Three weeks in a row with a crime pick it is not, but this week we’re back with classic crime and one of Josephine Tey’s Inspector Grant series.
At a party to collect a friend and take her out for dinner, Alan Grant meets a startlingly good looking American photographer. A few weeks later, he finds himself investigating that same photographer’s disappearance. Did he drown, commit suicide – or has someone killed him? I’m not going to say any more about the plot because is a really ingenious mystery and I don’t want to give anything else away, but it has got a really nice setting – a rural idyll that’s been invaded by a flock of artistic types – writers, actors, dancers and performers of various types – and is seething with potential rivalries that makes it a really good read.
This is the fourth the series, but as it’s been five years since I read any of the series and it didn’t give me any issues I don’t think it matters if you haven’t read any others or if you’re reading out of order. If you’re reading in order, this follows The Franchise Affair, which is also really good. There are six in the series and I’ve read half of them – and reading this has made me want to read the rest!
This was first published in 1950 and there are plenty of editions out there. Be warned if you’re buying on Kindle: they’re are two different versions – including a recent reissue – and if you click for the series it takes you to the new edition which has the link severed with the previous versions – which is why I discovered that I now own two copies of this when I came to take the picture for this post. Luckily the second copy was really quite cheap so I don’t feel too annoyed about it. But check your device before you buy. It’s on Kobo too, but it appears to be only the older version – so far at least.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written a series post about a Sherlock Holmes related series – I think this is the third now, and that’s only the tip of the Sherlockian universe. But this time it’s a young adult series set in a New England boarding school so you can see that this might have appealed to me!
So in the first in the series, A Study in Charlotte, we mean Jamie Watson who has just got a rugby scholarship to a Connecticut prep school. He’s not massively keen on the idea – it’s too close to his estranged father but it’s also where Charlotte Holmes goes to school. She’s a descendent of Sherlock and Jamie would has spent his whole life trying to play down (or ignore) his connection to the the famous detective’s chronicler so the last thing he needs is for the two of them to be in the same place. But after a student dies at the school, the two of them are being set up to take the fall so they start working together to find the real culprit.
There are four books in the series and the first book is the most standalone of all of them – and when I first read it I was expecting any sequels to be self contained mysteries but the other three are very much interconnected. Charlotte Holmes is a Holmes reimagined, Mary Russell is a Holmes continuation and Brittany Cavallaro is doing Holmes the new generation – in a world where Sherlock’s adventures with Watson are famous and have left a legacy (and a fortune) for his descendants.
The pace of each novel tends to start of slowly and then pick up pace as the mysteries start to hurtle towards their conclusions. The final book is a little different because it’s less thriller, more mystery but it is a satisfying end to the series. I read the first in the series when I was in the US when the first one was the only one available and read the series across a period of years as they became available which was actually slightly complicated in the UK as they didn’t become available in paperback straightaway and they are not on in Kindle in the UK. They’re still a little tricky to get hold of if you’re here but hopefully not entirely impossible.
Another classic crime reissue from the British Library this week – this is the book I mentioned that I hadn’t finished in time for the Quick Reviews and in the end that’s turned out to be a good thing as it means I can write about it at a greater length here. And I’m also relatively timely for once – as this was one of the BLCC’s January releases.
The author of the title is Vivian Lestrange, the reclusive person behind several bestselling mystery novels. He is reported missing by his secretary – who arrived for work one day and found the house locked up and her boss – and his housekeeper – vanished without a trace. But the investigation is mired in confusion from the start – there is no body and there is even doubt about whether Lestrange really exists. Could the secretary, Eleanor, perhaps be him? Bond and Warner from Scotland Yard have a real job on their hands.
I enjoyed this so much. Lorac has set up a seemingly impossible crime and laid so many red herrings around that you can’t work out what you’re meant to think. And then there’s the humour. As previously mentioned E C R Lorac is a pen name for Carol Carnac, a woman mystery writer. And it’s clear that she’s having a lot of fun at the expense of reviewers and readers of the time who couldn’t believe that a woman could write mysteries the way that she did. It’s just delightful. I read it in about two giant sittings, across 36 hours and if I hadn’t had to get on with my normal life I would have read it even faster! It was first published in 1935 and has been incredibly rare and hard to get hold of until now – which is a bit boggling because it is so good – so thank goodness for the British Library!
I got Death of an Author through my Kindle Unlimited subscription, so that’s the only ebook platform you can get it on at the moment, but you can of course buy it in paperback direct from the British Library shop where they are doing three for two at the moment so you could pick up some of the others that I have recommended recently – or potentially through your local bookshop that carries the BLCC series as it only came out in the middle of January so it may well be in their latest selection.
I had a lovely week off last week and read some good stuff, but interests of not repeating myself, today’s pick is a book I finished on Monday. Yes I know it’s cheating, but the book is really good so I’m sure you’ll let me off!
The three Dahlias of the title are three actresses who have played or are about to play the same character – a legendary heroine of golden age detective fiction. They’re spending a weekend at a fan convention organised at the stately home the author lived in. But then there is a suspicious death and they have to work together to find the killer.
I mean could this be any more up my street? Honestly it ticks so many of boxes of things that I like: A murder mystery set in a country house! A classic crime connection! A group of actresses! A convention! It almost seemed too good to be true. But it wasn’t. It was really, really good. I was 100 pages in before I even realised it. I really liked the way the narrative switched between folllowing the three different actresses and I think it did really well at making each of them seem distinct. I did have the murderer figured out (or at least narrowed down) but I couldn’t figure out why so it had me partly fooled.
I loved the golden age crime tie in – from what you can work out, Dalhia is a bit of 1930s Phryne Fisher type character – glamorous and rule breaking and with a police man in tow (but written at the time) – and like some of the Golden Age detectives, the series went on being written for many years, although wisely the books didn’t move through time at the same pace as the author! And each chapter starts with a quote from one of the books and it works really well – making you want to read a Dahlia book without really ever telling you much about their plots!
A sequel is coming later this – which is both excellent news and really interesting to see if the formula can work again! I will be keeping my eye out for it for sure.
My copy of The Three Dahlias was part of my post Christmas book buying spree, so I think it should be fairly easy to get hold of in your format of choice.
Am I starting a new series strand? Maybe. I nearly called this retro crime series, but I didn’t want to limit myself too much. Anyway, I have a couple of crime series in mind for this – stuff that is a little older, but not Golden Age old. And these have got a gorgeous reissue recently – which is what first brought them to my attention.
Nanette Hayes is a saxophone-playing street busker, whose mum thinks she has a proper job. At the start of the first book, her boyfriend breaks up with her and a fellow busker she invites to sleep on her couch ends up murdered in her kitchen. The dead man was an undercover cop – and Nanette ends up doing some investigating of her own to try and make sure she doesn’t end up being blamed. In the second book she’s in Paris, trying to track down her missing aunt and in the third and final novel she finds herself investigating the murder of a woman who made a voodoo doll that Nanette is given by a friend.
This are just incredibly stylish and evocative. Nanette is strutting her way through a jazz infused world where seedy peril is always lurking on the periphery. There’s just something about her that makes you want to read about her, even when she’s being foolhardy or stupid. The books are relatively short, but they pack a lot in. The mysteries are good but Nanette is the star.
I picked the first of these up a couple of months back after seeing them looking gorgeous in Foyles – and I went back for the other two because I enjoyed it so much. Nanette’s New York (and Paris) are so cool that I’m annoyed that there aren’t more of them to read. But the three there are are worth it – and you could probably read them all back to back in one weekend if you wanted, which is a treat in itself
You might need to order these in, but as I said the Big Foyles had all three of these in stock so you might get lucky. I have no clue what the original UK release was like – but I don’t recall having seen these in a second hand book store. Doesn’t mean they don’t turn up though.
After a theatre themed post yesterday, I’ve got another theatre-set book because this is out today! The Twist of the Knife is the latest in the other Anthony Horowitz meta-detective series. In the Atticus Pund series you have a book about murder in a book about murder. In the Hawthorne and Horowitz series, you have a fictional Anthony Horowitz getting involved in solving murders and writing a book about the process. This is the fourth book and sees Horowitz himself the main suspect in a murder after a critic is stabbed to death after giving Horowitz’s new play a terrible review. It’s really clever – it’s incredibly meta as Horowitz references the need to write the Moonflower Murders while he’s trying to slice the murder. Obviously you should start reading these at the start of the series, but if you’ve enjoyed the earlier mysteries, I think you will enjoy this one. My copy came from NetGalley, but it’s out in the shops today in hardback, Kindle and Kobo.
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.
Back with a historical mystery series this first Friday in August, and we’re in my sweet spot for mysteries again: between the wars!
Amory Ames is a wealthy young woman, who when we meet her in 1932 is somewhat regretting her marriage, five years earlier, to a handsome playboy called Milo. When her former fiancé asks for her help, she joins him in a trip to a hotel where someone soon turns up dead. And of course when her ex-fiancé is arrested for the murder, Amory starts to investigate. And then her husband arrives. You get the idea.
It’s a little bit of a spoiler to say that Amory and Milo’s relationship survives the first book, but their somewhat dysfunctional relationship is one of the threads running through the first couple of books. I actually found myself liking the series more as they went along – there is a lot of setting up and characters to introduce in book one which makes it a little busy! But if you like Royal Spyness, then you should try these – Amory is not royal but there’s definitely some similarities between Georgie and Darcy and Amory and Milo.
There are seven books in the series – which I think might be all we’re going to get, as there hasn’t been a new one since 2020, and Ashley Weaver has started a new series. But as the first two are in Kindle Unlimited at the moment, it’s not a bad time to check the series out.
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.