Hello hello hello! Fresh from a bank holiday Monday off work and a Drag Race marathon, this week’s book of the week is The Frame-Up – which has nerd culture, comic books and drag queens. Perfect.
MG (that’s short for Michael-Grace, but she won’t thank me for telling you) is a writer at a comic book company with a side line in costume designing. She’s in the queue for her morning latte when she recognises a panel from a comic in a crime scene photo in the newspaper. Soon a handsome police officer is asking for her help in untangling the clues to the crime – but his colleagues are suspicious of her. Can MG solve the mystery and win the big costume competition?
I really, really enjoyed this. MG is a fabulous main character and only occasionally strays into territory where you think she’s too stupid to live. Most of the time you understand why she tends towards the headstrong and foolhardy: she’s a woman in a male dominated environment who is trying to get equal treatment at work and not getting listened to. Matteo the cop is a great foil for her- nice enough that you’re worried he’s going to stuff up his career over MG but mysterious enough that you don’t entirely trust him. There is a big cast of characters here – mainly guys – and I would like to see MG getting some female friends at some point in the future to stop her from verging into Not Like Other Girls territory* but I’m hopeful that the seeds of something were being set up for that in this.
This isn’t too violent and there’s no psychological suspense – it’s basically a cozy crime with a twist – nerd culture instead of crafting/cooking/baking. And that was pretty much just what I needed at the moment after a run of disappointing romances (don’t ask). In fact I liked this enough that I’ve gone straight on to book two to see if it’s a concept that can sustain itself. And if it is, this could be another (murder) mystery series to add to my list.
I got this as a Kindle First Reads pick at the back end of last year and have only just got around to reading it – but it’s also available as a paperback from Amazon. Because it’s in Kindle Unlimited it may be harder to get elsewhere I’m afraid.
* I’m having trouble with an epidemic of Not Like Other Girls heroines in romances at the moment and it’s driving me mad
Now you may have noticed from the Week in Reading posts, but I’ve been tearing through Simon Brett’s Charles Paris murder mystery series. The first book was a BotW back in November (in the heady days of my American odyssey!) and I finished the latest one the other week – after reading all 20 in just under three months. I’ve loved reading them (and listening to some of them) and though I really ought to tell you more about it.
Our sleuth is a middle-aged, struggling actor. He’s got a fairly useless agent and drinks too much whiskey and it’s sometimes hard to work out which one of these is holding his career back more. He’s also got an estranged wife, Frances, who he still holds a bit of a torch for (although not enough to manage to stay out of other women’s beds or stay off the bottle) and a grown-up daughter Juliet who is married and has children of her own. Across the course of the series we follow Charles from job to job, where bodies and mysteries invariably turn up and he tries to work out what is going on – with varying degrees of success.
The first Paris novel was published in 1975 and the latest in 2018 and time has moved on in the series – at the start Charles is living in a bed sitter with a shared payphone in the hall, these days he’s living in a studio flat and has a smart phone (although he doesn’t do anything with it beyond texting and calling). He hasn’t aged along with the 40 years (or he’d be in his 90s!) but unless you read them all back to back (like me) you probably won’t notice! Charles is one of those characters who you really don’t want to like – he’s drunk, he’s unfaithful, he’s more than a bit disreputable at times – but somehow you really do. Sometime he’ll make you scream with rage as he messes up an opportunity or backslides in his promises, but you always hope that next time he’ll do better.
Over the course of the series Charles works in pretty much every branch of the acting profession which means that there’s plenty of variety and helps stop the series feeling same-y. Simon Brett was a radio and television producer before he became a fulltime writer in the late 70s and – particularly in those early novels – his experience of the industry shines through. Regular readers will know that I’m a journalist in my day job and worked in radio before moving behind the scenes in TV and online video and I really got a kick out of comparing how things used to be to how things are now. There’s a lot less drinking than there used to be – but I did recognise a few gripes that I still hear around the industry today.
A couple of the novels have also been adapted for radio – some back when they first came out, but more recently with Bill Nighy playing Charles – which is totally inspired casting. I think I’ve listened to all of them – and Jeremy Front, who adapts them for radio, has tweeted that a new series has been completed and will be coming up soon, which is going to be a total treat. I am waiting with bated breath.
The new series of Charles Paris is in the can! Starring the regular cast: Bill Nighy, @suzysalt Suzanne Burden and Jon Glover with guest appearances to be announced. Directed by the excellent @marypeate and produced by the indomitable @salavens. More to come. #Charlesparis
I really enjoyed reading these – as you can tell by the pace that I went through them – and am hoping there’ll be another one or two yet. The good news for me though is that Simon Brett has written more than a hundred books so there are several more series from him for me to try out yet. If you want to try some Charles Paris, you may need to check your local library because the early ones are out of print physically, but they are all available as ebooks or you can try secondhand. Here’s a link to the search results on Amazon to help you on your way.
Happy reading – and I’ll try and remind you all when the new radio plays are due to go out on Radio Four!
Now I’ve written about Albert Campion as well as Peter Wimsey, it would be remiss of me not to write about Ngaio Marsh’s brilliant creation, not least because I spend as much time re-reading or re-listening to the Roderick Alleyn mysteries and watching the BBC TV versions while I iron as I do revisiting Wimsey or watching Miss Marple. And as I have now finished reading the series, having treated myself to the last omnibus in the January sales, this is an even better time to write about them!
In some ways, Roderick Alleyn is another of the gentlemen detectives so popular in Golden Age detective fiction – he’s a well-educated younger son of a baronet, born in the 1890s and who served in the First World War – but with one major difference: Alleyn is actually a police officer. At the start of the series, in A Man Lay Dead he’s a Detective Chief Inspector, by the end he is a Chief Superintendent. A Man Lay Dead was published in 1934, the final novel came out in 1982 and the setting of the series moves with the time period – although Alleyn’s age… doesn’t really. At the start of the series Alleyn is single, but later marries artist Agatha Troy, who he first met during the course of the case in the sixth book. Troy, and later their son Ricky, pop up in several more cases, but by no means all of them -his regular companions are Inspector Fox and xxx Bailey.
Most of the books are set in and around London and the south of England, but there are several novels set in Marsh’s native New Zealand. Marsh was passionate about the theatre and the arts and several of the novels are feature actors as well as the Unicorn Theatre in London and artists and artistic circles. This means there’s a really nice variety of settings, and combined with the fact that Alleyn is a police detective, helps avoid the series seeming repetitive of like bodies are following Roderick around. Alleyn is also a more peripheral figure in some of the novels than many of the other Golden Age detectives are. In A Man Lay Dead, most of the story is mostly told from the perspective of Nigel Bathgate, friend of Alleyn and a guest at the party where a man has been really killed during a game of Murder, A Surfeit of Lampreys is seen through the eyes of Roberta Grey, visiting a family of penniless and eccentric aristocrats when their uncle is killed in a lift and there are more.
As I mentioned at the start, I’ve read all the books now, but I’ve watched the early 90s TV adaptation so many times that I’ve had to go back and do some actual re-reading of the novels as the TV versions are colouring my memories of the novels slightly. There are eight TV Alleyns – and there are a few differences from the book. The most obvious is probably that Troy is in almost all of them, with the relationship between the two their relationship builds over the course of the series. The second is the condensing and moving of the timeline – while the series starts before the Second World War and continues in the post-war period, the TV series specifically sets the first case in 1948 and moves on from there.
There are also fairly major alterations to the plots – some have less victims than their book equivalent, others have characters removed and replaced, others have extra subplots added in and others taken out. The other obvious difference for the viewer is that two different actors play Alleyn – Simon Williams in Artists in Crime, the pilot episode and the story where Alleyn meets Troy, and Patrick Malahide in all the others. Williams’ Alleyn is also a slightly different character – he’s said to have had a difficult war and is seen having some emotional difficulty with the resonpsibilty of the job – generally more Wimsey-ish than when Malahide plays him in the subsequent episodes. I have reminder set on my TiVo box to record The Alleyn Mysteries and generally have two or three saved at a time for watching while ironing. My favourites are – bizarrely – the aforementioned pilot and Dead Water In fact if you fancy it, Alibi are showing two Alleyn’s this weekend and another two the week after. They all have the added bonus that if you’ve watched any other murder mysteries (or costume dramas to be honest) of the same sort of vintage, you can spot the same people popping up all over the place – particularly the Joan Hickson Miss Marples: Emily Pride in Dead Water is played by Margaret Tyzack who plays Clotilde Bradbury Scott in Nemesis; in Artists in Crime, Rory’s mother Lady Alleyn is played by Ursula Howells who is Miss Blacklock in A Murder Is Announced. They are not the only ones, but they’re probably the most obvious*. There’s also cross over with Campion and Poirot as well as the BBC TV Narnia adaptations…
Several of the Alleyn mysteries are on fairly heavy rotation in my audiobook library. I think I’ve mentioned before that I am Very Bad With Silence and often listen to audiobooks to go to sleep to while I’m away from home. And the audiobook fan is particularly lucky with this series – there’s abridged and unabridged versions of many of the novels with a variety of different narrators. Benedict Cumberbatch has done shortened versions of three of them – Artists in Crime, Scales of Justice and Death in a White Tie – but I also like Anton Lesser (who is particularly good at accents). And if you want something even shorter there are also a few radio plays available on Audible. My favourites on audiobook are probably the Cumberbatch Scales of Justice and then Lesser’s Opening Night and James Saxon’s unabridged Final Curtain.
If you fancy trying some Inspector Alleyn, you should be able to get hold of them fairly easily – they are available as ebooks, or as the three novel omnibuses that I have and they’re often in secondhand bookshops (although not usually charity shops, the most recent editions are a bit too old). I started at the beginning and worked my way through (over the course of just under five years) but I don’t think you need to read them in order to enjoy them. There is also an unfinished Alleyn, recently finished by Stella Duffy, which is out in paperback next month and which I have on my to read pile to get to sooner rather than later now that I’ve finished the series proper. If you’re an Alleyn fan, let me know which your favourites are in the comments – and if you’ve read the “new” one let me know what you thought!
*Keen Marple readers/viewers will spot what those two characters have in common, which is why they sprung to mind!
And I just can’t help myself. For the second time in three weeks, my BotW is a Sherlock Holmes-related novel: Brittany Cavalaro’s A Study in Charlotte. But this time it’s Modern Sherlock descendants at a New England Boarding School so it is Completely Different from Sherry Thomas’s A Study in Scarlet Women. Even if the titles would lead you to think otherwise. Honestly. It really is. Let me prove it to you…
Jamie Watson has won a rugby scholarship to a prep school in Connecticut. He isn’t happy about it – not only doesn’t he want to leave London, he doesn’t really like rugby and the last thing he wants is to be closer to his dad and his step-family. The only bright spot in this whole situation is that Charlotte Holmes also attends the school. The Holmeses and the Watsons have been intertwined for generations – every since Sherlock solved mysteries and Watson wrote them down. But Charlotte seems like more trouble than Jamie can (or should) handle: she arrived at the school in mysterious circumstances, she runs a poker game at weekends and is rumoured to have a drug problem. But the thing is, the two of them seem drawn to each other nonetheless. Then a student is killed. And not just any student – one who Watson had a very public fight with after he hassled Charlotte. And Holmes and Watson are being framed for the crime. Charlotte may be the only person who can solve the case – but by investigating it may put them in the wrong place at the wrong time and make things even worse for them.
This is exactly my sort of YA. There’s drama and peril and some angst here, but it’s not end-of-the-world or dystopian or bleak. There’s school stuff and a mystery, but the issues are slightly more adult (drug addiction, sexual assault, stalkers) than you get in middle grade school stories and mysteries. Jamie and Charlotte are incredibly engaging characters – and once again I had fun watching and seeing how Cavallaro had woven in the Sherlock-lore into her modern day characters.
I’ve actually had this on my reading wishlist for a while – Goodreads tells me I shelved this in November 2016 – but it’s not available in Kindle in the UK and it hadn’t come my way at the library or in the bookshops. Or at least not at a point when I remembered to look for it anyway. Luckily I found it in the library near my flat in the US and it was part of my marathon library book binge last week. There are two more books in the series that have already come out and a fourth installment due in 2019. I’m going to be be making proper efforts to get hold of them. I might add the next one to my Christmas list…
You can get a copy of A Study in Charlotte in hardback or paperback from Amazon, but I’ve had trouble finding it for sale on any other UK-based vendors. Which is a real shame because it is really very good. But if you’re heading to the US anytime soon, put it on your to-buy list!
It’s nearly the end of my American Adventure, so my reading at the moment, as I mentioned yesterday, is mostly books I’ve borrowed from the library here. I’m prioritising the pile too – because when I was borrowing books I was targetting books that I find it harder/more expensive to get hold of in the UK, so I’ll be gutted if I have to take some of them back unread. And it also means that for the first time in a few weeks, I had lots of books to choose from for BotW this week, but it was a fairly easy choice – I raced through Sherry Thomas’s A Study in Scarlet Women on Saturday night – and it’s the first in a series. Ideal.
So, A Study in Scarlet Women kicks off the Lady Sherlock series – which as you might guess is a gender-flipped Sherlock Holmes retelling. Charlotte Holmes has never really felt happy with the life expected of a woman in upper class London in the late Victorian era. And when her father reneges on a deal he made with her about her future, she takes matters into her own hands. Unfortunately, that means making herself an outcast – and life as an outcast is harder than she thought. And then there’s a series of deaths that are casting suspicion over the family she has left behind. Soon Charlotte is investigating – under the assumed name of Sherlock Holmes – with the help of a few new friends, and one very old friend who has loved her forever.
I read this in almost one sitting** and it is so good. Charlotte is a brilliant heroine. The analytical mind that serves Sherlock so well creates as whole load of problems for a woman – who isn’t expected to speak up, or demand a life that doesn’t revolve around marriage. Her deductions are clever, the mystery is great – and she’s much more sympathetic than Proper Sherlock is – she’s motivated by helping her family and her friends in a lot of what she does, not just the mystery solving. Just a note though I’ve seen this categorized as a romance – which I think isn’t quite right. I first head about it on the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books podcast and Sherry Thomas does also write romances, but for me this is definitely Historical Mystery with a side order of unresolved romance and sexual tension. Don’t go expecting a resolution/Happy Ever After here.
Side note, I was listening to that edition of Smart Bitches after a night shift on the way back to where I was staying, and the combination of lack of sleep, going to a different station to where I was used to heading to from Waterloo station and being engrossed in this saw me in autopilot mode and getting on the wrong train and ending up in Richmond and not in Barnes. I have a vivid memory of sitting on the platform at Richmond, freezing cold, watching it get light, waiting for a train back the other way and listening to Sherry Thomas talking about learning English as a second language through the medium of 70s and 80s historical romance novels!
Anyway, back to the book, if you like series like Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell or Lady Julia Grey, Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily – or even some of the interwar-set detective series like Daisy Dalrymple, Phryne Fisher, Dandy Gilver or Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness – then definitely give this a try, even if you’re not usually into Sherlock retellings. And if you are a Sherlock fan, then definitely take a look at this.
My copy came from the library*, but you should be able to get your hands on this fairly easy. It’s available in Kindle and Kobo as well as in paperback from all the usual suspects. You might need to order it in though. I already have the second book on loan from the library, and I’ve ordered the third to take home with me even though I have limited space in my luggage home.
*Although I’ve since found it on my Kindle where I picked it up on offer for £1.49 last summer and then it got lost in the shuffle of books. Insert comment about the state of my tbr pile here.
**I moved from the sofa to bed about halfway through, but ended up staying up late to finish it.
Back to semi-normal service this week, in that there is a BotW post, albeit a shorter one because I spent the week working and then gadding about Washingotn with my sister. However after she and her boyfriend left on Saturday evening I consoled myself with books and this was one of them.
Cast, In Order of Disappearance is the first novel in the Charles Paris series by Simon Brett. Set in 1974, Charles is a middle-aged actor, with a drink problem and a career problem. But when he meets up with a previous paramour (from a seaside run in panto) he ends up getting entangled in blackmail, the murder of a theatre impresario and all sorts of other shenanigans. It’s all set against the backdrop of petrol shortages, electricity rationing and the winter of discontent which makes for a slightly different take on the murder mystery. Charles is very much in the mold of the classic amateur sleuth, and even as he’s being terrible (drinking, womanising etc) he’s still strangely likeable and very readable.
This is the first book in a seventeen-book series – which I came across because the radio adaptations popped up in my recommendations on audible. I’ve been listening to some of them – which are great fun as they have Bill Nighy as Charles (he’s predictably brilliant) but they have been considerably updated. I really liked both of them – and although the original version is probably my favourite, it does require a level of knowledge about Britain in the 1970s which may not work for modern audiences. Anyway, I’m already stockpiling more of these to read, so you may well here more of them anon.
Yes, this is short, but it’s been a busy week – and it’s about to get even busier. As this posts, I should be gearing up for a midterms overnight shift. Anyone who’s known me for any length of time knows that I love elections – so it’s a big night for me and requires proper preparation. Hence the short post. Sorry, not sorry.
You can get Cast, In Order of Disappearance on Kindle or Kobo, but the paperbacks are out of print. But the radio plays are available on audible and Kobo.
A short and sweet BotW post this week. I didn’t finish as much as I wanted last week – and some of what I finished was never going to be a contender for a slot here. But the Cornish Coast Murder perked me up at the end of the week and snuck in under the wire.
The Cornish Coast Murder sees an armchair murder mystery novel enthusiast with an actual real life crime on his doorstep. Reverend Dodd and his friend Dr Pendrill meet up once a week to talk detective fiction and open their latest delivery from the library. But one night during their chat, a panicked phone call comes through from a neighbour, Ruth Tregarthen saying that her uncle has been shot. There are no obvious clues and the police seem baffled so Reverend Dodd starts to help investigate the crime using his knowledge of crime fiction to help him.
This is the first in the Inspector Bigswell series – and the second John Bude* that I’ve read. This is a nice fun read – but it’s not as complex or ingenious as some of the authors that Reverend Dodd reads with his friend. I had a fair idea where it was going – and although I wasn’t entirely right it meant that I wasn’t as entirely gripped as I am with some similar books. But this was Bude’s fist book so perhaps that’s not surprising that it’s not perfect – and certainly the other Bude I’ve read (the Sussex Downs Murder)* was more complex – although the solution to that is rather cliched now. Anyway – it’s an enjoyable read and a if you’ve got an interest in Golden Age crime novels it’s well worth a look.
My copy of the Cornish Coast Murder was the rather pretty British Library Crime Classics edition – so you may well be able to find it in your local bookshop. I’ve certainly seen them in various Waterstones. The Kindle edition is free if you’re in Kindle Unlimited or it’s £2.99 to buy.
*Editors note: I realised after I posted this that Sussex Downs was also a BotW – back in June last year. I am nothing if not predictable!