Sunday, July 15, 2018

Murder is Academic: Christine Poulson

After reading Christine Poulson's most recent mysteries (Deep Water and Cold, Cold Heart) I wanted to go back and read her first series. Murder is Academic is the first book in the Cambridge Mystery series, starring Cassandra James.

In this debut novel, Poulson has set her story at St. Eltheldreda's College at Cambridge. Cassandra is a professor of English, and she finds the head of her department drowned in a pool, surrounded by exam papers.

From the prologue...
It’s hard now to remember what first struck me as not being quite right, but I think it was the garden sprinkler. 
... As I walked down the path I heard the gentle swishing without being able quite to identify what the sound was. Then I turned the corner of the house and saw the water falling in slow rhythmic veils. The ground underneath the sprinkler was sodden, the grass almost submerged. It must have been on for hours, all night probably. You’d have to know Margaret as well as I did to understand why that was odd. She ran a tight ship in college and it was the same at home. I’d often thought it was just as well that Malcolm was fanatically tidy, too. They would have driven each other mad otherwise
Margaret Joplin's death appears to be accidental, but later more and more strange and unsettling developments point to the possibility of murder.

Soon Cassandra's boss asks her to take over the position as the Head of the English department. And with that new position, she has the stress of pushing not only herself but all  members of the small department to complete some research to satisfy a Research Assessment Exercise that is coming up.

One of the things that Christine Poulson does really well is setting and atmosphere. That is true in her two most recent books, one set in Ely in Cambridgeshire, in the world of pharmaceutical research; one set partially at a research station in the Antarctic. In Murder is Academic, in addition to the college setting, we have plagiarism, séances, the pressures to publish research. And you will notice that research is a prominent theme in all of these.

And on top of that, she creates characters that I care about. Cassandra is shaken up by the death of her friend and colleague. She is in a tentative romantic relationship with Stephen, an attorney, and she doesn't know how  far she  wants that to progress. Stephen; the department's office assistant, Cathy; the various quirky academics in the department -- all of those characters felt real and believable to me.

The plot is intricate, but with the setting in academia, among scholars and book lovers, I enjoyed the twists and turns that it takes.  I had no complaints. And I loved the ending.

The UK title of this book is Dead Letters.  I have the 2nd book in the series, Stage Fright, on order.

See also these posts at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist..., Clothes in Books, and I Prefer Reading.


Publisher:   Minotaur Books, 2004 (orig. pub. 2002)
Length:       240 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Cassandra James, #1
Setting:      Cambridge
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased this book.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

They Do It with Mirrors: Agatha Christie

I have been reading the Miss Marple books in order. In the first four that I read, Miss Marple was introduced later in the book. At first this confused me, I felt like she was an afterthought. Later I decided I liked that approach, so that we get to know the characters well before the sleuthing begins.

In They Do It with Mirrors, Miss Marple is on the scene from the beginning. The story opens with Ruth Van Rydock, an old friend of Jane Marple, requesting that Jane visit her sister, Carrie Louise Serrocold. Ruth has a feeling that something is wrong at Carrie Louise's home, Stonygates, and she wants Jane to visit there and check out the situation.

This is our introduction to Ruth.  She has been trying on an exquisite gown, while talking to Jane:
The elderly maid with the grey hair and the small pinched mouth eased the gown carefully up over Mrs. Van Rydock's upstretched arms.
Mrs. Van Rydock stood in front of the glass in her peach satin slip. She was exquisitely corseted. Her still shapely legs were encased in fine nylon stockings. Her face, beneath a layer of cosmetics and constantly toned up by massage, appeared almost girlish at a slight distance. Her hair was less grey than tending to hydrangea blue and was perfectly set. It was practically impossible when looking at Mrs. Van Rydock to imagine what she would be like in a natural state. Everything that money could do had been done for her - reinforced by diet, massage, and constant exercises. 
Ruth Van Rydock looked humorously at her friend. 
'Do you think most people would guess, Jane, that you and I are practically the same age?' 
Miss Marple responded loyally. 
'Not for a moment, I'm sure,' she said reassuringly. 'I'm afraid, you know, that I look every minute of my age!' 
Miss Marple was white-haired, with a soft pink and white wrinkled face and innocent china blue eyes. She looked a very sweet old lady. Nobody would have called Mrs. Van Rydock a sweet old lady.
After the first two chapters setting the story up, we leave Ruth behind, and move on to Stonygates. Carrie Louise is living there with her third husband, Lewis Serrocold, who runs a home for delinquent boys on the estate. Other relatives from her two previous marriages are living there or visiting. There are also people staying there who are employed at the school that Carrie Louise's husband runs. So, we have a large and confusing cast of characters. And eventually there is a murder, under very strange circumstances.

This was an interesting look at postwar England, when owners of large estates had difficulties keeping them running. Carrie's granddaughter Gina was sent to America during the war and met her husband, Wally, over there. They have only recently returned to England to live with Carrie Louise. Wally is not pleased with that situation at all. (Gina also seems to have every young male around madly in love with her.)

I should have known who did it. I even suspected, but as usual, Christie fooled me and kept me interested in other possibilities. All in all, this was an entertaining story and a different look at Miss Marple. Her connection with Ruth and her sister Carrie Louise was that they were at a European boarding school together, thus remained fast friends over the years even with little contact. I can picture that, although I never thought of Jane Marple as the product of a finishing school.

I read this book in a UK edition, with a lovely cover by Tom Adams. The title for the US edition was Murder with Mirrors.


Publisher:  Fontana, 1975. Orig. pub. 1952.
Length:     188 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Miss Marple, #5
Setting:     UK.
Genre:      Mystery
Source:     I purchased this book.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Six Degrees of Separation from Tales of the City to Gasa-Gasa Girl

The Six Degrees of Separation meme is hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavoriteandbest. The idea behind the meme is to start with a book and use common points between two books to end up with links to six other books, forming a chain. Every month she provides the title of a book as the starting point.

The starting point this month is Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City. I decided to read this book this month, it was even better than I expected and now I want to read other books in the series. It amazes me that I missed it when it came out in 1978, since I was living in California at the time. That was a transitional time in my life so I guess other things were on my mind. The book is set in San Francisco, California, and it was originally published in newspaper columns.

Another book set in San Francisco is The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan,  published in 1989, a story about four immigrant Chinese mothers and their American-born daughters. It is many years since I read that book, and what I remember about it was the exploration of the mother / daughter relationships. But the present day portions of each story are set in San Francisco, including Chinatown, and now I want to reread the book.

From there I move to a book set in another California city, Santa Barbara. Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg was a fantastic read but it was very, very bleak. The depiction of Santa Barbara is perfect and fits in well with the telling of the story of a Vietnam vet and his gigolo friend.

I don't read that many books that are dark and bleak, but even before I read Double Indemnity by James M. Cain, I knew it would be about greed and depravity and unhappy people. Even so, I enjoyed it; it is a  very short novel, almost closer to novella length. That book was also set in California, in Los Angeles.

Next I link to another book by James M. Cain, Mildred Pierce, set in Glendale, California, during the Great Depression. This one is about a single mother and her relationship with her selfish and narcissistic daughter.

Another mother / daughter relationship is the focus of Concrete Angel by Patricia Abbott. In this case it is the mother who is selfish and narcissistic and the daughter is victimized. The story is told from the daughter's point of view and is a mesmerizing read. A chilling story, dark but not depressing.

My last link is to a book whose theme is a difficult father / daughter relationship.  Gasa-Gasa Girl by Naomi Hirahara is the 2nd book in a series featuring Mas Arai, a Japanese-American gardener in Los Angeles. Mas is seventy years old and the book starts as he arrives in New York City on his first visit with his daughter and her family. They have not gotten along for many years, but now she is asking for his help.

This month I have read every book in my chain. I noticed that each one of the books, even Tales of the City, has elements of the effects of family relationships, although it isn't obvious in all of the descriptions. Next month the chain begins with Atonement by Ian Ewan. Another book I have not read, although I do have a copy in the TBR piles.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Strangers on a Train: Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith is known for her dark, suspense-filled novels and Strangers on a Train was my introduction to her writing. (It was also her debut novel.) I had been wanting to read it for years and Peggy at Peggy's Porch very kindly sent me her copy. The basic story is that two men meet on a train, and one of them suggests a murder pact. If they each murder a person that the other wants to get rid of, then they can get away with the perfect crime.

Charles Anthony Bruno is the one who proposes the pact; he is a rich young man, dependent on his father for funds, and indulged by his mother. The other young man is Guy Haines; he is embarrassed by the encounter, determined not to take Bruno seriously. Guy is an architect, just starting out, with a wife he wants to divorce and a girlfriend he wants to marry. Most of the story is told from Guy's point of view, although we get to know Bruno's thoughts very well also.

My assessment:

A very good novel, but a disturbing read. I read the first 100 pages enjoying Highsmith's wonderful way with telling a story. I liked the buildup of tension, the introduction of the characters, and the laying out of the story. But beyond that point I had to slow down and only read a bit of it a day. It was too intense and very unpleasant. The ending was a complete surprise to me and I did not find it convincing.

For readers who have not already experienced this novel, I would only recommend it to those who enjoy highly suspenseful noir novels. This novel proves to be more of a character study than the exploration of a crime, and that is usually an approach I like. This time it did not prove to be enjoyable.

The film:

There is well-known film adaptation of this novel, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Farley Granger as Guy and Robert Walker as Bruno both handle their roles very well. Robert Walker's acting is especially chilling. I had seen the movie before reading the book, but enough years had passed that I wasn't sure how much was changed in the film. The basic story and the ending of the film are quite different. I liked the film a lot, but it does not have the emotional impact or the depth of the book. In the book it is hard to have sympathy with anyone, in the film the characters are more likable.

Other thoughts on the novel:

I still plan to read at least one other novel by Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley, the first in a series. I will probably try some of her other stand alone novels. Suggestions are welcome.


Publisher:   W. W. Norton & Company, 2001 (orig. publ. 1950)
Length:       280 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      USA
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      A gift.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Reading Summary for June 2018

In 2018, I have been reading more each month (than in previous years) and it still amazes me. This month I read 10 books and they were all good reads. And some of them were spectacular. As usual, most of the books were crime fiction, but I did read two books that were not mystery or crime related. Eight of these books were books on my 20 Books of Summer list.

My two non-mystery reads in June were ...

Auntie Mame (1955) by Patrick Dennis
A story about a young boy raised by his aunt after his father dies. The book reads like connected short stories, each highlighting a different stage in the boy's growing-up years.  It is wacky and entertaining, definitely not my usual fare, and I enjoyed almost every story. The story has been adapted for film and as a play.
Tales of the City (1978) by Armistead Maupin
I really have no idea how I missed this series over the years. Set in San Francisco, California, and very close to the year I visited the city the first time. Not mystery related, so that probably has something to do with it. I did learn about the books in 2014 at Clothes in Books, yet still wasn't tempted to try one. This month the time was right. It took me a while to get into the story, but I ending up loving the book and planning to read more in the series.
And now on to the eight crime fiction reads:

The Bone Garden (2003) by Kate Ellis
This is the fifth book in a series that has an archaeological theme and has two mysteries in each novel, one past, one in the present. This one had interesting characters and a decent story, but I did have some problems with it. Many readers are very happy with the series though, so if you haven't tried it, I do recommend it.

An Expert in Murder (2008) by Nicola Upson
Mystery novelist Josephine Tey is the sleuth in this one. I am not sure how much the sleuth in this book resembles the real Josephine Tey (whose real name was Elizabeth Mackintosh), but I did find the story compelling and enjoyed the setting, so I will read more of this series.
Death in the Garden (1995)
by Elizabeth Ironside
A historical novel, with story lines in two different time periods. In 1925, Diana Pollexfen was accused of killing her husband, but found innocent. Sixty years later, her grandniece decides to find out what really happened. Both stories and the way they tie together are excellent, and the writing is very, very good.

Murder is Academic (2002) by Christine Poulson
This is the first book in Poulson's Cambridge Mystery series, starring Cassandra James. After reading Poulson's most recent mysteries (Deep Water and Cold, Cold Heart) I wanted to go back and read her first series. That was a good decision; this was a lovely book, with interesting, believable characters and a great ending. The UK title is Dead Letters.
The Terra-Cotta Dog (1996) by Andrea Camilleri
The second Inspector Montalbano mystery, set in Italy, part of a long-running series. Montalbano finds a cave filled with artifacts and the bodies of two young lovers who have been dead for 50 years. I had read the previous book in the series but had forgotten how much of an independent loner the inspector is. The story is very complex.
White Sky, Black Ice (1999) by Stan Jones
This series stars Nathan Active, an Alaska state trooper, half Inupiat and half white, assigned to the remote village of Chukchi. The story has an interesting and unusual setting and the plotting is fine, but it is the character that I want to know more about. And it is that element that will bring me back to read more books in the series. 

Thunderball (1961) by Ian Fleming
This is the second James Bond book I read this year. It is the first of three novels featuring Ernst Stavro Blofeld, head of the criminal organization SPECTRE. As always, a good read.

Faithful Place (2010) by Tana French
I read this for the European Challenge for Ireland. Set in Dublin, featuring Frank Mackey, a Dublin detective working in the Undercover department. Frank returns to his old neighborhood and the family he left 22 years earlier to investigate a possible crime. Another great story by this author, my favorite of her books ... so far.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Portrait of a Murderer: Anne Meredith

First sentence: "Adrian Gray was born in May 1862 and met his death through violence, at the hands of one of his own children, at Christmas, 1931."

So we know at the beginning who will die, and not too long after that we learn who did it. Thus this is an inverted mystery, a format I generally enjoy.

The family of Adrian Gray have all arrived at his home by Christmas Eve. We first get several chapters with brief overviews of the various children, their marriages, and how they relate to their father. There is little if any love between the father and his children, although some of them admire him and several of them depend on him for their income.

My thoughts:

This is much more a character study than a mystery, but that was fine with me. I often read mysteries less for the puzzle element than for the interaction of the characters, either the investigators or people who are affected by the murder.

In this case we learn quite a lot about a once-wealthy man and his offspring, and most of the family is at best unlikable, some are despicable. Their prime concerns are money and status. The inter-family squabbles are all aimed at getting the patriarch to advance them some money. They soon learn that the old man's money situation is tighter than they realized; then it gets really competitive.

I have had problems before with books populated by mostly unsympathetic characters, but that did not spoil this book because the family relationships were interesting and some of the characters had redeeming qualities. The part I enjoyed most was the background of the killer and how he became who he was. There were later portions of the story that I liked quite a bit but don't want to go into detail about that and ruin the story.

This book turned up on a list of country house mysteries at crossexaminingcrime, and I passed the list on to my husband, who purchased the book. This is his review at Goodreads:
I was drawn to this classic (1933 vintage) murder mystery due to its “English country house at Christmas” setting. but it actually has little to do with the holiday or with a country house. That said, the book is cleverly plotted with some well-drawn characters (most of whom - including murderer and victim - are of a rotten, ruined, tainted family). The book kind of falls down with a pat ending but I found it an entertaining read. Interestingly, the title actually has two meanings.  

Also see reviews at:
crossexaminingcrime, Clothes in Books, and BooksPlease.

Anne Meredith was a name used by Lucy Beatrice Malleson; she also wrote under another pseudonym, Anthony Gilbert. In the edition I read, there is an Introduction by Martin Edwards.


Publisher:    Poisoned Pen Press, 2018 (orig. pub. 1933)
Length:        243 pages
Format:        Trade paperback
Setting:        UK
Genre:         Mystery
Source:        Borrowed from my husband.