There were a few options for this post this week, but in the end I’ve settled on a really good locked room mystery, because those are so satisfying when done right – and this is really done right!
Dick Markham is in love (again). The object of the crime writer’s affection is Lesley Grant, a new arrival in his village. But when she accidentally shoots and injures a fortune teller at the village fete, he is told a story about her that is very different from the one that she tells about herself. Cast into confusion, he is asked to take part in a scheme to expose her as a serial poisoner – only for the person accusing her to be found murdered in exactly the way that he was told Lesley kills her victims: in an impossible locked room set up. Then Gideon Fell arrives on the scene to try and untangle the mystery.
It’s been a while since I read a locked room mystery, and this one is so clever. It is the first Gideon Fell mystery that I have read – although I read another of John Dickson Carr’s novels earlier in the year, and gave another Fell lined up already. But I can see why this one in particular has such an impressive reputation. It’s really pacy and makes you feel completely off balance as a reader because it twists and turns around so much you’re never really sure what you think – or what you’re meant to think. And I can’t really say any more about it than that because it gives too much away – even writing the plot summary was tricky! Anyway, give it a look for yourself.
My copy of Til Death Do Us Part came via my Kindle Unlimited subscription, but it’s a British Library Crime Classic, so when it cycles out of KU it should be available on all the major ebook platforms. And of course you can buy it in paperback direct from the British Library Bookshop online.
As you know, it was Book Conference over the weekend, so it seemed like this week’s Recommendsday should be related to Girl’s Own in some way. We had a post about mysteries set in boarding schools not that long ago, so today I’m doing books set in theatres – not all mysteries, not all Girls Own!
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
I am going to start with a Girl’s Own book though – because Noel Streatfeild wrote a lot of books with heroines who were involved in the theatre. Ballet Shoes is the most famous though, and has one of the great eccentrics of the genre too in Great Uncle Matthew – or Gum – who is a fossil collector who turns traveller after he is injured and starts collecting babies instead (don’t worry, it makes more sense in the book). When he goes missing while travelling and the money starts to run out, Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil (but mostly Pauline because she’s the oldest) use their acting and dancing skills to earn some extra money. It’s charming, it’s got great details about the backstage life of children in the theatre and all the secondary characters are wonderful too. And it’s still in print nearly 90 years after it was first published.
Cinderella Goes to the Morgue by Nancy Spain
This follows on quite nicely from Ballet Shoes, as it’s a satirical murder mystery that features exactly the sort of show that the Fossil girls star in as juveniles. In Cinderella Goes to the Morgue Spain’s regular heroines, Miriam and Natasha, are taking part in a pantomime in a fictional town in the provinces; with a local mayor who seems to be more involved in the theatre than in running the town. There are murders, but as with Nancy Spain’s other mysteries, it’s more about the absurdity than it is about solving the crime.
The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths
When a young woman is found brutally murdered in Brighton in 1950, there is something about the crime which reminds Detective Inspector Stephens of a magic trick. He seems the help of the trick’s inventor, the magician Max Mephisto, who he also happens to have served with in a secretive unit in the war. This is the first in the series which sees Edgar and Max investigating various crimes, some with a theatrical link, some while Max is juggling a job in the theatre. They’re not precisely cozy historicals, but they’re not exactly radically gruesome either – think Agatha Christie at her darkest. I’ve read the first three in the series, but there are three more now – with another out in the autumn.
Wise Children by Angela Carter
This has featured in a Recommendsday before, but it was five years ago so it’s well outside the statute of limitations! Nora and Dora Chance are the illegitimate twin daughters of a pillar of the theatrical establishment. They’re about to turn 75 – on the same day that their father is 100. Oer the course of the novel Dora tells the story of their lives before they head to the televised party that’s being thrown for their father. It’s got a huge cast of characters that might take you a while to get your head around and add to that the fact that it’s a magical realist sort of thing too. It was turned into a play a few years ago – which was shown on TV during the Covid Times (it might have been at Christmas, but all time merged into one back then) and I can confirm that the play was as mindbending and strange as the book is.
Maskerade by Terry Pratchett
I couldn’t resist adding this in – even though I’ve written plenty about Terry Pratchett’s books before. Maskerade is Terry’s take on Phantom of the Opera, except with witches and it’s just glorious. Agnes Nitt is a Lancre girl in the big city – singing the leading parts from the back row of the chorus while a prettier soprano mouths along. But when the Ankh Morpork Opera Theatre Ghost starts killing people, Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax head for the big city to try and keep her alive. Just writing that has made me want to read it again!
And let’s finish with some other theatre-y books that I’ve written about before – Acting Up and the other books in Adele Buck’s series are all theatre-set romances. And you could probably count Circus of Wonders and The Night Circus under this heading (if you squint a bit!). There’s also a whole string of Inspector Alleyn books that are set in the theatre – including the final one, The Light Thickens, but also earlier in the series Vintage Murder, Enter a Murderer and Opening Night and several others that feature actors or actresses but aren’t actually doing the killing in a theatre- including one of my favourites Final Curtain. For kids there’s also a theatre set entry in the Wells and Wong mystery series – Death in the Spotlight which has plenty of nods to the Alleyns if you’ve read them. And of course there’s the previously mentioned Girl’s Own ballet series – Sadlers Wells and Drina.
This week I’m going for a trilogy of country house-set mysteries that I’ve been revisiting in audiobook format about a decade or more after I first read them.
First published in the late 1970s, James Anderson is trying to recreate that Agatha Christie, Golden Age crime novel feeling, but with a bit of a knowing twist. In the first book for example, you’ve got a diamond theft, stolen antique guns, a diplomatic incident, unexpected guests and a body in the lake. And as the books go on you have a host who is very aware that every time he throws a house party bad things seem to happen and that’s a delight too!
The second book has a film star and his movie mogul producer, and the third a family funeral that turns murderous. All of them have the local detective Chief Inspector Wilkins presiding over the investigation, telling you all the time that he knows how they do it in books, but it’s not like that in real life! What’s not to love?
These should be fairly easy to get hold of – my original copies were the 2009-ish era Alison and Busby ones, with 1930s inspired covers in red and green and yellow, which you used to see fairly regularly at the library and in the charity shops. As you can see from the picture on the post, there’s another reissue since then (I think this year) with blues and lilacs for the covers. I haven’t seen these in the shops yet, but I will be looking in the crime section for them next time I make it into a bookshop!
So a slightly cheaty pick this week, as it’s not a book I haven’t read before, but as I finished the Phryne reread last week, I’m going to let myself break the rules!
Murder and Mendelssohn is the twentieth book in Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series and has a lot of the key threads in the series running through it. Inspector Jack Robinson asks Phryne for help investigating the murder of an unpopular conductor. Jack thinks the killer may come from among the choir he has been rehearsing so Phryne decides to infiltrate the choir and find out. But at the same time, one of her old friends from World War One is in town and needs her help keeping a mathematical genius alive.
My favourite Phrynes are the ones with a large cast of suspects, a love interest and a historical connection – and this has all of that. The full Fisher menage is here – with the exception of Lin Chung, and it has has Greenwood’s take on Sherlock Holmes in Rupert Sheffield, former codebreaker and current irritant to all around him except John Wilson.
I wouldn’t suggest you start the series here, because you’ll miss all the fun of getting to this point, but if you do make this your first taste of Miss Fisher, then it will give you a pretty good flavour of what everything is all about. One last thing – a warning: if you’ve watched the TV show, don’t expect this to be the same. I’ve enjoyed the series, but it’s a teatime drama and they have adapted the series to fit that – which means they’ve done a few things to Phryne’s love life, added some running plot strands that don’t exist in the book and reduced the size of the Fisher household somewhat. So treat them as separate entities if you can.
You can get Murder and Mendelssohn in all the usual ebook formats – Kindle, Kobo and the rest – and that’s probably the easiest way to get hold of them.
As mentioned yesterday, not a lot of options this week for Book of the Week, but luckily I read a really interesting British Library Crime Classics book so all’s serene, even if slightly later in the day than recently!
Prudence Pinsent is the unmarried daughter of the Master of a (fictional) Cambridge college. On her way to visit her cousin in Suffolk, she meets an old friend who is investigating a drug smuggling gang and has connected it with both Prudence’s cousin’s estate and the colleges of Cambridge itself. Prudence is sure her cousin can’t be involved, so she decides she must investigate and find out who is.
I’ve written (at length!) about my love of Gaudy Night which is also set in a fictional college (at Oxford though, not Cambridge) and so the premise of this appealed to me a lot. And it’s funny and entertaining – and the mystery is good as well. Suffolk makes such an atmospheric setting for mysteries – like Sweet Danger by Margery Allingham – with eerie flats, fogs, water ways etc and then you have college life and academic personalities.
Lois Austen-Leigh is a relative of Jane Austen (several greats niece) and it is very tempting to say that the witty style must be a family trait. I haven’t read anything of hers before – as well as telling me about her famous relative, the forward said they have been very very rare until the British Library Crime Classics got hold of this, so I hope they publish some of the others too.
My copy came as part of my Kindle Unlimited subscription, which means it’s only available as an ebook on Kindle at the moment, but you can buy the paperback direct from the British Library shop should you so wish.
And I’ve already got my copy of Amongst Our Weapons in my grubby little hands as you can seee! I told you that I’d got a signed copy pre-ordered from Big Green Books – and they appear to have some of them left if you’re in the market. As it’s the ninth book in the series, it’d be breaking all my rules if it ends up being a Book of the Week – but I’m not ruling it out, although if previous books are anything to go by, you really need to have read at least some of the others to get the most out of. So instead, I’m going to remind you that I have a Series I Love post about them from two years ago from not long after the False Value came out.
It’s nearly the end of March and I’m back to some classic crime and another British Library Crime Classic for this week’s pick.
This is the first of John Bude’s Inspector Meredith series and sees the detective investigation what appears to be the suicide of one of the co-owners of a petrol station in a deserted corner of the Lake District. The dead man was due to get married and as Meredith investigates he discovers a plan to emigrate after the marriage. And when he digs a bit deeper he discovered suspicious going’s on at the garage. What follows is a complicated plot involving all sorts of aspects of rural life that I can’t really go into with spoiling things!
This isn’t the first book in this series I’ve read and the Sussex Downs Murder was a book of the week as well when I read that five years ago. I’ve had this on my radar and been wanting to read this and waiting for this to come into my hands for a while. It’s really cleverly done, a little bit bonkers in its own way and also a lovely window onto 1930s life, which I really enjoyed. Definitely worth a couple of hours of your life if you can get hold of it. I’ve got the next book, The Cheltenham Square Murder, lined up to read already.
My copy came from the Willen Hospice bookshop, but it’s available on Kindle, Kobo and from the British Library themselves. It was in Kindle Unlimited when I started writing this post, but it’s dropped back out now and the cover has even changed. A couple of the other books in the series are in KU at the moment though, so if you want to try some John Bude, there is that option for you if you’re a subscriber.
Pinch, punch, first day of the month, white rabbits etc. Welcome to February everyone. Despite the fact that January is my birthday month, it does always feel like a bit of a slog to get to the end of the month, but we’ve made it through and into Freburary, which always feels like it rattles by at speed. All the usual goodies coming up on the blog this week – monthly stats, mini reviews etc. But first: a book of the week review.
In a week that saw most of my “reading” actually be revisiting audiobooks that I have listened to before, mostly from series that I have already written about so it’s a good thing that this was really good – even if it’s a sort of rule breaker because it’s not a first in series book! This is the third in the Ministry is Murder series, which features a Minister’s wife in small town Ohio. There are five books in the series – the newest of which is from 2010. In Beware False Profits, Aggie and her husband’s trip to New York is disrupted when a member of their congregation goes missing on a work trip there. And when they get back to Emerald Springs, the mayor’s wife is murdered at an event for the local foodbank – which is run by the missing man.
What I really like about Aggie is that she has an excuse for snooping – as a minister’s wife she has an excuse for being involved in the locals lives – especially as you need to keep your congregation happy to keep your job. And that’s another reason I like the series – it’s an insight into a way of life. I nearly wrote a profession, but that felt wrong – even though Aggie isn’t the one with a vocation, it’s her husband. I should add that it’s definitely not a Christian cozy – because I read one of those at the end of last year and this doesn’t have the detail of the sermons or biblical verses to reflect of that that did. Anyway there are a lot of cozy crimes featuring bakers and small businesses and the like and although Aggie also has a side line in house flipping, the ministry side of things gives it a nice twist. And the actual mysteries that need to be solved are good too. All in all a very nice way to spend an afternoon or two on the sofa.
Now because these are an older cozy (and boy does it feel weird to be saying that about something that was published this century!) they’re not available in Kindle – so in the UK you’re likely to be looking at picking them up from Amazon or second hand. I found the first in this series in a second hand bookshop – I think maybe one at a National Trust house, but subsequently I’ve bought from Amazon when the prices have been acceptable – I see that the first two at the moment are insanely expensive there though. So maybe one to add to your list to watch out for the next time you’re mooching around a charity shop!
Happy Friday everyone! It’s the end of another week and I am back with another series I love post. Yesterday I was talking about my search for a new historical cozy crime series, so today I’m doing one of my reliable favourite contemporary cozy mystery series.
So Jenn McKinlay’s Cupcake Bakery series follows Mel Cooper and her friend Angie DeLaura as they run the Fairytale Cupcake Bakery. Along with their friend Tate, they’ve been stumbling across bodies for thirteen books now, with a fourteenth due this year. I’ve read eleven of them as you can see from the photo, which is – unusually for me – somewhat out of order*. Over the course of the series the cast of secondary regular characters and getting the bakers out and about so that you’re not constantly wondering how a cupcake bakery can stay in business if a bodies keep turning there!
You mostly see the action from Mel’s perspective, but because you have the trio of main characters, you’re able to get personal life developments for each of them – which also helps the series avoid falling into the pitfalls of an endless love triangle for the heroine (see Steph Plum) or an endless on off relationship for the heroine (see Agatha Raisin) or marrying the heroine off very quickly and landing her with kids the author doesn’t know what to do with! The complexity of the murders can vary a little – depending on how much running plot stuff is going on – but they pretty much always manage to avoid the Too Stupid To Live pitfall, although Mel and or Angie do find themselves one on one with the murderer at the denouement with alarming regularity!
But as a calming way to pass a few hours, they are fairly hard to beat. I keep meaning to try out one of the cupcake recipes at the end, but the combination of having to turn the measurements into British (how much *is* a stick of butter in metric?) and the fact there are only two of us in our household and cupcakes need eating quickly means that I’ve never got around to it. They do always sound like they should taste good though – which isn’t a given for cozy crime recipes.
When I started buying these, they were only available in the American mass market paperback editions that you see in the photo. But the good news (for you, not me because now I’ve started in physical copies you know I’ll carry on**) is that you can now get most of them in Kindle!
* and yes it does bug me that the spines changed mid series and so they don’t all match.
** yes, I did indeed buy book 12 while I was writing this post!
Amid the flurry of end of year posts, here is something completely different and that has been months in the making. It’s taken me a while to get this down in writing in a way that I’m anywhere near happy with and I’m still not sure I’m quite there. So why am I finally posting it now? Well, I was writing my end of 2021 post and it was starting to touch on some similar ground, so I thought I ought to get this out there first.
One of my very earliest posts on this site was about my love of Peter Wimsey. And over the years since then I have reread and relistened to the series over and over. But until the summer it had been years since I had Gaudy Night – in full at least and not as a radio play. But then I treated myself to the audiobook in August and listened to it. And I was enjoying it so much that I got the book off the shelf too. And then I realised that I was behind on my podcasts because I wanted to carry on listening to Gaudy Night rather than listening to them. And when I got to the end, I started all over again. And now I have a lot to say about it and Spoilers ahoy, not just for Gaudy Night but for most of the rest of the Wimsey books. Be warned.
A reminder, if you need it, that Gaudy Night is the third of four books featuring Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey. It is the book where Harriet’s relationship with Peter moves towards a resolution. The final book of the quartet sees the pair get married and Gaudy Night is the bridge that explains how they got from the tetchiness of the murder at Wilvercombe (which was already a step on from her mistrust and confusion in Strong Poison) to a point where Harriet has realised that she is in love with him and that taking a chance on another relationship might be the right thing to do.
She fell a victim to an inferiority complex, and tripped over her partner’s feet. ‘Sorry,’ said Wimsey, accepting responsibility like a gentleman. ‘It’s my fault,’ said Harriet. ‘I’m a rotten dancer. Don’t bother about me. Let’s stop. You haven’t got to be polite to me, you know.’
Worse and worse. She was being peevish and egotistical. Wimsey glanced down at her in surprise and then suddenly smiled.
‘Darling, if you danced like an elderly elephant with arthritis, I would dance the sun and moon into the sea with you. I have waited a thousand years to see you dance in that frock.’
‘Idiot’ said Harriet.
Have His Carcase
I have had the audiobooks of a lot of the other books in the series for years. In fact Busman’s Honeymoon was one of my earliest picks on Audible and I soon picked up as many of the others as I could that were read by Ian Carmichael. But he didn’t read all of them, so I filled in the gaps using radio adaptations of the series – again starring Ian Carmichael as Peter. I had Murder Must Advertise read by someone else, and Five Red Herrings read by Patrick Malahide (in a delightful crossover with my love of the Inspector Alleyn TV adaptations) but until thus summer I didn’t have either Have His Carcase or Gaudy Night in full on audio. But as I was working through audiobooks at some pace, I decided to take a chance on the Have His Carcase that Audible were offering. Now I have reread Have His Carcase a few times – because I think it’s a particularly well worked mystery – but I’d stuck to the radio play version because of my attachment to Ian Carmichael narrating. But actually after a little bit I got used to Jane McDowell, and although the code breaking section makes no sense to me as audio (it’s hard enough on paper), because it was told from more Harriet’s side than Peter’s the female narrator grew on me. So I bought Gaudy Night.
The thing it is easy to forget reading now is that Sayers spaced out the Peter and Harriet with other novels with just Peter and the poor readers at the time had no idea what was going to happen – if anything – between them. So when you realise Strong Poison (1930) was followed by Five Red Herrings (1931), it adds the context that perhaps the reason Peter has gone off to Scotland is perhaps to clear his head after Harriet’s trial. Have His Carcase is next (1932), when Harriet finds a body on the beach and Peter comes down to solve the crime (as she thinks) but also as the reader knows, try and make her situation better. Then it’s Murder Must Advertise, which focuses on Peter in his advertising alter ego but with a blink and you’ll miss it nod to what is going on with Harriet.
Wimsey put down the receiver. ‘I hope,’ he thought, ‘she isn’t going to make an awkwardness. You cannot trust these young women. No fixity of purpose. Except, of course, when you particularly want them to be yielding.’
He grinned with a wry mouth, and went out to keep his date with the one young woman who showed no signs of yielding to him, and what he said or did on that occasion is in no way related to this story.
Murder Must Advertise
Then the following year was the Nine Tailors before (at last) Gaudy Night in 1935. And early in Chapter 4 of Gaudy Night, Sayers sets out for you what has been going on in the background all along. I’m struggling to think of another series with a moment quite like it – where an author says “by the way, while these mysteries were going on, there was also something I didn’t tell you about”.
Was it too late to achieve wholly the clear eye and the untroubled mind? And what, in that case, was she to do with one powerful fetter which still tied her ineluctably to the bitter past? What about Peter Wimsey?
And then across the course of 500 pages, Harriet tries to solve a poison pen mystery at her old college, but decide exactly what about Peter Wimsey. She works her way through her hang ups after her disastrous relationship with Philip Boyes and starts to come to a better understanding of who she is and what it is about her that has caused Wimsey to propose to her once a quarter for years on end. And the reader understands him better for it too.
I have listened to the radio play version of Gaudy Night more times than I care to count, because even though Ian Carmichael is really quite old by that point, he doesn’t sound it and it is such a clever mystery as well has having a great setting in Oxford. But as I listened to it unabridged, I realised both how cleverly that radio adaptation had been done and how much had been taken out from the original novel. Reggie Pomfret’s whole plot strand is neatly snipped out and part of the evolution of Harriet’s feelings goes with it. And because it is a radio play you also lose the internal side of Harriet’s world and of course the glorious set up explaining what had been going on in the background with Harriet and Peter was missing too – because how on earth do you jump through a time line like that in a radio play?
After I finished Gaudy Night, I bought the Jane McDowell Busman’s Honeymoon and listened to that as well for the contrast with the Carmichael that I have listened to so many times. And it was interesting, but then I went back to Gaudy Night again. And again.
And so here we are, several months on. And I’ve probably listened to it in full half a dozen times. And my edited highlights half a dozen more: that chapter four description of the three years between Wilvercombe and Harriet’s return to her old college for the Gaudy. Her first encounter with St George and her subsequent discoveries about Peter’s relationships with his family – and then Peter’s reaction to that. His arrival in Oxford and their afternoon on the river. The chess set. The resolution of the mystery. The resolution. What it is about Gaudy Night that means it is what my brain needs at the moment I don’t know. But it is.
I’ve written bits and bobs here about the pandemic, but it’s been a rotten nearly two years for everyone. And it turns out that my brain had decided that the best way to get away from what’s happening in the real world and to help it relax, is to listen to the same audiobooks over and over again. Gaudy Night. Busman’s Honeymoon. Sylvester. These Old Shades. Artists in Crime. Death in a White Tie. And that’s ok by me, even if it does mean I’m months behind on podcasts I previously listened to religiously. But hey. These aren’t normal times. As is evidenced by the fact that I’ve just written the longest thing I’ve ever put on this blog to dissect my obsession with Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. Now if you’ll excuse me, Harriet is trying to write a letter to Peter about St George…