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.