upfront about Frank Amberley; she shares with us at several points that he can be abrasive and unlikable. Well, I never disliked him – but I never came to side with him, either. He is pompous and arrogant. Nevertheless, he is the detective in this story (his actual occupation is that of a barrister.) And he stumbles upon the murdered butler in chapter one.

Anyone who enjoys settings in the English countryside with manor homes and game preserves and little cottages will probably appreciate Heyer’s work here. There does seem to be a dizzying amount of twisting, half-paved country roads.  Still, she does not give in to long descriptions detailing the lawns, gardens, rooms, and decor of the area. Maybe, just maybe, I could have read a few more lines about all of this. Not much more, mind you.

It is good that the title is a question. This is not, as they say, a “fair-play” novel. I don’t mind that at all. Heaven knows I am not getting paid to be detective! I want to be entertained, not play Inspector! I am given to understand that some readers dislike not having an honest shot at solving mystery novel crimes. The title is a question and throughout there will be a lot of questions. Heyer provides a sketchy crime and a number of possible suspects. More than anything, however, the motive is hidden from the reader, and I could see that being somewhat frustrating.

“Why did he come snooping up here? Don’t say because he was tight, because I shall be sick if I hear that again.  If I went bursting into a strange house and tried to shoot up the place and then said I was tight by way of excuse, would you be satisfied with that? Like hell you would! That chap wanted to shoot up someone to start with.  Then he had four or five drinks and thought: By Jove, I’ll go straight off and do it.  Don’t tell me that just because a fellow’s three sheets in the wind it’s the natural reaction for him to get hold of a gun, stagger off several miles to a house he’s never been near before, and turn it into a shooting gallery. It’s childish.”  – pg. 109, Chapter Seven

This sort of sentiment is probably going to be felt by the reader, too. It always seems like events keep happening but we don’t have any idea why they should keep happening other than there is a reason out there somewhere.

Also, while I do not think there is a significant amount of gunplay, it did amuse me that Frank Amberley seems to be quite often coming upon handguns and depositing them in his coat pockets. Heyer never bothers to tell us what he does with them; I think it safe to assume he does something sane and reasonable. But it is fun to imagine this fellow walking around with every pocket containing a handgun.

Most readers seem to like Heyer’s characters – she seems to be well-known for creating likeable, interesting, and curious characters. In this novel the characters are somewhat face-value, no one undergoes a grand change in personality or development. They are all unique in their way, except for the police force.  All of the policemen are absolute bumbling idiots and are constantly being mocked for it. My favorite character in the novel is Lady Matthews who is Amberley’s aunt.

“Can’t talk in a public lounge, dear child.  So unwise. They always do it in bad thrillers, and it invariably leads to disaster.” – pg. 224, Chapter Fifteen

The majority of the novel contains a lot of back-and-forth movement. Driving, riding, pedaling, and walking back and forth to the three or four main locations. Honestly, it gets a bit dizzying and annoying. The dénouement is overly long – I stopped caring long before the characters stopped talking about the events. Sure, I guess it explains everything, but in a drawn out way that is unnecessary.

Recommended for fans of English countryside mysteries and vintage mysteries. I would gladly read Heyer again. I will miss Lady Matthews, though…

3 stars