Contemporary Novels · Mystery Fiction · Novels Set in England · Suspense Fiction · Uncategorized

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

missing

Well, hello there! It has been much too long since I’ve posted here. I didn’t mean to go so long without writing anything but, you know,…life. Not that I’ve had a lot of stress or craziness – it just seems that when I’m in the day to day stream of living blogging seems to come last. But I’d really love to make it a priority for the rest of the year. So, here’s to a new start!

Last weekend I was in the mood to read something engrossing, fast-paced with great characters, preferably set in England. While searching my shelves I remembered that I had checked Missing, Presumed out from the library and it was sitting in my library stack – it was meant to be. I opened it, began to read, and almost didn’t stop until I finished it on Monday evening.

Set in Cambridge and centered on DS Manon Bradshaw and her colleagues, Missing, Presumed starts off with a report of a missing Cambridge student, Edith Hind. The door to Edith’s house is ajar and there is blood on her kitchen floor which immediately elevates the case to a high priority status. As Manon and the rest of her team, including her supervisor Harriet and her affable friend Davy, rush to find clues frustration takes over as they find nothing to really lead them to locating Edith. As weeks go by their desperation grows until Edith’s surprising link to an ex inmate rushes them toward the startling resolution.

At the same time as we’re following the investigation we’re also learning about Manon’s messy love life and Davy’s dissatisfaction with his jealous girlfriend. Though the novel is told from multiple view points (Manon, Davy, the victim’s mother) I feel Manon is most definitely the main and most interesting character and the one I think the series will follow on to the next book. The character development in this novel is its strong suit as the actual mystery layer is not as well developed as in some of the best mysteries, but I’m hoping that the author will focus more on that aspect of her series in the next volume. So though this is not the most fantastic mystery I’ve read it is a solid start to a new series and I will probably read the next one when it’s released in summer 2017.

Have you read any good mysteries lately?

1920's Fiction · Classic Novels · Mystery Fiction · Novels Set in England · Uncategorized

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

murder roger

After reading so many contemporary novels over the past few months, last week I wanted to read something old fashioned, comforting and familiar – so I turned to Agatha Christie. It seems odd to say that a book about a murder is comforting, but there is something about Christie that is so routine and recognizable and that makes her novels a nice reprieve from modern life. And haven’t we needed an escape lately?

This novel is narrated by a Dr. Sheppard of King’s Abbot, a small village to where Hercule Poirot has retired to tend to his garden and retire from society. But as everyone there knows he is a lauded detective he gets asked to help when Roger Ackroyd, a wealthy businessman, is found stabbed to death in a locked room. With the assistance of Dr. Sheppard, Poirot goes through his usual logic-based investigations, relying on village gossip and speculation to fill in the blanks.

It all smoothly hurtles along until the reader is snapped to attention by the completely astounding ending. It’s an ending that I certainly didn’t see coming and it is so admirably clever that I sat in silent admiration for Christie’s skill after the last page had been turned.

I’ve read a lot of  contemporary mysteries lately and I have to say that this novel trumps them all. I’d forgotten what a skillful writer Christie is and how you can get lost in her books like nothing else. After finishing this I ordered a few more Poirots to read over the summer and I’m looking forward to spending a few lazy afternoons  reading about the Belgian detective and his little grey cells.

*Thanks to Simon and Rachel for mentioning The Murder of Roger Ackroyd on their “Tea or Books?” podcast and inspiring me to read it.

Contemporary Novels · Mystery Fiction · Novels Set in Scotland · Uncategorized

The Child Garden by Catriona McPherson

child garden

I read about this Scotland-based mystery in a recent issue of Library Journal who gave it a starred review. I always look out for books that are well-reviewed yet don’t have the ‘buzz’ that a lot of other books have – the ones that not everyone is talking about. This one is definitely in that category and it is an eerie, well-plotted mystery that I really enjoyed.

Gloria Harkness lives in a rural, isolated old house in southwest Scotland near where her special needs son is in a care home. One night an old friend from her childhood, Stig, pounds on her door, scaring the living daylights out of her. When she recovers from her shock he tells her a convoluted story about how someone he knew from his teen years has reappeared and has intimated that she knows what happened to a boy from their school who died mysteriously. The school they attended just happens to now be the care home where Gloria’s son lives. Never one to turn away from a good puzzle Gloria agrees to help Stig find out the truth about the death. Her search takes her all over the countryside as she tracks down the other children who attended the school and discovers disturbing revelations that have disastrously affected their adult lives. Can she and Stig discover the truth before they, too, are irreparably impacted?

Gloria and Stig are wonderfully down-to-earth characters and the secondary characters are also very colorful. One of my favorite parts of the book was the references to Scottish folklore and things such as devil’s bridges and rocking stones. It added a slightly creepy factor to the mystery which I like.

If you like the earlier, supernatural tinged stories of SJ Bolton The Child Garden would appeal to you. It has all of the elements of not only a very good mystery novel, but also of an effective scary story (though not too scary). It’s a perfect read for this time of year.

Contemporary Novels · Mystery Fiction · Novels Set in England · Suspense Fiction · Uncategorized

Disclaimer by Renée Knight

disclaimer

One of my very favorite genres is the ‘suburban suspense’ or ‘domestic suspense’ novel. Books like The Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, etc. They can be extremely well done with vivid writing, well drawn characters and clever, tight plotting. Or they can be predictable, messy and dull. Thankfully, Disclaimer is in the former category. It is an excellent example of this particular brand of novel.

The story is told in alternating chapters first from the viewpoint of the revengeful stalker who is trying to ruin the life of an award-winning documentary filmmaker, and then from the filmmaker, Catherine’s, point of view. Twenty years previously the stalker’s son died and he’s convinced that Catherine was the cause. His late wife wrote a fictionalized version of the accident that killed their son and the stalker has found it, self-published it and made sure that Catherine, her husband and her son have seen it. Though it is fictionalized there’s enough truth in it for Catherine’s husband to realize that it is about her and their marriage and family is utterly devastated. As the novel progresses, the suspense increases and the stalker gets angrier – the stalker wants more than to ruin Catherine’s life – he wants to end it. But then the plot takes quite a turn, something I didn’t see coming at all – and it left me breathless and quietly horrified.

Disclaimer is not only an excellent suspense novel but a novel that makes you question your own assumptions about how well you really know people, even your own family. I think this is a stunning novel and if you are in the mood for a meditative page-turner this summer this is the book for you.

Contemporary Novels · Mystery Fiction · Novels Set in England · Suspense Fiction · Uncategorized

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

girl on train

So the first book I finished in 2015 is the gripping, twisty, clever, nail-biting mystery that is being advertised as ‘the next Gone Girl‘. Whether it will have that kind of success or not (the film rights have already been bought) I don’t know or care, I just enjoyed the experience of reading this very well-written thriller.

The novel has three narrators and we see parts of the story from each perspective. The main narrative follows Rachel, a thirty-something alcoholic who can’t get over her ex-husband. Not wanting to tell her roommate that she’s been fired from her job she still takes the 8.04 train every day into London where she drinks in the park or hangs out in the library. One of the houses the train passes on her journey into town captures her interest and she looks for the inhabitants, whom she has mythologized in her mind as the perfect couple, every time the train goes by.

As her drinking gets worse she antagonizes her ex-husband and his new wife to the point of hatred (on their part) and frustrates her roommate. Then one Saturday night she blacks out and can’t remember where she went or what she did except for vague flashes of falling and of fighting. When the wife of her perfect couple goes missing on the same day Rachel wonders if her missing memories hold the key to solving the woman’s disappearance.

Like all good thrillers, this novel has many layers so I don’t want to say too much about the plot as part of the fun of the story is peeling back the layers for yourself. It is not as dark or gleefully twisted as Gone Girl (which is just fine by me) but still holds the reader in thrall in a most delicious way. I wouldn’t suggest this for fans of Gone Girl – I’d suggest it for anyone who likes complex, highly suspenseful novels, unreliable narrators and page-turning puzzlement.

1950's Fiction · Classic Novels · Mystery Fiction · Novels Set in England · Uncategorized

Book Group: The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

daughter of time

Last month my book group discussed The Daughter of Time, a 1951 mystery novel with a twist. Inspector Grant is in the hospital with a back injury, bored out of his mind, when a friend brings him an intriguing case: Did Richard III really murder his young nephews, the famous “Princes in the Tower”?

Using as many primary sources as he can have his friends track down he goes about breaking apart the case in his mind and comes to the conclusion that Richard III was very different from the king portrayed by Shakespeare and in popular history.

I thought this book would generate a hearty discussion and it mostly did. However, about half of the group had never heard of Richard III and, therefore, the emotional impact of Grant’s deductions didn’t hit them as hard as it did others. I think this book would be more suited to book groups whose members are history buffs, Anglophiles or fans of historical fiction. Or English people.

How would I rate this as a book group choice? I’d give it a 3/5 rating.

Contemporary Novels · Historical Fiction · Mystery Fiction · Novels Set in England · Uncategorized

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

008
I received an eGalley from Harper through Edelweiss.

This is the first book I read in what I consider ‘summer mode’. Do you find your reading tastes/expectations change when summer comes around? I do. I want to read mysteries, YA, contemporary more than classics and the ‘buzz’ books of the season. I think it’s all so fun. Elizabeth is Missing is definitely a buzz book. I’ve been hearing good things about it for months now and it is the #1 LibraryReads pick for June.

The entire novel is told from the viewpoint of Maud, a woman in her seventies who has dementia. Is she the ultimate unreliable narrator or is her friend Elizabeth really missing? She hasn’t seen her friend in months and on the many notes she keeps to jog her memory she finds she’s written the phrase ‘Elizabeth is missing’ over and over again. She tells her frustrated daughter Helen, calls Elizabeth’s son in the middle of the night, even goes to the police department many times to report the disappearance. In the midst of her forgetting and then suddenly remembering that she doesn’t know where Elizabeth is, her mind dwells in the past, in her teenage years.

Maud was a teen during the post-war years in England when her young married sister Sukey disappeared from home. She and her parents searched and waited, always suspecting Sukey’s husband of hurting her, yet there was no evidence and he seemed just as devastated as they were. The police believed Sukey purposefully ran away and couldn’t devote any man hours to investigating.

As the two parts of Maud’s memory weave together, seamlessly moving forward, there is doubt that these events are true. Did Sukey really disappear, is Elizabeth missing? After all, Maud can’t even remember where she is half the time – is she accurately portraying these dismaying events?

This is a clever and very tightly written novel that propels the reader forward, desperately wondering if either or both of these mysteries will be solved. Though it’s much slower paced than a typical mystery novel it summons just as much suspense and that eerie and subtle feeling of dread that the best thrillers contain. I marvel at Healey’s ability to make both the past and present storylines compelling and to create such smoothly flowing transitions between them.

Elizabeth is Missing was a great start to my summer reading. It will be published this week in the UK and Australia and next week in the US.

Do you already have plans for your summer reading?

1940's Fiction · Classic Novels · Mystery Fiction · Uncategorized

Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey

miss pym

In the winter of 2008 I served on my very first jury. The case was at the Superior Court of Maricopa County in Phoenix and the defendant was a twenty-five -year old man who was accused of auto theft. He had stolen a truck from an apartment complex and when he was pulled over by police he claimed that he had bought the truck from a homeless man. He couldn’t produce any proof of the sale and was completely unconvincing when he gave testimony. When we met in the jury room to deliberate his fate the right decision was obvious, however most of the jury had a very hard time making it. The problem was knowing that he was the sole caretaker of his two-year-old son. It was a simple case, really, and our verdict should have been made quickly, but knowing about the son just bothered so many of us. After much debate we did decide to convict him, but not without heartbreak and sadness. On the shuttle back to our parking garage there was sobbing and second guessing. I know there were several jurors who felt we did the wrong thing – did stealing a car really warrant sentencing a man to prison and forcing him to abandon his son?

In Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, Lucy Pym faces a similar dilemma. She’s a middle-aged recently famous author, highly sought after since publishing a book on popular psychology. An old friend from school, Henrietta, invites her to speak at the physical training college (it’s the 1940’s) where she is headmistress and Miss Pym decides to stay on a while after her engagement is over. She is fascinated by the young, energetic, beautiful girls who work diligently all day at dancing, games, gymnastics and learning anatomy. She also loves the peaceful and calm environment yet puzzles at the quiet competition and subtle dislike among many of the girls. It is a perfect setting to study human psychology.

PE College
Students at a physical training college in Brisbane, early fifties.

And this really is what the novel is about. There is a murder, but it doesn’t occur until the book is nearly over. The goal of this book is to examine the mixture of different personalities, events and resentments that lead to murder and lies. Because Miss Pym is observant and interested in motives she is caught in the middle of the tragedy and is painfully compelled to either reveal or conceal the knowledge she has about who the murderer is. And though she wants to do the right thing she debates if ruining the life of a mostly decent young woman is worth the life that was taken. Is it worth sentencing a young woman to death when she can potentially do much good in the world?

Josephine Tey’s characters are so lively and vibrant and her humor is very enjoyable. I can tell that like her wonderful creation Miss Pym, Tey was hugely interested in human nature. I am, too, so this book was a delight for me. If character exploration and a slow burning plot make you crazy than this isn’t the book for you. If you like moral dilemmas and wonderful character development than it most certainly is.

I just checked out The Franchise Affair by Tey and am really looking forward to it. Have you read Tey? Do you have a favorite?

And also…have you ever served on a jury?

Contemporary Novels · Historical Fiction · Mystery Fiction · Uncategorized

The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton by E. Speller

I’ve always had a strange fascination with people who’ve disappeared and have never been seen again. The tv show Disappeared is one I never miss because I just don’t understand how someone can vanish into thin air. The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton deals with just such a case. Set in the 1920’s the book follows the main character, Laurence Bartram, as he is engaged to help his friend William renovate an ancient church at a country house called Easton Deadall. While there he learns that more than 10 years previously the daughter of the home’s owner disappeared in the middle of the night and was never found. Her name was Kitty and she was only 5 years old. Though Laurence is not a professional detective he is a very curious man and quietly sets out to solve the mystery of Kitty’s disappearance.

This book is the second in the Laurence Bartram mystery series. I didn’t read the first book in the series, The Return of Captain John Emmett, and I do feel like I missed a few key details about Laurence and his past that would have helped me to better understand his actions in this novel. However, I did enjoy this despite not knowing anything about what happened in the first book. This is a slow-paced mystery, not full of adventure and adrenaline. It is more cerebral and relies on Laurence’s plodding inquiries and his diligent conversations to solve the mystery. Laurence is a great character; a reserved, complex and intelligent man whose  personal restraint encourages people to trust and talk to him.

Though I felt this novel lacked energy in some ways, I enjoyed it. The time period, the characters and the solution to the mystery were all very well executed and I would certainly read more about Mr. Bartram and his life.

Do you like historical mysteries?

Contemporary Novels · Historical Fiction · Mystery Fiction · Uncategorized

The Solitary House by Lynn Shepherd

The Solitary House, Delacorte Press, 2012

The Solitary House (called Tom-All-Alone’s in the UK) is a dark Victorian mystery that uses characters and plot points from two grand Victorian mysteries – The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins and Bleak House by Charles Dickens – to create its own riveting tale.

Charles Maddox is a young private investigator, an outspoken man who was fired from the police force after challenging an older and well-respected detective, Inspector Bucket. He’s scraping by, taking small jobs here and there, when he is summoned by a powerful attorney, Edward Tulkinghorn, to find the writer of some threatening letters sent to one of Tulkinghorn’s clients. With hopes of making important connections, Charles takes the job though he is wary of Tulkinghorn’s shady reputation. He quickly finds the letter writer, but he still becomes embroiled in a murderous and dangerous scheme when he realizes that Tulkinghorn has lied to him.

At the same time, Charles’s uncle, called Maddox, is rapidly degenerating into dementia so Charles moves in with him to help care for his admired uncle. Maddox was once a detective himself and taught Charles most of what he knows.

There is also a parallel plot line involving a young woman, Hester, who lives with her Guardian and several other young ladies in a peaceful country setting. At first, I was perplexed by this separate narrative, but Shepherd deftly connects the two stories together before the end of the novel.

There is a lot going on in this book. There are lots of little diversions that are all really interesting and, though hard to describe, they are not confusing to read about. I highly enjoyed the Victorian setting, the description of the gloomy, dirty and seedy London underworld and the glimpse into how the police operated in the 1850’s.

Fortunately, you don’t have to have read either The Woman in White or Bleak House to understand the plot or to appreciate the story. I have read The Woman in White, but did not catch very many of the references to its plot. I recognized many more details and characters from Bleak House, though I have only seen the tv adaptation!

Excluding Mary Stewart, this is the first suspense novel I’ve read in 2012 and it made me realize how much I like and miss the genre. Have you read any exceptional suspense novels lately?