I’m finishing the month as I started it, with another murder mystery book pick for my Book of the Week, in a slightly cheaty move because I finished it on Monday, but I’ve talked enough about Inspector Littlejohn recently already, and that was pretty much all I actually finished last week! But before I get down to my review of the new Derek Farrell, a quick reminder that tomorrow is the Mini Reviews and Thursday will be the August Stats.
Danny Bird is facing up to a scary prospect: a weekend at a country house to help Caz fulfill a promise to a dead friend. Pub manager Ali is chauffeuring them down to Dukes Halt where they find a mismatched set of weekend guests: a Hollywood actress, a right-wing MP and an Albanian gangster among them. Soon there’s a body in their midst and Danny is detecting again to try and clear himself and his friends. But he’s also trying to work out what happened at the house decades ago when he discovers an unhappy boy’s secret diary.
This is the fifth outing for Danny and the gang and it’s a good one. Farrell has taken Danny out of the Marq (the Asbo twins are left in charge of running a talent night while they’re gone and I look forward to seeing how that works out) and put him into a country house murder mystery in the grand tradition of the genre. It’s got everything you would expect from an Agatha Christie – but updated to the present day. In one of the earlier books in the series Danny is described as Poirot on poppers, which is a great line but doing Danny a slight disservice now because he is not the isolated external figure that Poirot is. He’s got friends, relationships, a perspective and that all comes into focus in this. You also see him more on his own in this that he has been in the previous series so there’s a lot more about who Danny is and what he believes in that you’re used to and that’s a really good development. But don’t worry, there’s still plenty of witty banter and oneliners. The pandemic means there has been a longer break between full length books than I was hoping when I finished Death of an Angel (although Death of a Sinner did help) but I think Death at Dukes Halt has been worth the wait.
You can get Death at Dukes Halt direct from the publisher, Fahrenheit Press, who have it in various ebook formats and paperback. If you do get the paperback from them, you get the ebook with it as well which is nice – I started reading the paperback and then switched to the kindle so I could read it on the move. But you can also get it on Kindle.
I nearly broke away from the mystery theme of the last few weeks for today, and then I changed my mind. So much of my recent reading has been murder mysteries, that maybe I’ll end up doing mystery month. Although to be fair, a lot of them have been Inspector Littlejohn novels and that would get a little boring for you all!
When an antique dealer is murdered on a train, the police soon make an arrest. But Reverend Lucian Shaw was also on the train and soon becomes convinced that the police may have got the wrong man. When he starts to investigate he discovers that there may have been even more under currents in his parish than he knew about – although his wife could have filled him in on some of them!
A Third Class Murder really wants you to think that it’s a British Library Crime Classic, but it’s not. But don’t hold it against it,because it’s actually a nice, easy fun cozy crime novel that happens to be set in the 1930s. It’s not earth shattering or ground breaking, and yes I figured out who did it before the reveal but that’s fine – I wanted a murder mystery that I could enjoy and not have to think too hard about. Perfect lazy afternoon reading.
My copy came via my Kindle Unlimited Subscription, which means it’s only available on Kindle (at the moment at least).
Honestly I nearly started this with “another week, another crime pick” but then I got such bad deja vu that I realised I did that last week. But it’s still true. For the third week in a row, I’m picking a murder mystery book for my BotW. But as I said yesterday, I’m in a distinctly murder mystery mood so I don’t know how surprising this news is!
Sally and Johnny Heldar have helped solved mysteries before, so when the woman that Johnny’s cousin Tim wants to marry finds herself caught up in a murder case, it’s only natural that Tim turns to them for help. Prue’s employer has been murdered and as a result she’s called off their engagement. Tim is desperate for Sally and Johnny to clear Prue’s name and win her back for him; but the more they investigate, the more complicated the mystery gets, with infidelity and blackmail and wartime treachery to contend with.
I read a previous Heldar mystery, Answer in the Negative, last year and really enjoyed it. I like Sally and Johnny as characters in both books – they have a nice relationship where they both get to do investigating. This is a previously unpublished entry in the series that the author’s nephew discovered in a stash of manuscripts. It’s not known when exactly this was written, but I would guess around the time that it was set – which is the early 1950s. The introduction says it went unpublished because tastes changed, which makes me sad because it’s too good to have only come to light now.
I’ve read a lot of mysteries with roots in the First World War and a lot set in the Wars but not a lot in set in the fifties with links to the Second World War. So this is a nice change. It’s also interestingly twisty, but follows the rules that the clues are there if you know where to look. On the basis of this, I’m hoping that more of the unpublished Heldar books find their way into the light soon.
I got an advance copy of this, but it’s actually out on Thursday in Kindle and Kobo.
A long old reading list last week, and this is slightly cheating because I finished it on Monday, but I enjoyed it – despite it taking me a few weeks to read – and I Have Thoughts. It is also the first in the series so that’s nice too…
An aging Sherlock Holmes has retired to the Sussex Downs. There in his cottage, he is concentrating on his experiments and his bee hives, away from the bustle of London. One day on the downs, he meets the teenage Mary Russell, a young orphan, unhappy with the aunt that she lives with and searching for knowledge. In her, Holmes sees a mind similar to his own and essentially takes her on as his apprentice and involves her in his work. But of course danger comes calling again and a deadly foe threatens their lives and those of Mrs Hudson and Doctor Watson.
This book covers a considerable period of time – taking Mary from her mid-teens through to having nearly graduated from Oxford – and starts off as a series of small investigations and episodes before building to a bigger and more dangerous case in the second half. I quite liked Mary as a character – I’ve seen complaints that she’s a Mary Sue, but to be honest considering Sherlock’s own startling gifts, I didn’t think it was that implausible for a woman to be similarly clever and perceptive – and there’s also no point in creating a young Watson facsimile for a foil – because why would someone like that interest an ageing Holmes, who already has the original Watson?
I do have a few reservations about the huge age gap that’s going on here and where this is going* but the mystery is good and the whole thing swept me along nicely enough while I was reading it. Writing this has made me think about it a bit more closely and although I didn’t love it, love it, it’s still the book I have the most to say about from the last week. I think you will probably like this more the less attached you are to the original series – I see a lot of people on Goodreads complaining about the treatment of Watson, most of them the same people who were complaining about Mary. I’ll admit I’m not a massive Sherlock Holmes reader, but I do like a Sherlock reinvention – as my love of Lady Sherlock shows – so this ticked some fun boxes for me.
This was originally published back in 2002 and is the first in what is now a long series. I’ve lined up the second one to see what happens next. If I change my mind about everything, I’ll try and be big enough to come back and let you know!
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice should be fairly easy to get hold of – I read it on Kindle (where it’s under £2 at time of writing), it’s also on Kobo (just over £2) and all the usual platforms and I’ve seen them in shops and library collections as well – including the discount bookshops like The Works and the charity shops when that was a thing.
* Spoiler: having got a later book in the series on the tbr shelf somehow I know they get married.
Quite a long list of reading in yesterday’s post, but with two books by the same new-to-me author on the list, today’s Book of the Week pick may not be that much of a surprise to some of you.
Life, Death and Cellos is the first book in Isabel Rogers’ Stockwell Park Orchestra series. In this debut outing, the orchestra is having a bit of a tricky time of it. Their conductor just dropped dead mid-concert and landed on their biggest donor – who is now threatening to withdraw her financial support. But one of the cellists, Erin, has a plan to try and save the orchestra, but it involves self-obsessed and self-involved section leader Fenella and a Stradivari cello and is not without risk. Then there’s the regular conductor who seems to be working his way through the female members of the orchestra and David, the band treasurer whose nervous tick grows worse at every set back.
So, first of all it needs to be said that I am a Band person. I’ve never played in an orchestra, but I played in concert bands (and the occasional jazz band) of various types all through secondary school and after a break at uni (because all the options there were for “proper” musicians, which I am emphatically not), I picked my clarinet back up when I moved to Southend. I joined a community band there and when I first moved back to northampton I found myself another band and carried on playing for a couple of years until my shift work got too much to be able to make rehearsals reliably. So all the band-centric stuff really appealed to me – but it’s hard for me to tell how it will come across to someone who doesn’t have some sort of background in music. The actual plot itself is a comic caper – with almost farcical elements and a strong retro feel, but there’s a lot of music stuff in with that – I wanted a play list to go with it so that I could listen along as it talked about the various different elements of the pieces – but I don’t know how it would go for you if you don’t know what an arpeggio is or a little bit about key signatures! If you have ever played in band, I think you’ll recognise a lot of things in this – viola players being a punchline, the brass section being uppity etc. I certainly enjoyed it so much that I went straight on to book two, have pre-ordered book three and told all the musical people in my family that they need to read it!
Bonus photos: I tried (although admittedly not very hard!) and failed to find a picture of me back in my Northamptonshire County Training Wind Orchestra heyday, so sadly you don’t get to see me in my long-haired, train track braces glory, but instead, here I am playing with my Northampton band in the early 2010s – as their principle clarinet (not a position that I enjoyed), front row left in the red t-shirt, at a local concert.And here I am looking much happier as a lowly third clarinet in my Essex band – in my concert dress at the Royal Festival Hall to play Bernstein and Gershwin. I’ve actually played at the Festival Hall twice – this concert in the Clore ballroom, and then in the main hall as part of the National Festival of Music for Youth back in my school days, when we were runners up in our class to our big sister/brother band the mighty Northamptonshire County Youth Concert Band.
So as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, we went on a little break last week – although I’ve still been going in to work twice a week, Him Indoors has been working from home since April and has barely been further than a couple of miles from the house and he was going stir crazy and just wanted to go and see some different walls other than our own. So after I ruled out anywhere abroad (I can’t cope with the stress of the changing travel regulations), he found us a lovely log cabin to stay in in woods in Yorkshire and we pootled off up there for three nights. And this week’s BotW was purchased on our trip to Whitby – and is set in the town – so feels like a really good choice.
It’s 1920-something and as nothing ever happens in August, private investigator Kate Shackleton is taking a holiday. She’s planned a two week break in Whitby to visit a school friend and her daughter. But before she goes to see Alma, Kate takes a walk through the town and finds herself outside the jewellery shop where she and her late husband (who was killed in the War) bought her engagement ring. Determined to make a fresh memory she goes inside – and stumbles on a body. And as if that wasn’t enough to be dealing with, her friend’s daughter – Felicity hasn’t come home. Soon Kate is hard at work investigating once more.
This is the eighth book in Frances Brody’s Kate Shackleton series, but you really don’t have to have read the rest of the series to enjoy this. I’ve read four of the series so far – way out of order – and it’s not like some of the other 1920s set series (like Daisy Dalrymple or Maisie Dobbs) where there are big personal life developments that you need to read in order – or at least there aren’t in the ones that I’ve read! Kate is smart and competent and sensible – which are all things I really like in my detectives. This has a clever mystery with plenty of twists and an interesting cast of supporting characters. And I know this only applies to me, I got a real thrill about reading a book set in Whitby right after visiting the town. Brody does a really good job of describing what the town was like in the 1920s, and putting Kate in places that people who are familiar with the town will recognise. And in case you were worried: Dracula is not involved in the mystery!
I bought my copy of Death at the Seaside from The Whitby Bookshop, but you should be able to get hold of them fairly easily in a reasonably sized bookshop with a mystery section. They’re also available on Kindle and Kobo and as audiobooks. The series is still going on – the eleventh book is out in October – and as I bought a couple of other books in the series at the same time as this one you can probably expect to see more of these on the weekly reading lists!
Well, well, well. As you might have noticed I managed to bring the ongoing list down a bit last week. I’m quite pleased with myself, but my book of the week is one of the many that came out last Thursday. I wasn’t intending on this being the featured review this week – it’s not exactly low profile, but it was the book that I liked the most last week and thought that I would have the most to say about. Also I had a very wafty weekend and spent more time watching Formula One and Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader: Making the Team than I did reading, so some of the other stuff I had planned for the week didn’t get read…
First, before I get to the plot, I have been excited about this book since it was announced more than a year ago. If you’re in the UK, you’ll know Richard Osman as the one with all the answers on Pointless or the host of House of Games. He’s got a lovely way about him on Twitter, he always comes across very well any time you hear him talking and the plot synopsis sounded great. In fact it all sounded so good that I was worried it couldn’t live up to my expectations – especially as a debut novel. I mean murder mysteries aren’t exactly easy to pull off. The fact that I’m writing about this here, indicates that I have good news for you! Anyway, to the plot.
Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron all live at frankly rather nice sounding retirement village in Kent. Every Thursday they take over the Jigsaw room meet up to discuss unsolved murders (under the guise of a society for fans of Japanese opera to keep away the nosy). Then the owner of the retirement village is found dead, just after a consultation meeting about an expansion. Now they have a live case to solve – they’ve got the skills to do it, but will they manage it before it’s too late?
Now reading that plot synposis you’ll think that you’ve read stories like this before. And yes this does have some similarities with cozy crime series featuring an older protagonist. But it’s not really a cozy crime. The mystery is twistier and more complicated. I can’t say much about the solution, because that would be spoiling things and you know that I don’t do that, but it doesn’t quite fit the cozy format. And as well as the mystery, there are proper side plots. It’s all told as a mix of narrative and Joyce’s diary – which really works as she is the newest member of the club and gets to do a lot of the exposition – but all four members of the Club are properly realised characters with backstories that you hear about, hopes, worries and fears. And the two police officers are great too. It’s also got a strain of melancholy to it – they are old people and they’re not done with life, but they do worry that this might be the “last time” that they do something and worry about the things they have lost (and in some cases develop strategies to try and combat this). Oh and it’s funny. Dryly funny and witty not pratfalls and stupidity funny. Wry observances and witty asides type funny. It’s great. I would happily have spend another 100 pages with the gang. If there’s another one, you can sign me up to read it now.
My copy of The Thursday Murder Club came from NetGalley, but you should be able to get this everywhere. I’ve been out to London today and walked up Charing Cross Road and Tottenham Court Road and could see it in the front section in the Big Foyles and it was in the Window at the Waterstones. It’s that sort of release – probably in the supermarkets too, and definitely in the airport bookshops, if you’re lucky enough to be going somewhere. When I went looking for links, Amazon was out of stock of actual copies – which means it’s an even smarter choice to order if from your local indie. And of course it’s out in Kindle, Kobo and Ebook.
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!