Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Murder Among Friends: Elizabeth Ferrars

From the dust jacket flap of my reprint edition, this is the setup for the crime and the events that follow:
In war-time London, wardens are checking for lights in the blacked-out streets,  but inside Cecily Lightwood's flat, behind its thickly curtained windows,  a party is in progress. Talented, vibrant Cecily has invited people from the literary and artistic world in which she moves. ... Everyone is waiting for the arrival of Aubrey Ritter, the handsome and famous playwright who has just moved into the flat upstairs following the suicide of his wife. 
Ritter's non-appearance dominates the evening, distressing or annoying guests in differing degrees -- until the party is finally shattered by a voice shouting wildly on the stairs and the discovery of Ritter's savagely murdered body.
The protagonist of this novel, Alice Church, is a guest at the party. She is a friend of Cecily's but all of the other guests are strangers to her. Cecily has invited her expressly to meet Janet Markland, a successful businesswoman who works in publishing and is a partner in a literary agency. Janet is the only person who leaves the party before the murder and when she returns her behavior is strange. The evidence indicates that no one else could have murdered Ritter. Her actions following the discovery of the body are suspicious. Thus she is quickly arrested, brought to trial, and eventually convicted of murder.

Yet Alice cannot believe that Janet is the murderer and she cannot leave the issue alone. She finally decides to question some of Janet's friends from the party. She is on a quest to understand why Janet killed Aubrey Ritter or find another solution to the crime.

There are so many things I liked about this book. Some of them are characteristics of other books I have read by Ferrars and some are unique to this book.

The book is set in London during the second World War and was written around that time. The effects of the war and the situation in London at the time are very much a part of the story.
[Janet and Alice are talking at the party.] 
"Was it still raining when you got here?" Janet went on, attempting in the midst of some preoccupation to sound interested in what she was saying. 
"No," said Alice, "it's cleared up, it's a rather beautiful night at the moment. It's very starry. I found a warden and a policeman discussing astronomy on the doorstep." 
"Astronomy?" said Janet. "Really?" 
"Yes. That's something good that's come out of the black-out, isn't it?" said Alice. "All sorts of people have suddenly gotten interested in astronomy."
What people are wearing is usually described in detail in Ferrar's novels, and in this case, is of importance to the mystery plot. As is noted in Whodunit?, edited by H.R.F. Keating, "Her people are notably real. They eat; they choose clothes."
Alice later found that she had no difficulty whatever in remembering her first impression of Kitty Roper. Probably few people ever had.... She came into the room ahead of Cecily, smiling already and full of interest and pleasure. She was a big woman, shaped with a splendid, healthy plumpness, she was rather untidy and  more than a little flashy. Her coat was of a grey Indian lamb, worn over a scarlet woolen dress which was held in round her far from slender waist by a belt of gilded leather. She had a heavy gilt necklace round her throat and chunks of gilt screwed on to the lobes of her ears. With her fair hair, done up in a gaudily striped turban, showing on her forehead in a cluster of dishevelled curls, with her fresh, fair skin, blue eyes and soft, full lips, gaily daubed with few haphazard strokes of lipstick, she was like some magnificent doll, come to exurberant life.
Ferrar's books are more about the people than the crimes. The crime exists and it certainly was always in the back of my mind while reading this book, but in this case it provides a framework for Ferrars to delve into the psychology and the buried motives of the characters' behavior.  This story is much more a part of the psychological suspense sub-genre than Ferrar's other books that I have read. The first one I read, Skeleton in Search of a Cupboard (1982) is a straightforward mystery plot; the second, The Small World of Murder, is more of a psychological thriller.

For me, this book had some of the problems of amateur sleuth mysteries; how does Alice successfully get all these people to talk to her, people that she barely knows? Of course, she isn't really trying to solve a crime, although she does have doubts. She seems to be more obsessed with figuring out who Janet was underneath her persona. A good deal of the story is Alice's conversations with other people. Eventually her husband agrees that are are serious questions to be asked and gets involved.

Although this type of story is not for everyone, I do recommend it highly, primarily for the look at London and its people during the war, but also for the character development and revelations.

H.R.F. Keating also included this book in Crime & Mystery -- The 100 Best Books. There he says:
"During the course of her hesitant inquiries she comes across facts of life likely among a somewhat bohemian set of people. It is a mark of the realism Elizabeth Ferrars achieved that her regular publishers declined the book on the grounds that detective stories could not be this seamy."

Elizabeth Ferrars was born Morna Doris MacTaggart. In the US her books were issued under the name "E.X. Ferrars." She was a very prolific writer.

See other reviews at Pining for the West, In Reference to Murder, and A Hot Cup of Pleasure.

This book is a submission for the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt in the "Staircase" category.


Publisher:   Constable, 1987 (orig. pub. 1946) 
Length:       191 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Setting:      UK, mostly London
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased this book.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Seven Dials Mystery: Agatha Christie

The Seven Dials Mystery begins with a house party at Chimneys, the country estate of Sir Oswald Coote and Lady Coote. They are renting it from Lord Caterham, and have invited a slew of young people to join them. The title comes from a prank that is pulled on one of the guests, Gerald Wade, who always wakes up very late in the day. Eight alarm clocks are put in his room to awaken him, but the morning of the prank he does not wake up at all. It is initially determined that the death was accidental. One of the guests then notices that seven of the clocks were lined up on the mantel in Gerald's room. When another guest at this house party is killed, although not while still at Chimeys, a connection between the deaths is suspected.

This is the second book featuring Superintendent Battle, who seems to be called in when affairs of state are tied up with a crime. The first book was The Secret of Chimneys. Much of action in The Seven Dials Mystery also takes place at Chimneys, and many of the characters from the first book return in this mystery.

Agatha Christie described this book as a thriller in her autobiography,:
I had followed up The Murder of Roger Ackroyd with The Seven Dials Mystery. This was a sequel to my earlier book The Secret of Chimneys, and was one of what I called "the light-hearted thriller type". These were always easy to write, not requiring too much plotting and planning.
This Agatha Christie mystery did not disappoint, although I would not place it among my favorite Christie novel.


The characters are delightful, from the main characters to the bit players. I find Superintendent Battle to be very appealing, and I like the role he plays in this story.  Lord Caterham and his daughter Lady Eileen are very unique and charming characters. They provide a lot of the humor that makes this book stand apart for me.

I especially enjoyed the character of Lady Coote, who features most prominently in the initial chapters of the story, and the contrast she provides to Lady Eileen, known to friends and family as "Bundle". Lady Coote worries about everything: people coming late to dinner, how to deal with the gardener. There is an extended conversation with MacDonald, the gardener, regarding doing some work on the estate, and he circumvents her wishes very easily.  As soon as Bundle is back on the estate, she asks him to do exactly the same things and takes no flak from him when he demurs.

Overall, I found this to be a fine and engaging story. Initially, I was not impressed with the plot, which seemed too light and silly. For the first half of the book, I was aghast at how unbelievable the story was, though even at that point I enjoyed the various character portrayals. Very shortly, the plot picked up, the story came together, and made more sense.

Even though I was making no effort to guess the perpetrator of the crimes, I was totally surprised by the identity of this person. As many point out, this is a thriller and as such is not trying to lay out clues for the reader to discover, but still, I though Christie did a great job of obfusating the bad guys.


I wasn't thrilled with the element of the secret society in the plot, but that was par for the course in thrillers written at this time, and an element that Christie used more than once. Other than that and the time it took to get engaged in the plot, I was quite happy with this book by Christie. I liked it better than The Secret of Chimneys, but some Christie fans go the other direction.

Other resources:

This book was my choice for the Crimes of the Century meme, hosted by Rich at Past OffencesI also read this book for the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge, hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries In Paradise, which I am working on very gradually. And it fits into the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt in the "Hand Holding Weapon" category.

The cover painting on my edition is by the wonderful artist, Tom Adams.


Publisher:   Bantam Books, 1981. Orig. pub. 1929.
Length:      217 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Superintendent Battle, #2
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Adventure, spy thriller
Source:      Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2015.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Moonraker: Ian Fleming

To this point, I have read the first four James Bond novels by Ian Fleming. Based on my readings, it appears to me that there are things you accept when you read a James Bond novel:

  • There will be male chauvinistic behavior.
  • There will be ethnic slurs and slights, to varying degrees so far
  • There will be lots of violence.

Regardless of this, I find the Ian Fleming James Bond series to be consistently entertaining and each book is a page turner. If they were hard to get through or less than entertaining, I would give up on them. And the books do not follow an exact formula; each book is different.

In Moonraker, Sir Hugo Drax is a very rich man who is building a rocket to be used in Britain's defense system. It is very close to being ready for testing. Meanwhile, M and Drax belong to a very elite club and Drax is suspected of cheating at cards. M wants Bond to determine if this is true, because it would cause a scandal if exposed. A very exciting card game ensues.

Very soon after this, one of two security people supplied by the RAF is killed in a double murder at Drax's development site. Bond is sent to take the murdered man's place as head of Security because of the upcoming test launch of the rocket. The other security person on site, Gala Brand, is working undercover as Drax's private secretary. All other personnel at the site are German guided missile experts.

There are several elements that set this book apart. Gala is an agent and she is intelligent and capable. Although Bond does behave chauvinistically toward her initially, he grows to care for her and acknowledges her abilities as an agent along the way. In the books, Bond does not treat women as objects quite so much as in the movies, especially the earlier movies.

Bond is shown to have a normal life, or at least a life apart from endless spy missions. This never comes across in the movies, and shows up rarely in the books.
It was the beginning of a typical routine day for Bond. It was only two or three times a year that an assignment came along requiring his particular abilities. For the rest of the year he had the duties of an easy-going civil servant – elastic office hours from ten to six; lunch, generally in the canteen; evenings spent playing cards in the company of a few close friends, or at Crockford’s; or making love, with rather cold passion, to one of three similarly disposed married women; weekends playing golf for high stakes at one of the clubs near London.
Bond is depicted as a very capable agent but not a superman. He suffers when he is beaten up; he is susceptible to tiring out or being overcome by superior strength. As in most adventure stories he does get out of scrapes by his wits and luck, but that part of the story is fairly realistic. Yes, the plot and action is still over the top, but in a good way. And it was fun.

The Adaptation Starring Roger Moore

You could call the movie "Bond in Space"; the plot is certainly very science-fictiony. The movie adaptation jettisons most of the plot of the book. There is some justification for this. By the time the book was adapted, a defense rocket would not be all that exciting. I have read that the decision to film Moonraker at the time it was made (1979) was due to the recent successful films set in space, such as Star Wars. Thus the rocket becomes a space shuttle that can transport astronauts and supplies to a space station.

However, I found the adaptation was a disappointment because the card game and the cheating issue are dropped and the trip to outer space is totally outlandish. Possibly the issue of cheating at cards was seen as not as such a hot topic in the late seventies as it was in the fifties? Although certainly there have been many gambling scenes in more recent Bond movies.

A big difference between book and movie is that the book stays in the UK, the movie has many exotic locations; the action starts in London, moves to the US (Los Angeles), then to Venice and Rio de Janeiro and finally, into space.

The Roger Moore movies tend to be less serious than those that preceded or followed them. Hugo Drax is played by Michael Lonsdale; in the movie he heads a facility that produces space shuttles for NASA. The Bond girls are Holly Goodhead, played by Lois Chiles, and Corinne Dufour, played by Corinne Cléry. Holly Goodhead is a CIA agent and astronaut while Corinne is Drax's secretary and private pilot. Jaws, Drax's henchman,played by Richard Kiel, is a giant of a man with steel teeth. He had appeared previously in The Spy Who Loved Me.

I would have loved to see an adaptation that came close to the Fleming story, but if you take the movie by itself it is fun. It is full of gadgets and written for laughs. The movie was bizarrely unrealistic, but I could enjoy it for what it was.

This movie gets very mixed reviews from bloggers.  Some people consider it the worst Bond movie ever made and a total waste of time; others enjoyed it immensely.

See these posts on Moonraker (the novel):
at Vintage Pop Fictions; at Clothes in Books, plus a follow up here; and at Stainless Steel Droppings.


Publisher:   MJF Books, 1993 (orig. pub. 1955) 
Length:       223 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       James Bond, #3
Setting:      UK
Genre:        Spy thriller
Source:      I purchased this book.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Blind Goddess: Anne Holt

From the description at the publisher's website:
While walking her dog, civil litigator Karen Borg stumbles upon the decaying body of a low-level drug dealer. Days later, notorious Oslo lawyer Hans E. Olson is shot at gunpoint in his home. Detective Inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen and Police Attorney Håkon Sand begin investigating the two murders in tandem and quickly discover a web of corruption, lies, and secrets that extend to the top levels of professional Oslo society and the Norwegian government—a discovery that may as well cost them their lives.
This story is much more complex than the description above indicates. Yet the story does not get so involved or include so many characters that the reader is confused. There is a good core of characters: the policeman and the attorney who form a partnership on this case, plus the civil litigator who is pulled into the case by her chance discovery. There is a good amount of information shared about their lives and relationships, but not to the detriment of the plot. Hanne is a lesbian in a relationship, and she keeps her off-work life strictly separate from her work life.

I liked the structure of the police detective working directly with the attorney to come up with a case. I used to see some of this type of thing in the Law and Order TV series, but more commonly in police procedural fiction the emphasis is on the detectives and possibly on the forensics and medical examiners. Although the reader is aware of a conspiracy at a high level, the author does a good job of hiding who is involved, and keeping the plot realistic.

This book was written in the early 1990s and I consider that a plus. No computers, and the investigation team rely on typewriters and other equipment not even used nowadays.

A minor complaint was that the plot dragged in the middle section. That could have been related to the translation and it could have been because it was Holt's first novel. It was a little longer than I would have preferred.

I have read one other book by Holt, the first book in the Vik and Stubo series: What is Mine? I found that book more to my taste. That book was published in 2001, and Blind Goddess was published in 1993.  But this was still a fine novel, featuring Hanne Wilhelmson early in her career, successful but still learning.

I will continue this series; I am interested in the character development of Hanne. The eighth book in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series, 1222, was the first novel by Holt published in English. I get the impression from comments at other blogs that she is a significantly different person by that point in the series, retired and cantankerous. I want to see the route she takes to become that person.

Other reviews at Eurocrime, A Crime is Afoot, Crimepieces, Ms. Wordopolis and Clothes in Books.


Publisher:   Scribner, 2012 (first publ. 1993)
Length:      354 pages
Format:      e-book
Series:       Hanne Wilhelmsen, #1
Setting:      Oslo, Norway
Genre:        Police Procedural
Translated: From the Norwegian by Tom Geddes
Source:      I purchased this book.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Reading in May and Crime Fiction Pick of the Month

In May, I read five books, and four of them were crime fiction. I read one book that fits in the fantasy genre: The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett. Pratchett's book was very enjoyable, although it took me a while to get into it. It was the first book by this author that I have read. I will save further thoughts on that for a full post.

The crime fiction books I read this month are:

  • Fast Company by Marco Page
  • The Guns of Navarone by Alistair MacLean
  • Background to Danger by Eric Ambler
  • Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming

I suppose if I am pressed to pick a crime fiction favorite from this month's reading it would be Background to Danger. It is a typical spy thriller by Eric Ambler, with the innocent bystander being pulled into a conspiracy unawares. A bit more thrillerish than the other books by Ambler that I have read.

But truly, of the crime fiction books that I read, The Guns of Navarone and Diamonds Are Forever are right up there, only a smidgen below Background to Danger. All of them are adventurous thrillers that entertain.

This has been a year of wanting to do new projects related to reading. I would love to read more graphic novels and understand more about that format. But I already have a lot of "projects" going and I know I can't handle too much. So that one will have to wait.

I had planned to read a lot more short stories this year and I haven't done well with that. I enjoy short stories when I read them, but they don't call to me and I am not good at picking up one here or there to read. I do have an anthology I am planning to read this summer for a Friday Forgotten Books special edition (Grifters & Swindlers edited by Cynthia Mason).

Another personal project is to read all the Smiley books by John le Carré, and I am doing fine with that. I am reading The Honourable Schoolboy right now, almost 2/3 done with this 600 page chunkster. And liking it a lot.

And the most recent project is to read the James Bond books (and watch the associated movies). Also doing fine with that. That one is easy. The  books are different from what I remember, but they are engaging reads with great pacing. Never a dull moment. I was inspired by Moira at Clothes in Books, who has read and posted about Casino Royale through Goldfinger so far. I started with Live and Let Die in March and have read one a month so far. Tonight we will be watching our DVD of the film, Diamonds are Forever, with Sean Connery.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: John le Carré

I have nothing but good things to say about this book. I would put Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy among the best novels I have ever read. I just hope I can explain why I like it so much.

At the opening of the novel, George Smiley has been retired (forcibly) from MI6 (called the Circus in le Carré's world) for about a year. His boss, Control, trying to prove that there was a mole in the Circus, had sent Jim Prideaux on a mission to Czechoslovakia. That operation, named Testify, went terribly bad, Prideaux was captured and interrogated, and many agents he had put in place were exposed. Control and Smiley were sacked from the Circus, and the group of four men that Control did not trust are now in power. Ricki Tarr turns up with information that indicates that Control was right and there is a mole.

From that point on, the story alternates between segments which relate events leading up to Prideaux's botched mission and long conversations with various agents gathering information needed to determine who is the mole.

The title refers to a nursery rhyme that supplied code names for the men who are under suspicion of being a mole. Percy Alleline, Control’s successor as Chief of the Circus, is "Tinker." Bill Haydon is "Tailor." Roy Bland is “Soldier,” Toby Esterhase is “Poorman.”

Leading up to this book, I had read all of the Smiley novels that preceded it. Each features George Smiley to some extent. All of them were well-written, entertaining books, although some were grittier and darker than others. I was really looking forward to reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It did not disappoint.

The story is about more than the espionage community;  it explores themes like betrayal and loss of love. Espionage novels are often about relationships and not knowing who you can trust. Even thought it moves slowly, I was totally immersed in the story and enjoyed every minute.

There are so many great characters: Smiley, Jim Prideaux, Peter Guillam, Ricki Tarr, Connie Sachs. One of my favorite elements of the story is the relationship that develops between Jim Prideaux, now working for a boarding school, and a student at the school. Another excellent section features Connie Sachs, a very competent researcher at the Circus who was edged out because she got too close to discovering information that could expose the mole.

A lot of the book is one-on-one conversations between Smiley and his sources of information. The story is heavily dependent on dialog, which I usually dislike. But le Carré handles it very well and it worked for me. The conversation with Toby Esterhase, as Smiley gets closer to uncovering the mole, is especially masterful.

For the best experience of the Smiley books, I would recommend reading the books leading up to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy first. However, many readers have started with this one or The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and been perfectly happy. The books (up to this point) are not really a cohesive series, but they build on each other. This book and The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley's People make up the Karla trilogy, where Smiley is on a quest to uncover Karla, the Russian agent who was running the mole.

The book has been adapted as a BBC mini-series (1979) and as a film (2011). After finishing the book, I first viewed the mini-series. We had watched it at least two times previously, once when it aired on the television in the US, and later on DVD. The previous viewings were so long ago that I didn't remember much about it, except that Alec Guinness was amazing. It was enjoyable, although I don't know how a viewer who had not read the book would be able to follow it. Then we watched the film version from 2011 with Gary Oldman as Smiley. That one I did not go for so much. I will follow up in a later post with more comments on the adaptations.

List of  'Smiley' Novels (with links to my reviews)

1. Call for the Dead (1961)
2. A Murder of Quality (1962)
3. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)
4. The Looking Glass War (1965)
5. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974)
6. The Honourable Schoolboy (1977)
7. Smiley's People (1979)
8. The Secret Pilgrim (1990)

Other resources:


Publisher:   Pocket Books, 2000. (Orig. pub. 1974)
Length:      418 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Karla Trilogy, #1
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Espionage fiction
Source:      Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2007.