The round up for February (and the few strays from January) - some non-crime here, for once! I've been doing a reading challenge so there will be the occasional oddity creeping in.
Ridley’s War, Jim Napier: a few odd Americanisms like ‘denim pants’ and American spellings, but this is an interesting book combining a regimental reunion with added murder in Yorkshire, present day, with incidents in Italy during the Second World War. Both are well written with an emphasis on the present, with enough description to set scenes and nothing overdone. Stolen artworks are involved and this is touched on with light authority. I liked the main characters very much, finding them subtly drawn and very real.
The Postscript Murders, Elly Griffiths: I loved the return of Harbinder Kaur in this book which concerns the death of a woman who acted as a murder consultant to a number of crime writers. There’s a visit to what is clearly Granite Noir, our local Aberdeen crime fiction festival, which was great fun - particularly as I was at the event it's based on! The characters are well drawn and I enjoyed seeing what was happening from several points of view. Comparisons have been drawn between this, The Marlow Murder Club and The Thursday Murder Club, but I’m not sure I’d class this with the other two – if I did I’d consider it the best of the three.
Edward Marston, The RailwayDetective: In some ways I expected to enjoy this more than I did. I love railways and know something about their history and development, but I found this was at least initially lacking in humanity. The detective inspector is supreme, and apart from a very devoted fireman, Pike, everyone else is rather unappealingly described, usually as a defensive fool. Colbeck is not sympathetic, however hard his sidekick Leeming tries. I did like the way the engine driver is portrayed, his love for his locomotive, his devotion to duty, and the subtle difference between his world and his daughter’s. I also enjoyed the research that had gone into not only the railway aspect of the book, but also local industry, Chubb locks, the Royal Mint … But it was quite hard going, as if one were trying to befriend lumps of wood. The descriptions of Devil’s Acre were a little more human, and as the book progressed the characters slowly rounded, so that I have hopes of the later books in the series.
Away with the Penguins, Hazel Prior: Not my usual fare, though the title grabbed me straight away, and then I realised the author was someone I knew at university, so it was good to have a reason to reconnect. Veronica, an elderly but sprightly lady, is looking for a destination for her considerable fortune. Finding her longlost grandson less than appealing, she heads off to the South Pole to see if Adelie penguins are any more deserving. She’s a very well written character, at once irritating and sympathetic, and further exploration of her history reinforces this. There’s a sound environmental message to this, though it’s incidental to the main, heartwarming theme of reconciliation and redemption.
Time to Kill, Roger Ormerod: Straight into the action here and catch up as you go. This is set in the 1960s or 1970s in London, with a touch of gangland style. Dave is a cop brought up in the old school but soon finds his retired boss murdered and himself in the frame, even though the boss’s wife is also suspect. The first person narrative is compelling and there are touches of humour, particularly with regard to the thug detailed to tail the hero.
All the Tears in China, Sulari Gentill: Rowland is a communist sympathiser sent off from Australia in 1932 to Shanghai by his wealthy brother to represent their wool trade and evade his local political problems. However, that does not mean that he will lack problems when he gets there: he has taken his closest, artistic, Bohemian friends with him and while they have issues of their own he is nearly kidnapped as soon as he lands on Chinese soil. Then he finds a body in their hotel suite. This is one in a series with these characters and while there is reference to earlier events in the series, on the whole I felt it worked well as a standalone. The setting of jazz-age Shanghai is well done, a melting pot of European, Russian, Chinese, American and Australian with great wealth and desperate poverty, and the ever-present danger of opium. The newspaper stories that start each chapter give a good context (I haven’t checked to see if they are genuine but they ring true) and if anything add to the impetus of the plot. I also very much enjoyed the characters of Wing Zau and Ranjit Singh (the latter in particular) and their perspectives on Shanghai and their part in it. Slightly surprised to read of an actress playing Beatrice in As You Like It, but heigh ho, mistakes happen, as I well know.
Richard Osman, The Thursday Murder Club – to be honest, I listened to this on the wireless rather than reading the book. Enjoyable, unbelievable, definitely cosy and fairly satisfying book.
The Case of the Dotty Dowager, Cathy Ace: The author here is at great (and slightly annoying) pains to describe her team of investigators as representing all four British nations – not sure who does that outside the Lions rugby team. However, they are quite interesting characters – a retired nurse, a debutante and a couple of other women it would be harder to sum up all fallen together into an investigative agency. The title alone tells us this is a cosy mystery, and the setting, a stately home with accompanying dower house by an attractive village in Wales reinforces it. Most interesting is probably Alexander, a man who started on the wrong side of the tracks and has come up good enough to be able to pursue his hobby of collecting antique dentures … it’s good fun, and I’d read another.
Robert Thorogood, The MarlowMurder Club: The author of Death in Paradise has here come up with another gentle murder mystery, this time led by an eccentric crossword setter. The setting on the Thames feels convincing and the characters are strong and amusing. The plot was perhaps unsurprising, in the setting, but it was well done and the denouement was dramatic.
Reign of the Marionettes, Sheena Macleod: A royal historical novel in the tradition of Philippa Gregory and others, not so much of a romp as a detailed religio-political thriller. This is set in the reign of Charles II and centres, subtly, around the Powis family, Catholic and trying to pursue their faith under threat of a returned persecution. Religion is hard bound into the machinations of the court, the nobles, their wives and their chances of producing heirs. The punctuation bunnies have had a bit of fun with this book, but the story is compelling and the characters very memorable.
God and the Pandemic, Tom Wright: A fairly short read, written in the first British lockdown. Wright examines the various dilemmas facing Christians in the time of pandemic, comparing it with previous times of crisis. Not all his conclusions are firm – why would they be? – and I particularly liked his discussion of whether or not places of worship should be closed, which is a thorny topic with many strong arguments on both sides. The parallels with the disciples’ experience just after the Crucifixion – fear, locked rooms and doubt – was a very interesting one, well explored, and his decision that the correct, basic Christian response to a crisis should be lament, prayer and action was a comforting one (taking into account Martin Luther’s caution that one ought not to rush in if it’s going to make matters worse, for example by spreading disease further). A good and thoughtful book.
Willa Cather, O Pioneers: Set in the American West among Swedish settlers trying to farm unsympathetic land, the story centres on Alexandra and her little brother Emil. As Alexandra betters her father’s investment in land for the sake of Emil’s future, her old neighbour Carl turns up to make her wonder which is better, the country and stability (and perhaps stultification), or the town and freedom (and obscurity). Emil’s ‘college’ fitness does not equip him for farmwork. But when tragedy strikes Alexandra works out what is most important to her, and the book is, in the end, upbeat.There we are - and as for my own progress, I'm past the halfway mark with the latest Hippolyta, The Corrupted Blood. For once I'm actually enjoying writing this one! There are lots of little in jokes to myself, unlikely to be visible to the reader, and it's keeping me going quite well. I'm aiming for publication in April. Very shortly there will be a new, improved book cover for Service of the Heir to make it more in keeping with the rest of the Murray series - it's very smart! I'll gradually have the others changed to fit, too.
And later in the year there will be a new Hippolyta box set (the first three books) and a new cover for the Murray box set, too! And as for the audiobook of Tomb for an Eagle ... watch this space!