Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Unsuspected: Charlotte Armstrong

In this impressive, disturbing novel of psychological suspense, Luther Grandison is a famous director of stage plays and movies who holds sway over his two young female wards, one rich, one beautiful. His young secretary, Rosaleen, has recently committed suicide by hanging herself. Rosaleen's good friend Jane has taken the position of secretary to Grandison, as she suspects that the death was not suicide. She does not reveal to Grandison that she knew Rosaleen, but she does ask Rosaleen's former fiancé, Francis, to look into the situation.

Francis decides to pretend to have been married to one of Grandison's wards, Matilda, who died when her ship went down during a sea voyage to Bermuda.  Then, weeks later, Matilda shows up, having survived the ship going down. This description makes the plot sounds so complex as to be unbelievable, but the story moves quickly enough to be convincing.


I have only read two books by Charlotte Armstrong in the last few years. Both have been books that she wrote early in her career, and I liked both of them. She published mysteries from 1942 to 1970, and this one was published in 1946. She became well known for her novels of psychological suspense, often featuring women as amateur sleuths.

The story is told in a linear fashion, but it does hop around and gets a tad confusing. That could be just me, and it certainly did not ruin the story for me. We see the story from different points of view as it progresses, often from Francis's point of view or Matilda's.

Enjoyment of this book may depend on how much the reader can suspend disbelief and buy into the effect that the charismatic Grandison has on most people. I have never particularly cared for people "going undercover" or assuming false identities to prove that a crime has been committed, but this time it worked for me.

The book was made into a 1947 black and white film noir directed by Michael Curtiz, starring Claude Rains, and also featuring Joan Caulfield, Audrey Totter, and Constance Bennett.  I sought this book out specifically because I had seen a trailer of the film. As usual I was glad to have read the book first, but both are very, very good. Some of the story is changed in the film, but it is every bit as suspense-filled as the book.

To see some of the lovely black and white photography in the film, go to this post at The Nitrate Diva.

For other reviews of the book, see this review at Dead Yesterday, which goes into more detail about the story than I do, and Ryan's review at Wordsmithsonia.


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Publisher:  Pocket Books, 1947 (orig. pub. 1946)
Length:   218 pages
Format:   Paperback
Setting:   US
Genre:    Mystery
Source:   I bought my copy.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

A Chill Rain in January: L.R. Wright


Zoe Strachan was an angry, dangerous child, who eventually learned to keep her anger under control and hide her true self. As an adult, she has moved to Sechelt, on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, and has structured her life the way she wants it. Until her brother shows up and threatens to reveal some of her secrets. Shortly after that he dies from a fall down a flight of stairs.

Ramona Orlitzki, elderly and a widow, used to enjoy living alone in her small cottage, going out and enjoying her friends and neighbors and depending on them for help now and then. Eventually, her memory deteriorated and she got too old to live alone and had to move to Sechelt's hospital floor reserved for the elderly who needed care. But she tires of the regimented existence and lack of freedom and makes a break for it. The strange thing is, she is successful and eludes discovery.


The lives of these two women intersect and Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg gets involved. The local medical examiner hesitates to sign off on the death of Zoe's brother as accidental. Alberg doesn't think that there has been a crime, but he knows something is off.

This is not your standard mystery. The story is told from many points of view: Zoe's, Ramona's, Karl Alberg's, and more. The reader knows what is happening and the only mystery is... how will the situation be resolved? The story slowly moves to a climax.

A Chill Rain in January reads more like a straight novel than a mystery, focusing in part on the reaction in a small town when Ramona disappears. Some readers may not care for that, but it was perfect for me.

This is the third book in the Karl Alberg series by L. R. Wright. The first book, The Suspect, won the Edgar for Best Mystery Novel. I have read the first three books in the series, and they all feature excellent characterization and development of relationships over time, and loads of atmosphere. I would love to visit Sechelt.


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Publisher:   Felony & Mayhem, 2009 (orig. pub. 1990)
Length:      261 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Karl Alberg #3
Setting:      Sunshine Coast in British Columbia, Canada
Genre:        Police procedural
Source:      I purchased my copy.


Sunday, February 10, 2019

Murder in Mykonos: Jeffrey Siger

Inspector Andreas Kaldis has been assigned to the beautiful island of Mykonos as Police Chief, a promotion of sorts. He is not happy with the situation because he loved being a homicide detective in Athens, but he takes the change in stride, hoping to return to Athens at some later time. The first case of any consequence after his arrival on Mykonos is the discovery of a young woman's bones in a church. More bones are discovered in other churches, all from young women, and it becomes clear that there has been a serial killer on Mykonos for years.

Kaldis quickly becomes friends with the local head of homicide, Tassos Stamatos. Kaldis, Stamatos, and the sleazy mayor of Mykonos work together to solve the mystery before the story of a serial killer on the loose leaks to the press. There is a lot of political maneuvering and the book does not paint a pretty picture of politics and government in Greece.

I realized early on that this book had one strike against it... but only because of my own prejudices. I do not like serial killer stories, and this one had all the aspects I don't like about that subset of the mystery genre. Getting inside the head of the killer, experiencing the panic of the victims, etc.

I have heard that this is a good series; it now consists of ten books. So I persevered. Overall this was an engaging read, with some interesting characters. The side story of a worried mother making her way to Mykonos to find her daughter when she goes missing was well-done. Some events, especially later in the book, were a bit over the top, but that is not unusual in a thriller.

Setting is very important in this story. The plot and its twists and turns tie into the geography of Mykonos and the churches and the religious beliefs on the island. The author convinced me that the island is very beautiful, but I would never want to visit there. A place that relies on tourism for its livelihood and is overrun with visitors doesn't appeal at all.

I am hoping that this is a decent introduction to a new series character and that the next books in the series appeal to me more. I have books two and three, and I will definitely give them a try. The books in the series are set in various locations in Greece, and attempt to explore societal issues in Greece, as the author says in an interview at Ramblings from Rhodes from early 2018:
They are aimed at exploring serious societal issues confronting modern day Greece in a tell-it-like-it-is style while touching upon the country's ancient roots. At the heart of each book lay some modern-day upheaval or other uncomfortable subject that most writers prefer to avoid, yet is precisely the sort of issue I promised myself to address when I changed careers.

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Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press, 2010 (orig. pub. 2008)
Length:    279 pages
Format:    Trade paperback
Series:     Inspector Kaldis #1
Setting:    Greece
Genre:     Thriller
Source:    Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2015.



Wednesday, February 6, 2019

The Mirror Crack'd: Agatha Christie


This is a Miss Marple mystery and I always enjoy a visit with that elderly sleuth. This time Miss Marple is really feeling her age, which made me sad. But her wits are just as sharp as ever and I liked the picture of the changing times in St. Mary's Mead, with a new housing development and more modern shops.

This is the 8th book in the series and it ties back to the 2nd book, The Body in the Library (reviewed here). That book featured Gossington Hall, the property of Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly. In this book, Dolly has sold her home to a famous actress, Marina Gregg, and her husband, a film director. A fête is held on the grounds of their new estate, and a local woman, Heather Badcock, dies after being invited in to meet the new owners.


This novel has a very ingenious plot. Even though I had an inkling of what had happened early on, I wasn't sure until the end. Christie always keeps me guessing, and that is one of the things I love about her books.

And the characters. There are so many good characters in this book: Cherry Baker, Miss Marple's house cleaner; Dr. Haydock, Miss Marple's physician; Dermot Craddock, an inspector from Scotland Yard. And more.

Even though it saddened me to see Miss Marple somewhat physically challenged and having to put up with her overbearing, annoying caregiver, Miss Knight, the depiction of the amateur sleuth dealing with aging and the cultural changes in the neighborhood was very well done, and made for a richer story.

My goal has been to read the Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple series in order whenever possible, but this is another one where I skipped ahead so I could watch the film version from 1980, starring Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple. The film also starred Elizabeth Taylor as Marina and Rock Hudson as her director husband. I thought they were perfect for the roles but most of the characters were quite a bit different from those in the book. I could not quite picture Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple, but I like her very much as an actress, and she did well enough in the role. The story was changed enough to disappoint me a bit, but I am sure I will be watching the film again.


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Publisher:  Pocket Books, 1964. Orig. pub. 1962.
Length:     216 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Miss Marple, #4
Setting:     St. Mary Mead, UK
Genre:      Mystery
Source:     Purchased at the Planned Parenthood Book Sale, 2017.


Monday, February 4, 2019

2019 European Reading Challenge


In the 2019 European Reading Challenge hosted by Rose City Reader, participants tour Europe through books. The books can be read (and reviewed) anytime between January 1, 2019 to January 31, 2020.

The idea is to read books by European authors or books set in European countries (no matter where the author comes from). The books can be anything – novels, short stories, memoirs, travel guides, cookbooks, biography, poetry, or any other genre. You can participate at different levels, but each book must be by a different author and set in a different country. A book must be reviewed in order to count towards the goal.

I am joining at the FIVE STAR (DELUXE ENTOURAGE): Read at least five books by different European authors or books set in different European countries. (And aiming for more?)



Here is the list of countries:
Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Macedonia, Romania, Russia, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and Vatican City.

So far this year I have already read books set in the UK, France, and Greece (no reviews yet).

ADDED -- list of translated European novels that I have found:

Mrs. Peabody's suggestions for good European translated novel.

A list from Sarah Ward: Top 10 Scandinavian Crime Novels in Translation



Saturday, February 2, 2019

Reading Summary, January 2019


Another lovely month of reading in January. I read ten books: one fantasy, eight mysteries, AND I finally finished Les Misérables. I was feeling pretty bad about taking 13 months to read that book, but when I realized I read 400 out of 1200 pages in December and January, I decided that wasn't so bad.

Of the eight crime fiction books, two were set in the UK (England and Scotland), one was set in France, one set in Canada, and the others were set in the US. So, a good bit of variety.

Classic Fiction in January

Les Misérables (1862) by Victor Hugo
Very glad to have finished this book. It started out as part of a chapter a day challenge, but that did not work well for me and I was reading it in e-book format. About a third of the way through I switched to my hardback copy, but that still did not keep me from reading in fits and starts. January was more a month of reading comfort books for me so it wasn't until the end of the month that I got back to the book and finished the last 140 pages. A very emotional section of the book. I am glad I read the book.


Fantasy Fiction in January


Good Omens (1990) by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
This is a comic version of an Armageddon novel. It was written when both Gaiman and Pratchett were at the beginning of their careers. I enjoyed it very much, although I did have problems with an overload of humor. I prefer more subtle humor. The book is often compared to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and it does have the same style of writing and tone. A very entertaining  and fun book.


Crime Fiction in January

True Detective (1983) by Max Allan Collins
A historical mystery, with a private detective as the likable protagonist, not damaged, but not perfect either. And set in a very interesting time and place: Chicago during Prohibition, early 1930s. I loved the book and the character. My review is here.

Field of Blood (2005) by Denise Mina
I liked the first Denise Mina book I read (Garnethill), and this one was also very good. The subject matter was not my favorite; a young child has been killed. However the setting was great: Glasgow in the early 1980's. And the characters are well developed, interesting, not gorgeous with fantastic lives but real people with problems.
A Room Full of Bones (2011) by Elly Griffiths
The 4th book in a series of 11 books about Ruth Galloway, forensic anthropologist. She works with the police in her area whenever bones need to be examined. This series shines because the main characters are unique and the cast of recurring supporting characters get more and more interesting.


Murder with Pictures (1935) by George Harmon Coxe
My first vintage mystery fiction of the year. I was interested in this series, starring Kent Murdock, because he is a newspaper photographer, with a gift for sleuthing. I look forward to reading more by Coxe.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1950) by C.W. Grafton
C. W. Grafton was the father of Sue Grafton; he wrote four novels, and three of those were mysteries. This was his last novel, and I believe it is the best known.  This book was very different, it is an inverted mystery, and I enjoyed it very much. My review is here.

Die Trying (1998) by Lee Child
This is the 2nd Jack Reacher novel and there are now 23 books in the series. In the past year and a half I read two other Jack Reacher novels, the 9th (One Shot) and the 18th (Never Go Back). I am amazed at how much I enjoy these books. The writing is nothing special but the author draws me in and keeps me reading and I like the Jack Reacher character a lot.


A Rule Against Murder (2007) by Louise Penny
My first Canadian book of the year. Armand and Reine-Marie Gamache are celebrating their 35th anniversary at the Manoir Bellechaise, a former hunting lodge turned luxury resort on the shore of Lac Massawippi in Quebec. For those who are not familiar with Louise Penny's series, Armand Gamache is the head of Homicide at the Sûreté du Québec, and the protagonist of the series. This is the fourth book in the series. It took me a while to warm up to the series, but this book was very, very good.

Summertime All the Cats Are Bored (2009) by Philippe Georget
Gilles Sebag is a police inspector in the  French seaside town of Perpignan. He has been passed over for promotion  throughout his career due to choosing to take a reduction of hours when his children were young. His children are now teenagers and he suspects that his lovely wife may be having an affair. Then a young woman goes missing and the case becomes high profile, demanding most of his time. This was not a perfect book but very interesting and one that provides a good picture of the south of France.