Thursday, April 9, 2020

Coffin in Malta: Gwendoline Butler

Description from the book cover:
The varied inhabitants of Valletta, Malta's ancient, beautiful, and usually calm capital, are all too involved with one another to be trusted to find the murderer of the laundress's retarded son. It falls to outsider Detective Inspector Coffin, brought in from London's Scotland Yard, to be the catalyst that leads to the truth in this inbred and guilt-ridden community.
The New York Times Book Review said: "Makes the island of Malta and its people vividly alive to the reader..."

John Azzopardi, a lawyer who lived in London for several years, is as much the lead character in this story as Inspector John Coffin. Azzopardi has moved back to Malta, welcomed by family and friends. Very shortly after he moves into his apartment, there is a murder nearby. He awakes in the middle of the night, hears someone screaming, and hastens outside to see what is going on. Thus he gets pulled into the murder investigation. His cousin, Joseph de Bono is leading the investigation. But after much questioning, the police can get no answers from the people who were nearby when the crime was committed. Everyone seems to be afraid to talk but it is unclear who they are afraid of.

My thoughts on this book are very similar to my reaction to the first John Coffin book I read, Death Lives Next Door. The format of the mystery is unusual. The death does take place close to the beginning, but there is a large portion of the middle focused on questioning of suspects that goes nowhere. John Coffin shows up to help in the investigation but not until the last third of the book. There is more emphasis on personal relationships and interactions within the community than on the solving of a crime. Nevertheless I enjoyed the story and liked the writing style.

I would not necessarily recommend this particular book to anyone who hasn't already read books by Gwendoline Butler. The crime is horrific, but not described graphically or dwelled upon. However, the book does provide a good picture of Malta and its people, at least the Malta of the 1960s. The only other book I have read set in Malta (The Information Officer by Mark Mills) was set during World War II and the characters were mainly military people stationed in Malta at the time.

I do plan to try later books in this series although they are not easy to find. The John Coffin series was published over 4 decades, the 60s through the 90s. Gwendoline Butler wrote another series under the pseudonym Jenny Melville. The main character in that series was police sergeant Charmian Daniels.

 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Walker and Company, 1985 (orig. pub. 1964).
Length:    224 pages
Format:    Paperback
Series:     John Coffin #11
Setting:    Malta
Genre:     Mystery / Police Procedural
Source:    On my TBR pile since 2005.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

March 2020 Reading Summary

In March, most of my reads were crime fiction (and spy fiction, which I include under that umbrella).  I also read two books of historical fiction and a classic novel from the 1930s.

As the month wore on and the coronavirus situation got more scary, my reading leaned more to the comfort books. For me, spy fiction is included in comfort reading, so my reading of that genre may increase.

General Fiction 

Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930) by E.M. Delafield
This book is a satirical and humorous look at the life of a married woman with two children (and a cook, a French governess/nanny, and a maid or two), living in an English village, and dealing with money problems and the foibles of others. The diary format took some getting used to, but I liked it, and I am reading The Provincial Lady in London right now.

Historical Fiction

Bring Up the Bodies (2012) by Hilary Mantel
This is the sequel to Mantel's Wolf Hall; it explores the downfall of Anne Boleyn, from the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell. I liked this book even better than Wolf Hall.
Margaret the First (2016) by Danielle Dutton
This very short novel tells the story of Margaret Cavendish, an unconventional 17th-century Duchess who dared to write and publish all types of literature when it was unthinkable for women to do this. I enjoyed the story very much, and learned more about those times.


Crime Fiction

A Quiet Place (1975) by Seichō Matsumoto
Crime fiction set in Japan, by a Japanese author. This book portrays culture and working life in Japan in the 1970s very well. My review here.

The Expats (2012) by Chris Pavone
A spy fiction thriller set in Luxembourg, although not your standard spy fiction story. I loved it. My review here.

Rest in Pieces (1992) by Rita Mae Brown
This is part of a mystery series that features a cat (Mrs. Murphy) and a dog (Tucker) as characters (in addition to humans). Not my usual type of mystery, but I enjoyed it. My review here.


Miss Silver Deals with Death (1944) by Patricia Wentworth
Miss Silver #6. As I noted in my review, this book has one of my favorite  settings for a mystery... London during World War II. And the mystery story is well done too.

October Men (1973) by Anthony Price
This is the fourth book in the David Audley series, a cold war espionage series set in the UK (and sometimes other countries) and usually featuring some historical element. In this case, Audley is in Italy. Although Audley is the central character throughout the series, each book is different and may place the focus on other characters. My review here.


Snow Angels (2009) by James Thompson
This is the first novel in the Inspector Vaara series. A very interesting setting: Finnish Lapland, a hundred miles into the Arctic Circle. There was too much violence, described graphically, for me. My review here.


The Second Confession (1949) and
In the Best Families (1950) by Rex Stout
When I embarked on comfort reading this month, Rex Stout was one of the first authors to come to mind. These two books are books 2 and 3 in the Zeck Trilogy; And Be a Villain is book 1 in the trilogy. Arnold Zeck is Nero Wolfe's archenemy, and in these two books Wolfe encounters Zeck once again.  


Dark Provenance (1994) by Michael David Anthony
Second book in the Canterbury Cathedral series. The protagonist, Richard Harrison, is an ex-Intelligence Officer who has taken on the position of Secretary of the Diocesan Dilapidations Board for Canterbury. By coincidence, a man he worked with in Germany at the end of the war is found dead nearby, and that man's daughter refuses to believe it is suicide. I enjoy these books more for the picture of life at Canterbury Cathedral than the mystery; this book was a good read.

Coffin in Malta (1964) by Gwendoline Butler
I read my first John Coffin novel earlier this year and enjoyed it very much. This book takes Coffin to Malta to investigate a crime and, like the earlier book I read, it features Coffin only later in the book.

Tiger in the Smoke (1952) by Margery Allingham
Albert Campion #14. Set in London a few years after the end of World War II, this is more of a thriller than the typical detective novel that Campion is involved with. My review here.


Monday, April 6, 2020

Rest in Pieces: Rita Mae Brown


This is the 2nd book in the Mrs. Murphy series. With a cat (Mrs. Murphy) and a dog (Tucker) as important characters (in addition to the humans), this was not my usual type of mystery, but I enjoyed it. I had read the first book in the series years ago, and only decided to give this book a try because it is set in Virginia and I could use it for my USA States challenge. It does give a good picture of rural Virginia, with farm life, horses, and hunting.

Mary Minor Haristeen (nicknamed "Harry") is the postmistress of the small town of Crozet, Virginia. She owns a farm, with horses, and has a grey tiger cat and a Welsh Corgi. Many of the residents of Crozet and the surrounding area are odd and quirky to say the least. In Crozet, everyone knows everyone and there is a lot of gossip.

There is a newcomer, Blair Bainbridge, a male model from Manhattan who has just purchased the farm next to Harry's. He and Harry become friends and she gives him advice on setting up his farm. Parts of a dismembered corpse show up near to their properties.

The animals have an important role in the story. They do not detect, but they do try to attract Harry's attention to clues, etc. They interact with other animals: Simon, the opossum; a barn owl; and Pewter, a neighbor's cat. Initially I found their conversations silly and distracting, but as I got used to the idea, sometimes their conversations sounded much more intelligent that the humans.

This could be described as a cozy mystery, but there is a good bit of profanity, which I thought was frowned on in cozies. That did not bother me, but just like to mention that for other readers. The Cozy Mystery site describes the series as "Deep South Cozy with talking pets." There is plenty of cursing in the Deep South, for sure.

I thought the mystery plot was pretty good, but it meandered because there were so many subplots. There did not seem to be a sleuth, although everyone wanted to know the identity of the dead body. Until much later, when an identifiable body shows up, and the action speeds up. I was very surprised by the ending, and I like it when that happens. I liked the humor in the writing, and the lovely drawings by Wendy Wray are a bonus.

If you like seasonal reads, this story starts in October and ends around Christmas. It could be read for either autumn, Halloween, or Christmas.




 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Bantam, 1993. Orig. pub. 1992.
Length:     347 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Mrs. Murphy Mystery, #11
Setting:     Virginia
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     On my TBR pile for a long time.


Friday, April 3, 2020

Bookshelf Traveling for Insane Times No. 3

Judith at Reader in the Wilderness has started a new meme: Bookshelf Traveling For Insane Times. The idea is to look through a bookshelf or a bookcase or stacks of books and share some thoughts on the books. You can find more details here and here at Judith's blog.

For my Bookshelf Traveling post this week, I have picked three books I bought or received in 2017 (and have not read).


Rough Cider by Peter Lovesey
This is one of Peter Lovesey's earlier novels. Published in 1986, it is set in 1964, and involves events that took place during World War II.
A university lecturer, Dr. Theo Sinclair, is approached by a young woman, Alice, who has questions about a murder that occurred 21 years earlier in 1943. When Sinclair was nine years old he was sent to Somerset during the Blitz; while he was there he provided evidence for a murder trial. Alice's father was convicted of murder at that trial. 
See reviews at the Historical Novel Society site and At the Scene of the Crime.




Miss Darkness: The Great Short Crime Fiction of Fredric Brown
This collection of short stories by Fredric Brown was selected and edited by Jonathan Eeds, and published in 2012. Except for a few short stories from this collection, I have not read anything by this author. He was an American science fiction and mystery writer, publishing short stories and novels from the 1940s through the 1980s. I know I have read blog posts on books by this author but not sure where. I would love to hear from anyone who is familiar with his writing.



Doan and Carstairs: Their Complete Cases by Norbert Davis
(with an introduction by Evan Lewis)
I first heard about Norbert Davis and the Doan and Carstairs series at Neeru's blog, A Hot Cup of Pleasure, in 2013, when she reviewed Holocaust House. At the time I planned to read something by this author, but never did that. In 2017, this omnibus version was published by Argosy House, with the introduction by Evan Lewis. Evan has many posts about Norbert Davis at his blog, Davy Crockett's Almanac; here is a link to a post on The Mouse in the Mountain, one of the three novels in the series.
The series was published in the 1940's. Doan is a detective and Carstairs is a Great Dane. The stories are hard-boiled mysteries with a lot of humor. See an overview at The Thrilling Detective Web Site.
I still haven't read any of the books and none of them are very long. I have really got to do something about that. I have read one of Norbert Davis's short stories, "Watch Me Kill You!", in The Complete Cases of Max Latin. My post is here








Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Tiger in the Smoke: Margery Allingham

I recently realized that I started my journey towards reading this book in 2015, nearly five years ago. That was when I decided to start with Death of a Ghost (Albert Campion #6) and read the series in order up to Tiger in the Smoke (#14). Along the way I have become a big fan of Margery Allingham's writing.

I was a bit hesitant to read Tiger in the Smoke because it is usually described as very different from Allingham's other mysteries (although I have always found that there was much variation within the series). This is definitely a thriller as opposed to the usual detective novel, and fairly early on we know who the killer is. The only mystery is how (or if?) he will be stopped.


A brief summary:

A relative of Campion's, Meg Elginbrodde, is about to remarry five years after losing her first husband in World War II. She has been sent photos of her first husband which seem to indicate he is alive and in London. Campion and Inspector Charlie Luke look into this.

The "tiger" threatening London is Jack Havoc, recently escaped from prison. The "smoke" is the fog/smog hanging over London throughout this story.

My thoughts:

I did like this mystery a lot, although it is not my favorite book by Allingham. What I like about Allingham's Albert Campion series is how she tells a story, her writing style, and her skill with characterization, especially with some of the unique secondary characters that don't show up in every book. All of that was there in this book, so I was very happy with it.

Canon Avril is my favorite character in this story. He is Meg's father, "the priest in charge of the Anglican church of St Peter of the Gate in Portminster Row in London." (see Clerical Detectives) He becomes very involved in the investigation and ferrets out important details that might never have been discovered otherwise. And he is such a wise and wonderful person. The parts with Canon Avril alone made the book worthwhile for me.

Some reviewers note that Campion is not much involved in this story or the investigation but I don't see it that way at all. He was there when he needed to be and he played an important part.

See posts at Clothes in Books (here and here). At Past Offences there are multiple posts on this book, starting here.


-----------------------------

Publisher:   Felony & Mayhem, 2010 (orig. pub. 1952)
Length:      290 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      London, UK. France.
Genre:       Thriller
Source:      Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2011.


Sunday, March 29, 2020

Bookshelf Traveling for Insane Times — from my Son's shelves


Judith at Reader in the Wilderness has started a new meme: Bookshelf Traveling For Insane Times. The idea is to look through a bookshelf or a bookcase or stacks of books and share some thoughts on the books. You can find more details here and here at Judith's blog.

When I started writing this post it was my son's birthday, so I decided to share some books I have borrowed from my son to read.

First is Westside by W. M. Akers:

This one came out in 2019 and my son read it before publication.

The Kirkus review says of Westside: "Akers’ debut novel is an addictively readable fusion of mystery, dark fantasy, alternate history, and existential horror." It is set in an alternate 1920s Manhattan.

Description on the back of the book:
Blending the vivid atmosphere of Caleb Carr with the imaginative power of Neil Gaiman, Westside is a mystery steeped in the supernatural and shot through with gunfights, rotgut whiskey, and sizzling Dixieland jazz. Full of dazzling color, delightful twists, and truly thrilling action...
Sounds interesting. I should be reading it in April.


And then...
The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams

In March 2019, I read Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by the same author.  The story starts out seeming like an ordinary detective story with strange characters, but also has ghosts and time travel. It was weird and confusing, and I loved it. I did not even try to review it.

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, first published in 1988, is the 2nd book in the Dirk Gently series, and I assume it will similar and just as much fun.

One book review at 1001 Book Reviews said that both books need to be read twice to understand them, and I am sure I will be doing that.



Also ...
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

This is what I know about this book:  It is a young adult novel first published in 1962 and deals with time travel. It is the first book in the Time Quintet.

Kelli Stanley, author of the Miranda Corbie series set in San Francisco in the 1940s, says:
A Wrinkle in Time is essentially science fiction. But it uses questions about science to delve into metaphysics, spirituality, and the human condition.
I think that is all I need to know going into it, and I am looking forward to reading it.





Friday, March 27, 2020

October Men: Anthony Price

This is the fourth book in the David Audley series, a cold war espionage series set in the UK (and other countries, depending on the book) and usually featuring some historical element. David Audley is the central character throughout the series, but each book is different, focusing on other characters within the team. The fifth book in the series, Other Paths to Glory, was the winner of the 1974 Gold Dagger Award.

Audley, an agent in the Research and Development Section of the Britain's Intelligence Services, goes off to Rome unexpectedly—with his wife and child—and without telling his bosses. These actions fit a defection, and Peter Richardson is dispatched to Rome to find him. General Montuori, head of Italian security, has discovered that Audley is in Rome and that there is some connection to an old enemy of his, who has also turned up in Rome. Thus Richardson arrives just when two men in Italian security have been shot, one killed and one in critical condition, while trying to apprehend Audley and his wife at the ruins at Ostia Antica. As usual, the plot is very complex, but the action, intrigue, and denouement are compelling.

This book has two point of view characters: Peter Richardson and Pietro Boselli, personal assistant to General Montuori. Boselli is a wonderful character, not at all eager to be in the field but somehow forced into a more active role. Both characters know only part of the story.

Of the four books I have read, Audley is only fully present in the first one. In this book he has a significant role but does not show up in person for more than half of the book. He is not a lovable hero. I get the impression that no one really likes Audley, but he gets things done and he is respected and admired.

The David Audley series has become one of my favorite spy series. I love this kind of spy fiction, which TV Tropes describes as the Stale Beer flavor: more realistic, not romanticizing the subject, grittier. The focus in these books is on characterization and intellect, not action, although there is some of that present.

Other resources:


As noted, this book is set in Italy and features the archaeological site Ostia Antica. There is also reference to World War II activities in Italy.


 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Futura, 1982. Orig. pub. 1973.
Length:      256 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      David Audley / Jack Butler #4
Setting:     UK, Italy
Genre:      Spy fiction
Source:     Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale in 2019. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Snow Angels: James Thompson

This is the first novel in the Inspector Vaara series by James Thompson. With so much violence, it probably wasn't the book I should have chosen to read this month, but I was interested in the setting.

Description from the back of my book:
It is called kaamos: two weeks of unrelenting darkness and soul-numbing cold that falls upon Finnish Lapland, a hundred miles into the Arctic Circle, just before Christmas. Some get through it with the help of cheap Russian alcohol; some sink into depression.
This year, it may have driven someone mad enough to commit murder. The brutalized body of a beautiful Somali woman has been found in the snow, and Inspector Kari Vaara must find her killer. It will be a challenge in a place where ugly things lurk under frozen surfaces, and silence is a way of life.


This book was first published in 2009 and was reissued in trade paperback format in the US in 2011. My copy says this on the cover: "If you liked The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, you'll love this."  I don't see the comparison myself, except for the setting in a Scandinavian country and a lot of violence.

I cannot say I enjoyed this book overall, even though it has some good points. The crime was very brutal and there was extensive detailed graphic discussion of the brutality of the crime throughout the book.

Sometimes I can handle books dealing with brutal and violent crime, if the characters are well developed and/or the plot is very interesting. However, in this novel, there were very few sympathetic characters. The only interesting characters with any depth were the inspector and his wife. Inspector Kari Vaara has always lived in Lapland, but his wife is an American woman who is the general manager of a large ski resort. They have not been married long, and they face the challenges that two people from different cultures would have, plus both have demanding jobs.

The story is written in first person, present tense, which sometimes added to my confusion. Except for the present tense, I found Thompson's writing very readable and he pulled me into the story, but the plot seemed overly complex, unrealistic, and confusing.

I learned a lot about Finland from this book, although not much of it positive. The story discusses social problems in Finland—violence, mental illness, alcoholism, and racism. This book was published in Finland first, in the Finnish language, even though the author was an American. At the time the book was published, James Thompson had lived in Finland for 12 years. He died in 2014 at the age of 50.

There are a total of five books in the Inspector Vaara series, published between 2009 and 2015. I believe that the rest of the novels are set in Helsinki. I have not given up on this author, although I am not in a rush to try anymore of his books right now.

Many reviews of this book are much more positive. Thus I am including links to reviews at Material Witness, Petrona, Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan, and Kittling Books.

This is a good interview with the author at Scene of the Crime, with more about the setting and a short excerpt from this book.


 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Berkley Books, 2011. Orig. pub. 2009.
Length:     292 pages
Format:     Trade Paperback
Series:      Inspector Vaara, #1
Setting:     Kattila, Lapland, Finland
Genre:      Police Procedural
Source:    On my TBR pile since 2012.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Bookshelf Traveling For Insane Times

Judith at Reader in the Wilderness has started a new meme and she's calling it 'Bookshelf Traveling For Insane Times'. More details are here and here at Judith's blog. The idea is to do this every Friday (but anytime in the weekend is fine). For these times when we are (mostly) confined to our homes, the suggestion is to look through a bookshelf or a bookcase or stacks of books and share some thoughts on the books. Or in general: "Talking about books and reading experiences from the past, present, or future."

My first thought was to go through my stacks and boxes of uncatalogued books choose a few to talk about (and then actually catalog them). For two years now, I have neglected to catalog most of the books I have bought, and that is a large number, because I always buy at least 100 books at the annual Planned Parenthood Book Sale (most of them are $1 each).

So I will start with:
Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains. This is book 5 in the Dandy Gilver series, written by Catriona McPherson. I had forgotten I had purchased it online over a year ago.

I have read two previous books in the series. I was lukewarm on the first book, After the Armistice Ball, but I liked the 4th book in the series, The Winter Ground, a lot. And The Winter Ground is set around Christmas.

Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains is set in 1926 in Edinburgh, Scotland, and Dandy, a wealthy amateur sleuth, has taken an undercover job as a maid to investigate a possible crime. This sounds like a really interesting premise, so I am glad I uncovered this book.


Next is...
Boundary Waters by William Kent Krueger

This one I knew I had, but wasn't sure where it had ended up. Now that I have relocated it, I will read it in the next few months. Boundary Waters is the second book in the Cork O'Connor series, which now numbers 17 books. In December 2018, I read the first book in this series, Iron Lake, after a recommendation by Rick Robinson at Tip the Wink. That one had been on my TBR a long, long time.

This description of the series is from Krueger's web site:
Krueger writes a mystery series set in the north woods of Minnesota. His protagonist is Cork O’Connor, the former sheriff of Tamarack County and a man of mixed heritage—part Irish and part Ojibwe.
Boundary Waters takes place in the Quetico-Superior Wilderness: more than two million acres of forest, white-water rapids, and uncharted islands on the Canadian/American border.

... and also...
Mistakenly in Mallorca by Roderic Jeffries

Now this is a book and a series I don't know much about. I learned about this from two sources: Margot Kinberg, when she was blogging at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, and Mathew Paust at Crime Time.  I purchased a copy in November 2018.

This was the first book in the Inspector Alvarez series and was published in 1974. There are a total of 37 books in the series, and the last was published in 2013. He wrote several other series, under various pseudonyms.

Enrique Alvarez is a police inspector on Mallorca, the largest island in the Balearic Islands, in the Mediterranean. Although it is a part of Spain, the native language is Catalan, with Spanish also an official language. This setting in the early 1970s sounds interesting, and I like police procedurals, so I was willing to give it a try. I should do that soon.



Thursday, March 19, 2020

Miss Silver Deals with Death: Patricia Wentworth

Miss Silver Deals with Death has one of my favorite  settings for a mystery... London during World War II. Actually I like stories of any type taking place on the homefront in any part of England. But stories actually written at that time are the most interesting.

Meade Underwood is living with her aunt in a flat in Valendeur House in London during the war. She was on a ship that was torpedoed while travelling back to the UK from America; she survived, her fiancé did not. Then she runs into Giles, her fiancé, on the street and finds that he was rescued and has lost his memory. Coincidentally, a woman, Carola Roland, who lives in another flat in the same building also knows Giles, and claims that they were once married. And then Carola is killed and of course Giles is a suspect. In addition, someone is blackmailing the residents of Valendeur House and Miss Silver is called in to sort it all out.


That short synopsis sounds complicated enough, but there are five more occupied flats in the building and each has occupants with their own interesting story. As often happens in this series, Miss Silver does not show up very much until there is a murder and that doesn't happen until almost halfway through the book. So, for readers who want the crime and the investigation to start fairly early in the book, this might not appeal. I usually like that kind of story, where there is a good bit of set up of the characters and the situation before the crime takes place.

Another recurring element in Miss Silver books is a romance. In this case we have not just one but two romances. In addition to Meade's reunion with her lover that was thought to be dead, two other tenants at Vandeleur House are attracted to each other. I used to find this irritating in mysteries, now it really depends on the author and the book; in this case, I liked it fine.

The policemen who deal with the crime are Chief Inspector Lamb and Sergeant Abbott. Sergeant Abbott is more accepting of Miss Silver's help in the investigation than the inspector. These policemen often feature in Miss Silver mysteries.

I did enjoy this book very much. In addition to the setting, I liked the way Wentworth introduces all the characters and we eventually learn about their personalities in more depth, and how the war has changed their lives. And I always enjoy Miss Silver and her methods of detection. The book was recommended to me by Moira at Clothes in Books (under the title Miss Silver Intervenes); her post is here.

The illustration on the cover of the paperback is by John Jinks, whose art also was on covers of mysteries by Walter Mosley and Stuart Palmer.


 -----------------------------

Publisher: HarperPerennial, 1991 (first publ. 1944)
Length:    231 pages
Format:    Trade Paperback
Series:     Miss Silver Mysteries #6
Setting:    UK 
Genre:     Mystery
Source:    I purchased my copy at the Planned Parenthood book sale in 2017.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good: Helene Tursten


The five stories in this slim volume were written by Helene Tursten, the author of the Inspector Irene Huss series. But the stories bear no resemblance to the Irene Huss novels. Irene Huss and some of her colleagues do show up in the last story.

All the stories focus on eighty-eight-year-old Maud, who lives in a lovely apartment in Gothenburg, Sweden, rent free. Being very old, some people try to take advantage of her but she is not easy to fool. And she can take care of herself.

One theme throughout the stories is how elderly people are treated and overlooked in society. Maud uses this perception of older people to her advantage.

The five stories are:

  • “An Elderly Lady Has Accommodation Problems”
  • “An Elderly Lady on Her Travels"
  • “An Elderly Lady Seeks Peace at Christmastime”
  • “The Antique Dealer’s Death”  
  • “An Elderly Lady Is Faced with a Difficult Dilemma”

I liked the last two stories best; the last story tells the previous story from a different point of view. Even if short stories are not your thing you might enjoy this set of connected stories because it reads something like a short novel. This small book is full of dark humor.

“An Elderly Lady Seeks Peace at Christmastime” was published in The Usual Santas: A Collection of Soho Crime Christmas Capers, if you already have that collection of stories.

If you can read this book without having read a review or any of the book cover text, I recommend that. Most reviews, and even some blurbs within the book, tell more than I wanted to know in advance. For that reason, I have given an overview of the stories with no details. If you do want more detail about the stories, check these posts at



 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Soho Crime, 2018 
Translated by Marlaine Delargy 
Length:       171 pages in a small format book
Format:       Hardcover
Setting:       Sweden
Genre:        Crime fiction, short stories
Source:       Purchased in November 2019.


Thursday, March 12, 2020

Murder at Madingley Grange: Caroline Graham

Caroline Graham is best known as the author of the Inspector Barnaby books, which were adapted for the TV series Midsomer Murders. Back in 2011 and 2012 I read all of the seven books in the series and I loved them.

Murder at Madingley Grange, published in 1990, is a standalone book, and very different from the Barnaby series, with much more humor, and not intended to be taken so seriously.


Madingley Grange is the perfect setting for a 1930s murder mystery weekend; thus Simon Hannaford plots to convince his half-sister, Laurie, to let him use their Aunt Maude's home for a money-making scheme while their aunt is away on vacation. Laurie agrees, reluctantly, and the planning  begins. Simon hires a butler and maid for the weekend, advertises for guests, and rents costumes. Felony & Mayhem, publisher of the edition I read, describes this novel as a "wonderful, hilarious satire of the country house mystery."

At first I had problems with some of the characters. Laurie is exceedingly shy and too innocent to be believed and behaves like a doormat. And I thought the humor was too over-the-top and not to my liking. But soon I was immersed in the story.

From beginning to end, this story was not at all what I thought it would be, but it turned out to be even better than expected. It was very clever mystery, where many of the characters are not what they seem. I was reminded of a Peter Dickinson style of plot, with many layers and hidden agendas and more than one twist.

To learn more about this book, see the review at Clothes in Books.


-----------------------------

Publisher:   Felony & Mayhem, 2006 (orig. pub. 1990)
Length:      275 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Country House Mystery
Source:      On my TBR shelf for many years.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Expats: Chris Pavone

I bought this book in 2013 at the book sale, and I only read it this month because it is set in Luxembourg and it would be a good choice for the European Reading Challenge. After waiting all that time, I loved the book. I had forgotten that The Expats is a spy story. It is a lot more than that, but at its core we have the secrets, the mistrust, and the tension of a spy story, and it was perfect for me.


The main character, Kate, was a CIA agent for many years. She has been married to Dexter for several years and they have two sons (four and five). Suddenly, one day, Dexter suggests that they move to Luxembourg because he has a new job there. Kate leaves her job behind and becomes a full-time mother.

The only character we get to know well is Kate. The story is told from her point of view, but not in first person. Dexter is kind of a cipher and I think that is intentional, to keep the reader guessing. This is also very much a story about a full-time stay-at-home mother. Kate has made the transition from full-time job (with a nanny to care for the kids) to being with them every hour that they are not in school, which at this point is preschool. Her husband is much less available in his new job and travels a lot.

It soon becomes obvious that Kate had some kind of hush-hush job and also had a bad experience shortly before she left the job. The slow reveal of what she did formerly and the major event that is troubling her is very well done. This is followed by multiple revelations about her husband, the reason behind their move to Luxembourg, and some new friends they met after moving to Luxembourg.

The story switches between two timelines. The story is framed by short segments throughout the book that are set in the current time and written in present tense, but most of the story centers on what happened two years before when Kate and Dexter moved to Luxembourg and is written in past tense. It is clear which time frame we are in because of the typeface and the tense, and this worked very well for me, but it could get confusing.

I liked the way that Pavone gets across the conflict between being a working mom and a stay-at-home mom. This is one of those issues in life that may have no good answer (depending on the person and the amount of money available), but the pull of wanting to be with your kids and be a part of their lives versus having responsibilities and a life (and money) of your own is difficult to deal with, and I think he shows that very well.

Setting:
I did learn a lot about Luxembourg. It is a grand duchy bordered by Belgium, France, and Germany. What is really interesting is that the language spoken there is Luxembourgish, which Dexter describes as "a Germanic dialect, with French tossed in." German, French and English are also spoken there.

About the author:
It is strange to read a book about a full-time mother feeling overwhelmed by her lack of privacy and time for herself that is written by a man. After finishing the book I read a couple of articles about how a similar thing happened to Chris Pavone. His wife got a very good job working in Luxembourg and he was the stay-at-home dad, doing the washing, adjusting to an entirely new environment with no friends around, going to the park with his kids and chatting with the mothers who brought their kids. So that is one reason he got it so right.

The Expats was published in 2012 and was Chris Pavone's first novel. It won the 2013 Edgar Award for best first novel by an American author. He has published three more novels:

  • The Accident (2014).
  • The Travelers (2016).
  • The Paris Diversion (2019). A sequel to The Expats, but written so that it can be read as a standalone novel, according to this article at Shots Ezine.

See also these reviews at Clothes in Books, BooksPlease, and Finding Time to Write.


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Publisher:  Broadway Paperbacks, 2013 (orig. pub. 2012)
Length:      326 pages
Format:     Trade Paperback
Series:       Kate Moore, #1
Setting:      Luxembourg, mostly
Genre:       Thriller, Spy fiction
Source:      Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2013.

Friday, March 6, 2020

A Quiet Place: Seicho Matsumoto

When I finished this novel, my first opinion was that it was a very strange book. It was a combination of a psychological study with crime fiction elements. Sort of a suspense novel, very slow, and definitely not a thriller, except at the very end. Some of the elements were very good, and others just did not work for me.


As the book opens, Tsuneo Asai is away from home, at a conference with a new director general in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. During the evening dinner, Asai gets a telephone call and is informed that his wife, Eiko, has died unexpectedly. Although he is shocked, his first thought is how to leave the director general with the support he needs, before he returns to his home in Tokyo. It is evident throughout the story that Asai's primary concern in his life is his job and rising through the ranks to a higher position.

Asai and his wife have an unusual relationship. Although Eiko is in her thirties, she has had a heart attack in the past and she is worried about having another one, so she avoids sexual relations, which was never a large part of their relationship. Asai works and Eiko has her artistic pursuits, which sometimes take her out of the home during the afternoon. Asai believes that both of them are content with this situation.

Eiko's death occurred while she was walking in an area in Tokyo that Asai is not familiar with. After her death, which is clearly just a heart attack, Asai gradually begins to question why Eiko was out in that neighborhood when she died. He visits the cosmetics shop she was in when she died, questions the shop owner, and is suspicious of some of her responses. Thus he continues his investigations.

Asai is an excellent investigator for an amateur but it does take months to follow up on various leads, and at one point he gives up entirely for a while. Eventually he hires a private investigator, using a false name and address. He is afraid of being open about what he is doing as it might reflect badly on him in his job. Although Asai is keeping up with his work, it is almost like he has two personalities, the one that only cares about his work and his position there, and the one that craves closure on what his wife had been doing.

At this point I was unsure where the book was going. Not even Asai suspects foul play with regards to his wife's death, he just thinks that his wife was deceiving him, and he wants to know why. And soon there is an unexpected twist and the tension (and the pace) increases in the later half of the book.

In the end, I did not find this an entirely satisfying crime fiction read. My biggest complaint was that I did not feel any connection to the main character. However, the story does provide a detailed look into Japanese life at the time (1975). The customs, behaviors in the work environment, and above all the importance of saving face and doing things in the correct way. From what I have read about the author, he is very good at doing that in all his books, and his main goal was to examine the psychology behind the crime. This novel is well worth reading. At this time there are only three other novels by Matsumoto that have been translated into English, and I intend to read those also.

My husband's review at Goodreads:
Tsuneo Asai is a civil servant in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. He lives for his job and, in fact, has little else in his life. Asai’s wife Eiko, a withdrawn and quiet heart attack survivor, has little affection for or interest in her husband, a fact that doesn’t really bother him. Eiko dies (in fact, she has died as the book opens) and Asai unexpectedly becomes obsessed with the circumstances of her death and the titular “quiet place” - an upscale Tokyo neighborhood of mansions, couples’ hotels, and a small cosmetics boutique that is seldom open and has few customers - where her body was found. Author Seicho Matsumoto keeps this elegantly-plotted and relatively brief mystery on a slow boil from start to finish. Excellent.
See other reviews at Do You Write Under Your Own Name?, Mysteries Ahoy!, The Japan Society, and His Futile Preoccupations.

Also see this very interesting article about the author written by one of his editors: An Honest Look at Matsumoto Seicho.


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Publisher:   Bitter Lemon Press, 2016 (orig. pub. 1975)
Translated by Louise Heal Kawai 
Length:       235 pages
Format:       Trade Paperback
Setting:       Tokyo, Japan
Genre:        Crime fiction
Source:       Borrowed from my husband.


Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Life below Stairs: In the Victorian and Edwardian Country House by Siân Evans

This is an interesting and informative non-fiction book on the life of servants in Victorian and Edwardian times.

From the description at Goodreads:
From the cook, butler, and housekeeper to the footman, lady's maid and nanny, this is a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of some of Britain's grandest houses. An entertaining social history, steering the reader through the minefield of etiquette and hierarchy that kept Britain's great houses running like clockwork. A bygone era is brought vividly to live through letters, journals, interviews, lively descriptions, and stunning photography of the places and possessions left behind. 
This was a fascinating look at the daily lives of the many people who kept grand houses running for their wealthy owners. It covers how and why people entered into service, and how they might rise through the more menial jobs to jobs that had a bit more freedom and responsibility. So many facts in this book were amazing to me, and in many cases appalling. How much the servants lives were controlled, how little time they had to themselves. As noted in the subtitle this covers the Edwardian and Victorian periods.


The book described the levels within the servant classes and which servants interacted with the employers and which ones were supposed to be unseen by the residents of the house. It was funny at times (mostly due to quotes from actual servants) but also sobering to think of the demanding and demeaning lives that they led. The photographs of rooms used by servants, items of clothing, etc. were a bonus. This was the perfect mix of information and anecdotes about the subject and very readable.

Inevitably, I learned more about the world during that time from reading this book, such as types of transportation and more about life in country homes. I was especially interested in the last chapter on how World War I affected the serving classes and the owners of the grand homes and how it eventually decreased the availability of servants, as the servants began to see other opportunities opening up.

Reading this book whetted my appetite for a more in-depth book about this topic, so I am also planning to read another of my husband's books about this subject: Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth-Century to Modern Times by Lucy Lethbridge. He also has several books on country homes and I am going to have to read some of those, also.


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Publisher:  National Trust, 2011.
Length:     187 pages
Format:     Hardcover
Setting:     UK
Genre:      Nonfiction, Social History.
Source:     Borrowed from my husband.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Reading Summary for February 2020


February was a strange reading month. It took me close to 3 weeks to read Bleak House. I also read a good number of short stories, most of them in the two short story books I have already reviewed. All of the books I read were published before 1990. One of the books from the 1980s featured a nun as the main character and was written by a nun.

Fiction

Bleak House (1853) by Charles Dickens
This is one of Dickens' longest novels. Some readers consider it his best novel. I have only read A Christmas Carol by this author, so I can make no comparison. I feel ambivalent about the novel. I enjoyed reading much of it, but it was a very difficult read, and seemed too long to me. It was first published in 20 monthly installments. 

Grand Hotel (1929) by Vicki Baum
Translated from the German by Basil Creighton with revisions by Margot Bettauer Dembo
Several disparate people stay in the Grand Hotel in Berlin over several days. For almost all of them, the people they meet and the things they do there effect changes in their lives. This was a remarkable book, thought-provoking and entertaining. 

Crime Fiction

The Saint Valentine's Day Murders (1984) by Ruth Dudley Edwards
This is book 2 in the Robert Amiss series. The first two books in the series feature office settings, and focus on bureaucracy and office politics. See my thoughts here.

Seven Days in May (1962) by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II
After Kirk Douglas died earlier this month, we watched Seven Days in May, a film he had starred in. It was directed by John Frankenheimer, and Burt Lancaster also had a major role. We have watched it many times but it had been a while. The book it was based on had been on my shelves since 2014, so I decided it was time to read it. It is a fast-paced thriller about the attempt by military leaders in the US to take over the government and remove the President from power. A very good read.

A Novena For Murder (1984) by Sister Carol Anne O'Marie
This is a very cozy mystery starring a nun as amateur sleuth. Sister Mary Helen has retired at 75 and is sent to Mt. Saint Francis College for Women in San Francisco. Shortly after she arrives the body of a professor at the school is found, following an earthquake. The police blame the wrong person, in Sister Mary Helen's opinion, so it is up to her to find out what happened. I liked the setting and the characters; it was the perfect read for me at the time.
Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens (1982) by Michael Gilbert
This is one of two books of short stories about two middle-aged spies, working for a secret government group in the UK called the Joint Services Standing Intelligence Committee (JSSIC). See my thoughts here.

English Country House Murders (1988) ed. by Thomas Godfrey
A short story anthology edited by Thomas Godfrey. The volume begins with a charming introduction by Godfrey; he also introduces each story. See my thoughts here.



Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Short Story February: English Country House Murders

This month I read all 22 stories in English Country House Murders, a short story anthology edited by Thomas Godfrey. The volume begins with a charming introduction by Godfrey; he also introduces each story. I always find that brief introductions to each author and story helpful. All of the stories were worth reading, and there were only a couple I did not care for.

The first three stories were from three early mystery author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), Wilkie Collins (1824-1889), and Robert Barr (1850-1912). All three were excellent, in different ways.

I have not read many of the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange" had an unusual resolution and I enjoyed it very much. "A Marriage Tragedy" by Wilkie Collins was the longest story in the book (42 pages), more like a novelette, and also very entertaining. I had never heard of Robert Barr and was happy to have sampled one of his stories. "Lord Chizelrigg's Missing Fortune" features Eugène Valmont; Thomas Godfrey describes Valmont as "the first humorous detective." If you wish to learn more about Robert Barr, see the comments at the Golden Age of Detection Wiki.


Later in the book there were three stories that I especially liked, written by Golden Age mystery authors. "The Same To Us" by Margery Allingham is very brief (only 5 pages), humorous, and makes a good point. "The Man On The Roof" by Christianna Brand stars Inspector Cockrill from her well-known novel, Green for Danger, and is also humorous. "The Death Of Amy Robsart" by Cyril Hare features Inspector Mallett, one of his two continuing characters. It is more serious and very clever.

Two final stories that stood out for me were by authors still living and in mid-career when this book was published: Ruth Rendell and P. D. James. Both of the stories had unsettling endings. Rendell's story, "Fen Hall," tells of three boys on a camping trip on the grounds of an old country house in need of repair. "A Very Desirable Residence" by James is the strange tale of a man sentenced to prison for plotting to murder his wife.

If you enjoy short stories and you like the country-house mystery subgenre, you would probably enjoy the stories in this book.

Rick shares his thoughts on this books at Tip the Wink. That post includes a list of all the short stories in the book.


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Publisher:  Mysterious Press, 1995. Orig. pub. 1988.
Length:      348 pages
Format:     Hardcover
Setting:     UK
Genre:      Country house mysteries, short stories
Source:     From my TBR pile.