Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Portrait of a Murderer: Anne Meredith

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

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

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

My thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Their Finest: Lissa Evans

Back in 2015, this book was featured at the Clothes in Books blog. It took two years for me to read it and another year to give a full review. The original title of the book was Their Finest Hour and a Half. In later editions, the title was shortened to Their Finest after the film adaptation with that title was released in 2016.

The novel by Lissa Evans is set in the the UK in 1940 and 1941. The story is about a young female copywriter who gets an assignment to the Ministry of Information, writing parts of scripts for a WWII propaganda film. That alone would be an interesting subject, but the story follows several other people associated with the filming. Each one provides a different view of the UK during the war.

Within this story there are multiple storylines involving :

  • Catrin, the female copywriter who is assigned to work on a film about the Dunkirk rescue mission.
  • Edith Beadmore, a wardrobe assistant at Madame Tussaud's in London who also ends up working on the film.
  • Lance Corporal Arthur Frith, appointed to be a Special Military Adviser to the film. His pre-war background in catering has not prepared him for the military or advising on a film.
  • Ambrose Hilliard, a once prominent actor who has a small role in the film.

It is a lovely story, very humorous and moving. I read the book last summer, then we watched the film shortly after it was released on disc here. I still remember the impact it had on me.

My favorite character was Ambrose, so full of himself and oblivious to why he can no longer demand the starring roles, the meaty roles. I had a hard time liking him at first, but his story is very interesting and he grew on me. Catrin's story is the main plotline, but I was also very fond of the storyline following Edith's trials and tribulations. All of the secondary characters involved in the stories were handled well, so that each plotline was meaningful and important.

I liked that the story emphasizes the effects that World War II had on the people at home. In 1940, London was bombed repeatedly by German planes and the war effort looks to be going very poorly. This story is about the people who are not off fighting the war, but are in London enduring the chaos, discomfort, and heartbreak of the Blitz. It is not a comedy but it is told with humor and a light touch.

The author's writing is very readable; the events felt real and engaging. Her descriptions of people enduring the bombing of their homes and work places while sitting in Anderson shelters or basements put me right there while it was happening.

I enjoyed the movie but I liked the book more, for the usual reasons. A book can have more depth and provide more background on the characters and what shaped them. I was unhappy that the sub-plot of the seamstress was dropped. I do accept that the changes made in adapting the book were probably necessary and it still is quite entertaining (and moving). The main roles are played by  Gemma Arterton (Catrin), Sam Claflin (Tom Buckley, the screenwriter), and Bill Nighy (Ambrose). Bill Nighy is a favorite actor in our household and he did a fine job in the role.

See also:


Publisher:  Harper Perennial, 2017 (orig. publ. 2009)
Length:      436 pages
Format:      Trade Paperback
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Historical Fiction
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Becket Factor: Michael David Anthony

There are three books in the Canterbury Cathedral Mysteries; this is the first. They feature a retired intelligence officer, Colonel Richard Harrison, who has given up his job in intelligence to have more time to care for his wife who is disabled. The title of this book comes from the discovery of a tomb that is possibly the last resting place of Thomas Becket. There is a death at the Cathedral, and Harrison's former boss in the intelligence service asks him to investigate surreptitiously. This was the perfect book for me, combining an ecclesiastical background, with a hint of spy fiction.

Coming from a small Methodist church in Birmingham, Alabama, a church setting like this with so many officials was amazing and confusing. The Cathedral has a Dean, a Canon, an Archbishop... and more. This was not the first book I have read about this type of setting recently so I am learning more about that environment. I have a close friend who is Episcopalian and active in his church and he explained the various titles and ranks.

In addition, I found the plot was complex and interesting, which makes sense when politics and history and religion intertwine. What pulled it together for me was Harrison's relationship with his wife, Winnie, and how they were both looking out for each other even when they were at odds on his relationship with his former boss. An extra plus was that  the investigation takes place in the days leading up to Christmas. I always like a book with that setting, and especially when it is peripheral to the mystery.

I don't want to misrepresent this as straight spy fiction, but there is definitely an element of that. If you enjoy books with a clerical setting, I highly recommend this book. And it also would be a good Christmas read.

Moira at Clothes in Books has reviewed this book. In her review of the third book, she says "the daily life of the Cathedral and its school make a convincing and charming background, while still making you realize that such places can be hotbeds of disagreement, not oases of Christian calm and delight. The books look unblinkingly at the problems and future of the Church of England, and the difficulties and sadnesses of rural parishes and the need to close parishes and sell off assets – these decisions are a major theme in the books."


Publisher:   Felony & Mayhem, 2008 (orig. pub. 1990)
Length:      273 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Canterbury Cathedral Mysteries #1
Setting:      Canterbury, England, UK
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Cutter and Bone: Newton Thornburg

I needed help describing this novel so I borrowed this introduction from Peter Boxnall's 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die:
A lost masterpiece of the Vietnam era, Thornburg's novel traces the domestic fallout of a period that promised social and political revolution but ultimately produced little or no change. At its center is the relationship between Alex Cutter, an alcoholic, disillusioned, crippled Vietnam veteran, and Bone, a self-interested gigolo.
Richard Bone is heading back to Cutter's house, where he lives when he is not free-loading off of some woman, when he  witnesses a body being dumped. It is raining and he isn't sure what he is seeing and he doesn't get a clear look at person who drops the body  off. When an acquaintance mentions that the body has been found in the neighborhood, Bone realizes what he saw, and he is later picked up by the police. So begins the quest of Cutter and Bone to determine who the murderer is, although Bone is a reluctant participant.

I have three things to say about this novel:
1) It was a fantastic read!
2) It was the most bleak book I have ever read.
3) The depiction of Santa Barbara is spot-on and fits in well with the telling of the story.

This is a crime novel and and there is a whodunit of sorts, but Cutter and Bone is much more about the characters and the experiences that have led them to where they are. At points in the book this is a buddy-drama / road trip. The last portion of this book is a mostly unpleasant drive to the Ozarks, in this case southern Missouri.

The characterizations are very well done. Every character, primary or secondary, comes alive. Many of them are damaged and dysfunctional, and not really sympathetic, but they are interesting.

About two-thirds of the book is set in Santa Barbara and surrounding areas. The depiction of the landscape, the landmarks, and the attitudes were almost perfect. Although the novel was written in and set in the 1970's, Santa Barbara today is not that different.

I found the book to be compulsively readable. There were nights I just could not stop reading. Other nights, I skipped reading it at all because I wasn't in the mood for more bleakness. I will definitely read it again.

The Film Adaptation...

The book was filmed as Cutter's Way, directed by Ivan Passer, with Jeff Bridges as Bone and John Heard as Cutter.  I saw the movie several years before I read the book, and then we watched it again recently. It was a very enjoyable experience, with good acting and even more scenes set in recognizable Santa Barbara locales. But I can see why Newton Thornburg would not have cared for the movie, and the film did not do the book justice.

I think the movie handled the characters well, although Cutter and Bone were diluted versions of the characters in the book. Several important or interesting secondary characters were omitted. But, all in all, well worth viewing, with or without reading the book.

See these resources...

Author Remembers Cutter's Way, interview from the Santa Barbara Independent, August 19, 2008.

From a film review at On Second Look:
Passer gets the atmosphere of Santa Barbara and that Central Coast feel just right. There is a juxtaposition of big money and hippie bohemia that makes it the perfect setting for this story. ...he also gets career defining performances out of his leads.
The Book You Have to Read at the Rap Sheet


Publisher:   Serpent's Tail, 2001 (orig. publ. 1976)
Length:      313 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      Santa Barbara, CA; the Ozarks.
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.
Introduction by George Pelecanos 

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Reading Summary for May 2018

May was another good reading month, all of the books were winners. Most of them came from my TBR piles, although two were borrowed from my husband. Mostly crime fiction, as usual.

This time I only read one book outside of the crime fiction genre. It was nonfiction, and it was a great choice.

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (2014) by Ben Macintyre
I was about to read Young Philby by Robert Littell but decided that I wanted to know more about the Cambridge Five before I read any more fiction related to that group. My husband had this book in his stacks and very kindly let me read it. It was perfect. The focus is on the longtime friendship of Nicholas Elliott and Kim Philby. They were both officers in MI6 for many years. The story is very interesting, the writing is fantastic, and there is an afterword by John le Carré. I still want to read more in-depth about other spies in that group but this was a great introduction.

And the list of crime fiction read:

Downfall (2018) by Margot Kinberg
This is the fourth book in the Joel Williams series. Joel is a former policeman who has left that job to teach criminal justice at Tilton University. I enjoyed visiting with Joel again, and this time he moves outside of his university environment. See my full review.
The Victoria Vanishes (2008) by Christopher Fowler
The Bryant and May mysteries star two elderly detectives, Arthur Bryant and John May, members of the fictional Peculiar Crimes Unit. The series is set primarily in London. Bryant witnesses a drunk woman coming out of a pub in a London backstreet and the next he learns she is dead. But when he goes back to the scene, the pub has vanished and the street is different. Thus this is obviously an homage to Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop
Portrait of a Murderer (1933) by Anne Meredith
First sentence: "Adrian Gray was born in May 1862 and met his death through violence, at the hands of one of his own children, at Christmas, 1931." So we know at the beginning who will die, and not too long after that we learn who did it. An inverted mystery, a format I generally enjoy. My husband read this in April and encouraged me to read it. I enjoyed it immensely.
The House at Sea's End (2011) by Elly Griffiths
This is the third book in the series featuring forensics archaeologist Ruth Galloway. Ruth lives in Norfolk in an isolated cottage on the saltmarsh. She is often used by the police as an expert when unidentified bones are discovered. This time the bones date from World War II, and this leads to very interesting story from that time that ties in with the present.
Cutter and Bone (1976) by Newton Thornburg
Why did I wait this long to read this book? It is a very well-written thriller, although extremely bleak. But best of all for me, it is like a tour through Santa Barbara and surrounding areas in the mid-70's and the author obviously knew the area. The book was adapted to film with the title Cutter's Way.
Unorthodox Practices (1989) by Marissa Piesman
And here is another novel that I should have read long ago. It has been on the TBR piles for nearly 12 years. Nina Fischman is a Housing Court attorney, Jewish, single, and a little bit worried about that. It was a lot of fun, humorous, I found myself laughing out loud (very unusual when I read a book). The first half was better than the second half and the mystery was slight, although interesting. 

Traitor's Purse (1940) by Margery Allingham
This 11th in the Albert Campion series, published in 1940, is entirely different from the preceding books. Albert Campion awakens in a hospital bed with amnesia; he doesn't know who he is but he knows he was on a very important assignment. He leaves the hospital with the help of Amanda Fitton, who is his fiancée but it takes him a while to realize that. I loved it. See my full review.

The List (2015) by Mick Herron
A novella in the Slough House series, set between Dead Lions and Real Tigers. I haven't Real Tigers yet, so thought I would read this one first. Very good, mostly about a spy who handles older, retired spies, but featuring some of the characters in the books.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Traitor's Purse: Margery Allingham

Albert Campion awakens in a hospital bed with amnesia; he doesn't know who he is but he knows he was on a very important assignment. He overhears a conversation between two policemen that indicates that he has killed someone, and he knows he must escape and search for the truth.

This was a reread but I remembered very little of the plot, and it was a very entertaining read. So far I consider this my favorite in the series, but then I haven't gotten to Tiger in the Smoke, which is the favorite of most Allingham fans.

I can understand why some people don't care for this book as much as other Campion mysteries. It is not a standard mystery, it focuses more on an unknown conspiracy than a murder (although it does have a murder), and the reader knows as little about what is going on as the protagonist. But all of those reasons are why I liked it so much, along with the presence of Lady Amanda Fitton, charming, capable and dependable, who we learn early on has been engaged to Campion but now wants to call it off.

One thing I can say for sure. If you want to try Margery Allingham's mysteries, don't start here. It is book 11 in the Albert Campion series, published in 1940, and it is entirely different from the others. More than one reviewer had a bad experience with this book and noted that it might be due to not reading any others first. Two other books that feature Amanda are Sweet Danger (#5) and The Fashion in Shrouds (#10).

I especially enjoy mystery novels set during World War II, and even more so when they were also written at the time. Knowing that this was written when no one knew the outcome and in a location where the threat was so imminent adds to the thrill.

Please see other reviews at Pining for the West, In so many words, Jandy's Reading Room, and Crime Time.

Also see the review from Tipping My Fedora. I will share a quote from that post:
More of a wartime spy thriller than a classic whodunit, this is a superb adventure and one that forever changed Albert Campion into a new kind of hero, one that we would however not encounter again until the war was over. Allingham was a great writer and this is one of her best books.


From Mr Campion's Lady, the Second Allingham Omnibus
Publisher:  Chatto and Windus, 1965 (this novel orig. pub. 1940). 
Length:     147 pages
Format:     Hardcover
Setting:     UK
Genre:      Mystery
Source:     Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2005.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Six Degrees of Separation from The Tipping Point to Ask for Me Tomorrow

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

The starting point this month is Malcolm Gladwell’s debut, The Tipping Point. Per the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the tipping point is defined as "the critical point in a situation, process, or system beyond which a significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place." Malcolm Gladwell explores that idea in this non-fiction bestseller, published in 2000. I have not read the book but it does sound very interesting.

That book leads me to another non-fiction book that I recently read: A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre. I read this book because I wanted to know more about the Cambridge Five before I read any more fictional works based on one or more members of that group.

At this time, the particular fictional book I want to read about the Cambridge Five is Young Philby by Robert Littell, one of my long list of favorite authors of spy fiction. Another book by Littell is The Defection of A. J. Lewinter, in which an American scientist defects to the Soviet Union.

This reminds me of one of my favorite series set in Russia, the Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov series by Stuart M. Kaminsky. My most recent read in that series is Hard Currency, published in 1995, which features a trip to Cuba. One of the things I like about the series is that there were books written before and after the break up of the Soviet Union, and the series reflects the changes in Russia over those years.

I will stay with the same author but a different book for my next link: Bullet for a Star, the first book in the Toby Peters series, published in 1977. The Toby Peters mysteries feature a private eye who often works for the movie studios. Each book centers around a real person, usually a movie star. This one features Errol Flynn and is set in 1940 in Hollywood, California.

Another mystery novel that features a real life movie star is Bye Bye, Baby by Max Allan Collins. In the 15th book in the Nate Heller series, the private detective is hired by Marilyn Monroe shortly before her death. Other books in the series deal with real crime and real people from the 1930's into the 1960's. Max Allan Collins is a very prolific author (see his books listed at Fantastic Fiction) and was honored with the Grand Master Award by the Mystery Writers of America in 2017. This is another author whose books I have not read yet, although I have several on my shelves.

My last link is to a book by another Grand Master of the MWA ... Ask For Me Tomorrow by Margaret Millar, Originally from Canada, she later moved to Santa Barbara, California with her husband, Kenneth Millar (who wrote as Ross Macdonald). This book was published in 1941 and partially set in a town very much like Santa Barbara, although the town is called Santa Felicia in the book.

I find it interesting that the books in my chain all have links to the past, whether the books are historical fiction or non-fiction or actually written at an earlier time.

Next month (July 7, 2018), we’ll begin with Tales of the City, the first in the much-loved series by Armistead Maupin. I haven't read that one either, but I have it on my Kindle, and I will read several chapters from it in the next month, at a minimum.